If, for some unknown reason, you thought 2022 was going to be less weird than 2021, venerated Scottish actor Brian Cox quickly disabused you of that notion. This week, the star of HBO’s brilliant “Succession” recorded a profanity-laced message congratulating Edward Rogers on the appointment of a new CEO at the storied Canadian company that bears his family name.
Rogers Communications has of course been going through its own version of the HBO hit as family members publicly and embarrassingly wrangle for power. With endless jokes online that the company was mirroring “Succession,” Cox’s message was fitting, and a fittingly strange ending to one of the strangest episodes in Canadian business history.
But Rogers and other Canadian telcos don’t just follow the boardroom drama with “Succession”; they also share the show’s simmering attention to how new technology has upended the familiar contours of the TV business.
Consider: a recent forecast from eMarketer suggested that less than half of all Canadian households will subscribe to paid TV services this year. That is a stunning turnaround. In 2015, three quarters of Canadians subscribed to pay TV — and 10 or 20 years ago, not having cable or satellite was unusual.
It is not often that a core component of day-to-day life changes so quickly and profoundly. For me personally, it would only be a slight exaggeration to say that I was raised by cable TV. For people in my generation and earlier, flipping on the TV to watch the news or game — and then keeping it on — was the most natural thing in the world.
Now, that familiar presence is not only disappearing faster than anyone thought, but will soon seem as anachronistic as landline phones or cheap point-and-shoot cameras.
But in that surprising shift, there is also a lesson for how tech works — first creeping in at the margins, then suddenly becoming mainstream. It also means how and what Canadians watch may also change drastically.
The reasons for the change should be obvious: the rise of “cord cutting” and switch to streaming services like Netflix and Crave, in addition to a broader shift to online, on-demand services have dramatically altered Canadian viewing habits.
The appeal of those platforms is obvious. Unlike linear TV, one has the option of watching whenever one wants. While of course PVRs and other options have expanded how people watch, there is a clear advantage to having all the episodes of a show appear on Netflix versus waiting each week for the next episode of “This is Us” or “Greys Anatomy.”
There is also the issue of cost. While streaming prices have increased — just Netflix and Crave together will now you run just over $40 a month — it is still possible to have more than enough to watch for less than the average cable bill of $50 a month.
For a while, the big sticking point was live TV — events like the Oscars, regular news, and sports were missing, and thus a reason most kept their bloated pay TV services around.
But even that is now changing. The CBC now offers live access to news for a modest fee. Major sports leagues and organizations have their own streaming services available to Canadians, while TSN and other channels now have their own over-the-top streaming platforms.
In short, it is easier than ever to cut the cord.
This is the way disruption should work. For many years, pay TV in Canada was subject to the bundling inherent to traditional media companies in which, if you wanted the Food Network, you also had to add on another 20 channels.
Streaming unbundles TV such that there are distinct services for reality TV, science and history shows, and of course the now mainstream phenomena of Netflix and Crave.
But it’s worth keeping in mind is that there isn’t only a shift from big-budget TV shows watched through cable, to those watched on streaming.
To the contrary, over three-quarters of Canadians accessed YouTube in 2020. That number would have only gone up. There, rather than traditional TV, people are watching all manner of things, from first-person confessional videos to news recaps to humour skits. Similarly, TikTok has exploded in popularity among the young, with Media Technology Monitor reporting that 44 per cent of Canadian youth are on the video sharing site.
What that suggests is that the stunning decline of cable TV isn’t just a change in venue; in the long term, it also represents a change in what we consider to be media. Whereas now, narrative-based, high-budget shows still take up the lion’s share of both money and oxygen, whether that will remain true a generation from now remains quite unclear.
And while now, a quick cameo by an HBO star commenting on Canadian media drama seems strange, a future in which TikTok and YouTube overshadow traditional TV could be far stranger — yet entirely plausible.