Tag Archives: streaming

Full Circle

There’s some interesting reading to be found in a paper released by the Canadian Media Production Association last week. It’s titled, Content Everywhere: Securing Canada’s Place in the Digital Future, and it offers up an effective survey of the current media landscape. At first glance, suffice it to say that recent trends continue:

* Video progressively rules on the internet—YouTube now has more than one billion unique viewers every month, with 100 hours of video uploaded every minute.

* ‘Cord cutting’, that is escaping the tyranny of cable ‘bundling,’ continues for consumers—an American who owns an iPad now has a 65% likelihood of being a member of the cord cutter tribe.

* As the market penetration of the so-called OTTs (‘Over The Top’ online streamers like Netflix, Amazon and Hulu) continues to grow—one of the OTTs now reaches almost half of all American households; over 60% of the 18 – 24 demographic—they are moving increasingly into the financing of original content.

The ‘old boys’, the established television networks, know all about these trends of course, and so they have, in recent years, moved actively, if still hesitantly into the digital realm. In Canada, Bell Media launched Crave TV in 2014, Rogers and Shaw finally birthed Shomi, and CBC now has an online comedy channel called Punchline. (Conventional TV’s great strength increasingly remains of course in the provision of live events, mostly sports, but also news, and of course the odd award show, although it’s interesting to note that ratings for the Oscars this year were down about 15%.)

Ben Templesmith photo
Ben Templesmith photo

Overall, the evolving picture is of the online media industry maturing, in all the good and bad that that entails. Perhaps most disconcerting is a subtitle within the paper which reads: “Many things about OTT look like TV.” AOL greenlit 16 original series in 2014, all of them featuring major celebrities or movie stars. Pitch meetings with the big-league OTTs are usually booked through agents or entertainment lawyers these days. And we can all be sure that when David Fincher, after House of Cards, pitches his new series, he’ll be strolling into the Netflix offices past a long line of waiting, lesser-known producers who once hoped that the web would provide them with new and different opportunities. Sigh.

And of course, as the paper, points out, creators for the web face a unique set of additional challenges, even as the process morphs into something distressingly familiar. Chief among them are ‘discoverability,’ and an overcrowded marketplace. The gatekeepers for the online game may no longer be the same, but the smaller players still face a huge disadvantage when it comes to putting bums in the seats. They simply don’t have the resources to compete with the big guys at marketing, or at perhaps hiring the talent which comes with a built-in audience.

And finally, if you’re a Canadian hoping to succeed with online content, you face an added problem with financing, because as slow as the big broadcasters have been to move into the online space, the established ‘legacy’ funders, like Telefilm Canada and the tax credit programs, have been even more lead-footed. Because online revenues have been so difficult to realize, these agencies have been extra adept at shuffling their feet and avoiding eye contact whenever, for instance, documentary filmmakers with an online-only audience in mind have come calling.

I’m reminded of the final scenes in George Orwell’s classic Animal Farm, when the pigs move into the farmhouse, begin to walk upright and wear clothes. Or of Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson’s incisive explanation of Why Nations Fail, describing how it is that, following revolutions, tyrants like Robert Mugabe replace tyrants like Ian Smith, how Joseph Stalin replaces Csar Nicolas II. The digital revolution may not have yet completed itself, not yet come right round in what Acemoglu and Robinson term “the vicious circle,” but the streets have gone quiet again. It may be that no one has been sent off to a “knacker” or to the gulag, but if you were among those who dreamed of a better world, or maybe even who manned an online barricade, well, purchase a ticket and get in line. It seems that all along, the digital revolution was for sale, to the highest bidder.

The Netflix Experience

In the words of one young Youtube entrepreneur, Netflix Canada (Netflix.ca), “kinda sucks.”  The video-streaming service costs just $7.99 a month, and before you think this is yet another example of the truism, “You get what you pay for,” it’s not quite that simple.  Netflix provides unlimited viewing of any fare offered on the site, but our young capitalist makes the above comment in comparing the limited selection of movies and TV shows available from Netflix Canada to the vastly greater supply available from Netflix USA.  (Netflix also provides a DVD rental mailing service, but that much is not the subject of this post.)  Our hero offers this assessment, by the by, before then telling you how to subvert the restriction on Netflix merchandise in Canada and gain access to Netflix USA, and there are any number of other videos on Youtube instructing you on how to do the same, sometimes for free, with adverts, sometimes for a low monthly fee.  God bless the youthful rebellious heart of the internet.

