Thursday, January 22, 2009

A DESPERATE LACK OF X-RAY VISION -- Pt.3


Last spring I was on Vancouver Island and the Toronto Maple Leafs still had a slim chance of making the playoffs. But the game I wanted to watch was only available on the team's own 'Leafs TV' channel. And you can't get Leafs TV in British Columbia.

But I still saw the game.

A couple of weeks back, one of the blogs I read linked a clip from "Saturday Night Live" courtesy of Hulu.com, but content from Hulu can't be accessed from Canada.

Five minutes later, I'd seen the clip.

The other night, I wanted to see a film that had just been released on DVD. But the kid at Blockbuster told me it wasn't something they stocked or had on order. I got the same story at the nearest HMV store.

A couple of hours later, the popcorn was ready and the movie started.

How was I able to do all these things?

Do I possess some kind of special magic?

Well, actually I do. But that's one subject that'll never be discussed here!

When I began this particular series (you may want to visit Part One and Part Two to catch up) my intention was to counter the arguments I suspected would be put forth by CTV and Canwest Global in the lead up to the Spring hearings on Canadian television before the Canadian Radio & Television Commission.

Given the initial whining and punishing job cuts that followed the Commission's denial of their request for "carriage fees" (payment by the public for traditionally free services) I, like a lot of TV professionals in this country, figured we'd soon face a full-on assault on the networks' "requirements of license" to produce Canadian programming.

So I wanted to point out that most of the problems these networks are facing come not from their content requirements but from their own historic inability to support local production, embrace and serve new technologies and terribly ill conceived convergence strategies.

I have to admit that while I've always felt Canada's private networks were more interested in being simple re-broadcasters of foreign content than entertaining and informing Canadian audiences with Canadian stories; I had not truly seen the depth of their complete disdain for the job they were licensed to perform.

In the last couple of weeks, I've heard investor briefings where broadcast executives describe using their newly acquired specialty channels not as venues to deliver more or enhanced genre material, but as additional platforms to amortize their simulcasts of American prime-time programming; repeating shows most Canadians have already seen endlessly over all the various segments of their show-biz empires.


This week Canwest also announced it was abandoning its morning and noon newscasts and then both networks indicated a desire to close stations in smaller markets, effectively eliminating local news coverage in those areas.

Apparently, Canwest had toyed with the idea of replacing Toronto's morning newscasts with a feed from their E! Network outlet in Hamilton, before realizing that doing so would serve neither market. And maybe they also realized that many living at or near the center of the Universe in Toronto already assume that the planet drops off sharply long before reaching such mythical places as Hamilton, Oshawa or Barrie.

Unfortunately, the message sent by our private broadcasters could not be more clear.

CTV and Global don't intend to live up to their requirements of license and couldn't care less how that impacts the 30% of Canadians who live in remote or rural settings. And while they haven't yet defined exactly how "small" the markets they intend to unplug will be, you don't have to look at too many Statscan figures before realizing they could be abandoning local news coverage to more than 60% of the population.

Next week, I'll again be posting from the NATPE Convention in Las Vegas. And that will inevitably mean attending a think tank or two on growing the audience. There, I'll hear the Mantra I've heard for years from successful broadcasters -- "Go Local". Over and over again, all around the world, dozens of broadcasters have proven that the secret to success is providing programming the people living closest to you need to inform their lives -- and can't get anywhere else.

But here in Canada, our guys think the future lies in formating a video version of some 'Flow' radio format, their futures secured by funneling what gets produced in New York or LA to the folks just down the street.

They might as well sell start selling their offices and studios as trendy loft condos right now instead of waiting until the real estate market tanks even further.


Look, I understand that it's tough for CTV and Canwest right now. They have no viable libraries of self-owned material to exploit, either because they didn't make any for years on end or leveraged what they once owned to buy out the competition.

They also never aggressively marketed what they did produce, accustomed as they were to simply slapping their logos on sales packages that were shipped up from the States.

