Why are Aussies the biggest TV pirates in the world?

New government negotiations with the US signal new efforts against content piracy. We’re beginning to see the foundations of a stricter era of digital content supply.

Game of Thrones is one of the most pirated programs. Photo: Getty Images

The next twelve months will see some big changes in Australia’s TV and movie distribution options.

As the analogue TV service is powered down this month, the push to digital services means content suppliers have ultimate control over what they offer and how much they charge.

While free-to-air TV is here to stay (for now), our choices are greater than ever; be it Pay TV, streaming services (like Quickflix), IPTV (internet services offered via PC or smart TV), and now beefed-up PlayStation 4 and Xbox One services.

Despite this, Australians are still the number one illegal downloaders in the world.

Let’s go out on a limb and blame this on content suppliers who would prefer to package services and sell them at a premium than offer cheap options in a bid to encourage more business; restrictive rights deals within Australia; and the advent of torrent technology alongside the growth of broadband services. It’s the perfect storm for piracy.

Take the number one supplier of Pay TV in the land: Foxtel.

Over the last several months, Foxtel have been aggressively buying exclusive rights to high-quality TV programs, ensuring the only way you’ll legally see them in Australia is to become a Foxtel subscriber.

While the move is made in the hopes to encourage new customers to the service, it will also likely drive scores to join the ranks of many Australians who download illegally.

Basically, if you want to watch Game of Thrones next year, you’ll have to pay for Foxtel or steal it.

That also goes for Boardwalk Empire, The Newsroom, Girls, True Blood … the list goes on.

Yes, some of you may be pinning your hopes on the possibility of Netflix Australia providing a veritable Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory of entertainment, the reality is that Foxtel have been buying high-quality HBO shows like their future depends on it.

Quite possibly, it does. The pay TV provider has slated this new programming to headline their Showcase channel, which currently attracts 15 per cent of their audience.

While the lion’s share of viewers still goes to documentary, sports and lifestyle channels (cooking!), the appeal of high-quality drama cannot be denied; the number of Americans who tuned in to watch each instalment of HBO’s Game of Thrones, reached over 14.2 million (yes, it’s closing in on The Sopranos, with 14.4 million) for the last season.

That’s a spicy meatball Foxtel likely want a share of.

The acquisition of these high-profile programs comes on the heels of other rights deals the company has struck over the last several months, effectively placing previously free programming behind a paywall.

This includes content Australians currently watch for free on the ABC. Oh no! Not Aunty! In a recent deal with the BBC, Foxtel will carry many of the British channel’s popular programs currently aired on the ABC, on a new channel called BBC First.

This channel is a way to package new drama and comedy shows – like the highly anticipated The Musketeers, crime drama The Fear, and wry comedy A Young Doctor’s Notebook (Jon Hamm and Daniel Radcliffe, if you please) – along with existing BBC programs, normally seen here on the ABC, which Foxtel will now have exclusive rights to.

Don’t fret; Dr. Who is not included in this deal.

These two new channels seem like a clear attempt to position Foxtel as the number one provider of high-quality drama and comedy programming within Australia.

What’s that? You’ll just hold out for Netflix Australia instead?

Sadly, even if Netflix do open shop in the near future, king hitters like Game of Thrones and Sherlock are already spoken for.

In light of this, the likelihood of more Australian’s turning to torrent websites to obtain free, yet illegal, content seems inevitable.

Combine all this with recently proposed (August 2013) reforms within the Australia-US free-trade agreement – which signal the beginning of a massive crackdown on hardware, software and ISPs that allow piracy – and we’re beginning to get the picture that an ‘our way, or the highway’ mentality will dictate our TV and movie consumption habits well into the future, despite our predilection to torrent.

Until now, the Motion Picture Association of America’s attempt to curtail piracy within Australia has been nothing more than tilting at windmills.

But having recently declared Australia one of the world’s “most notorious marketplaces for the distribution of illegal film and television shows,” we can expect renewed focus to be placed on our downloading habits again.

Although we lag behind the rest of the world in our technology infrastructure – we currently reside around 40th place – Australians have been enthusiastic to embrace download technology.

We love it! Whereas once upon a time, people would speak in hushed tones about illegally downloading an episode of Desperate Housewives, now we openly declare it, with a sense of (ill-found?) pride that says, ‘I am a MASTER of technology’.

Case in point: The season finale of Game of Thrones was downloaded more than a million times within 24 hours of airing, with the final figure estimated at over 5.2 million and counting.

Considering we make up 10 per cent of that traffic, you can argue there were over 520,000 Australians who didn’t pay for it, compared to the potential 2.5 million Foxtel subscribers who did. It’s easy to see that increasing their customer base by 20 per cent might be a good reason to lock down access to programming like Game of Thrones.

US Ambassador Jeffrey Bleich even went so far as to comment on our penchant for theft, saying, “Australian fans were some of the worst offenders, with among the highest piracy rates of Game of Thrones in the world” (Insert comment about our nation being founded by convicts).

Of course, he’s conveniently ignoring the US figures, which indicated 13 per cent of the download traffic, or some 676,000 Americans, came from his country’s soil. Interestingly, the head of HBO programming, Michael Lombardo, believes piracy is a “compliment of sorts”, indicating it “didn’t negatively impact DVD sales”, of the epic fantasy from Westeros.

But hold onto your hats; even Game of Thrones director, David Petrarca, said that piracy aids the “cultural buzz” around the series, admitting that “one way or another, it’s a huge compliment”.

