Last updated : 16th February 2002
I am frequently asked "Will the Contender videos and DVDs play in my country?". Unfortunately the answer is complicated and depends entirely on personal circumstances and available equipment. The aim of this page, then, is to clarify these issues. I don't profess to be an expert in these matters and although I believe the information below to be technically accurate, any corrections and/or additional information would be gratefully received! If anyone can recommend retailers specialising in conversion issues, I would be happy to link to them.
Although many of you will be looking at this page solely for DVD purposes, please read the video section too as much of the information it contains is applicable to both types of media.
Firstly let's examine the legal situation with regards to the transglobal trade of videos and DVDs....
Legalities of import/export of videos and DVDs
You may be aware that Contender can only distribute their Professionals material to retailers in the UK and/or sell directly to UK customers. The nature of their contract with Mark 1 (who own the video/DVD rights to the show) is said to comprise a "UK-only distribution license". This allows for the possibility of another company to bid for distribution rights for other countries. (Actually there was absolutely no reason why Contender couldn't negotiate with Mark 1 for exclusive worldwide distribution but they have chosen not to explore this opportunity - at least, not yet.)
This UK-only limitation means that it would be illegal for Contender to export their videos/DVDs overseas. However that doesn't mean non-UK'ers can't legally obtain them...
Paradoxically overseas fans can import Contender product for personal use from retailers. It is perfectly legal for, say, US-based fans to import British video material, even if the licensee is bound to the UK. Certainly retailers such as Amazon sell to individual overseas purchasers.
So why is it that Contender cannot export but non-UK fans can import? Well it's essentially down to the fact that as an individual, you are perfectly entitled to acquire material for personal use. Consider the fact that you can come to the UK for a holiday, buy a video while you're here and quite legally take it home with you. There's no legal difference between that and simply using a UK-based internet mail order company from the comfort of your own home. Of course that means that the retailer is exporting the material but, again, as they're only sending it to an individual for personal use, no laws have been broken. Contender might argue this, too, if they were to ship items to individuals overseas but as their contract with Mark 1 explicitly limits their activities to the UK, they would risk losing their license. Retailers, on the other hand, are not bound by the license (after all, they didn't sign the contract!) and thus can freely export material to individuals.
However it would probably be judged illegal for an individual to import tapes/disks with the intent of selling them on as that would breach the terms of "personal use". This is very much a grey area and the legal position varies from country to country. I think it would be safe to import two or three copies of the same title in a single shipment but any more than this may arouse the suspicions of Customs! Conversely if you imported a dozen different titles then Customs are not likely to query this.
On the subject of Customs, one must bear in mind the liability for any charges and/or taxes that are applicable in your country when importing goods. For UK residents a charge is only made when the value of the goods exceeds a certain amount (currently set at 18.00GBP) when importing goods that originate from outside Europe. Given that Contender are planning to issue the DVDs in boxset form only, overseas fans importing them may well fall foul of their own country's "threshold". Most governments run websites explaining the local Customs situation.
Interestingly, however, as governments within the "European Community" try to encourage their citizens to forge stronger ties, personal importation of goods from one EC country to another longer attracts any form of customs charge at all. However I would advise you to check this is indeed the case for your own country!
To summarise, then:
Although Contender's contract with Mark 1 specifically disallows them to export their product outside the UK, it is perfectly legal for overseas fans to acquire it from UK retailers on a personal importation basis. Be aware, however, of any Customs fees and importation taxes that may apply.
OK, now let's cover the aspects dealing with the technical viability of the material...
I get e-mails from people confused about the terms "PAL", "NTSC" and "VHS". A common query that always makes me smile is "Are the Contender tapes PAL or VHS?". As we shall see, they are actually both!...
With videocassettes buyers originally had two issues to consider. There was the physical make-up of the cassette itself and the type of recording signal needed for one's television to discern a recognisable picture. Firstly we'll look at physical format...
