People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.

Adam Smith, 1776

What is Regional Coding?

Regional Coding is a deliberately introduced incompatibility in DVD players so that DVDs bought in one country do not necessarily play on players bought in other countries. Regional coding divides the world into six regions.

DVD Regional Codes

  1. USA, Canada & US Territories
  2. Europe, Japan, South Africa, Middle East (including Egypt)
  3. South East Asia, East Asia (including Hong Kong but not China)
  4. Australia, New Zealand, Mexico, Central & South America, Caribbean and Pacific Islands.
  5. Former Soviet Union, Indian Subcontinent, Africa, North Korea, and Mongolia
  6. China (excluding Hong Kong)

The particular tragedy for Olivia fans is that her main markets, US, Europe and Australia span three different regions.

How does it work

If you live in the United States you will have a player set to play Region 1 discs, and a Xanadu DVD sold in your local Wal-Mart will be Region 1 coded. Since the code of the disc matches the player everything works just fine and you aren't troubled.

People in Europe will have Region 2 players, and the result of regional coding is that you'll have no joy with that DVD - blank screen and hostile notices that you're trying to buck the system. One expensive beermat.

How does regional coding it get in your way?

Indeed, in 2002 if you want a DVD of Xanadu in Region 2 you were entirely out of luck, since the European market for Xanadu DVDs has not been enough to entice anyone to make one (they did get round to it. In general, because the European DVD market is so much smaller than the US market, European DVDs are often produced to a lower standard of mastering and you get fewer extras on them.

Australians are also cut off from the US market by RC. ONJ fans however can at least take comfort in the fact that Olivia is reasonably popular in Australia relative to the market size, so you can get an Australian Region 4 copy of Xanadu. Just don't take it to England or the US and expect it to play.

Why did I pay for this dysfunctional behaviour?

To make Hollywood richer, and you poorer. You paid extra to have this deliberate dysfunctionality built into your DVD player, because movie studios didn't like the idea of non US markets importing DVDs from before the cinema release - thus reducing their cinema takings. Historically movies were first shown in US theaters. Once the film runs had ended the reels were transported to Europe and run again. Rather than solving the problem by showing movies simultaneously across the world, the Hollywood monopoly behaved as Adam Smith said they would. They got together and balkanised the market with Regional Coding.

Why isn't this a problem on video?

It was a problem - but as a result of history, not of monopolistic malice. The reasons that the United States and Japan use a video system (NTSC) incompatible with the rest of the world (PAL in the rest of the English speaking world and most of Western Europe) are lost in the mists of time and engineering expediency, when the television frame rates had to be close to the local AC main frequency which is 60Hz in the US and parts of Japan and 50Hz everywhere else. But in general European videos don't play on US equipment and vice versa. This was an incompatibility that arose from the limitations of post-war vacuum tube technology and the world was stuck with it, paradoxically, until the first digital video media, which was DVD for the consumer market.

The NTSC/PAL incompatibility served the movie studios well, and they liked it so much that once engineers had designed the problem out they insisted that they design an even worse incompatibility back in.

What can you do about it?

Europeans have realised that they are being had so there is an active market in players that have been hacked to disable regional coding, though Hollywood is fighting back with Regional Code Enhancement to counter the rise of region-free players. Before buying a DVD player specify that you want to be able to play DVDs from anywhere - perhaps order up a US NTSC disc from Amazon to test it with. Most of the low-cost and no-name brands of DVD players are made in China, where economic forces mean that the region code is software-set. If you search for the model number on the web you will often find the keystrokes or combination of buttons you need to push to convert your player from one region to another.

Blu-Ray update

Blu-ray Regional Codes

  1. America (North and South), Japan, Korea, SE Asia
  2. Europe, Africa, Middle East, Australia, New Zealand
  3. China, India, Russia, Central and South Asia.

When this article was first written in the early 1990s regional coding was a major pain for people, but the invisible hand of the market destroyed Hollywood's anticompetitive action by hacking DVD. Hollywood had another go with Blu-ray. Regional coding is less used with Blu-Ray - fewer than half of releases have it. Cracking it is still difficult (2014) though at least Australian and European fans have been reunited.

Not much ONJ material will be hi-def - the movies can go to Blu-Ray but her 1982 concert will remain resolutely standard-def because that's how it was shot

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