On a Saturday afternoon last month, millions of football fans in the United States got smacked in the face by the future. If they wanted to watch the AFC wild-card game between Miami and Kansas City, they had to first download an app to their TVs for NBC Universal’s Peacock streaming service, navigate how to set up an account, and fork over their credit card for a minimum payment of $5.99 for the first month.
Imagine: A playoff game, in the most popular pro league in North America, that cost money to watch. This was apparently such a disturbing – nay, possibly un-American – development that, last week, members of the U.S. House Committee on Energy and Commerce repeatedly groused about it during a hearing they had convened to probe the evolving sports-media landscape.
The fracas prompted Roger Goodell to insist earlier this week that, for as long as he is NFL commissioner, the Super Bowl itself would never become a streaming-only event.
Canadians watching this unfold may have wondered what all the fuss was about. We’ve been paying for playoff football for more than 15 years. Ever since Bell Media snapped up the exclusive rights to the CFL in 2008, all of the league’s games have been available only to subscribers of the company’s TSN service. It wouldn’t even do us the favour of treating the Grey Cup the way it does the Super Bowl, by also putting the game on CTV, where it could attract millions of casual viewers.
Still, when a trio of major players in U.S. sports broadcasting announced this week that they were forming a joint venture to create a direct-to-consumer streaming service that they intend to launch this fall, many Canadian sports fans gazed enviously across the border.
We can’t help it. Our coveting of U.S. consumer culture is a national characteristic, or at least a national tic. Things down there are flashier, sexier. Always have been. But what if, in this case, we’re actually better off with what we’ve already got, as plodding and unsexy as it may be?
The new U.S. sports service – unnamed, so far – seems like a colossus. It will comprise all 14 of the traditional channels operated by its three owners, Disney, Fox, and Warner Bros. Discovery, including ESPN, TNT, TBS, Fox Sports 1 and 2, and a handful of college sports channels, as well as the over-the-air networks ABC and Fox, plus the streaming-only service ESPN+.
Those channels have the rights to content from the NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL, WNBA, the PGA, Grand Slam tennis, UFC, FIFA World Cup, NWSL, UEFA, CONCACAF, F1, Nascar, and a whack of college sports.
The news release from the companies notes that the service will target fans “outside of the traditional pay TV bundle.” Which is to say, it will be a bundle for those who thought they were too cool for a bundle.
For decades, the cable TV bundle worked a kind of socialistic magic in the guise of capitalism. Though most consumers didn’t realize it, the model enabled them to subsidize each other’s viewing and keep prices reasonable for all. I pay a few dollars a month for the lifestyle and nature channels I never watch, so that their fans can enjoy them; other viewers, in turn, kick in a bit toward the drama and news channels that I like.
The cable companies, buying the TV channels on behalf of hundreds of thousands of customers, exercised their market power to force the prices lower.
It was a grand bargain, but like other such arrangements that required a little bit of personal sacrifice for the sake of the greater good, some folks eventually began to chafe at the restrictions and constant price increases. (The cable companies – which, before the advent of satellite and Internet-delivered TV were effective monopolies – didn’t do themselves any favours with their customer service and high profits.)
But when consumers leave the comfort and security of the bundle and break out on their own they gain their freedom, but they lose any leverage they may have had when they were buying the services with others. Which is how a news channel that might have cost $1 a month in a bundle ends up being six or 10 times that when purchased on its own.
The mantra of our American cousins is life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness through endless TV choice. That’s led to an explosion of options, and also chaos, fragmentation and, increasingly, frustration. Are you a Yankees fan living in the New York metropolitan area? Be prepared to subscribe to six separate services – the YES Network, ESPN+, Fox Sports, Apple TV+, Prime, and Peacock – if you want to watch all of the team’s games. This season, NFL fans who wanted to tune in to Thursday Night Football had to add Amazon Prime to their array of paid services.
Up here, all of those Thursday NFL games are still on TSN, just as almost all Blue Jays games are on Rogers Communications Inc.’s Sportsnet.
That’s because we’re more inclined to peace, order, and good government-supported oligopolies, from our banks to our TV entertainment.
TSN and its frenemy, Sportsnet, were creations of equal parts capital and coddling, the result of governmental midwifery that sought to help carve out a space for Canadians to control our own sports culture. They’re not perfect, not by far. But industry watchers in the United States believe the new sports streaming service will retail for something like US$50 a month – and that still won’t get you everything.
If you’re a Canadian cable customer, meanwhile, you can get TSN and Sportsnet for about $25 extra, which should cover about 90 per cent of what you’ll likely want to watch, including most of what the new colossus will have – though of course you can still add a constellation of niche channels for other sports, if you’re so inclined (NCAA, Fubo and Apple TV+ for soccer, etc) and still come out paying far less.
It’s one of the happy legacies of a government-regulated system that’s in the midst of crumbling. The system had real flaws and was often deeply unfriendly to consumers. And we’ll miss it when it’s gone.