Canadians shouldn’t hold their breath for HBO Now

Rights entanglements with Bell and Corus mean a legal, standalone service is still years away.

hbo, bell, game of thrones, hbo now

HBO Now… Or Never:

If there’s one burning question on the lips of every Canadian TV fan, it has to be: when is HBO Now coming to Canada?

The likely answer thanks to rights entanglements is “not any time soon,” much to the consternation of fans of shows such as Game of Thrones.

Americans have been able to sign up to HBO’s streaming service for $14.99 a month since its launch on Apr. 7. Like Netflix, it’s a standalone service that offers new and old content on demand, so viewers can take in shows such as The Wire, The Sopranos and, of course, Game of Thrones, whenever they like.

Internet users in Canada and other countries, anxious to access the service, have promptly marshalled virtual private networks and other tricks to evade the U.S.-only nature of the service to get on.

HBO is now fighting back by using VPN detection technologies and threatening to cut off foreign invaders. Here’s the email being sent to such users, courtesy of TorrentFreak:

hbo

Absent an official expansion, non-American fans are thus left without a legal, standalone way of accessing the streaming service. In most countries, the only way to stream HBO shows is via an app tied to a cable television subscription.

The rest of the world is generally used to new technologically-based products and services being launched in the United States first, then rolled out to other countries later.

But in Canada, there’s additional confusion about whether HBO could launch a full standalone streaming service even if it wanted to because of complications with rights.

Bell and Corus in September announced two separate deals for all of HBO’s older content, which includes shows that are off-the-air and past seasons of shows that are currently airing. Notably absent from the deals was new content.

Bell has since packaged much of that older stuff into CraveTV, the streaming service that’s tied to TV subscriptions. Canadians who want to stream shows such as The Wire and The Sopranos need to sign up to a TV package with Bell or one of its licensed partners, and then pay for CraveTV.

Bell is streaming some newer HBO content, including the latest season of Game of Thrones, through TMN Go, a separate app and service that is tied to a subscription to The Movie Network. While CraveTV is available to all of the company’s TV subscribers, TMN Go can only be accessed by viewers who also have that channel as part of their package.

I asked Bell spokesman Scott Henderson a few weeks ago if the company had full rights to offer a standalone HBO streaming service without it being tied to a TV subscription. “[I] appreciate the question, but could never comment on the nature of any future rights exercise for competitive reasons,” he replied.

I double-checked today and asked whether Bell had full streaming rights to all HBO content in Canada, and whether those rights extend only to older content or if they include newer content as well. I also asked again if the rights are tied to TV subscriptions. “We stream new HBO content on TMN Go, which is authenticated, and library content on CraveTV,” he replied.

He did not reply to a third follow-up on whether Bell’s rights require tie-ins to TV subscriptions.

Bell’s silence on the question jibes with media observers’ beliefs that the company does not have the rights to offer a standalone HBO streaming service, which would make sense. HBO has been thinking about delivering a Netflix-like standalone service for years, so the company is understandably retaining its ability to do so.

But could HBO offer a full standalone service in Canada having parcelled out exclusive rights to older content to others? That seems unlikely, at least until the multiyear deals with Bell and Corus run out.

The Globe and Mail‘s media reporter James Bradshaw estimates that’s going to be at least three more years:

I’d wager even that is just a guess, especially given the turmoil the Canadian television industry is going to experience next year as new regulations force the unbundling of channels.

In the meantime, Canadian fans of HBO shows are in a rather archaic bind. With many unwilling to pay for expensive cable subscriptions to access the content, demand for workarounds is sure to continue, if not grow.

HBO may be cracking down on VPN services now, but if history is any indicator, circumvention technology is only going to improve. HBO, weighed down by complicated rights deals, is fighting a losing battle against its own demand.

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2 Comments on Canadians shouldn’t hold their breath for HBO Now

  1. George Geczy // April 24, 2015 at 12:59 am // Reply

    I find it endlessly amusing that companies that complain about piracy will constantly put themselves in a position where they are refusing money from people who are willing to pay.

  2. Sam Davies // April 24, 2015 at 8:05 pm // Reply

    Geoblocking is ruining the Internet. Nothing more than a contrived means of preserving old methods of control and power. I’m a big fan of HBO content, and would be very happy to pay $ for the HBO Now service. With that said, I do not love it so much that I am willing to pay off Don Bell, aka the mafia goon who controls this territory. Free market indeed.

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