They're also way behind in delivering their signals with the HD clarity the sets most of us now own can replicate. And their online presence is far below the level Canadians regularly find from broadcasters in other nations while casually surfing the web.

You didn't have to be Albert Einstein to see this coming -- or Stephen Hawking to know the innovations aren't going to stop.

Back around 1992, I bought my first Home Theatre system. It was primitive by today's standards. The TV was all of 36 inches wide and standard definition. There were three speakers and a sub-woofer. It was all wired to a laser disk player and a VCR.

And yet...

It immediately cut the amount of time I was watching broadcast television in half.

I was the only guy in my neighborhood with that kind of system ("Well, he's in the business") but the looks on the faces of those who dropped by to watch a movie told me I soon wouldn't be alone.

Or maybe more correctly would be even more alone because they had their own theatre at home.

Today, it's arguable that you can have a far superior viewing experience in your living room than you can in a movie theatre. Yeah, you sometimes miss the collective experience, but you never miss the inane chatter, the cellphones and paying ten bucks for a snack.

When it comes to TV product, I can time-shift with my PVR instead of fitting my schedule to the increasingly mercurial whims of a Network programmer. Or -- I can catch an entire series on DVD a couple of months after it runs, no longer interrupted by commercials and usually of better quality than they appear during their initial simulcast.

Bit by bit, I've gained more control over the quality and convenience of my entertainment options, while our broadcasters have attempted little to win back my heart or mind.

But let's get back to the three scenarios I mentioned off the top.

The Leafs Game.

A while ago, for under two hundred bucks, I bought a nifty piece of hardware you can find in any Consumer electronics store called a Slingbox. In about ten minutes it read my cable/satellite menu and now makes it available anywhere I can find an Internet connection -- in HD if I prefer.

One of the selling points of the Slingbox has been that it allows you to keep in touch with local events while you're thousands of miles away -- an advantage that may not be of future use if you're from Red Deer, Kamloops, Swift Current or Kingston.

If I don't want to watch the game on my laptop, I simply connect a Slingcatcher (another hundred bucks) which will zap the signal to the nearest TV.

Leafs TV, in an effort to hang-on to an increasingly suicidal fan base also streams their games (usually in multi-cam formats) a nifty innovation you may have noticed doesn't turn up on the sportscasts of any of the bigger players.


Interestingly, when I first Googled my need to find a local source for the game, I came up with page after page of sites I'll call the "Rumpus Room Networks". For it seems a new generation of sports fans and other program fanatics have hit on the idea of replicating the experience of watching the game, or an old movie, in your buddy's basement.

The technical quality isn't the best because what's generally on offer is somebody feeding his cable through a computer TV card or using a web cam to view his plasma screen and then sending that out over the web. It's usually accompanied by a chat screen where the supporters of the different teams endlessly trash each other.

Now, I'm certain that on some level this is illegal. But don't take my word for that. Because, when you think about it, there's little difference between watching a game this way and dragging your ass over to a friend's house or a local bar when your own cable's out.

But don't take my legal opinion. I'm the guy who was never completely clear on how it was okay for a library to share its often donated copy of a CD with anybody who walked in the door but some guy who uploaded the music he'd purchased to a similar stranger risked going to jail.

It also got me wondering why a network that has a problem with this doesn't simply beat the cellar dwellers at their own game. CBC streams 'Hockey Night in Canada', sometimes in several languages, but always on a tiny screen that might be sourced from Don Cherry's web cam. How hard would it be to add a chat forum, maybe offer prizes for trivia answers, throw in some multi-cams? Basically, they could deliver a much richer and completely legal experience without breaking a sweat.

But they don't. That's because all of our broadcasters are content to continue picking the low-hanging fruit rather than go to the time and expense of expanding their reach. And that lack of initiative and effort is why they are struggling -- and losing audience.

Hulu.

