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This is what happens when I try to watch Southpark online

A few months ago, I was struck by a strange urge: I wanted to watch the teen drama “Roswell”.  Oh, I know, I shouldn’t admit it, but I felt inexplicably compelled to relive the odd period in my life during which I watched that show.  Naturally, I hopped online to see if I could stream it.  And what should I find, but that the whole first season was on Hulu.  I clicked, all excited, but was met by the gray-and-white-screen-of-death:

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That’s right.   Hulu, like many other digital content websites, is restricted by region.  The site determines the country you are browsing from, based on your IP address, and simply doesn’t let you watch it if you’re outside the United States.  Once again, as an Australian viewer, I was left with two options: download the show illegally (since it wasn’t available to purchase on the very limited Australian iTunes store), or pay $100 for the DVDs.

It’s not an uncommon experience for those of us who live- and access the internet- from outside the US.  And it’s not just Hulu- music sites like Pandora and Spotify, and television stations also restrict their content.

It’s all about licensing.   Australian channels buy the exclusive right to air a program in Australia.  This exclusivity prevents the content being available online to its audience without its explicit permission.  While deals between US networks and online content providers are generally easier to negotiate, because the content would only be available online after it airs, significantly later air dates in Australia mean the commercial networks risk being trumped by online channels.  In some cases, shows are made available to purchase on iTunes only after their Australian air date- sometimes more than a year after they’ve aired in the US.  The time constraints, though, that hardly explains the music stations: in that case, I suspect it’s a matter of the difficulties in obtaining the necessary licensing far outweighing the benefits.

But that’s where the whole thing is just daft.  In the modern media environment, these market boundaries don’t really exist anymore.  Once upon a time, it was possible for an Australian network to air a show 6 months after it was on in the US.  I remember when we were living in the US when I was younger, when Seinfeld ended.  We taped it on a VHS tape and brought it back to Australia for a friend a few weeks later.  He was still the first of his friends to see it.  It’s kind of crazy to think about that now.  It would be virtually impossible for someone in a similar situation to not find out how the show ended.

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Plus, part of the way we enjoy media now is far more interactive.  I like to watch a show, then read Alan Sepinwall‘s review.  Or I might click on an embedded video in a blog I read.  All-too-often, the video tells me I’m unable to view it.  By cutting us off from the content, we are being forced out of the conversation.

It seems absurd that, rather than trying to find new revenue models, Australian stations are simply trying to protect their old ones.  It’s not like their risk too much- very few people here have the downloading capacity* to stream serious video online and shift their whole television-viewing online.  And it rather encourages people to look to illegal means to watch shows.

*That’s right: we have download limits.  When you sign up to an internet provider, you pay for a certain amount of data every month, and if you go over, your connection is either shaped, or you are charged extra (by the mb, no less). So you might pay $50 a month for 7gb of “onpeak” (typically midday to 2am) downloads, and 7 gb of “offpeak” downloads.  My 25gig peak/ 40 gig offpeak package costs about $80/month.

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