Five Reasons Why Regional Delays Still Exist

One of the key reasons that torrented entertainment content is popular is because it gives us immediate access to shows or movies or music that might not see an official release in Australia for months or years, if ever. Staggering the release of new productions feels archaic in the internet age, but there are occasionally some good reasons it happens other than “we’ve always done it this way”. Here are five you might not have thought of.

Picture by Frederick M Bowen/Getty Images

In response to Lifehacker’s myth-busting post about content piracy yesterday, reader Stove raised an issue that frequently comes up in this context:

There’s no real business case for delaying the release to certain parts of the world – regional pricing differences sure, but time delays no. In the old days it was because only a certain number of film reels would be produced and shared around, but that’s not a viable reason anymore.

Lack of physical product was certainly one reason why movies tended to have staggered distribution. Indeed, you don’t have to look back to many decades to return to a time when it was common practice for movies to play in different parts of a single country as reels were shipped around. Physical issues were also a major factor in music licensing becoming a regional business: before jet freight was common and when music came on heavy vinyl disks, it was more economically viable to produce and ship music locally.

But the physical argument has been irrelevant for longer when it comes to television. It was once a consideration there too: some vintage footage from Doctor Who only exists now because tapes were shipped to various remote branches of the colonies. But satellite transmission has long been viable for distributing TV shows without requiring thousands of copies. Nonetheless, the practice of delaying broadcasts still often persists. Picture from Wikimedia Commons

That brings us to the issue I want to explore here: are there logical reasons why music/TV/movies aren’t released worldwide at the same time, outside of existing contractual arrangements which date back to a different era? And if so, what are they?

Just to be perfectly clear here: I’m not saying that delaying behaviour is invariably justified. It very often isn’t. It’s overwhelmingly evident that local commercial TV networks have a consistent recent pattern of treating their viewers like idiots. The contempt of the networks is often palpable: shows are rescheduled and dumped at a moment’s notice, and channels seem happy to never show some programs, even though they’ve paid for the rights and now have three channels to fill 24 hours a day.

It isn’t, however, always a black-and-white issue, and saying “everything should be available everywhere at the same time” doesn’t recognise that. Here are five common reasons for regional delays.

Reason #1: Movie timing and the holidays

A bunch of family-oriented movies — The Muppets, Arthur Christmas, Happy Feet 2 — came out in US cinemas last week and the week before. The reason? It’s Thanksgiving, so everyone in the US has an extended holiday. But we won’t see them until after Christmas. The reason? Everyone in Australia has an extended holiday. This is basic commercial good sense: releasing something when the audience size is maximised. The only way this issue is going to disappear is if every country in the world has identical holidays. And that’s never going to happen, obviously. Even if Davros invades and we get a global government, there’ll need to be allowance for southern and northern hemispheres, won’t there? Picture by Dave Hogan/Getty Images

Reason #2: TV timing and the holidays

The same issue applies to TV, but in a different way. TV audiences are smaller in the summer (in simplistic terms, we’re more likely to be outdoors), so high-rating programs aren’t scheduled to run during that time. But the Australian summer is the northern winter. Our official ratings season has just ended, but the US TV season is in full swing. So if networks schedule broadcasts as close as possible to US release, they’ll show some of the most potentially popular content at a point when fewer people are watching, and hence advertising rates will be lower. This is an issue for any TV which is advertising-funded — and at the moment, that’s still the majority of it.

Reason #3: Spreading out promotional commitments

The internet offers lots of new promotional opportunities, and most major releases use them: you won’t find a mainstream TV show or movie without a heavy online presence. But a key part of the launch strategy for movies in particular is to get the stars visible to local media, and that’s virtually impossible if a movie opens everywhere at the same time. This is less of an issue for name releases (think of any major franchise: Harry Potter, Twilight), where the mere existence of the movie will create buzz. But for movies outside that space, getting the star into the country often helps — and that’s tricky if they have to be everywhere in the world at once.

Reason #4: The cancellation crisis

We hate it when networks run a show for one episode, move it around the schedule the next week and then fail to show it again. But if everything got shown at the same time (or the next night), it would happen a lot more. Why? Because every year the US in particular launches a bunch of new series, only a handful of which prove to be successful and get full series orders. By waiting until February, Australian networks have a better chance of knowing what has worked, and what will actually be able to run for an extended period. This restriction doesn’t apply as much as it used to; we’ve seen some series here within days of their US debut (Terra Nova springs to mind), and the existence of digital channels makes it a bit easier for networks to move a series but keep it on air if it flops (as Nine did with Charlie’s Angels this year, which shifted to GO! before it got cancelled stateside). But it remains an important balancing act for many shows.

Reason #5: Who sells the ads?

I’ve seen it suggested that a service like Hulu could be international, with different ads displayed depending on your location, and that in this scenario there would be no delays. This isn’t a terrible idea, but it does rather ignore the current reality: a huge percentage of advertising for mainstream media is sold based on personal relationships and ongoing contact, not just signing up to an automated schedule online. Feet on the ground still count, and no-one has yet seemed willing to invest millions (if not billions) in staffing this kind of environment.

These reasons all largely focus on TV and movies. Frankly, I couldn’t discern as many obvious reasons for music releases to be delayed. Promotional considerations might play a part, but if you throw a video on YouTube, everyone in the world can see it. Music has moved further into digital distribution than other channels, so that might suggest the issue isn’t insurmountable. But our relationship to music is different as well: you’re far more likely to listen to a song multiple times than to watch a movie multiple times. Additional observations on this point would be welcome.

The entertainment business needs to face reality. Technology has dramatically changed the way we can access and consume content, and business models need to change to reflect that. But entertainment consumers also need to face reality. There needs to be some sort of business model. If entertainment producers can’t make money in some form, they won’t produce content at all. And promotion and marketing is part of that mix, even if you personally don’t pay attention to it.

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