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Interview: Paul Pod – Is TIOTI The Way Forward For Video on Demand?

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The way we watch TV is changing. Satellite and cable networks have given us a huge choice in programs, and now we’re getting a bigger choice in how we view them. There’s the old fashioned way of watching it: ‘live’, but that puts us in the hands of the schedulers; why do that when you can create your own schedule? Video recording has been around for a few decades, but the DVD recorder and particularly the PVR (Personal Video Recorder) have made saving what we want to watch that much easier. PVRs will even record a whole season without the need to program for every episode. Of course, you still need to record the show while it's being broadcast, and you’ll need to make sure you have enough space for everything.

Video on demand is obviously the way forward and cable and satellite broadcasters have been offering this for a while, albeit mostly for movies and sports events. But thanks to high speed internet access it’s the net that is looking like the real future of video on demand. Ready to watch the next episode of Lost? Just download it. There are several companies already using this new way to grab viewers. iTunes offers the likes of Lost, Battlestar Galactica and Heroes for $2 an episode with the option of buying a season pass, and amazon.com now have their Unbox Video Downloads service where you’ll find C.S.I. and a variety of classic shows ranging from Have Gun Will Travel to the British sit-com Porridge. The real problem is finding out where you can get the show you want, and it’s a problem that a new site is hoping to solve.

TIOTO’s (it stands for Tape It Off The Internet) aim is to point you in the direction of the series you want. Simply type the name of the show in the search box and you’re presented with a list of matching results. Pick the one you’re after and you’ll find links to sites that offer episodes for download, plus links to available DVDs at Amazon.com. But while the site acts as a search engine, that’s not its sole purpose. TIOTI also provides a detailed description of the TV shows, plus an (at the moment) basic episode guide. There’s also the chance to discuss your favourite shows with like minded individuals and you’ll even get recommendations for future viewing based on your favourite preferences.

This all sounds wonderful, but how does it work in practice? Well, a search for The Rockford Files brought up the classic James Garner series I was looking for, and provided a detailed outline plus an episode guide. There were a few errors (the TV Movies that came several decades after the show finished were included as Season 7, and there was also, strangely, a Season 9) but not bad for a site that’s still evolving. I also learned that there are no downloads available.

Next, I searched for something a little more obscure: the late 60’s western series Hondo. The result was – "'hondo': 0 show matches", although I did get Amazon links to the pilot episode on DVD and the John Wayne movie of the same name, and episode title matches for Cheyenne, Rawhide and Yakkity Yak.

More modern shows predictably faired better. A search for Heroes found the CBS superhero show with a description, episode guide and information on which could be downloaded. A quick look showed episodes 1 to 15 could be found, a little strange as the most recently aired episode at the time was 11. I clicked on episode 15’s hyperlink and found it was, in fact, a bulk download for the first eleven episodes. Clicking the first link in the Top Downloads list opened a new window to where the download was available, though this was clearly not a legal download. I tried episode 1 instead and found much the same thing; when you’re directed to a site with Pirate in the name, you can be pretty sure what you’re downloading is illegal. Having said that, there was also what are referred to as Premium Downloads, that take you to iTunes where you can buy your download legally.

I recently asked Paul Pod (one of the co-founders of TIOTI) about this and how he sees the site developing.

Firstly there is the question of legality. While TIOTI doesn’t host illegal files or even provide links to them directly, it does provide links to sites where such torrents can be found. I assume you’ve looked into the legality of such action, could you possibly explain the site’s legal standing?

Yes we have looked into the legal issues, at length. We feel that as a US based corporation we are well within the coverage of the DMCA providing a rapid and automated takedown mechanism for copyright owners to exercise their rights too. In addition, as you point out, not only do we not host infringing media, we only provide links to other sites – at this level we are operating like a search engine and as such benefit from the safe harbour provisions the DMCA also offers.

Have you had any contact with the major studios and TV networks? Is there a possibility that in the future the site will host links to official downloads, possibly for a subscription fee?

We've had discussions with content owners, including studios and TV networks, both here in the UK and in the US. These have been very productive. We already host links to legal and official downloads – right now these are AOL.video, Apple iTunes TV shows and Amazon Unbox. As additional outlets for content become available we will list those too – this is the core strategy of TIOTI as we see a very wide range of options unfolding for the consumer very quickly. We'll aggregate the multitude of TV download options, and filter them for the user to make easier choices that work for them.

The site seems to offer the community feel of a forum plus the wealth of information of a database along with the links to acquire TV shows, either through Amazon or via download. Which of these do you see as the site’s biggest selling point?

We're hoping the community feel comes right through all the content about shows, and we're looking at expanding the depth of that to allow people to get more involved. We think this is key, but the value of TIOTI as a whole only really works when we also act as the signpost and filter to get at the shows too – whether that is retail or online download. It's the sum of the parts really that makes us interesting.

Do you see sites like TIOTI replacing conventional TV viewing? Will everything be ‘on demand’ and do you see any negative aspects to such a future?

There's space for all models in the immediate future – especially while downloads are all paid and advertising free. TV gets very expensive if you only consume it in this way. The role of the "channel" isn't going away, but the actual schedule one experiences on it may differ from person to person – that's the power of a brand, a voice. The details can be more personalised.

Finally, you’re obviously a TV fan, what are your favorite shows both past and present?

Current top show has to be Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, Aaron Sorkin's new drama airing in the US right now. It's rich in depth, funny and very very clever like The West Wing was (another favourite of mine). I'm also a sucker for endless Simpsons (which my TiVo hoovers up nicely) and looking forward to the 10th anniversary This Life comeback on BBC.

Thank you and good luck Paul Pod.

TIOTI is still being Beta tested and many of the issues I've raised will doubtless have been corrected when the site officially goes live. The episode guides and reviews will develop as the site grows, with users adding there own content. TIOTI has the potential to become a thriving community, THE place to go for TV fans online, here's hoping it fulfills that potential.

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About Ian Woolstencroft