Friday, 14 December 2007

Pirates of the Straits

Singapore is pretty well served for TV and video. There is cable with both free and paid content from StarHub. Arch-rival SingTel recently moved into the market with it's Mio box, an aDSL-based, Video-On-Demnd (VoD) service. SingTel lacks premium content (e.g English Premier League football) that StarHub has but has carved out an initial niche with some Hokkien programming. It's just been delayed, but sometime in the next few years the national Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) service will be deployed that will provide huge bandwidth for VoD so these services will improve considerably with more high-definition (HD) content.

So the future is certainly bright for online video, but what about DVDs, and their stubbornly popular cheaper bretheren VCDs? They seem to be doing quite well actually. Local shops sell some English/US titles for around £10 but mainly stock Chinese, Hong Kong and Korean discs. But any discussion on DVDs wouldn't be complete without acknowledging the huge influence of pirate copies that are freely available in Malaysia. And when I say freely available, I mean openly sold from stalls setup underneath signs that say "No pirate goods to be sold here" with policemen walking up and down. From Singapore, it's easy to pop over to JB in the car, have a nice lunch, get the car valeted, pick up some cheap essentials at the supermarket and get the latest films for about £1.20ea. New releases (apparently) should be avoided as they can be camcorder recordings in a cinema, complete with coughs and popcorn rustling.

Singapore doesn't allow such trade and is tough on sellers. I was told that you can order discs by 'phone and someone will deliver them in Singapore a few days later, but when pressed, it seems to be more urban legend than an actual service. I don't advocate such copyright infringement and the studios should follow Microsoft's lead (who are selling Windows in China for US$3) and sell at prices people can afford. It's interesting and concerning that whole countries can become comfortable with blatant illegality. People growing up in that environment become disrespectful of all laws and while that doesn't mean they will be immoral, they may well be amoral.

The distribution chain is undergoing change as well. In the US, the huge video rental chain Blockbuster is going through tough times with many stores closing and a new business plan. It's cheaper to rent movies by post than to go to the store so Blockbuster is planning in-store kiosks and movie downloads to migrate away from real-estate to cyber-estate.

Singapore has a company called CineNow which has kiosks in the local shopping areas where you can rent DVDs (and VCDs) from SG$2 (65p). It's a huge box with a selection screen and a slot for dispensing and returning discs. And being a kiosk, it's always open. It seems to be doing business but it's probably an interim distribution model before direct digital downloads or VoD are the norm. I presume the pirate discs will persist as long as prices remain high (in local terms) and the relevant authorities ignore the trade.