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Last Updated: Friday, 20 October 2006, 09:50 GMT 10:50 UK
Lost loss is no problem in net age
Matthew Fox in Lost
Lost follows plane crash survivors who are stranded on a desert island
Technology commentator Bill Thompson says the move of TV series Lost from Channel 4 to Sky is a growing irrelevance in the online age.

The news that Sky has outbid Channel 4 in the auction for the rights to show the next two series of the multi-layered enigma that is Lost has caused a stir in media-watching circles.

Whether or not you care about the activities of a disparate bunch of crash survivors and the people and phenomena they encounter on a desert island, and I confess that I was so bored by the first series that I stopped watching, the deal seems to have merited a lot of attention.

Media Guardian claimed that Sky had pulled off a coup by snatching Lost, while the BBC News website said of the deal: Sky had "snapped up the rights".

And it was not a cheap deal, since Broadcast magazine reckons the firm is paying 20m.

Bill Thompson
Slingbox is only one of the ways in which old models of television are being deconstructed before our eyes

Clearly Sky believes that it will manage to attract a significant proportion of Channel 4's multi-channel audience in households watching on cable or satellite, yet the excited coverage of this latest battle over UK rights to a big US hit seems strangely dated.

When The Simpsons moved from the BBC to Channel 4 in 2002 it made headlines, but things are different now.

This is partly because there are many more households with cable, satellite or Freeview, but also because the internet has changed the way audiences relate to their favourite programmes.

A good friend of mine is a big fan of the new incarnation of the science fiction show Battlestar Galactica, currently showing to a small but dedicated army of enthusiasts on Sky One. Having bought and watched the DVDs of the pilot and the first two series he can hardly wait for series three, which will not be showing here until next year.

Upload shows

Fortunately, he doesn't have to, because as soon as the new series started last month each episode was available to download over the net within hours of its broadcast on the US SciFi channel. Episode four is due this weekend.

Those who upload the shows and the peer to peer networks used to distribute them are clearly breaching copyright law, but they are generally doing it for free, and they are filling a gap that the TV networks are not willing to fill.

Of course the content owners and the networks are making strenuous efforts to ensure that this doesn't happen, and BitTorrent index sites have been prosecuted for listing where to find shows to download.

They have also put pressure on hardware manufacturers, and users of the TiVo video recorder cannot record some programmes while selected programmes they have recorded are automatically deleted after a period of time.

New generation

The new generation of high definition TVs and recording technologies like Blu-Ray and HD-DVD come with a protection system, High-Bandwidth Digital Copy Protection (HDCP), which will make it harder to take a broadcast stream and turn it into a downloadable file.

But no copy protection system has succeeded in stopping material leaking onto the network, and once it is there it can be copied, with or without permission.

Slingbox is helping change the way people view TV

It is getting easier and easier for viewers to see what they want, when they want it, and the level of technical skill needed to find and download TV shows from around the world is dropping fast.

There are also innovative ways to get access to broadcast TV or shows you have recorded yourself. One of the highlights of the Symbian Smartphone show this week was the mobile version of the Slingbox player.

Slingbox, launched last year in the US and now available over here, is a box of electronics that takes the TV signal coming into your house and pipes it over the internet, where you can watch on any Windows PC or, very soon, on your mobile phone. You neither use nor pay for one of the mobile TV services offered by your network operator.

Slingbox is only one of the ways in which old models of television are being deconstructed before our eyes, but they are easy to miss because for most people, most of the time, television has changed little in the past 20 years.

In common

My dad, in his 70s, doesn't know or care that the only thing his new widescreen TV and Freeview channels have in common with the BBC of his youth is that at some point in the chain a camera was pointed at some actors.

He sees moving images on a screen, and calls it television.

Slingbox users can watch their favourite shows on a laptop at the airport or a phone at the beach, but paid programme downloads are also growing in importance.

If you're in the US you can get a range of shows from the iTunes Store, and Channel Five's new download service will let you watch police procedural CSI for 2.49 before it is broadcast, and 1.49 afterwards.

It can only be a matter of time before the studios realise that having a million fans paying 2.49 an episode for a whole series makes more commercial sense than selling the rights to a national broadcaster.

After all, if Five persuades two million people to watch the broadcast, they keep the ad revenue, but the profit on every extra download goes to the studio.

Lost may have been "the envy of every network", as Sky director of programmes Richard Woolfe claims, but perhaps the lustre was starting to fade.

It seems that Channel 4 was in talks with Buena Vista International Television for a month but could not reach agreement on terms.

Perhaps the Channel 4 executives realised that the days of the multi-million pound deal are drawing to a close, and that they'll be better off figuring out how to work with the growing number of video download services to reach their audience.

At least now they've got some money to spare.

Bill Thompson is a regular commentator on the BBC World Service programme Digital Planet

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