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Nine's legal TV downloads: Almost there

Nine's Catch-Up service is a big step in the right direction, and sports a DRM which for a change isn't mindlessly restrictive.

Craig Simms Special to CNET News
Craig was sucked into the endless vortex of tech at an early age, only to be spat back out babbling things like "phase-locked-loop crystal oscillators!". Mostly this receives a pat on the head from the listener, followed closely by a question about what laptop they should buy.
Craig Simms
4 min read

Nine has been offering digital downloads for some time — if you need to quench your thirst for McLeod's Daughters, it's a decent way to catch up with episodes you've missed, without needing to sit in front of the TV at a certain time. Nine calls it Catch-Up TV.

The broadcaster's recent uploading of Underbelly 2 directly after its airing on TV shows that Nine is serious about playing in the digital downloads realm. It also contains other Australian-only content, including Farmer Wants a Wife, Ladette to Lady, The Strip, Canal Road and Sea Patrol. In 2006 the content required payment, but since June last year, it became free.

There's a few hiccups though. Firstly, the downloads are huge — the double episode premiere of Underbelly 2 alone weighs in at 1.25GB. While this is indicative of higher quality video due to its resolution (1024x576), and its bitrate (1635Kbps), the download size will be a bitter pill for most Australian internet users to swallow. BigPond, Optus, iiNet and Internode do not offer quota free downloads from Nine's servers, which will likely stifle its growth.

Also problematic is that the download links do not work in Firefox, Opera or Chrome, only Internet Explorer and Safari. It's easy enough for the tech savvy to overcome this — the download link is contained in the annoying JavaScript that's there to check if the Hiro software is installed. Most users, however, will wonder why the download button doesn't work.

Hiro is what has, no doubt, tempted Nine to go down this path. It's a background process program that installs a few custom codecs, and runs whenever a Hiro encoded movie is loaded in Windows Media Player (or in the case of OS X, Quicktime). It's required for the best viewing of the file, but interestingly the files are encoded in XviD for video and AC3 for audio — meaning it'll load just fine in Media Player Classic or VLC, providing you have the above codecs installed. But then, if you don't have Hiro installed, you get this:

Hiro's copy protection works through a watermark, and we'd speculate a malformed keyframe which stops video playback. (Credit: CBS Interactive)

It seems the video itself is encoded with this translucent watermark. It's not a sub-picture, it's actually there, frame by frame. Presumably, the Hiro copy protection works by applying a bitmap overlay on top of this that shifts the colour of each pixel under the watermark, making the image appear as if the watermark was never there. You also can't seek without the Hiro codec installed, and the video stops playing after a certain time (although the audio returns to the beginning of the file and starts again). Perhaps not the standard XviD after all.

The Hiro software itself is an annoyance: during the install, we told it not to set Windows Media Player as our default .avi player — it did anyway. And then continuously prompted us to enter our birth year and gender, and volunteer "interests" from a list, our income and education. You can't get rid of this — while you can tell it to come back later, the next time you load a Hiro file, it'll do exactly that. Every time you choose the "later" option, Hiro claims it'll deliver a better user experience if you register. We fail to see how this is the case — more than likely it just allows Nine to establish market demographics on top of delivering more targeted ads.

It's not entirely correct to call Hiro DRM. After all, the intent here isn't so much copy protection — it's forcing the viewer to watch ads, which it inserts on the fly. Our copy of the Underbelly 2 premiere didn't include any as part of Nine's promotion, but according to Hiro's FAQ, ads cannot be skipped when they do appear.

Interestingly, you can choose to exit Hiro from the tray while the video is running, although we don't know if this will affect ads. The video will also happily run with no internet connection — assuming the ads are served over the internet, blocking Windows Media Player or Hiro from accessing online resources may also bypass this.

By and large, it's a reasonable step forward for legal downloads. The file can be taken to any Windows- or OS X-based machine as long as the Hiro software is installed, but as a result it definitely can't be taken to network video streamers, PMPs or encoded to DVD.

Here's our run-down:

+ High quality video
+ Can be taken to any Mac or PC with the right software
+ Can be legally shared, as the revenue model is attached to advertising
+ The most progressive solution yet from a broadcaster

- Huge file size, no ISPs offer quota free
- Can't be streamed to stand-alone devices
- Copy protection limits where the video is played
- Hiro nagware is annoying
- Inserts viewer-targeted ads
- Download button on the web page only works with Internet Explorer and Safari

At the time of writing, there were seven non-authorised versions of Underbelly 2's premiere on the BitTorrent site Isohunt, with 690 seeders across them. It remains to be seen how Nine's challenge to the illegal option is received.

Does this service interest you? Or do you prefer to download from BitTorrent and/or other sources? Let us know in the comments section below.