x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

New solutions needed to curb television piracy

Stealing series and films is wrong, and offenders should be punished. But legal operators could do more to service audience demand.

No matter which way you look at it, theft is theft. Of course, there are degrees of the offence: for example, taking a pen home from the office isn’t viewed as seriously as carjacking or bank robbery. But where in that spectrum does the piracy of television series and movies fall? Judging by their actions, many people don’t consider piracy as a big issue. As The National reported yesterday, more than a million set-top boxes capable of allowing pirate access to pay-television are imported into Gulf Cooperation Council countries each year. When you add to that the presence of unlicensed satellite channels that offer pirated material and the inestimable amount of illegal downloading, it is clearly a serious problem.

Licensed broadcasters have, rightly, voiced strong concerns about the proliferation of pirated content available to the public through illegal channels. The MBC group and pay-television provider OSN have teamed up to try to close illegal stations, some of whom are showing films that are still screening in cinemas, and to stop the importation of devices that access pay-TV channels for free.

While many people may not have sympathy for big corporations losing some of their profits, it’s important to understand that piracy eventually hurts consumers. We have seen evidence of this in the UAE with the disruption to beIN Sport’s broadcasts of English Premier League football. Rampant piracy has led to a limit to the number of EPL games being screened live. In the long term, piracy could also lead to a reduction in the number and quality of movies and series being made. If producers and broadcasters are not making money, they can’t pay for production costs.

The simple solution is that if you like a television show, you should be prepared to pay for it. The reality, though, is that many pay-TV packages are inflexible, making viewers pay for dozens of channels they don’t watch just to get the channels they want. And some channels delay the broadcast of programmes for an unreasonable period of time. Many viewers in the UAE want to see their favourite shows at the same time as they are broadcast in their countries of origin.

Technologies are emerging that make it possible for people to buy and view television programmes on demand, much as they do with music on iTunes and other services. While the broadcasters and production studios exercise their legal right to pursue the pirates, they should also be investing in better means of offering the service that so many people clearly want.