Who has the rights? A look at how streaming services are confusing viewers
David Friend, The Canadian Press
Published Friday, August 11, 2017 1:34PM EDT
TORONTO -- Marie Conception was three seasons into the TV series "Gossip Girl" when Netflix yanked the entire show from its lineup.
Left hanging in the middle of the teen drama's juicy plot twists, the Burnaby, B.C. resident says she questioned why she signed up for Netflix in the first place.
"You commit to purchasing Netflix or CraveTV because they have certain shows," she says. "It's a little upsetting when they pull stuff out for whatever reason."
The frustration is all too familiar for many TV viewers. You're invested in "Mad Men" or "The West Wing" when the shows suddenly disappear from streaming services overnight. Fans still complain about how "Lost" can't be found, and "Friday Night Lights" went dark.
The reason TV shows or films are removed from streaming platforms can vary, though it almost always comes down to content licensing "windows," the set periods of time a company gets the rights for a program.
Those contracts between a streaming company and a TV or film distributor are nothing new -- they exist for traditional broadcasters, too. But in an era where many people stream much of their entertainment, what's available is suddenly a bigger part of the conversation.
How long a streaming licence lasts will vary depending on the show or movie. Many contracts are signed for around a year, especially for films, which guarantees services like Netflix have a steady rotation of content from some of Hollywood's big studios.
TV series can have an even longer licence that stretches for several years and covers a number of seasons. Sometimes, those rights switch to another service; other times they expire and disappear into the digital ether, especially in Canada where many popular shows aren't available to stream.
The confusion over where to watch their favourite TV shows isn't likely to subside for Canadians any time soon. Next year, CBS Corp. plans to enter the market with CBS All Access, potentially holding onto certain licences for TV shows it has a stake in, including "The Big Bang Theory."
When Disney rolls out its streaming platform in the coming years, there's a good chance it'll eventually keep its most valuable new content for itself, rather than license it to Netflix Canada. Those negotiations are still open, and Netflix could make Disney an offer too attractive to refuse.
All of these decisions are part of ongoing talks that don't affect viewers until they notice something has gone missing from their streaming library.
Mike Cosentino, senior vice-president of content at CraveTV, often hears the message loud and clear when he makes the call on what to stock on Bell Media's platform.
"At the end of the day, if we do our jobs well enough, we're renewing content that has a consumer appetite and reinvesting in new content," he says.
But it isn't always up to CraveTV, Netflix or Amazon Prime Video which entertainment they can license.
For instance, viewers have urged Netflix Canada to stock up on past seasons of "Game of Thrones," but the blockbuster TV show is owned by HBO, its biggest competitor. Bell Media owns the licences to HBO content in Canada, but hasn't made them available on any standalone streaming service.
Things get even more complicated when you turn to Netflix Canada, which bought licences for TV series like "Riverdale," which appear on the platform shortly after they air on U.S. television.
Those licences aren't cheap, and the battle for content is getting more expensive.
Josh Scherba, executive vice-president of distribution and content at DHX Media, says the Toronto-based kids TV maker watched the value of its shows climb over the past five years as more streaming companies bulked up their virtual shelves. With more companies entering the market, the bidding increases.
"We think for the foreseeable future that's going to continue," Scherba says.
Ultimately, consumers will probably foot the bigger monthly bill. Netflix Canada is already raising its monthly subscription by a dollar or two saying it's partly due to rising costs for buying content and making its own original series.
But streaming companies might have some explaining to do when the licences for some of their "original series" end in the coming years.
Netflix brands a selection of its content as "Netflix Originals" even though it doesn't actually own all of them outright. Both "House of Cards" and "Orange is the New Black" are owned by outside studios that license multi-year windows to the streaming service.
Once those terms end, the shows are free to be sold elsewhere, which means they will almost certainly land on broadcast TV or other streaming platforms. It's already happened with Amazon Original series "Transparent," which began airing on cable channel Showcase earlier this summer.
None of these shifts make it any easier for viewers to figure out where shows like "Gossip Girl" can be seen these days. Some websites like justwatch.com aim to help streamers find what they're looking for. But that didn't give Conception any idea if the show was returning to Netflix.
"They do this weird thing where they sometimes take (a TV series) out, but they bring it back a few months later," she says. "But with 'Gossip Girl' they didn't."
She eventually gave up and bought the show on DVD.