More thoughts on computer piracy in Romania

In 2009, I wrote a post entitled “Is it any wonder there’s computer piracy in Romania“. In 2011, after a couple more years in the country, I wrote another post entitled “Rampant piracy in Romania“. The end of 2017 is practically here, I’ve been in the country for nine years and I can now say that my view on the subject has gotten more nuanced. I’ll explain.

Yes, computer piracy is rampant in Romania. When most Romanians think of “getting” a movie, TV show or a popular album, they don’t mean “buy it” online, they mean “get the torrent” for it. Judging by this, the situation isn’t good. And yet it’s not as simple as that.

It’s easy for an expat from the US to look at this in a binary way, but as I’ve lived in the country all these years and have had to conduct business here, I’ve encountered all sorts of barriers that are still in place and do not make it easy for Romanians to go the legal route when acquiring media.

Did you know that when you switch your credit card in iTunes from an American credit card to a Romanian bank card, there are no more movies and TV shows for you to purchase or rent? That’s right, those sections of the iTunes store disappear altogether. You still have music, so I suppose that’s something, but to think that Apple still hasn’t worked out the logistics of providing movies and TV shows to their Romanian customers after all these years is ridiculous.

Even more ridiculous, did you know that already purchased TV shows and movies, ones purchased in the US, also disappear from iTunes when you switch to Romania? So if you haven’t downloaded them to your computer, they’re gone.

Oh, but you have downloaded them? Good, then even though you can’t access them from your Apple TV anymore, you can still open them in Quicktime and Airplay them to your Apple TV, right? Wrong. Can’t do that anymore. The Airplay button doesn’t show up anymore. You can still copy them back into iTunes and from there (and only from there) Airplay them to your Apple TV.

Also bonkers is the fact that the software purchased from the App Store with a US credit card can no longer be upgraded or downloaded once you’ve switched to a Romanian bank card. First you’ll get a message saying that you’ll be switched to the Romanian Store.

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Then you’ll get a message saying the software isn’t available for download anymore.

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You can go through the song and dance of signing out, signing back in, deauthorizing and reauthorizing your devices, but you still won’t be able to download your software until you switch back to a US credit card.

At this point you’re probably saying, “This is all fine and good Raoul, but these last few things you’re talking about seem to apply only to expats. Boo-hoo for you, but what about the general Romanian population?” Well, they still can’t buy movies and TV shows from the iTunes Store, remember?

Now, some of you may know that three online streaming services have launched in Romania in 2017: Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and HBO Go. This is a great step in the right direction, but it comes with its own set of problems.

The Romanian versions of these services have nowhere near the number of titles available in the US. You get somewhere around 50% of the titles (maybe 60-70%), for about the same price that you pay in the US. You have to keep in mind the average monthly wage in Romania is about $485 (see this), while in the US the average monthly wage is $3396 (see this). That’s a huge difference, and yet Romanians are expected to pay the same prices as the Americans. That sort of ridiculous expectation is found across the board in Romania, for all sorts of products that people need and use.

netflix

Netflix Romania costs me 9.99 Euros a month for HD streaming. There’s also another plan that costs 11.99 Euros a month if you want Ultra HD. And yet the amount of titles available to me are roughly half of those available in the US. I know, because I was able to enjoy the US titles for a number of years after moving to Romania, before Netflix decided to close that access. Now it won’t even work via VPN and I’m stuck having to use their Romanian offering. So in essence, I’m paying double what I’d be paying in the US and most of the stuff I want to watch isn’t available to me. What a great deal they’ve worked out for Romanians, right?

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HBO Go Romania costs half of what Netflix charges, 19,99 lei a month (that’s 4.29 Euros) but once again, they don’t list all of the titles available in the US. I was able to browse through only a few hundred on their site, while the US site says they have more than 4000 titles. Plus, their service doesn’t work on my Apple TV. It also doesn’t work on my iMac. I get a strange error message when I attempt to play most titles on their website: “failed to load license”. When I contacted their tech support, they told me HBO Go Romania isn’t supported on Apple TVs. It also does not work on my iPad or my iPhone, so I can’t connect them directly to my TV either. (It works just fine on these devices in the US, but when you open these apps in Romania, you get an error saying the service is unavailable.) I was advised to use a browser other than Safari, which once again means I can’t Airplay titles to my Apple TV and am stuck watching them at my desk, which I’m not interested in doing. They suggested I try to Chromecast to my Apple TV. Sure… I’m going to fiddle with workarounds because you couldn’t be bothered to do a proper product launch in Romania…

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Amazon Prime Video costs 2.99 Euros a month for the first six months and 5.99 Euros a month after that. It’s the most affordable streaming service and it’s got several shows I like to watch. But once again, they don’t list all of the titles available in the US. However, it works perfectly on my Apple TV and on my computer, so out of the three, I’m happiest with it.

