Free-to-air was instigated and intended to connect communities, promote cultural diversity, and help people across the world to stay in touch with happenings in their native countries. It was imagined as a common global good benefiting the whole humankind equally. Yet, for decades, big corporations have been fighting to restrict your access to free broadcast so they can maximize profits. They do it through complex legal frameworks that make clear rights for content difficult to obtain and limited to individual states. As a result, millions of expats around the world are unable to access programing from their native homelands and are forced to rely on either expensive or illegal solutions.
There are many people who believe that free-to-air should remain free for everyone but their voices aren’t can’t make their voice heard. This is where Free-To-Air Collective steps in to:
- Fight for fair access to global airwaves,
- Ensure responsible and inclusive public policies,
- Fight against all forms of online media piracy.
Free TV has been taken for granted for too long, and now it needs our support.
Why free TV?
There are several types of TV broadcast systems, including analogue terrestrial TV, digital satellite TV, cable TV (using analogue and digital systems), and new technologies such as digital terrestrial TV (DTTV), High Definition Television (HDTV), Pay-per-view, Video-on-demand, Web TV and IPTV. However, for all the different names, and the preponderance of technologies, they are all methods of watching television that share many commonalities.
Free-to-air (FTA) refers to free television that is broadcasted in a clear unencrypted form that allows and enables any person with the appropriate receiving equipment to pick up the signal and view the content for free.
Even though this content may be delivered to the viewer by another carrier for which a paid subscription fee is required – e.g., Cable television, via the Internet, or satellite – the content itself remains free.
You might ask yourself why this content is free? It’s simple. Public Service Broadcasters have the objective to fulfil the democratic, social and cultural needs of a particular society and to guarantee pluralism. Often they are subsidised by taxpayers money, which means they are to ensure a level of accountability. The Council of the European Union recognised the importance of such objectives in the 1993 Satellite and Cable Directive that shaped Europe’s digital future.
Whereas broadcasts transmitted across frontiers within the Community, in particular by satellite and cable, are one of the most important ways of pursuing these Community objectives, which are at the same time political, economic, social, cultural and legal.
Recital 3, SatCab Directive 93/83
Free for all?
Not really. While the legal framework on copyright and related rights in the European Union has achieved a decent level of protection of intellectual property, the nature of copyright remains territorial. It means rights granted to a broadcasting organisation within one Member State are not transferable to another. What’s more, if a broadcasting organisation operates in several countries, it has to clear rights for each country separately, or black out specific programs. For instance, there are few legal ways for an expat from the UK to access UK TV channels while living in Spain, and include complex technology and are subjected to strict regulations. To do so, IPTV companies would have to clear TV rights with every content producer and right holder individually. A single channel may air thousands of different copyrighted materials every year and obtaining rights for theseis a lengthy, costly, and complicated process. It also means that those living abroad are often faced with having to pay high fees to receive localised television. Ons such option is SKY TV or Canal+ that are taking advantage of this situation. On the other hand, TVMucho has turned out to be one of a few companies that successfully offers completely legal and reliable service.
Although a myriad of legal regulations apply to these different methods of broadcast, it’s clear that once-popular models such as Freeview (traditionally based on radio waves) have all moved online, with dedicated apps being the primary delivery model.
Are Expats left out?
Today, in the age of globalisation, people are moving more than ever. In 2019, the number of people living outside their country of origin reached 272 million – an increase of approximately 120 million from 1990. Europe and North America host around half of all expats, with 82 and 59 million, respectively. To put it in perspective, if we put all expats into one country, we would get the 5th most populous country in the world, bigger than Russia, Brazil, or Germany.
In the age of global pandemics, staying up to date with the most current information from homes is of great importance for many expats. More and more people are self isolating and staying home, watching television more than ever before in history. However, their choice is limited by what the big corporations want. Due to COVID-19, It would be expected for linear TV to move completely online. Nonetheless, broadcasters are still failing in their duty of care to provide a consolidated platform that replaces the traditional country-based combination of distribution and a control panel (TV).
