Bell bowed to the inevitable this week and announced that CraveTV, its video-streaming service, would be available to all Canadians with an Internet connection in 2016.
As of Jan. 1, you no longer have to be a subscriber to Bell (or a handful of other distribution partners) to order up CraveTV and its library of current and vintage TV shows to play on your television, computer or mobile device.
It's good to know that, henceforth, life will be much easier for those with no cable or satellite, but a serious Seinfeld addiction – because, of course, CraveTV has the entire archive of episodes.
Perhaps Bell felt the pressure to move quickly in this direction after Rogers and Shaw announced in May that their Shomi service would become available to non-subscribers this summer. The notion that either group could use streaming services to shore up the market for their traditional cable and satellite TV business was always a stretch – Rogers/Shaw had described their subscriber-only launch as merely a beta phase for Shomi. Why do consumers want Internet television if not to escape from conventional distributors?
So, Shomi and CraveTV now enter the interesting chapter in what we can only hope, for the sake of the Canadian screen industries, is going to be a nice, long story. Can these services compete with Netflix?
The answer to that may depend partly on what you mean by Netflix: subscribers to Netflix Canada (aka Netflix Lite) often use geo-spoofing to gain access to the service's much richer U.S. offerings. The new Bell Media boss Mary Ann Turcke surprised many at a recent industry event when she used the word stealing to describe the practice of setting up a virtual private network to gain access to Netflix's U.S. catalogue.
Yes, Bell owns 15 per cent of this newspaper, but that is not why I was cheering her on. The comment is fair and the frankness refreshing: the shows and movies that viewers access by setting up VPNs have not been licensed for the Canadian market. Or at least not licensed to Netflix.
There are several instances – the biker drama Sons of Anarchy; the mockumentary comedy Parks and Recreation; episodes of the 1990s sitcom Frasier – where Shomi or CraveTV have the Canadian rights to shows that appear on Netflix in the United States.
Maybe more competition for Netflix for streaming rights will force the service – which does not pay taxes in Canada and does not contribute to the Canadian programming funds supported by the Canadian distributors – to finally crack down on geo-spoofing.
Consumers are often ignorant or contemptuous of what they consider picayune regulations that just get in the way of their viewing, but territorial licences are creators' bread and butter and Netflix's rather casual attitude to the problem is just another painful example of the way all power in the cultural industries seems to wind up in the hands of distributors at the expense of producers.
Still, it is not by locking down rights to popular American shows that Shomi and CraveTV will distinguish themselves in a marketplace where Netflix is first and biggest. If Canadians feel the need for Canadian video-streaming services it will surely be because they have something distinctive to offer in the form of original Canadian content, rather than old Seinfeld or Frasier episodes.
For decades, Canada's commercial television broadcasters have built their schedules around simulcasting American programming, pushing Canadian shows to the margins. Their commitment to the Canadian content their licences require them to air has often looked half-hearted, and today their corporate parents are launching these new services into an unregulated sphere: As yet, there are no quotas on Canadian titles nor requirements to promote those titles to viewers, the obvious way in which you could ask a Shomi or CraveTV to contribute to the ecosystem.
So, what begins now is a miniature experiment in how unregulated Canadian TV might work. The conventional broadcasters' dependence on simulcasting has always made them look culturally flaccid and – even if Shomi and CraveTV focus on TV shows while Netflix stresses movies – it's clear that U.S. content will not be enough to carry the day against Netflix. Are Shomi and CraveTV ready to create services so distinctively different that viewers see them as a necessary subscription – at least in addition to Netflix, if not as an alternative? And if they do create something distinctively Canadian, can they then find a way to sell that to the world?
It may seem unlikely that Shomi or CraveTV are ever going to operate internationally the way Netflix does, but that should not stop them from making partnerships that will help launch Canadian programming into global markets, where it already, largely unbeknownst to the folks at home, has a good degree of success.
The big broadcasting groups have often chafed against Canadian content requirements; now is their chance to prove themselves distinctively Canadian in an unregulated global market. Otherwise, we can all just turn to Netflix.