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Cutting the Cable in Canada–US Content (Part 7)

March 5, 2011 10 comments

This is part seven of a blog series on cutting the cable in Canada

During the course of this review I’ve bumped up against a wall several times, and that wall is the invisible internet border between Canada and the United States.  From the Canadian side of the content fence, the grass sure does seem greener on the other side.

No review of cutting the cable would be complete without an honest assessment of the gap that exists between the US and Canada, so I decided to walk a week in the shoes of an American consumer.

What I discovered is that while the services are certainly more mature, some of the same issues that make internet content frustrating to work with in Canada also exist south of the border.

The Good

Internet TV services in the United States have a good head start on similar services here in Canada, and those years of experience really show. 

Recognizing that people don’t want to hunt all over the internet for their favourite shows, websites such as hulu.com, tv.com, and fancast.com (as well as many nerd-targeted aggregator applications) have popped up which have HD content available from multiple networks. 

imageimage

Recognizing that people don’t really want to watch TV on their computers, Internet TV providers have adopted wide-ranging device strategies from Hulu’s Plus service that brings TV content in a fantastic user experience to the XBox, PS3, and computer to TV.com’s mobile app.

imageimage

And recognizing that people are willing to now actually watch the advertisements in return for a good experience, providers are working hard to ensure that those ads are relevant for you.

image

Movie rental/streaming sites are significantly ahead in the US, with services like Vudu offering BluRay-quality HD streaming of all the new releases to multiple devices for less than your local Blockbuster.

imageimage

The Bad

At first pass, the plethora of content options is downright awesome.  But after actually putting the services through their paces some of the same warts start to shine through.

On the Hulu website, if you search for CSI you’ll get a hit and be redirected to watch it at CBS.com.  But through any of the Hulu applications, no dice.  Nearly half of the shows we watch are CBS shows and they’re simply not available on Hulu apps even after you pay $7.99 for the privilege of watching premium content.

On Boxee (and other similar aggregators), you have access to much more content than when in Canada but because of the massive amount of cutthroat competition in the US it keeps breaking.  On one day, all Hulu content became unavailable on Boxee, another day all of the fancast videos didn’t play properly.

While our content providers haven’t quite matured their services yet in Canada, the mature services in the US are in a constant battle for content that leaves you with a fractured experience.  Our broadcasters are just dipping their toes in the water, but the US broadcasters have recognized that this is the next battlefield and are leveraging their biggest asset (content) to try to make sure that the other guy doesn’t win.

My Conclusion (for this segment)

In my opinion, the grass is just a different shade of green on the other side of the fence.  Services are much more mature, but because of the exclusive content deals there really isn’t one single family-friendly answer to cutting the cable yet in the US either.

It does paint a positive picture for the future, assuming that we’re a couple of years behind in the experience department it is likely that the better tech will be running in Canada around the same time the content wars are getting settled.

U.S. Content is not generally available to Canadians and will not be a part of my solution.  The search continues…

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Cutting the Cable In Canada–Boxee (Part 6)

March 4, 2011 8 comments

This is part six of a blog series on cutting the cable in Canada

In my last post, I reviewed the content available through the web sites of Canadian broadcasters and concluded that while interesting it was generally not particularly family-friendly.

Enter Boxee, a product that hopes to solve this problem by making internet content accessible in a more friendly way on your TV.  They have recently launched the Boxee Box, which is a small silent little cube that sits beside your TV.  You can also run Boxee on your computer, which is what I’ve done for the purposes of this review.

image

The capability list is long, including the ability to play back all of your music, photos, and videos on your TV as well as aggregation of internet content.

To get to the internet TV content, you simply use the remote control to click onto the TV Library where you can browse through available TV shows by popularity or hone in on just the new shows.  Select a series, pick the episode, Boxee recommends an internet source for the show, click and it starts playing.  Brilliant!

Boxee TV LIbraryBBT Listbbt_episode_ctvbbt_playing

Once you’ve found a series you’re interested in you can add it to “My Shows” so that new episodes show up for you automagically on the My TV screen.

