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The revolution will be available on demand

Cite Magazine
Issue 26 - Summer 2015/16

The Netflix phenomenon has taken Australia by storm, evidence that – when given the choice ­– we are willing to pay for current, good-quality content. Why do media providers and the government continue to resist a more open media market – and at what cost?

Australia’s relatively high rate of internet piracy – enabled by an increasingly sophisticated game of cat and mouse between consumers and regulatory agencies – has highlighted the determination of consumers to obtain current, good-quality video and music content.

Unauthorised downloading recently entered new territory with the Dallas Buyers Club copyright court case that threatened huge fines and the coercion of internet service providers to reveal illegal downloaders.

The case led the Australian Government to introduce new legislation, with the Senate quickly passing the Copyright Amendment (Online Infringement) Bill 2015. The bill aims to curb the online piracy of music, television and film across Australia.

However, say critics, it has been largely ineffectual in curbing piracy, with consumers blatantly ignoring the draconian legislation that they see as imposing unnecessary controls on the media market in Australia.

Enter Netflix, the US-based video-on-demand service that is fast rivalling paid content stalwart Foxtel and a handful of other smaller players in the Australian market. At a price point of $8.99 for basic service per month, Netflix scooped up almost 2 million subscribers in its first six months of operation.

That, says Tama Leaver, Head of Curtin’s Department of Internet Studies, is evidence that Australian consumers are willing to pay for current, good-quality content.

“It seems very backward looking to treat high-paying consumers as criminals and shut them down rather than provide better legal avenues,” says Leaver. “In my work, I refer to this as the ‘tyranny of digital distance’ – that phenomenon where Australia’s physical geographical location has somehow been translated into arbitrary marketing zones.

“This has meant delayed release dates, inflated prices and unreliable service provision – all of which have played into our high rate of unauthorised downloading.

“And it just doesn’t make economic sense. We know that internet piracy is estimated to be costing the Australian economy millions every year. There is an unstoppable appetite for immediate online content and, rather than harness this lost revenue, the Government has opted to ratchet up its legislative hold that shuts the door on consumer demand and choice, and on huge economic opportunity.”

Largely, says Leaver, we still live in a world where existing providers are trying to hold on to dying models. Anachronistic broadcast formats ­­– with 16 to 18 minutes of advertising per hour, or paid subscriptions with ads ­– now seem laughable to a YouTube generation that grew up with on-demand content.

“There is no evidence that the YouTube Generation has a problem with paying,” adds Leaver. “But they do have a problem with unreasonably priced content – as we saw with Game of Thrones, where content was unreliable and expensive. The show was available for a while as a digital download on the US day of release, but that option was then removed.

“The solution, ultimately, must be market-based, with content being released in Australia at the same time as it is in the US, for a competitive price. This has to result in reduced piracy – in fact, it has already, since the arrival of Netflix.”

While the YouTube Generation are huge consumers of online content on demand, they have also grown up in a world where revolutionary digital technologies have made producing content anyone’s game. Participatory media platforms have broken down the rigid boundaries between consumers, creators and producers.

Active engagement in producing content and the rise of YouTube stars who are merely their high school or university peers means that today’s younger generations are fearless, with the potential to shape media with the mobile phone in their hand.

They are also a growing cohort of students forcing a fast-changing curriculum to prepare them for careers in the online world. Curtin’s Department of Internet Studies, for example, has had to remain agile, responding to the changing interests and skills of undergraduate applicants, as well as to market need.

The Internet Communications major trains students in understanding the human dimension of the internet: how people network, collaborate and share information through online communications, media and design. As such, it provides them with an analytical understanding of current issues, policies and business models.

The popular Web Media unit typically has an annual enrolment of 250 students. The unit introduces students to how traditional content is being re-shaped in light of participatory digital media, as well as what indigenous online media is emerging – those rising YouTube stars, for example. Students then put these insights into practice by creating their own web-based media content.

“Each semester, we have some real stand-out projects,” says Leaver. “They show how innovative and bold students can be. For example, one student took a satirical look at copyright using Super Mario videogame characters and has had more than 240,000 views on YouTube.

“Another student’s project explained how convergence culture is changing the media industries using a stop-motion animation that was seen and endorsed on Twitter by Henry Jenkins, the US scholar who literally wrote the book on the topic.”

As more and more online media companies not only stream content but also produce it, Curtin is ensuring its students are prepared to work ethically and effectively in that environment.

“Production is a radically changing environment,” says Leaver. “Our students graduate with a good sense of this and skills that will allow them not just to ‘work’ in the industry, but to actually shape it themselves at a relatively early stage in their careers.

“And that’s an exciting place for a new graduate to be.”