Yesterday, Bell Media held its upfronts for all CTV and associated cable channels. For those of you not in the know, the upfronts is a chance for TV networks to show off for advertisers and the audience what new shows they’re bringing to their stations in the upcoming season. Typically, in the case of CTV, it means revealing what American network shows they’re buying and simulcasting here in Canada so they can make millions without investing significantly in homegrown talent.
If that were the extent of CTV and Bell’s crimes against media this week, then it wouldn’t have made much news beyond the obvious, but what really got under people’s skin was win Bell Media head Mary Ann Turcke used the occasion to slap the wrists of Canadian TV viewers who are accessing American streaming sites like the U.S. version of Netflix, and circumventing Canadian copyright laws. Turcke calls it stealing, but fans of streaming content call it out-dated thinking. What Ms. Turcke doesn’t understand is that she’s the one to blame for consumers looking for accessible services elsewhere rather than investing in her own substandard service.
During her presentation, Turcke regaled the audience with a cautionary tale about how her 15-year-old daughter was using a virtual private network, or VPN, to access the American version of Netflix. VPNs mask your I.P. (Internet Provider) so that you’re not blocked from certain websites based on where you’re located. Without a VPN, if you live in Canada, typing “netflix.com” into your browser directs you to the Canadian version of the popular video streaming site. Many people do this because of the larger catalogue of material offered by the U.S. Netflix, hundreds of shows and movie that are accessible through the American site but are either not available in Canada because arrangements haven’t been made with Canadian distributors, or because the streaming rights are owned by another company.
From Turcke’s point of view, her daughter was stealing, and a VPN ban is now firmly in place in their home. Setting aside the fact that her daughter is undoubtedly still accessing a different VPN just now on the QT, her daughter was never “stealing.” She was paying to access the U.S. Netflix, which, like the Canadian site, costs an $8 monthly membership. Stealing, as I understand the traditional definition, is taking something for nothing; the young Ms. Turcke was giving Netflix eight bucks monthly in exchange for their service. If she had wanted to steal content on the internet, that option is actually much easier to take above going to the trouble of spoofing your location data.
What happened inside Mary Ann Turke’s home (AKA: the crime of the century) is another indication to me of where the culture is: people want to pay. You give people a good service, a good product, and people will stick a crowbar in their wallets – actual and virtual – to get it. Personally, I think the trope of Canada’s Netflix being a poor cousin of the American site is tired – yes the amount of content isn’t great, but there’s a lot of quality on there – but at the same time, I understand the idea that people want options, and if no one is actually giving them any, then they will seek out their own.
From the sounds of it, it seemed like Turcke understood that. “We, Bell Media, we, the industry, need to make our content more accessible,” she said. “Viewers are demanding simplicity. And they will seek it out.”
Now if that sentence had been followed by, “So later this year we will make our CraveTV service available to all Canadian consumers,” we might be more convinced that she means what she says. But it wasn’t. Rogers and Shaw, who own an identical service called Shomi, have announced that sometime this summer they will be making that service available to everyone regardless of whether or not they have Rogers or Shaw cable or internet service. The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) ruled last year that both Bell and Rogers/Shaw have to unbundle their streaming sites from their other services and offer them separately. It seems that Bell Media saw that more as a suggestion than a ruling though.
Of course, if you think CraveTV was invented to compete with Netflix, you’d be wrong according to Turcke’s predecessor Kevin Crull. CraveTV was meant to be a “value-added” service, you see. For example, if you want to begin watching the superhero series Arrow, which will go into its fourth season this fall on CTV, one could theoretically turn to their CraveTV subscription and catch up on seasons one through three before September. That’s value-added.
So has Bell, and the Rogers/Shaw cabal for that matter, gone to extremes to buy up exclusives? Want to watch the Amazon series Bosch? Too bad, gotta have a Bell service to get Crave. Or how about the CW series iZombie? Sorry, that’s a Shomi exclusive, better buy Rogers. If you don’t feel like cancelling your service to get access to one show, or worse still, wouldn’t mind checking out both shows, then you’re screwed. Another example, recently in the U.S. the premium cable channel HBO offered its own streaming service, with the entire HBO catalogue, for a monthly fee that didn’t require you to subscribe to HBO in your cable package. If you want that same access in Canada, playing by the rules of course, you’ll have to buy into Bell, because HBO has an exclusivity contract with CraveTV. And this when people turn to VPNs, or actual internet piracy. And its a problem created only by Canada’s big media companies themselves.
Turcke and Crull wanted to phrase this as a brand loyalty issue, but the idea that people are going to stick with one thing their whole lives despite the options is a form of marketing as outdated as direct mail. Now they want to phrase this as a copyright issue, certain Canadian companies pay to have the rights to distribute certain products, and you can only access them as you see fit. Too bad for them that today’s practices are content-driven. There’s so much media to digest one doesn’t simply have to keep flipping the channel changer till something interesting catches their eye. They don’t even have to wait for their favourite show to come on every week, or watch it at an appointed time religiously lest they miss out. Time-shifting, binge-watching, and DVRs have taught a generation of consumers that they decide how to best digest their media, which means that the Bells of the world have a decision to make: adapt to the consumer, or lose their business.
Instead of punishing her daughter, Turcke should have learned from her. She desired a product, sought it out, and paid fair market value for it. She wasn’t on the Pirate Bay or a torrent site, she didn’t stream it on Alluc, and she didn’t trade mpegs with friends on thumb drives (the new media equivalent of recording an album onto a tape). I’m not sure where Field of Dreams streams in Canada, but the message is the same, “If you build it, they will come.” Well, if Bell Media built a service people could engage with easily, people will use it.
Bell Media has been trying their darnedest to fight the inevitable. Earlier this year, they wanted cable companies to drop U.S. broadcast channels from their basic packages, before that they wanted cable companies to charge an additional fee to keep that would go to keeping local TV stations open, and now they blame people for not choosing to engage in their ridiculously pricey business models. I don’t know a lot about business, but I know that you don’t make money by blaming people for not seeing the value in buying your product. Instead, you make a better product.
So is CraveTV worth getting as a standalone service? I don’t know, but I would be interested in finding out. I would be interested in giving Bell $4, or even $8 or $10 a month to get access to their service and all their exclusives. It’s downright uncapitalistic for companies to not create opportunities to make more money, so why is Bell Media being so stubborn on this account? The only answer is that Turcke and her contemporaries just don’t understand the business they’re in, and until they do, Turcke better be prepared to go door-to-door to shutdown all the VPNs in Canada if she wants to unring the bell for Bell.