The NBC managed website traditionally streams network programming a few hours after the debut broadcasts, allowing it to roll the viewers receiving those streams into overall ratings calculations and therefore increase ad revenue. The site also offers movies and archived television unavailable elsewhere.

It's also Geo-locked so you can't get it in Canada. This is done to protect either the original broadcaster or the local rights holder from stepping on the other's toes. But there are a lot of free programs out there to unlock Geo-locks, most often by rewriting your IP address to an American locale.

Unfortunately, many Canadian broadcasters don't offer similar access to all the programming they run which is Geo-locked from their fellow citizens. And even when they do, it can be weeks before the favorite show you missed last night is online.

And it would seem that's because such services require tech and bandwidth they'd have to spend money on and most of these guys are still dipping into the taxpayer's pocket to fund websites for their own productions.

It's always much easier to force viewers into the narrow original broadcast time-slot where they can be most easily measured and marketed.

So, I suspect, on some level, it's illegal to unlock your Geo-lock with any of the programs openly linked by reputable and respected tech sites. But again, I'm not sure just as I'm not sure who's being hurt if you do that. The product was delivered free in the first place, remains free on hulu -- where you're additionally encouraged to sample all of the other wares.

Is there a system that could count visitors from Global's turf so they could be counted in Global's ratings? Of course there is. But then, they'd have to offer their viewers on History Channel and Showcase alternate programming instead of charging them subscription fees for what everybody else gets to re-screen for free.

The DVD.

Okay, I understand that Blockbuster and HMV only have so much shelf space and need to stock titles that are frequently rented or purchased. If I've got a Jones for something arty or from 60 years ago or French, I should just get in the habit of running around town trying to find it or order it from some obscure website in London or Mumbai and pray it's in a format I can use when it arrives.

You want to be different, there's a price.

Or there used to be...

I found the movie I was looking for on iTunes. Bought it. Downloaded it. Watched it the same night.


But many sites now offer equally legal and convenient ways to bring Video on Demand through the Internet to your TV. Netflix has teamed with Tivo, offering more than 12,000 titles in its initial list.

Youtube is hosting feature films and all kinds of "set-top" boxes are arriving from a wide range of hardware developers from Apple to Sony's Playstation 3 to Netgear which make it possible to watch pretty much anything available online in HD and surround sound.

What we're coming to is a world where not only are traditional broadcast models no longer viable, but we may not need cable companies or satellite systems either.

It's a whole new world, kids. One where I'm confident in saying that a year from now you won't need much more than an Internet link to watch whatever you want on television. It's a world where traditional broadcasters will have to start doing some very un-traditional things if they want to survive.

Perhaps Canadian broadcasters might want to abandon trying to hold back the hands of the clock and deliver products their public can't find anywhere else. Product like, oh -- I don't know -- local news and Canadian drama?

8 comments:

Brandon Laraby said...

The problem is that there's an entire generation out there that doesn't really understand what the internet IS. My dad - who introduced me to computers with this 8086 and eventually, his 386 (let alone DOS and Windows) - had the hardest time finding his footing online... and he's somewhat tech savvy.

As far as finding video online... well... lets just say this:

I hear about people spending money on Season passes from iTunes and it boggles my mind. It's akin to being someone who still pays for porn (the closest thing to a true Next-Generation insult if I've ever heard one).

Case in point: I know someone who's paid a decent chunk of change to get a season pass of South Park from iTunes. What are they going to do with it? Burn it? Watch it on the go? Maybe. But for the same price you can by the full-on DVD package WITH extras. If you're just wanting to watch the episodes why not watch them - all of them - for free (and LEGALLY) on www.thecomedynetwork.ca?
(you're welcome for the free promotion)

It's really not that hard, a bit of research, a touch of Googling - video of pretty much anything is easy to find. CTV.ca has the entire 2 seasons of The Border online - for free, without commercials. And it's all entirely legit. They're fronting the bandwidth costs AND (I hope) sending out the royalty cheques when an episode is watched.

