Stephen Foley: Doctor Who knows no borders
Saturday 03 April 2010
US Outlook: I would have been quite happy to cut a cheque for £145.50 this week. Or $222.60, for that matter. The BBC is always on the list when expat conversation turns to what we miss about the Old Country, and you find few dissenters on the value-for-money Brits get from the licence fee. Maybe we should be allowed to help with Auntie's little funding difficulties.
The UK's world-leading push to put television on the internet, led by the iPlayer, has brought the BBC tantalisingly close to those far away. Of course, the corporation blocks computers overseas, so it can say that the benefits of the licence fee are being felt only in the UK. But I never saw a ban on internet access that didn't immediately prompt a geek somewhere to find a way round it, and the popularity of the iPlayer back home has spawned a lot of chatter over here about proxy servers.
By buying access to a UK-based proxy, and hooking your computer to it over the internet, you can watch BBC shows to your heart's content – and access other channels' catch-up services, and the music streamer Spotify, for that matter. Free proxies are legion, but there are also more professional options springing up, charging, ironically, about the same as the licence fee.
Even if this were just an amusing curiosity for expats, it would be significant, since there are more than 5 million of us. Except that something bigger is going on. Broadcast towers may beam to the edges of the country and no further, but digital media travels the world at light speed.
The makers of music videos, TV shows and movies still think nationally: rights are negotiated country by country, TV shows are sold again and again to broadcasters in different nations, film releases are staggered. But file-sharing already knows no borders, and fans anywhere in the world will be able to download tonight's Doctor Who thanks to BitTorrent, and watch it before the evening is out. It only airs on BBC America on 17 April, when Auntie will finally get her first bit of overseas revenue from the programme.
Technology will roll right over those "Not available in your country" notices in due course. As the music industry found out a decade ago, content providers that say no to their customers are inevitably punished. Broadcasters are much more savvy, and are experimenting with all manner of ways to distribute their content online, but so far within borders, rather than across them.
I bet it won't just be expats who clamour for access to the BBC on the web, given its international reputation. It could find whole new audiences willing to pony up a "licence fee" for a subscription to the iPlayer, and certainly enough to offset some of the cost pressures facing it at home. Instead of shutting itself off at the border, it should go on a marketing offensive, before the couch potatoes of the world unite.
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