Since a few weeks back, some blogosphere hand-wringing has been going on about how Game of Thrones is the most pirated show of 2012. The second season has been downloaded via torrents about 25 million times.

Many people in the discussion are balking at HBO’s refusal to offer legal streaming or downloading options for a wildly popular show that everybody and their dog wants to see. Especially because the news about Game of Thrones‘ “top” position in the torrenting charts comes after months of reports about how HBO thinks digital-only TV viewing is a temporary phenomenon and is determined to keep its content accessible only to cable subscribers. Matthew Inman at The Oatmeal made a much-tweeted comic about he tried to pay to download Game of Thrones through all imaginable means, then gave up and found a torrent.

I had a similar experience, and many of the options Inman mentions aren’t even available to me because I don’t live in the US. As Forbes and a bunch of honest people on Reddit also pointed out, it’s incredibly hard to see Game of Thrones legally if you live in a country where getting hold of HBO is impossible or prohibitively expensive. I haven’t managed to figure out which it is over here in Japan; this provider claims to offer HBO in its $65-a-month cable package, but the channel isn’t in the actual lineup. Since TV was out, my only hope were Amazon or iTunes. Amazon doesn’t have digital downloads of Game of Thrones at all. iTunes teased me with the possibility of buying the first season, until I got to the last step in the purchasing process and was told that my Belgian iTunes account wasn’t allowed to buy this show. At that point, I felt like I was being quite thoroughly mocked.

Now, I haven’t gone on to get Game of Thrones via a torrent. I love the books and what little I’ve seen of the series, but I’m not so fannish about it that I feel a desperate need to watch it together with my US friends. The same goes for The Avengers. About three quarters of all the people I know online are going wild about it. I want to see it, very much, but it won’t be in Japanese cinemas until August.* Maybe I’ll still be fired up about it enough to want to see it on the big screen then, but maybe I’ll just wait until it shows up in iTunes, because my enthusiasm will probably have dampened quite a bit by then.

But while I’m just lukewarm enough about Game of Thrones and The Avengers to wait until they reach me in a legal way, I have used less than legal means to get my hands on certain other shows. I was in the fandoms of those other shows, and not watching the new canon content with my fellows would have made it incredibly hard for me to continue participating in those fandoms. Fans who are really, deeply invested in a show that’s broadcast only overseas aren’t going to get off the internet, let all the initial excitement pass them by, and wait for the DVD to come out in their country months later. That’s not how it works anymore. In my academic writing, I constantly have to remind myself to talk about “English-speaking fans” or “Japanese-speaking fans” when discussing online fandom, because it’s often impossible to draw any national lines. Limiting releases to certain regions of the world at certain times may have been doable in the past. But now that very many fans are on the internet, that sort of commercial strategy is seen as an annoyance that must be dealt with, lest it disrupt the smooth and happy functioning of the fandom. When a new piece of canon comes out, the first order of business is often to get everybody up to speed by spreading around downloads or streams of the new episode for those fans who couldn’t access the “main” broadcast for whatever reason. The content must flow, or the squee can’t commence.

I see just that happening with The Legend of Korra, which I wrote about before. Nickelodeon tries hard to interact closely with Korra fans: there’s an official Tumblr, there was a contest before the premiere that allowed fans to see the first two episodes early, and the network puts up a high-quality stream of every episode a day or so after it’s broadcast. However, those streams are region-locked, as were the contest reward episodes. Non-US fans can participate in the contests, but the fact that they have to be in the US to actually see their prizes is buried somewhere in the rulebook. For all its laudable efforts to connect with fans, Nickelodeon still ignores that many of the truly enthusiastic Korra fans it’s talking to via Facebook and Tumblr are not actually in the US, and that for them, too, the very point of watching media is to watch it together with others and share in the excitement. To be there when “it” happens.

Are people being too demanding? It’s certainly asking a lot for media companies to adapt to a “give everybody everywhere everything now” landscape. This environment is wildly different from what companies are used to, and it’s not surprising that it takes them a long time to find their place in it.

But fans who have those high expectations aren’t spoiled brats or entitled freetards. They just expect their commercial media to behave like the rest of the internet. It takes me only minutes to put a video online in a place where the whole world can see it and share it around. There are reasons why HBO or Nickelodeon don’t do the same, some of them very good reasons, but those reasons simply don’t make sense for internet users who notice that everything except their commercial media content is easily accessible.

After years of waiting for media companies to catch on and get used to YouTube, their failure to distribute things in a way that fits with how the rest of the internet works becomes more and more incomprehensible to their international customers. As Techdirt noted when Fox let “Touch” premiere in about 100 countries at the same time earlier this year, it’s rather mind-boggling that a show (one show!) being released simultaneously across much of the globe is cause for excitement in the year 2012. I understand what’s behind the decision to region-lock online Korra episodes, but that action still seems utterly daft to me. I can’t imagine that anyone at Nickelodeon honestly expected that fans wouldn’t unlock those episodes by any means necessary, so the fact that they locked them in the first place seems just annoying and pointless. People see that fansub groups can make and distribute a high-quality translation of an anime episode only days after it airs in Japan, and on a certain level, it makes no sense to them that commercial overseas anime distributors can’t provide the same speed and quality as a handful of amateurs. Yes, there are some good reasons for those delays, reasons that many internet users often don’t seem to get. But the reason they don’t get it is because they can’t imagine anymore where the problem might possibly lie. No amount of public education of the kind that copyright enforcement-oriented agencies keep clamoring for is going to make this situation look any less absurd to regular people on the internet.

