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Are Australians the worst illegal downloaders in the world?

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When the climatic finale of the television series ‘Lost’ aired earlier this year, BitTorrent news service TorrentFreak estimated that 15% of all torrent downloads of the final episode originated from Australia, despite the country representing only 0.3% of the world’s population.

Nielsen estimated that just over one million Australians visited some of the most popular BitTorrent sites, such as Mininova, The Pirate Bay and IsoHunt in April 2009. The real number may be much higher, according to TorrentFreak. Data logs requested from one of the more popular torrent search engines, Mininova, indicated that Australian visits to its site alone, in the same month, were significantly higher, at over six million Australian visits.

It’s unlikely the growth of online piracy has slowed in Australia since then. Rather, with access to the internet constantly improving, common sense tells us that it’s likely to have increased, presenting a serious problem for content owners and creators.

Convict past or lack of access?

It wouldn’t be hard to attribute this trend to our laid back, anti-authoritarian culture or pin it on our convict heritage. But that would be short-sighted.

The problem is this: The Western markets of America and Britain are saturated with places where consumers can conveniently download and stream content legally online. Australians don’t turn to piracy because they believe content should be free but because it’s difficult to access through other means.

And there’s research to back the claim.

News Digital Media teamed up with research company CoreData to undertake a survey last year that revealed that two-thirds of Australians would be happy to pay for movies and programmes they currently acquire illegally if they knew of a legal alternative (despite the existence of services such as Apple’s iTunes and Bigpond Movies).

In the US, NetFlix, Amazon, Hulu, TV Networks and Pay TV providers offer a wide range of choice and different models for people wanting to access TV shows and movies online. The UK has BBC’s iPlayer, and video on-demand offerings from Channel 4, Five and ITV.

In February, a new streaming service, SeeSaw, was launched in the UK. SeeSaw uses technology and branding developed by a consortium of the BBC, Channel 4 and ITV under the codename Project Kangaroo, sold to transmission company Arqiva last year for around £8 million after the UK’s Competition Commission prevented major broadcasters from launching the service.

Compared to Australia, residents of the US and UK are spoiled for choice when it comes to watching TV on their own terms.

Are the networks and regulators to blame?

Only 30% of Australian households have Pay TV, where in the US and UK, paid cable and satellite services are used in 82% and 50% of homes respectively (US: Gartner. UK: Ofcom). Online services in these territories compliment strong, free digital and paid TV offerings.

Australian TV often suffers from restrictive windowing of overseas content, particularly with popular niche titles like Entourage and Gossip Girl that don’t attract mainstream appeal. Because of this, Australian fans can wait months for airings on free-to-air and pay TV platforms.

This is in part due to a lack of competition in the Pay TV and IPTV industries locally. Fortunately, now that the Internet in Australia has reached a point where people are able to watch programmes and movies online, more competition is inevitable. This can only be good for viewers.

When you consider the availability of video entertainment content in overseas markets, we’re practically a content wasteland down-under. A couple of recent launches of set top box based IPTV services hardly fill the existing void.

What about the content providers?

I’m leading a new venture called Juno Interactive. We are currently engaged in talks with the major US content studios and a number of other US, UK and Australian-based content producers about distributing their content on the soon-to-be-launched service.

Most content owners generally have been very receptive to our initial advances and are usually rather surprised when we show them the extent of the piracy problem here.

I think they recognise the need for a greater availability of their content online and more competition in the Australian market, particularly before illegal downloading and streaming becomes an irreversible habit, as it is with music content.

As broadband speeds and download limits increase, TV shows and movies may become commoditised in the same way that music files are today. Hopefully, we’ll be able to learn some lessons from the music industry’s approach to online distribution of content to ensure that the same mistakes aren’t made twice and that consumers are provided with the services they want rather than outdated business models.

Soon, the NBN will change the landscape once again. So, what are your expectations for the future of media in Australia? Do you have any suggestions for ensuring that Australia doesn’t need to become known as among the ‘worst illegal downloaders in the world’?

Prior to founding Juno Interactive, Jimmy Storrier was the Head of Video at ninemsn. He managed ninemsn’s significant online video operation and was responsible for the launch of ninemsn’s short form content destination, one of Australia’s first Silverlight video content destinations and ad-supported TV show destination, FixPlay.

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