A deep roster of streaming options is about to get deeper. What does this mean for Canada's broadcasters, producers and viewers? Susan Krashinsky Robertson reports
Rogers Sportsnet president Scott Moore vividly recalls the strange phone call he had to make to the National Football League in spring of last year. As the official broadcaster of NFL Thursday Night Football for the regular season, Rogers had the digital rights to those games in Canada. And yet suddenly, the league announced that Twitter would be its exclusive global partner to stream games for the 2016 season. He got on the phone with one question in mind: What gives?
"I called them and said, 'Guys, do you remember our negotiation?'" Mr. Moore recalled in an interview this week. The Twitter streams had to be blacked out in Canada.
But the deal was a sign of things to come with the NFL. When the Thursday night football rights came up for renewal, the league wanted to sell TV and streaming separately. When Rogers demurred, the NFL offered the digital-only rights. The deal didn't get done.
Bell Media took over Thursdays on TV, while a new streaming player – independently-owned DAZN – locked up the digital rights and used them to propel its launch into Canada, announced last month.
"I don't believe in separating those rights," Mr. Moore said.
But the NFL's desire to do just that signals a change in the media landscape that is reshaping the TV business everywhere, including in Canada. "Over the top," or streaming services such as Netflix are nothing new, but the established broadcast players are beginning to wake up to their massive value.
Canadians are watching more video than ever, but subscriptions to cable TV services have been in decline for years as customers cut the cord. Now, key questions are arising about what an increasingly fragmented streaming market will mean for the companies that have traditionally created and distributed the shows, movies and sports audiences crave – and how it could affect not only how we view content, but the prices consumers will have to pay in future to watch their favourite programs.
Those who own content – sports leagues peddling live matches or studios making high-budget movies and television shows – are becoming more aggressive about negotiating the maximum value for the right to distribute that content online. And in some cases, they've decided that maybe the best value is in cutting out the middle man and broadcasting direct to consumers themselves, digitally.
In the past few weeks, global giants have unveiled strategic moves that threaten to further upend the TV business in Canada and beyond. Earlier this month, CBS announced that it will launch its All Access streaming service in Canada next year. A day later, Walt Disney Co. said it will launch its own service to stream its Disney and Pixar movies and TV shows beginning in 2019 – ending its current streaming arrangement with Netflix. Disney also said it would launch an online version of its ESPN sports channel next year, and that it had increased its stake in BAMTech, which streams live events including Major League Baseball and World Wrestling Entertainment. And just this week Turner Sports, owned by Time Warner Inc., announced plans to unveil a direct-to-consumer streaming service in 2018.
In a research note, RBC analyst Drew McReynolds pointed to the Disney and CBS announcements as "a watershed" in the development of Internet-delivered TV in Canada.
All of this is changing the way we consume entertainment. Online-video services are proliferating, as the growth of ad-supported sites like YouTube and subscription services like Netflix have have coaxed viewers away from traditional TV. Facebook Inc., which already makes billions on advertising each year, recently announced it would launch Facebook Watch in the United States to expand its video offerings.
For years, the business here revolved around broadcasters who had a near-unassailable hold on the market: Canadian TV executives went to Hollywood to buy shows and to sports leagues to buy games, and their TV licences gave them the only distribution channel to deliver those programs to viewers here, eroded only by over-the-air signals from U.S. cities. When cable and satellite came in, simultaneous substitution allowed them to ask that their signals take precedence over those U.S. channels when they aired the same shows at the same time. As with so many other forms of media however, the Internet has muddied geographic boundaries and blown open the barriers of distribution.
"We now see a huge opportunity for CBS to go direct to consumer on a much bigger scale worldwide," said CBS CEO Les Moonves on a call with analysts after the international All Access announcement. "…When you see a Netflix getting 50 million international [subscribers] you say, geez, that marketplace is so huge, we think there's a way to have our take."
