Television piracy is a thriving infraction in the UAE. Despite efforts by authorities and broadcasters to crack down on illegal transmissions, hacked channels and imported set-top boxes are hitting local broadcasters hard, causing lost potential to the tune of millions of dirhams in subscription revenues.
Part of the challenge is choice: consumers argue they don't have enough. They are right. But broadcasters also correctly point out that they are losing revenue when viewers circumvent services with illegal downloads, pirated cable boxes or unauthorised streaming.
As The National reported yesterday, thousands of people illegally import boxes from India, paying less for a subscription there while watching their preferred channels here. The system works because signals from Indian satellites are strong enough to pick up in the Emirates. And the price for the service in India is a fraction of what customers in the Emirates pay.
Piracy is a scourge the world over, but it is hard to deal with by policing alone. That is evident from the fact that earlier efforts in the UAE have yielded limited results: hundreds of illegal satellite dishes have been confiscated but the problem persists.
Rather than approaching the issue as a law and order matter exclusively, broadcasters should consider it a marketing opportunity too. In a country that is inhabited by hundreds of different communities from different parts of the world, demand for content is wide. Customers will always take the path of least resistance, and if that means clicking "pay" on the television set they will. And yet, with providers seemingly unwilling to respond to consumers' needs, customers will be forced to look elsewhere.
As a reader points out in these pages today, local networks could do well to win over customers by introducing more attractive - and slightly cheaper - packages to a wider array of audiences. By doing so, piracy rates would likely fall, customer satisfaction increase and those millions of dirhams would stop vanishing.
All of which might be easier said than done. Licensing fees are costly, and service providers have to pay the bills before offering more channels for less. But clearly customers want their television. Broadcasters would do well to figure out many more ways of providing it.