All TV Shows, All the Time; Programs Used to Disappear into Thin Air. Then Came Tape. Today, Search Engines Are Creating a Digital Universe Where Everything Can Be Stored on the Net

Article excerpt

Byline: Joy Wang and Michael Hastings (Graphic by John Sparks)

Suranga Chandratillake spent the last two years developing software to make sure fans won't ever miss another episode of "The Apprentice." Or any other television show, for that matter. As the founder of Blinkx, a search engine for audio and video files, he designed a computer system for the TV networks to permanently archive their broadcasts online. He's taking the shows of his clients--including Fox News, MTV and other networks--and making them accessible by a simple word search. For viewers, it'll be a handy tool for those who want to find their favorite programs in a hurry. For the networks, it's the first step toward managing how their programs wind up on the Internet. "In the case of FoxNews.com," says Chandratillake, "our computers sat there and listened, as though with little headphones, to two and a half years of clips and made it all searchable."

The success of Blinkx--in the last five months, the number of users has doubled to 1 million--is the latest sign that television programs are headed toward becoming just another Internet commodity, like music files or pornography. Advances in file-compression technologies, which make video files small enough to be transferred quickly and easily on the Web, have made TV programs increasingly vulnerable to piracy. Audiences now regularly turn to so-called file-sharing software to get shows free of charge, as they initially turned to Napster for free songs. The most popular TV shows have been downloaded tens of thousands of times from sites like eDonkey and Bit-Torrent--each episode of the Fox show "24," for instance, was downloaded about 95,000 times after it first aired, according to Envisional, an England-based peer-to-peer traffic monitor. The Pew Research Center, a think tank in Washington, reports that 17 percent of those online in the United States--about 23 million people--now download video files. A report earlier this year by the Informa Media Group says file sharing costs TV and film com-panies $858 million annually. Television-industry executives fear that the trend will only get worse.

The strategy of the industry is not to fight the pirates so much as beat them at their own game--by making television programming available, for a fee, on legitimate Internet-based video libraries. The key is to offer a service that's so much better than the rogue peer-to-peer networks that customers don't mind paying. "There's this general assumption that people will always steal content if they can, but I don't think that's true," says Chandratillake. "The success of the new Napster and iTunes demonstrates that people are very interested in downloading broadband content online and paying for it--if it's priced right and available easily."

The need to provide searchable video libraries has created an alliance between the networks and search firms. In May Yahoo signed a deal with 13 companies, including CBS and MTV. In January Google lined up PBS and C-Span. Blinkx has taken on 16 clients, recently adding to its roster A&E and The New York Times, which produces news video on its Web site. The online search companies have been scrambling to position themselves as marketplaces for movies and television programs. Google Video, a search service launched in January, eventually wants to offer videos and movies for sale, just as songs can be bought on iTunes. Yahoo launched a similar service, Yahoo Video, in December. The search giants expect to attract advertisers to their sites, offering another attractive spot to market products. (The idea would be to run 30-second clips before the TV show or movie starts.)

Despite the recent dealmaking, video search seems to have gotten off to a slow start. As the networks realize, video libraries will attract fee-paying customers only if they're easy to use and provide a wide variety of programming. …