As a lifelong Anglophile, I am no stranger to the differences between the US and the UK on a technological front, but I recently had to confront an unexpected technical barrier. After two years in the country, and an ever-increasing determination to stay in the UK by any legal means possible, my wife and I attempted to switch over our digital ‘stores’ for apps, music and films from the US to the UK. In doing so, I unearthed a whole host of unexpected problems that highlight just how challenging it can be to fully and finally relocate in the digital realm.
There have always been some significant barriers between British and American media. Back in the 1980s, the media was largely that of television and videotapes, but there were still some very real problems with moving material from one nation to the other. The American television system was based on the National Television System Committee (NTSC) system, which used 525 scan lines for each frame of television and video, and refreshed each frame 30 times per second. The British television system was based on Phase Alternating Lines (PAL), which used 625 scan lines for each frame, and refreshed each frame 25 times per second. In practical terms, what that meant is even if someone did send me a VHS copy of the latest episode of Doctor Who from England, it was impossible to play on a US VCR because the picture systems were fundamentally different. This didn’t stop an enterprising friend of my from buying (for a big packet of money, I am sure) a very early digital VCR that could transcode things for his thriving ‘alternate market’ video business. But for the rest of us in the US longing for a taste of British culture, we had to hope our local PBS channel would get properly (and legally) transcoded tapes from the BBC so we could enjoy Doctor Who, All Creatures Great and Small, or Are You Being Served? With the rise of the DVD, the problem was simplified a little, but there were still region codes to sort out, even if the signal was ultimately a digital one that would play on whatever display was connected. This meant that in 2015 if I wanted to watch Robin of Sherwood on DVD, I was out of luck unless I could find a Region 2 machine somewhere because even though I could order it online, it had not been ‘released’ for the US market.
The thing about both video cassettes and DVDs is they are a physical medium. They tangibly exist. So when I moved to the UK, I brought some American DVDs with me, and with a little care and a little extra cash I was able to find a multi-region DVD player (perfectly legal and available on Amazon) so I could play the American Region 1 discs I brought, as well as any Region 2 discs I purchased in the UK. Granted, by this point DVDs were very old school, but that was an advantage to me because it meant they were cheap, and as a PhD student, I had to be mindful of just how little I was making as a teaching assistant. Should I ever have to relocate again, I can take those DVDs with me wherever I go, and even if I have to get a multi-region player with a different power supply (240 volts in the UK, 120 volts in the US), I can still enjoy The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Blakes 7, and ‘Allo, ‘Allo.
In addition to purchasing DVDs, I have been a long-time Apple customer, and have left quite a virtual footprint in both the App Store and the iTunes Store. In this case, these purchases are digital, and because of that, I have recently encountered some peculiar quirks on the international front. Apple requires a user to sign in to the ‘storefront’ for only one region or nation at any given time. That setting determines what is available in both the App Store and on iTunes, either for streaming or for purchase. I am only speaking of Apple here, but I suspect every major company must in some way run afoul of these same international licensing issues. My first clue there was going to be a problem came not long after I arrived, when my wife found that the Amazon Prime membership she had in the US recognised she was in the UK, and instead of offering the full set of streaming shows and films she was used to, she only saw a few films and shows to ‘enjoy while you are on vacation’. We also began to learn that certain apps were only released to the UK App Store, so as US customers (in Apple’s perspective), we couldn’t download them.
I knew I was going to have to address the issue at some point but managed to put it off for two years. My situation was complicated for various reasons, not the least of which was having (legally) shared digital resources with people still in the US. In the end, we knew we had to make the switch, though. Maybe it has been the pandemic or the endless US election news, but this past summer we got serious about trying to switch over to the UK store. Being the academic that I am, I did a lot of research on how I might do this, and went through a shockingly frustrating tech support experience at Apple, but finally learned all the steps I would have to undertake to switch my nation for the two stores, and what the costs would be.
Honestly, for an international company, Apple could make this a whole lot easier. In order to finally make the switch, all iTunes subscriptions have to be cancelled and expired. This means not just Apple subscriptions, but anything like paid news, game subscriptions, anything subscribed to from the iTunes Store has to be stopped and run out before it is possible to change nations. Thus it took us several months to get ready for the change, as both my wife and I had to wait for some subscriptions to run out. Apple says they can try to do credit for some things over the phone, but given my experience trying to just get straight answers from them, I am doubtful that would go well. Importantly, I did learn that the fees we paid for extra cloud storage did NOT have to be cancelled, and would automatically update one we switched nations. I was understandable paranoid about keeping all the data in the cloud for my PhD intact as part of this transition.
Once everything was stopped, I was ready to attempt digital relocation. First, I had to completely disband and shut off all Family Sharing. Then, as an individual, I went in and switched my location to the UK, put in updated data for subscriptions, and agreed to update all the devices associated with my Apple ID. My wife, as an individual, had to do all this, too. Then, and only then were we able to re-establish our Family Group of two, and set up the music subscription. This what’s where things got complicated, and much more frustrating than they needed to be.
Music purchases (that is to say, something actually bought, not something selected as part of the streaming service) will transfer if they are licensed in the new region, but if there is not an equivalent track in the new nation’s library, it won’t be available. However, as a ‘benefit’ of Apple’s music system, any material that was pulled from a CD is normally ‘upgraded’ the admittedly very high-quality digital signal of iTunes music, and then the CD track is removed. When switching over, though, if the upgraded song is not in the new store, it is effectively lost, and either must be re-ripped from the CD, or found under the different heading in the new store and added again. In the end, it was necessary to actually just go through and manually wipe almost all of the iTunes files and start over, because it was such a mess, and kept giving us errors that the music we legally owned was not authorised for the region we were in.
Video purchases are even more problematic. Films and television shows are effectively wiped the moment you switch nations. Now, there is a way around this, as if you have downloaded a purchase to a device before making the switchover, it remains on that device, but does not get associated with the account again. That is to say, my purchased episodes of Doctor Who could sit on a single device, rather than being watchable on any device. It’s perfectly legal since technically I could still download all my video materials before switching over if I had enough room on a tablet or computer, but it does highlight some of the unexpected problems with digital international borders that anyone looking to relocate has to consider. The advantage of buying something digitally is supposed to be that the media will never wear out, and can be played anywhere you go, but you also don’t own it in as tangible a way as you do a disc or a tape.
Still, for all the hassle, I am happy to have finally made the leap. I’m rebuilding my streaming music library, and I have downloaded the local pizza takeaway app that was only available in the UK. It did give me a bit of joy, too, to see prices for songs and shows listed in pounds now, instead of dollars. But I think rather than get the Star Trek films again on Apple, I will be looking for DVDs, or maybe use this as a chance to move to Blu-Ray. The digital transition is far more difficult than it needs to be, but I suppose it’s all part of our efforts to settle in for a nice long stay at home, in Newcastle.