The Verdict: No Starz

The cable network’s new online downloading service is just good enough to drive you to piracy.

To stop online piracy—or at least keep it to a bearable minimum—the companies whose copyrights are being violated need to offer consumers something better than what people can get for free. That’s a tough challenge, but the better music services, such as iTunes and Rhapsody, have figured it out. By contrast, online movies are still a bust. You might think there’s no market for people who want to watch movies on a computer, but that’s only if you don’t fly a lot. Lots of well-paid people spend a lot of time sitting on airplanes holding a laptop that doubles as a personal movie player. Why carry on a pack of DVDs when your disk drive will hold dozens of full-length movies? Yet while iTunes sells several million songs every week, Movielink and CinemaNow can convince consumers to pay for only about 135,000 flicks a month. That’s for both services combined.

But John Sie, the chief executive of the Starz TV network, gave the New York Times three reasons this week that Starz’s new movie-downloading service might be worth watching. He claimed the downloads would play at full-screen size, rather than the postcard-size videos offered by other services. Second, Starz would offer hit movies like Finding Nemo and Pirates of the Caribbean, not also-rans. Finally, the service would be affordable, $12.95 a month for up to 100 screenings. (You can watch 100 movies once, one movie 100 times, or any combo in between. The movie files expire at the end of their scheduled runs on Starz—usually a few weeks.) RealNetworks CEO Rob Glaser, whose company partnered with Starz on the project, told the Times that business travelers would be its obvious early adopters.

But on all three points offered by Sie, Starz comes in a distant second to piracy. If Hollywood wants to wean computer users from BitTorrent, the movie studios will have to offer something better than this.

Just getting started was a challenge: The Starz site repeatedly told me I couldn’t sign up for the service because I didn’t have a 600 kilobit or greater network connection, even though various bandwidth-testing tools confirmed that my DSL line clocked more than double that. Then I spent an hour wrestling with the Real player, which Starz uses to browse, download, and play its movies. The player kept trying to upgrade itself unsuccessfully, rebooting my PC several times before I figured out how to trick it into running. The constant marketing come-ons from Real were annoying, especially when mixed with error messages. Installing a BitTorrent client and the DivX video player used for most pirated movies was undoubtedly easier and quicker. BitTorrent also works on Mac and Linux computers that Starz doesn’t support, despite the existence of Real players for both.

Once I’d managed to successfully reach the Starz menu, things started to look promising. There are previews for each movie, and to my pleasant surprise I found I could download the average 500-megabyte movie in just under an hour, which is faster (and more predictable) than the one to six hours it takes to get a two-hour movie from BitTorrent.

After that, it was all downhill. First, the full-screen claim turned out to be bogus. My downloaded Starz copy of Nemo is only about 640 by 480 pixels, a size that hasn’t been “full screen” for over a decade. On my 15-inch flat panel, the movie covered just over half the screen. Resizing the movie to full-screen mode blurred the pixel-for-pixel craftsmanship of the original. That’s barely tolerable for laptop viewing while traveling and certainly not good enough to make you wire your PC to the TV to watch a movie in the living room (where Starz alone can’t compete with the quality—or quantity—of shows on cable, anyway). Bootleg movies on BitTorrent are often of higher visual quality than Starz movies, thanks to DivX’s compression format, which looks a lot better than Real’s at the same file size. And bootleggers often scan movies at higher resolution than Starz offers—a 750 megabyte DivX of Nemo looks a lot better than a 500 megabyte Real file.

By the time I finished perusing the entire Starz catalogue for this week, I realized I wasn’t getting all that much for $12.95. The 100-plus title list beats watching an edited airline flick or paying hotel-movie rates for even fewer choices. But for less time and effort, BitTorrent users willing to flout copyright laws can get newly released movies for free. Nemo was bootlegged its first week out last year, and many appear online before they hit the theaters. Add it up, and Starz offers fewer movies than BitTorrent, at lower quality, for a higher price.

It’s frustrating, because the movie industry could do better than the pirates if it really wanted to. A ripped DivX version of a movie is nowhere near DVD quality. If the studios sold downloadable movies that the average viewer couldn’t tell from a DVD (the way MP3s offer “good enough” sound even though it’s not CD-quality), who’d want a grainy bootleg? The studios could compete on selection, too. Instead of letting Starz’s 100-movie inventory look generous, the studios need to create an online store with a catalogue comparable to Blockbuster or Netflix.

Sure, it’s impossible to beat the pirates on price, but the movie moguls could learn from the mistakes, and the recent successes, of the music guys. For all its strengths, BitTorrent is just a file-sharing protocol. You still have to hunt down URLs for movies on the Net yourself. Once you do, they can take all day to load, and sometimes the download doesn’t finish. If it does, you sometimes find you’ve spent hours downloading a grainy video with bad sound. An iTunes for movies—a well-designed, super user-friendly video store with fast, reliable downloads (there’s no reason it couldn’t use BitTorrent on the back end, linked to fast corporate servers)—would lure consumers into paying. Not by making piracy feel criminal, but by making it feel inconvenient.