The obvious solution would be to legally distribute live TV Channels online to overseas markets, gaining more viewers in the process, while garnering greater exposure for original content, thereby generating more revenue through advertising. It is one of the few viable ways that broadcasters can compete in an ultra-competitive landscape while honouring their original cultural remit.
A question we often get asked is why expats should have the right to access channels from home if they choose to live abroad. People tend to forget that public channels do not maximise profits but pursue collectively defined aims, one of those being improving the ability of the citizens to participate in democratic decisions. Since expats have a right to vote in their home countries, informing them of democratic processes, politicians and policies in their home countries increase their information of current affairs, which increases the responsiveness of voters and eventually results in improved decisions and consequently, better politics.
What about laws?
One of the core philosophies of the EU is freedom of movement, as embodied in the 1992 Maastricht treaty. Enshrined in law as a fundamental right for all citizens, living and working anywhere in Europe became a reality. At the same time, this governmental body saw its role as safeguarding the culture and traditions of each separate member state in order to celebrate their individuality.
To further facilitate this policy, the EU created the Satellite Directive in 1993 so that all European citizens would have the possibility to watch their own TV channels through FTA satellite, free of charge, irrespective of their location in Europe. Moreover, for many of them, despite the surfeit of new options, this remains the only practical method to do so. If this provision were ever to become prohibited by law, there would be no viable method for them to retain access to these channels and continue to enjoy this rich cultural fare.
The satellite directive states that a person is allowed to receive and watch Free-to-air satellite streams via any equipment that utilises an uninterrupted stream (chain of communication) from their “viewing device” to the satellite transmission. The stated intention of the directive is essential in establishing legal precedent. In 1993, the only viewing device was TV; but it was already evident from the wording that the EU expected modes of transmission to proliferate.
This copyright directive states that right-holders should link and limit rights to geographical boundaries. Formerly, this made sound commercial sense when rigid territorial boundaries were integral to their business model. However, with the advent of Netflix – who not only broadcast content but also generate vast amounts of it – the competitive landscape has radically altered.
The takeaway couldn’t be any clearer or more compelling. The European Copyright Directive, enshrined at a time when the media landscape was a lot more sedentary, is now a severe hindrance to major broadcasters and constitutes a large strategic risk.
Breaking the Law
Difficulties in accessing TV channels from abroad created a fertile ground for pirates who quickly realised that the vast majority of expats are either unaware or indifferent towards the legality of streaming services.
Illegal streaming is also a global issue. The European Union Intellectual Property Office report found that trade in pirated goods had grown from $250 billion annually in 2008 to more than $461 billion in 2013. It is predicted that the negative impacts of piracy would put 5.4 million legitimate jobs at risk by 2022.
How the Free-to-Air Collective helps
The Free-to-Air Collective is a Community Interest Company registered in the United Kingdom with a clear commitment to a communal cause and our activities are carried out for the benefit of the community.
We are aware of how difficult it is to address these issues, so we have decided to team up with non-governmental organisations, governmental and law enforcement agencies and private actors to create a database of illegal services and make it easier for anyone to check whether their current app or service is genuine or not.
Also, we are monitoring all policies and regulations on the media, with emphasis on fair public access and corporation accountability. In doing so, we advocate for policies which protect the public sphere and consumers from market economics.
Finally, we believe the best way to know what people think is to ask them. While others ask you for your donations, we only ask you for your opinion. We do it through surveys about a variety of relevant issues that help us articulate and structure opinions of individuals into a single voice.
So, what is in it for us then? It’s simple; many of us are expats who have been struggling to stay in touch with their native countries for decades. Having experience in working in the fields of policy analysis, media, intellectual property law, and technology, we felt it is our duty to do something and ensure fair access to quality TV content outside national borders.