Monday, October 24, 2016

#DigiCanCon Comments on @shomicanada @whoismrrobot @GooglePlay TV , @HBOCanada @GameOfThrones

I've been a happy Netflix customer since 2011, dropped cable TV in 2012, and frequently purchase DVD's of movies or seasons of scripted TV programming. This year I've reviewed CraveTV,  CTV GO and Showcase's website, and decided to subscribe to Shomi to do a review.

As with other services offered by broadcaster or BDUs (cable companies) I didn't expect to be happy with Shomi.

What I (and a growing percentage of the market) want is to be able to conveniently watch the shows I want, at a location I want, at a time of my choosing, on devices of my choosing, and at a reasonable price.

What the broadcast industry wants to offer is programming of their choosing, at a time of their choosing, on devices of their choosing, and at the maximum price they believe the market will bear.  The digital transition for cable was several steps backward from analog where subscribers could choose their own brand of tuners to digital where the tuner brand is imposed.  They are not offering services based on sound market analysis as they claim that if anyone doesn't want to purchase their products and services the only reason could be they are "pirates".  This scapegoat is blocking them from offering services that their potential customer base actually wants, and the more "copyright" talk that blames audiences that happens the less likely the market can ever mature.

Shomi

As far as content is concerned, Shomi is similar to CraveTV in that it is older scripted TV programming that was broadcast much earlier.  I scanned the catalog and didn't see anything I could recognize as current seasons.  CraveTV and Space TV are both owned by Bell, and I wouldn't be surprised if exclusive licensing by Bell blocked the Shomi Partnership from licensing a larger catalog of Sci-Fi and Fantasy scripted TV. That said, there would still be shows I would watch if Shomi were going to be around longer.

Technology

Shomi's technology is far more advanced than CraveTV.  Unlike CraveTV where the website can't cast to a Chromecast using a recent Chrome browser, Shomi had no problems streaming directly from the website.  I have also downloaded the Shomi for phone to my Nexus 4 and Shomi for tablet to my ASUS Flip chromebook, and it works well on both devices watching on-screen and casting to my TV.

HDMI CEC is supported by the Shomi Chromecast application.  This may seem like a minor feature, but it is very important.  It allows for pausing and resuming of programming using the TV's remote control.  This avoids having to get the device that initiated the show opened - screen blanked so I need to log in, and a good chance you have to battle the app to get the pause to work.  By then the phone call/etc is over and you need to fight the interface to rewind.

Shomi always seems to remember which episode of a series I was on, and unlike CraveTV doesn't require that I search for the series to choose a different episode. The "Shomi later" bookmarking and "Recently watched" listings work well and allow you to easily see which episodes you have seen and (re)watch whichever episode you want next.

Both the browse (by category) and collections (themed, not sure who the creators are) are a great way to discover other content on the site.

While Shomi isn't as advanced as Netflix and Google (YouTube and Google Play), the interface and technology is considerably more advanced than what Bell offers with CraveTV or other subsidiaries( CTV.ca, space.ca sites and CTV GO, SPACE GO apps).   In an ideal world it would be CraveTV/etc shutting down and all that content made available on the Shomi platform, but that isn't what is happening.  Maybe Bell will purchase the platform to upgrade their services, if they have any interest in improving them.

Mr. Robot

The show I decided to watch on Shomi was the first season of Mr. Robot.  Very interesting political drama with quite a bit of technology embedded in the story. This is not your annoying abuse of technology where it is as magical as Harry Potter, but where real-world technology is being used.  You have advanced computer users using what they actually would -- Kali Linux on laptops, OpenWrt in routers -- and you see real code in real programming languages (and real apps and shell commands) popping up on screens.

You have these people using these advanced skills for political aims. How you would classify them (Hacker vs cracker, hero or villain, freedom fighter or terrorist) is really up to the viewer and having the viewer thinking about this appears to be an important part of the narrative.

I'd be posting spoilers if I said any more, and I want to recommend the show without spoiling any of the quite large number of sometimes quite twisted twists.

After watching the first season I was immediately drawn to the second season. It was aired on Showcase back in July, and is no longer available from that website. In some ways I was glad as the Showcase website is the worst streaming site I've used in decades.

