How The Wire found its peers

Was the unlikely success of the HBO cop show down to illicit file-sharing?

How is The Wire so popular? Even those who haven't been following the gritty TV series about life in Baltimore can't have failed to have heard of it, thanks to blanket media acclaim, not least from this magazine. As the fifth series opened on these shores - broadcast on Sky's obscure FX channel - what began as quiet appreciation among those in the know has grown to the kind of commentary reserved for Big Brother in its heyday. And yet the first episode of the fifth and final series clocked up just 38,000 viewers.

My theory is that most people who first got hooked on The Wire were torrenting it. That is, they accessed episodes illicitly, via peer-to-peer (p2p) networks that use protocols such as BitTorrent. Sure, seasons one, two and three are now in Amazon UK's top ten sales chart, but one might assume these buyers are people playing catch-up.

That the series was originally promoted in the UK by Charlie Brooker is one clue. Brooker is something of a nerd icon, making his fame online with, a satire site wedded to the geekiest element of the web. Brooker himself appears not to be torrenting The Wire, publicly moaning in June that the fifth series (which you can't buy on DVD but has presumably been available on p2p sites since its broadcast in the US last January) had been spoiled for him by someone letting slip an important plot detail: "In any sane world, I'd be able to sue them."

Like Lester Freamon, the detective always keen to get up on the show's eponymous "wire" to listen in on Baltimore's criminals, HBO, the maker of the series, has a history of disrupting file-sharing channels. In 2006, in a campaign that mirrors the recently announced project to send notices to suspected UK file-sharers, HBO sent letters to people offering downloads of The Sopranos over p2p. A year earlier, it was reported to be "poisoning" BitTorrent downloads of its new show Rome by uploading hundreds of bad files.

But is it possible that, in the case of Wire illicit file-sharers, p2p did more good than harm? The series is generally agreed to be a slow burner, more like a novel than TV, and many have called it Shakespearean. A show that demands so much from its audience could well have been lost in the irregular broadcast slots it originally occupied on HBO - let alone on FX over here. And if it was illicit file-sharing that facilitated the oh-so-slow amplification of critical acclaim, then do the sales that the series-makers are now seeing in DVDs make up for any lost, legal viewers at the time?

Although the success of The Wire is not a straight-up reason to welcome illicit file-sharers, it does demonstrate that the relationship between online copyright infringement and the creative arts is just as complex as that between the criminals, police and elected officials of Baltimore.

Becky Hogge is a writer and technologist. She was formerly the technology director of award-winning current affairs website, and Executive Director of the Open Rights Group, a grassroots digital civil liberties organisation.

This article first appeared in the 18 August 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Superpower swoop