The Premier League’s big pay-per-view experiment is more than halfway through and it’s still proving to be as controversial with fans as when it was first announced. Over the course of this weekend’s round of fixtures, fans from ten clubs – including Liverpool, Arsenal and Leicester – who want to watch their teams play will have to fork out £14.95 to see their matches.
The “interim solution” to fans still being banned from attending matches sees five fixtures from each round of October’s matches made available on TV for a one-time fee. The games broadcast via pay-per-view are those which were not picked by broadcasters to be originally shown on TV. However, the decision has not gone down well.
The pay-per-view fee, is paid to either broadcaster Sky Sports of BT Sport but ends up back with the Premier League and supports individual clubs, is in addition to any existing TV subscriptions and season tickets fans may hold. It has been claimed supporters are being priced out of the sport. And as Newcastle United were beaten 4-1 by Manchester United, Newcastle supporters protested the pay-per-view fee and donated £20,000 to a food bank in the city. The fans of all other 19 Premier League clubs have now signed up to the same charity push.
“It seems to have struck at the heart of this over overarching issue, which is this year, how do you put sports and put entertainment in front of viewers and consumers?” says Julian Aquilina, a senior TV analyst at Enders Analysis, who specialises in people’s viewing habits and sports rights. The cinema industry has faced similar turmoil and has yet to find the answer either.
It’s led to people turning to illegal viewing. Some football fans have continually tried to get around broadcasting subscriptions by hunting for streaming links on social media, using illegal subscription services and through adaptations made to streaming boxes. “It is going to drive people towards piracy,” football finance expert Kieran Maguire told the BBC as the pay-per-view system was revealed. As fans on Twitter complained about the £14.95 charge, “IPTV” (Internet Protocol TV) rose into the site’s trending topics.
Strictly speaking IPTV itself isn’t illegal – but when it’s used for streaming sports and evading payment systems it is illegal. The technology is different to purely online streaming links as it can involve using specific hardware to view broadcast footage – it also comes with huge privacy risks.
At its very basics, IPTV is the delivery of TV content through the internet. Broadly this definition can include Netflix, the BBC’s iPlayer, and other similar services. These can include IPTV being delivered to people through devices such as Amazon’s Fire Sticks, various Android boxes, ‘Kodi’ boxes or other boxes that connect to other internet TV services. IPTV becomes illegal when systems are configured – mostly using software add-ons – to access content a device owner shouldn’t be accessing. This includes Premier League streams, subscription TV and other pay-per-view services.
“We have certainly seen a huge surge in selling and online advertising activity for illicit services – and frankly people openly asking on social media where they can buy it,” says Vicky Brock, the CEO and co-founder of anti-fraud and consumer rights firm Vistalworks. “I would estimate we are seeing between eight to 12 times more illegal IPTV online listings and adverts than this time last year.” Seeing increased activity from sellers indicates a greater demand for the services, Brock says. “We take an explosion in selling as a reflection is a huge uplift in demand.”
Tim Pearson from anti-piracy firm NAGRA agrees. “Since the start of the pandemic NAGRA has seen a clear increase in piracy across the industry driven by events such as direct-to-streaming movies – necessitated due to the forced closure of cinemas – and pay-per-view sports events”.
Behind the scenes there’s an ongoing battle to stop people selling, buying and using IPTV services for watching football and other services illegally. Increasingly, more people using the services are being caught. “Tackling illegal IPTV services starts with stopping providers of the services,” says Kieron Sharp, CEO of FACT, the UK body which investigates cybercrime, fraud and other intellectual property crime. FACT works alongside police forces, broadcasters such as Sky and BT and the Premier League to find and prosecute people running IPTV networks.
The Premier League is leading a large portion of this work. Ahead of this season starting it was granted a new blocking order from the High Court that allows it to shutdown illegal viewing more easily. Kevin Plumb, the Premier League’s director of legal services says the order has already made an impact.
“The enhanced blocking order granted at the beginning of this season is a significant reason why Premier League piracy in the UK has actually gone down this Season and is now at its lowest ever levels,” Plumb says. “Therefore, whatever the motivation for decisions made by individuals to try to access illegal streams, the mechanisms we have in place to shut down and block these are comprehensive, and they are working.”
The blocking order is just one way the Premier League is tackling piracy – whether it is through IPTV devices or other illegal streams. During the 2019/20 season 329,000 live streams were blocked or disrupted and it expects it will block significantly more this year. In addition 404,000 clips and short-form highlights were removed from the internet in the same season and 250,000 links to pirate streams were removed from Google search results.
