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Sunday, August 5, 2012

Online TV episode subscription lag is annoying

I don't understand why TV show subscriptions online work the way they do. You're signed up in advance, having already paid your money, and yet you can't watch your show at the same time as the rest of the country? How is that a good thing?

Right now, let's say I watch Breaking Bad. It airs on AMC. I happen to have cable TV service, so I get it that way. Of course, living out here on the left coast, I get it 3 hours later than anyone with an east coast feed. A nontrivial number of my friends who watch the show get the east coast feed, and thus we have to not discuss it for the 3 hour difference. It also means we can't talk about it while it's on.

If I instead decided to get the show via iTunes or similar, then it would add even more lag to the process. The show wouldn't turn up until the next day. Assuming a work day or similar in between, and you're talking about a lag up to 24 hours.

Of course, for the people who hit up the usual venues to download things, they get stuff almost as soon as it's done on the east coast. They swap their time and effort to locate and download things for not paying for a cable channel or subscription.

I might understand the day-of-lag situation for subscription shows since they all tend to air during prime time and that would be an insane amount of bandwidth to push at once. Spreading it around over the course of the next several hours might make it easier to distribute.

I also imagine that the TV networks would be really antsy about anyone getting their show before they actually air it. They probably use this to rationalize any lags in distribution.

What I don't understand is why it isn't a two step process. The day before it airs, start sending out the episode as an encrypted download. It'll require a key above and beyond the usual DRM garbage, and that key is not known to anyone. Then, at the designated time, the key itself becomes available online. While it's true that everyone then has to download that key right then and there subject to a "thundering herd" problem, it's far smaller than the multi-gig episode files.

Assuming there's not enough time to brute-force the key between the download availability time and the key release time, then it seems to me that this would just work. The TV network would get to keep their precious release date and time intact, and online subscribers would get to watch with their friends.

Heck, to really make it social, they could rig a special playback where it runs synced to either feed (east or west) and just plays extra bonus content when everyone else is getting commercials. I bet they could even charge more for that feature, and people would pay just so they don't have to manually pause and unpause to stay synced with their cable/satellite-watching friends.

I'd rather watch this show on east coast time, but I don't want to put up a satellite dish or *gasp* go the "warez" route. So, instead, I get to sit here, write about a better way of doing things, and avoid any venue online where someone might have posted spoilers.

Of course, it'll probably turn out the reason for the delay is that someone's patented the "download first, key later" process, so nobody wants to implement it lest they wind up in court. So, instead, it rots in someone's portfolio not helping anyone. Lovely.