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In this file photo released by HBO, Steve Buscemi, left, and Kelly Macdonald are shown in a scene from the HBO series, Boardwalk Empire. Astral Media’s new service will allow subscribers to watch the program on their mobile devices. (Macall B. Polay/AP)
In this file photo released by HBO, Steve Buscemi, left, and Kelly Macdonald are shown in a scene from the HBO series, Boardwalk Empire. Astral Media’s new service will allow subscribers to watch the program on their mobile devices. (Macall B. Polay/AP)

Astral’s mobile service takes aim at Netflix Add to ...

Canadians can now watch HBO and Movie Network programming on their computers and mobile devices, but only if they subscribe to the premium service through their television provider.

After more than a year in development, Astral Media Inc. released its mobile product Wednesday at its annual general meeting. The service, called The Movie Network GO, allows anyone who subscribes to HBO and The Movie Network to watch shows such as Game of Thrones, Girls and Boardwalk Empire (and hundreds of movies) when they are away from their televisions.

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It is the type of product Canadian providers must develop if they are going to compete with foreign companies such as Netflix, said chief executive officer Ian Greenberg at the Montreal-based company’s annual general meeting, as he made the case for his company’s $3-billion merger with BCE Inc., which regulators have already rejected once but will reconsider this spring.

“The Canadian broadcasting system is undergoing rapid change driven mainly by the emergence of foreign Internet-based broadcasters,” said Mr. Greenberg. “These new services do very little to support our culture and our economy, do not create Canadian content, do not hire Canadians, do not pay taxes in this country.”

As more viewers turn to mobile devices to watch television and movies, television providers and content producers such as Astral are trying to find ways to keep them from dropping their services or downgrading to less expensive packages. Bell and Astral have said their proposed merger is designed to help Bell control the costs of acquiring content, and that together they could develop more products – such as Movie Network GO – to deliver programming to subscribers.

Astral and the cable and satellite providers that carry its channels think of HBO and Movie Network content as premium services that ensure customers don’t cut their cords in favour of offerings such as Netflix or look elsewhere for its programs.

“We are a month-to-month subscription service so retention is important,” said Domenic Vivolo, senior vice-president of sales and marketing. “And this is another way of trying to convince people not to pirate. If it’s easy, if it’s convenient, why would you pirate? You’ve got the best quality, instead of searching frantically and downloading viruses. We’re trying to make it as easy as possible for the consumer.”

Despite concerns about the effects of services such as Netflix, reports indicate the company isn’t actually eating away at cable and satellite subscriptions yet. Media Technology Monitor reported earlier this week that Netflix users were more likely than others to subscribe to premium cable packages that would include channels such as HBO.

That doesn’t comfort Canadian media executives, who warned that foreign competitors would overrun the Canadian system if regulators don’t allow companies such as Bell and Rogers Communications Inc. to bulk up on content that can be used to build their own competing products.

“The Canadian system was designed 40 years ago and hasn’t been updated for all of the changes in the industry,” Bell Media president Kevin Crull said, speaking at an event for writers and producers Tuesday. “How many of you filed an intervention in support of Astral’s acquisition by Bell? Not a lot. But do you think scale matters? Not a lot of you stepped forward to support that. But scale does matter, if we’re going to compete with Netflix and Google and Apple and things like that.”

Earlier this week, Vidéotron Ltée launched its subscription video-on-demand service called Illico Club Unlimited, which offers French viewers in Ontario and Quebec access to hundreds of French-language movies for just under $10 a month. “Netflix was not a big threat at first but we’ve seen their percentage quietly growing and we decided we must do something or else the market would be open only to them,” said Manon Brouillette, consumer market president at Vidéotron.

HOW IT WILL WORK

Astral Media finally launched its much-anticipated The Movie Network GO this week, giving subscribers access to about 1,500 hours of content on mobile devices and computers. Here are five things to know about the new service.

 

What it is

 

The service offers content from both The Movie Network and HBO, and has about 1,500 hours of content available to subscribers, including full seasons of many of its more popular shows (including back catalog classics such as Season One of The Sopranos). On the day it was launched, its splash screen suggested viewers watch television series such as Game of Thrones and Boardwalk Empire and suggested movies such as The Muppets and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.

 

What it isn’t

 

It isn’t Netflix. The services both show movies and television shows, but that’s where the similarities end. The thing about Netflix that makes it attractive to 1.5-million Canadians is that you don’t need to have any sort of relationship with a cable or satellite company. With Astral’s product, you need to have a television subscription with either Bell or Cogeco (Rogers customers can access the product in about a month). It’s an addition to existing subscriptions, in other words, not a replacement.

 

How does it work?

 

Anyone who subscribes accesses the site by using the username and password they’ve previously set up with their television provider to access services such as online billing. The service will allow up to five feeds to be playing at the same time. If you are watching on your iPad (only Apple devices are supported so far, though more will be added soon) and switch to a laptop, it remembers where you left off.

 

Can I get it anywhere else?

 

Only the television companies that sell the channels can offer the full content of the channels online. Shaw Communications has some HBO Canada content on its mobile subscriber-only app. There is also a U.S. HBO GO, which operates with similar restrictions to what’s being offered in Canada.

 

Why can’t I just get the online version?

 

Too bad: Astral said it doesn’t make financial sense to sell the product directly to consumers.

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