Meanwhile, established streaming players are now throwing around the gargantuan sums of money for shows that used to be reserved for TV network bigwigs. Netflix will spend roughly $7-billion (U.S.) on content next year, up from $6-billion this year, chief content officer Ted Sarandos said this week in an interview with Variety. Apple Inc. is setting aside roughly $1-billion for the same purposes, the Wall Street Journal reported. And analysts at JPMorgan have estimated Amazon's spending on video this year at $4.5-billion.
Billions of dollars of investment, and companies scrambling to catch up in streaming, points to an industry in flux. TV is far from dead, but the fight is on: who gets to deliver it to consumers as they migrate to new platforms, and just how many competitors the market will hold.
While Canadians are spending more time watching video over all, the growth is coming from streaming. On average, we watched 29 hours of video a week from all subscription sources in 2016, up from 27.4 in 2013, according to research firm Charlton Insights. Most of that is TV viewing, but the share is slipping: In those three years, TV viewing time fell from 20.3 hours a week to 17.6 while Internet subscription viewing increased from 7.1 hours a week to 11.4.
That's a problem for a business built on subscriber revenue and on ad sales that are determined by audience size.
"TV revenue isn't growing any more," said Brahm Eiley, founder of Victoria-based Convergence Research Group. Meanwhile, there is more competition for the best shows. "If you want to keep some of this content, you're going to have to pay more for programming. There's never been this type of pressure on the Canadian market before."
The negotiations for program rights are becoming increasingly complicated. In the United States, CBS All Access generally puts shows online the day after they air on TV. In Canada, it may not move so quickly. For example CBS's new show Star Trek: Discovery will air on Bell Media's CTV network and specialty networks, and will then move to Bell's streaming service, CraveTV. With CBS promoting its own streaming product, it has an incentive to claw back deals like this in the future. (Bell declined requests for an interview for this story.)
Corus-owned Global TV has CBS rights as well, for NCIS and Madam Secretary, and its W Network has The Good Wife spinoff The Good Fight. Corus has been aware of the impending CBS announcement for a number of months and has been in talks with the company to determine what will happen with the streaming rights. The TV channels will still have exclusive first broadcast rights, Corus expects.
After that window of exclusivity closes, shows could move to streaming. The window may be similar to how Corus's shows used to move to Shomi, the streaming service owned by Rogers and Shaw that shut down last year, said Barb Williams, executive vice-president and chief operating officer at Corus Entertainment Inc. If there is a compromise in a broadcaster's exclusivity, it will affect how much that broadcaster is willing to pay for rights.
"As the window gets worked out, the value of the rights gets worked out," Ms. Williams said, adding that content owners such as CBS also have a stake in keeping TV healthy, and using streaming as a complementary channel. "… Canada has always been an important market, a very lucrative market, for the American content owners. So it's in everyone's best interest that we work our way through these changes co-operatively."
Such co-operation isn't trivial when your supplier becomes your competitor.
"As time progresses, there will be more and more available content that we'll be able to put on CBS All Access internationally," CBS's Mr. Moonves said on the recent conference call.
In addition to TV broadcast partners, the content owners must also grapple with digital-rights deals that they've signed – in some cases before they decided to build their own streaming products. That's the case for Disney, which has sold off many of its rights for the coming years to Netflix, and to other services such as Hulu, in which Disney owns a stake. Those deals have varying lifespans, but will complicate Disney's efforts to build a branded streaming channel, at least at first.
The competition for new delivery methods was one reason that Rogers insisted not just on the digital rights when it signed its 12-year, $5.6-billion deal with the NHL in 2013 – but rights for any future platforms, as well. "If you want to watch hockey on your television, you can," Mr. Moore said. "If you want to watch it on your phone, you can watch it on your phone; if you want to watch it as a 3-D hologram projected on your forehead, we'll have those rights."
The urgency of locking up rights was clear. While in Los Angeles a few years ago at a conference, Mr. Moore asked Netflix co-founder and CEO Reed Hastings when the company would get into sports. When Mr. Hastings said they never would, Mr. Moore replied, "I call bullshit." Even if Netflix keeps to that course, competition from others will intensify.
