Streaming Across Borders: The Digital Single Market, Web-Based Television and the “Global” Viewer

June 4, 2015
By | Comments Off on Streaming Across Borders: The Digital Single Market, Web-Based Television and the “Global” Viewer

eudigitalsinglemarketPost by Sam Ward, University of Nottingham

This post continues the ongoing “From Nottingham and Beyond” series, with contributions from faculty and alumni of the University of Nottingham’s Department of Culture, Film and Media. This week’s contributor is Sam Ward, PhD candidate in Film and Television Studies in our department and Visiting Lecturer in the University of Roehampton’s Department of Media, Culture and Language. 

Last month, the European Commission (the executive body of the European Union) announced plans for its Digital Single Market (DSM) initiative. Over the next two years, the initiative aims to increase cross-border trade in media and communications and standardize the consumer experience across the continent. Among a variety of likely ramifications, the proposals have sparked warnings that the BBC will be forced to make its iPlayer on-demand platform available outside the UK. Since its launch in 2007, the iPlayer has proven a popular aspect of the BBC’s “public purpose” in “delivering to the public the benefit of emerging media technologies and services.” But it remains available only on British soil, where it is paid out of the universal license fee. In the press conference announcing the DSM, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker complained of such “national silos,” envisioning instead a globe-trotting, always-connected media consumer: “You can drive from Talinn to Turin without once showing your passport, but you can’t stream your favorite TV shows from home once you get there.”

In her contribution to this column last month, Elizabeth Evans pointed to the important place of age in the industrial discourse surrounding digital television consumption. With this post, I want to continue with the question of how new forms of viewing are framed, but in terms of the equally definitive discourse of global connectedness. Just as Evans points out that “post-broadcast” viewing habits are reflexively associated with a “youth” demographic, the idea that viewers should be allowed to take the iPlayer with them as they move across borders reflects how those same viewing habits are increasingly tied to transnational flows. Traditional scheduled channels have always been perceived as a key aspect of what makes a television system national – especially, perhaps, in countries such as Britain where the most-watched channels have historically been those with a public-service remit requiring them to serve national cultural and economic interests. So far, the iPlayer has functioned as a digital extension of this logic, making the DSM all the more notable. (This is especially significant at a time when a newly elected British government prepares for both a referendum on the country’s membership of the EU and, as Evans explains, a potential renegotiation of the BBC’s revenue model.)

pic2The DSM will reportedly also have a significant impact on how commercial VOD platforms such as Netflix and Amazon operate on the continent. It promises to enforce an end to “unjustified” geo-blocking and to consider broadening the scope of the EC’s Satellite and Cable Directive to account for online services. In fact, a more borderless European digital market would seem to be compatible with the promotional positioning of these U.S.-based services, which are commonly framed in terms of a deterritorialized mode of consumption. In the run-up to Netflix’s UK launch in 2012 – marking its first venture into Europe – its CEO Reed Hastings foresaw “a service for the world’s best content for the world’s citizens.” Hastings’ rhetoric epitomizes the tendency for streaming and downloading in the UK to be strongly associated with the transnational flow of content. A glance at the main webpage of any commercial VOD service available in the country presents a more or less entirely non-British range of content. This is the case even with British-based services such as Blinkbox (whose flagship offerings currently include HBO’s Game of Thrones, The CW’s Arrow and Danish period drama 1864, among many other imports, and just a handful of old BBC series). Netflix has emerged as the most popular subscription streaming service largely thanks to its being the only way British viewers could watch all five seasons of AMC’s Breaking Bad (known here as a “Netflix hit”) and its exclusive rights to House of Cards.

At the same time, the national territory remains a key point of reference for viewers and providers alike. To continue with the example of Netflix, it has increasingly sought to integrate itself directly with the domestic system, both in technical and cultural terms. The company has negotiated several partnerships with broadcast-based platforms to make its content accessible via web-connected television sets, as well as laptops and tablet computers. Meanwhile, its imported drama is commonly advertised with the help of domestically familiar personalities, as with Ricky Gervais’ flying tour around flagship Netflix shows in a promo from last year.

Since rolling out in several European and Asian countries, Netflix has opened up to commissioned content from domestic markets across its non-U.S. territories. The Crown, a £100 million adaptation of a play about Queen Elizabeth II, is planned for 2016, produced by British production company Left Bank Pictures.

Playwright Peter Morgan’s The Audience, source of the announced Netflix adaptation The Crown.

More recently, Netflix has for the first time issued an open commissioning brief to UK companies for factual and entertainment content. Netflix report that this new content will be made available simultaneously in all the territories in which it is active, as had been the case for House of Cards. This hugely expensive strategy may yet see the realization of Hastings’ global customer. As The Hollywood Reporter put it, “Instead of waiting for Europe to create a single digital market, Netflix will do it itself.”

For now, what is clear is that both the European Commission and the new corporate powers of the “post-broadcast” era are keen to define technological connectivity as intimately linked with transnational connectivity. This gives rise to a host of pressing questions for media scholars: about television’s historical tethering to the national sphere, which will undoubtedly persist even as transnational projects flourish; about the textual characteristics of content Hastings has in mind for Netflix’s “global” citizen-consumer (note, for example, the clear attraction of one of Britain’s most successful world exports as subject matter for The Crown); and about the reception of both the content and the brands of these new providers among audiences internationally. The key question for all concerned is whether the true potential of any “digital single market” lies in developing a newly transnationalized form of European public-service media, or simply in keeping pace with the demands of commercial giants’ global expansion.


Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Comments are closed.