With the launch of Netflix in the UK, we've had another chance to directly experience the dreaded regional lockout; by that I mean the practice of only making certain content available in certain geographic locations. And it's not for localisation reasons either. It's simply to do with money, and it doesn't have a place in our globally connected internet world.
Region locking isn't a new practice; we've been subjected to it ever since video has been available at home. VHS tapes had it, of sorts, due to the technical differences between NTSC and PAL, but with the advent of DVDs we encountered the region lock in full force.
Discs bought from America were coded for region one and wouldn't play on a UK region 2 player. Thankfully we got past that with region free players, and the only difference was the pattern of release -- not everything was released everywhere or at the same time. The thing was that you could still import them; it might’ve cost you extra, but it was possible.
Now we've progressed to Blu-rays, and although they have region codes built into them just like DVDs, it’s up to the content producer to implement them. In my experience, Blu-rays don’t generally seem to be region coded for the most part, so on the physical side of video distribution we've made progress.
Unfortunately, the advent of video on-demand streaming has set us in reverse. We've gone back to the region locked days of the DVD. And what's worse, there’s no way to import them legally like we used to either.
The content available through Netflix in the UK is a fantastic example of what I mean. You only have to look at what Netflix has available in the US to know that the UK is getting severely stiffed with a much smaller content library available for streaming in the UK. It's the same service, from the same company, but the content is a poor representation of the US original.
Now don't get me wrong, I'm certainly not blaming Netflix -- it's not its fault. It’s just really easy to compare two libraries from two separate countries using the service. The content deals that let Netflix and others stream here and there about the globe are what holds us up. It's the content producers themselves, the studios, distributors and money-grubbing media monstrosities. They won't sell you global rights because they make more money from bartering for regionalised rights.
I get that they have to make money; if they didn't there would be no collateral to commission new shows, movies and content with. But by blocking international streaming, they're hampering their customers -- you and I.
Of course it also goes the other way too. Our US cousins don’t get access to some of the UK-produced content we love in Britian. That said, it seems British content producers, the BBC, ITV and Channel 4, seem more willing to market their wares in the US these days. But region locking is a global problem, not limited to one or two countries.
By preventing people from legally streaming region locked content, you run the risk of inducing piracy. There are no such restrictions on pirated content and it can often be of a better quality, or more convenient than the legal streams. The movie, TV and recording industry are constantly bleating on about piracy, and yes it probably is a problem of sorts. But complaining, blocking, harassing and forcing the hand of government, isn’t the way to stop piracy.
If you gave your customers what they wanted; when they want it; in a format they want it in (which we’re pretty much there with these days), and at a price they could afford, then what possible reason would the majority have to pirate content? It’s worked for music. There are no region locks, not really anyway, and it’s available at a cost and in a format that most people can enjoy. You’ll never stamp out the hardcore pirating minority, but the majority is pretty easily swayed.
Of course region locking your content doesn't just induce piracy. A quick Google tells us that there are several ways of circumventing the geographic region locks currently being imposed. It’s a legally dubious area, which could contravene laws in both your own country, and the country you’re attempting to stream from; yet services like Unblock-US and a plethora of VPN services promise to do just that. They exist for a reason, and people obviously use them.
Perhaps what I’m hankering for is a change of business model. For the movie industry that wouldn’t be much of an issue, just simultaneous global release dates for feature films. We’re pretty much there these days, at least with Blu-ray and DVD releases between the UK and the US for instance.
But for the TV studios, it’s perhaps a bit of an ask to get them to make all their content available for on-demand streaming at the same time everywhere on the planet. They spend quite a lot of money making programs, which they make back by selling them to broadcast partners. Streaming services from the likes of Netflix and LoveFilm are seen as an added bonus, at least they were, not a real revenue stream. Mind you, we’ve seen Netflix outbid traditional studios for new TV productions, so we could see that tide turn. Of course that really revolves around subscriber numbers, which is a bit of a chicken and the egg scenario – you won’t get the hordes of subscribers without great content after all.
So, dear media companies, studios and producers – we’re in the age of the on-demand digital stream. There’s no real going back, and in the world of a globally connected internet, there’s no space for limiting connectivity like that. Where there’s a will, there’s a way. You can continue to fight it, and not make as much money as you could. Or you could do the smart thing and embrace it. Make all your content available in whichever country has a service to support it.
More people will subscribe, stream and enjoy. And in the process you’ll get more money. It’s a win-win situation. You just have to take the jump and commit. We’ll be there to catch you – I promise.
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