In the dawning of domestic video players there was a choice of three different physical formats: Sony's BetaMax system, Philips 2000 and VHS (Video Home System) by JVC. They were not compatible with each other: if you had a BetaMax video player then you HAD to use BetaMax cassettes with it. (In fact there were another four formats too but they were rather obscure and fizzled out pretty quickly.) Clearly if home video was to succeed and for distributors to avoid the expense of having to issue material on three different cassette formats, some rationalisation was required. For several years the respective manufacturers slugged it out with each other. Eventually Philips was forced out by the larger Japanese rivals but, up until the mid-1980s, BetaMax and VHS were pretty evenly matched. However although offering superior picture quality, BetaMax players and cassettes were more costly to produce and, therefore, to buy. Given that in Europe even a basic machine cost the over 800GBP in the early 1980s (about 2000GBP in today's money!), the more cost-effective VHS solution eventually won the day... and millions of BetaMax owers found themselves "stranded" as their format was quickly abandoned by distributors!
So that left VHS to rule supreme.
You may have heard of "Super-VHS" or "S-VHS". This revised standard (introduced in the early 1990s) offers moderately improved picture quality over ordinary VHS. However in order to take advantage of this, one must purchase both an S-VHS video player and use costly S-VHS videocassettes. In terms of releases for the domestic market, material has never been issued on S-VHS cassettes and existing S-VHS players can happily play ordinary VHS tapes anyway. Therefore, for our purposes, S-VHS is not an issue.
Another recent innovation is "Digital-VHS" or "D-VHS". Again one needs specialised equipment and cassettes for this but the kit can not be used to play ordinary VHS tapes. But given that recordable DVD is now starting to emerge, it's unlikely that D-VHS will take off.
A lot of stuff to take in there but it can all be summed up very simply....
To this day VHS remains the sole world standard for the physical size and spooling mechanism of domestic videocassettes. The question of "Is this VHS?" is essentially irrelevant - apart from the rare D-VHS format, ALL modern domestic videocassettes throughout the world are VHS, as are the video players/recorders themselves. Even if you have an S-VHS player, you can use VHS cassettes.
(Fortunately this "battle of the formats" has not befallen DVD - from the off we had a single, established standard, entailing a five-inch silver disk.)
PAL, SECAM and NTSC
Although there are no longer any issues surrounding the physical make-up of videocassettes, buyers have to consider the type of signal accepted by their television sets and thus recorded on the tape (and DVD). Unfortunately this issue IS highly complicated, so pay attention! ;-)
In order to receive a picture transmitted by a television station, your TV must be able to understand and decode the type of signal being broadcast. There are three such television signal systems used in the world and each country adopts a particular one. (I'm not aware of any countries that use more than one). The three signal systems are:
- PAL (Phase Alternating Line) - used in Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, Brazil, Iceland, Greenland, UK, Germany, Spain, most of western Europe, South Africa, several African states, China, Hong Kong.
- SECAM (Societe Electronique pour Couleur Avec Memoire) - used in France, non-PAL African states, Iran, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Russia and many ex-USSR countries.
- NTSC (National Television Standards Committee) - used in USA, Canada, most of Central America, Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Philippines.
I'll explain the differences between them later.
For a comprehensive country-by-country listing, check here.
In order for you to display a picture from a videocassette, the recording must also conform to the TV signal used in your country. For example as American TVs expect an NTSC signal from broadcasters, so videocassettes produced for the United States must be recorded in NTSC and, of course, the actual video player expects an NTSC signal. Britain uses the PAL system, so TVs expect a PAL signal, hence cassettes for the UK market must be recorded in PAL and video players here are manufactured to accept PAL recordings.
Unfortunately PAL, SECAM and NTSC are not compatible with each other, so although a (VHS) tape recorded in the UK with a PAL signal can be physically inserted and played in an American-market machine, the player of course expects an NTSC recording and so won't be able to make sense of the tape - the result will be a completely unrecognisable picture on your TV, or the video player may not output a signal at all. Similarly a player engineered for SECAM-encoded cassettes will not be able resolve NTSC-coded American or Japanese recordings. However, as we shall see, this situation has changed recently to the advantage of PAL and SECAM players.
