Columns Archive

The CBC’s Next Great Way To Distribute Content

Appeared in the Toronto Star on March 24, 2008 as CBC Prime Time Ready for BitTorrent

Last night, the CBC aired the finale of Canada's Next Great Prime Minister, a television program that attracted attention not only for its sizable audiences and the participation of several former Prime Ministers, but also for its emphasis on Internet-based participation.  As part of its nationwide search, the show conducted YouTube auditions, resulting in hundreds of videos and thousands of comments.  It followed up a Facebook group that has hundreds of members who have posted photos, videos, and engaged in active discussions.

Yet the CBC saved the best for last.  This morning it plans to release a high-resolution version of the finale without copy protection on BitTorrent, the peer-to-peer protocol that is often linked with unauthorized file sharing.  The public will be able to download, copy, and share the program without restrictions.

The CBC notes that this marks the first time that a North American broadcaster has released a prime-time program in this manner.  In doing so, it is demonstrating its willingness to experiment with alternative forms of distribution as it works to meet its statutory mandate that requires the public broadcaster to make its programming "available throughout Canada by the most appropriate and efficient means."   

The use of BitTorrent may come as a surprise to those who mistakenly equate file sharing solely with infringing activities.  BitTorrent and other peer-to-peer technologies are finding increasing favour with legitimate businesses attracted to its ability to distribute content in an efficient, cost-effective fashion.  

Indeed, the CBC's model comes from the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation, which last month used BitTorrent to distribute "Nordkalotten 365," one of the country's most popular programs.  The experiment proved very successful, with tens of thousands of downloads at virtually no cost to the broadcaster.

Moreover, the European Union recently joined forces with leading broadcasters such as the BBC to launch P2P-Next, a new peer-to-peer research project.  The project, which involves an investment of tens of millions of dollars, hopes to advance current P2P technologies to create the "next-generation Internet television distribution system."

The move toward distribution without copy-protection – often referred to as DRM-free – is also increasingly the norm. Guinevere Orvis, one of the interactive producers on the CBC show, acknowledged last week that "DRM is dead, even if a lot of broadcasters don't realize it."  

Many in the music industry share that view, as all of the major international record labels have abandoned copy-protection for music downloads in the face of consumer criticism and interoperability concerns. Similarly, many of the world's largest book publishers have dropped DRM for their audiobooks, after finding that consumers simply weren't making unauthorized copies of electronic books without copy-protection.

While the CBC may succeed in paving a new path for content distribution in Canada, it is also placing the spotlight yet again on Canadian network management practices. Viewers around the world may welcome the use of BitTorrent, however, Canada's Internet service providers may be less enamoured by the development.  

Companies such as Rogers have admitted that they actively limit the amount of bandwidth allocated for file swapping on BitTorrent.  Those practices – known as traffic shaping – may leave Canadians wondering why they are unable to swiftly download CBC content.  In fact, critics point to the anti-competitive effects of ISPs limiting access to new forms of video distribution, while actively offering consumers competing video services.  

The CBC's BitTorrent experiment represents an enlightened approach to content distribution that reduces costs and makes Canadian content readily available to a global audience.  It would be ironic if ISP network management practices ensured that viewers outside the country enjoyed better access to the program than the Canadian taxpayers who helped fund its creation.  

Michael Geist holds the Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-commerce Law at the University of Ottawa, Faculty of Law. He can reached at or online at


  1. François Caron says:

    A coincidence?
    On March 19 2007, the CRTC approved my license application (CRTC broadcasting decision 2007-90) for a national public access specialty television channel to be called “The Canadian Public”. In the application’s supplementary brief, I announced my intention to distribute the channel’s programming via BitTorrent with no embedded DRM. So I thought it was pretty funny when the CBC announced their intention to do the same thing on the one year anniversary of my license approval.

    I don’t mind. If my channel was the first to distribute programming via BitTorrent, my small upstart channel would have had to deal with all the headaches involving the ISPs and the CRTC all on its own. But now, the CBC, with all its power and influence, will do all the work for me.

    The initial launch of the BitTorrent distribution wasn’t without its flaws however. The downloaded AVI file wasn’t properly encoded, and the CBC missed an opportunity to incorporate discrete advertising in the form of “ad bugs”, which could have created a new revenue stream for the CBC. But that’s okay. This was a first in North America. Given time, I’m sure they’ll work out all the bugs and take full advantage of the technology.

    François Caron
    President and CEO
    TCPub Media Inc.

  2. Some content only available for windows
    I did find the link: [ link ]
    and enjoyed the video. However as this was a first visit to this page I found a link Archive Sales and though to view what was on sale. However I was told I could only access this site if I had windows. Unfortunately I do not own windows. At least the public site is more accessible than what I have heard the BBC is to a variety of people so a small credit their. So kudos for some, thumbs down for others.