How CBS sparked more online piracy — of its own show

August 8, 2013

A still from CBS's "Under the Dome". (Courtesy CBS)

The spat between CBS and Time Warner Cable is nearly a week old now, with 3.5 million network viewers still under a programming blackout. From New York to Los Angeles, CBS channels have gone dark for cable subscribers, all because CBS and TWC can't agree on how much it should cost to rebroadcast CBS content on cable.

But despite the loss of service, the incident is an opportunity to conduct some interesting natural experiments. What happens when people lose access to their shows? Judging by one study, the results don't work out in CBS's favor.

In a week-to-week comparison of BitTorrent activity, TorrentFreak discovered that pirated downloads of the CBS show "Under the Dome" rose sharply when the blackout began. Before the screens went dark, viewers from blackout regions accounted for 10.9 percent of all U.S. downloads of "Under the Dome"; the Monday after the blackout took effect, that figure jumped 3.7 percentage points to 14.6 percent.

In plain English, online piracy of the show had risen by more than a third where viewers had lost access to CBS. People were still finding ways to access their show even when it had gone off the air.

Whenever TWC and CBS resolve their dispute, it wouldn't be surprising if the piracy numbers fell back to their pre-blackout levels. If they did, it would be modest evidence for piracy as generally a last, not a first, resort.

Brian Fung covers technology for The Washington Post, focusing on telecom, broadband and digital politics. Before joining the Post, he was the technology correspondent for National Journal and an associate editor at the Atlantic.
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