Jan 132015
 
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The other week there was a bit of a hoo-ha online about how Netflix were allegedly blocking VPNs from accessing their American content. I know my Dad will be reading this, so let me explain about VPNs. Firstly, it is a VERY different thing to a VPL! Netflix, and various other sites, have methods in place so that you can access certain content if you’re from a certain region – the BBC do this with iPlayer – try accessing it while you’re in another country; you can’t (easily). A VPN (Virtual Private Network), without getting into to much detail, essentially ‘tricks’ a website (or service) into thinking you’re from another country. This allows users from the UK to view the American content on Netflix – something that a lot of people do.

If you didn’t know, I run a service called New On Netflix UK and New On Netflix USA which posts every new addition to Netflix UK/USA, expiry dates and loads of other stuff. They’re rather popular, the UK one in particular. I won’t bore you with stats but they get busy and a lot of people use them. When the allegations were published it hit a lot of news sites and I got contacted by an Irish journalist who wanted to ask my opinion about the different content between UK and US services as well as the VPN stuff. He sent some questions, and I wrote a humongous 1,580 word essay in response. The article was published earlier today on The Daily Edge and used only 162 of them… So, I thought I’d share my full response in case you were interested!


NB – I know we’re referring to ‘Netflix UK & Ireland’ as just ‘UK’ but there are still a small number of differences between the UK and Ireland’s content; not a huge difference, but I understand there are a few.
Is there a significant difference in the quantity of shows between the US and UK versions of Netflix?

Number of titles* as at 9th Jan ‘15:

  • Netflix USA: 7,216
  • Netflix UK: 2,728

For up to date figures see: http://netflix.maft.uk/stats#ahistorictotals and http://netflixusa.maft.uk/stats#ahistorictotals

*Titles, in my use of the word, refers to a single movie or an entire series. Eg 60 episodes / 4 seasons of a TV series is a single title.

There’s quite a big difference in numbers but you need to take into account number of subscribers in each region. The USA has more users and therefore more income to spend on content, the UK has less subscribers so Netflix have a smaller budget for their UK content. In the Netherlands, which is newer still than the UK service (I.e. less subscribers), they only have around 1000 titles.

This actually brings us onto one of the main arguments for using VPN, but I’ll get to that shortly.

 

Do we often see people using a VPN to access the US version? If so, why? Is it considered better?

I know a number of people who use various different VPNs for accessing the regions, not just the US service, there’s also Canada, Latin America, Netherlands and more. Each has different content. Personally I don’t use them, but this isn’t from any moral standpoint; quite simply, neither myself or the kids have ever been stuck for something to watch on the UK service.

Most people will say that they use VPN because the American Netflix is better. I would disagree; ‘better’ is a very subjective phrase. Certainly, they are different but one person’s ‘better’ is another person’s ‘worse’. The American service may seem ‘better’ to some because it has some newer films like ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’ – but that makes the assumption that newer films are better… They’re not always, and there are some older, more obscure films that are absolutely fantastic such as a personal favourite of mine, ‘Cube’ (which is on the UK service but not US).

The main argument I see from those who use my service is that this is 2015; everyone under the age of 20 has lived their entire life with The Internet. Everyone up to 33 years old has had good access since being a teenager. Information, including digital media, moves so freely around the world. Why then should we be restricted to arbitrary regions for films on Netflix? That and fact that all the money ends up, in one way or another, in the same pot at Netflix HQ.

 

There is a video from Netflix that explains the licensing issues with regards different reasons. Is this the full story behind the differences I wonder.

The issues we have with these arbitrary regions are not really Netflix’s doing. The studios and distributors seem to be in a bit of a timewarp with regards to their geographical-based licensing – still working back in the days of physical media, where there were sensible reasons for staggered release dates and availability such as physically moving or duplicating media. The Netflix PR video you mention does cover this aspect of the licensing. However, something that doesn’t seem to get mentioned in many places, and in my opinion is the main reason for the differences, is competition. In the UK Netflix is up against Sky’s Now TV and Amazon Prime Instant; in America they are up against the likes of Amazon and Hulu. Different regions have different competition who are willing to pay different amounts to the studios for their content – for example to get exclusive rights before any other streaming service.

