Inside story: the making of a legal TV 'torrent'

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are my own and not those of CBC/Radio-Canada.

Inside story: the making of a legal TV ‘Torrent’Last week, CBC released an official DRM-free BitTorrent of a prime time show– a first for a major north American broadcaster (see last100 coverage). Since then we’ve been getting hundreds of emails of support and one clear resounding message: give us more. This begs the question, why aren’t broadcasters doing more? Why in the year 2008, seven years after BitTorrent’s birth and a lifetime in Internet years is this a groundbreaking thing? Let’s break down what it takes to get a legal torrent going and maybe we’ll get some answers.

The idea

First, the seed has to get planted. How it happened for us was when two weeks ago, Tessa Sproule (the head of digital strategy of CBC’s Factual Entertainment department) read this post on BoingBoing about how Norway’s public broadcaster had tested the BitTorrent waters and declared them warm & refreshing. Tessa decided she wanted to spearhead the effort for CBC to follow NRK’s lightly treaded path. Unfortunately, not every company has a Tessa. Companies need to have people championing new ideas, or watch their product slowly become irrelevant in favour of products from companies who are willing to innovate.

Still, how do you make it happen? When the average person wants to share a show torrent, they simply record it off TV, strip out the commercials and upload it. But when a media company decides to do it and wants to do it in a completely legal way, there’s a lot more that has to be considered. Let’s start with ownership.


In big business, it can be challenging to start something completely new to an organization. Usually it involves convincing lots of people that your idea is brilliant and simply must be tried. Now try convincing people who you don’t even work with, at several different companies, maybe in different countries, all with different mandates. Impossible? Well, no… it’s technically possible in the same way that it’s technically possible that I’m going to win the lottery six times in a row. But, we can certainly hedge our bets a bit better by starting with something we own, or own with very few partners.


CBC owns a several shows, so how do you choose what show to experiment with? Canada’s Next Great Prime Minister was chosen for several reasons, one of which was demographics. Because we used YouTube and Facebook to cast this year’s show, we had a youthful tech-savvy audience on our hands who understand and embrace new media. Sharing this show was a way of giving back to these people without whom we would not have a show.

We also wanted to experiment with a big show. Readers outside of Canada are saying, “Canada’s Next whadda wha?” but the show within our borders is a hit, with as many viewers tuning in as an episode of House. If we were going to do this, we didn’t wanna wuss out with some show nobody had heard of– it was going to be prime time.

Finally, the show’s Senior and Executive producers really support and embrace new media. They were less likely to laugh at us if we asked, “Um… hey, can we give away your show for free to everyone with no restrictions after it airs?” Tessa guessed right. They both loved the idea and were instrumental in helping gain additional approvals.

Okay so good demographic, big show and forward thinking producers. Check. Next issue… rights. *shudder*

Rights and approvals

Rights are hands down the number one challenge to getting traditional TV online. It’s also not an unreasonable request for content producers to demand rights to work they made, it can just be a very difficult process to get them all… think dribbling a football type difficult. If the idea of a legal TV torrent was going to die, it would likely be in the chain of approvals we had to get including: union agreements, music licenses, lawyer approval, co-owner (Magna International Inc.) approval, marketing and sales okay, business development reps, communication strategy, and finally approval from the network programming office. Yep, that’s a mouthful.

whack-a-moleTessa later said that the approval process was like playing a game of whack-a-mole. As soon as one approval had been given the nod, the next obstacle would pop up. Still, there was broad acceptance to the idea and in the end the approvals were easier than anticipated. It may sound like a difficult process to an uploader, but on the other hand, the list is much shorter than one a private broadcaster would have to check off. As a public broadcaster, our mandate to “be made available throughout Canada by the most appropriate and efficient means” really helped the cause.


Businesses always want to measure the success or failure of their project and legitimately so. BitTorrents present particular analytical challenges as seeders come and go and the file is copied to places where you never published it. Still, that doesn’t mean there aren’t any metrics with torrents, and besides, are Nielsen ratings an exact science? No. I’ve written before about how broadcasters need to consider other indicators of success, including torrent downloads. The overwhelmingly positive global response by consumers directly to CBC is an extremely valuable measure of success, I’d argue as valuable as the number of leechers.


CBC released this show completely for free and without ads. That’s fine for an experiment, but it’s no sustainable business model. The surprising thing is the amount of feedback we got from people telling us to do this again and put in a few ads. People realize that if businesses were to embrace BitTorrent distribution long term, they’d need to monetize it and they’re telling us how to do it. It demonstrates that people are particularly interested in the on-demand nature of BitTorrents and they’re downloading because of convenience, not because they’re commercial-free. The key is ensuring that broadcasters find the right balance between monetization and consumer’s tolerance.

Why not Show X?

So why isn’t your favourite show on BitTorrent already? Officially I mean 🙂 Take your pick: licensing, rights, approvals, sponsorships, business partnerships, control, business model, statistics, or simple resistance to change. I expect it would take a pretty big fight to get shows shared that are co-owned by multiple companies or which have extensive licensing contracts, like NHL games. There needs to be a fundamental shift in thinking about digital distribution before all of these stakeholders realize it’s a good idea and that’s one of the reasons that our experiment is so important. There will be no precedent, no metrics and no business model will ever develop if broadcasters don’t start somewhere. What we’re learning from this could help form the basis of a broader understanding and acceptance of BitTorrent among rights holders.

