The Caribbean’s 'New' Piracy Problem

The Caribbean’s 'New' Piracy Problem

Marcia Forbes PhD

BCJ’s Partial Lock-Down Directive

About 98 channels are currently being pirated by Jamaican cable TV operators. This is what Chairman of the Broadcasting Commission of Jamaica (BCJ) shared in the April 24th Press Conference called to talk about these matters and to announce actions against the almost 50 cable TV operators.

As the Chairman noted, this move is to protect Jamaica’s reputation so that this country is not seen as a “rogue nation”. In its first phase of action toward copyright compliance, the BCJ has issued a directive to cable operators. As of the end of May, 2015 they must remove nineteen (19) of the 98 pirated channels. That’s only approximately 20 percent of those being pirated.

Protecting Jamaica?

To be removed from service delivery to cable T, subscribers are 9 from the Encore Group of channels, 5 from Showtime, 4 from Starz and the Movie Channel Extra. These are cable channels out of the United States of America. Cable TV subscribers in Jamaica are generally dissatisfied with this turn of events. They hold firm that they are entitled to the channels since they’ve been paying for them in their cable packages.

In response to probes from journalists at the press conference, the Commission explained that phase one will be evaluated and that there will be continued dialogue with the cable operators. The BCJ opined that there may not even be a phase 2 in this exercise of protecting intellectual property and preventing copyright infringement.

New Distribution Business Model Needed

Executive Director of the BCJ argued for a new model for programme/channel distribution. One appreciates the arguments for new models in view of the erosion of geographical boundaries brought about by the Internet, Satellites and other communication technologies.

After all, my own engagement with the press conference was via its live stream. I deliberately use the word ‘engagement’ because not only was I watching the event via my computer but I was also actively reporting on it via Twitter and inserting my own comments over the course of the one hour press conference and some time thereafter.

Questions and comments from those physically present at the press conference as well as those to me via Twitter, sent me back to the 1980s when cable TV made its entry on to the Jamaican landscape. A large satellite dish was set up atop the partially Government-owned Jamaica Pegasus Hotel, with plans to feed cable channels to hotel guests. I do not know how that went.

Caribbean Free-to-Air TV Stations & Signal Piracy

By the late 1980s community cable TV started to take root in Jamaica and elsewhere in the Caribbean. A combination of politics, poverty and opportunism prevailed to enhance the growth and development of community cable TV in Jamaica where the latter was described as ‘the poor man’s dish.”

Note, though, that signal piracy of US programmes did not originate with cable TV in Jamaica. Writing in the New York Times, October 13, 1983, in an article titled ‘Foreign ‘Piracy’ of TV Signals Stir Controversy’, Peter Kerr complained that,

“In the last two years, United States satellite signals carrying entertainment and news programs intended for cable television viewers in this country have been intercepted by a growing number of television stations throughout the Caribbean and Central America and broadcast without authorization.”

Those television stations were free-to-air and predominantly, if not wholly, Government owned. So, we see that this problem faced by the BCJ is not new. It’s been there for over 30 years. And too, it is not peculiar to Jamaica or to cable TV.

In his article Kerr further commented that,

“In Jamaica, for example, the Government-owned broadcast company last summer showed… ”Rocky III” and other films that were not yet released to Jamaican movie theaters. The television broadcasts, which were taken without permission from the satellite transmissions of United States cable networks, caused a 50 percent drop in revenues for Jamaican theaters, according to Donald Graham…”

Jamaican Business Man of Carib Theatre fame, Douglas Graham, was fighting for the survival of his business. The Government of Jamaica was brought to book by the USA and threatened that trade privileges under the Caribbean Basin Initiative would be withheld.

Caribbean TV Stations Push Back

TV Stations in the Caribbean region and elsewhere pushed back with arguments that:

  • They were willing to pay but US copyright holders were not willing to enter into agreements.
  • US satellites carrying cable channels were ‘infringing’/violating the air space of other countries and so these countries could rightly take these signals.

Whereas in the early 1980s and for some time thereafter, piracy of US satellite signals carrying TV programmes was wrapped up with the survival of movie theaters in Jamaica, moving into the late 1980s the battle began in earnest between free-to-air TV and cable TV.

Origins of Cable TV in Jamaica & Competition

While in the USA, cable operations came about in order to boost signals from US free-to-air TV (FTA TV) to viewers in remote areas, in Jamaica and some other Caribbean countries, cable operators developed business models in direct competition with FTA TV on at least 2 levels:

  • Competing with Government-owned free-to-air station, JBC TV in the case of Jamaica, for pirated satellite signals;
  • Competing with FTA TV for viewers by offering a more varied viewing experience. After all, how could a single channel FTA station such as JBC TV compete with cable TV’s multiple channel offerings?

Who Will Slay the Dragon?

And now the Broadcasting Commission of Jamaica is facing-down the challenge of copyright infringement and trying to save this island’s reputation.

It is a challenge that is over 30 years old. It did not take President Barack Obama’s visit to alert us of the situation and its trade implications. Eons ago then President of the USA, Ronald Reagan, and then head of the Motion Picture Association of America, Jack Valenti, did just that. Both men are now deceased but the challenge continues.

Who will slay the Dragon of signal piracy? Perhaps while we await changes in programme/channel distribution models, the BCJ needs to carefully craft a Phase 2 and even a Phase 3 of its action plan for copyright compliance.

After all by their own report, BCJ’s recent directive only addresses about 20 percent of channels being pirated. What of the 80 percent? Cable subscribers want to know.

April 25, 2015