As Contender only have the rights to distribute their tapes (and DVDs) in the UK, obviously the only signal format they are employing is PAL. (Any Contender cassettes recorded in NTSC or SECAM that you may come across are pirate copies!)...
However from the mid-1990's a burgeoning business in international personal trading over the Internet and the wealth of material available from American video distributors generated demand for the capability to play NTSC tapes in PAL and SECAM territories (particularly in the UK where, as has been seen with a particular Professionals episode, tapes bought in British stores have often been subjected to all sorts of barmy censorship!). The demand was also fuelled, to a lesser degree, by NTSC users wishing to send "home movie" camcorder recordings to friends and family in PAL or SECAM countries.
So gradually mid-range PAL and SECAM video players were manufactured with "multi-system" capabilities: additional circuitry to handle NTSC-encoded tapes. In the early days, however, the video player did not actually convert the signal, which meant that it simply output the raw NTSC. This, of course, meant that your TV would also have to be able to handle NTSC. Thankfully in more recent years video players often actually convert NTSC into PAL or SECAM: a "multi-system converter". Note, however, that the ability of a PAL or SECAM video recorder to actually record in NTSC is unusual and only found on the more expensive machines.
Strangely the big studios seemed unconcerned that manufacturers were including signal conversion circuitry in their video players, though at the time the amount of international trading "traffic" was still relatively small and hardly worth worrying about. No one could have predicted just how big and sudden the Internet trading boom was going to be!
The main tangible difference between NTSC, PAL and SECAM is the number of horizontal "lines" that make up the picture. For NTSC it is 525, while PAL and SECAM encompass 625 (obviously yielding superior quality). This meant that the earlier PAL or SECAM video players that accepted but did not actually convert NTSC still only produced a 525-line picture. The TV, then, left the bottom 100 lines of the screen blank! (Though you still saw the whole picture - albeit in a slightly odd proportion - it wasn't as though Doyle would get "cut off at the knees"!) However more modern TVs (those manufactured in the last five years or so) will "stretch" an NTSC signal to 625 lines.
So, for PAL and SECAM users wishing to view each other's or NTSC videocassettes, the situation is quite positive. One may have to actually buy a new video player that can perform format conversion but such machines are readily available and relatively inexpensive these days.
This fortuitous situation has not generally been reflected in the Americas, which is a victim of its own "wealth". Given that the United States has by far the world's largest "library" of videocassettes and DVDs (in NTSC format, of course), demand for PAL or SECAM material has been negligible. Therefore very few NTSC video players can handle PAL.
So if you live in an NTSC territory, what options are available to you in order to play PAL or SECAM videocassettes? There are companies that offer a service whereby the original PAL/SECAM material will be copied and converted into NTSC. However this is normally inviably expensive...
A better long-term solution is, of course, a "multi-system" video player that can handle all three formats. Again, though, you should note the difference between those players that merely accept and output a "foreign" signal and those that accept and convert it (into NTSC).
Unfortunately relatively low demand means that decent multi-system converters are quite pricey - budget for at least 350USD. For even more money you can obtain one that can actually record in PAL or SECAM, too (as well as NTSC, of course).
(Ironically another reason for the lack of conversion-capable video players in NTSC territories is the fact that DVD is now supplanting video, anyway.)
To save money it may be feasible for NTSC users to import a European multi-system converter player, however you would need to investigate whether the unit's power supply would work with your own country's mains power. For example the mains power supply in the UK outputs a standard 230 volt whereas it's only 110V in many other countries. Some units, however, allow you to select between the two, usually via a little switch on the back of the unit. Alternatively you could simply buy an appropriate power transformer for a few dollars.
You may have heard of "standalone" converters: little black boxes that sit between the player and the TV to perform the signal conversion that compensates for an older non-converting multi-system video player. (Radio Shack sell one here for 200USD but I'm sure many others must be available at keener prices.) However these are only of any use if your player is actually capable of accepting and outputting PAL and/or SECAM signals in the first place. If not then the chances are it won't output any signal for the black box to convert!
If you've got this far then I'm glad you haven't given up! We are now over the worst bit!
