In the interests of transparency I should disclose that I enjoy reading and watching science fiction. I was lucky enough to be around when the first three seasons of “Star Trek” screened on TV. I enjoyed it then and I have enjoyed all the various developments that have taken place in the Star Trek Universe including the recent series on Prime Video featuring Patrick Stewart as Jean-Luc Picard from “Star Trek: The Next Generation. I don’t think Gene Rodenberry ever imagined ST would be as big as it has become.
I watched the first three series of “Star Trek: Discovery” on Netflix and was impressed with the way that the stories and the characters developed. It was a nice touch to link back to the pilot of the 1960’s series and allow the character of Captain Christopher Pike to develop. I was looking forward to see where Ðiscovery” would “boldly go” (the most famous split infinitive of the twentieth century) on Netflix this week. That was not to be and this post discusses some of the issues surrounding streaming content availability and the outdated delivery strategies that still persist in the minds of many content distributors.
And I am looking forward to seeing Denis Villeneuve’s interpretation of “Dune” – not on a small screen but on as large a screen as possible – one that is big enough to accommodate Shai-halud
Fans of Star Trek – Discovery waited with anticipation for the release of Season 4 scheduled for the second week in November on Netflix which had streamed the three earlier seasons.
In the United States Discovery had streamed exclusively on CBS All Access now known as Paramount +. In a move that surprised Discovery fans worldwide Paramount + removed the rights previously held by Netflix outside of the US. The season – along with the earlier Discovery seasons would show on Paramount + – presently available in the US and some other countries.
This disappointing incident is not the only one as content providers have begun to realise the significance and value of the streaming market. As Netflix propularity increased Disney recovered the streaming rights to its catalogue and launched Disney + in November 2019. Discovery +, HBO Max and Britbox have acted similarly.
This creates a problem for audiences – the consumers to whom content is directed. Rather than having a one stop shop, audiences now have to subscribe to a number of streaming platforms and, of course, pay a separate fee for each one. And in many cases these services are not available worldwide.
This scramble for the streaming content market is another example of the inability of the big content providers to understand that we are no longer in the exclusive market paradigm that was dominated by geographical and staged releases, but in the global digital paradigm. And this lack of recognition goes back to the early days of the digital paradigm when games and DVD’s contained geoblocking mechanisms, making them unviewable in certain areas of the globe.
There was a way of circumventing the geoblocking code that was in DVDs and the content providers were quick to ensure that the circumvention of technological locks was equated with copyright infringement.
I should point out that what follows is a very simplistic discussion of a very complex and nuanced area of law and should not be taken as a full and authoritative discussion of all the issues and implications.
Amendments to the New Zealand Copyright Act 1994 adopted a sensible approach to the issue of circumvention of blocking codes which are called technological protection measures (TPM). Unlike the approach in the US which makes any form of circumvention of a TPM unlawful, the New Zealand approach is to look at the purpose of the TPM circumvention. If it is for the purposes of copying the content it is unlawful and is associated with copyright infringement. If, however, it is for the purposes of accessing the content then the TPM can be circumvented.
Although DVDs are somewhat passe the following illustration may assist. DVD distributors would and still do market their products for certain regional zones. Zone 1 is the US, Zone 2 is the UK and Europe and Zone 4 is Australia and New Zealand. DVD players sold in those countries were engineered in such a way as to allow only DVDs for the particular zone to be used on them. That is why, if you purchase a DVD from Amazon you may receive a warning about Zone incompatibility.
Zoning or region coding was devised by the content distributors solely to assist in their market segmentation and distribution arrangements. In some cases DVDs could be released in one zone or region well before release in another. Region or zone coding which limits access and use of a DVD is a TPM.
I purchase a DVD from Amazon that is a Zone 1 DVD – that means it can only be played using a Zone 1 compatible player. I have a Zone 4 DVD player. I have paid for the DVD and should be able to enjoy my purchase. Putting to one side the contractual terms and conditions that may be on the DVD package advising that I can only play the DVD on a Zone 1 player, I am prevented by the TPM from playing the DVD and enjoying the content. No aspect of copyright infringement comes into play in this scenario.
