Canadian public TV to try out BitTorrent

Following closely on the heels of Norway, the CBC will release high-quality, DRM-free copies of a major prime-time show.

Update at 10:10 a.m. PDT: The titles for Tessa Sproule and Guinevere Orvis have been tweaked.

Following closely on the heels of Norway, Canada's public broadcasting service is adopting DRM-free BitTorrent distribution for a major prime-time show.

On March 24, CBC will use BitTorrent to distribute this year's broadcast of Canada's Next Great Prime Minister. This will make Canada the first country in North America to release high-quality, DRM-free copies of a prime-time show using the popular P2P file-sharing technology.


Canada's Next Great Prime Minister, an annual competition in which young adults propose ways to improve the country in hopes of winning 50,000 Canadian dollars, attracted more than 1 million viewers in 2007. While broadcast shows in the United States regularly reach more than 8 million viewers, for a Canadian broadcast program, 1 million is a huge success.

Tessa Sproule, the CBC manager in charge of the show's digital outreach, is a regular reader of the BoingBoing blog, which earlier this month highlighted the use of BitTorrent by Norway's public broadcaster for one of its most popular shows. Sproule was inspired by the Norweigan experiment and pushed for something similar at CBC.

While plenty of TV networks have experimented with offering shows online for free, it is CBC's use of DRM-free BitTorrent downloads that is the most interesting. Guinevere Orvis, one of the interactive producers on the show, told me that the motivation for this choice was their desire for the "show to be as accessible as possible, to as many Canadians as possible, in the format that they want it in." As for DRM, she said: "I think DRM is dead, even if a lot of broadcasters don't realize it." She added that "if it's bad for the consumers, it's bad for the company."

Michael Geist, a copyright guru and law professor at the University of Ottawa, hailed CBC's move, writing on his blog that "this development is important not only because it shows that Canada's public broadcaster is increasingly willing to experiment with alternative forms of distribution, but also because it may help crystallize the net neutrality issue in Canada."

Rogers Cable, one of Canada's largest Internet providers, has adopted Comcast-style BitTorrent filtering, so CBC's use of the technology is sure to heat up the debate.

CBC is conducting the entire BitTorrent effort in-house. The show will be encoded into multiple formats (including an iPod-friendly version), Orvis said, and the BitTorrent server will be running on a CBC server.

The BitTorrent version will be available for download to anyone in the world, which is a significant change from previous online TV efforts. The iPlayer platform made by England's BBC is only available to consumers with U.K. network addresses. Similarly, Hulu, the joint effort between Fox and NBC, blocks Net users who are outside the United States. Orvis told me that BitTorrent made the global distribution possible, as it meant that Canadian taxpayers were not subsidizing the cost of delivery to foreign viewers.

Sadly, here in the U.S., TV networks are nowhere nearly as enlightened. NBC and Fox have some of their shows available for free via low-quality streams online. Comedy Central, seemingly tired of sending take-down letters to YouTube, made its entire archive of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report available online, via low-quality, free streams. Even PBS provides streams for some of its content.

The only way for U.S. consumers to download high-quality shows is, unfortunately, via iTunes, which charges $1.99 for a DRM-locked copy of the show. Linux users need not apply.

Of course, Net users can always turn to BitTorrent for DRM-free, high-quality downloads. It's is easy to use--easier than iTunes in many cases--and offers a wider selection. However, it remains, for now, illegal.

When will U.S. broadcasters get a clue, ditch DRM, ditch iTunes, and adopt BitTorrent?