On top of this, there’s the use of the law. In June this year Mark Schofield, 49, from Radcliffe received a two-year suspended sentence for selling adapted Raspberry Pis that could access Sky subscription channels – they were sold for around £80 to £100 each and a Facebook group provided people with tips on how to avoid measures put in place to stop the illegal subscriptions from working. Sky says the operation cost it around £1 million in losses. Also this year a former police officer was jailed for selling ZGemma boxes with software installed to allow people to watch Sky Sports and BT Sport. And last month another man who sold 2,500 illegal devices was sentenced to two years in prison.
The most significant action in the UK happened last year when an investigation from the Premier League saw three men jailed for a total of 17 years. The men had provided illegal access to the league’s matches – through companies and websites called Dreambox and yourfootie.com – to more than 1,000 pubs, clubs and homes and made more than £5 million in the process.
Despite recent action having an impact, Brock says that sellers have recently been pursuing new tactics to try and avoid being caught. As with almost all types of cybercrime and hacking, criminals often make the first moves before authorities quickly catch up with their new tactics.
“The sellers are putting a lot more effort into evasive tactics – from directing buyers to complete the transaction offline or via WhatsApp and similar (incredibly high risk for the buyer), to deliberately “miscategorising” the services on online marketplaces to avoid detection,” Brock adds. “We recently found illegal streaming services listed in 98 different categories on one major marketplace, including listed under clothes and toys, as a deliberate attempt to evade the platform’s own processes.”
NAGRA’s Pearson says that on a technological side security strategies that include “traitor-tracing elements such as watermarking” can be used with anti-piracy tools to takedown illegal content.
But it isn’t just people running and selling the boxes being targeted for their crimes. In September, Norfolk and Suffolk police took the unprecedented step of warning “thousands” of people using an IPTV service called GE Hosting. The letters warned that people who continued to use the service could be investigated and charged – fines and prison sentences of up to five years are available for those caught using the types of service. Rather unusually, the letters were sent after the police force obtained a warrant to find out the names and personal details of those subscribing to GE Hosting.
Buying potentially dubious streaming boxes and software also comes with other risks. “In addition to risking a criminal conviction, users of illegal content expose themselves to threats such as malware and hacking,” says FACT’s Sharp. Recent research has shown that more than half the people who break copyright laws have been the victims of hacking or identity fraud. IPTV systems also don’t have any parental controls, which risk children being exposed to adult material.
There’s also the chance they’re poorly manufactured. “Illicit streaming devices such as modified set-top boxes present an additional risk of electrical safety concerns,” Sharp says. “When tested, these boxes do not always meet EU safety standards which gives them the potential to cause a fire”.
Even though the risks of illegal IPTV streaming are well documented, people continue to look for the services online. There isn’t a full picture of how many people use the platforms or who operates them – as many streaming options are run from abroad where different rights agreements cover Premier League broadcasts.
Enders’ Aquilina says that the Premier League and broadcasters have been making headway in stopping these types of scams. “I think they have been doing quite well over the last few years.” The scale of people using IPTV is not known and the pay-per-view only applies to games that wouldn’t have been televised anyway, he says. Although Aquilina adds that the current pay-per-view situation and games being played behind closed doors have seen discussions about piracy re-emerge in a bigger way than the last couple of years.
As more people spend greater amounts of time indoors over winter, plus an increase in Covid-19 cases across the UK and local lockdown tiers being introduced, broadcasters and the world of football are likely to face more tricky months. Demand is only set to increase – TV consumption in general rises over the colder months of the year.
At the time of writing, whether the pay-per-view system will continue beyond October is unclear. It’s likely that new deals could be made about broadcasting of Premier League games in the months to come. While the broadcasters have declined to reveal viewing figures for pay-per-view games, we know that the games at the end of last season which were made free to air drew in huge audiences. The BBC’s first ever Premier League match (Crystal Palace beat Bournemouth 2-0) was watched by 3.9 million people and Sky’s broadcast of the Merseyside derby hit a huge 5.5m viewers.
“You’ve got examples of matches, which were phenomenally successful for the broadcasters, shown across both pay TV and free,” Aquilina says. Going forward, could more matches get the same free treatment? “I think the issue is that nobody knows how sustainable that sort of thing is.”
Matt Burgess is WIRED’s deputy digital editor. He tweets from @mattburgess1
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