In a season when new technology is drastically changing the ways in which television networks try to reach viewers, The Wire, HBO's Baltimore-based drama, has found a new and avid audience in East Coast nightclubs and on online auction sites such as eBay and Craigslist.
There is, however, one problem with the gain: These new viewers are watching bootleg DVDs or illegal downloads of the entire season, often sold at a fraction of what it would cost to subscribe to HBO or buy a DVD of a full season of the Peabody Award-winning drama. Some of these viewers are then going online and posting "spoilers" - descriptions and comments about events taking place in episodes that have yet to air on HBO.
Not only is HBO losing revenue, but writers, actors and directors are also losing DVD and rerun residuals.
And subscribers to the premium cable channel, who are playing by the rules and watching each Sunday night at 10 (or viewing six days in advance via On Demand technology), are angry about having the suspense ruined by viewers who have seen the whole season illegally.
"HBO is aware of these copies," said Diego Aldana, a spokesman for the cable channel. "We vigorously protect our content and use all means at our disposal to do so," he added, quoting an HBO statement issued yesterday that promises prosecution.
The extent of the underground economy surrounding the Sunday-night series has reached the point where the network this week posted a warning to those chatting about The Wire on HBO.com: "Please be advised that threads advertising the sale of illegal DVDs will be deleted and the creators barred from further posting on this site."
It appears that HBO is experiencing an unintended consequence of its innovative efforts to bring the critically acclaimed drama to a larger audience.
In July, the cable channel sent DVDs containing all 13 episodes of the fourth season to critics across the country - even though the season was not scheduled to begin until Sept. 10.
At the time, the future of the low-rated drama about urban life was in doubt, and the network and the producers were trying to generate buzz for what they thought was their best season to date. The July mailing got the DVDs to reviewers and reporters before the Television Critics Association summer tour in Los Angeles, which featured a news conference with HBO executives, producers and several actors from the show.
By those terms, the mailing was a success. Stories about the fourth season appeared in several large daily newspapers in July. Previews for the season opener in September were generally lavish in their praise.
And the audience followed. Legitimate Sunday night viewing of The Wire is up about 15 percent over last season, when the series averaged about 1.5 million viewers per episode.
But it is now clear that several of those DVDs - possibly through theft from mailrooms or illegal sale by critics - found their way into the hands of bootleggers, who copied the DVDs and, this fall, started selling them in nightclubs in Baltimore, New York, Philadephia, Washington and Newark, N.J. These are the cities in which The Wire is most likely to find its largest audience, given the show's emphasis on examining urban America through the lens of life in Baltimore.
"Yeah, some people didn't do the right thing apparently," David Simon, creator and executive producer of the series, wrote yesterday in response to an e-mail seeking comment on the situation. "HBO is looking into it, I'm told."
It will not have to look far.
A number of people who claim to own the entire fourth season are selling it on eBay.com and Craigslist.org. Through Tor rentspy.com, a peer-to-peer site, people are downloading all 13 Season 4 episodes - including seven which have yet to air.
Chat rooms on several Web sites are full of talk about the downloads and DVDs, as well as anger about the spoilers being posted by those who have already seen episodes yet to air.
One fan on TelevisionWithout Pity.com asked for specifics on downloading the entire fourth season.
One viewer wrote of paying $200 for a flawless copy of the fourth season, while another mentioned paying $16 outside a nightclub.
The most plaintive posting came from Baltimore, pleading for an end to spoilers: "Stop, stop, stop. I love this series, and you are ruining it for all of us."
HBO has also added to the confusion by offering On Demand showings of each episode six days before the Sunday night airing. The idea was to enlarge the audience by offering the show in a way that lets viewers watch on their schedule rather than that of the network. Analysts believe the practice will become widespread.
But while most networks this fall are offering series On Demand after they air, only HBO is offering them before they air. In addition to The Wire, HBO is doing so with Russell Simmons' Def Comedy Jam.
Spoilers were being posted online by viewers who saw episodes on On Demand earlier in the week. But it was only an overture to the flood of full-season spoilers from viewers of illegally obtained DVDs and downloads that are filling chat boards.