news Consumer watchdog Choice has issued a fiery statement accusing US content giants of giving Australians “a raw deal” when it comes to making television shows and films available in Australia, pointing out that Australians pay substantially more to access the same content and encouraging locals to use technical mechanisms to get around so-called “geo-blocking”.
“How many more stories about Australians pirating Game of Thrones do we need to see before the industry gets with the program?” said Matt Levey, Director of Campaigns and Communications at Choice. “Like consumers around the world, Australians are increasingly showing they want to access content at a reasonable price in a way that suits them. It’s called ‘the internet’. Unfortunately, some fans turn to piracy to access content when they might have paid. Piracy undermines the industry and is ultimately bad for consumers, but to counter it the industry needs to meet needs of consumers and embrace advances in technology,” said Levy.
According to Choice, Australians are being treated like second-class digital citizens when it comes to the availability of content, in stark contrast to the pricing and flexibility of content services in the United States.
“Netflix in the US costs only US$7.99 per month and features a hit-parade of shows including Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead, House of Cards and Arrested Development. Back catalogues of most series are available for instantaneous viewing, along with other popular TV shows,” said Levy. “In Australia, Quickflix subscription costs range from AU$15 to AU$35 per month and you pay extra to watch some movies and TV shows. Also, it uses DVDs for new release movies, while Foxtel charges AU$72 per month.”
The consumer watchdog said Australians who use technical mechanisms such as supplied by sites like unblock-us.com or blockless-tv to bypass the virtual walls which make content more expensive and harder to access were helping create pressure for change, but also believes they should do so with their eyes wide open. The organisation has set up a site to help Australians work around US content blocks.
“It’s little wonder that Australian consumers are using free browser plugins such as Media Hint and Hola to access Netflix in the United States,” said Levey. “We encourage consumers to get around so-called ‘geo-blocks’ to pay for legitimate content, but you need to do your due diligence. Depending on terms of service, risks could include having your account suspended or restricted access to content you have already paid for.”
Choice’s comments come as pressure continues to grow on international content makers to make their content available in Australia on equitable terms compared with residents of larger countries such as the US. In late May, for example, Choice wrote an open letter to US IPTV giant Netflix asking how Australian fans of the hit TV show Arrested Development would be able to access the new season of the show, given that it was entirely funded by Netflix and made available only through Netflix’s online platform, which is not available in Australia.
In mid-May pay TV giant Foxtel confirmed reports that it will block the remaining seasons of HBO’s popular Game of Thrones series from being offered in Australia hours after the show is released in the US, due to an exclusive deal with the show’s producer HBO signed in October last year. The move essentially locks those without a Foxtel subscription out of watching Game of Thrones on a weekly basis as it is released in the US, increasing the likelihood that already record levels of Australian piracy of the show will grow even higher.
And just last week Greens Communications Spokesperson, Senator Scott Ludlam, introduced a wide-ranging amendment bill to Australia’s copyright legislation, which would see a range of “fair use” and “fair go” stipulations introduced, with the intention of delivering Australian consumers a fairer copyright situation than they currently enjoy. Among other areas, the bill would prevent higher Australian prices for software, games and music, and would tackle so-called ‘Geocode’ mechanisms which allow content owners to differentiate between goods bought in Australia and outside Australia. The legislation is unlikely to pass Parliament, however.
Higher prices on content has also been an area investigated by the Federal Parliament’s IT price hike inquiry, which has broadly investigated the reasons behind Australians paying higher prices for technology goods and services, as well as content sold online through platforms such as Apple’s iTunes store.
What we’re seeing here is really interesting. For a long time, many Australians have been gaining covert access to US-based IPTV platforms such as Netflix through VPNs and other forms of IP address obscuring services, often coupled with a US credit card to pay for access online. What we’re seeing from Choice now is a real push to shove that fact in the faces of US content owners, to show them that there is a large Australian market for the products which they’re selling, and that local consumers are really tired of being treated as though they don’t matter.
Choice is right: In an age where the Internet has become the great leveller for making content available globally, it makes absolutely no sense that companies such as Netflix, Hulu and others are locking up content so that it’s only available to residents of the US. The globally addressable market is just so much larger than is available through their home countries.
Sure, it’s possible to make the argument, and I have no doubt that giant US cable TV stations such as HBO make this argument continually internally, that they can make a lot more money from selling the rights to shows like HBO on an exclusive basis to local pay TV operators such as Foxtel. However, it seems pretty clear that this model cannot survive in the long run. The addressable market is just so much larger on the open Internet than it is via closed platforms such as Foxtel, and the younger generation of consumers is much less open to closed platforms such as pay TV than older generations have been in the past.
At some point, things have to flip and the Internet will become dominant. Choice’s sentiments over the last six months have become increasingly aggressive, to reflect that fact. The group is a consumer advocate, and most consumers clearly want this change to happen and content to open up to Australians online. The situation is not going to quieten down until the international content owners realise this fact and start addressing the demands of their customers more directly.
Speaking for myself, I think perhaps what sums up my own interest as a consumer is the simple statement that I do not want to be a customer of Foxtel. I want to be a customer of HBO.