Go Ahead and Watch This Show Illegally

Why the Creator of 'Weeds' Is Stoked Someone Pirated Her Showtime Hit

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The broadcast TV networks were in a dither over the discovery last week that their hotly sought-after fall pilots had leaked online months before they were scheduled to air. But when the first four episodes of the third season of Showtime's "Weeds" showed up on illegal download sites cheek by jowl with episodes of NBC's "Bionic Woman" and ABC's upcoming "Cavemen," the reaction from the cable network was a blasé "no comment."
'Weeds' creator and executive producer Jenji Kohan
'Weeds' creator and executive producer Jenji Kohan Credit: Guilio Marocchi

Surely "Weeds" creator and executive producer Jenji Kohan is upset?

Au contraire, mon dope fiend.

"Revenue aside, I don't expect to get rich on 'Weeds,'" she said, sounding downright jubilant. "I'm excited it's out there. Showtime is great, but it does have a limited audience."

Free samples
So while broadcast-network representatives express concern and frustration that their advertisers will be horrified by ever-declining audiences and buzz, Showtime can breathe easy: As a premium cable network, it has no advertisers, and with only 14.5 million paid subscribers, almost any sampling of its shows is seen as free promotion for the network.

For example, as part of an exclusive deal between Netflix and Showtime, the pilot of the Showtime series "Californication" is available on Netflix three weeks before the show makes its debut on the network, in the hope that Netflix subscribers will also become Showtime subscribers.

The premiere of "Dexter," similarly, had some 20 online distribution partners ranging from MSN to AOL and other shared-video sites.

Getting them hooked
Of course, the online-exposure model isn't limited to Showtime or even pay-cable shows. It's almost the entire premise behind Joost, the TV streaming portal that has the support of both Viacom and CBS (which owns Showtime).

Still in beta, Joost already has moved to make headline-grabbing piracy a thing of the past by co-opting web pirates' hunger for the new. Viacom-owned basic-cable network VH1 made all eight episodes of its series "I Hate My 30s" available on Joost beginning July 17, nearly two weeks before its debut on the music-themed network. Pausing a show such as "30s" is possible on Joost, but rewinding and fast-forwarding aren't, nor is saving a show to a computer or sharing it with other websites.

Whether Joost founders Janus Friis and Niklas Zennstrom have found the one format that will save TV networks from piracy (freedom to watch on your own schedule wherever you have web access) or have forgotten to include the basic things pirates most crave (a sense of illicit discovery and the ability to share it with others) remains to be seen. But the two Scandinavians certainly are worth paying attention to. They terrified the music business with Kazaa, then the phone companies with the internet-telephony play Skype. Kazaa was sued into smithereens in a $100 million settlement earlier this year; Skype was sold to eBay for $2.6 billion.

Two options
Yvette Alberdingk Thijm, exec VP-content strategy and acquisition at Joost, said TV networks essentially have only two choices: Play online or get played.

"All these audiences are going to look for content online," Ms. Thijm said. "Networks might as well protect the content and also make a little money in the process. Plus, because it's free, you persuade the consumer to watch on a legal platform."

In the meantime, "Weeds" creator Ms. Kohan is tapping her foot and waiting for Showtime to make the third season of her series available for immediate, legal download.

"It's very annoying," she said, sighing. "If I had my druthers, the whole thing would be available right now."
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