"Sports is a huge loyalty driver for the Bells and the Rogers of the world. They're going to be adamant about protecting their rights," said Gordon Hendren, whose firm Charlton Insights researches sports viewing. "… What does this do to rights fees? I think it drives them up."
What drives viewers to a service is exclusivity, Mr. Moore said. Rogers is not interested in standalone TV rights without digital in the mix.
"We know that the vast majority of viewing is still on television," he said. "We don't want to be using the power of our broadcast to drive to a competitor's product."
DAZN is an attractive partner for the NFL because it can act as a test case to show football fans' appetites for streaming content, chief executive James Rushton said at the company's launch event in Toronto last week. To get the NFL, DAZN had to pay a "competitive" price for the rights, he said, and will need a sizable audience to make that money back.
"We've got to have a significant subscriber base to pay the bills," Mr. Rushton said. The goal is eventually to sign up more than 10 per cent of connected households in Canada.
"I would say, knowing what we know [about paying audiences for sports streaming], that it is wildly, wildly, wildly ambitious," Mr. Moore said. "In case you were counting, that's three 'wildly's."
What people now commonly refer to as the "golden age of television" began with HBO.
The last time the TV landscape seemed to expand almost infinitely – with the proliferation of cable channels – HBO set itself apart. The strategy: attract top talent by promising them more creative freedom than they got on TV. The nudity, foul language and violence of The Sopranos never would have flown on the networks – but more importantly, HBO made room for complex, discomfiting storylines and antiheroes. It removed the pressure on shows to provide a "brand safe" environment for advertisers. HBO cultivated cooler, edgier shows made by and starring more interesting people.
Netflix and others are borrowing that strategy, taking a hard run at talent with promises of similar freedoms.
"I don't know why the studios and the mainstream-movie business has become so averse to making interesting films and taking chances. I mean, I guess it's about money," Ben Stiller told Variety at the Cannes film festival this year. Explaining why he prefers producing content with Netflix, he added, "A creative person is in charge of the studio."
Within the past two weeks, streaming companies have stolen some high-profile names away from the TV incumbents: The Walking Dead producer Robert Kirkman jumped from AMC Networks Inc., giving Amazon first right of access to future shows. One-woman TV powerhouse Shonda Rhimes – the producer behind such shows as How to Get Away With Murder, Scandal and Grey's Anatomy – announced that her production company, Shondaland, would leave Disney-owned network ABC for Netflix. On a conference call with analysts in July, Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos said he thinks of the service like a global "super network."
Netflix has to invest in content: Former partners have begun to realize that they were feeding one of their biggest competitors, and started yanking back program rights. One of the first to do so was Starz, which pulled its 2,500 shows in 2012, saying that giving content to Netflix was "shortsighted." More studios followed suit in the last four years, the size of Netflix's U.S. content library has shrunk roughly 40 per cent. Netflix's goal is for 50 per cent of its content in the future to be original productions.
The company says that Canada is one of it top-three markets (along with the United States and Britain) for that effort. It has invested in co-productions with Canadian companies, in many cases giving exclusive first rights to the Canadian broadcaster for a window of time before it can be shown on Netflix here (while the shows launch earlier on Netflix in other markets). That's the case with Anne and Alias Grace on CBC; Travelers on Showcase; Between on CityTV, and others.
Showcase, for example, has a one-year window of exclusivity before Travelers goes on Netflix.
"We would never before have given up exclusivity of a show that quickly," Corus's Ms. Williams said. "But they bring important financing to the table. So the deals are all changing. It would have been very hard for us to finance that show without Netflix's help."
Netflix does not face the same requirements to invest in Canadian content that the broadcasters do. Recently, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission reduced the required spending on "programs of national interest," but this week, in a rare move, Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly referred that decision back to the CRTC to reconsider.
Still, Ms. Williams does not believe that ad-free streaming is enough on its own to finance the TV production landscape. Advertising revenue is still key. That's a problem, since part of what has driven viewers to streaming – along with the high cost of TV packages – is exhaustion with ads. Broadcasters are now having to rethink how many ads they cram into shows, and whether those can be better targeted, to annoy viewers less and hang on to crucial revenue.
