How good are Canadian streaming video services?
Last year almost 160,000 people canceled their cable TV subscriptions in Canada. Did Netflix help usher in the cord cutting era? Who’s to say? But in 2010, Netflix chose Canada as their first streaming foray outside the United States. Unlike our neighbours to the south, we don’t have Amazon Prime, Hulu, Sling TV, or HBO Now. After a four year monogamous relationship with Netflix, we have two new services owned by the duopoly of Canada’s largest media companies; shomi owned by Rogers Media and CraveTV owned by Bell Media.
Both services launched in 2014, but were kept exclusive to customers of their respective internet services. It took complaints with the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) to force the hand of Rogers and Bell, and open their platform for all Canadians. shomi opened it’s doors in mid 2015, and CraveTV in January of 2016.
Given that both services have had time to find their footing, I thought it was a good time to see how they compare to Netflix with an old school report card. I will be giving my opinion as a consumer on content selection, availability, user experience, and streaming video quality.
Content is the crux of a streaming service. It’s what brings people in and keeps them coming back. Due to how film and television distribution rights work the selection of content is not fixed in stone. Titles are being added and removed on a regular basis. Here is a quick example; Mongrel Media (a Canadian film distribution company) has the exclusive rights to distribute the film Boyhood in Canada. Mongrel will license the streaming rights for a fixed term, in this case to Netflix. Once that term expires Netflix must remove the film from their service.
Some could argue the quality of licensed content on Netflix has significantly suffered as they have shifted their focus towards original content. A cursory glance of the newest additions to the service shows a mix of newer 2015 releases (The Big Short, Ant-Man, Bridge of Spies), some good older titles (Animal House, Chicken Run, The Jerk), and a lot of filler content which you’ve probably never heard of.
shomi is focusing on mainstream older movies and television shows. Their selection, while nowhere near the breadth and depth of Netflix, is filled with recognizable content. You will likely not find newly released films, but will find recent seasons of hit television shows (e.g. The Americans, Jane the Virgin, Mr. Robot).
CraveTV is 100% focused on television shows and has a lot of excellent and popular content. Being owned by Bell means they have access to content from channels like Comedy, HBO and Showtime. If you love TV then subscribing to CraveTV is a must. Nowhere else will you find every season of Seinfeld, South Park, The Wire, and Homeland all under one roof. The HBO content is unfortunately limited to the back catalog, so no Game of Thrones, Silicon Valley, Veep, or any other recent content is available.
In the United States every major streaming company has started producing or buying original content. Original content is exclusive to that platform and doesn’t necessarily have an expiry date. Netflix is once again leading the pack producing massive hits including the original TV series’ House of Cards, Orange is the new Black, Daredevil, and Narcos. They have also created films, documentaries, and comedy specials. Netflix is pumping out exclusive original content faster than we can consume it. The benefit of creating so many originals is they are tearing down the old world of global distribution. If something is produced by Netflix in India, it will instantly be available for Canada as well.
shomi has yet to produce or purchase a truly original series. Instead they have chosen to license original content which was previously not available in Canada. Most notably the Amazon original series’ Transparent and Mozart in the Jungle; both of which are Emmy award winners.
CraveTV has one original series under its belt. A comedy series named Letterkenny which has already been green-lit for a second season. The series has been well received and we can only hope that Bell will get behind more good original content.
Netflix truly is the gold standard of service availability. You would have a hard time finding a device that didn’t have Netflix on it.
shomi and CraveTV both launched supporting modern web browsers, iOS, Android, and AppleTV. Neither launched with Chromecast support, but now both have it. shomi also has apps for the Playstation 4, Xbox One, Xbox 360, and Rogers and Shaw set top boxes.
CraveTV is not available on any video game console or set top box other than the AppleTV; supposedly an Xbox One app is coming soon. The only notable support CraveTV has which shomi does not is for Samsung Smart TVs. Neither shomi nor CraveTV supports Android TV, or Roku. See the full listing for more details. shomi, CraveTV
Netflix is a technology company, love it or hate it, their user experience is always consistent and improving. With everything built in house, you will receive a familiar user experience regardless of the platform. Netflix relies heavily on user testing and data to continually experiment and innovate.
shomi launched with unique branding, but unlike Netflix the development of the branding and apps is done by third party companies. This creates major inconsistencies between platforms. The AppleTV app for example hasn’t been updated since launch and doesn’t have the branding or feature set found on other platforms. One area where shomi is unique, is human curated collections based on themes. These collections offer a unique way to discover content.
CraveTV is the saddest of the bunch. Their user experience is neither inspired nor original. Having a TV focus, you would think they could try to improve the binge watching experience, but instead their buggy service often has problems remembering which episode of a show I was watching. They have not updated their AppleTV app since initial launch.
Streaming Video Quality
The quality of streaming video content is generally determined by three factors.
- The original source material
- Video compression
- Your download speed
Official data on this is not made public so I will be relying heavily on conjecture for my analysis.
Netflix has made it their mission to make sure the best possible quality of video can reach you in the shortest time possible. Netflix recently released fast.com. A tool for people to get unbiased reports on their internet connection speed. Netflix is also one of the only services offering 4k streaming content. For this section, I decided to use Netflix as the benchmark, since their compression, bitrate and overall video quality is top notch.
The film The Terminator (1984) was available on both Netflix and shomi, so I decided to see how the quality compared between the two. At first glance you will notice that the colours and brightness are completely different. This could be attributed to the source master being different, or the encoding profiles using filters to change the look of the content. Upon reviewing many different scenes it’s my opinion that the Netflix stream was superior. There was much less compression artifacting. The colours and contrast were also more natural.
Homeland was one of the few TV series that was available on all three platforms. I reviewed all three services in a web browser and on my AppleTV. The first thing I noticed was how soft the CraveTV image was compared to the other two. Details are blended away due to the stream being almost 1/3 lower in bitrate than the Netflix stream. The shomi encoding while higher in bitrate, was much darker and the colour more muted than Netflix.
Netflix has a clear advantage over the other services. It has been around significantly longer, has a massive catalog of content, and has worked hard to become a symbol for the new world order of film and television. shomi and CraveTV have a clear advantage over Netflix, in that they are backed by media juggernauts that have the rights to a significant amount of popular content in Canada.
The unfortunate part is that there are still significant gaps in the Canadian media market. Live and recently aired content still requires a TV package if you want to access the latest content online. New episodes of shows like Game of Thrones can only be legally acquired by subscribing to expensive TV plans and it doesn’t seem as though that is going to change anytime soon.
No service is going to give you everything you want to watch. The legacy media distribution model has turned streaming media services into modern network television stations. You will always need multiple services to find all the content you want, which is why I subscribe to all three.
My final score encompasses all categories but gives the content categories much higher weight. shomi and CraveTV needed to launch very aggressively with their content selection in order to compete with the four year head start that Netflix had. What they have achieved in such a short period of time is commendable, especially for traditional media organizations. What they need to focus on next, is everything else.