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This international supply discrepancy may be nothing more than the math involved with 300+ million people potentially paying $7.99 a month versus 30+ million potential customers paying same amount.  Or maybe the folks at Netflix just didn’t bother including the Canadian marketplace in many of the deals they originally signed with distributors for their product; Canada is hardly a big slice of the North American pie.

Then too there is the political element.  Canadian broadcasters and cable providers are up in arms about the expansion of Netflix into Canada.  They point out that Netflix is sucking a fair chunk of change out of Canada, into their Los Gatos, California corporate headquarters, without putting much back in, save for the licensing of a few typically older Canadian shows.  They are not required, as are the broadcasters, to invest in the creation of new Canadian product.

The aggrieved broadcasters—whom no one in their right mind should ever feel sorry for—tried taking their complaint to the Canadian Radio and Television Commission (the CRTC), but the federal regulator, in predictably ponderous bureaucratic fashion, has thus far not been swayed.  That’s only partly because they are ponderously bureaucratic; the fact is that they, like many people, haven’t quite fully awakened to the impact Netflix is having, and will have on the future of television.

Before saying more about that impact, it should be reiterated that Netflix does indeed provide a dodgy product in Canada.  Much of it is mediocre, nearly all of it is older, and the way it is provided is odd and shifty as well.  Worthy titles are buried beneath layers of ‘More Like This,’ and certain of them seem to come and go.  I once noted with pleasure, as I was trolling through the product, that Truffaut’s superb 400 Blows was available.  I made a mental note to watch that on a later occasion, but when that occasion arose I was nonplussed to find it no longer offered.  Netflix in Canada is far, far from fabulous, but it is just good enough to last, and ultimately prosper.

If it hasn’t already, Netflix will fundamentally change your television viewing experience.  My teenage daughter has never watched conventional TV, but us boomers grew up doing so, and the habit for me continued, albeit increasingly selectively, until recent years.  Not any more.

At this point in my life, the idea of watching television (with the sole exception of live sports) riddled with advertisements is just not something I’m prepared to face. Yes a few ads are clever and entertaining—the first time—but nearly all of them are irritating, banal and predictable, if not insulting.  And of course they are an unwanted interruption.  Netflix comes free of all this, comes to the ‘act break’ of an television episode, flickers briefly to black, then marvelously resumes a second later.  How much better is that?

Internet moguls complain as loudly as their broadcaster brethren about how many advertising dollars remain in the broadcast pot, despite the audience numbers flowing steadily to the web.  But this too will change.  60% of PVR users fast forward through the ads, and sooner or later advertising execs are going to wake up to such factoids.  It amazes me that anybody is still watching conventional, ad-laden TV, with the exception of live news and sports.

But none of this illuminates the truly critical difference with Netflix: Netflix takes long form viewing to a new level.  I think I first grasped the value of series long form storytelling in watching BBC shows like Brideshead Revisited and Upstairs Downstairs back in the 70s—longer story arcs, from the beginning to end of a 13-part series for instance, as opposed to from the beginning to end of an hour-long episode, had so much more depth, so much more space to develop characters and themes, and the nuances of both.  These series could track with much greater validity through long periods of time, setting the appropriate pace, and doing so in a way that was more telling, resonant, complete.

Despite these quality exceptions back in the day, as a movie critic friend of mine said to me not long ago, if anyone had said to me, back in the 70s, that there would come a day when I would be generally more interested in watching television shows than I would movies, I’d have thought said speaker was sadly not far removed from a complete psychological breakdown.  Not any more.  For my money, the quality of storytelling extant in a current series like Breaking Bad or The Walking Dead is notably superior to almost all the fare being produced by mainstream Hollywood these days.  There are numerous reasons for that—television has always been a more writer-friendly environment—but chief among them is the ability to exploit the long form story potential of series versus one-offs.

And of course, not only does Netflix offer an ad-free, long form viewing experience, Netflix offers these shows at your own personal viewing schedule.  No waiting until next week for the succeeding episode, no obligation to watch until the credits roll in order to know how the current conflict is resolved.  Netflix will hold that show, at precisely the point where you pushed the stop button, ready for you to resume watching at your convenience.

The leap from episode to series story arcs has been a tough one for dramatic TV producer/writers to make.  Many of them still have not been able to summon the requisite courage.  (Hello, the team at Justified!)  Focus groups from out of the hoary past have told these creators that they didn’t want unresolved episode endings; they wanted story closure now, not next week, or at the end of the season.  Netflix changes that, forever.  That unresolved episode end is now just a couple of clicks away from the tale resuming.

The best television shows are the ones that embrace long form storytelling wholeheartedly, and Netflix allows you to in turn embrace these series at your leisure.  Enjoy.  You’ll never look back.