Why can't Australia really have TV on demand?

Bronn and Tyrion from <i>Game of Thrones</i>.

Bronn and Tyrion from Game of Thrones.

As I was writing this article, I discovered that the rapper Chris Kelly, one of the two members of backwards-clothes-wearing teenage rap duo Kris Kross, had died. Mac Daddy, that is to say, rather than his colleague Daddy Mac. Hearing the news made me suddenly nostalgic for the time in the 1990s when a particular variety of commercial rap tracks dominated the charts – the Vanilla Hammer Era, I call it. Back then, I was able to obey their order to jump around for more than two minutes without feeling exhausted. It was a happier, jumpier time.

Hearing the news made me want to hear ‘Jump’ again. Gratification took me a mere three seconds, courtesy of YouTube. Which got me thinking how amazing I would have found that back when they were in the charts, when we had to carefully record songs from the radio onto cassette, or go and buy a bunch of singles.

Nowadays, we can listen to any music we want at any time – and do so legally. Before ‘Jump’ began on YouTube, I had to watch an ad. (By which I mean, I waited for five seconds and clicked ‘Skip’.) But the quality of YouTube videos varies, and it’s not suitable for extended listening – which is where streaming services come in.

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We are on the cusp of the music-streaming revolution, a wave so potent that even Apple haven’t managed to get their heads around it yet. In the past year or so, we’ve gained access to an abundance of streaming services nowadays, so many that it isn’t yet clear who the dominant player will be. Spotify, Rdio, MOG (which also has ‘Jump’), Deezer, Pandora and others besides – all of them are legal, and all of them are an extraordinary musical cornucopia.

I keep hearing that Spotify (which is probably the dominant player, thanks to its tight integration with Facebook) doesn’t pay artists very well, but I suspect the licensers have correctly calculated it’s better than nothing – which is the realistic alternative. Plus, imagine a world where just about everybody pays over $100 a year to Spotify or its equivalent, and you’ve got a fairly healthy revenue stream.

After decades of painful adjustment – the Napster and Limewire wars, and Metallica, and all of that – the music industry has finally managed to offer what consumers want – all of the music, all of the time. And once you’re used to the constant availability of just about every song or album you’ve ever heard of, it’s unthinkable to do without it. And so, I’m a streaming service customer for life, or at least until something even better comes along, and I’m sure most of their customers feel the same way.

The music industry tried shaming people into not pirating, and it didn’t work. But now even though I know how to pirate music, there’s simply no point, even if I had no moral concerns. I have no interest in Bittorrenting an album when I can just stream it. It’s not worth the extra mouse clicks, and I don’t care about having the album files on my hard drive. Plus, I can access Spotify or Rdio or MOG (which has free bandwidth on Telstra, incidentally) on my phone when I’m out and about, or in a car, and my illegal download is far less portable, having to be converted and copied and more besides.

As far as I can see, everyone wins from these streaming music services. Even the artist wins compared to how things were before streaming existed. (And perhaps the business model can be tweaked to improve royalties.) As far as I’m concerned, the legal-music debate is over. You know, like vaccination.

When it comes to television, though, we’re still a decade behind. (Actually, Celebrity Splash may have put us two or three decades behind, but that’s another rant.) One thing, though, is clear: Aussie TV and movie viewers want the same instant gratification we now get from streaming music. That’s why we’re one of the world’s piracy hotspots. (C’mon Aussie! Or should that be Arrrr-sie? Sorry, that was a terrible joke. I’m still thinking about Celebrity Splash, and it’s destroying my usual bonhomie)

Let’s take Game of Thrones as an example, because the premiere of series three set piracy records last month. Tellingly, there were nearly as many requests for it from Australia as in the much bigger US and UK markets. Eminent figures like John Birmingham and the US Ambassador have called for the BitTorrenting to finish. And yet it continues apace, just as it did with music. Pirates have minimal capacity for shaming or guilt-tripping.

So, using it as a case study, what are the legal ways to get the new series of Game of Thrones? Well, you can pay for Foxtel, which costs a pretty penny – at least $60 or more to get the channel that offers Game of Thrones.

But Foxtel is an increasingly antiquated platform because it doesn’t really play with computers. If you have Foxtel, like I do, and forget to record GoT, what then? Well, you can try and find it in the schedule, and series link it, and save them all to your IQ box’s hard disk, and then watch them at some point. There’s also a complex way of streaming recent episodes by navigating through a series of submenus, but they don’t come through at high definition.