One way both Netflix and Amazon Prime Video (but mostly Netflix) thought they’d make up for the scarcity of titles in their Romanian offering was to scatter their catalogs with Bollywood movies. Because obviously Romanians like watching Bollywood movies. We’re right next to India and historically speaking, our cultures are pretty much identical… WTH, Netflix and Amazon? We’re in Europe! There are a ton of English, French, Italian and German titles you could have added to your services but you give us Bollywood? And oh, let’s not forget Turkish shows… Because there aren’t enough of them on Romanian TV, and because Romanians just love to watch TV programming from a nation that has invaded them over and over and over, has abducted their children to be used as indentured servants and soldiers, raped their women, pillaged their towns and villages, and installed their own puppet regimes to suck most of the wealth out of the country. This wasn’t too long ago, mind you. Romania gained its independence from the Ottoman Empire in the war of 1877-78 (see this) after hundreds of years of occupation, and they also had to fight them again in WWI.

Let’s look at retail stores now, online or brick and mortar. Say you want to go and buy a movie on Blu-Ray, so you can see it at a proper 1080p resolution. Most of the titles you’ll find in stores are on DVD (that’s 480p resolution) and they cost between 30-50 lei. Who the heck would want to buy DVDs anymore? You can’t even buy a non-HD TV anymore. The cheapest ones you’ll find are at least 720p, so who would buy a 480p movie?

Do you begin to see why piracy is still rampant in Romania? The fastest and easiest way to get an HD movie or TV show in Romania is to download it via a torrent, and not for a lack of trying to get it legally, mind you.

The story of Fry & Laurie

The BBC put together a Fry & Laurie reunion show in which I got to see them together after many years. I was glad to learn more about their start in showbiz and about how they met, which was the biggest surprise of all. I had no idea Emma Thompson went to school with them, introduced them and did comedy with them. No idea at all.

Romania Through Their Eyes featured on TVR International (again)

My show, Romania Through Their Eyes, was featured a second time on TVR International this past weekend, on a news program hosted by Horia Grusca, called “Romania in Vazul Lumii” (March 19th, 2011 edition). You can watch the archived show online. The segment where my show is presented starts at minute 13:14 and ends at minute 22:23.

If you haven’t yet seen the first two episodes in full length, you may do so as well, on my YouTube channel, in HD, with English or Romanian subtitles (click on the CC button to select your language).

A friendly reminder that I created a Facebook page for the show, so head on over and give it a Like if you want to be kept up to date with what’s going on.

Many thanks to Mr. Horia Grusca!

Romania Through Their Eyes featured on TVR International

My show, Romania Through Their Eyes, was featured on TVR International this morning, on a news program hosted by Horia Grusca, called “Romania in Vazul Lumii” (March 12th, 2011 edition). You can watch the archived show online. The segment where my show is presented starts at minute 14:05 and ends at minute 21:02.

And, if you haven’t yet seen the first two episodes in full length, you may do so as well, on my YouTube channel, in HD, with English or Romanian subtitles (click on the CC button to select your language).

This week’s edition of “Romania in Vazul Lumii” will be aired again on TVRi, tomorrow (Sunday) at 7:30 pm, and Monday at 6:30 am. If I understood Mr. Grusca correctly, segments from my second episode of Romania Through Their Eyes will be shown during next week’s edition of “Romania in Vazul Lumii”, so stay tuned for that as well.

Many thanks to Mr. Horia Grusca, and to the incredibly nice person who made him aware of my show!

By the way, I created a Facebook page for the show, so head on over and give it a Like if you want to be kept up to date with what’s going on.

Romania in Vazul Lumii cu Horia Grusca

 

What comes after High Definition?

Producing (set design, lighting, filming, directing, editing) my wife’s cooking show has gotten me thinking about what comes after HD, because there obviously is a large discrepancy in resolution between full 1080p HD and properly exposed 35mm film (up to 3500p) — as I already mentioned in my post on preserving classic movies.

Yes, high definition is a huge improvement over standard definition, which in turn was a large improvement over early television signals. But televisions and VCRs, in spite of their popularity, are a dismal failure in picture quality compared to what they replaced: film reels and projectors.

Nowadays, we’ve gained some foothold back when it comes to consumer/prosumer video quality. We have ready access to video cameras that will record in HD (at various qualities, given the model and the price), and we have newer computers and televisions that will allow us to play back those videos at their native (720p or 1080p) resolutions. Even websites have begun in recent years to allow us to play back HD videos, and the quality of broadband internet connections has increased to the point where one doesn’t have to wait a half hour or more in order to download/buffer an HD video and play it properly on their computer. We can even play back HD videos from the internet directly on our televisions, thanks to standalone or built-in media players.

