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When Over-The-Top TV is a double entendre

Once upon a time, "over the top TV" referred to the sort of programs that aired on the Canadian gay porn channel HARDtv.

Recently, though, the term has been used as a catch-all for programming delivered over the Internet, on platforms such as Netflix, iTunes, and YouTube. Its irresistible march forward has rendered broadcasters in countries with regulatory regimes that blunt foreign competition (here's looking at you, Canada!) in a state of mounting anxiety. National regulators in some countries (er, here's looking at you, Canada) have largely bought the woe-is-us arguments of programmers and cable or satellite distributors, and loosened restrictions in areas such as market concentration to help them meet the foreign threats. When BCE announced its $3-billion bid for Astral last March, both companies pointed to growing competition from Netflix and others as a catalyst for the deal.

But what if over-the-top TV isn't just a threat, but also an opportunity? Because that's the way it's looking for those who produce or own the rights to unique programming.

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In the past few months, the LGBT-themed channel OutTV has moved to embrace the future embodied in over-the-top TV and the global marketplace it represents. (The Vancouver-based Out is the successor of PrideVision TV, where the sort of material now on HARD used to air during late-night hours.) It sells programming on iTunes, and promotes its conventional TV channel by putting clips or entire shows on its website and YouTube.

And lately the channel's executives have noticed that YouTube is also an unexpected business-to-business marketing venue.

"Classically, the media business is a vertical business, by which I mean national," explained Brad Danks, OutTV's chief operating officer, when I spoke with him Wednesday. "We construct all our broadcasting rules, all our copyright laws, around the idea of a national broadcasting business. But the business is more naturally horizontal, it's more global."

OutTV has a potentially huge transnational audience, made up of individuals nestled in small pockets around the world. When Mr. Danks looks at the list of territories where viewers are taking in clips of RuPaul's Drag Race All-Stars or Don't Quit Your Gay Job on YouTube, he said, "Arab and Muslim countries" are consistently in the top 10. "Brazil is always high, Japan is very high ... all the way down to small islands in the South Pacific and people in Greenland.

"You begin to realize that the future of broadcasting – there will always be local elements, always be national elements – but the global marketplace will assert itself more and more."

In Canada, viewership on YouTube "leads to traction on the website, which then leads, we believe, to adoption or interest in certain shows," he suggested. That's key in a severely crowded market where even landing a spot on a cable or satellite service's main promotional or "barker" channel is an uphill climb. (OutTV is now in more than 1.2 million Canadian households.) It also leads to sales on YouTube and iTunes, where the shows are available for purchase. Mr. Danks believes those sales could eventually bring in 25 to 50 per cent of a program's production budget – and, perhaps, finally bring the channel into the black.

And while OutTV is only licensed for domestic carriage, it is riding over-the-top into the global marketplace: It owns the international rights to a number of its shows, such as the dramatic series DTLA, and is able to transform YouTube viewership into foreign sales. Programming executives in other territories, "are watching the traction online," Mr. Danks said. Viewership numbers on YouTube are far more transparent than clicks on a company's website – they're right there, for anyone in the world to see. Prompted by viewers sampling DTLA online, he said Wednesday, "I literally just closed a deal today to sell the show in Benelux and Sweden."

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"I always say, with LGBT, there's an audience but there's no market." By which he means: there may not be traditional TV channels on cable or satellite lineups in countries such as France that would pick up OutTV's programming, but there are viewers in those territories who want to see those shows. Which is where iTunes and other OTT sales platforms come in.

OutTV isn't the only Canadian broadcaster whose content is travelling to other countries on OTT platforms: the CBC show Little Mosque on the Prairie is on the U.S. service Hulu.

Last month, Mr. Danks said he listened to Pierre Karl Peladeau, the CEO of Quebecor, offer a keynote address at the annual TV confab MIPCOM in Cannes. "He said Canadians need to learn to make international formats of television that move globally," Mr. Danks recalled. "I just absolutely agree 100 per cent."

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