A Game of Moans – How Foxtel Now Pushed Me Into Piracy

503 Errors are coming.

Game of Thrones is one of the few TV shows I watch religiously. The bulk of my entertainment is actually via YouTube these days. I prefer to play a game than watch a movie. My Netflix usage is probably 80% documentaries. But I love Game of Thrones, and I was excited for it to come back yesterday.

Unfortunately, in Australia, if you want to watch Game of Thrones upon release, you have two options: Foxtel, or piracy. There’s no HBO Now, there’s no iTunes or Google Play download option, it’s Foxtel or hittin’ up the torrents. Once upon a time (around the first season or so), you could buy the latest episode on iTunes the day after it appeared on Foxtel. But Foxtel pushed to close that gap, removing even more choices from Australians.

But what is Foxtel? If you’re from the US (or anywhere apart from Australia I guess), you probably have no idea what Foxtel is. Foxtel is the pay-TV network in Australia, to which all others fade into insignificance. It’s part of the Murdoch media juggernaut which controls a significant portion of media in Australia. Foxtel delivers its services primarily via fibre optic/coaxial cable and satellite transmission. The majority of US TV shows that people like to watch are only available via the Foxtel network, because they get the rights for them. We have an extensive free-to-air TV service in Australia, but it focuses predominately on Australian content.

Foxtel’s pricing is absurd and made up into ‘packages’ that bundle various channels together. There’s very little flexibility outside of choosing which ‘packs’ you want. They’ve also been feeling the pain in recent years because Australians are having trouble justifying paying upwards of $45 a month to watch big shows like Game of Thrones (and that’s still a fraction of the content available on Foxtel – to get almost everything is around $135 a month). With the rise of Netflix and Stan, Foxtel’s starting to look obsolete (even if Netflix and Stan just raised prices in Australia, it’s still significantly cheaper than Foxtel). Initially Foxtel sort of fostered development of a (distant third) service called Presto, which was… well, awful. It had a lot of big name shows that we couldn’t get on Netflix or Stan, but the streaming quality was awful, the device limits were absurd, and the app wouldn’t work half the time. Foxtel also started to push Foxtel Play, an Internet-only version of Foxtel that offered a mix of live channels and on-demand streaming… all at standard definition.

That service was recently revamped into Foxtel Now, Foxtel’s new push to encourage people to pay for content. Foxtel Now is basically the old Foxtel Play, except it’s been rebranded and now serves “HD” streams (at 720p). It still packages things into ridiculous ‘channel packages’ and is still incredibly expensive, but you could conceivably get GoT for around $15 minimum a month. Interestingly, Foxtel Now still keeps the live channel streams, but also recently removed a load of channels and content.

But what happened during the premiere?

GoT S7 premiered at 1100 AEST 17/07/2017 – the same effective time as the US – and Foxtel Now was working fine… probably because the majority of people in Australia are at work at that time. Even though I had the day off, I still didn’t get to watch it at 1100 – there’s other things to do at that time. The ‘premiere’ that everyone would really be watching was at 2030 later that evening, when people were actually home from work. Well, most people are – Yours Truly usually gets stuck in the roster of Eternal Nightshifts around this time of year.

But Foxtel Now promptly shit the bed with the influx of people logging on to watch it via the live channel feed, and immediately became inaccessible. To be somewhat fair, so did HBO Now. To be less fair, both should have seen this one coming – one of the most popular television shows in history had a long-hyped season premiere, and they completely neglected to consider the kind of traffic that would bring. People are quick to point out that “it fixed itself somewhere around the second half” but I’d say that’s also due to people doing what I did: giving up and getting it elsewhere.

The supreme irony is that I’ve paid $45 (for the pack that includes access to GoT plus a few other channels I find interesting) a month predominately so that I can watch GoT legally, and the service promptly fails to perform that expected function, and I resort to piracy.

Australia, Piracy, and Access

We’re prolific pirates in Australia. God damn do we like a bit of copyright infringement. Even though the parliament and legislature like to make a show of copyright force, we’re pretty unmotivated to fix it. But Hollywood and other media juggernauts have pushed hard, and we’re finally seeing a bit of resistance in Australia – and yet we’re also failing to see the advancement in media access that we so desperately need to reduce piracy.

Game of Thrones is a prime example. Right now, your only legal method to watch it is Foxtel – and Foxtel totally failed one of its major user bases at the critical time. It illustrates the biggest problem with media access – if piracy is easier and offers a better quality than legal alternatives, people will choose it. In some cases, piracy may be your only option unless you just don’t watch it. And while those on a moral high horse might say “Well fuck you, you’re not entitled to it!” that’s missing the point about human behaviour – if the option exists, we’re going to take it. No, people aren’t entitled to it. Yes, it’s still illegal. But people are clearly willing to pay if given the chance to do so at a fair price.