Or you can pay $33 for it from iTunes, and download each episode on release. That’s not an awful lot to pay compared with a DVD box set, but it’s a lot compared with free. It’s a lot more for one series than you pay with Spotify, where you pay about ten bucks a months for everything.

What I want with TV and movies is what I have with music now – the capacity to watch whatever I want instantly, at high quality, on any device, with a well-designed, convenient interface. I want instant gratification at a lowish price – something like $10 or $20 a month instead of the more than $100 a month that Foxtel wants to charge. Let’s say that I’d gladly pay up to $50 a month for all the music, TV and movies I could stream via any device.  Give me that, and I’ll gladly pay it forever.

Now, TV is more complicated because of live events and sport. There’s still scope for broadcast, instead of everything being on-demand. And music is rarely time specific, unlike current affairs shows or topical comedy like the Daily Show. Plus, there’s also a shared experience to be had when watching a show like Q&A and ranting on Twitter along with everybody else.

But the number of shows that need to be enjoyed live like this is shrinking. Built into the formula for the TV streaming service of my dreams, I’d like to be able to see those kinds of shows live. But everything else should come on demand, on any device.

This need is precisely why Netflix is proving so enormous in the US. It offers – well, not everything, but a lot, for a mere $8/month. This offer has proven so successful that Netflix now consumes a third of US internet traffic. (And I can’t help wonder how much of the remainder is taken up by, ahem, adult entertainment.) Many people subscribe to both Netflix and Hulu, which costs about the same and offers most commercial TV shows. Americans are cancelling their cable connections in droves, and why wouldn’t they?

Netflix is earning so much revenue that they’re now commissioning their own original programming. The popular political thriller House of Cards is exclusive to Netflix, and they made all the episodes available all at once, interestingly. They’re also making new episodes of the wonderful Arrested Development.

In Australia, Quickflix is trying to replicate the same formula. I haven’t tried it in a year, but at first I found the quality and range limited. I should look again, because I’m curious to see whether it’s improved – especially since they’ve just acquired Game of Thrones series 3. But Quickflix is also making all their customers pay to get discs delivered by post the way Netflix used to, a business model which seems doomed and I’ve no interest in cross-subsidising.

I suspect Netflix will set up here and sweep them from the market before they’ve gained a solid foothold, but the best of luck to them anyway, because they’re probably the closest commercial provider of the kind of streaming service I’d like to see.

In amongst all this, I want a few live channels for broadcast “event television”, news, and sport. They have to be available on any device, too.

Ultimately, someone needs to step up. There are currently too many players and formats and none offers enough of everything at a sufficiently cheap price. In particular, Foxtel seems to be trying to offer lots of different ways to watch live TV, via iPad and X-Box 360 and TBox and several other devices, without embracing the need to build a system that does proper on-demand streaming of their shows. Personally, I don’t care about channels, I don’t want schedules, I don’t need hard disk recording. I just want a mass of content that has every good show from today or the past, streaming immediately, in high definition, on any device. And I’m prepared to pay for that, but not as much as they’re currently trying to charge.

Does that seem too much to ask? Well, now you understand why piracy is so popular, because it offers almost exactly that, for free. Okay, so there’s a worse interface and a delay of a few hours. But still, it’s a lot to ask pirates to give up. And Foxtel co-owner Telstra is well aware of that, seeing as their Bigpond subsidiary sell a 500 gigabyte/month home cable account.

Let’s not forget the ABC’s iView, which is free, available on lots of devices and offers comprehensive content. But it expires quickly, and streams in relatively low definition. (Incidentally, I work for the ABC.) The commercial providers all have their own platforms, too, which is irritating. Hulu-style consolidation badly needs to occur.

Historically, the Australian market has taken longer to get these kinds of services together, because we’re so small. Pay TV came here decades after the US and Europe had it. But in the internet era, there’s no limitation on this kind of service being offered besides commercial negotiation. Both prospective models of the NBN will offer sufficient speed for high-definition video (and I don’t want to get bogged into that debate here and now), so we can guess that a comprehensive Netflix-like service, that offers every TV programme and movie you could conceivably want through the same interface, mightn’t be too far away.

