Carefully Assess Actual Needs in Choosing Online On-demand Video Streaming Services Read the Service Terms and Viewing Restrictions Thoroughly to Avoid Loss

14 May 2020
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衡量需要小心选择网上串流点播服务  细阅使用条款及收看限制免招损

“Binge-watching drama series/watching movies” are the daily entertainment of many people and has become the popular pastime as people stay home to fight against the COVID-19 epidemic. The Consumer Council reviewed the on-demand services provided by 11 paid online video streaming platforms, and found that there were considerable disparities among the platforms in terms of payment, trial, right to browse video libraries, restrictions on offline viewing and synchronous streaming, as well as customer service support. 3 of the subscription platforms had low transparency to the extent that customers cannot even browse the video library before setting up an account/making payment. It would be hard for consumers to compare the videos and services offered by the platforms. In addition, there were restrictions on offline viewing and synchronous streaming by all the reviewed platforms, which may fall short of the consumers’ expectation of watching videos whenever and wherever they like. The Council reminds consumers that on-demand services available on the market are dazzlingly diverse. Consumers should assess their own viewing habits and usage before choosing a suitable mode of on-demand service. They should refrain from subscribing too many platforms rashly as this would not only exceed their actual needs and incur excessive expenses, but may also affect their social interaction due to over-indulgence in watching drama series and films, as well as losing the time to foster other interests.

This study reviewed 11 paid online video streaming platforms which mainly offered movies and/or drama series, of which 3 provided both options of subscription and single video rental; 4 offered subscription service, while 3 platforms charged for single video rental. The remaining 1 permitted watching of some videos for free, and allowed viewing of all videos after upgrading the membership. The Council examined in detail the fees, service terms and conditions of each platform through trial, and identified the following 6 key areas to which consumers should pay attention before purchasing any on-demand services.

Subscription platform: Subscription may be extended automatically. Beware of free trial turning into charged service.

Subscription service was generally charged by month in advance. The monthly fees for 7 platforms ranged from around $47 (US$5.99) to $138. 1 of them had 5 different monthly payment plans and charges from $53 to $93 according to the number of screens, quality of the videos and the type of devices used for watching videos. There was another platform which offered free access to certain videos. An upgraded membership with monthly payment of $28 was eligible for watching and downloading all the videos, with no insertion of video advertisement.

The survey found that 3 subscription platforms did not allow browsing of the full video catalogue before payment. Among them, the video catalogues of 2 subscription platforms could not be accessed before creating an account and making payment. Similarly, another subscription platform only permitted browsing of the video catalogue on a free trial basis after setting up an account, choosing a monthly plan and providing payment information. There were 3 subscription platforms offering a free 7-day or 1-month trial. However, consumers were required to set up an account by submitting payment information, such as credit card details, before activating the trial service.  Should consumers fail to cancel the trial service in time, subscription would be extended automatically and charge would then be incurred.

Consumers should note that all subscription platforms would automatically extend the subscription service until the user filed the termination application. Nevertheless, platforms had different rules for cancelling a subscription. Only 3 platforms allowed cancellation of subscription at any time and the cancellation would take effect in the next billing cycle. Other platforms required termination application to be submitted 1 to 2 days before the next billing cycle, or at least 30 days in advance. The service termination of some platforms would vary, depending on the mode of subscription. Consumers should fully understand the terms of service agreement in advance. Otherwise, there is a chance of paying more for non-refundable prepayment simply because they have missed the tentative deadline.

As to the procedures for cancellation of subscription service, there were 4 platforms allowing users to conveniently login and press the “unsubscribe” button directly. The termination procedures of other platforms included submitting cancellation application through telephone hotline, or online text live chat. If the streaming service was subscribed or paid through a third party such as telecommunication service provider, there was a need to abide by the termination instruction of the third party, and the submission time limit may vary.

Single movie rental: More convenient to select-and-view. Pay attention to the viewing time limit for no wastage.

