Twirling towards freedom

Television villains

Within two days of visiting New York City for the first time, like millions of young Australians before us, my boyfriend and I vowed we would move there as soon as possible. It wasn’t the food though, that had us trawling real estate listings, or the culture, the music, the museums or the shopping, but Netflix.

The on-demand internet streaming service, that has an exhaustive library of entire television series and movies available at the click of a remote, is only available in the US, parts of Europe and the UK. My boyfriend and I sat transfixed in front of our New York friends’ television as they scrolled through the thousands of viewing options, laughing at our open-mouthed wonder, pitying us for the poor, uncultured colonials we were. House of Cards, the first Netflix-produced TV series, had just aired for the first time, all 13 episodes of the first season made available at once. We snatched the remote, ordered Chinese take out, and didn’t move for several days. I spent two weeks in New York, and am none the wiser to the patriotic majesty of the Statue of Liberty, the sweeping views from the Empire State Building, nor anything housed inside a museum.

Recently, Netflix released findings that show that 61% of its users binge-watch television shows, sitting down to 2 to 6 episodes at one time. 73% of those people reported positive feelings about this practice. I’m both a 61 and a 73%-er, as are most of the Australians who watched the new House of Cards season over the course of the past week.

A few dismal months after we returned to Australia last year, a friend posted a public service announcement on Facebook. It turns out that Netflix’s geoblockers can be circumvented by installing a simple plug-in. The laws behind this are blurry – Netflix needs a US address to set up a subscription – but less blurry than the alternative, which is illegally downloading TV. Three seconds of hesitation, three breathless minutes to install the plug-in, a $20 a month Netflix subscription fee, and all of the TV was mine. We never did move to New York in the end.

Recently, reports have emerged that Netflix may be made available in Australia as early as this year. The Australian market had originally been deemed too small to be worth Netflix’ trouble, but thanks to the reported 20,000 Australians who have installed geo-blockers and subscribed to the service, that thinking appears to have changed.

The person who stands to lose the most from an Australian Netflix service is, as you might expect, also the person who has campaigned the hardest against it. It’s been widely speculated that Rupert Murdoch threw his support behind the Coalition because the NBN posed such a threat to his media empire, specifically, Foxtel. Should Netflix come to Australia, the service will be hampered by the scaling back of the NBN as well as Foxtel’s rights deals with HBO. Our poor infrastructure and comparatively small market might not be a profitable combination for Netflix, and it may be more economical to continue doing what they’re doing: simply looking the other way while Australians pay to use the back door.

House of Cards has been criticised for its overblown plots and archetypal villains, but it strikes me that the ambition of one man, using his political influence to actively retard the infrastructure of an entire country, so that he can continue to squeeze the last dollars out of his media empire, is fairly unbelievable too. 

Michaela McGuire

Michaela McGuire is a journalist and the author of Last Bets: A True Story of Gambling, Morality and the Law and the Penguin Special A Story of Grief. Visit her blog, Twirling Towards Freedom.


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