I regret to inform you that Bell and Quebecor are at it again.
The latest skirmish? Bell’s announcement that it is launching a French version of its Crave streaming service, or more accurately making its existing Crave service bilingual. This adds a third player to the (paid) Canadian French-language TV streaming market, joining Radio-Canada’s Tou.tv Extra and Quebecor’s Club Illico.
That sounds pretty simple, and generally good news for the market. Annoying for Quebecor, obviously, to have a new competitor, but hardly something they can complain about.
Except at the same time, Bell is doing with its Super Écran pay TV channel what it did with The Movie Network in 2018: Integrating it into Crave and forcing TV providers into a new deal to get access to Super Écran’s on-demand content for their subscribers. (Super Écran will, thankfully, keep its branding though, and be referred to as a Super Écran add-on to Crave.)
Bell has reached such deals with some providers, but not Videotron, which is calling foul because Bell has shut down Super Écran Go, through which Videotron customers subscribed to Super Écran could access its content online.
The 2018 Crave-Videotron war didn’t last too long, but it needed a $100-million lawsuit to settle. And Bell and Quebecor aren’t exactly great at negotiating these days.
Crave remains $10 a month, and that’s now for a bilingual subscription. Super Écran, which offers French-language current HBO series and other dubbed programming plus a few originals and Quebec movies, is another $10/month extra. Note that while the basic package is bilingual, the add-ons are not. The Movies+HBO add-on and the Super Écran add-on are separate, each at $10/month.
For TV subscribers (with participating providers), it won’t cost extra to access Super Écran on Crave. But you might see your cable TV bill go up as a result, as Bell squeezes more wholesale fees out of those providers.
One clarification from Bell, by the way: If you’re a Super Écran subscriber who is not already subscribed to Crave through crave.ca or your TV provider, you’ll only get the Super Écran content on crave.ca. Other Crave content in either language will only be available if you subscribe to Crave or add Crave access to your TV package.
Was Péladeau right?
Almost decade ago, when Bell first proposed buying Astral Media (which at the time owned The Movie Network and Super Écran), Quebecor CEO Pierre Karl Péladeau argued that this deal would give Bell Media too much market power. Among his main concerns is that Bell would buy content at a premium in both languages at the same time, offering sweetheart deals that French-only distributors like Quebecor wouldn’t be able to match.
The way Péladeau phrased it, French-language rights would be merely thrown into existing contracts, because Quebec isn’t a large enough market for these big companies to bother negotiating separate contracts.
I’m not that ready to believe that major rights holders are that willing to just leave money on the table, and since Bell already owns Super Écran there are no rights changing hands here, but having a bilingual Crave service will mean Bell seeking out more bilingual rights in its contracts. And that will lead to fewer opportunities for Quebec-based broadcasters to get French-language rights for top series and movies where Bell holds the English-language rights.
The PR war
Nous tenons à rectifier certaines informations qui circulent concernant le retrait du service de vidéo sur demande de Super Écran. Bell a pris elle-même la décision de nous retirer les droits de diffusion de sa plateforme en date du 21 janvier. 1/2
— Videotron (@Videotron) January 22, 2020
It didn’t take long for both sides to start trying to spin the PR on this disruption. For Videotron, this is entirely Bell’s fault, saying it was Bell’s decision to take away video on demand for Super Écran.
For Bell, it’s Videotron’s fault, with the official message being: “The new product was made available to Videotron but they chose not to offer it to their subscribers.”
The real answer here is that Bell is using this change to demand more money from cable providers, and Videotron is not prepared to pay that higher price, which it would have to then pass on to subscribers as it did when it finally agreed to the conditions for Crave.
Videotron subscribers are upset, naturally. Some are blaming Videotron, others Bell. Some are saying they’re going to unsubscribe to Super Écran (which would financially punish Bell), while others may either cut cable entirely or switch their TV service to Bell (which would financially punish Videotron). Which of these forces is greater might help determine who wins the battle in the end.
UPDATE: Apparently Videotron tried to go to court to stop Bell from ceasing to offer Super Écran Go, arguing there was still a valid contract between the two parties. But in a judgment rendered Jan. 20, Quebec Superior Court judge Jacques Fournier ruled that Videotron’s interpretation of their carriage contract was incorrect, and denied the request for an injunction.