Personally, I love it. It's an easy way for me to introduce people to programming who would normally never sit down and watch it. I'd never seen the Jon Dore show until I happened upon the Comedy Network's site. Now I love it - I went there to watch the Daily Show and Colbert Report (also free!) and was introduced to other shows I might like.

THAT is good marketing.

The fact that the Broadcasters are complaining that they still haven't figured out how to make money of this is just stupid to me - frankly, it's lazy.

I've only got a small background in promotions/marketing but I could have them pulling in money in a weekend. Dumb, dumb, dumb and a touch of lazy to boot.

Do a bit of research and it'll pay off - I promise. It's not perfect yet but it's getting better.

For Rogers Cable subscribers you might want to check out channel 100 - they have hundreds of Videos On Demand you can watch for free (including, but not limited to the whole season of House, etc).

Man, I really gotta start charging for this service since their promotions obviously aren't working. :P

jimhenshaw said...

Brandon,

I think you meant CBC.ca re: "The Border" but you're absolutely right about the value of free marketing to not only a single show but the rest of the network's fare.

A month ago, the Monty Python team put quality versions of their videos online for free -- and as of today their sales of DVD's has increased 23,000 percent.

The point is that Content remains King and if you don't make or own it, you better find new ways of attracting an audience from all the other ways they can get it.

wcdixon said...

I didn't know Itunes sold porn...interesting.

(I'm kidding...sheesh) Nice one, Centaurian.

Brandon Laraby said...

Oh crap! Yes, CBC.ca.

Ugh. Yeah.

deborah Nathan said...

Being a Luddite, I won't weigh in on the tech arguments, but it seems to me that it is not a question of making money, but WHO makes the money. The broadcasters are looking for a way wherein they make the money. I think from their perspective, the system is not yet "cost effective".

JA Goneaux said...

I'll echo Deborah's comment, and add: this whole "who makes money" reminds me of the drug trade.

No, really.

Think about it. A substance (say cocaine) begins its life as some plants growing naturally in a South American jungle. Very cheap to make.

Somebody is paid a few dollars a day to cut the plants down.

Some other people are paid some more to turn it into paste, then powder. The paste is worth more than the plant, the power more than the paste. Somebody is profiting, even at this level.

It goes from jungle to downtown big city club in a series of moves that add cost, and profit, to whomever touches it.

Its as if the government doesn't want us to cut out the middleman. Can't grow our own plants (cocoa leaves not so much, but apparently even bud grown in a growhouse in Toronto is pretty good).

And they don't want us to go to the source of the entertainment, but instead use the delivery method that is literally from the last century (if not two centuries ago).

And not for any reason other than the fact that some politically protected companies won't make as much money...

Its almost as if the government would shut down Rona or Home Depot because they didn't want you to DIY, but had to hire a contractor for everything...

rick mcginnis said...

College students have already figured this all out - they're buying juiced-up laptops with HDMI outs and using them for music and video; there's a generation about to leave school and hit the marketplace who couldn't care less about having a cable or satellite box, since they know all the workarounds and never had the habit of scheduling their TV viewing at someone else's convenience.

Part of what they do is probably illegal, but it's never really bothered them, and they're only the beginning - they'll be the innovators to turn awkward technologies similar to Slingbox (did you find yours easy to configure? I didn't, and I had help from the company) into much slicker, smoother detours around arbitrary barriers like geography.

I've been writing about this for years now in my daily TV column - the amazing thing is how utterly indifferent executives at the Canadian networks are to all of this, even moreso than the ones in the U.S. They like to think they've managed to dodge the beating the record industry took; they haven't a clue what's heading their way.

M Foster said...

This is the first year in 13 years in Toronto that I've been able to watch streaming Vancouver Canuck games online. I've seen almost every game this year. (lately that's not been a good thing)

I remember my first year in university with a donated black and white TV on a crappy antenna trying to see CBC games through the snow. My GF thought I was so pathetic. But I love my team!

Motherpucker is my site of choice. Very good quality.