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Keen readers will know I’ve long bemoaned the lack of legal online download content for New Zealanders.
The NZ version of Apple’s iTunes is okay for movies, but is a desert for TV programmes.
iTunes US, by contrast, has a wonderland of TV shows available for download.
There should be the positive incentive of legal downloads. Most people are willing to pay – especially if commercial content is offered via a safe, user-friendly medium like Apple TV (a little gadget that lets you watch movies and TV programmes downloaded from iTunes on a regular flat screen TV).
I’ve also been narked by local movie and TV makers complaining about online piracy. It rings hollow if you don’t offer a legal alternative.
After some back-and-forth on the letters page of NBR’s print edition, I got to talk to South Pacific Pictures CEO John Barnett on the topic.
SPP is easily New Zealand’s largest production house. Its huge output includes TV series including Shortland Street, Outrageous Fortune, The Almighty Johnsons, Trivial Pursuit and Go Girls, and films including Sione’s Wedding, Once Were Warriors and Whale Rider.
“Why would we not want to be on iTunes?,” Mr Barnett said.
“Of course we do. In fact it’s more important to us than it is to any single consumer, but getting there is fraught with obstacles.”
There are several reasons why Siones, Boy and a host of other NZ titles are not on iTunes or other legal electronic platforms, the SPP boss said.
“Nearly all NZ films are distributed outside NZ by a range of distributors who mostly hold rights to single territories,” explained Mr Barnett.
“Unlike US studio films which have one distributor in every territory who release films ‘day and date’ throughout the world, New Zealand films are staggered over time and location depending on their likely success in those territories.”
A New Zealand film will usually have a different release date in Australia and New Zealand, and different distributors.
For example, Buena Vista holds Australian distribution rights to Sione’s Wedding, while Sony handles the film in New Zealand. SPP has long-standing deals with both companies that pre-date iTunes.
“Neither the New Zealand nor the Australian distributor wants to cede revenue arising from a trans Tasman platform,” Mr Barnett said.
But wait – doesn’t iTunes geo-block content? For example, those who’ve signed up to iTunes NZ only see titles released through iTunes NZ, not the much broader selection on, say, iTunes US (although the geographic restriction is easy to get around).
That may be the case, but it doesn’t negate what Mr Barnett calls the biggest hurdle.
“iTunes is a phenomenal service, sought after by every producer/distributor, and in order to manage its own business, it doesn’t deal with single-title producers.”
Apple will only deal with consolidators who handle thousands of titles.
“And mostly those consolidators are the US studios who are pushing their own titles,” Mr Barnett said.
They also want a cut of the action (and remember that Apple and the distributor is already clipping the ticket.)
SPP has tried to work around the consolidators. It approached Apple directly to get a 90-minute Shortland Street special put on iTunes, so Kiwis and other fans worldwide could download it.
But a year on, it had no response.
“So despite our strong desire to be on every platform, currently we can’t achieve it,” Mr Barnett said.
SPP has more than 10,000 hours of TV, and many films that aren’t yet available online. The second it can reach a deal with Apple, it will all go up on iTunes, said Mr Barnett said.
In the meantime, he hopes a local commercial download service will emerge (TVNZ and TV3/FOUR broadcaster MediaWorks make some content available online, which is commendable – but it’s only with a live stream option, and so-so quality. Sky TV is also putting some content on its iSky platform).
For user-friendliness, I’d rather have everything rolled into the movies and TV section of iTunes (and equivalent services operated by Sony, Microsoft and others).
But if a local commercial download service does emerge, it might at least give Apple a hurry-up to improve the breadth of content on iTunes NZ.