Yes, you could possibly argue that all the money goes into the same pot so some of the American subscription income could be used for UK content – and I’m sure Netflix are fully aware of this – but in order to stay on the good side of the studios and distributors Netflix will have to come to some agreements; mainly that certain titles are available in certain regions. In the UK Sky have a LOT of money and can wangle some big exclusives for certain films. However most Sky subscribers pay over £20 a month. There’s a tie up between Netflix staying cheap and them getting the big movies… Personally, I’d prefer them to stay cheap. I can’t warrant the cost of Sky. However, in other regions this competition may not be as great, so it’s feasible for Netflix to get ‘bigger’ titles without having to bid against the likes of Sky.

A good example of this being out of Netflix’s hands is their own original content. The likes of House of Cards, Orange is the New Black etc – those are available worldwide at the same time. I’m sure if the studios allowed it, Netflix would be happy to have the same content worldwide, but while there are competing services offering more money to the studios/distributors in different regions then we’ll always have this different availability.

 

Given the nature of the two Netflix websites you run, you must see the amount of churn/change that happens with the Netflix shows/movies in real time. Is it significant? Do users notice the change?

I’ve not been doing the USA service for as long so it’s difficult to give a good idea of the turnover for that service. However, in the UK you can see via http://netflix.maft.uk/stats#amonthlynet and http://netflix.maft.uk/stats#amonthly that there is, on average, a net increase of available titles every month. Most titles are available for 12 months and Netflix give a couple of weeks warning if something is going to be removed. At the start of each month a larger number of titles are added – between 30 and 80 and then, throughout the rest of the month there is a steady stream of additions. Towards the end of the month a number of titles will be removed. This constant changing (but with a net increase) keeps the catalogue fresh but can, at times, make people think that all they do is remove things! Users do notice the change but usually more when titles are removed (we’re British [well, I am, I know you’re not!!], we like to complain) although there are a high proportion of those who use my service that share and discuss the new additions each month. In 2014 there was a net increase of 227 titles (1,409 removals and 1,636 additions) – more than half of the UK content was ‘replaced’ in 2014 as well as 227 extra titles.

 

The reports around a crackdown on VPN access of the US Netflix are claimed to be false by the company. I think this has really brought the difference between the US and UK versions into people’s minds.

Coming back to VPNs and the statement from Netflix about their crackdown being false, I actually agree with this. Every news item that mentioned the alleged VPN ‘crackdown’ all pointed back to the same Torrent website as the source. I’ve not seen ANY other person, site or company say they have been blocked from using VPNs. I saw a post somewhere (I think it may have been a discussion in Reddit – hardly the most enlightened of sources at times!) that suggested that perhaps the torrent community felt threatened by Netflix’s popularity and wanted to mucky it’s name in a bit to get people to use torrent sites more. This is pure conjecture and I’m not quite sure if I agree with this or not, but it seems odd that this site was the only one to claim that VPNs were being blocked.

As you say, the fact that this hit the news has certainly highlighted the difference between the US and UK content (as well as other regions). I’m hopeful that as time goes on these arbitrary regions are dissolved and more and more content is ‘shared’ across the different services. However, I’m fully aware that this relies, in the most part, with the studios and distributors – and look how long it has taken the music industry to embrace digital audio…

 

Do you have a list of major releases that are on the US version and not available here?

Major releases on UK/USA services… This is actually quite tricky to do – I mentioned before about how subjective ‘good’ films are etc… However, here’s a quick list that shows some big differences between the UK and US services:

16 Titles Available in UK but NOT USA:

  • Shawshank Redemption
  • The Godfather
  • Suits
  • Homeland
  • Person of Interest
  • Battlestar Galactica (new version)
  • Toy Story 3
  • The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
  • The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
  • Monsters Inc.
  • Donnie Darko
  • The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas
  • Ghost In The Shell
  • Postman Pat: The Movie
  • Robocop (2014)
  • Walking on Sunshine

16 Titles Available in USA but NOT UK:

  • Sherlock (series 3)
  • The Wolf of Wall Street
  • Arrow
  • Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD
  • The Walking Dead
  • Django Unchained
  • Pulp Fiction
  • Friends
  • Star Trek Into Darkness
  • Get Santa
  • Cuban Fury
  • Frank
  • Tinkerbell: The Pirate Fairy
  • Battlestar Galactica (original version)
  • Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa
  • Sharknado