Here's a quick summary of the issues surrounding the television signal formats...
Different countries adopt one of three signal formats for broadcasting television programmes that can be received and viewed by that country's residents. The three formats are PAL, SECAM and NTSC. The signal applicable to you depends entirely on which country you live in and you must make yourself aware of it.
Ergo video players and videocassette recordings must both conform to the signal format applicable to that country.
Unfortunately the three systems are not compatible with each other. For this reason a "multi-system" video player that is capable of accepting (and, hopefully, converting) a "foreign" signal is imperative. If the player accepts but does not actually convert the signal, then you will either need a TV set that can accept it or you will have to acquire a standalone converter. On the other hand newer multi-system machines both accept a "foreign" signal and also convert it into your "native" signal. For example a converter player in the UK can accept NTSC- and SECAM-encoded tapes AND actually convert these signals into PAL, which can then be sent directly to a PAL-only TV set. When buying such a unit, look out for the term "multi-system converter".
For PAL and SECAM territories, such machines are readily available and relatively inexpensive.
Unfortunately NTSC territories such as the USA have presented little demand for the ability to handle non-NTSC recordings and so multi-system video players are scarce and expensive. You may consider importing a (cheaper) unit from Europe but remember to consider its power requirements.
If you opt to buy a separate standalone converter "black-box", your VCR must still be capable of at least accepting and outputting PAL and/or SECAM signals - standard NTSC-only players will not do this.
As mentioned earlier there is only one physical form factor for DVD media: a five-inch silver disk. So there are no "VHS vs BetaMax" issues to worry about.
PAL, SECAM and NTSC
Obviously as we're still using a TV to view the picture, the usual three signal standards have to be considered and so disks are encoded in one of these formats. (Actually it would be entirely possible for a distributor with world-wide rights to issue a feature film with, say, an NTSC version on one side of the disk and a PAL version on the other. However, as far as I'm aware, no such disks exist.)
Once again worldwide interest in American material has been extremely strong, generating demand for PAL- and SECAM-territory DVD players to be able to handle NTSC-format disks. For reasons which will be come clear, all players in non-NTSC territories appear to possess this capability anyway.
As with video players, however, demand for PAL or SECAM disks in NTSC territories has been negligible. However multisystem DVD players are available - here are some examples.
However, irrespective of which part of the world you live in, make sure you are aware of whether your prospective DVD player will actually convert a "foreign" signal into your native one. This is not always made clear in manufacturers' publicity material. If the player does not actually convert the signal then, once again, you'll either need a TV that can handle it or you'll have to buy a standalone converter.
(As an aside, if you decide you need standalone converters for both video and DVD, it may be possible to buy just one converter that will allow you to connect both the video player and DVD player simultaneously.)
Unfortunately this isn't the end of the story and there is one huge spanner in works for everyone interested in DVDs... "Regional Coding". This is a technique (which couldn't be applied to video) devised by the industry in an attempt to prevent cross-national selling of DVD disks. There are two reasons why the industry wants this. Firstly it is quite common for the latest blockbuster films to be released into American cinemas and then video and DVD many months before they hit other parts of the world. Hollywood studios are therefore concerned that people in other territories will simply import the American disks rather than waiting for a theatrical release. Of course what studios want is for people to pay to see the movie in the cinema and then buy it on video/DVD as well! That's understandable but one has to ask why there is a huge gap between US and Rest-of-the-World theatrical releases in the first place!
There is also a more cynical reason for trying to prevent cross-national sales. In Europe - and especially the UK - high-street prices for DVDs are far greater ("high street-prices"!) than in many other countries. This happens basically because the industry knows it can get away with it (well, most of the time!). Older Brits in particular are their own worst enemy when it comes to paying over the odds - even if they complain about the prices... they'll still pay 'em! And the studios know this. Although it is the retailers who actually set the store price, they are essentially dictated (sorry, "guided") by the studios, who, of course, receive a percentage of the profits made on sales. So clearly the studios would prefer a Brit to pay 20GBP for a UK disk, rather than the US version which retails at two-thirds of the price. (Interestingly, however, when James Cameron's Titanic was issued on DVD in the UK, the studios were, ahem, "suggesting" a retail price of at least 30GBP - fifty percent higher than most new high-profile movie releases. In this instance there was a backlash from a surprising corner: the retailers themselves revolted and many actually refused to stock it! After a couple of weeks the price was reduced to around 25GBP.)
