For U.S. fans of AMC’s red-hot dramas “Better Call Saul” and “The Walking Dead” who don’t have a cable or Sling TV subscription, viewing choices for the current season consist of the following:
- Use a friend or relative’s cable login to watch on the AMC site.
- Purchase episodes on iTunes or Amazon.
- Wait until the show appears on a streaming service.
- Pirate it.
That last option is what’s keeping AMC Networks executives up at night. So on Tuesday, AMC announced that all its shows will now carry an invisible watermark from security firm NexGuard, which means any leaked episode can be traced to the recipient of a particular copy, allowing the network to crack down on piracy.
It's a particular problem for AMC: “The Walking Dead” was downloaded illegally 6.9 million times in 2015, according to TorrentFreak, second only to perennial pirate favorite "Game of Thrones" for the year.
Exacerbating the problem for AMC is that it is now handling more and more of its international distribution, meaning the shows in which it invests hundreds of millions of dollars are passing through more and more hands, increasing the odds of a leak to torrent-hungry pirates.
Even shows that AMC doesn’t have the international rights to can pose a problem — “Better Call Saul” producer Sony Pictures Television inked a deal with Netflix to allow new episodes to appear on the streaming service in non-U.S. countries the day after they aired on AMC.
AMC realized it needed to beef up its protection of this valuable content, and the technology will allow AMC to better determine where the breach occurred and what to do with the scofflaws.
“Suppose on Sunday night the show airs in the U.S., and then in Europe within 24 hours,” explains NexGuard Managing Director Harrie Tholen. “That means that episode has to go ahead of time to dubbing, subtitling, even foreign journalists. That’s a lot of people that could leak it.”
Domestic leaks are a problem as well. AMC had a major issue with a post-production company in the “Breaking Bad” days, when a company working on the special effects for a particular shot in the fourth season’s finale leaked a catastrophically spoiler-rific image. NexGuard has shown it’s capable of recognizing its watermarks even on absurdly low-quality Periscope feeds, so critics or actors or even employees at post-production houses should be warned.
Now, forensic watermarking is a post-hoc solution — Tholen knows this. If someone does decide to leak an advanced copy, there’s no stopping them from doing so. And this also doesn’t stop anyone from posting a feed they recorded onto their computer as the episode was airing, though Tholen says that’s slightly less of a concern than preventing the premature release of high-profile, spoiler-prone shows like “The Walking Dead.”
But it is a step. Tholen likens his watermarks to license plates; although, unlike a license plate, you can’t see NexGuard’s marks. “If you have an accident and drive off, you know that someone probably saw your license plate and you’ll get in trouble anyway,” Tholen says. “You think twice about doing it in the first place. Of course, it doesn’t eliminate piracy, but it cuts it down. People just behave better.”