Behind the scenes, Boxee is actually navigating to the broadcaster’s website for you, so you’ll get the same video quality and embedded ads that you would see if you were on their website.

Boxee is currently partnered with Global, CBC, CTV, CityTV, Comedy, History, Food, Slice and Showcase as content providers here in Canada.

There is a similar experience available for movies, although the content providers available in Canada are pretty limited right now.  Only films from the National Film Board of Canada are available through Boxee.

boxee movie libraryboxee_movie_nfb

Just in the last week, Boxee has announced that Netflix Canada is now available through the Boxee Box as well but I haven’t tested that capability.

While Boxee is pretty cool, there are some wrinkles that they need to iron out.  Because they are essentially clicking the mouse for you across multiple websites, the Boxee team needs to make sure that they’re keeping up with changes that might happen on those sites.  Generally it works well, but when a content provider stops working you’re at the mercy of Boxee to update the software.

Let’s go to the ranking board…

My current Cable TV bill: $56.99

Cost of content via broadcaster websites: $0 (but indirectly paid via forced advertising)

Amount of my content covered:  85%

  Cable TV Antenna Bit
Torrent
Fibe TV
(TO)
iTunes Netflix Canada TV Web Sites Boxee
Family Accepted Star Star Star Star Star Steaming mad Steaming mad Star
Creators Paid Star Star Steaming mad Star Star Star Star Star
HD Quality Star Star Star Star Star Star Steaming mad Steaming mad
Cost Neutral Star Star Star Star Steaming mad Star Star Star
What I Want Star Steaming mad Star Star Steaming mad Steaming mad Steaming mad Steaming mad
When I Want Star Star Steaming mad Star Star Star Star Star
Where I Want Steaming mad Star Star Star Star Star Steaming mad Steaming mad
Rent vs Own Star Star Star Star Steaming mad Star Star Star
More Info Part 1 Part 1 Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4 Part 5  

As you can see, Boxee takes the experience of the TV Web Sites and makes it more family-accessible.  For my primary requirements, the only one that it doesn’t really meet is the HD quality requirement. 

 

Boxee alone isn’t going to meet the ground rules of this review, but I have a feeling that it may just be a major part of a hybrid solution.

Cutting the Cable in Canada–TV Web Sites (Part 5)

February 24, 2011 10 comments

This is part five of a blog series on cutting the cable in Canada

One of the reasons that digital media seems to stop at the Canadian border is that media companies have signed distribution deals here in Canada that give them exclusive rights to that content. So let’s take a look at what those companies are doing to capitalize on their content.

A quick visit to Global TV’s website shows what basically all of the Canadian broadcasters are doing with their content.  Whatever is airing on their network is also available online, which to be honest is pretty darn cool.

imageimage

However, the efforts of the Canadian broadcasters fall down when it comes to usability.  I don’t want to have my family huddle around a computer screen to watch TV, and even if I did have a computer plugged in to my big-screen TV (which I do), I wouldn’t want to be fishing around on multiple websites with my mouse to find the content that I want to watch.

Other problems with the broadcaster’s websites include varying levels of video quality, most leaning towards “unacceptable” and a painfully ineffective attempt at ad insertion.  I asked my wife to go through a night watching nothing but web TV from one of these sites, and by the end of the experience she wanted to strangle whoever made the Dove man-hide commercial.  After sitting through any ad ten times in a row, the blood does begin to boil.

I’m sure that the people who put these sites together are all working hard, but overall the attempt is half-hearted compared to the relative maturity of the US broadcasters.  While not perfect (I’ll review some of the US services in a later post), the US sites have made it easier to find your content through aggregation sites, to make HD content available on many mobile and tv-connected devices, and to help ensure that the ads which hit your eyeballs are relevant to you.

The product manager in me says stop wasting your money, and partner with some of the US players to leverage their platform and economies of scale while retaining your license and advertising revenue rights.

