The Roku Streaming Box is available in Canada, with 1/4 of the channels. Yay?
Streaming services like Netflix, iTunes, Hulu, and Amazon Prime are quickly becoming the norm in the States. More and more networks are either selling their content to them or developing their own apps. NBC, TNT, and TBS all have iPad applications with select programming, and The CW’s 90210 comes out on Netflix the same day it airs because its younger audience are much more likely to stream than watch on cable. These streaming sites are also developing their own content. Netflix’s House of Cards, their first in-house program, debuted last week, with more coming in the spring, most notably new episodes of cult hit Arrested Development. Amazon Prime has also jumped into the content production game with five children’s programs in the works, as well as several comedy projects. Even Hulu is looking to get into the content creation game.
The streaming landscape in Canada is very different. Netflix streaming is available here, but not all content is available — however, their original content will all be available in Canada. Amazon Prime is available in Canada, but not the e-book lending or video streaming that is available in the States (To which I ask: WHY EVEN BOTHER!?). Hulu isn’t available here at all. Most Canadian channels have streaming services online, but the quality is often pretty bad (especially if it’s a CTV channel), and there are no apps for mobile devices like the iPad or gaming systems like the Wii U, Playstation, or Xbox. So while the future of TV in the United States looks to be changing, what will it look like in Canada, where such things are usually heavily regulated and the telecommunications landscape is highly monopolized?
First the good: Canada is fast becoming a streaming nation, which only makes sense given how expensive cable packages are. Netflix users jumped from 4% to 10% over last summer alone, and that number will only grow given that 80% of young Canadians are already watching TV or movies online. The CRTC ruled in 2011 that it would not be regulating streaming services such as Netflix as broadcasters because they found no evidence that their use was taking away business from traditional cable services. However, they’re leaving the matter up for review. Given the CRTC’s track record with new media, which for the most part has been “put our head in the sand and hope it goes away,” (I mean, they only updated copyright law to deal with the internet within the last couple of years, and it’s been 10 years since Napster!) it’s hard to say what this will mean for Canadian companies who want to get into digital programming.
Not that this has exactly stopped them from trying; Shaw launched “Shaw Everywhere” and “Shaw Go” applications that allow subscribers to access Shaw programming from TV, wireless, and internet, but they failed to keep subscribers from leaving. Bell also pitched a bilingual Netflix-esque streaming service as part of their bid to takeover Astral Media, but, since that proposal was rejected by the CRTC, it may be scrapped. Roku, a streaming box similar to a cable box, is already available in Canada, though many of the services it runs, like Hulu, aren’t available here. Canadians get only about 100 of the 700 Roku channels available on the device in the US. Roku’s CEO is confident that by simply making it available, the platform will encourage more digital video services to set up shop up here… though I remain skeptical of that.
There is one major thing that could really hinder this kind of new media growth here: the exorbitant cost of internet or unavailability of high-quality internet services. Streaming services like Netflix require both high-speed internet and high-bandwidth thresholds. High-speed internet is mainly only available in urban areas in Canada, meaning a lot of people can’t and don’t stream. There are very few unlimited bandwidth packages here, and they’re also only available in select, usually urban, areas. Bell and Rogers are also notorious bandwidth throttlers, which makes streaming an even slower and more unpleasant proposition for Canadians. Canada has some of the most expensive internet in the developed world, with the average cost being around $100 a month, especially if you want the highest speed. All of this combined really stands to hinder the growth of any legitimate digital programming in Canada.
In spite of my reservations, I do believe that, eventually, Canada will have its own digital TV programming. It might be completely passé and subpar by that point, but the numbers are there to suggest there is a growing demand for it here. However, the CRTC and Canadians need to recognize this as a growing medium and give it the clearance and funds it needs to flourish. Most importantly, we need faster, cheaper internet in order to use the services in the first place. Organizations like Open Media have really helped the Canadian consumer to push back against Big Telecomm in recent years, like when they helped stop the CRTC from banning unlimited bandwidth altogether and imposing a 25 GB cap, and I do think that sets a good precedent on that front for things getting better. But if the CRTC can’t make a decision about these services soon, people will just find a way to steal it from the United States, which is what a lot of people wound up doing with satellite in the ‘90s, or continue using torrents. It’s definitely a decision that needs to be made sooner rather than later, though I doubt it will wind up happening that way. However, we are in the very early days, so it’s entirely possible that we could all be surprised. It’s certainly an issue to keep our eye on.
Megan Patterson is the Science and Technology Editor at Paper Droids and currently a Toronto Standard intern. She has also written for WORN Fashion Journal, Elevate, and Salon Magazines. She also tweets more than is healthy or wise.