Should you have to subscribe to cable TV to stream Big Bang Theory on your tablet? Or choose a particular internet provider in order to watch Parks and Recreation?
A pair of consumer groups say no.
The Public Interest Advocacy Centre and the Consumers' Association of Canada have made two complaints to Canada's broadcast regulator, the CRTC, about Bell's CraveTV and Rogers and Shaw's Shomi streaming services.
CraveTV and Shomi are anti-competitive and restrict consumer choice, the groups say in the complaints filed Friday. That's because the services – each with their unique catalogue of shows and movies – are available only to Canadians who subscribe to certain other telecommunications or TV services.
In the case of CraveTV, customers must subscribe to a cable or television plan in order to get access to shows like Sex and the City, Big Bang Theory and the Star Trek series for $4 a month. While Bell says it has offered the service to all TV distributors, so far it is available only to customers of some TV services.
In order to get Shomi, which is still in beta, customers have to subscribe to Rogers or Shaw cable or internet. Its content includes original series from Amazon Prime such as Transparent, as well as Glee, Doctor Who, and Parks and Recreation for $8.99 a month.
Much of the content for both services is unavailable on other services — including the Canadian version of Netflix. That's because Bell, Rogers and Shaw, which also have more traditional TV services, have a lock on the rights for those shows.
"They're making this content exclusive," said Geoffrey White, a lawyer for the two consumer groups.
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He added that has prevented other streaming services from being able to start up in Canada.
White said the groups had noticed some Canadians complaining publicly about the situation, and became concerned about whether the business model for CraveTV and Shomi were allowed under Canadian law. That's because Canada's telecommunications and broadcasting acts make it illegal for companies like Bell and Rogers to favour themselves and discriminate against competitors and other customers.
The consumer groups also argue that CraveTV and Shomi's restrictions are counter to the objectives of Canada's broadcast policy, which include adapting to new technologies.
White questioned why the CRTC would defend a business model that forces consumers to subscribe to cable TV "when the world is evolving to an internet-only model."
When asked about the complaint, Bell Media said in a statement emailed to CBC News, "It's unfortunate that PIAC and CAC are complaining about Canadian creativity and investment with an innovative product that is offered at a very competitive price."
The company suggested that the "pro-consumer" service is not designed to be a stand-alone streaming service but a "complementary, value-added service" for TV subscribers.
It has been made available to all Canadian TV distributors with the goal of being made available to as many Canadian TV subscribers as possible, the company said. So far, five TV distributors carry the service and four more are expected to join next week.
Shaw spokesman Chethan Lakshman said in an email that Shomi is still in the beta phase and the company is in discussions with other distributors. "As we stated at launch, during the beta we will be evaluating additional distribution models."