Back in the early aughts, Maclean’s magazine ran a regular feature in its opening pages titled, simply, “Still No HBO.” Every week, the magazine’s editors would lament the fact that, due to federal telecom regulations, the U.S. cable behemoth was unavailable in Canada, with some of its offerings acquired by local premium channels like The Movie Network or Bravo, and other series forever out of reach of domestic audiences.
Maclean’s had to retire the Still No HBO complaint in 2008 after Bell Media launched HBO Canada, which has since been absorbed into the company’s Crave streaming service. But someone – maybe Maclean’s, or maybe the publication that you’re reading at this very moment – might want to revive and tweak the weekly grievance for 2020, or until we get the full offerings of HBO Max.
The new streaming megaservice, designed by parent company AT&T to be a Netflix-killer, debuted in the United States last month, featuring all the legacy programs its namesake is known for (The Sopranos, Game of Thrones), plus new series produced specifically for HBO Max (the Anna Kendrick rom-com Love Life), and 10,000 hours of series and movies from its WarnerMedia stable of brands, including DC Entertainment, TBS, TNT, Cartoon Network, The CW, Turner Classic Movies and Warner Bros. Pictures. All for US$14.99.
Sounds great, right? Except for the fact that there is no such thing as HBO Max Canada. Instead, select titles will make their way to Canadian audiences through Crave (which costs $19.99 a month with the HBO add-on), including the first wave of originals like Love Life, Craftopia, Legendary, the Gossip Girl reboot and the Kaley Cuoco-starring miniseries The Flight Attendant.
But it is unclear whether other splashy new offerings destined for the service – an adaptation of the true-crime book Tokyo Vice by director Michael Mann, a new Gremlins animated series, a miniseries based on Emily St. John Mandel’s novel Station Eleven – will be acquired by Crave, picked up by another Canadian distributor and spread hodgepodge across the domestic streaming landscape, or just be legally unavailable within our digital borders. The same goes for WarnerMedia catalogue titles, such as TBS’s cult comedy series Search Party (unavailable in Canada) and Friends (tied up in a Netflix Canada deal).
”Virtually all HBO programming falls under Bell Media’s overall licensing agreement with HBO. However, there are rare exceptions when HBO may not have international rights to a program that they have acquired for the U.S., which means our programming team is required to license these titles separately for Canada. These decisions are made on a case-by-case basis,” says Tracey Pearce, president of distribution and pay for Bell Media. “Bringing the full HBO Max product to Canada wouldn’t be possible because of how international licensing agreements are structured for their full streaming bundle.”
Also a question mark is HBO Max’s coming slate of original films, including the Seth Rogen comedy An American Pickle (set to premiere in the U.S. on Aug. 6) and Steven Soderbergh’s new Meryl Streep comedy Let Them All Talk.
”At this time, our licensing agreement does not include HBO Max original feature films, but we’re always working closely with all of our studio partners, including Warner Bros. International Television Distribution, to secure the content that our subscribers want,” Pearce adds. “Stay tuned for more programming announcements in the future.”
(On Friday, Crave updated The Globe and Mail that it would indeed carry An American Pickle and Let Them All Talk, with the former available the same day as its U.S. premiere.)
While Canadian audiences will be forced to do just that, the rights problem is not unique to HBO Max – it’s emblematic of the paradox of this streaming era. The implicit promise to cord-cutting consumers by Netflix and any of its competitors was easier access than ever before – but the reality comes with such a tangled web of rights and regulations that it feels more confusing than ever, and more expensive, to simply watch what you want, when you want.
”I think it is easier with more choice than ever before. That said, with the proliferation of services, consumers are being forced to make choices since subscribing to everything may be cost-prohibitive in the same way that all-inclusive cable packages are very expensive,” says Michael Geist, a law professor at the University of Ottawa, where he holds the Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-commerce Law. “Many are cutting the cord from cable or satellite, but cost considerations given the wide range of choice is becoming an issue.”
Outside HBO Max, there are gaps in access almost everywhere you turn. The fourth season of the acclaimed legal drama The Good Fight, whose timeliness is baked into each episode, premiered April 9 for U.S. subscribers to CBS All Access, but won’t air on Canada’s W Network until some time this fall. The buzzy British series Gangs of London, which premiered on Sky Atlantic in April to rave reviews, currently lacks a Canadian distributor. Ditto HBO’s Spanish-language comedy smash Los Espookys, and a whole whack of Hulu programming, including Taste the Nation with Padma Lakshmi and the young-adult rom-com Love, Victor.
And then there are the delayed releases, whose long journey to Canadian screens can feel like an eternity to domestic audiences saturated with marketing and reviews from the U.S. and Europe. It took one month for the BBC/Hulu sensation Normal People to make its way to CBC Gem; two months for the Reese Witherspoon-led drama Little Fires Everywhere to go from Hulu in the U.S. to Amazon Prime Video Canada; and two and a half months for Rogers’ Citytv to air Mindy Kaling’s Hulu reboot of Four Weddings and a Funeral.
There are, of course, myriad reasons for delays. According to a spokesperson for W Network, the premiere of The Good Fight’s latest season was postponed owing to “current events [which] have led to programming shifts and adjustments.” And with more players entering the streaming landscape, the competition – for acquisitions and for scheduling – becomes that much more intense.
“The competitive landscape that we’re in for acquisitions, with the number of American streamers, we sometimes have to take a step back and remind ourselves that [CBC Gem] is a relatively small player compared to the Netflixes and Disney+s and Amazons of the world,” says Gave Lindo, executive director of OTT (Over the Top) Programming at CBC. “For us to secure a title like Normal People is a testament to the strength of our team.”
The current streaming boom also offers hope for the Canadian arts community and audiences hungry for content that is developed here, rather than imported months later from abroad.
”As streaming services grow, they are likely to hold on to the streaming rights for foreign markets like Canada and limit licensing to Canadian broadcasters. That will place pressure on Canadian broadcasters, who will find that access to relatively cheap U.S. content disappears as U.S. broadcasters choose to keep the streaming rights for themselves,” Geist says. “That could mean greater investment in original programming by Canadian broadcasters since they can’t rely on a steady flow of U.S. content.”
Still, for Canadians hoping for one-stop streaming shopping à la Hulu or HBO Max, the landscape doesn’t appear to be getting any easier to navigate.
This week, it was confirmed that NBC’s forthcoming streaming service, Peacock, will not be available in Canada. But as a half-measure, Canada’s Corus Entertainment will air all of Peacock’s original programming, including the new Saved By the Bell reboot, the comedy Rutherford Falls from the creator of Parks and Recreation, and Tina Fey’s Girls5Eva. Having the programming spread out across Corus’s networks and on-demand platforms, including Global Television and Showcase, may not be as ideal as having them under one easy-to-access Peacock roof. But it’s Canada, so it’s better than nothing at all.
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