Feast on a buffet spread of home entertainment

Feast on a buffet spread of home entertainment
BBC TV series Sherlock, starring Benedict Cumberbatch (left) as Sherlock Holmes and Martin Freeman as Dr John Watson, is available on US streaming sites Netflix, Hulu Plus and Amazon Instant Video.

Popular United States streaming site Netflix has revolutionised TV watching. Its tagline is "Watch TV shows and movies anytime, anywhere. For one low monthly price".

For US$7.99 (S$10) a month, members can consume all the TV shows and movies they want, from sci-fi hits, such as Star Trek and Battlestar Galactica, to whodunits, such as Poirot and Midsomer Murders. If you are a fan of these offerings, Netflix is a real treat.

Others might be more interested in more recent TV shows, such as Sherlock, Breaking Bad and House Of Cards. Netflix also has an international selection of movies - from Hunger Games to Thai action flick Ong Bak to gongfu classics of Jackie Chan and Jet Li.

There is even a special kids' zone where children can enjoy their favourite cartoons. Extensive episodes of Barney, My Little Pony, Strawberry Shortcake, The Last Air Bender, Scooby Doo and X-Men are all available.

The beauty of Netflix is that you can view these shows on demand - this means you are not tied to a schedule. You are also not tied to your TV set. You can watch them on your laptop, tablet and even your smartphone.

Your Netflix account is tied to your user account, so one account offers unlimited access across multiple devices, up to four devices at a time, depending on your subscription plan. This is also how the online video games service Steam works.

Netflix has grown significantly in the past few years. It ended last year with 33 million subscribers in the US alone, exceeding HBO's 28 million. However, HBO has 85 million customers in 70 countries, compared with Netflix, which has just 11 million in 41 countries outside the US.

HBO and similar players tie up with pay TV providers, such as StarHub, to deliver content over proprietary networks.

Netflix delivers its content directly to customers via the Internet, and its success has not gone unnoticed. While it catches up with HBO, rival providers, such as Hulu and Amazon Instant Video, are hot on its heels.

E-tailing giant Amazon recently launched Fire TV, its own media-streaming box, and may launch an advertising-based model instead of the more common subscription model.

Apple is rumoured to be in talks with Comcast - the biggest cable and Internet service provider in the US - to launch a streaming service to take on Netflix. Partnering Comcast is a big deal because it means the quality of streaming can be optimised.

Unfortunately, people in Singapore have mostly been left out of this wonderful new way to watch TV because these streaming services are not launched here. The market is simply too small.

But some tech-savvy users have found ways to get around this. They use virtual private network (VPN) services and find innovative ways to pay for these streaming services, which are often limited to US-issued credit cards and payment services.

Last week, the Law Ministry proposed new anti-piracy laws, which are intended to pave the way for content rights owners to apply to the court to block "flagrantly infringing" pirate websites.

If a court order is obtained against a specific website or online service, all Internet service providers here will be mandated to block local access to that site or service. Such a system is not foolproof and workarounds are possible. But it is unclear at this stage if employing the workarounds will breach the law.

What is more interesting, however, is the ministry's clarification that the new law is not targeted at geo-blocked streaming services, such as Netflix and Hulu Plus. Many of these are legitimate and are akin to buying physical items such as parallel imports, the practice of which is well-established as legal in this country.

Accessing geo-restricted content here is not a new idea. Many Apple fans here have for years bought and rented movies and music from Apple's iTunes US Store by creating a US account with a US address and using prepaid gift cards from the US to pay for their purchases.

As long as you have a US iTunes account and pay for the purchases, you can access the content. But Apple is an exception. Most US content sites block non-US users once they find out that the IP address is outside the permitted locations.

ginlee@sph.com.sg

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