Regardless of what most of us hardcore Internet types think about Australian-produced television, it's undeniable that lots of people are watching it. Even with the inexorable growth of cable/subscriber television and the massive growth of broadband Internet and the propensity of people to download shows from international sources, Aussie TV shows are still pretty popular.
Channel Nine launched a service a while back called Catch-Up TV
), allowing you to download episodes - even entire seasons - of some of their content. Some shows, like McLeod's Daughters
, have a per-episode cost, but others - including Canal Road
and Sea Patrol
are available completely free as ad-supported downloads.
Many people - including myself - have been wondering how long it'd take for ad-supported downloads of TV shows to hit the scene - it seems like such a logical evolution of ad-supported free-to-air television. We've been waiting a while, but now it seems that there's some movement. It's certainly not the sort of behaviour we've come to expect from the behemoth media companies that appear to rule the world.
Spawned from the loins of the open source Xvid video codec
Sponsored releases like this are nothing new. Typically though they're in some DRM-riddled format like Windows Media, which greatly reduces the accessibility and usefulness of the video content - you can't put it on your iPod, you can't copy it to your Xbox Media Centre - you can just play it on your Windows PC. Maybe.
One of the interesting things about Catch-Up TV is that it uses a new video system developed by an Israeli companed called HIRO-Media
. A quick inspection of the codec seems to indicate that it is based on Xvid - the popular open source video codec used all around the world for all manner of purposes.
At first glance of the Hiro FAQ
, the video player - which is a free installer from the Nine website - is a DirectShow filter for Windows Media Player. There's a Mac OS X version as well, but if you're on Linux you're out of luck for now.
You can play parts of the video in something like VLC (which identifies it as an Xvid), but there's a watermark over the top of the content, plus it seems to stop at random points (I assume by design), making playback in other players at the very least hugely difficult, if not outright impossible.
The Hiro codec provides all the usual things you'd expect from the Xvid codec - high quality at reasonable bit rates. They have a DRM system, but not one that tries to restrict your ability to use the media in the sense that traditional DRM systems do - though looking at their feature page
, they can restrict playing.
The core purpose of their "Positive DRM" system used on these Australian TV shows, however, is to display the advertising. So there's definitely going to be some sneaky stuff happening on the back-end of your system, although hopefully less sinister than what we've sadly been growing accustomed to with other more rights-invasive systems.
And yet, what of sharing?
Here's the really amazing part - sharing/redistribution is encouraged. The Sea Patrol page says "You can also copy and share each episode or even distribute the files via file-sharing applications, such as Bit Torrent."
This is a great example of displaying some adaptability. Realising that it is basically futile to stop people sharing content online, Channel Nine have figured out a way to monetise the sharing process.
The more people that actually download these files off file sharing networks, the better - they'll get money off the ads displayed while they're watching it.
As mentioned above, Xvid appears to be the core of their video technology - it looks like they've just downloaded the Xvid sources and strapped on a dynamic advertising system along with some of their DRM functionality, plus some other bells and whistles.
Given that Xvid is released under the GPL
and that the HIRO-Media team certainly appear to be using the Xvid codec to some degree it seems reasonable to assume that at some point there might be some issues to do with licensing of any of the Hiro stuff that isn't being released under the GPL itself.
Is it good enough? Could it be better?
Realistically, asking "is it good enough?" is asking "will people still download from unofficial sources?" If you were judging the two versions - ad-supported Hiro version versus the normal blog you'd download from a torrent or something - you'd probably use some standard criteria. Something like the below:
| ||Catch-Up TV||Unofficial version|
|Download speed: ||Very fast (~2mbytes/sec on my test) ||Varying depending on source|
|Quality: ||Very good (decent Xvid) ||Probably very good (decent Xvid) |
|Portability: ||Very poor (only will play on Windows/Mac OS X when the Hiro codec is installed) ||Very good|
|DRM: ||Details unknown ||None|
|Ethically:||Sound||You're a dirty pirate, yarr|
|Safety:||Very safe, backed by the reputation of Nine||Risk of virus/adware/spyware|
There's no doubt a few other factors that influence everyone in different ways and to varying degrees, but that's probably a reasonable high-level look at the situation. Both have pros and cons, but it's pretty clear that Catch-Up TV is a good system for newbs and those less technically skilled.
Overall, it is an excellent entry into the dangerous dark world of the Internet and hopefully we'll see more content publishers trying new and varied things to appeal to the new market. It certainly makes for a refreshing change of pace to trying to sue your customers into behaving how you want them to.