“We’re sorry, but the clip you selected isn’t available from your location:” Watching Battlestar Galactica in Australia and the Tyranny of Digital Distance

I just submitted an abstract for the Media International Australia special issue ‘Beyond Broadcasting: TV for the Twenty-first Century’. Here it is:

“We’re sorry, but the clip you selected isn’t available from your location:” Watching Battlestar Galactica in Australia and the Tyranny of Digital Distance

Webisode 2

[Figure 1. Screen-capture from http://www.scifi.com/battlestar/, 11 September 2006]

In the late 1960s, conservative Australian historian Geoffrey Blainey coined the term “the tyranny of distance” to describe how the geographic gap between Australia and the centres of the Western world (US, UK) played a fundamental role is shaping the Australian psyche and character (Geoffrey Blainey, The Tyranny of Distance, Sun Books: Melbourne, 1966). Thirty something years later and the world is far more widely considered a global village; the world wide web, email and a million other applications have made real-time information-heavy communication and commerce the norm. However, while information transfers have made ‘distance’ much less of a concern in a number of ways, many policies, practices and systems of commerce still operate as though they are centred on goods moving at the speed of physical shipping, not allowing for information moving at the speed of light down a copper or optical wire. In an era when ‘the tyranny of distance’ means so much less in many contexts, this paper will argue that in the multimedia markets of contemporary society there is, rather, a prevailing tyranny of digital distance which marks out those areas of communication and commerce in which the potential and, indeed, expectation of synchronous global culture (at least for English-speaking countries) leads to constant state of confusion and annoyance – on both personal and legal levels – when those expectations are not met.

The North American-produced television series Battlestar Galactica, re-imagined for the twenty-first century (from an original 1970s series), has consistently been at the cutting edge of television and cross-media. Executive producer Ronald D. Moore and the Battlestar team utilise not just blogs and production-side video-blogs, but also create episodic commentary podcasts, make deleted scenes available online, and have even put two full episodes online for free for viewing. Likewise, Battlestar was one of the first shows available via Apple’s online iTunes Store. Given the amount of extra online content, and the show’s science fiction genre, Battlestar has a large and very active fan community who consume both the television show itself and the officially produced extra material, as well as actively creating and discussing their own derivative ‘fannish’ works ranging from blog commentaries to fan-created videos. Thus, when the show’s producers launched a series of 3 to 4 minutes ‘webisodes’ to re-build interest in the show prior to the launch of its third season, fans across the (wired) globe were understandably excited. However, when citizens of Australia, the UK, Canada or any other country outside the US tried to view these webisodes, they were met with a notice saying: “We’re sorry, but the clip you selected isn’t available from your location.” The owners of Battlestar (NBC) elected to restrict these webisodes to residents of the US only. This decision upset fans across the global Battlestar audience, with US fans quickly circumventing the restrictions and passing copies of the webisodes to their international fellows. In this paper, I will contend that this moment typifies the tyranny of digital distance, exemplifying the legal, ethical and practical issues raised when a globally-promoted television series ‘centres’ on a single national audience. I outline the difficulties of ‘watching’ Battlestar from Australia, and argue for distribution modes which are more in keeping with the technological (and fan-led) potential of digital distribution.

As you might imagine, this paper will draw together my previous thinking about the tyranny of digital distance which you can read about here and here. I’m also finishing off another Battlestar-related paper that stopped being written for a year, but is now being finished off for a new collection. It’s going to be a busy month, but I’m hopeful both of these will be well polished before Emily and I get married on June 9th (presuming this abstract is accepted). Wish me luck!

Update (8 May 2007): The abstract has been accepted! Thankfully, though, full papers aren’t needed until August 1st so I’ll be writing this after Emily and I return from our honeymoon (in Venice!!) :).

Update 2 (21 September 2007): The full version of this paper has been accepted after peer review, and will appear in Media International Australia issue 126, which is scheduled to be released in February 2008.

Update 3 (26 March, 2008): You final version of this paper has appeared, and you can read it following the link from this post.

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17 Comments.

  1. It doesn’t really have anything to do with distance, digital or otherwise. It is just NBC’s business model. They created the content, they can give it to whomever they wish. If they just want to give it to people in the USA then that is their prerogative. In the UK we are probably closer but we can’t see it either. NBC spent the money, they decide who sees it and when. I really can’t see any ethical issues in this matter at all.

  2. Jack, in absolute terms, you are correct in that the owner of a product can do what they will with it. However, the ethical dimension I’m exploring is, in part, asking how nationally-based business models of distribution can make sense alongside global fan demand and interest. The ethical question isn’t so much created by NBC, but by the illegal but hugely prevalant and well-know methods for distributing national content to an international fabbase, typified by bittorrents.

    More to the point, though, I’m going to argue that NBC’s business model is flawed and will use Australia as a case study which, even in raw dollar terms, suggests NBC would get more return on their investment by making LEGAL avenues available to global audiences download these episodes – even if only via iTunes. The webisodes typify this decision because it isn’t even clear if it was illegal for fans to share free content internationally since it was already free in the US.

