THE widespread availability - and popularity – of pirated copies of hit drama serials online might well benefit pay-TV consumers.
Many now expect providers SingTel and StarHub to price their upcoming video-on-services affordably, instead of turning it into a premium service only a few can afford to enjoy.
At the launches of their respective services, both of which will kick off next month, SingTel and StarHub executives noted that the main competitor to the service is - for once - not each other, but “free” versions of the programmes downloaded via file-sharing systems like BitTorrent.
Once the domain of geeks, the advent of user-friendly file-sharing services like BitTorrent has turned online piracy into a relentless competitor media and content players can no longer ignore.
Make no mistake: Piracy is wrong and an offence under the Singapore Copyright Act.
But while every industry claims it tries to do better, there is no doubt that piracy has forced media companies to do better by their customers.
Today, Singapore movie-goers enjoy same-day releases as their American counterparts. Music CDs and movie DVDs generally cost less, are available earlier, and offer more than when they were originally introduced.
SingTel and StarHub will offer popular shows like CSI, Grey’s Anatomy and Lost, within 24 hours of their American premiers. This is an unprecedented service, and would have had no competitor in the past, allowing pay-TV operators to charge fans what they wanted for it.
Even organised pirated syndicates in the region would wait until the season ends to create their bootleg “box sets”, giving pay-TV operators an exclusive window.
But online piracy has stripped this protection away.
Within hours after their US premier, copies of the shows are already circulating on the Internet.
While downloads are not immediate, entire episodes have to be downloaded before they are viewable, some users with good connections are reportedly been able to download an hour-long episode of popular shows like Prison Break within five hours - beating the pay-TV operator’s 24-hour window by a wide margin.
And Singapore fans of these shows are clearly doing this, if discussions on forums like HardwareZone and around the office water-cooler are any indication.
According to file-sharing site TorrentFreak,
Lost enjoys about 10 million downloads per episode.
Having acquired the rights for these shows – The Straits Times understands that they didn’t come cheap - it doesn’t makes sense for SingTel and StarHub to try and milk a few customers at the expense of larger numbers who are quite likely to pay – just not as much.
It bears repeating that the competition is free, easily available – and potentially more immediate. Pirated content also doesn’t impose any conditions to the consumer's use – pirated copies don’t limit when a consumer can watch it, how long he has to watch it for, or try and charge him again when he feels like watching it say, a year later.
There's no way to eradicate online piracy, and it is high time media and content players, including pay-TV operators, accept this social and business reality.
Sometime in the next two weeks, SingTel and StarHub are expected to announce pricing for their new service. Hopefully they will offer fans an easy and affordable way do the right thing.