But if we’re to get back to the quality of 35mm film and best it, we must keep moving forward. Thankfully, some visionaries have already taken the first steps and have come up with a camera that can record at a similar-to-film resolution: the RED One, which can give us 2300p of extremely high definition digital video. It’s not quite 3000p or 3500p (which would be the equivalent of properly exposed film), but it gets us pretty close, and it’s certainly much better than 1080p.

The RED camera captures each frame of video as a 12-bit RAW image, which means we, as videographers, have much greater freedom than before when editing the video, just like photographers do when they switch from JPG to RAW files. All of a sudden, white balance, exposure, recovery, blacks, vibrance, saturation, and tone adjustments can be made with much more accuracy.

One area where I’d love to see more improvement — although I’m sure it’ll come with time — is RED’s ability to capture more color depth, say 14-bit or 16-bit. Bit depth is still an area where improvement can be made across the board when it comes to digital cameras.

But let’s leave tech specs alone, and think about how we can edit and enjoy the videos we could make with a RED camera. That’s where difficulties come in, because you see, we still can’t properly do that, certainly not with consumer, and not even with prosumer equipment. No, we’d be looking at professional equipment and serious prices. The market just hasn’t caught up.

There are no computers that can display that kind of resolution at full screen, and there are no televisions that can do it, either. TVs and computers are still caught up in the world of 720p and 1080p. And to make things even more complicated, now we’ve got to worry about 3D video, which is nice for some applications, but from my point of view, it’s a distraction, because it adds yet another barrier, another detour, on the road to achieving proper video resolution across the board. Manufacturers, TV stations and filmmakers are jumping on the 3D bandwagon, when they should be worried about resolution.

So, what costs would a filmmaker be looking at if he or she wanted to shoot at the highest possible digital resolution available today (a RED setup)? I crunched some numbers, and mind you, these are just approximations. The costs are likely to be 1.5-2x that much when you account for everything you might need. On a side note, the folks at RED and at Final Cut Pro have worked together quite a bit to ensure that we can edit RED video natively, directly in Final Cut Pro, on a Mac. See this video for an overview.

  • RED One camera: $25,000
  • 35mm RED lens: $4,250
  • 18-85mm RED lens: $9,975
  • RED LCD: $2,500
  • RED CF media and cards: $1,500
  • RED rig: about $2,500
  • add extra $$$ for power, accessories, tripods, other media, etc.
  • RED video card, for encoding and editing video: $4,750
  • Mac Pro editing station: about $7,000-$12,000, depending on your needs, and you may need more than one of these, depending on how big your production is
  • 30″ display: about $1,000-$3,000, depending on your needs, and you may need more than one of these as well, depending on the number of workstations and your display setup
  • Final Cut Studio software: $1,000
  • HDD-based storage for editing and archival: $2,000-$20,000, depending on your needs
  • LTO tape or additional HDD-based storage for backup: costs will vary quite a bit here
  • Specialized cinema hardware and display for showing movies at full resolution: I have no idea what this costs, but it’s likely to go into the hundreds of thousands of dollars, and not every cinema has it

So at a minimum, we’d be talking about an investment of more than $60,000 in order to work with a RED setup today.

But let’s not get tied up in talking solely about RED cameras. Clearly the entire industry needs to take steps in order to ensure that videos at resolutions greater than 1080p HD can be played across all the usual devices. Unfortunately, they’re still tied up in SD and HD video. Most TV channels still transmit in SD or lower-than-SD video quality (lower than 480p). It’s true, most have always transmitted at broadcast quality (500p or better) but we’ve always had to contend with a lot of signal loss. And nowadays, we still have to pay extra for HD channels, even though they should be the norm, and we should be looking forward.

To that effect, computer displays need to get bigger and better, computer hardware needs to get faster, computer storage needs to expand, media players need to increase their processing power, televisions need to get better and bigger, and broadband internet needs to get faster, ideally around the gigabit range (see this talk from Vinton Cerf on that subject), so that full resolution, 4000K video can move across the internet easily.

For now, if I were to start working on RED, I’d still have to output to 720p or 1080p and keep my full resolution originals archived for another day, somewhere in the future, when consumer-grade electronics have evolved to the point where they can play my videos and films natively.

I for one look forward to the day when YouTube starts to stream 3500p videos, and when we can all play them conveniently and at full resolution on our computers and televisions!

