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President of Bell Media Kevin Crull delivers his keynote speech November 18, 2013 at the International Institute of Communications conference in Ottawa. (Dave Chan For The Globe and Mail)
President of Bell Media Kevin Crull delivers his keynote speech November 18, 2013 at the International Institute of Communications conference in Ottawa. (Dave Chan For The Globe and Mail)

Bell Media strikes deal with Showtime to take on Netflix Add to ...

Bell Media has struck a long-term licensing deal with U.S. cable network Showtime, gaining a pipeline to high-profile shows for its TMN property and a substantial library of past seasons to bolster its new online streaming service, CraveTV.

The agreement, to be announced Thursday, will give Bell exclusive rights to many of Showtime’s programs across various platforms. Current seasons and new shows, from the Golden Globe Award-winning The Affair to new series in production, will air first on regular television through a dedicated prime-time block on The Movie Network (TMN), a suite of paid specialty channels owned by Bell Media. Past seasons and older shows will be available for streaming on CraveTV.

Bell Media, which is owned by BCE Inc., bid aggressively to beat “multiple” challengers in a “very competitive” negotiation, according to Bell Media president Kevin Crull.

The deal is partly a play to refresh TMN’s appeal to traditional TV subscribers, and boost the popularity of CraveTV, which requires a TV subscription to join, unlike streaming services offered by rivals. But it is also a move to corner more of the high-end TV market as Netflix ramps up production of popular original shows, like House of Cards.

“[Showtime] is very much the very last pristine beachfront property in television,” Mike Cosentino, senior vice-president of programming for CTV Networks and CraveTV, said in an interview. “We’ve been able to see behind their curtain on their development. There’s some amazing stuff coming.”

Bell Media plans a marketing blitz for the new offerings, beginning during Sunday’s Super Bowl, which airs on Bell-owned CTV in Canada. (BCE also owns 15 per cent of The Globe and Mail.) The pact includes a trademark agreement, and Bell’s plan to use its promotional muscle to raise Showtime’s profile as a brand north of the border appealed to executives at CBS Corp., which owns the network.

“It’s a big deal for us: This is the first time that Showtime is going to be marketed as a brand [in Canada], not just the individual shows,” said David Nevins, president of Showtime Networks. In its pitch, Bell Media “laid out a campaign of ‘Showtime is coming to Canada’ with a Super Bowl ad. They actually mocked up our stars [appearing] on their morning shows, on their sports network,” he added.

Bell launched CraveTV a little more than a month after rivals Rogers Communications Inc. and Shaw Communications Inc. launched Shomi, their own online streaming platform, both of which are seeking to go toe-to-toe with dominant Netflix and help retain traditional television or Internet subscribers. That has spurred a race to secure the rights to attractive content, which in turn opened a window for Showtime, which has 23 million U.S. subscribers but had only sold shows individually to Canada.

Last week, programmers for Shomi struck a deal with Sony Pictures Television for exclusive streaming rights to four original series produced by Web giant Amazon.com Inc., including the award-winning Transparent. Days earlier, Bell announced it had landed Canadian rights to Bosch, another Amazon original.

“With the evolution of new platforms up there [in Canada], a conversation about accessing a well-known brand like Showtime … was a natural,” said Armando Nunez, president and CEO of CBS Global Distribution Group.

Bell would not divulge how many customers have signed up for its $4-a-month CraveTV service so far.

Within the next month, Bell Media will launch a library of Showtime’s past content, some of which wasn’t available in Canada, including shows such as Penny Dreadful, Masters of Sex, Sleeper Cell, and hundreds of documentaries, comedy specials and other one-time programs from Showtime’s archives.

Some shows, like Homeland, will continue to air on other networks and streaming services like Netflix because they are among the handful of programs for which Showtime didn’t own the Canadian rights. Others, such as Nurse Jackie and Weeds, are already on CraveTV because their Canadian rights were secured from Lions Gate Entertainment Corp., not from Showtime Studios.

Still, the new deal lands Bell exclusivity on perhaps 10 to 12 titles each year, plus future shows yet to make their debut, such as Billions, which stars Paul Giamatti and Damian Lewis. And the reach of that exclusivity will expand as licensing deals with other providers begin expiring later this year.

“We are able to better control the ecosystem because we’re in the [streaming] game,” Mr. Cosentino said.

Bell Media would not divulge how much it spent on the deal with Showtime, nor the length of the agreement. But Mr. Crull said it is “longer than the traditional content deals that we do.” Bell already has Canadian rights to substantial HBO content that it airs on TMN and CraveTV, and Mr. Crull is betting that Showtime is reaching an inflection point similar to where HBO stood after the success of The Sopranos.

“The value of HBO to viewers is greater than the sum of its programming parts, because there’s an endorsement of quality that HBO brings,” he said. “And I think that’s exactly where Showtime is: It’s coming off of some really big hits in Homeland and Ray Donovan and Dexter, but it’s fuelled what I think is a pipeline of significantly more big hits.”

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