  3. Tama, thanks for replying.

    I agree, it isn’t about ethics…it is about business or bad business in this case. I don’t think there is an ethical case for making everything available to everybody, paid or otherwise. There is a compelling business case though.

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  7. I’m in North Carolina, USA, and I get the same error message when I try to watch NBC’s online episodes.

  8. “Prerogatives” indeed. It’s like this: Say you invite ten people around to your house for dinner. They all sit down to the table. They all converse, they’re all smelling the meal cooking away in the kitchen. It’s cooked, it’s time to dish it up. You ladle out a delicious meal for everyone.

    Except Jack. You tell him, “This meal isn’t available to you, Jack,” and leave his plate empty. You sit down, and invite all assembled to eat.

    This is, of course, your “prerogative”. Which, any time I’ve ever seen it used, has just been a fancy word for “being an asshole”.

  9. @Ash – I don’t think your analogy works. To go to a dinner party you have to be invited. You weren’t invited by the producer to watch the video and then refused access.

    A better analogy might be that a friend was invited to a dinner party and you turned up on the off chance that you might get a meal. You then get upset because the host refuses you entry to the party.

  10. In Alaska I get the same error message. It leads me to say f*&^ you, NBC, and I run over to ABC.

  11. @Jack – You weren’t invited by the producer to watch the video and then refused access.

    Actually we were. All over the website itself, and ads all over the web generally: “COME TO NBC! SEE THE EPISODES! YOU CAN WATCH THIS ONLINE! IT IS SOOOO COOL! … ”

    (Note the complete lack of mention of “US only”. Let alone a rational justification of it.)

    “… Oh, you saw the ads and came here? Whoops, didn’t mean you. Sorry.”

    Aside from it being just plain rude to do that sort of crap to people, it’s trivially circumventable in at least three ways I can think of without even thinking about it much. So it’s the lowest kind of rudeness: pointless rudeness.

    Back to the dinner party: imagine that the host has plastered posters and flyers are all over the neighbourhood, at the bus stop, at the school, over the radio. There’s a massive pile of food there – there’s no conceivable way it can ever run out. So, someone’s passing through, and decides, hey, this sounds great. Talks to some locals, they say these dinner parties are great, they’re all coming along, why don’t you, Jack?

    “Whoops, not you, pal. You ain’t from ’round here, are ya. We don’t like your sort ’round here. Jack? What the frickin’ kinda name is that? Clear off. Go on.”

    There is no way to do this kind of crap politely. I’m not disputing a right to do it. Sure thing, have that right. What you can’t have, is to exercise that right and not be an asshole for exercising it. If we’re talking about things that are done for commercial gain, and it seems we are, then the “being thought an asshole” effect really needs to be considered.

    Now it’s trivially circumvented, as I said: Any of the guests at the dinner party is free to give a plate to Jack and ask for another for himself. Someone can say “Jack’s staying with me, so for now, he’s a resident.” Might bring a spit and a glare from the bouncers, but no other consequences.

  12. Ash, you are perfectly right. I am from Romani and I get this crap message. All sort of ads invites you t watch their movies and when you go to their site, no, I can’t see the because the movies are not available from my location.

    NO, THEY ARE AVAILABLE FROM MY LOCATION BECAUSE I HAVE INTERNET ACCESS. YOU JUST DON’T WANT ME TO SEE THEM.

    So why don’t you sincerely say:

    WE DON’T WANT YOU TO SEE THE MOVIES. GO AWAY!

    It’s closer to the truth.

  13. Good Comments. Thansk to NBC i now download from alternatives – so they miss out of revenue (ads & what not). Its their own fault. If someone offered Watch What You Want, When You Want for a cheap price, i’d be all over it. Instead their greed has forced me into getting everything for free.
    But these particular episodes are already free to USAers, so stopping me from watching just makes me think these companies dont see the writing on the wall.

  14. What logical or business reason would NBC have for taking down the youtube copies? They are effectively getting free publicity, and free bandwidth. As for copyright issues, no viewers paid for the webisodes in the USA, so why should they care?

    Sure, they get to choose who they show it to, but why would you bother?

    In simplest terms: why does NBC gain from restricting global interest in their programming?

  15. Actually, there is a rational reason.

    Among other reasons, NBC offers these videos as an advertisement for their network. If you are not a us resident, you are likely to not watch what they’re advertising for, in other words you are not part of the target audience. Also, opening it up to the whole word would without a doubt increase their site-traffic by a tremendous amount and consequently cause costs for no (economic) reason.

    It does however not explain why the won’t let the clips be uploaded to other platforms (try “mother lover” from snl digital shorts, you’ll find that there are no videos, only audio. at least from where im accessing (germany)).

    ps.: sorry for necro’ing, but i found this entry via google and thought i respond since the discussion is still up to date

  16. Google TV Outside the US? | Tama Leaver dot Net - pingback on October 5, 2010 at 6:40 pm
  17. @francescalyn if the digital divide interests you, check @tamaleaver's tyranny of digital distance http://t.co/xspQIv7T http://t.co/vota8FbI

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