I looked up in watchincanada.ca and it only suggested the second season was on iTunes.  In context, that was amusing -- many politically active advanced computer users, such as myself, consider Apple to be a political opponent and not a vendor we would ever consider using.  To put a show that would appeal to us only on a service that many of us find offensive didn't make sense.

Google Play Movies and TV

I decided to look Mr Robot up on Google Play (with Google sitting above the line of what I find politically tolerable) and found Mr Robot Season 2 for $16.99.

While Google Play Movies and TV streams like Netflix does, it is organized and priced more like DVDs with purchase and rental.  There isn't a fixed monthly price, but different pricing for different content.

As an example, Mr. Robot season 1 and 2 are $1.99 per episode, or $16.99 for the entire season (10 episodes for season 1, 12 episodes for season 2).    Game of Thrones episodes are $3.49 per episode, or $33.99 per 10 episode season which is comparable to the DVD pricing ($42.99 on Amazon.ca at the moment, but that price will likely be lower by the time it ships November 15).

Game of Thrones and Bell Media

Wait a minute? What?

Yes, I did just list Game of Thrones, which really surprised me when I saw it. I didn't even think to look for it on Google Play because everything I read and heard from fellow GoT fans suggested that Bell was blocking GoT from access to non-cable subscribers in Canada -- meaning I had to wait as with previous seasons for GoT to eventually be released on DVD in order to not infringe.  Last year the DVD was finally release in March with the next season starting broadcast at the end of April.  It was almost a full year with other fans blurting out spoilers in my presence, making the series less enjoyable for me as time went on.

I saw no mention of Google Play in a series of CBC articles in April,  May and June where Bell was claiming it was easy to pay and yet Bell representatives only spoke of cable-tied options. When you look at the Game of Thrones page on the HBO Canada (Bell) site there is no mention of non-cable alternatives for paying for the series. Not even a mention of DVDs of older seasons.  The HBO Canada site mentions TMN GO which offers GoT for streaming, but their FAQ clearly states "At this time, TMN GO is only offered as part of a subscription to The Movie Network through a participating Television Service Provider. It is not available directly through us."

When did this show become available on Google Play for Canadians? Canadians are often blocked from content available to US customers from services like Netflix and Google Play -- and there is no equivalent to Hulu or Amazon Prime Video, so I quite legitimately assumed all talk about US alternatives including HBO GO didn't apply to Canadians.  Has it been available for a few seasons, just hidden from fans, or only made available this year?  Was it only made available some time this summer because of media attention made to the fact that HBO Canada (Bell) has been refusing to allow fans to pay?

Similar to shows which offer new episodes weekly during the broadcast period the GoT Google Play page says "Purchase Season 6 and it will be available for playback and added to your library as soon as it's available for release".  Did I really have a legal option to watch starting at the end of April which Bell deliberately hid from me?  Why no mention in the interviews that CBC did of Bell representatives, potentially informing fans of the option back in May when it was first being released?

Like most of my interactions with the "Canadian" broadcasters I feel frustrated at how disrespectful I'm treated as a fan.

To confirm that Google Play wasn't talking about the timing of the DVD release next month and that it was already available, I purchased the season and immediately confirmed episode 10 is playable (just the start of opening sequence -- spoilers!).  I then logged into Amazon.ca and canceled my pre-order of the DVD box set.

These are market problems that must be discussed as Bell likely sees Google Play as competition for cable, putting them in a conflict of interest situation which makes them unsuited to own "HBO Canada".  The lack of mention of non-cable alternatives by HBO Canada (Bell) is something that the competition bureau, CRTC and HBO should be watching closely.  The HBO Canada site should be focused on the widest possible distribution in Canada of HBO content, not be a way for Bell to try to push people to legacy BDU services - that's tied selling, not a legitimate business practice, and is a practice that shouldn't be tolerated in Canada.

If our Copyright Act was modern the lack of even mentioning legal alternatives would clarify that Bell is at the root of infringement in Canada (not fans), and Bell (or the copyright holder who inappropriately gave them an exclusive license in Canada) shouldn't be allowed to complain about infringement which Bell is inducing.

Bell isn't the victim, but perpetrators of contributory copyright infringement.

