I have a blog post on Hacktivision.org which was initially intended to discuss NZ’s impoverished position in the world of digital distribution. However, the announcement and launch of Quickflix in the past few days gave me pause for thought. However, I’m not sure that this offering, at least at it’s initial stage, is going to be the holy grail that we seek. In fact, I’m not sure that a holy grail is actually possible under the current global distribution systems, and they are showing no signs of changing!
A caveat, first up. A lot of my inspiration to discuss this came out of a Twitter discussion I glommed onto, between @ellenstrickland, @radiowammo and @paulbrislen. My thoughts are inflected by that discussion. I also don’t want to discourage people from signing up to this service. I will sign up just as soon as I can afford to (even $9.99 per month is a lot to an impoverished grad student), and I encourage any and everyone to do the same. Competition needs to be encouraged. Having said that, when you do sign up, make your voice heard. Let them know what you want.
Now, back to why I don’t think this will work in the short term, unless they have money behind them to get them through the first year or two. As I said in the Hacktivision post, QF is launching with 650ish movies, and 10 seasons of television. Not series, seasons. Netflix streaming, what we have all heard about and crave, currently offers 30,000 titles (both film & TV) with a TV series counting as one title. The catalogue of NF is constantly expanding, as I would expect QF to, but I am told that the recent NF focus has been on television – that it is television on demand, rather than film, that is really driving the uptake. This makes the initial offering from QF even more puzzling.
Abigail de Kosnik wrote an excellent piece a couple of years ago for the Convergence Culture Consortium, provocatively entitled “Piracy is the Future of Television” (PDF here). In it, she points out that many people have become habituated to piracy of television content, and although they might be convinced to pay for an equivalent legal service, the service actually needs to be equivalent. She highlights the “benefits” of piracy, which include: a single search – one place to find all your content; simple indexing; uniform software and appearance; file portability – the ability to watch what you want, on the device you want, when you want; access to global content; the ability to archive; and low cost and commercial free. Now, some of these will not be achievable by a Subscriber Video On Demand (S-VOD) service, such as the ability to archive, but if you can be relatively confident that your chosen provider will have your content of choice for the foreseeable future, I believe this becomes less of a barrier.
However, looking at the offering from QF, it fails to meet most of these barriers. It is certainly at the right price, and appears to be commercial free, which is an excellent start. However, it fails dismally on access to global content (US & UK films only, UK tv only – they couldn’t even launch with some Aus/NZ content???), the computer playback seems to require Microsoft Silverlight, there is no playback for mobile devices/tablets, no suggestion of a set-top box.
The biggest issue surrounding S-VOD in NZ, outside of the cost of broadband data, seems to be the difficulty around securing rights for it. If my twitter stream is to be believed (and these are smart people), it’s not that these rights are held by anyone, which leads me to believe that the biggest issue is that the rights need to be negotiated for each title, individually, with each distributor. And it is not always clear who the distributor is for these rights, even within the parent company. Some rights management for NZ is pushed out to an Australian office, some to the UK, some to NZ if they have a distribution office here (less and less likely). And for older content, the lines are even more blurred.
I want QF to succeed. I want them to get the rights to more content. I want those rights to not be exclusive, so that genuine competition can open up over service and price, rather than needing to sign up to multiple services to get the full range of content. I want a lot. And I think I’m dreaming. It has been repeated time and time again that NZ is too small a market for any large company to go through the hassle of negotiating all those rights. Until the models of global distribution change, we are going to see outfits like QF, giving us offerings which are well intended, but continue to fall short. And piracy, especially television piracy, will remain rife.