Streaming TV options still limited in Canada, despite year of change

Viewers who hoped that 2016 would mark an explosion in new streaming video competition in Canada were left disappointed, and some industry observers say next year probably won't signal any big changes either.
Streaming options are growing in Canada, but the choices available to consumers still pale in comparison to those in the U.S. (CBC)

Viewers who hoped that 2016 would mark an explosion in new streaming video competition in Canada were left disappointed, and some industry observers say next year probably won't signal any big changes either.

The much-anticipated launch of Amazon Prime Video finally came last week but didn't live up to most expectations. Consumers got access to the marquee series Transparent (but only the first two seasons) and the new auto show The Grand Tour, but the slim roster was otherwise padded with mostly low-profile shows and second-run movies.

Last month, Shomi closed shop. And earlier in the year, Netflix built a wall to block cross-border viewing.

As the year went on, it became increasingly clear the streaming revolution stateside wouldn't be televised in Canada.

"We're not there yet," deadpans Brahm Eiley, president of Convergence Research Group, when asked if Canadians can ever expect to browse a menu of streaming options that mirrors the U.S.

"It might take up to five years before we see that kind of stuff."

Failure to launch

Consider that U.S. mainstays like HBO Go, Hulu and Sling TV — which together form a package that's a lot like cable TV, but cheaper — are growing in popularity.

American broadcast network CBS and cable channel Starz also have their own streaming platforms.

Eiley, whose Victoria-based communications and entertainment consulting firm examines the fine details of the streaming world, says he's surprised by how quickly U.S. companies adopted streaming as the future, this year in particular.

In 2016, several U.S. media giants set aside their loyalties to traditional viewing methods and invested in streaming alternatives.

Satellite providers Dish Network and DirecTV both established Internet platforms that practically mirror their programming but at a lower cost.

Then there's Canada, where most top-tier cable content can only be accessed — legally — the old-fashioned way.

New HBO series and films are locked up until 2018 by Bell Media, which has refused to launch a standalone streaming subscription platform that would offer Canadians current hits like Girls and Westworld without paying for cable.

Hulu has shown no signs of moving to Canada and its original series are mostly left unaired here.

And award-winning shows like FX's The Americans and Mr. Robot became unavailable to stream in Canada with the closure of Shomi.

That's left Netflix and CraveTV — also owned by Bell Media — as kings in an otherwise mostly barren Canadian landscape.

Few options

Amazon Prime Video did tiptoe into the country last week but with major holes in its lineup. Not only was Transparent missing the newest third season, but other heavy-hitters like Woody Allen's Crisis in Six Scenes were absent all together.

While Amazon is likely to bulk up its selection in the coming months, the current lack of overall streaming options is pushing some Canadians to consider Android TV boxes.

The inexpensive devices stream an endless array of TV shows, movies and sporting events for free, mostly from pirated sources. Aside from the box itself, using the technology costs nothing.

Last summer, Bell, Rogers and Quebec's Videotron launched a Federal Court case aimed at halting certain retailers from selling those Android boxes that make illegitimate streaming easy.

Eiley says the trend is emblematic of the pent-up demand for cable alternatives. He expects those pressures will only intensify next year as more people get accustomed to streaming their entertainment.

A study by digital consultancy firm Solutions Research Group found that ownership of streaming boxes — Apple TV, Chromecast, Roku or the Android device — has more than doubled over the past three years. About 30 per cent of Canadians, or 3.4 million households, had a streaming device in 2016 not including their laptop or smartphone.

The survey of 1,005 respondents also found that 20 per cent of households that paid for cable or satellite TV downgraded their packages over the 12-month period that ended last summer. It said that represents about two million Canadian households.

While the introduction of "skinny basic" cable packages can account for a portion of the reduction, the shift suggests more viewers are looking elsewhere for their entertainment, says Kaan Yigit, president of Solutions Research Group.

He says it remains be seen how many streaming services can thrive in Canada, and 2017 is unlikely to provide certainty.

"It'll be an evolution year," he says.

"I don't think there's going to be an appetite for seven different video subscriptions (in a household)."

But the lack of strong competition in the current market could be an opportunity for more upstart streaming companies that aren't aspiring to be one of the big players.

Shudder was among the smaller streaming entrants in Canada in 2016, offering horror fans a curated collection of slasher flicks.

Eiley expects more niche streamers will enter the Canadian marketplace in 2017 as they look to capitalize on the gaps in Netflix's catalogue.

Dozens of streaming companies have already launched in the U.S. by playing the same role as specialty TV channels — catering to a segment of viewers interested in TV shows and movies that aren't the biggest new hits.

Brown Sugar is in the wheelhouse of fans of 1970s black cinema, while the Turner Classic Movies platform Filmstruck caters to cinephiles who favour the golden age of Hollywood.

Both aren't available in Canada yet, but Eiley expects they could be soon.