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.


    "But we won’t see either until . The reason? Everyone in Australia has an extended holiday. "

    Forgot the date Angus?

    Sometimes these 5 things are the reason but other times it seems a big stretch to me.. when it takes years for something to come out on DVD, you really have to wonder. X-Files is the example that affected me. The show itself had finished airing and still the releases in Australia were only up to around season 4 or 5, as far as I remember.. I ended up buying the whole series on DVD of course.. but it was extremely painful. Had I had a newsgroup and fast internet account back then, I doubt I would have waited that long.

    Well 3/5 are "because we want to maximize the audience" but by delaying they are reducing their paying audience through other distribution methods.

    4: If the US networks took overseas audiences into consideration maybe a bunch of good shows wouldn't have been canceled.

    5: Advertisng isn't a reason for delaying.

    The main reason for TV being delayed is cost (it costs more for rights to show it earlier), if content producers were more reasonable and made it more affordable for networks to show it earlier there would be more networks showing it earlier and "Timely watching of content" would virtually disappear as a reason (its only showing shows at bad times that would be a time related reason for self distribution, and Video On Demand would be a good solution for that, hopefully when NBN is running, we can virtually do away with the current antenna system and have have it all internet based, on demand).

      I'd dispute that it costs more for rights to show a program earlier. Lots of shows are acquired via content deals with a given production house for starters, and rights are sold well before US broadcast no matter what the fate of the show.

        It was a while ago now, but i remember reading that to air a show within x weeks/months of its original screening costs more, maybe thats not the case anymore, but i would presume the content deal would include provisions for restricting air dates unless large sums of money is involved.

        I have a vague memory of a UK/US deal that saw a show air before the originating country, i think it may have been Dr Who airing in the US before it did UK, and the network paid quite a lot for the privilege.

          It was definitely the case for Survivor. Channel 9 stated that it was cheaper for them to buy it mid-season and play double episodes so that it finished at roughly the same time as the US than it was to fast-track it from the beginning of the season.

    Reason 1 is neither here nor there nor is reason 2. In holidays whether movies or tv it is when they put all the shows on you don't want to go near - so the more reason to have releases. Reason 3 only matters if you need to watch celebrities on TV, have the need to go to the premiere, see the celebrities in person or get the celebrity on a talk show - if you care that much there is something wrong with you. It also only applies to the major cities. Do we even have an Australian talk show on FTA atm?

    So it seems only reasons 4 & 5 apply. Reason 5 is hard to manage and Reason 4 is nearly as hard due to US holidays, US sports and their topsy turvy seaons

    When I first heard of this movie I was actually pretty mad and offended "wow, this chick has a job AND a family! How the hell does she do that?" Everyone does that, what's so special about her. (I have 2 jobs AND do contract work from home AND have two kids.)

    Then I realised it was a movie about a horse with a job and a family. That is pretty amazing.

    Good excuses Angus, but if Movies an TV network dont move to this century, they will be left behind, picking up the peices of shattered earnings. Hopefully things start progressing to a better existance for all. Persaonlly I'm still keen for HD streamed Box office movies to my TV at my house.
    Inbetweeners, is a great example of regional stupidity. Released at the movies not so long ago here and comes out on DVD in UK on the 12th of Dec. It will probably still be screening at the Cinema in Oz when it is release on DVD in UK...

    Reasons 1-3 are excuses used internally that don't pan out in the real world. There's numerous ways around these issues that aren't exploited.

    Reason 4 is just stupid., our local stations will cancel more shows than the US could ever dream of. If a show got cancelled mid season in the US you can be sure it would have been long gone in Australia by that time (and replaced with Masterchef Renovators Dance Off).

    Reason 5 is also easily overcome. Facebook is a pretty successful company without the need for teams of ad space sellers. As are numerous other sites like Google or YouTube. If Hulu offered a service in Australia they'd have media buyers breaking down their door to get their ads shown.

    Perhaps a new reason should be thrown in here. Reason 6. This is because the local distribution company actually needs to fit it into THEIR schedule. Sure a movie is being released on a certain date in the US, but the local distribution arm simply can't get everything organised by that time, they can't get the ad's produced and up and running, cent get a hold of masters with enough lead time to product film stock or author DVDs. So it falls away from the US release date, at which point it gets scheduled for a time where reasons 1-3 come into play. Big name movies and studios don't have this problem. They can throw hundreds of millions of dollars into promotion. you need an ad made? Hire a new team of people to do it. This kind of investment wont be made for smaller films that don't have the advertising budget.

      Care to elaborate on how you'd solve 1-3 then?

        Issue 1 and 3 can be solved with soft launches and ramp ups. There's a major emphasis still on week 1 box office figures. This is present thought the entire industry. Some simple change to the way theatres pay royalties, the way box office number are reported in the media and the further media sales after the fact could greatly reduce this emphasis, reducing the requirement of needing this massive week 1 box office number.

        Issue 2 is a problem with our ratings system. The idea that people stop watching TV in summer is antiquated. With the advent of time shifting DVRs and catch up services people will watch just as much TV during summer as in winter, just so long as the content is there to watch.

          ratings ARE collected every day of the year btw, just like TV advertising is shown every day of the year; the "Ratings Season" in this day seems to be just a nice gentleman's agreement between the commercial stations to not release new shows when people actually want them - go figure.

        I think you'll find most of those things are caused by the networks and marketing firms conditioning people, nothing more. It's the holiday season; buy buy buy buy buy, watch watch watch watch watch...

    and while ever they continue to believe this pile of bunk we'll continue to find alternatives.

    Given the effort that recently went into shutting down a server distributing Australian free-to-air TV progs for expats in Europe and around the globe, one might ask why Australian media companies have been so slow to exploit the chance to make legal copies available.

    Also don't forget that US distributors still make region 4 DVDs available AFTER region 1 even if the content was seen in region 4 earlier (e.g. with Australian-made content).

    Doctor Who reference? I love you Angus.

    Simple. If you have an online viewing service such as hulu, have it a requirement upon signing up that you select a minimum number of certain interests that would be advertised to you. Such as food, film, tv, parental products, kids toys, music etc etc, along with a baseline of general advertisements that we currently see playing regionally on youtube and various websites.

    The other thing i would jump on board for is the ability to purchase an episode, ad free, for a one-off fee or rental based on the quality of the download. This is pretty much what zune marketplace and foxtel on the xbox do, however creating a platform on the PC would be even better.

    Why you have a picture of a horse?

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