The referee's a faker

Digital piracy costs the global economy more than $75 billion per annum


Sunday afternoon in the Fuller house is ‘me’ time. There is nothing I like better than a sit down after my roast dinner, perhaps with a glass of port and Sky Sports for company. We have all become used to football matches being moved around ignoring the millions of global viewers, which is a real pain for paying spectators, but for the Sunday afternoon armchair supporter, it is perfect.

This season has seen some classic matches on a Sunday afternoon, beamed live into my front room by Sky Sports.  However, a few months ago, I started noticing a sequence of numbers appearing intermittently on my screen quite indiscreetly, at the bottom of the screen for about 10 to 15 seconds. I was quite puzzled by this and took to Twitter to see what it could be.

The great thing about Twitter is that someone always has an answer for you, whether it’s right or wrong.  I was amazed to see that a number of other viewers were also pondering the same question.  I was referred to my service provider Virgin Media, for a recent news story on their website explaining what the numbers were all about.

The statement read as follows:-

"As part of our Domestic Broadcast Security arrangements, a nine digit number may appear in the bottom left hand corner of screen for up to five minutes during live football broadcasts or sporting events. This is not related to your individual subscription and is generated automatically as part of the broadcast. It will not affect your viewing experience in any way".

Whilst it didn't go into detail about what the company was trying to do, a simple internet search can tell you exactly. Pick any football match, not even one that has already been shown live, and type the game into a Google search. The results will on the whole be divided into two categories;  the first will be online betting companies, all trying to win your money with an overwhelming number of betting options (next scorer, next corner, next expletive aimed at the referee), the other will be offers to watch the game live online.  It is this second category that causes massive headaches for companies like Sky Sports.

The television rights for the English Premier League was sold to Sky and BT in 2012 for a massive £3.018 billion. Their business model will see them recoup this investment in one way - subscribers to their product. The association with the richest football league in the world will drive people to buy a subscription package, and hoping that like me, Sunday afternoons will be spent watching one or two live games. In order to keep the viewer’s interest up, various technological advances are introduced over time. We've already got 3D capabilities, and it will only be time before 4D hits our homes, quite literally with the smell of burgers, hot dogs and prawn sandwiches being wafted through our TVs to give us that authentic match day aroma.

Unfortunately, it is all too easy for non-subscribers to watch their product.  Technology means that a live television broadcast can be captured and digitally distributed across the Internet. These websites, or streams, are effectively denying the likes of Sky a valuable revenue stream.  So they need to find ways to stop individuals damaging their product and brand.  After all, watching a match online, which is being illegally transmitted, will still carry the Sky Sports branding and viewers will associate poor product quality with the brand and not the illegal stream.

The nine digit number is a very simple, yet an effective way of identifying the distributors of illegal content.  The reference number is unique to a single user.  Once an illegal stream has been identified during a game, the broadcaster can quickly identify the viewing card the source of broadcast.  They can then remotely disable the viewing card and take appropriate legal action against the offender.

We tend to think that illegal streaming is a problem more associated with films or TV shows.  NetNames estimates that over 23% of internet bandwidth is used for streaming illegal content, with this digital piracy costing the global economy more than $75 billion per annum.  We may think we are doing no harm by watching an illegal download, a pirated DVD or in this case, an online streaming of an English Premier League game, but it does.  Sky's £3 billion investment is based on a ROI model that includes increasing the number of subscribers and their share of wallet.  If this doesn't happen, there will be no TV deal in three years time.  And no TV deal means no players like Wayne Rooney, David Silva or Carlton Cole gracing our pitches.  And more importantly, no Sunday afternoon game for me to watch from my armchair. And that means I am forced to watch programs like Splash! Snog, Marry or Avoid, or even worse period dramas!

So thank you Virgin Media (and other companies like you) for this simple, yet clever way to stopping cyber criminals spoiling my Sunday afternoon. I raise my small glass of Port, for medicinal purposes only, to your good health.

Stuart Fuller is the Director of Communication at NetNames.  Never touch his remote control, especially when the football is on.

1 February 2013