I manage to secure a circumvention device for my player that makes it region free. That means I can play a DVD from any region on my player. The only purpose of the circumvention device is to allow me to do that – it enables me to access the content.
If, however, I obtained a circumvention device that allowed me to unscramble the content scrambling system that prevented copying the content on the DVD and used it to make multiple copies of the DVD then that would be copyright infringement.
The reality of the situation these days is that most DVD players are region free as are some Blu-Ray players. Region coding used to be used by Playstation but Playstation 5 games are not region locked. However, the discussion about region coding serves to illustrate how content distributors engage in market segmentation which is a hangover from the earlier pre-digital movie and TV show distribution models.
The Digital Paradigm has allowed for instantaneous world-wide access to content but the earlier geo-segmented model remains, even with streaming services. The Netflix content that is available in New Zealand is not identical to the content that is available in the US.
Amazon has an interesting streaming model. I subscribe to Prime Video (www.primevideo.com). That allows me to view a wide range of content for a reasonable fee, paid through my Amazon account.
If I access Amazon’s homepage I can get to another flavour of Amazon video content (also labelled as Prime Video). This Prime Video has some content that is not available via my account, even although I may be logged in. In a banner at the top of many of the pages is the message
“Based outside of the U.S.? Some titles might be unavailable in your current location. Go to PrimeVideo.com to see the video catalog available in New Zealand.”
The Prime Video site from the Amazon US webpage also offers a large number of subscription channels including Paramount + and the facility is available to subscribe. The problem is that I cannot do that. But the approach is even more subtle than one that is based on my IP (Internet Protocol) number. It is based on the type of credit card that I use for my Amazon account and that credit card is issued in New Zealand. A message advises me, when I try to subscribe, that
“To subscribe, a U.S. payment method and billing address are required.”
That means that I must have a US issued credit card with a payment address located in the US. And Amazon doesn’t use Paypal.
Now this may suggest that the colour of my money is important and in some respects it is, but if Amazon is happy to accept my New Zealand credit card for purchases and my Prime Video subscription, why aren’t they prepared to accept the same payment method for subscription to one of their channels? Should it matter that I am watching the content from New Zealand?
The ”colour of money” issue is important because it is offered as an answer by content providers to those who tried to circumvent streaming geoblocking by the use of Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) to access content. The VPN effectively disguises the location of the computer or device attempting to access the content and as long as the credit card was valid payment could be made. So the content providers used the payment method to maintain their geoblocking model adding another layer of difficulty to the access of content.
Of course it is possible to set up a US address and apply for (and obtain) a US credit card but as I have said there are layers of difficulty to that proposition including managing ongoing payments to the credit card provider and the time arrives when it all becomes too complicated and it just isn’t worth the candle.
Maybe it is time to revisit the entire distribution model and recognize something that content providers have been slow to recognize and that is that the Digital Paradigm brings with it paradigmatically different expectations of information and content availability.
In the early days consumers resorted to piracy to obtain content to which they thought they were entitled and which they thought should be free. The file sharing platforms such as Napster, the Pirate Bay, Megaupload and Limewire were shut down over the first decades of the 21st Century. In New Zealand file sharing was addressed by special provisions of the Copyright Act (Sections 120 – 122U). The last complaint about file sharing was heard in 2015.
One of the reasons why file sharing has fallen off has been that content providers have adopted different business models and users are prepared to pay a reasonable figure for content rather than go through the hassle of Bit Torrent (and other forms of file sharing) and the security risks to systems posed by unscrupulous copyright infringers. That is not to say that piracy doesn’t occur. It is just a little less obvious and a lot less acceptable than it used to be.
Copyright protection via digital rights management of CDs came to an end when EMI abandoned this form of TPM in 2007. Music in particular became available for very reasonable prices and “song by song” rather than as one song on a CD. Itunes and Spotify have adopted business models that are attractive to consumers including free streaming music from Spotify if one does not object to the occasional intrusive advertising announcement.
Yet video content distributors still do not seem to have adapted to a new model that could continue to maintain and maximise profits. One could complain that there are too many channels, some of them quite specialized.