Finally, let’s not forget the key ingredient that makes services like Spotify so compelling: it has almost everything. You can try to stump it, but in my experience, you rarely will. That’s what I want, everywhere, all the time.

The only problem is, I want it now.

56 comments

  • I have streamed content on demand. Its available on TV 24-7 and also my iphone and ipad plus my wife's. I can watch it "on demand" or I can watch what was being screened "live" up to 30mins ago. Alternatively I can pause, rewind and record and thus watch it later. I can do this for up to three channels at one.

    My kids are impressed that foxtel are now airing stuff same day as USA. No needs to d/load and its often poor quality. Now its sparkling HD. Miss an episode? - No problems we can go to "ctach up" and also d/load for free and it takes around 2mins before we can watch. Why would we want to steal someone's property ??

    Commenter
    Paul
    Location
    Sydney
    Date and time
    May 03, 2013, 8:30AM
    • This sounds like you have a Virtual Private Network (VPN) service to the US. For $10 a month you can have a small program that bounces your internet through a US server, making it look like you are in the US to Netflicks and Apple and anyone else. If you don't want to pirate but want to take advantage of everything that is free on US internet this is the simplest way to go.

      Commenter
      Mike
      Location
      Forestville
      Date and time
      May 03, 2013, 2:36PM
  • I'm an AFL tragic who happens to live in northern NSW and doesn't have pay TV... yep sad isn't it? If I had a telstra iphone I could watch live AFL games on my phone. But I'm with optus. And I can't pay per view? Why? Surely it's telstra and the AFL that are losing if they don't make the games available pay per view to non-telstra customers.

    Commenter
    Sylvia
    Date and time
    May 03, 2013, 8:33AM
    • Try being an A-League supporter..... anywhere in Australia.

      Thank heavens for SBS. Friday night games for free from next season.

      Commenter
      OP
      Date and time
      May 03, 2013, 8:43AM
    • You can pay an annual or monthly amount and watch AFL games on an Optus phone via the AFL app. Only downside is the content is metered on Optus but not on Telstra. You can also subscribe on a tablet and use it through your home internet connection.

      Commenter
      Raven
      Date and time
      May 03, 2013, 9:08AM
    • There are numerous sites where you can stream AFL or international Rugby or NRL or whatever you want live. It seems they are all based in Europe where it is completely legal.
      It does seem strange to me though that I have to watch a game being played up the road by streaming it from Europe. Ah well.
      Even the Australian Government supports the service by advertising the NBN on the streaming sites.

      Commenter
      easy
      Location
      melbourne
      Date and time
      May 03, 2013, 12:06PM
  • One of the big issues as I see it Dom is that the music & movie/TV industries are stuck in the 'buy to own' model. Take the latest blockbuster BluRay release of Skyfall as an example. I don't wan't to buy the movie, chances are we're only going to watch it once so why would I spend $40 or so on the BluRay that will just sit in the cupboard afterwards? It'll be available through iTunes as a rental but generally not until a month or so after its 'for sale' release. So this greed from the studios actually generates the demand for 'pirating'.
    Likewise Game of Thrones, I've bought the season pass on iTunes but we're unlikely to watch any episode again. Why isn't it available straight away as a rental option because that's what on-demand streaming is - rental.

    Commenter
    Rex
    Location
    Turramurra
    Date and time
    May 03, 2013, 8:41AM
    • Actually, it's the other way around. even when you 'buy' a disc, you don't actually 'own' what's on it - check the EULA, you're still only licensing it.

      Smart content providers of all kinds absolutely love the 'streaming' model, along with 'the cloud'. That's why Adobe is trying to push its cloud software over its previous disc-based business model. They control the content, they control where and how you watch it (try watching something from iTunes on your Android tablet) and they make you pay again and again for the same content (per-view costs and SAAS).

      If we're not very, very careful how we approach streaming media, we're going to end up giving content providers ever greater control than they already have.

      Commenter
      DM
      Date and time
      May 03, 2013, 9:22AM
    • @Rex Isn't that what video stores have been allowing consumers to do for decades now? Some Woolworths/Safeway stores even have vending machines for movies. Or are you also opposed to going and getting the disc?

      Commenter
      Cisco Kid
      Date and time
      May 03, 2013, 11:35AM
  • And you've gleefully summed up why News Ltd and their mates in the Coalition are so opposed to the NBN!

    Commenter
    OP
    Date and time
    May 03, 2013, 8:41AM

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