opinion/analysis The argument by pay television giant Foxtel that the launch of its new Play IPTV streaming video service will cause Australians’ objections about the lack of legitimate access to popular shows such as Game of Thrones to “vanish” is nothing short of ridiculous and strongly indicates that the company still has no idea why the nation is so frustrated with it.
I couldn’t help but laugh yesterday when I read the feeble and almost token attempt by Foxtel director of corporate affairs Bruce Meagher to justify the pay TV giant’s outrageous continued stranglehold on popular television shows such as HBO’s Game of Thrones, which has recently started to take on all the well-known characteristics of your standard corporate monopoly.
There’s a lot to find amusing about the piece, but the most obvious reason for the chuckles is Meagher’s approach of using a metaphor from Game of Thrones to make his case. The executive appears to be completely unaware of the irony in a spokesperson from a business such as Foxtel referring to the house motto of the Lannisters from Game of Thrones in an attempt to justify high prices and unreasonable terms of access to content.
Yes, as Meagher notes, the Lannisters do indeed pay their debts. However, they’re also known for being an incredibly arrogant bunch of bastards constantly grubbing for power, constituting a hereditary family dynasty which most of their fellow countrymen would vastly prefer faded quietly away into history. And if that doesn’t describe Foxtel, which is 50 percent controlled by News Corp, then I certainly don’t know what does.
However, although many might well compare the arrogance and wealth which Foxtel displays to those same attributes in the Lannisters, I prefer a different slogan for House Foxtel, slightly modified from that of House Martell of Sunspear. If the pay television giant was to take its own corporate words, I would recommend the following: “Unbowed, Unbent, Unreasonable”.
In his article published on Mumbrella, Meagher makes the argument that Australians shouldn’t complain about availability of Games of Thrones or other shows in Australia or turn to piracy to deal with the situation, because the company’s recent launch of its Foxtel Play IPTV streaming service, which is available over the Internet via a range of devices (including PCs as well as gaming consoles, smart TVs, smartphones and tablets), means TV watchers can get the content they want quickly and easily.
“If consumers’ only choice was full Foxtel, with lock in contracts and a delay in access due to the need to get installed (a fantastic service by the way for people who love great television) I could understand the objection. But with Foxtel Play available those objections vanish,” the Foxtel executive claims. “What we are left with is an argument at the margins about a few dollars. Yet some people still feel that they should be entitled to take this show for free without the consent of its creators rather than pay a reasonable price for an extraordinary product.”
From a cursory point of view Meagher’s argument would appear to make sense. There’s no doubt that most Australians can indeed afford $35 per month to watch that month’s Game of Thrones episodes (as well as a bunch of other content), and Foxtel has indeed made Play available via a range of devices. Foxtel customers no longer need to sign up to complex monthly cable plans just to get access to the shows they actually want to watch.
But as soon as you get outside of Meagher’s reality distortion field and start to look at real-world consumption of the kind of content Foxtel is spruiking, the feeble nature of his argument starts to become rather obvious.
The first problem is that Australians don’t merely want to watch Game of Thrones and other popular shows: They want to own them.
Foxtel Play does allow customers to stream episodes of popular TV shows via the Internet. However, unlike other major content platforms such as Valve’s Steam, Sony’s PlayStation Store, the Google Play store, Apple iTunes and more, the service does not allow customers to permanently own the content they have paid to watch. Indeed, even if you have paid Foxtel to watch Game of Thrones or a similar show, the minute you stop paying Foxtel, your access to that content will vanish.
JB Hi-Fi is currently selling a DVD box set of Game of Thrones Season 1 for $32.98. If I bought that box set, I would be able to watch that season of the show as many times as I wanted, and I would own it forever. Furthermore, I could easily lend those DVDs to my friends to watch as well. This ‘buy to own’ functionality has been explicitly excluded from Foxtel Play because Foxtel is in the business of selling subscriptions, not content.
And let’s make no bones about it: Many people are not going to watch Game of Thrones only once. It’s the kind of show you return to every couple of years because it has enduring qualities; unlike the latest season of Big Brother.
The lack of this ownership feature also delivers a whole heap of additional technical problems for customers. Say you’re flying to the US on a business trip. If you’re a Foxtel Play subscriber, there is simply no way for you to take Game of Thrones with you and watch it on the plane, because you won’t have Internet access. The same if you want to plonk some content in front of your kids sitting in the back seat on a long road trip. You could theoretically stream Foxtel Play over a 3G connection on the Hume Highway. But I suspect your experience would not be a great one, and you would quite likely exhaust your quota.
Or what about if you normally watch Game of Thrones with your mates, but missed out on one episode because of another commitment. Is it really reasonable of Foxtel to force customers to sign up for a $35 monthly plan just to catch up on one episode that they missed? Meagher points out that customers can register up to three devices to access the service; but if your mate has a family with several kids, they may consider it unfeasible for your device to be registered on their Foxtel Play plan.
These issues, and countless others, can easily be resolved, and in other content areas have been.
If you’re a video gamer, as I am, there is no need to sign up to pricey monthly subscription plans just to get access to the latest game I want. Instead, I just download games straight from Valve’s Steam service, the PlayStation Network or Microsoft’s Xbox Live platform, and they’re mine to own forever, to play whenever I want.