Saying "sit down, shut up, and get a cable package" is a matter of control and conformity, not compensation, and copyright law shouldn't be able to be abused by companies which demonstrate they are uninterested in compensation.

If Bell was the slightest bit interested in protecting HBO's copyright in Canada they would be featuring all methods of paying clearly on the HBO Canada website.  In my mind one way to tell when copyright law is modern is if it forced copyright holder like HBO to go after contributory infringers like Bell first before they would be allowed to go after private citizens.

Technology

The Google Play Movies and TV's technology has features even beyond Netflix. Like Netflix its Chromecast app supports HDMI CEC, and as the same company that created the Chromecast devices will always support each new feature with advancing revisions of the device and software.  While Google Play has its own app, purchased content is also visible through the YouTube app so that convenience (or distraction depending on your preferences) is available.

Missing from Netflix, Google Play has an offline mode where you can pre-cache episodes and watch offline - such as when flying or other travel when Internet connectivity is unreliable or not fast enough for streaming.

There is a really cool feature I hadn't seen before when watching GoT episodes. While casting to the larger TV screen, circles were popping up on the tablet with the names of the actors (and characters) as well as the names of songs that are part of the soundtrack as they were part of the scene. This is a great use of the 2'nd screen beyond showing how far I am in the video. I couldn't find what this was with quick searching, so if anyone already knows I would appreciate links/etc. This is an amazing feature for shows like GoT that have many different story lines and many different characters moving forward in parallel. Now all I'd love to see is a map of Westeros in the background showing where people are :-)

Unfortunately you can't watch Google Play purchased content on all YouTube compatible devices. My Samsung Smart TV indicated "Video not playable on this device" when I tried to watch Mr. Robot episodes. Searching pointed me to the following answer on Google Video distribution settings which suggests that the copyright holder deliberately decided to disallow the content to work on this type of device.  This means the full remote control functionality (rewind, etc) is not available like it would be for regular YouTube or Netflix content using the Smart TV apps.

Market issues

When viewing the Mr. Robot content on the YouTube app I noticed it shows "NBCUniversalShowsCanada" as the user.  This got me thinking about who the supplier is for this content.  I looked up DC's Legends of Tomorrow and on a side-bar it indicates "More from CTV" and shows Arrow.  The Flash doesn't indicate who the distributor is, and Supergirl indicates Showcase.

This opens an obvious question: what will motivate broadcasters to fix their streaming sites when they can point to the expensive access via Google Play as if it were an alternative? I was considering paying for Supergirl season 2 to get away from the horrible Showcase website, but now that I know that it is Showcase that would get part of my money I dropped that idea.  I feel like I'm being pick-pocketed, not treated as a potential valued customer.

I'm quite uncomfortable with the idea that any part of my GoT payment is going to a contributory infringer (Bell) rather than only to HBO.

When I dropped cable I did so with the understanding that I would be redirecting as a minimum the money I was spending on cable to streaming services and DVDs.  I've been very happy with Netflix for new and older programming, have recently learned to hold my nose (try to forget it's Bell) and tolerate CraveTV and would have tolerated Shomi for older shows.  If CTV GO allowed me to log in via my CraveTV subscription it would make both services more valuable.

Google Play as a technology works great, and I would use it often if the broadcasters and/or copyright holders were more reasonable on pricing.  For about the same amount of money I am left with a trade-off between waiting for a late DVD release or purchasing through Google Play.  Google Play works on fewer devices, and because files are encrypted it is unknown when my paid library will cease to be "legally" accessible. As with other similar proprietary encrypted file formats, content available through Google Play cannot be trusted to be playable as long as a DVD will.

One option copyright holders should consider is appropriately priced bundles (Play now, receive DVD at release time) so that the ephemeral nature of encrypted Google Play content wouldn't deter purchases.  I have seen the reverse with recent "DVD + Digital HD" purchases where the "Digital HD" can be redeemed through Google Play.

The inclusion of Google Play among other options is much improved over purchases where you could only redeem through iTunes, which is useless to me. The DVD boxes and retailers don't indicate what service the "Digital HD" version is tied to, so I need to presume it doesn't exist and thus that possibility never adds value when I'm determining whether to purchase.  It is sad just how poor the studios are at marketing their own products, and how ignorant they are of how much the distribution medium matters.

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