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More choice, more costs, more complexity in Canada's streaming world

Canadian actor and stunt performer Paul Lazenby, left, is seen with actor Ron Livingston on the set of the TV show Loudermilk. Lazenby occasionally finds fans reaching out to him, as they try to figure out where to stream the shows and movies he appears in. (Submitted by Paul Lazenby - image credit)
Canadian actor and stunt performer Paul Lazenby, left, is seen with actor Ron Livingston on the set of the TV show Loudermilk. Lazenby occasionally finds fans reaching out to him, as they try to figure out where to stream the shows and movies he appears in. (Submitted by Paul Lazenby - image credit)

Paul Lazenby is likely appearing in video being streamed at this very moment.

The actor and stunt professional has appeared in scores of TV shows and movies, including the blockbuster Deadpool films and the current Superman & Lois series.

Occasionally, when people can't find their way to streaming that content, Lazenby finds himself in a different role — the guy helping people figure it out.

"I've been asked a few times [where to find things]," said Lazenby, whose own viewing habits include a mix of streaming and physical media.

Whether or not you look to on-screen stars to answer your where-to-watch-it questions, it seems the more things you want to stream, the more services you need.

And while consumers may complain about increasing outlays for these services, industry watchers say they likely won't be getting any cheaper.

That means the people at home must consider what they really want to watch and what they're willing to forego.

"Consumers really have to decide where they spend their time and where they spend their money," said Dan Rayburn, a streaming analyst who has followed the industry for years.

More choice, but more bills

The world of streaming is increasingly fragmented with consumers having many services to choose from — even though costs add up, when successive subscriptions are carried together.

Mike Cassese/Reuters
Mike Cassese/Reuters

For Sandy Reynolds, the realization she was paying roughly three times what she originally did for her Netflix subscription was part of a decision "to step back," and assess what streaming services she really needed to be paying for.

"When they're around $20 a month, you don't think about it that much," said Reynolds, noting the monthly bills can add up if you have a few subscriptions on the go, as she did.

Beyond the costs of subscribing, Reynolds said it's also a question of the value that you get from these services.

"At the end of the day, how much time do you have to watch these services and how much do you need?"

However, Ricard Gil, an associate professor of business economics at the Smith School of Business at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont., said that some consumers may also weigh the cost of these services against the alternative — such as the cost of going to the movies — and conclude they are not necessarily overpriced.

Yet when the big streaming companies change their prices or practices, they make headlines for doing so.

Many services, many subscribers

Streaming providers and media companies seem reluctant to share their subscriber numbers, though news reports and public statements give a partial glimpse of where some bigger players stand.

David Ruvic/Reuters
David Ruvic/Reuters

In 2019, Netflix was reported to have 6.5 million paying Canadian customers. That number may be higher now, as the company saw a rise in subscriptions early in the pandemic and again late last year. A current snapshot is unclear.

Bell Media's Crave, meanwhile, has more than 3.1 million subscribers at last count, according to its parent company's latest quarterly report.

Amazon could presumably count a large number of Canadian streamers, as it provides Prime Video to anyone paying for broader customer membership privileges. A spokesperson, citing corporate policy, declined to share subscriber figures.

Graeme Roy/The Canadian Press
Graeme Roy/The Canadian Press

CBC's Gem counts five million downloads of its app, according to figures published online. The app is free to download and has several levels of membership — one of which carries a monthly fee. Chuck Thompson, the CBC's head of public affairs, said in an email that CBC "doesn't publicly share our subscriber numbers as we believe the most important metric is how many Canadians are accessing our service."

The Corus-owned STACKTV has "been growing year over year" since its 2019 launch, said Vanessa Obeng, publicity manager for Corus Entertainment, without providing an overall total. In 2020, Corus said 200,000 subscribers had signed up for the service.

Higher content costs?

With so many companies fighting for customers, there's a lot of money being thrown around to capture content and consumer loyalty.

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One notable example is the reported nine-digit sum Netflix paid to secure two Knives Out sequels — only one of which has hit screens so far.

Queen's University's Gil said the acquisition of marquee content of this nature is something Netflix can bank on helping to both drive and maintain subscriber interest.

"This actually helps them with attracting new customers, but also with retention," Gil said, noting the streaming giant could even have justified spending "much more money" to secure those sequels.

But more generally, streaming and media companies have faced rising costs for content, said Daniel Shear, an investment analyst who covers the media and telecom sectors for T. Rowe Price.

Some of those came from the challenges of trying to produce content during a pandemic, when TV and movie projects had to deal with COVID-19 concerns and related production delays.

But he said these companies are facing broader cost increases for content, including higher costs that result from the competition for key talent that creates that content.

Consolidation? Aggregation? Maybe not.

With so many players now in the streaming game, it raises the question of whether the industry will see a day where consumers will be able to see more with less effort.

Rayburn, the veteran streaming analyst, does not see mass aggregation happening — at least, not in a manner that would allow the viewing of most media across single platforms.

"Is there ever going to be a bundling where all these services get together in what we call aggregation? No, this is not going to happen," said Rayburn, arguing it's not beneficial for the streamers to do so.

Seeing large players consolidate their operations may also be unlikely due to the inherent complexities of combining organizations, the money involved and possible regulatory hurdles, said Gil.

He sees consolidation being something most likely to occur in the event that a particular platform shuts down, leaving "content to be bought that otherwise would not be exposed to customers."