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The Toronto Raptors get ready for a game at the Air Canada Centre in a Season 3 episode of Open Gym, which begins Tuesday on TSN. Bell customers can watch 24 hours in advance on the Bell TV app. (Dave Sandford/MLSE/Getty Images)
The Toronto Raptors get ready for a game at the Air Canada Centre in a Season 3 episode of Open Gym, which begins Tuesday on TSN. Bell customers can watch 24 hours in advance on the Bell TV app. (Dave Sandford/MLSE/Getty Images)

Bell Canada acquires Raptors’ behind-the-scenes show, Open Gym Add to ...

BCE Inc. is partnering with the Toronto Raptors to bring fans into the locker room, betting that basketball diehards will welcome the Raptors onto their phones and tablets in return.

BCE-owned Bell has struck a deal to expand and broadcast the third season of Open Gym, a behind-the-scenes show documenting the Raptors produced by Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment, which owns the team and is 37.5-per-cent owned by BCE. The deal expands the show’s season to 28 episodes (from eight in past years), airs them twice weekly on TSN4, and even adds an “After Show” rehashing each instalment.

But Open Gym will also be available live and on demand through mobile TV, and therein lies its promise. Mimicking the model built for 24CH, a similarly all-access look at the Montreal Canadiens hockey team (also part-owned by BCE), Bell will offer a “premiere” version of each episode with six to eight minutes of extra footage and no ads 24 hours before it appears on TV, exclusively through the Bell TV app.

Most major networks have launched mobile apps that stream live and on-demand content from dozens of channels, such as CTV, Global and Sports-net. Rogers Media Inc. president Keith Pelley said earlier this year that streaming TV to mobile devices is now “table stakes” for the industry, and predicted every network will be available on every platform within a few years. The real race is “just how quick you can get up to speed,” he said.

“That’s the motivation here, to bring the fan closer to the team, and [do] it on all the platforms that Bell has,” said Nicolas Poitras, Bell’s vice-president of marketing communications.

BCE owns 15 per cent of The Globe and Mail.

Bell is “still struggling” to build awareness of its mobile TV apps, said executive vice-president Dominic Vivolo at a recent event hosted by CTAM Canada. But it will take more than awareness for the apps to catch on: 71 per cent of Canadians know mobile TV products are available, but only 25 per cent have used one, according to survey data from Charlton Strategic Research.

Several barriers have kept viewers from embracing mobile TV, including concerns about video quality and the privacy of user information. But the biggest hurdle is their fear of having to pay more, including by exceeding data caps.

“These are all factors that the industry needs to overcome,” said Charlton president Gord Hendren. “They just need to do a better job of pushing it out and getting people using it.”

The drive to mobile apps is, in part, a strategy to bolster companies’ wireless and Internet businesses by keeping customers hungrily devouring data. About 20 per cent of Shaw Communications Inc. subscribers sign in to the company’s Global Go app, and those who do watch twice as much video.

Mobile TV is also billed as a key retention tool to keep subscribers from ditching cable or satellite bundles. Among paid TV subscribers, 77 per cent said they were at least somewhat likely to continue subscribing to have access to mobile TV, according to Charlton’s research.

Rogers customers who use Anyplace TV and watch on-demand programs through the latest cable box leave the company “at a third of the rate of a non-user,” said David Purdy, the company’s senior vice-president of content.

Though Mr. Purdy is bullish on TV Everywhere, as industry executives call it, he acknowledges it is “taking a little while to get its foothold.” Figuring out how to sign in to various apps has been “more challenging for the customer than it needs to be,” he said, which has turned users off. But TV distributors everywhere are working to simplify log-ins.

And there is one genre in which TV Everywhere has proven its popularity: Sports. Events such as the the FIFA World Cup and the Olympics have been among the biggest draws to mobile TV apps, as live programming remains the anchor of the TV industry.

Bell believes other sports-related shows can also be habit-forming “appointment viewing” on mobile devices. Open Gym averaged only 18,000 viewers per episode on NBA TV Canada last season, but garnered another 717,000 online views.

“Aside from live sports, 24CH was the most-watched show on our app last year, nationally,” Mr. Poitras said, “even ahead of sitcoms that are hits.”

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