Legendary Apple founder Steve Jobs made the point in his biography that one of the main reasons early streaming music services from companies like Sony failed was that customers had a close and emotional connection with that content, so they wanted to own it — not rent it. Much of that market has changed in the decade since the iTunes Music Store opened, but most customers still choose to own the music they love.
And of course, the largest example of digital content ownership is that of Amazon’s Kindle Store. I know many people who own hundreds of books through the platform.
There is absolutely no reason why this ownership paradigm can not be implemented when it comes to television series and films, and let’s be very clear: It will be. What Australians and many others are crying out for is a version of Valve’s Steam platform which includes all television series and films, to complement existing IPTV streaming platforms such as Netflix and Hulu. Eventually such a platform will be developed and it will make costly alternatives such as Foxtel Play look like they were created in the Stone Age.
I went to Foxtel Play this morning and got a few steps through the sign-up process, just to see how possible it was to get access to Game of Thrones. The site first forced me to choose between four “genre picks”, none of which I wanted, before it would let me select Foxtel’s “Premium Movies & Drama” channel (where Game of Thrones resides), which it billed as an add-on.
Although Foxtel offers a 14 day free trial of Play, and although it’s currently, as Meagher noted, offering a $35 monthly package for access to the Premium Movies and Drama package, the site was very clear that eventually I would be paying $50 per month … to watch the one TV show I actually care about watching. Wow — now that’s a bargain.
I used to be able to buy Game of Thrones through iTunes — but a recent deal announced by Foxtel in February has blocked the show from being aired through any other medium in a timely fashion at all. So that option is off the table, and even the DVD release won’t be out for a while.
In his article, Meagher argued that Game of Thrones is distributed in Australia the way it is because of HBO. He wrote: “Of course some people say they don’t care about all of that, they only want the most recent episodes of Game of Thrones. However, HBO has decided that is not the way they intend to sell this season either here on in the United States. As the content creator and risk taker on the show, they are entitled to make those commercial decisions. As I have said elsewhere, dragons don’t come cheap.”
However, frankly this is completely untrue. The truth is that every year, Foxtel offers HBO fat sacks of cash money to make the show more and more exclusive to Foxtel, so that the company can in turn milk Australians continually by bundling this premium content with the rest of the dross that passes for entertainment through Foxtel’s subscription service. Foxtel makes that decision, not HBO, and it can only make that decision because it has more money than anyone else.
Foxtel director of television Brian Walsh said as much in February, telling industry blog TV Tonight: “It’s a big coup for us and we have a lot of ideas around the marketing of Thrones. Globally it’s a television sensation. I think having it exclusively in Australia on the Foxtel platform is indicative of the way we’re approaching a lot of our acquired content now. Our absolute desire is to increase our subscriber numbers and exclusively acquiring Game of Thrones is important.”
Lastly, did I mention that the version of Game of Thrones which is available through Foxtel Play isn’t even in high definition? That’s right: Although HBO distributes the show in full HD (1080i/p), and although the show has a total budget in the hundreds of millions of dollars — and although many Australians have broadband decent enough to watch 1080p YouTube continually, and do so — Foxtel’s Play service is still not broadcast in HD. Incredible, I know, in this age of giant televisions with 4K TVs on the way. But true. It certainly says something when the Pirate Bay is able to distribute Game of Thrones in HD and Foxtel Play cannot.
In concluding this article, I want to be very clear about one thing: Although we live in an age where consumers are increasingly directly funding the content they want to watch, there will always be a place for middlemen. Every form of content — be it video games, books, films, TV shows or music — requires a distribution channel of some kind. Most of us are pretty definitely locked in to at least half a dozen of those distribution channels already, feeding them money continually to they can service our limitless junkie desire for new material to satiate our engorged brains.
The problem I have with Foxtel is not that it’s a middleman. The problem I and many other people have with Foxtel is that it’s a shitty middleman. It has consciously designed all of its platforms to be expensive, technically limited, user-unfriendly and to bundle content together in a fashion which very few people actually like or want.
I don’t want middlemen to disappear in Australia’s content landscape. Instead, what I want is better middlemen. I want middlemen like Valve to enter the TV distribution business. I want middlemen such as Netflix, Amazon and Hulu to launch their services in Australia. I would quite happily buy Game of Thrones from any of these companies.
But perhaps most of all, what I want is for Foxtel to get the hell out of my way. I don’t care at all if the company wants to operate a technically inept and pricey pay television service. It’s never going to get my business, but if other people want to pay for it then that’s their problem. However, the minute that a company starts blocking competitive access to the content I want, and forces me onto its money treadmill as the sole avenue I have to watch my favourite TV shows, it earns itself a new entry on my hitlist.
If Game of Thrones has one central lesson, it’s that change never stops and history cannot go backwards. Today’s King in the North may very well likely be tomorrow’s dogfood, if he plays his cards wrong, and nobody can put his head back on his shoulders once it’s been lopped off like a bit of cheap lumber. Internet piracy is not new: It’s been going on now for several decades. The only way to address it, as Steve Jobs conclusively proved during the days of Napster and Kazaa, is to offer a better service. Foxtel has proven consistently that it’s not interested in doing that, and Meagher’s protestations this week merely demonstrate the company’s arrogance about its monopolistic position is strongly intact as well.
Image credit: Screenshot of HBO’s Game of Thrones