What do we want out of this?

This is, for now, a one show experiment. Our little digital group has hopes that maybe we can form a long term torrent strategy out of what we’re doing with this, but that’s blue sky right now. We’ve been actively asking people to give us feedback and the response in the blogosphere has been astounding. We’re taking note of every suggestion and sharing this information with other departments laterally and vertically in the hopes that CBC (and all broadcasters) will do more.

Thanks for your thanks, but…

All the positive comments we’ve been getting about this project is ammo for us who would like to do it again, but really, it’s us who should be thanking you. Thank you for watching our show, blogging about it and downloading it. Broadcasters owe it to their viewers to meet their demands, not the other way around.

Guinevere is a Web Producer in Toronto, Canada working both freelance and in the broadcast industry for Alliance Atlantis, CTVglobemedia and currently CBC. She has 10 years experience in the online space and specializes in social media, online marketing and content production.

Also see: TV industry using piracy as a measure of success

last100 is edited by Steve O'Hear. Aside from founding last100, Steve is co-founder and CEO of Beepl and a freelance journalist who has written for numerous publications, including TechCrunch, The Guardian, ZDNet, ReadWriteWeb and Macworld, and also wrote and directed the Silicon Valley documentary, In Search of the Valley. See his full profile and disclosure of his industry affiliations.

12 Responses to “Inside story: the making of a legal TV 'torrent'”

  1. Mail the CRTC Now! says:

    I downloaded the show but my download was incredibly slow because of Bell Canada. Bell in their fear that video over the internet will chip into their TV business have started limiting bandwidth to their customers and 3rd party resellers, they throttle torrrents etc. So in anti-competitive act they sought to make legal internet video distribution look slow and cumbersome.

    Bell abused their monopoly to try to force other players like content providers (CBC) from reaching their audience.

    Even worse, Bell impeded the dissemination of Canada culture.

    CRTC Please do something!

  2. Yikes says:

    Dont count Rogers out… They were the first to throttle\cap etc..

  3. :) says:

    Just so you know, the pirate bay is a great tracker, but one thing it doesn’t do is record the amount of people who send the “complete” flag at the end of a download.

    Great job, by the way 🙂

  4. ZeD's Dead says:

    CBC didn’t actually have to look to Norway for innovative ideas.

    They could have just spoken with some of the producers from ZeD, which was offering programming via torrents back in 2005. (That’s something like 25 years ago by internet dating btw)

    But unfortunately the program was canceled, the plans burned, and everyone laid off… this despite the fact that a team from Current TV (Al Gore’s network) paid a visit to Vancouver to learn how the user upload model worked, and then applied it successfully to what has become a profitable network.

  5. Dave says:

    Hopefully the CBC will add more programs for Bittorrenting.

    For Canadians abroad like me who live in countries with developing Internet systems, the Windows Media streaming feeds made available for The National and The Fifth Estate are simply at too high a bitrate to watch. “Buffering” every 30 seconds. (The old RealVideo feeds abandoned a year ago were much more robust.)

    If these programs were made available as divx torrents people like me would be able to watch them. I note that a few Fifth Estate documentaries are already (illicitly) available as torrents and they rate among the most popular documentaries on the net. I bet many of those downloaders are outside of CBC’s broadcasting range.

    Assuming the CBC isn’t trying to sell tonight’s news to broadcasters overseas, who could object?

  6. webrex says:

    I was ready to check the download but connection is pretty slow. anyway its a great idea and hope CBC will increase the broadcasting range.
    I personally liked the idea “Businesses always want to measure the success or failure of their project and legitimately so”..

    thanks for posting

  7. Simon says:

    To “beg the question” doesn’t mean to demand that a question be asked. It means to assume the answer to a question and therefore is an example of bad logic.

  8. Todd Sieling says:

    What a great move, and big thanks for sharing the process from the inside on how it came to happen. I wonder if it’s better to just jump in with ads included, if that indeed is going to be the future for programs distributed through bittorrent. Setting up the expectation of an ad-free, just like the illegal stuff experience kind of sets people up for something different from what we know the future offerings will look like.

    That aside, congratulations on bringing a radical change into a large organization. That’s hardly ever easy, and it rolled out in a great way. Awesome job!

  9. Michelle says:

    I’m proud that the CBC has done this. I just hope that other networks will begin to follow in their footsteps and start releasing these shows “officially” via BitTorrent. Another show that I’d love to see them post online is ‘Little Mosque on the Prairie’, which has turned out to be a hit around the globe.

  10. dot says:

    This is a great step and the timing seems right for the marketplace. You can tell the market is ripe when the in-laws start asking “how-to”… lol.

    Regarding the first comment about Bell and throttling torrents – not only is it anti-competitive but it stinks of big brother and I don’t like it one bit. Since Friday my download speeds have dropped significantly.

    I pay for a service, Bell should have no right to dictate how I use that service – torrent technology is not illegal last time I checked.

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