In the old Peanuts cartoons, does Lucy ever let Charlie Brown actually kick the football? I need to know, because, once again, this week Canadian TV viewers briefly thought they were finally going to get something great and revolutionary – only to have it snatched away. And you have to wonder how long viewers are going to put up with the humiliation before they just stop playing the game at all.
On Monday, Bell Media finally got to make a public argument for its $3.4-billion purchase of Astral Media Inc., when it appeared on the first day of hearings into the deal, before the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission. The company's presentation began, as most TV industry hearings before the CRTC do these days, with dark warnings about so-called over-the-top services that have come into Canada without any regulatory obligations imposed by the Commission.
Those services have proved enormously popular, because they enable people to get access to a bottomless supply of back-catalog TV shows and movies for only eight dollars a month. They can watch on their computers, on TV through gaming devices like the PS3, the Wii, the XBox 360, or on a tablet. Which is why more than 20 million Americans have signed up for the service.
And so here was George Cope, the CEO of Bell's parent, BCE Inc. making the case. "The Canadian system needs companies with the scale to compete against foreign content companies like Netflix, Apple, Google, and, as of last week, Amazon," said Mr. Cope. "More than 10 per cent of Canadians now subscribe to Netflix, which accounts for more than 11 million hours of TV viewing per week."
With that in mind, said Cope, Bell was hereby announcing its own service to compete against the foreign invaders, "a made-in Canada service, available in French and English everywhere we have rights, to all Canadians."
The service would offer the best of Bell Media's content, including movies airing on Astral's pay-TV networks TMN and HBO Canada. Cope suggested that a larger Bell-Astral would be able to out-bid Netflix for the rights to Hollywood movies and other content by spreading the purchases across many of its channels.
At first, it seemed like an odd carrot to be dangling, for here was Bell pledging to do something that would mainly benefit – well, Bell, by making its content more easily available. And why make the launch of the service conditional on approval of the acquisition? Already, much of Bell's content is available on a moment's notice – if you know where to hunt for it – either through the Web or on CTV's iPad app, which offers dozens of shows.
Still, it sounded promising enough on first listen that some of the details got lost. Like this one: Bell is only intending to make the service available on what it calls an authenticated basis, for people who already receive their TV signals over cable, satellite, or an IPTV service like Bell Fibe or Telus Optik. In other words, it's nothing like Netflix, at all.
On the one hand, that could blunt the criticism of the cable and satellite companies that compete with Bell in TV distribution, such as Rogers and Cogeco, which is leading a campaign against the acquisition. The CRTC would surely appreciate how the move strengthens the industry by offering yet another incentive for viewers to stay connected to cable or satellite.
And so, the flag-waving: "This focus on working with our Canadian partners and serving Canada's national, regional, and local markets in ways that international OTT providers do not and will not is a great advantage to our system and our country," said Cope. It may be patriotic, but it's not what Canadian viewers want.
If Bell really wanted to work with Canadian competitors to beat back the over-the-top threat, it could set up its own easy-to-use over-the-top service with Rogers, Corus, Shaw, and CBC that brings together all of their programming in one place. It might look something like Hulu, the U.S. joint venture of Fox, ABC, and NBC that offers most of those networks' shows the day after they first air – and which, despite early fears, has not prompted mass desertion of the traditional cable and satellite services.
But then, to judge from the nastiness that spilled out during this week's hearings, most of the Canadian media companies would rather die alone than live together.
And so they might.