Censorship getting in the way of traditional content providers

Over the weekend, I spent some time catching up on the hit HBO series, Game Of Thrones, which recently started its third season.

In between that, I browsed through some of the latest episodes of mafia drama Boardwalk Empire, and pondered revisiting the historical drama Rome.

But do not go checking your StarHub cable box for Game Of Thrones as the new season starts only on Saturday.

As for Rome, the local DVD set is not worth the effort as it has been heavily edited. Instead, try to get hold of the original American version.

So how did I get to enjoy these shows? No piracy was involved and I actually have HBO to thank as they passed me a month-long preview of their HBO Go streaming service.

Available only to HBO subscribers, it was launched in the United States in 2010 and made its debut in Hong Kong on Feb 28.

But do not expect the service to be available here.

While there are many reasons why the service, which offers more than 600 hours of HBO-produced content such as movies, comedy specials, TV series, documentaries and sports, is not launched in any particular nation, censorship is the key reason Singapore viewers will not get HBO Go.

I understand HBO Asia is keen on rolling out the service here, but the Media Development Authority has concerns regarding the cable channel's content, which includes unclassified and unedited content that match the local R21 standards.

Currently, R21 content can be offered only via video-on-demand services at home, with parental locks in place.

HBO Go, despite being password-protected, is available via the Web browser, and through smartphones and tablets.

As this is a free value-added service, it makes no sense for HBO Asia to spend money making edits.

This is more than just a case of one operator being restricted in offering services here - this situation impacts the future of other paid video streaming services such as Hulu and Netflix, which offer an extensive library of movies and TV series.

When Apple's iTunes launched its service here last year with R21 movie content and received no public reprimand from the authorities, mixed signals were sent out to content owners.

Was Singapore finally open to niche content services, or did iTunes get a free pass in launching a content service here despite not seeking approval first?

The irony is that anyone with a credit card here can easily subscribe to Hulu and Netflix to enjoy content of most types. All they need is a VPN (virtual private network) service, which now comes free with Internet services offered by ViewQuest and MyRepublic.

In essence, services such as Hulu and Netflix generate local revenue, but by not openly launching here, they do not run foul of local censorship laws.

But what happens when local subscribers get used to these external services and start shunning local ones?

What then is the draw for content owners to set up shop here when they face so many restrictions? Their competitors, on the other hand, can seemingly skirt the rules and reap the rewards, without any consequence.

It took a while, but music streaming service Spotify finally launched here on Wednesday. This means that companies still see value in offering content services here.

I am not saying that censorship should be eradicated completely, but in the light of so many Internet-enabled services out there, changes should be made to assist traditional players such as the broadcasters.

Consumers are already paying more for traditional content services and, one day, they may realise that they are not getting all that is available to them.

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