Okay, so enough of the pontification and on to the review against our cutting the cable in Canada ground-rules.

My current Cable TV bill: $56.99

Cost of content via broadcaster websites: $0 (but indirectly paid via forced advertising)

Amount of my content covered:  85%

 

Cable TV Antenna Bit
Torrent
Fibe TV
(Toronto)
iTunes Netflix Canada TV Web Sites
Family Accepted Star Star Star Star Star Steaming mad Steaming mad
Creators Paid Star Star Steaming mad Star Star Star Star
HD Quality Star Star Star Star Star Star Steaming mad
Cost Neutral Star Star Star Star Steaming mad Star Star
What I Want Star Steaming mad Star Star Steaming mad Steaming mad Steaming mad
When I Want Star Star Steaming mad Star Star Star Star
Where I Want Steaming mad Star Star Star Star Star Steaming mad
Rent vs Own Star Star Star Star Steaming mad Star Star
More Info Part 1 Part 1 Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4

For the purposes of this exercise, the Canadian TV Web sites are not a useful alternative for cutting the cable.  I have a feeling that they may play a part once I start to look into hybrid solutions, but on their own they just don’t cut it.

For reference, here are the Canadian TV websites that you can leverage for content (if I’ve missed any good ones, let me know in the comments).

Aggregators
http://www.rogersondemand.com/ (Closest thing we have to a Hulu, but bad video quality)

Major Networks With Significant Content
http://watch.ctv.ca
http://www.globaltv.com/video
http://www.cbc.ca/video
http://video.citytv.com
http://watch.thecomedynetwork.ca

Specialty Networks
http://www.showcase.ca/video (They have Weeds!)
http://watch.spacecast.com
http://www.history.ca/video

http://www.foodnetwork.ca/video
http://watch.discoverychannel.ca
http://watch.muchmusic.com
http://www.slice.ca/Slice/Watch
http://ca.eonline.com/videos
http://media.treehousetv.com/
http://video.visiontv.ca/
http://www.ytv.com/videos
http://www.tvo.org/TVO/WebObjects/TVO.woa?video
http://www.teletoon.com/teletoon3/teletoon.php?language=En&func=php|templates/video.php|0&xVar=0

Cutting the Cable in Canada–Netflix (Part 4)

February 23, 2011 7 comments

This is part four of a blog series on cutting the cable in Canada.

Netflix launched in Canada with a great deal of attention by the media, and with good reason.  Netflix has led a change in viewing behaviour south of the border that saw Blockbuster Video stock drop by 96% over the last few years.

However, Netflix in Canada is different from Netflix in the US for two reasons:

  1. Netflix US is primarily a DVD-by-mail service with access to all of the same movies as your local video store.  Netflix did not bring this service to Canada (but a similar service is offered by Zip.ca).
  2. Netflix US offers a large catalogue of older movies and TV series to its customers as on-demand video to supplement their mail service.  Due to licensing restrictions, the online catalogue offered by Netflix Canada is not the same catalogue as is offered in the US.
    One of the keys to success for the Netflix streaming service is ease of use.  Netflix works pretty much everywhere through your iPad, your Xbox or Playstation, internet-connected TVs, and several other devices.  Once you connect to the service, you’ll also notice right away that they’ve done an excellent job of making content easy to find through a simple interface and excellent personalized recommendations.
    netflix list netflix_horton_details

    Video quality varies, but many titles are available in high definition (note that the HD video quality is good, but not really comparable to BluRay HD quality).

netflix_horton_player

As you can probably tell, I’m impressed by the service itself which benefits from several years of innovation and improvement in the US market.  However, I’m less impressed by the content available in the Canadian catalogue.  After rating all of the movies that I’ve already seen, Netflix Canada struggles to recommend any movies to me that are actually interesting to me.

Let’s see how Netflix Canada stacks up for the purposes of this exercise.  As a reminder, I’m looking to replace my family’s current viewing patterns which are made up of current-season broadcast television shows as well as new-release Hollywood movies.