Undercover Boss was my idea too

A couple of weeks ago, my jaw dropped as I browsed Twitter. SNL had put together a skit lampooning a new show on CBS called “Undercover Boss“. I didn’t even know the show existed, much less that it had been on SNL.

Since the show’s launch after the Superbowl, it turned into a nationwide hit, because it struck a vein with viewers. Several powerful themes are at work in each show, themes which I knew would make the show a success when I thought of it, such as the contrast between the rich and the poor, the proverbial desire to “be in someone else’s shoes”, and the will to find out what’s wrong and right it.

Don’t get me wrong. No one stole my idea. There was no foul play involved. I was simply late to the table. When I thought of the idea, the show was likely already in development. By the time I was looking for a production company to help me develop the show, “Undercover Boss” was already in production. Two different people had the same idea — well, almost the same idea, because my concept was slightly different, as I’ll explain in a bit — but one of them had it sooner than me.

My concept of the show differs somewhat from what is currently in production. I thought of it from a different angle perhaps. I’m not sure how many of you are familiar with the story of Scheherazade, the mythical Persian queen and the teller of “One Thousand and One Nights“, but I read those stories avidly as a child, and I still remember them.

A recurring theme in some of her stories is that of the caliph (ruler or king if you will) disguising himself in different ways and going out into his country by himself, or accompanied by a trusted servant, to see first hand how things are going, and what he must do to make things better. There’s a certain element of thrill in taking on a different position in life, particularly for someone who’s been accustomed to the royal treatment all his days, and clearly, there’s a benefit to his subjects if he gets to know how they live and is motivated to change things for the better.

Nowadays, there are very few kings left, and they haven’t got much power, unfortunately. Presidents don’t need to disguise themselves to find out how things are, because in those countries where there is enough freedom of speech, everyone is eager to tell them just what needs to be fixed. Even in countries where there is little freedom of speech, like Iran, people will risk life and limb in order to voice their beliefs.

However, there are clearly places where people are afraid to speak their minds for fear of retribution, and that is in corporate environments. In small companies, the owner or director generally knows what’s what, but in large companies, particularly multi-national ones, there are so many layers between the workers and the top guy or gal that many of them only know their company through the figures that filter up through the ranks. If someone has an idea about how to do things better, or is unhappy with something, they’ll likely keep their mouth shut for fear of losing their job, particularly in these tough economic times. So how is the CEO to know what’s really going on, and how his or her policies affect each John or Mary that works at their companies? They can’t, unless they, too, do what the caliphs used to do.

So far, so good, right? Well, I didn’t want to have camera crews follow the “new guy” around all day long. That’s  pretty much a dead giveaway and doesn’t encourage true reactions. I wanted to film with concealed cameras and microphones. In situations where that wasn’t possible, we could have planted cameras in concealed locations, or used “co-workers” who were really production crew members, carrying the concealed cameras themselves. I also wanted to film an entire season without airing a single episode, so word wouldn’t get out about what we were doing. Then after filming a whole season, and doing as many of these shows as possible, we would have started to air the episodes. Now that would have been truly amazing.

But I’m not the one with show running on CBS, am I? I’m just the guy with the me-too idea — this time, anyway — so the important thing is the folks who had the idea first got it made, and it’s successful, and that’s good, not just for them, but also for the American worker, because I believe in the power of this show to encourage positive changes in America’s corporate environment, changes that can make things better for the average worker.

I have a few more good ideas like this one. If you’re a serious production company with the resources to help me develop and pitch a hit show to a TV channel, please get in touch with me. I’d like to move fast on my other ideas, so I won’t be left in the dust again. I look forward to talking with you!

Top Gear in Romania

The Top Gear team visited Romania for a bout of grand touring. They started in resort towns along the Black Sea, like Constanta and Mamaia, then found their way to the famed Transfagarasan mountain highway, by way of Bucharest, the People’s Palace and a bunch of villages inbetween. It was fun to see them drive through the same places and on the same roads I’ve driven on so many times in the past. I’m not sure when they did this show, but it must have been before the appearance of many potholes on the A2 highway — potholes which I struggled to avoid during my recent winter road trip.

I am peeved with their depiction of Romania though. It looks like the Top Gear team sought out a gypsy village on purpose to add some color to the show, but I, and the overwhelming majority of Romanians would say that was a rather distasteful decision. Color and drama could have been added in many other ways. But I digress…

The show ends with a climactic drive on the Transfagarasan highway, during which all three (Jeremy, Richard and James) agree that it’s the best road in the world. Nice.

Top Gear in Romania – Part 1

Top Gear in Romania – Part 2

Top Gear in Romania – Part 3

Top Gear in Romania – Part 4