iTunes Canada TV blockade ends, sort of

(This is a piece I wrote for the Globe that was published Wednesday. I’m posting it here for anyone who might have missed it.)

Apple CEO Steve Jobs gave Canadians an early Christmas present on Wednesday: the ability to download TV shows from the Canadian version of iTunes, the company’s popular online media store. This particular present comes with a catch, though. Let’s put it this way: you’re only going to like this new feature if your TV-watching diet consists exclusively of Canadian TV shows and hockey games, because that’s pretty much all that Apple has on its virtual shelves right now.

There are a couple of treats for younger viewers thrown in there, mind you: there’s the popular teen drama The Hills, for example, as well as episodes of South Park. And for the younger kids, there’s an animated TV show called Avatar: The Last Airbender. And if you like Degrassi: The Next Generation, you’re going to love the new iTunes store.

If you were hoping to watch the latest episode of Heroes on your iPod while you’re on the train or stuck in traffic, however, you are out of luck. The same goes for episodes of other top shows such as Lost, Battlestar Galactica and The Office. They remain stuck in your television.

Is this because Apple thinks that Canadians only want to watch episodes of Corner Gas, Little Mosque on the Prairie and old NHL hockey games? Not really. Although Apple isn’t saying, it’s obvious that the company just hasn’t been able to strike the kind of content-licensing deals that would allow any other shows to be part of iTunes.

There are a number of likely reasons why this hasn’t happened, and why Canadians are only now getting the ability to download TV shows, more than two years after the U.S. got that feature. The nice version is that licensing international content rights is a hellishly complicated business to begin with, and the addition of online rights for streaming and downloads and so on make it even more so.

The not-so-nice version is that Canadian broadcasters aren’t exactly known for their eagerness to adopt new technologies, or new business models for that matter. Most of them are still trying to wrap their heads around video on demand, and that’s been available for years. Canada isn’t the only one struggling with this issue: Britain only got TV shows added to its version of iTunes in August, in part because Apple couldn’t strike agreements with the various domestic broadcasters.

In a nutshell, the U.S. networks sign content deals with Canadian broadcasters such as Global and CTV, but until recently those deals only covered traditional television broadcasting rights and newer offerings such as VOD. Now, viewers want to watch streaming (i.e., non-downloadable) versions of their favourite shows on the Web, as well as download them to their iPods or laptops, burn them to DVD and so on. But each of those different uses has to be negotiated, and there are competing interests.

In a sense, the same issues are at stake in the current dispute between Hollywood writers and the major TV networks and movie studios: writers want to be compensated for their work when it is streamed or downloaded, but no one can agree on what any of that should be worth.

To make matters worse, the bulk of Canada’s most popular TV shows still originate in the U.S., which means that networks such as Global and CTV rely on them for the majority of their revenues. Theoretically, cash cows such as Lost and Heroes could be in jeopardy if people could suddenly download them at will — or at least, that’s the fear the networks have.

And that’s not all: Just as the U.S. networks have deals with Global and CTV for the right to broadcast their shows, the Canadian networks also have deals of their own with affiliates and satellite providers, who pay for the right to broadcast those hits, and who might not look kindly on the networks letting people stream or download them whenever they want to.

So there you have it: a new-media licensing morass, with your favourite TV shows trapped at the center. Put that on your iPod.

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