For years, a dwindling crowd of tech-savvy satellite TV subscribers has had the ability to tap freely into the satellite streams meant for affiliate TV stations, seeing shows such as "Star Trek: Voyager" or "The Simpsons" days before the rest of the country. The TV networks have done little to stop this because few people were affected.
But now these "pre-air" shows have started appearing on the Internet and are being traded like songs were in the early days of MP3 music--a practice known as TVRip.
A few high-profile shows have been released in the last few days, most notably Wednesday's last-ever episode of UPN's "Star Trek: Voyager" and the season finales of NBC's "Frasier" and Fox's "The Simpsons." CNET News.com was able to download "Frasier" on Tuesday several hours before it aired on television on the East Coast, for example.
The budding piracy scene is hardly likely to start a landslide on the scale of MP3 and file-swapping service Napster--the shows are hard to find without some knowledge of the underground trading scene and require a fast connection to download. But the issue marks another chink in the entertainment industry's armor as it tries to retain tight control of its content in the wilds of the Internet.
"The TVRip scene is in its infancy right now," said one trader of TV, who asked to remain anonymous. "But it's growing in both quality and quantity in terms of shows and viewers."
In the Net's underground of software, music and video trading, it's difficult to tell with certainty where a given file originated. Files are distributed by loosely affiliated groups with names like "Exodus," "iMATiON," and "FE," which provide rudimentary information about a given piece of copied software or video but not enough details to expose themselves or their own sources.
Groups such as these have been distributing games, music, software and movies for years, long before the advent of easy-to-use services such as Napster and Gnutella. Instead, they have used the IRC (Internet Relay Chat) network as a kind of digital swap meet, or have set up drop points across public and private FTP (File Transfer Protocol) networks around the Net.
Although these groups have distributed DVD movies and TV shows for some time, the pre-release of TV shows a day or two before their airdate is a fairly recent phenomenon.
Catch it if you can
According to some of those in the TVRip community, these pre-air shows are taken from the satellite feeds that networks use to distribute shows to their affiliates. This practice, in some cases known as "backhaul" feeds in the TV industry or "wild feeds" on the Net, has been going on for years, with a small online community dedicated to tracking them.
They're not easy to find. There is no permanent schedule or official instructions to track them, although it's not illegal to watch them if you can find them. But it takes an old-fashioned satellite dish, dubbed a "Big Ugly Dish" or BUD by online aficionados, and the technical knowledge to be able to point the dish at precisely the right place in the sky to receive the feed.
There aren't many left, at least in the United States, with the ability to do this. According to The Carmel Group, a research firm that tracks the satellite business, subscribers to these old-fashioned satellite services have fallen from 3.5 million people in 1994 to just 800,000 people today, their ranks decimated by defection to the simpler, pizza box-sized dishes used by services such as DirecTV or EchoStar Communications.
"These are the loyalists to satellite," said Sean Badding, a Carmel Group analyst. "These are the really big dishes and the people who have been around satellite for years."
The wild feeds, which are unscheduled satellite events, have sparked controversy before. In addition to scheduled shows such as "The Simpsons" or "Frasier," the satellites sometimes carry unedited footage of news programs before the show goes officially on-air. In 1996, NBC cracked down on one person who planned to show footage he had captured on a public-access TV station, including clips of Tom Brokaw criticizing rival anchor Dan Rather.
Under federal law today, it is illegal to retransmit satellite signals. And that's where the broadcasters say the TVRip scene is stepping into dangerous territory.
"We are aware of this, and are monitoring it," said a spokesman for the National Association of Broadcasters.
How illegal is it?
Even in the underground community, the distribution of TV shows is somewhat controversial. Most of these are shows that can be watched for free, as opposed to the DVDs or video games that are a more usual stock in trade. The file sizes are huge--a half-hour episode of "Frasier" took up 230MB and an hour to download over a DSL (digital subscriber line) connection. Some file-traders charge that they're not worth their weight in file size and bandwidth.
Defenders say that there is demand for the shows among college students and those without VCRs or the time to program them, however. And the pre-release shows in particular mark more of the same kind of challenge that has driven the copyright pirates since the Net's early days.
Watchers say they don't worry about any harm to the broadcast industry, since the shows are free in the first place and have such a short shelf life.
"The only negative effects this could have on the broadcasting industry that I can see is that those viewers wouldn't watch the episodes on TV and not get exposed to the commercials which power the episodes," said the anonymous trader. "And secondly, and probably the most important to the viewer, (plot) spoilers could be released."