My current Cable TV Bill: $56.99

How much of the content I watch is on Netflix Canada: 0%

How much the content they do have would cost per month: $7.99

 

  Cable TV Antenna BitTorrent Fibe TV
(Toronto)
iTunes Netflix Canada
Family Accepted Star Star Star Star Star Steaming mad
Creators Paid Star Star Steaming mad Star Star Star
HD Quality Star Star Star Star Star Star
Cost Neutral Star Star Star Star Steaming mad Star
What I Want Star Steaming mad Star Star Steaming mad Steaming mad
When I Want Star Star Steaming mad Star Star Star
Where I Want Steaming mad Star Star Star Star Star
Rent vs Own Star Star Star Star Steaming mad Star
More Info Part 1 Part 1 Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4

The bottom line is that Netflix Canada isn’t really intended for this purpose.  It was intended as a top-up service for people who watch a lot of TV and movies on DVD.  I know that for many people, having access to slightly stale library of still high quality content is good enough for their entertainment needs.  If that describes you, then Netflix Canada may be a good option.

But for my family’s needs, Netflix is not a viable alternative.

Note: A commenter in one of the previous posts convinced me that BitTorrent doesn’t really deliver on the “when I want” definition so I’ve changed that from a star to an angry-face.

Cutting The Cable In Canada–Apple iTunes (Part 3)

February 22, 2011 17 comments

This is part three of a blog series on cutting the cable in Canada

Every time the topic of online media comes up amongst certain friends and colleagues, the answer I always get back is “iTunes”.  As much as the closed ecosystem of Apple grates on me, in the end if it does what I need then I don’t really care.

I’ve always said that if I can take the money I pay for TV content today, give it to Apple, and they give me all of the same content wherever and whenever I want then sign me up.  Today I tested that theory.

My Cable TV bill: $56.99 before taxes

How much of the content I want is available on iTunes Canada: 78%

How much the content they do have would cost per month: $116.21

image

Ouch! More than double the cost to get three-quarters of the content, and that’s before spending money on new AppleTV devices that I would need to enable this content in a family-friendly way.

Sorry Apple, you’re not in the running for this potential cable-cutter.

Let me summarize where we are so far in the series:

 

Cable TV

Antenna

BitTorrent

Fibe TV
(Toronto)

iTunes

Family Accepted

Star

Star

Star

Star

Star

Creators Paid

Star

Star

Steaming mad

Star

Star

HD Quality

Star

Star

Star

Star

Star

Cost Neutral

Star

Star

Star

Star

Steaming mad

What I Want

Star

Steaming mad

Star

Star

Steaming mad

When I Want

Star

Star

Star

Star

Star

Where I Want

Steaming mad

Star

Star

Star

Star

Rent vs Own

Star

Star

Star

Star

Steaming mad

More Info

Part 1

Part 1

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

 

Stick with me as I test out more internet-based TV and Movie services in the coming days!

Cutting The Cable In Canada–Bell Fibe TV (Part 2)

February 21, 2011 8 comments

This is part two of a blog series on cutting the cable in Canada. You can read part one by clicking here.

One of the services I came across in my research was Bell’s Fibe TV service, and I have to admit that if it was available in my neighbourhood now then this contest might be over.

Those of you who know me also know that I’m in violent opposition to the anti-competitive tactics that Bell is using when it comes to Internet pricing here in Canada.  However, even with that chip on my shoulder I’d have a hard time passing on this service.

imageBell’s service is based on Microsoft’s Mediaroom internet tv platform, which takes all the best parts of Windows Media Center and packages them up for Internet TV service providers.  The best PVR experience out there, true multi-room and multi-device content sharing, all of the latest high definition TV content, and the latest HD movies for rent.

Bear in mind that I haven’t actually used the service, so I’m sure there are some warts to be found, but based on what I know I’m giddy in anticipation.  Let’s remove the giddiness though and apply some math.