However with the growth of Internet trading, mass importation of cheaper US disks was inevitable. But it was realised that the very technology behind DVD could be used to prevent players from playing disks intended for other regions. Conversely the industry also agreed that the small number of films produced in other parts of the world should not be available to Americans until after a US-based theatrical and/or DVD release...
Thus the concept of "Regional Coding" was born. Basically the world has been divided into six DVD "regions", each one numbered, with the intention that a disk "coded" to be played in one region cannot be played by a machine configured for another region. The six global regions are illustrated below.
Disks contain some data which reveals the region it "belongs" to. DVD players are usually supplied configured to play disks solely for the region applicable to the purchaser's location. Obviously, then, American players are normally configured to only play Region 1 disks, UK players are normally configued for Region 2 and Australian players for Region 4. When a disk is inserted a little program runs on it to check which region the player is configured for. If that result matches the region data on the disk itself, then the disk instructs the player to proceed. If there is a mismatch then the disk instructs the player to cease playing (and usually display a warning message to the user).
So it doesn't matter whether your American-market DVD player can handle the PAL format: if it is not configured to allow Region 2, you won't be able to play a European-market disk. Well, that's the theory...
In fact due to the cost-effective "universal" nature of manufacturing these days, it is easier and cheaper for player manufacturers to leave the machine "unconfigured" prior to leaving the factory. Once it reaches its intended country, the local distributor would use a special tool (or a hidden menu option) to select the appropriate region code (and thus disable the other five) before sending it on to the shops...
Also consider the fact that some Regions contain countries which use different TV signal formats. For example Region 2 encompasses Germany, France and Japan, who require PAL, SECAM and NTSC respectively. On a global scale, then, it is more cost effective to manufacture players that can handle all three formats, irrespective of which country they will ultimately be sold in. Note, however, that like "multi-system" video players, your DVD unit may or may not not offer the capability of actually converting a "foreign" signal into your "native" one, so the same caveat applies and you'll need to research this carefully.
You may come across disks that are said to be "region free" or Region 0. Quite simply these disks do not perform any region code checking and merely instruct the player to play the film. This usually happens with the more reputable licensees who have acquired worldwide rights (though, of course, still have to choose between NTSC and PAL).
Multi-Region DVD players
DVD was slow to catch on in Europe. Interest in Laser Disks - introduced in the late 1970s - had always been minimal, mainly due to the high cost of the players - and it was felt DVD was going the same way. Initially the problem was due to the lack of Region 2 titles available. And as sales of machines remained relatively low, distributors were not inclined to release disks - a vicious circle. However something rather remarkable happened. Consumer electronics manufacturer Samsung cottoned on to Europeans bemoaning the fact that, as usual, the USA was years ahead in having plenty of material to offer, none of which could be played by European machines because of Region Coding. Given that their machines were already PAL/NTSC capable, Samsung allegedly "leaked" information - which amounted to a small sequence of keypresses on the remote control - revealing how to reactivate the five region codes that had previously been disabled by their distributors. Furthermore the machines could actually be set, via a menu option, to actually convert an NTSC disk into a PAL signal, which meant an NTSC-capable TV was not required.
This single event effectively kick-started the DVD revolution in Europe and, of course, made Samsung a fortune! Whatever the rights and wrongs of the region code "bypass", it's almost certain that without it, DVD would never have taken off in Europe (nor any other non-US region for that matter).
Today it is estimated that at least thirty percent of DVD players sold in Europe have been modified for multi-region use.
