WASHINGTON, Feb. 25 (UPI) -- As the Recording Industry Association of America and Motion Picture Association of America combat rampant online distribution of music, movies and television shows, others are using the digital medium to gain viewers.
On March 7, Yahoo! will stream "Fat Actress," a Showtime comedy, simultaneously with the cable broadcast. It is the first mainstream television show being offered free online to anyone with an Internet connection. Rob Hayes, Showtime's senior vice president of New Media, says that they are doing this largely as a promotion.
"It allows people to sample it with the ultimate goal of getting them subscribing," Hayes said.
Yet, this could be the tip of the iceberg of a new form of distribution for television.
Small production groups have been using file-sharing programs to distribute their shows to millions of viewers for last several years. For reasons ranging from experimenting with new technology and getting a large viewership for their products to sometimes making a small profit.
Rooster Teeth Productions makes two short television shows a week using video game engines -- "Red vs. Blue" and "The Strangerhood." About a million people download and watch each show for free, according to creator Burnie Burns.
"Red vs. Blue," which is a comedy about two teams fighting over a valley without a concrete reason, was shown as part of a debut of new technology at the Sundance Film Festival. The series is produced by using the video game Halo. Burns and three other friends created the show by creating characters, playing Halo, capturing the footage and adding in voices.
EA Games uses Rooster Teeth's show, "The Strangerhood," created with EA's The Sims 2, as a promotional device for their videogame.
A few years ago Burns started capturing video from Halo games he reviewed and added funny commentary with a friend for drunkgamers.com. His piece became a hit and later he created "Red vs. Blue" with other former film-student friends to keep his "writing skills sharp," he said. Within six weeks viewership grew from 35 people to more than 500,000, he said.
Their success could never have come without programs such as BitTorrent, a popular file-sharing program, Burns said.
"It's more about distribution than content at this point," he said. "If someone made a home movie and convinced their local Blockbuster to put it on the shelf, then suddenly all the other Blockbusters had it -- that's what BitTorrent is."
Burns feels that Internet distribution is going to be part of the future of television. Using the technology to their own advantage is how established companies can stay current with a younger demographic.
"They (the recording and music industry) had a working model, and then the Internet came along and changed everything. Before only 2 percent of people understood how to do this, only propeller heads, and now housewives and grandmothers can do it," Burns said.
Lawsuits certainly do not seem to be a deterrent to downloaders either, according to a British Internet monitoring company, Envisional.
After Supernova.com, a major distributor of copies of movies and television shows was shut down after a lawsuit, Isohunt.com (another BitTorrent site)registered about 1,000 more files traded per day than before, said researcher David Price.
"There's a great demand for people to watch shows when they want to instead of being told you must watch this at 9 on Sunday night," Price said. "I think it will expand online just as the recording industry set up iTunes, you'll be able to go Fox's Web site and download the latest episode."
BitTorrent sites account for 70 percent of downloaded television shows, according to a study conducted by Envisional. They traced different television shows, including "Six Feet Under" to see where they were distributed and how often.
"24" is the most popular pirated show, on average each current episode is downloaded about 95,000 times worldwide. This is up from last year when an episode was downloaded 35,000 times on average, according to the study.
The United Kingdom accounts for more than 17 percent of downloaded shows, Australians more than 15 percent and Americans more than 7 percent, according to the study. People abroad are more likely to download shows because they do not want to wait to see a show until it airs in their country, Price said.
"We generally have to wait at least a month to see a new show, knowing that it's on and that other people are watching it really bothers some people," Price said. "Also we have a common cultural ground with the U.S. Many of the most popular shows over there, like '24' or 'Six Feet Under' are popular over here."
Video game companies are smart because they use this technology to their own advantage, according to Burns. By allowing their games to be used by machinima creators, people who use video game engines to animate shows, for a low price they receive free promotion.
"They like what we do, it's a product for them that isn't something they would develop on their own," Burns said.
Groups like Rooster Teeth Production are also turning a profit, albeit a small one.
The company of only four people supports itself through donations and sales from DVDs, t-shirts, mouse pads and other merchandise from their store. Burns still works a day job though and doesn't foresee running "Red vs. Blue" full-time in the future.
"Smaller sites like ours don't have a lot of administrative overhead," Burns said. "We couldn't do it if we had 30 guys."
Other online shows such as "Homestar Runner" and "Jib Jab" also turn a profit by selling products based on their free shows, according to Burns.
"'Homestar' is basically a t-shirt shop with a comic in front of it," Burns said. "'Jib Jab' was viral, it's a great example of how 10 million people see something and it gets out of hand."
More importantly to Burns, he sees machinima as a new medium and BitTorrent as a new paradigm for distribution that brings new people into the industry.
"People want to tell stories and every time there's a new form of media, more people come in," Burns said.
One of the main forces against television shows online is that most of them are animated, either computer drawn or created using machinima techniques.
"A lot of the stuff on the Web is animation and a lot of people won't watch it because they think it's 'just cartoons,'" Burns said. "My wife won't even watch 'The Simpsons.'"
Burns thinks some people will still use the older method of finding a large company to distribute shows even online, instead of self-distribution using file-sharing, he said.
"More people will do it for free hoping that it gets picked up by someone larger like Yahoo!," he said. "But, we'll get better talent than what we have now, which is a lot of people who are enthusiasts, but not professionals."
The real test of homemade Internet shows will be when someone uses an video game engine without asking and is sued, Burns said.
But, Burns firmly believes that television distribution is going to change, he said.
"I think bigger companies will use it like pay per view. I think there will be demand for lots of shows on (both) TV and the Web," Burns said. "It's going to explode; it's just a matter of time."