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Did the streaming revolution cure piracy?

There is still a long way to go for media producers and consumers to take advantage of the world of streaming

By Omar Qureshi |
Design: Ibrahim Yahya
PUBLISHED July 18, 2021
KARACHI:

Over the past decade, the world has witnessed a surge in the number of streaming platforms that offer services ranging from film and drama to music and audiobooks.

Although streaming services emerged at the turn of the 20th century, their popularity accelerated after Netflix announced worldwide expansion of its enterprise in 2016.

Today, there are diverse streaming services specialising in different segments. Spotify, Apple Music, Amazon Music and Youtube Music dominate the music industry while bigwigs in the video streaming sector include Netflix, Amazon Prime, Apple TV, Disney Plus and HBO Max.

And then there is Audible, a streaming service that specialises solely in audio books.

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The model of a streaming service is simple. A user is supposed to create an account on a website or mobile application and pay a monthly subscription fee according to a preferred plan. Apart from this, uninterrupted Internet is needed to stream the content. Earlier, such services were only available on mobiles and laptops however with the introduction of smart TVs, the landscape has changed quite a bit. Before smart TVs became affordable for an average consumer, TV sticks were used to access streaming content on large screens.

With each streaming service making efforts to release top of the line exclusive content, a user is forced to subscribe to multiple platforms operating in the same segment. While the hit TV series Game of Thrones was airing from 2011-2019, its fans purchased HBO subscription alongside Netflix to view just one exclusive series.

Although the joint bill of a combo of streaming services for an individual can cost the equivalent of a few hundred dollars, such facilities have given a tough competition to what was considered an unethical and immoral part of society, namely content piracy.

The bootleg market

Owing to the popularity of video streaming services particularly Netflix, the nation has seen a steep drop in shops that specialised in selling pirated movies and TV dramas. Stemming from piracy, low cost movies, TV shows and music were widely available in Pakistan a few years back and some areas of major cities in the country were notorious for selling such merchandise however that market has saturated now.

In comments to The Express Tribune, filmmaker Haris Khurram agreed that widespread availability of streaming services in Pakistan has indeed put pirated material on the brink of extinction. However, he was of the view that more streaming services are needed, particularly Disney Plus, which gained massive volume of subscribers in a small amount of time due to an unparalleled content library.

Red Cape Films Chief Executive Officer and Executive Producer Shahrukh Hayat termed the availability of streaming services in Pakistan a step in the right direction to rival content piracy however he stressed that it will take a lot of time for pirated material to vanish from markets.

“I personally think that streaming is still not accessible for a massive chunk of public in Pakistan as it is very expensive for them and requires consistent Internet or mobile data,” he said. “If one travels from Karachi to Lahore by train, there are some areas that do not even have mobile networks therefore we cannot expect these platforms to replace TV cables anytime soon.”

Echoing similar views, filmmaker Iqran Rasheed Mehar disagreed with the notion that piracy has fallen drastically owing to popularity of streaming services.

He stressed that there is a specific class that subscribes to such platforms hence the scope of streaming services is quite narrow in Pakistan.

“There is a small group that can afford to pay for them and the rest lack the needed resources such as credit and debit cards or high speed unlimited internet,” he said. “A lot of people are still downloading torrents, buying pirated material or watching movies on free streaming sites.”

He pointed out these services also consume a huge chunk of internet volume hence unlimited internet packages are needed with them which are costlier and out of range of the lower class.

All three stakeholders from the film industry called for availability of more streaming services in Pakistan to enhance competition and provide a large variety of content for the users.

Citing reason behind his demand, Mehar said that Pakistanis were creating a huge amount of video content however he lamented lack of avenues to release them.

In search of middlemen

Creative: Ibrahim Yahya

According to Mehar, the primary reason behind low amount of Pakistani content on popular streaming platforms was that most people of the industry were unaware of how releasing videos on platforms work.

Talking about Netflix in particular, he said there are direct agents who act as a connection between the streaming service and the producers. He lamented that there was a dearth of such officials in Pakistan. “On the other hand, India has ample agents hence it is reflected from the availability of the content of neighbouring country on streaming platforms,” he said.

