Want to watch overseas streaming sites like Hulu or the BBC iPlayer in Australia, or catch up with the ABC's iView when you're on an overseas trip? The unfortunate truth is occasionally it's possible, but generally it's not. Here's why.
One of the most frequently received questions at Lifehacker is "How can I watch Hulu?" Hulu (just in case you didn't know) is the combined web portal for NBC, Fox and ABC (three of the four major US TV broadcasters), which allows users to watch recent and classic TV programming directly in their browser. We're also often asked similar questions about specific online media sites (like CBS in the US), or other national broadcasting services (like the BBC's iPlayer). And occasionally we're asked the inverse question: is it possible to access the ABC iView service (which offers similar catch-up facilities for Australian programs) when you're not in Australia?
Why can't I use these services in Australia?
While the concept of watching TV online whenever you like sounds hugely appealing, in reality Australian viewers who head to Hulu will soon encounter this message: "We're sorry, currently our video library can only be streamed within the United States." Similar disappointment awaits you at the BBC's iPlayer, on many other overseas TV network sites, and even on some videos on YouTube.
The reason for this blockage is twofold. Firstly, Hulu is supported by advertising, and the advertisers are generally aiming at a US domestic audience. Secondly, the makers of the TV programs often rely on selling the overseas broadcast rights, and as such they don't want their potential income streams reduced by anyone in the world being able to view their work. "On demand rights" are generally sold on a country-only basis, which means Hulu can only show programs to US audiences, while the ABC can only show programs within Australia. (In the case of the BBC, there's also a more direct financial argument: the broadcaster is funded by a compulsory licence fee paid by all UK residents, and they would feel ripped off if other people accessed equivalent services for nothing.)
How can the broadcasters tell where I'm based?
In general, these services rely on checking the IP address (the unique numeric address which identifies your PC on the Internet) assigned to users to tell where a visitor is based. ISPs typically own large groups of IP addresses, and assign these to users as they connect. As such, checking the regional location is fairly straightforward: if you're connecting with an IP owned by Telstra, odds are you're in Australia. This kind of technology isn't just used by Hulu and its bretheren (for instance, if you access lifehacker.com in Australia, you'll be redirected to the Australian site).
Can I use software to pretend I'm based somewhere else?
Short answer: you can try, but it probably won't work. Software known as proxy servers is used to effectively 'mask' your actual IP address, making it look as if your request is coming from a different location. Two we've mentioned in the past in this context include Hotspot Shield and IP Hider.
Unfortunately (and as you'll soon realise) Hulu and similar sites quickly got wise to this particular trick, and have added the IP addresses provided by those applications to their list of banned locations. IP Hider and Hotspot Shield are both free applications, which makes them popular but also means that they're the first target for this kind of activity. There are also lots of commercial proxy applications, but just because you've paid money doesn't guarantee the service will work any better. You might get lucky and gain access for a while, but the chances are good it will get blocked before too long.
All that is very annoying. I'm just going to download everything via BitTorrent from now on.
This is not an uncommon reaction. We've moved very quickly over the last 20 years from happily watching programs whenever they were broadcast to demanding tighter control over our viewing experience. However, bear this in mind while you're busy pushing your download limits: if TV networks go entirely broke, there won't be as much professional content getting produced for anyone to share, no matter what the technology.
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