Make It Transparent

TRANSPARENT_102_02858 (1)A.JPGLast weekend, I wanted to do one simple thing: watch Amazon Studios’ “Transparent.” The critically acclaimed show had just won two Golden Globes, and while I had wanted to track down the series before, I already knew that Canada’s Amazon store does not offer the company’s Instant Video service, and so I figured I’d have to wait until some other way to seeing it became available. But the buzz the show received Sunday evening prompted me to tweet if there was any legal method to watch “Transparent” in Canada.

The folks at Shomi, a new streaming service launched last fall in Canada by telecom giants Shaw and Rogers Communications, replied cheerily on Twitter that they had landed the rights to the show. A little digging revealed it would be available starting on January 23rd. Great! But soon enough, problems arose. Firstly, to access the service you had to be a pre-existing customer of Shaw or Rogers, and secondly, Shomi was not available at all in Quebec. I’m not about to switch my internet or mobile service to another company so I can watch a television show, and even if I did, it wouldn’t matter anyway — Shomi is not available in the province where I live (presumably due to a myriad of dull bureaucratic and licensing reasons). So, what do I do when I have no legal or reasonably easy avenue in which to watch this show? The answer is transparent (sorry).

It’s not complicated. If you make entertainment media easy to access and consume legally, customers will spend money, even as the music and movie industries continue to perpetuate the fallacy that piracy alone is eroding their business. According to numerous studies — here’s some findings from the University of Amsterdam in 2010, and more data from the Dutch Institution for Information Law in 2012 — file-sharers are spending more money on music, movies, and books, than those who don’t download any pirated material at all. There are a number of reasons why people download content illegally, but surely one of them is the ability to watch what they want, when they want to. As Netflix has shown, if you make content convenient, on demand, and affordable, customers have no problem handing over their credit card information.

Of course, this made had it increasingly difficult for telecoms to continue to sell their bread and butter cable packages, and thus, it makes sense that those corporations are trying to stem the tide of those who are cutting the cord. Shaw themselves reported this week that in the first quarter of their 2014/2015 year, they lost 18,372 satellite and 11,923 cable users, while they gained 11,379 internet customers. Those figures speak for themselves, and anecdotally, I can probably count on one hand the people I know who are still paying for a traditional cable package. But if Shomi is to survive and become a viable competitor to Netflix and iTunes, particularly when offering distinctly different programming, it will have to quickly overcome its business model. Requiring potential customers to already be clients of Shaw and Rogers, will not incentivize non-clients to sign up for their other business offerings; it will simply drive them to other existing services (or to the shadowy corners of pirate sites) where their entertainment needs will be met without any prerequisites.

For the record, I still haven’t watched “Transparent.” But here’s hoping that Amazon quickly figures out how to get their original content north of the border, and made available more easily to a wider audience. Or that the folks behind Shomi can break free of old school corporate thinking and truly become a real player in Canada’s streaming market, which can use more options and competition.