Highlighting low amount of awareness, he called for holding information sessions on the topic adding that pioneers of this field should deliver lectures on how to release films on renowned and highly popular streaming platforms.

Khurram was of the view that international streaming services do not play a role in empowering Pakistan the same way they act to promote India.

“This can be judged from the amount of movies and TV series released by India on streaming platforms in a single year,” he said.

One other reason behind Pakistan’s terrible performance on this front is that these services are in low demand in Pakistan compared to India. Since there are less users in Pakistan, the management of these platforms does little to encourage local content, he said.

The content infrastructure

Hayat detailed that Pakistan was lagging behind because the country lacked proper infrastructure.

“We only have a handful of cameras and technical staff is not trained according to the needs of the industry,” he said. “It is not easy to hire a focus puller for commercials for 40-50 days or director of photography as there are only a handful of them in the country and they carry expensive price tags.”

Talking about his own experience, he said when there are more than four shoots happening in Karachi, it gets really hard to find the right team having adequate proficiency on the equipment.

“Most of the time, we end up moving the shoot to the next available dates,” he said.

According to him, location was another issue as most of the good locations in Karachi were in DHA or Clifton and it costed an arm and a leg to gain permissions to shoot in that area.

Talking about the factors hindering Pakistan’s success on streaming platforms, Mehar highlighted that funding is a huge issue as local stakeholders are unable to secure financing for their projects and ultimately have to put them on hold or cancel them.

Hayat regretted that no one was supporting this industry and even big producers were busy filling their pockets rather than aiding this sector by educating the stakeholders and introducing new technical staff.

“Government called a few celebrities for this purpose they all asked for money,” he said. “I believe money is not an issue however we need infrastructure including schools for technical staff and labour.”

The emerging media eco-system

Talking about the challenges for streaming, Hayat flagged scarcity of good and cheaper Internet service as huge concerns.

“I still know a lot of people who keep their data off and seek Wi-Fi everywhere,” he said. “As a country, we still have a long way to go in terms of facilitating wider usage of streaming services.”

When asked if Pakistan could compete with leading countries in content streaming, he replied positively but held the view that the nation can only compete with the other nations by staying true to its culture, norms, and “keeping a check on what we want the world to see.”

According to him, a change in perception was needed because if content creation fell into wrong hands, it could damage the image of the country further.

We are already known for copying whatever story is positively received in our neighboring country and lose track of the storyline, he said.

He detailed that foul language in entertainment was not acceptable by a huge number of audience and recommended filmmakers to judge the reception of their production from reviews of the masses.

He emphasised that local entertainment industry had excellent vision but there was a dearth of right people leading this sector.

Consumers pay hefty amount of money for television license every month as part of the electric bill and that amount is mostly wasted, he said highlighting the decline of the national television channel of the country.

He was of the opinion that right leadership, coupled with higher investment on technical staff, could trigger a rebound in Pakistan’s video content and restore the entertainment ecosystem to the old golden days.

 

A boon for musicians

In February 2021, global music streaming giant Spotify opened its doors for Pakistanis and according to many, it gave a boost to Pakistan’s music streaming environment as it is reducing sales of pirated music.

Singer and songwriter Abdullah Siddiqui agreed that availability of the popular music streaming platform in Pakistan was assisting in dealing with music piracy.

“Globally, streaming and music sales are an important part of how artists make a living but here in Pakistan we did not have that culture,” he said. “Before Spotify, there was no legal way to consume the broad catalogue of western music in Pakistan.”

He cherished that after the streaming platform expanded to Pakistan, locals gained access to a legal way to listen to music from global artists which brought Pakistan on par with the world market.

He detailed that beyond piracy, Pakistan’s music environment was not conducive because people were always prompted to listen to songs on services like Pitari and Soundcloud that do not pay artists.

“Moreover, all music is available on Youtube and fans can access a broad catalogue while many musicians are unable to earn because they fail to meet the criteria for monetising Youtube channels,” he said. “Even when they succeed in monetising, Pakistani brands advertising on Youtube offer a small amount of money per play.”

This is why there was a need for platforms like Spotify that pay global rate to musicians in every corner of the world.