For example the documentary channel Docplay (www.docplay.com ) had a two part series available entitled “Laurel Canyon: A Place in Time” depicting the Los Angeles music scene in the later 1960’s, an excellent and beautifully made documentary and which I recommend if you enjoy Sixties Californian music. With a little manipulation this series was freely available because Docplay offers 14 days for free. What that means is that a user can access the site for 14 days without paying, but on signing up one has to provide credit card details and the like and if the subscription is not cancelled the payments begin. So the onus is on the user to ensure that the account is cancelled before the 14 days expires. But one of the attractive features about Docplay is that it is not geoblocked – it doesn’t matter where you are or what device you are using to access content.
So the question falls to be answered – if Docplay can do this why not everyone else. And why make some content available to some audiences and not to others. If consumers are prepared to pay the content should be available irrespective of borders. The Digital Paradigm enables this and enhances consumer expectations that this should be so. There seems to be no logic that demands the continuation of the geobased market segmentation model.
Chris Stokel-Walker points out in “Star Trek: Discovery Is Tearing the Streaming World Apart” that
“The average American household accesses eight streaming and video on demand services in a given week, according to data gathered by technology research company Omdia—though that includes free catch-up services and websites like YouTube. In the UK, the average is nearer six to seven, and in mainland Europe, five to six. “For the audience there’s no difference,” says Tony Gunnarsson, principal analyst of TV, video, and advertising at Omdia. “They dip in and out of everything that’s available.” But as major media companies like ViacomCBS, which are racing to catch up to Netflix, attempt to claim space in the streaming industry, it’s only going to get messier for consumers.”
One improvement could be made, and this I draw from the Itunes model. Rather than a subscription payment to a content provider why not introduce a pay per view model. I am not going to watch all of Netflix’ offering. I am going to watch a few programs from Disney+ or Prime Video. Why not fix a reasonable fee to watch a selected program without the necessity for a monthly drain on my credit card.
In the mean time – what has happened to Star Trek Discovery.
Stokel-Walker makes the point
“For Star Trek lovers, keeping up with the universe of content is difficult enough as it is, regardless of where you’re based. While ViacomCBS decided in October 2021 not to renew its streaming licenses for the classic series of the intergalactic show in the United States, international viewers like Leckie are currently still able to watch six separate shows tied to the brand on Netflix. Spin-off shows Picard and Lower Decks, an animated comedy, are available on Amazon Prime Video internationally and Paramount+ in the United States, while kids’ series Prodigy looks likely to land on Paramount+ too. “It’s bonkers,” says Gunnarsson. “A whole range of legacy rights are still active. Right now, this leads to a lot of confusion and frustration for customers, but in the long term these things will be ironed out and you’ll find all the IP for one series within their owner groups’ designated streaming platform.”
And what’s confusing for fans to understand is downright impossible for more casual viewers. Star Trek became such a totemic cultural touchstone because of its enormous viewership, built up at a time when there were far fewer options to choose from on television.”
A partial (and unsatisfactory) solution is available. It depends on the availability of Paramount + or the Pluto SciFi channel
Where Paramount+ is available in Australia, Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Denmark, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Finland, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Norway, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Sweden, Uruguay, and Venezuela, the first two episodes will be available Friday, November 26, with new episodes being released weekly. Star Trek fans in these markets are offered a new membership promotion on Paramount+ for 50% off for the first three months with code STARTREK.*
In Austria, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom, Pluto TV, the leading free streaming television service, will drop new episodes at 9pm local time on the Pluto TV Sci-Fi channel each Friday, Saturday and Sunday, with a simulcast running on the Star Trek channel in Austria, Switzerland, and Germany. This will begin with the first two episodes on Friday, November 26.
In the UK, Germany, France, Russia, South Korea and additional select countries, Season 4 is available for purchase on participating digital platforms beginning Friday, November 26.
In the meantime Paramount + is going to launch in Australia. The date set in this report was 11 August but as yet (November 2021) it isn’t available. It could all be so much easier if the content providers would catch up with the Digital Paradigm and its implications. It isn’t just about the simple delivery of content based on an outdated and anachronistic business model from another time. It is about matching consumer expectations and innovating delivery of content. The big entertainment industry has been traditionally slow to recognize that the Digital Paradigm provides fresh opportunities but also requires a willingness to recognize continuing disruptive change.