Underbelly: articles

Net to undermine Underbelly ban

A ban on broadcasting Channel Nine's gangland TV series Underbelly is set to be undermined by thousands of Victorians downloading the program from illegal file sharing websites within minutes of its airing.

Justice Betty King's suppression order, issued today, prohibits the network from broadcasting the 13-part series in Victoria and on the internet until after the trial of a man accused of murdering a Melbourne gangland figure.

Justice King said the series tended to corroborate evidence associated with the trial and it would be difficult for the viewing public to "sift through what is factual material and what is fictional".

But regardless of whether Nine is successful or not in an urgent appeal to overturn the order tomorrow, the program is likely to be available to anyone with an internet connection soon after it airs in other states at 8.30pm tomorrow.

Alex Malik, a PhD researcher at the University of Technology, Sydney, who specialises in copyright infringement in the digital age, said the ban would be ineffectual due to the existence of fast broadband connections and the internet as a free and unregulated distribution tool.

He expected it would take less than 20 minutes for someone outside Victoria to upload the program to illegal file sharing sites after recording it using a computer or a personal video recorder connected to their TV set.

"Of course, what the ban and the court case has achieved is to increase interest in this TV show," said Mr Malik, a former legal counsel for the Australian Recording Industry Association and a former senior legal officer at the Australian Communications and Media Authority.

"Victorian viewers will be searching the internet minutes after Underbelly ends and will be looking for this show that they were not supposed to see. And as a result of the usage of BitTorrent and other peer-to-peer technology it is likely that they will find what they are looking for."

In a similar case in 1995, the Supreme Court banned the ABC from airing the docudrama Blue Murder in NSW for six years after it was shown throughout the rest of Australia.

The controversial show, which covered NSW police corruption and the Sydney underworld of the 1970s and '80s, was banned due to ongoing charges against the Sydney gangster Neddy Smith, who was portrayed in the show. Smith was charged and later acquitted of the murder of Sydney prostitute and whistleblower Sallie-Anne Huckstep.

Blue Murder was a ratings hit for the ABC when it finally aired on NSW free-to-air TV in 2001.

Pirated versions had already made it into the state before then but the distribution was cumbersome without today's widespread broadband connections and easy to access file sharing sites.

A global study of TV show piracy, released by the British technology consultancy Envisional in 2005, ranked Australia as the second largest downloader of TV programs after Britain.

Mr Malik said that while it was probably illegal for viewers to upload Underbelly to the internet, it was unlikely Nine would undertake any enforcement activity to stop them.

"They may be too busy enjoying the viral marketing buzz associated with internet TV show access," he said.

Nine's director of corporate communications, Arabella Gibson, said the network would not transmit or publish the series in Victoria but "we can only abide by the order which has been made in relation to Nine".

By Asher Moses
February 12, 2008
Sydney Mornign Herald