Television plays many roles in our lives. It informs us and entertains us, of course, but it can also comfort us. When we are far away from home, the sight of a famously familiar face on the small screen can be reassuring. When we travel, watching a popular programme from home somehow tells us that all is right in our world. So it is for expatriates living in the UAE. Satellite TV can be a temporary cure for homesickness, offering people the chance to catch up on news, comedies, dramas, documentaries and music videos they might not otherwise find here.
At a price. And there's the problem. As The National reported yesterday, some residents are illegally buying decoding receivers to watch programmes from South Asia. According to David Butorac, chief executive of OSN, which provides a legal satellite TV service, this is bad in all sorts of ways. It subverts the system, he points out, which means that the people who write, perform and produce television shows do not get compensated for their creative work. The long-term effect of continued copyright breaches could mean that producing these shows eventually becomes economically unviable. As a result, the viability of legal satellite service providers is threatened.
There can be no doubt that the people who break the law by selling illegal decoder boxes, and those who use them to access content, should be punished. But, at the same time, the authorities and the legitimate satellite-television suppliers need to ask why people are buying and using these products. For starters, it comes down to price – an illegal package of Indian channels, for instance, costs less than one-fifth of a basic legal one. Unlike internet pirates, those who purchase illegal decoders have shown that they are, at least, prepared to pay for a service. But many of them are on low incomes and they cannot afford the going rate.
Perhaps the authorised providers could “unbundle” their packages and provide fewer channels, better tailored to these viewers and at a lower cost? This would mean giving them access to a small number of popular channels from their home countries at an affordable price.
Everyone would win. The illegal decoder salesmen would go out of business, the legal providers get customers and the viewers get legal access to the shows they really want to watch.