The Pain of Watching TV Shows Legally

I prefer to do things in the legal way, and watching TV shows is no exception. It is different, however, in that here it actually is hard to impossible to do.

The most recent example is the show “The Expanse”. Friends have suggested this show to me, and I finally gave in and subscribed to Netflix. There I happily watched the first two seasons in high definition. After I was through with it, I wanted to continue watching “The Last Ship”. Although not quite on the same level, it has a little appeal. But “The Last Ship” is not featured on Netflix. The only way to watch it is to buy the DVDs (if available) or buy a whole season on Amazon for some EUR 25. That is quite expensive, especially if one is used a subscription model like with Netflix or Amazon Prime. And EUR 2.50 per episode is a bit much for this show.

Weeks later I read that “The Expanse” is being continued by Amazon. So I will have to get an Amazon Prime subscription to continue watching it? A friend asked me how I progress with the third season. “Third season? There are only two on Netflix!” I told him. Turns out that you can obtain the first ten episodes of the third season, but not on Netflix or any other streaming service available in Germany. I was made the tempting offer to get them in high definition, right there on a thumbdrive. But if the license holders do not want me to watch it, then I won’t.

In the past decade I have not watched many movies and series because the whole crap that came with it. Shows that are aired on German television are usually way behind the schedule compared to their USA airings. Also they are dubbed by German speakers, which too often takes away some of the whit of a show. Also you had commercials in between and only one episode a week. When the season was over, it would often start with the first season again. This way I have never progressed beyond the third season of “CSI: New York”.

Buying DVD boxes of the seasons was the most sensible option ten years ago. But it always took ages before they appeared on DVD. First they had to be aired on TV, then some waiting time, and then the DVD. In Germany you could only buy the DVDs after the whole season has been aired on TV here. Therefore I often tried to buy the seasons from the UK or USA. There was another catch, though. The DVDs from the USA are in the NTSC format and have region code 1. The ones from UK and Germany are in PAL format and have region code 2. A typical TV here only supported PAL, and so did the DVD players. I watched them on my PC, but I had to devote one DVD drive to region code 1 and the other one to region code 2, as they can only be switched like five times.

When I tried to sell the DVD boxes after I watched them multiple times, I had a mix of DVDs from USA, UK and Germany and that was something nobody else was interested in.

Another nightmare with DVDs were those FBI warnings at the beginning that one just could not skip in a DVD player. I mean, I bought the DVD legally, payed the full retail price and now had to sit through the warnings that were addressed to the people who just illegally download the movie and will never get to see it? Luckily the rogue VLC player allowed skipping these things such that I could get right to the episodes.

There were those great “you would not steal a car” things to sit through. Their text:

You wouldn’t steal a car
You wouldn’t steal a handbag
You wouldn’t steal a television
You wouldn’t steal a movie [on DVD]

Downloading pirated films is stealing

Stealing is against the law

Piracy. It’s a crime.

Car analogies are always great because they usually suck. Although I would not advocate it, download something is not quite the same as stealing a car. But assuming that it was the same, it’d be quite fun! Say a stolen car would be instantly replaced by an identical car, so the owner has no direct damage. The only damage would be that the car manufacturer has not sold a car to the thief. But the thief might not even have bought the car if he had to pay for it.

All examples given are stealing from somebody else. However, downloading a pirated movie is denying profit to the original manufacturer. So they cannot really be compared, making the whole argument rather ridiculous. Either they should point out that it can be punished (like the FBI warnings) or appeal that without their money future films would have a smaller budget.

Somewhere around 2013 I had tried to rent a movie online. Did not work. So we could have driven to the DVD rental place and rented the movie for EUR 1. Instead I ended up buying it on Google Play for EUR 13 to just watch it once. Compared to tickets to the movies this was still okay with a few friends, but a way to rent would be nicer.

Then there is this whole pile of stuff with BluRay, HDMI, HDCP and other Digital Rights Management (DRM) hardware and software. When all this came out I had a Mac, which did not implement any of this. Also I did not own a TV and just accepted that I could not watch HD stuff on my PC at the time.

What I see other people do is just amazing. They have a giant repository of high definition movies sitting on their harddrives. Each of them can simply be opened and played on any device that they own. No unskippable intros, no copyright messages. Also the quality is better than what you get on BluRays, so full 1920×1080 with 60 full frames per second. If you watch that on a TV and compare that to a BluRay, you feel deceived.

And then they even have Plex installed on their movie repository and can access it from any device and even give friends access to their stash. Alternatively one can just use any of the plethora of illegal streaming websites where one has a larger portfolio of movies and series than on the commercial ones.

Sometimes it is just impossible to get what you want. If say RTL or ProSieben (German TV networks) bought the license for a TV show, no streaming service can offer the show in Germany. If you try to get it directly from an USA service, you are blocked. This “geo blocking” means that the license owner has made some exclusive deal with a local TV network and you can now only get it from the network.

To work around this, platforms like Netflix and Amazon have started to produce their own content. This is then published on the online platform first and is directly available in all countries that they serve. Which sounds good at first. But when you start to like the exclusive content of Amazon and have a Netflix subscription, you need to either have both or switch. In the end the result is the same: You cannot just get all the content via one convenient platform.

To me, it seems absolutely absurd that even after a decade the situation is virtually the same: It is hard to impossible to get prompt access to TV shows with original English audio.

Illegal downloading is a pressure valve for this strange system. And although the system changes, it still punishes the people who want to consume media in a legal way. And as long as it is this way, I choose to not participate in it.