As for single movie rental, the fees ranged from $18 to $38 per movie, depending on the movie and/or its video quality. Consumers could freely browse the movie library, check information such as the charging scheme and video quality, before renting the movie of his/her choice. This operation mode was more transparent. However, the viewing period of the rented movies varied among the platforms. 4 platforms allowed viewing within 30 days after making payment but the watching period would expire in 48 hours after the watching was started. The viewing period of the rest was as short as 48 hours after making payment. Consumers should take note of the viewing time limit of different platforms, so as to avoid missing the chance of enjoying the movies.

 

 

Synchronous streaming: There may be quota set for switching devices. Half of the subscription platforms allowed only 2 gadgets to stream simultaneously.

Most (10) of the streaming platforms support mobile devices, computers and smart TVs and allow users to switch between devices at any time to play videos on-demand. However, the subscription plan of 1 platform did not support multiple gadgets simultaneously. Should consumers use different types of devices, they were required to purchase several plans, which was relatively inconvenient. If the maximum number of registered devices was reached, 2 of these platforms would limit the number of times in switching the devices. The respective restrictions were switching 1 registered device per month, and a maximum of 12 times per year.

Furthermore, sharing of the subscription services with family and friends was also subjected to the terms and conditions of synchronous streaming. Half of the subscription platforms only enabled the synchronous streaming of different videos on 2 devices, while 1 platform allowed login by only 1 device at a time and did not support synchronous streaming. Only 1 platform offered several subscription plans in accordance with the number of streaming screens. Consumers are advised to choose appropriate plans based on their actual needs.

 

Offline viewing: Number of downloads may be restricted. Pay attention to the retention period of videos.

A lot of consumers would download the videos in advance for offline viewing at any time in order to save the mobile data usage during streaming. However, the survey found that some subscription platforms would charge an extra $38 per month or $2 for each episode (together with a 12-month contract) for activating the downloading function. Consumers should also note that downloading of videos from subscription platforms was not unlimited. 1 platform only allowed downloads of each video not more than twice a year; while 2 platforms limited the number of downloads for some videos.  All subscription platforms set a retention period for offline videos, ranging from 48 hours to 30 days. 4 platforms would even shorten the retention period to 48 hours once the offline video has started to play. Consumers who prefer watching videos offline should note whether the platforms have set limits on the times of downloading and the retention period.

As to the platforms for single movie rental, apart from 2 which did not support the downloading function, the remaining 4 allow downloading of the movies to mobile devices and the retention period of the offline movies was generally the same as the rental validity period. However, 1 platform would shorten the retention period to 48 hours after the “download” button was pressed. Consumers should pay attention to the movie’s retention and viewing time limit before downloading. There is a chance of wasting money if a movie could not be watched in time because it has been rented or downloaded earlier than necessary.

Customer services: Inconvenient mode of contact may affect user experience.

The review of customer services offered by various platforms found that 1 platform merely provided customers with an overseas address and overseas fax number for contact. This may pose difficulty for consumers to get access to customer service assistance and follow-up within a short time. Other platforms supported contact by phone, email and/or filling in an enquiry form on the website. 6 of them enabled customers to have instant text communication with the customer service staff online, which actualizes the fast and convenient characteristics of streaming platforms.

Online privacy: Pay attention if personal data is properly protected.

Even though the procedure for purchasing streaming platform service is simple, care should be taken when disclosing personal data to the third party. Consumers should pay due attention and consider whether the relevant requirements are reasonable and whether their privacy is well protected. When setting up an account, streaming platforms would usually display prominently the terms and conditions of service with a link of the personal information collection statement or privacy policy; listing clearly which types of personal data are collected; how they are used and disclosed; how to ensure data protection; and the rights of customers to change and request for deletion of personal data, etc. Before coming to an agreement of the clauses concerned, consumers should examine the terms and conditions carefully in order to safeguard their rights and interests.

The Council reminds that in addition to paid video streaming platforms, some free platforms which offer local and overseas movies and drama series are commonly found online. However, the legitimacy of such free on-demand streaming services is in doubt, and users may inadvertently commit the infringing act. Consumers should thus select video streaming platforms prudently and shall take note of all the advices that the Council offers.

The Consumer Council reserves all its right (including copyright) in respect of CHOICE magazine and Online CHOICE.