(2 of 3)
Like many other TV freaks, Necratog, 21, also downloads favorite programs and burns them onto CDs. His archives include 400 CDs that hold more than a thousand Buffy, Babylon 5, South Park and Star Trek shows. But Buffy is his favorite. "I'll watch the same episode three or four times in a row," he says. "I've watched some over 20 times altogether."
In Napster's heyday, pirated TV shows were a rarity on the Net. But that changed with the advent of broadband home connections, $40 TV tuner cards that snap into your PC and cheap ways to store data. Looking for episodes of Friends? The MPAA counted more than 5,000 locations on the Internet last year where people could download episodes for free. Using custom software to track copyright violations, it also found 4,000 sites for The Simpsons and 2,000 for The Sopranos. Big Pussy is not going to like that!
The biggest threat to Hollywood may not come from the geeks but from so-called personal video recorders. Like its competitor TiVo, which has sold some 400,000 units to date, the newer Replay which has sold only 5,000, gives owners an easy, menu-driven way to search for shows to record onto its hard drive. The reason Sonicblue got sued is that the new Replay 4000, which hit the market in late November and sold out before Christmas, automatically fast-forwards shows past commercials and lets broadband users send them to friends over the Internet. (TiVos do not offer these features.) An independent site called Planet Replay even helps match up people who want to trade shows.
For now, though, Replay-to-Replay show swapping is painfully slow. Software engineer Thomas Wagner, 32, who has three Replay boxes at home, says it took him eight hours to get a half-hour episode of the now defunct show The Tick from another user, even though he has a high-speed cable modem. But he figures all that will change as the technology improves.
To goose the process along, Wagner decided to write a program called Replayer that lets people hack into their Replay 4000 and transfer files to their PC. Once the shows are in the computer, users are free to squeeze them down further, burn them onto a CD or DVD or trade them online. It took Wagner less than a week to crack the box's coding.
"These boxes have the potential to kill prime time," says industry analyst P.J. McNealy of GartnerG2, a market-research firm. McNealy notes the obvious: TV networks make their money from commercials and syndication rights. "We're not the police," counters Sonicblue CEO Steve Griffin. "We can't tell people who it's O.K. to send shows to and who it isn't O.K. to send them to."