From my current cable TV provider, I subscribe to a mid-grade package which includes most of the broadcast and basic cable channels but none of the premium channels (HBO, TMN, etc).  I rent one set-top box, bought another on eBay, but I do not use or pay for their PVR.  For the purposes of this exercise, we’ll assume that my family’s viewing patterns don’t change and that I would want to enable several TVs in the house with this service.

My Current Cable Bill: $56.99 before taxes

Equivalent Bell Fibe TV Bill: $35 before taxes

As mentioned above I don’t currently rent a PVR from my cable company, because it sucks, however in this case I would want to get the non-sucky PVR.  The nice thing about Fibe TV is that you only need one PVR and the rest is shared to the TVs in your house.  So let’s add $20 a month to that bill to bring it to $55.

And now you see why I’m giddy… looks like this has the promise to meet my needs and hit the magic number!  Of course this is all academic, because it’s not available outside of small pockets in downtown Toronto and Montreal with no estimate on availability elsewhere.  Pity.

The search continues…

Cutting The Cable In Canada–The Challenge (Part One)

February 21, 2011 22 comments

After arguing that we need fast and cheap internet to ensure that Canada doesn’t get left behind as the world moves towards online video, I figured it was time to actually start testing the waters.  What is the state of online video in Canada and is it realistic for a Canadian family to cut the cable?

Over the next few weeks I’ll take you through my attempts to fundamentally alter the way that our family consumes media.  For those who don’t care to watch TV or Movies at all, you might wish to skip this series altogether.  For those who are wondering if it’s really possible to live without your cable provider, stick with me as I fumble my way through and if successful I’ll finish the series with a concise how-to.

The ground rules:

  • My family must accept the solution, this is not a geeks-only endeavour
  • The content creators must be compensated, no stealing from the artists
  • The quality must generally match what I get today, which means high definition
  • Costs must fit within our existing budget, I’m only allowed to spend what I save elsewhere

I’ll add to the above rules some expectations about the experience:

  • I want to watch what I want, which means access to all of the TV and Movie content that we already enjoy without limitations
  • I want to watch when I want, which means that content is available to me on-demand and without delay
  • I want to watch where I want, which means in the living room, in the bedroom, or on an airplane in the middle of the Atlantic
  • I want to rent content, not own the content.  I’m not interested in buying TV or Movies that we will keep forever and watch later.  I want to watch it once, and then never again.

Let’s lay out these requirements into a handy-dandy chart, and compare them against the options that I already know are out there.

 

    Cable TV Antenna BitTorrent
    Family Accepted Star Star Star
    Creators Paid Star Star
    HD Quality Star Star Star
    Cost Neutral Star Star Star
    What I Want Star   Star
    When I Want Star Star Star
    Where I Want   Star Star
    Rent vs Own Star Star Star
    With my cable provider, I can get access to pretty much everything I want through their set-top box for a price.  The biggest problem is that because the content is encrypted, it only works through their set-top-box and if you want to share content to other rooms in the house, your iPod, or laptop you’re out of luck.  The other issue is that I’m forced to pay for way more content than I want through odd bundles.

    Since I live near a major city (Toronto), a cheap antenna in my attic provides crystal-clear high definition TV.  The content is unencrypted, so it is quite easy to plug the antenna into many off-the-shelf PVRs to watch wherever I want in a family-friendly way.  There are two problems with the antenna, both related to watching what I want: you’re limited to the major network content, and in rare but infuriating circumstances the signal doesn’t come in strong.

A reality which drives me crazy is that BitTorrent is probably the best technical option currently available to Canadians.  There are lots of applications that allow you to proactively download all of the content you might want, play it back in a user-friendly way, and take it with you wherever you want.  However, this option does not compensate content creators for their art which is in my opinion not fair, not right, and of course not legal.

That last point is one of the driving reasons behind this experiment.  Surely the state of the industry cannot be that the only way to consume content in a friendly way is to steal it.  I’m on a mission.  I will find a way to consume media on my terms in a way that compensates the artists who created it. Come join me on my journey.