"Making this big, fantastic content is wildly expensive," Ms. Williams said. "Your ten bucks is not really paying for it at Netflix at the moment. The day that advertising isn't underlying the financing of a lot of content, I think subscription fees suddenly go through the roof."
Despite a growing population, Canadian TV distributors have faced a gradual but persistent decline in subscribers. About 79 per cent of Canadian households had TV subscriptions in 2016, down from 86 per cent five years earlier. Some cut the cord, replacing TV with digital options; many younger Canadians never have TV subscriptions in the first place.
"We've been facing a melting ice cube for the last little while," Scotiabank telecom analyst Jeff Fan said.
Meanwhile, revenue from over-the-top subscriptions in Canada grew 35 per cent last year to $650-million, and is expected to reach $870-million this year, according to estimates from Convergence Research Group.
The firm estimates that there are roughly 20 subscription streaming services in Canada, from big players such as Netflix and Amazon; to Canadian operations such as Bell's CraveTV, Rogers Sportsnet Now, Corus's History Vault, and Quebecor's Club Illico; to a host of smaller niche players you may never have heard of such as Crunchyroll, Fandor, and Dove Channel – a "family-friendly" service showing only content that won't "violate your values." For now, Convergence estimates that Netflix accounts for roughly 85 per cent of streaming subscription revenue here. But there could be room for more competition: The United States has more than twice the number of streaming services.
For the first time ever, Netflix is really challenged as being the only game in town," said Peter Csathy, founder and chairman of media and tech consultancy Creatv Media, citing "behemoth competitors" such as Amazon, which is already gaining ground on Netflix in some markets; and Disney, which has a massive global brand. "It's an increasingly crowded playing field."
But it is still an open question whether all this fragmentation will end up being good for consumers. While paying $11 a month for Netflix is an infinitely better deal than a pricey TV bundle, Netflix doesn't have everything – and the cost of streaming could add up quickly if viewers must subscribe to one service for baseball games, another for hockey, another for their kids' favourite shows, and yet another for Game of Thrones. (That's a hypothetical, for now: HBO's streaming-only product has yet to launch in Canada, as rights holder Bell Media offers an HBO streaming app only with a TV subscription. In the United States, the standalone HBO Now has more than 2 million subscribers.)
"There's some success to be had for these new services, but I do think it only goes so far, because the economics don't work," said Robin Diedrich, senior equity analyst at Edward Jones. "… À la carte everything – for most households if you have two, three, four people with different tastes – it probably doesn't make sense."
Last week, NBCUniversal's comedy streaming service Seeso announced that it will shut down after less than two years in operation. Despite a low price point ($3.99 (U.S.) a month), a sizable catalogue of comedy shows such as Saturday Night Live and Monty Python's Flying Circus and new original content from comedians and producers such as Cameron Esposito, Dan Harmon, and the McElroy brothers, it failed to build a sizable enough subscriber business for NBC to continue the project. If there is a limit to the number of streaming subscriptions people are willing to pay for, not to mention the hassle of finding programs across multiple platforms, there could be a demand to aggregate all that programming into some kind of bundle – essentially a reconstituted TV package, with different pipes.
Delivering those pipes is still crucial, which is why telecom giants in Canada have poured billions into their networks, racing to provide faster Internet speeds. Bell and Telus recently launched cheaper, app-based live TV services with fewer features, explicitly chasing the cord-cutting and "cord-never" crowds. Either way you watch, they'll happily supply the bandwidth.
"It's all about transitioning out of being just a TV distributor to a becoming a broadband provider," Scotiabank's Mr. Fan said.
But for broadcasters, streaming is a volatile business. For example, while Rogers does not share Sportsnet Now subscriber numbers, Mr. Moore said the churn rate (people who drop the service) is "huge." Sign-ups peak for big games, then subscribers fall off a month or two later, and pick it up again for other big events, he said.
"I would not want to be in a streaming-only world."
With files from Christine Dobby and Shane Dingman