Killing Music Piracy

Music piracy was the hot button topic for ages, until streaming services like Spotify, Apple Music and Google Music came along. We know that streaming services have reduced piracy. Of course, it still isn’t enough for the recording industry, who expect zero piracy – but there’s always going to be a core contingent of people who will never pay for media if a free option exists, and they will never, ever be converted. There’s also the outrage that artists (like Taylor Swift, in particular) are getting paid less per stream than they would if you purchased a license to a song or album instead. But media is now abundant and not worth as much as it has been in the past, and people won’t keep paying absurd prices just so Swift can buy an ivory backscratcher. The market will pay what it will tolerate – and tolerance is on the decline.

The big reason why music piracy has declined is because it’s simply easier to pay a (fairly small for most middle-class Western users) subscription fee to get access to music. Google Music in particular is a good deal – you get YouTube Red thrown in (which basically means ‘no ads’ without resorting to adblocking, who gives a shit about the ‘exclusive’ content?) along with access to a massive library of music. I haven’t pirated music in years – because there’s simply no need, it’s cheap, it’s easy to access, and I’m happy to pay for it.

Killing PC Game Piracy

I was once a prolific pirate of PC games – mostly because games cost $89.95 AUD all the way back in the 90s (oddly, the RRP of boxed PC games has either stayed static or declined), and that was simply not affordable for many families in the 90s. I mostly relied on the good ol’ Sneakernet, copying floppies and later CDs from my friends. Once I got a decent broadband connection with a reasonable data usage limit, I downloaded games via torrents. It was cheap, it was easy, and I didn’t need to go to a store.

Once Steam hit, I pretty much stopped pirating video games, and haven’t done it for close to a decade now. I don’t need to. Steam was initially much cheaper and I could afford to buy games more often – so I did. It was also more convenient than relying on pirated copies, hoping for patches, or waiting for copy protection to be broken. Steam was a tolerable form of DRM for me. With improved access and better pricing, I was more than happy to start paying.

Steam is no longer cheap for Australians, because publishers are fucking idiots and failed to recognise that $89.95 USD does not equate $89.95 AUD, but cdkey sites have filled that gap. There’s no reason for me to pirate games anymore.

Reducing Movie/TV Piracy

Movies and TV shows have started down that path with Netflix and the like. My movie and TV piracy has dropped significantly for older titles that I can find on Netflix or Stan. I’m not going to download them if I can access a library of entertainment for a reasonable price. Make it easy for me to access, and I won’t resort to piracy. Hell, I’ll even rent titles from Google Play, simply because it’s often easier than trying to find a suitable torrent, and I’m happy to pay for content that I like.

But there’s a significant decline in my capacity to watch new TV shows because of ridiculous licensing agreements. If I wanted to pay for Game of Thrones (and I did, because I subscribed to Foxtel Now) I had only one option – and that option promptly shit the bed and failed me. So I turned to my last resort – piracy. It was faster, it was better quality, and I guess it would have been cheaper too if I hadn’t already paid for Foxtel. When I try to pay for something, I end up getting nothing. This is ignoring the other problems I’ve had with Foxtel Now – the site crashing or failing to load, logging me out at random, and then removing a bunch of content because… reasons?

Piracy isn’t easier than Foxtel. My ISP blocks access to several popular torrent sites, and for some reason by DNS bypass occasionally doesn’t work. I have to subscribe to a VPN and use it to bypass the block a lot of the time, not to mention hide myself when downloading. But even with all of that taken into account, I was still better off downloading it – I got the entire episode in about 15 minutes, at a higher quality than Foxtel could offer, and I got it on demand. I was watching it 15 minutes before it was due to start on Foxtel. If I had have kept trying with Foxtel, I’d have missed it. It’s hard to feel guilty when I paid for the service, didn’t receive that service because of a lack of foresight, and had to resort to piracy instead.

Fixing the Problem

On the one hand, it’s easy to say “Oh well this is a simple fix, Foxtel fixes their services and everything’s fine!” but it isn’t quite so simple. It represents a big problem we have in Australia when it comes to access to recent media. There’s no real reason, outside of corporate greed, why we can’t start offering alternative access to new shows like Game of Thrones. If I had the option to buy new episodes on Google Play, or iTunes, or whatever, I’d go for that. I’d stop pirating TV shows (or movies). I’m not expecting them on services like Netflix or Stan, because I understand that HBO wants to make more money off the premiere of each episode, and I think that’s fair.

But locking us into a service that has consistently failed to provide value for money, consistently fails on all technical fronts, and has shown a total disregard for their customers or the Australian public is absurd bullshit. Outfits like Netflix, Google and Apple have shown that reasonable pricing with ease of access reduces the casual piracy that we can actually combat – but it requires accepting a lower return instead of doing exclusive deals that you’ve survived on in the past. The alternative is a future where nobody will pay except the pirates who will release the content, because no-one in their right mind will pay for inferior content streaming that maybe sometimes works.

The media landscape in Australia is finally starting to shift. We’ve still got a very long way to go, but we’re starting to push back against the ridiculous draconian, monopolistic policies of the media thus far.

I don’t want to pirate media. But if you remove my options, I will.

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