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iTunes deal no big win for Canadians

Globe and Mail Update

Apple chief executive officer 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 going to like this new feature only if your TV-watching diet consists 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 reality series The Hills, as well as episodes of South Park. For the 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.

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

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

There are probably a number of reasons why this hasn't happened, and why Canadians are only now being allowed 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 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 (VOD), and that has been available for years.

Canada isn't the only one struggling with this issue: Britain got TV shows added to its version of iTunes only 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 covered only 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 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.

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, which pay for the right to broadcast those hits and which might not look kindly on the networks letting people stream or download them whenever they want.

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

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