Winter is coming for Bell Canada's TV business. What's funny is the company is either pretending it isn't, or doesn't see it. It's not clear yet which is sadder.
CBC ran a story this weekend about HBO's angry letter blitz, where the network has been sending out copyright notices to Canadians asking them to please stop pirating Game of Thrones. There are plenty of legit ways to get the acclaimed fantasy adventure show, the network says -- except that there aren't.
There is, of course, cable. There's also iTunes for those who want to buy previous seasons. Oh, and let's not forget Blu-ray. Anyone who wants to stream current episodes, however, can do so through the TMN Go app... but that also requires a cable subscription. This is "unprecedented" access, according to HBO.
The problem is that access in the United States is more unprecedented, since Americans can also choose to subscribe to HBO Now stream all of the network's new shows for $14.99 (U.S.). That's the sort of unfettered and relatively affordable access Canadians would love to have.
Defenders of the Canadian status quo inevitably criticize pirates as complainers who want everything free, but that's a gross over-simplification.
Many downloaders say in online fora and comment sections that they would love to pay for Game of Thrones or even HBO as a whole, but few want to shell out a small fortune for a whole bunch of channels and shows they don't want. In an age of abundant choice, not wanting cable for that reason isn't unreasonable.
HBO can't really be blamed for not offering its streaming service in Canada. The network's beancounters last year took a look at how many Canadian subscribers they thought they might get and compared that against the truck load of money that Bell parked in front of them in exchange for the online rights to their content.
It was an easy decision, which is why Bell now gets to call the shots on what to do with Game of Thrones and all of HBO's other shows.
HBO in all likelihood doesn't want to be sending those letters. Indeed, the network probably doesn't care at all that Canadians are pirating its marquee show, so it certainly won't prosecute anyone. That would be bad PR, and besides, HBO got its money. The ensuing piracy is Bell's problem.
Speaking of, how much money is Bell leaving on the table by not making new HBO content available without a cable subscription? So far, the company has made only old shows such as The Wire and Sex in the City available on its CraveTV streaming service. Game of Thrones alone would bring in a decent chunk of new subscribers.
This is the cable winter, and it isn't just coming, it's virtually here.
Bell maintains it is assessing the market, which is another way of saying it's holding out under the old cable TV system for as long as possible, and probably hoping it can scare pirates off by coercing HBO into sending out copyright threats that the network has no intention of enforcing.
Bell's chief rivals have taken a starkly different approach. Rogers and Shaw look to have embraced streaming, first by opening Shomi to all Canadians, then with Rogers launching Sportsnet Now, its sports streaming service.
It's worth noting all of this happened voluntarily, while Bell only made CraveTV available to non-cable subscribers as a reaction to Shomi opening up. Bell is clearly being dragged kicking and screaming into streaming.
The cable companies, on the other hand, can be credited with seeing the writing on the wall. In the U.S., for example, ESPN has lost a whopping 10 million subscribers in just three years, making Rogers' move into sports streaming a smart one. Meanwhile, cord cutting is picking up speed everywhere in a larger sense, with a quarter of Canadian homes now cable-free.
This is the cable winter, and it isn't just coming, it's virtually here. Not making Game of Thrones available so far very much seems like a denial of that fact.
Bell is accomplishing one thing by refusing to stream HBO's new content at a reasonable cost -- it's causing piracy to get better and more innovative. Encryption is creeping into everything from torrents to web browsers, meaning it's getting easier to watch Game of Thrones without paying and without anyone knowing about it.
Pretty soon, HBO and Bell will find that not only is no one paying them for their shows, they also won't be able to figure out who to send those angry letters to either.
This blog was originally published on AlphaBeatic.
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