Early thoughts: the loss of US TV channels in Caribbean

The lack of licensing and distribution rights for some TV channels aired in the Caribbean means they cannot be accessed in the region. Some of implications are discussed

Last week, the television (TV) watching public in Jamaica was caught off guard when the local media reported that 19 cable channels would be removed from subscribers’ packages effective 31 May 2015 (Source: Jamaica Observer). The channels, which include Encore, Showtime and Starz, among others, are allegedly being aired in Jamaica in breach of copyright, licensing and distribution rights of the content owners, who are based in the United States of America (USA). To that end, the local broadcasting regulator, the Broadcasting Commission, has issued a directive to 49 cable/subscriber TV operators to remove the offending channels (Source: The Gleaner).

The situation in which Jamaica finds itself is unlikely to be unique in the region. Caribbean countries that speak English tend to consume a lot of US content because:

  • we produce very little local content and rely overwhelmingly on US programmes fill out the schedule
  • we have a strong cultural affinity to the US and enjoy consuming and participating in US events and content in real time
  • generally, our citizens have a strong personal links to the US, which is strengthened by the large Diaspora population resident in the US.

From a licensing and distribution rights perspective, the Caribbean, and the English-speaking Caribbean in particular, is lumped with Latin America, which for the most part comprises Spanish-speaking countries. As a result, much of the content for the Latin American market is either in Spanish, or is closed captioned for a Spanish-speaking audience. Further, certain US programmes we enjoy might not be available for the Latin American market, and if they are, they are aired several weeks (or months) later. Hence we would no longer be current and would not be able to participate in the discussions going on around us, be they online or with family and friends overseas. Essentially, most of us identify more closely with the US than with Latin America.

However, we in the Caribbean cannot dictate which countries content owners permit or bar from viewing their content. Typically, programme authorisation is a commercial agreement between the content owners (or the international rights owners) and the local content providers. However, according to Jamaica’s Broadcasting Commission:

In some cases, these negotiations have been protracted, with some cable operators finding the authorization costs to be prohibitive. There are also some channels whose US based owners refuse to offer distribution rights in the Caribbean either because the cable market is considered too insignificant or because the channel owners have no rights clearance beyond US territory. This is despite the fact that there is demand in Jamaica and the Caribbean for those channels.

(Source: Jamaica Observer)

Rightly or wrongly, the loss of certain TV channel in Jamaica on the grounds of copyright, licensing and distribution breaches may be a signal of things to come across the Caribbean. However, the following three consequences readily come to mind:

  • First, the attractiveness of some of the cable/subscriber TV packages may be diminished with the loss of US content, and to varying degrees, it might be difficult to justify the prices for some of the “premium packages” without it.
  • Second, video streaming and content on-demand options might be more favourably considered, as the quality of the Internet has improved across the region, and the pricing for on-demand packages may be more cost effective than for cable/subscriber TV.
  • Finally, the crackdown on international content could be much needed the impetus for us to work more assiduously at creating more local and regional content. The fact that we consume, and are prepare to pay for, as much programming as we from the US, supports and validates their film and television industries; but it can be argued that it has been at the expense of our own.


Image credit:  Stuart Miles (FreeDigitalPhotos.net)