Endorsing his views, Dubai based Pakistani singer Umair Ali Khan said that music artists can only earn if the music is consumed and streamed on sites that pay in return like Spotify, Amazon Music or Apple Music. He was positive that availability of such platforms will ultimately end music piracy in Pakistan.

“Such services entering Pakistan is a huge deal and it will encourage establishment of distribution firms, artist management companies and promotion enterprises which favour the artist,” he said.

Singer Natasha Noorani held the opinion that music piracy was not a problem in Pakistan.

She added that it might have been an issue 15 years ago but today, the problem for musicians was to find avenues for monetisation which comes from content creation.

She stressed that a lot of innovation needed in Pakistani market.

All musicians wished for more music streaming services to enter Pakistan which would help emerging talent as well as enhance competition in the market.

 

From DVDs to gift cards

Muhammad Raees, who used to deal in pirated video and audio content at his shop in Karachi, said that popularity of streaming services spelled doom for pirated materials as the number of his consumers nosedived since 2016.

“People who used to buy pirated movies worth Rs4,000-5,000 are happier with streaming services particularly Netflix whose most expensive plan costs just Rs1,500,” he said. “However we had anticipated the decline of pirated movies business long ago and hence we began introducing alternates for them.”

Raees now sells gift cards of Netflix, Spotify, Playstation Store, Xbox, Nintendo, Google Playstore and Apple.

He cherished that owing to shift from selling pirated CDs to gift cards and digital merchandise, he was able to run his business from home during lockdown.

He recalled that his due to spike in demand of streaming services since the outbreak of Covid, his customers frequently called him for gift cards to redeem them on the platforms.

“I used to send them codes after receiving payment through online bank transfer,” he said. “If I was still dealing in pirated CDs, I would have suffered mammoth losses during lockdown.”

According to him, the business of gift cards is lucrative in Pakistan.

He detailed that in foreign countries, gift cards were used as presents for birthdays, Christmas and other occasions however this culture was just picking up in Pakistan.

Raees expressed optimism that the trend of purchasing gift cards will accelerate in Pakistan very soon.

Giving example of foreign countries, he said in US, even Starbucks has introduced gift cards for customers and they bring in substantial revenue for the company.

Apart from gift cards, Raees has one other business under which he provides access of streaming services to those who do not have an account.

“Basically what we do is that we purchase multiple subscriptions of Netflix and Amazon Prime that grant us access to multiple screens per account,” he said. “Then we create packages for people intending to avail the services according to the number of screens and amount of platforms.”

We have diverse options and there are people who buy these packages for one month because they want to watch just one movie or TV series.

To avoid misuse, he added that he takes a number of measures like changing account passwords at the start of every month and sending it those who choose to continue their subscriptions.

“We live in a digital age and we have to be flexible,” he said adding that his father used to deal in VCR and tape recorder cassettes both of which are now extinct.

New technology is promoting fresh avenues of earning and everyone needs to remain up to date with emerging trends to capitalise on them.

Raees is hoping for many other streaming services to expand to Pakistan so he can enhance his business. According to him, local availability of Audible, Playstation Network, Disney Plus and Hulu will significantly boost his business and facilitate masses in Pakistan.

 

A consumer-friendly model

Prior to 2016, Shariq Ali used to buy CDs of movies and TV series worth harshly Rs3,000-3,500 every month and watched them in his free time.

“As soon as Netflix expanded to Pakistan, I subscribed to it and now I have access to an endless library of video content at a fraction of the amount that I used to spend,” he said adding that streaming services surprisingly slashed his entertainment bill by a substantial amount.

“Same goes for video gaming. I used to spend exorbitant amounts for game CDs back in 2010 but with services like Xbox Gamepass and Playstation Now, a vast library is available at a small price.”

He stressed that video game companies are slowly adopting the streaming model as the newly introduced Playstation 5 has a digital variant without a CD-ROM.

Talking about the benefits of streaming, he said it saves a lot of space.

Earlier, devices like DVD players were needed to view the CDs however with streaming services, one can watch entire movies on tablet computers and smartphones. Moreover, storage space is saved. He recalled having a huge CD rack to store CDs in 2012 but he has now discarded it citing “future is totally digital.”

However, in a digital future, the world will need high speed Internet with huge bandwidth to accommodate all streaming platforms, he concluded.