Would You Pay For <I>South Park</I>?

A derailed train is seen in Banyumas, central Java, Indonesia Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2007. A crowded carriage of an Indonesian passenger train derailed and plunged into a dry river bed just after midnight Tuesday, killing five people and injuring more than 250, a police officer said.
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Snippets of the foul-mouthed video antics of Cartman, Stan and the rest of the zany South Park gang have been traded freely on the Internet for years.

Now the show's network, Comedy Central, wants to know whether fans will pay a few bucks for digital, commercial-free episodes of the animated show to view on their computers.

With the network, SightSound.com of suburban Pittsburgh announced Monday it has purchased a license to sell via the Internet six episodes each of South Park and Dr. Katz: Professional Therapist.

The entertainment industry has been reluctant to offer its content for download on the World Wide Web. It is worried about copy protection software being hacked and bootleg copies of TV shows and movies circulating freely on the Internet, as music has via Napster and other file-sharing applications.

Ken Locker, Comedy Central's senior vice president of enterprise and new media, considers the South Park release an experiment.

"Video for download is in its very early days," he said. "For us, this is a great opportunity to understand the level of user acceptance on the other end."

A strange and silly saga of precocious Colorado school kids laced with biting social commentary, South Park is the network's biggest hit. Dr. Katz has been canceled, but still has a strong following, Locker said.

The South Park audience—mainly 18- to 24-year-olds and slightly more males than females—is the demographic group with the fastest computer connections, he said.

And there are 12 million college students who have free high-speed Internet access through their universities, and don't necessarily have televisions, said Scott Sander, SightSound's chief executive.

The episodes, in Microsoft Windows Media format with copy protection software, will require a big chunk of hard drive space. Each will take up 110 megabytes of storage space each.

Sander estimated a five-to-20-minute download time per episode on computers with high-speed cable modem or DSL connections. Downloading via regular modem connection would take hours.

The per-episode price is $2.50 for a download that expires after two days and $4.95 for permanent copy, payable online by credit card.

Users who copy an episode from one computer to another will be prompted to pay, SightSound said.

The picture of the downloaded images should be about 95 percent of the same image on television with the best computer processors on the market, said Jen Pesci, a SightSound spokeswoman.

A South Park Christmas video was widely traded for free on the Internet in the mid-1990s and helped build the cartoon's following.

Locker said creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone have been liberal about allowing South Park sounds and images on Web sites, but have intervened to stop the online swapping of entire episodes.