You’re probably wondering what Foxtel thinks of comments like this, right?

The truth is, there’s been a worldwide spat of ‘cable-cutting’; the act of cancelling a Pay TV subscription.

Foxtel may have recently gained over 100,000 new subscribers, but they also lost close to 350,000 in the same period.

Where did these cable-cutters go for their TV and movies then? The internet.

Roughly 26 per cent of non-subscribers began downloading or streaming content.

Essentially, freedom of choice and likely cost (or lack thereof) won out.

If you don’t mind a little soapbox rhetoric; if the people want flexible options, they will find a way to get them.

The thing is, paying for TV is still a concept alien to many Australians.

Despite recent disconnections, around 30 per cent of the country subscribe to a paid TV and movie service – be it via TV, mobile or IPTV – compared with US cable-TV subscribers comprising roughly 55 per cent of the population (it was 64 per cent two years ago).

TV has been free in Australia for a long time.

We don’t even need a license to own a TV, unlike many countries in Europe or the UK.

In these modern times, that may likely be the last definition of a ‘lucky country.’

These recent Foxtel exclusivity deals draw a clear line in the sand; one that says, if you want quality TV in Australia, you have to pay for it.

With our new government’s negotiations with the US signalling the next salvo against content piracy, we’re beginning to see the foundations of a stricter era of digital content supply: One characterised by tighter restrictions on content, more expensive paid options, and harsher penalties for those who try to get their way around the system.

Let’s see what the number one nation of Game of Thrones illegal downloaders thinks of that.

 

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  • John

    Pay TV – Very expensive and full of useless junk.
    Streaming services – No decent NBN
    IPTV – No decent NBN
    PlayStation 4 and Xbox One – No decent NBN

    Why do you think Murdoch backed Libs at the last election so hard? For love? Libs give crappy net. Crappy net limits streaming / IPTV. We can’t even get Netflix without a region bypass and even then you’d be lucky to stream 460p without pauses.
    Why do we pirate? Because we can go to work and download Game of Thrones, then come home and watch it in 720p when we wish. I would do it legally in a heartbeat but Murdoch has seen fit to stop that.

  • Anthony Stevens

    There is a lot of talk about stats that say that Australians are big downloaders of TV shows but not much is mentioned about how much more we have to pay compared to overseas. Make the prices the same and then we can see if we are really thieves or not. At the moment its the content providers that are the thieves expecting us to pay more.

  • Mark

    In your article you said Netflix Australia might be a possibly setting up in Australia but Netflix is seriously looking at France and Germany in 2014, with a approximately 20,000 to 50,000 people in Australia already accessing Netflix by getting around the geo-blocking, why would Netflix want to setup in Australia? For the people who already have Netflix and are using Unblockus.com, if you use their Netflix region picker and change the setting from the USA to Canada you can access different movies and TV shows on Netflix! It also works for the UK, Holland, Mexico and where Netflix is located! You don’t even have change the United States setting on your Apple TV!

    • Mark Gambino

      Yes, the figures seem to work in Netflix’s favour regardless. Many companies consider Australia a smaller market, hence why they inflate prices beyond what you’d expect (even when we’re at parity). In some cases, it can also cost them more to do business in Australia for the same reasons.

      Also remember that for every tech-savvy Aussie streaming content from the US over a VPN, there are dozens who don’t know how or don’t have the bandwidth (as in, old DSLAMs running old copper wire, trying to pull data from the States). A paid Netflix option in Aus will sweep up the rest, while others continue their ‘pipeline’ approach. However, it would be in everyone’s interests for Netflix to make the price comparable to the US. When you consider the cost for extra bandwidth, a VPN and finally the Netflix account, that may mean paying $20-$30 a months is still a bargain.

  • yarpos .

    I guess I would be one of those foxtel disconnectors, at least partially. I dropped my sports channel and now just stream the stuff I am interested in rather than put up with foxtel offering me 90% padding and 10% real content.

    The article says nothing new except maybe more enforcement is coming, which is the sword they always dangle over peoples heads. This will just force further user education and VPN style workarounds …. the advanced guard has been doing that for a while. Good luck to foxtel if they think long term they can push bundling people dont want longer term. They will become a speed bump on the way to getting what you want.

    PS: happy to pay for content, just give me what I want

  • CoreyAnder

    What concerns me is not piracy, but the social aspect of story telling. When newspapers, free radio & TV and cinema were the only options for mass consumption of stories each person could engage with the story with their social group. This provided a stimulus for discussion and the exploration of differing views and ideas of all sorts of genres. The lives of the many were enriched by social engagement through stories.

    Now that it’s all fragmented are our lives richer or poorer? Can we engage with each other more or less easily?

    In making decisions about how story telling is further commodified and monetised we need to consider the social role that story telling can or should play in our society.

    Perhaps a body like the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme could solve all of these dilemmas.

    We each pay a Story Benefits Scheme levy of x% and the SBS negotiates the best deal form all of us on our behalf and then the content is made available for free on free to air TV without advertising (the advertisers could be catered for by setting up a host of ethical advertising only channels).

    Just like the PBS each genre could be catered for within a finite budget with the best content being purchased with a robust public process determining what ‘the best’ is. (We’d also purchase second and third best but we’d exclude paying for the rubbish that no-one would want/need if they had access to the full range of quality content.)

    Presto! No more pirates, freeloaders or unpaid artists and story tellers.

    We could return to sharing stories at the same time with the rewards of simultaneous social stimulation that follows.

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