Of course the Hollywood studios were furious about this situation, as were other player manufacturers who were struggling to sell their own machines. Eventually Samsung were forced into giving an undertaking that they would not allow their machines to be so easily "out-of-the-box hackable" in future. Nevertheless, although manufacturers cannot "officially" release data pertaining to region code customisation and most "hacks" can now only be done by specialists who alter the actual hardware, they are begrudgingly aware that an "unhackable" player simply will not sell in viable quantities.
Once again, however, North Americans lose out. As with video, there has been little demand for material that is either PAL/SECAM-encoded or region-hackable players, given the vast number of DVD titles available in the US itself. Nevertheless such machines are available, even if the "customisation" involves a hardware "tweak" by a specialist.
Although Region Coding may be understandable with the latest blockbuster movies, it seems rather pointless for "vintage" material like The Professionals. The problem is that Contender may only distribute DVDs (and videos) in the UK and are therefore legally bound to use any available technology to limit as much as possible the exportation of disks outside the UK. Obviously this is rather academic given that Region 2 actually encompasses the whole of Europe and that's another reason why the whole Region Coding concept is ridiculous... but there we have it! If Contender decided to acquire the rights for Australasia, for example, then they could actually apply region 2 and region 4 codings to the same disks - thereby making the disks "dual-region". (Aussie rights are something I've suggested to Contender on a number of occasions but they have yet to pursue this opportunity.)
Clearly the concept of Region Coding is in direct opposition to the desire to foster open trading links with other countries and offer wider consumer choice. As a result legal challenges are currently being mounted in a few countries (notably Australia) in an attempt to force the studios to climb down. At present, however, Region Coding remains a legal mechanism.
Regional Code Enhancement ("RCE")
Some readers may have heard of RCE. This was an attempt by Hollywood to outwit multi-region DVD players. The idea is that when the disk is loaded, the region-checking program would ensure that the machine was only configured to allow the region that matched that of the disk. If the program found that the machine would also respond to any of the other five region codes, then it would prevent the player from proceeding. Thus a multi-region machine could never play a disk encoded with RCE... or so Hollywood hoped! The hardware hackers realised that multi-region machines were being beaten by RCE simply because all six region codes were "open" simultaneously. The answer was to allow the user to set the player's region code manually (via a series of remote control keypresses), thereby disbarring the other five. That way it would behave exactly like a genuine single-region machine and thus fox an RCE disk.
Some early DVD players that did not provide manual selection of region codes were indeed tripped up by RCE but modifications were made available for most of them to tackle this.
The studios have been foiled again and consequently RCE has never really taken off. To exacerbate matters American studios overlooked the fact that "unbeatable" Region 1 RCE disks would cause problems for multi-region machines owned by Region 1 residents - the very market that the disks are intended for!
To summarise the DVD situation, then...
As with videocassettes, DVD disks are encoded in one of the three TV signal formats: PAL, SECAM or NTSC. Fortunately for reasons of reducing global manufacturing costs, most DVD players throughout the world can handle all three formats BUT you need to check that the player you're interested in will actually convert a "foreign" signal disk into your "native" signal, otherwise you'll need either a standalone converter to sit between the DVD player and the TV, or your TV must also be able to handle the three signal types.
Folks living in countries that do not fall within Region 2 and who wish to buy Professionals DVDs (or any R2 disks) must also ensure their prospective player is capable of being "region-selectable". Although Region Coding Enhancement hasn't been taken up seriously, it would make sense to purchase a machine which allows the code to be set manually (via the remote control) every time you insert a disk. The same, of course, also applies to non-R1 users who wish to play R1 disks.
When I initially sat down to write this article, I thought it would be pretty straightforward. However the further I got into it, the more permutations I became aware of and there was a dawning realisation that this is a bit of a minefield! However the questions one needs to ask about importing and successfully playing videos/DVDs are essentially down to TV signal format and, in the case of DVD, regional coding. I hope I've covered these issues clearly and concisely here. The difficult part may be in finding out what your existing equipment (or proposed new equipment) is capable of. Good luck!!
I am quite happy to answer e-mails on any of the issues raised.
Video cover reproduced by kind permission of Richard Bridgwood with kind assistance of Dean Harmer.