Many have argued that in this day and age, it’s nonsense to release media with any sort of locks on them – among other reasons, because people will easily dodge those locks and learn nothing except that media companies like to annoy them. In the case of media companies trying to connect with international fans and persuade them to watch content legally, it may help if they kept in mind that people on the internet aren’t just a mass of individuals who each might decide start pirating at unpredictable moments for their own personal nefarious reasons. When and why an individual wants to watch a show enough to torrent it has a great deal to do with who they’re watching it with. Today, keeping a show inaccessible to parts of the world often means throwing a wrench (an easily removable but irritating wrench) into the social interactions of the very fans one is trying to court. It seems unrealistic to expect that people will have no problem with international release schedules that disrupt their most important socializing times, for no good reason they can discern.

(*Hollywood movies often seem to come many months late to Japan. I’m not an expert on the Japanese film or cinema business, so I don’t know why this is. My film-oriented colleages at university didn’t know either. Any information would be much appreciated.)

[META] On regional releases and disrupting international fandoms
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6 thoughts on “[META] On regional releases and disrupting international fandoms

  • 27/05/2012 at 01:04

    I read an article a year or so ago – though I can’t remember which fandom or media property it was about, specifically – discussing the fact that international fan(s) had a fully subtitled version up on the internet within days of the original US release, whereas it took months for the hired professional translators to do the same thing.

    It’s really no wonder that that Big Media will never understand how deep fannish passion can run.

    • 01/06/2012 at 13:34

      Sorry your comment took so long to show up! I’ve no idea why it got stuck in an approval queue.

      That situation applies to many fandoms these days, if what I see of anime fansubbing is anything to go by. It’s probably not the professional translators taking months, but rather companies being used to having months to arrange distribution elsewhere. That doesn’t work anymore, since there’s not really an “elsewhere” left in terms of media distribution. There’s no way to keep the US fans from talking to their non-US friends, and in a lot of fannish spaces, you help your friends out if they ask to see that thing everyone is raving about.

      That lack of understanding is always the problem, isn’t it? Fannish audiences can be awesome marketing machines and bringers of large piles of cash. But they can have those advantages for companies only because they have certain community characteristics that also make them do things companies may not like, such as ripping stuff to show it to people in other countries who are also passionate about it.

  • 30/05/2012 at 13:42

    I have no facts to offer about why movies come so late to Japan, but it’s amazing to me, as well, that companies haven’t figured out how the internet has affected the marketing of their products. You wouldn’t think powerful and rich communication and media companies would be so locked into old distribution methods. But they are.

    HBO thinks digital content is a fad? Good lord. Unbelievable.

    Thanks for the post.

    • 01/06/2012 at 12:54

      To be fair, it seems HBO didn’t literally say it was a fad, but that does seem to be the assumption they’re going on here. And apparently they’re not the only ones.

      I get that it takes a lot of time to turn companies of that size around. But it’s been so long already, and if they’re still talking about digital content in this way even now, I completely understand why people give up on them.

  • 01/06/2012 at 06:12

    I don’t think “I really want to give you my money” is being too demanding! I would love to pay for the content I enjoy (and I do, eventually, with the DVD release) but watching it with everyone else is, as you say, the whole point.

    Yes, there are some good reasons for those delays, reasons that many internet users often don’t seem to get.

    Only because so much content is still locked to single platforms. I “get” perfectly well that we can’t see a show straight away because the network is selling it to overseas markets for considerable sums of money…but why is that so? Most shows are pre-sold in any case, so why can’t our local provider air it (stream it even) at the same time? This is especially frustrating in regions like mine where the analog transmitters have been shut down but because there’s so few people, no digital transmitter has been built and now there’s no free-to-air channels at all. There is, however, slow but fairly reliable internet. I have money. Nobody wants to take it from me.

    • 01/06/2012 at 13:16

      Agreed. You can be completely and thoroughly informed of systems for media distribution, their history, their economic and legal facets, their regional characteristics, their current challenges, their dogs and their cats, everything. And it still feels completely absurd to sit there shaking one’s credit card at a computer and begging for a simple download of that insanely popular show that (some of) one’s US friends are legally downloading. I’m sitting in an incredibly wired place with all possible forms of TV and internet connections available, and I still can’t pay for a great deal of the content I want.

      Understanding and patience really wears thin when this situation just does not change, and every step forward comes wrapped in old, well-known mistakes like drm or other locks. It feels natural now to have all media on multiple platforms. Having everything available everywhere to everyone at the same time is what people think should work, and it’s just not possible to adjust people’s expectations to what you (as a company) want them to want. It’s impossible, and not very customer-friendly.

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