lundi 23 février 2015

It says a lot about the current state of television entertainment that a couple of the most-talked-about TV shows of the new year aren't really on TV.

Transparent, a daring comedy-drama produced by Amazon Studios for online distribution, in January won a Golden Globe Award for best TV series (comedy or musical) and a best-actor trophy for series star Jeffrey Tambor.

The series can't be seen on conventional television; instead, it can be accessed online in the U.S. at and has recently been added to the programming roster of shomi, the Canadian online streaming service co-owned by Shaw Media and Rogers Media.

Meanwhile, the much-anticipated third season of one of the most acclaimed dramas of the past couple of years -- the political potboiler House of Cards, which stars Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright -- will première next week but also won't be found anywhere on conventional television; instead, all 13 episodes will be available to Netflix subscribers on both sides of the border in one big binge-watch-worthy bundle on Feb. 27.

The landscape has changed. Television -- and, more importantly, some of the truly great programming being created for it -- is no longer confined to the traditional broadcasters, specialty networks and premium channels available on that big TV set that has, for decades, been the focal point of our shared home-entertainment experience.

These days, TV-watchers who want to stay current with all the best viewing options must venture outside the conventional channel guide and expand their browsing to include online content and streaming services such as Netflix and its recently launched Canadian competitors, shomi and Crave TV.

And what's available in this ever-evolving entertainment landscape is both impressive and daunting. For those who've developed a taste for binge-watching entire seasons of TV content rather than waiting for it to be served in weekly episodic doses by old-school broadcasters and cable nets, the possibilities are almost limitless.

In an effort to assist newcomers to the streaming-TV world navigate this changing entertainment environment, we're taking a comparative look at the three main providers of streaming content -- Netflix, shomi and Crave TV -- currently available (legally) to viewers on this side of the border. For the sake of keeping this discussion reasonably brief, we will not venture into the realm of VPN (virtual private network) work-arounds that afford access to the U.S. and other countries' versions of Netflix, or any of the various semi-legal and illegal methods of accessing TV-oriented content online free.

Here are the three main services offering streaming TV content in Canada:

The Property: Netflix

The Pitch: The alpha dog of streaming-video services, which began in the late '90s as a mail-order movie rental business, transformed into an on-demand video-streaming service as DVD rentals and sales declined sharply between 2006 and 2010. Netflix moved into the original-content business in 2011 when it revived the long-dormant Fox sitcom Arrested Development and premièred the made-for-Netflix comedy/drama Lilyhammer. Its biggest success to date has been House of Cards, the acclaimed political thriller (based on a 1990 British series of the same name) that debuted in 2013 and has earned nearly two dozen Emmy nominations for its first two seasons.

The much-anticipated third season of House of Cards arrives on Netflix on Feb. 27. Another heavily promoted Netflix original, the Tina Fey-produced comedy Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, debuts on March 6.

The Price: $7.99 to $11.99 per month

The Programming: The Canadian version of Netflix has grown its roster of TV titles quickly over the past couple of years, but still lags far behind its U.S. counterpart. But when it comes to Netflix's calling-card programs -- its exclusive original series -- northern viewers have equal access, meaning House of Cards, 
 Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Marco Polo, Orange is the New Black, Lilyhammer, Happy Valley, and newer episodes of revived network shows such as Arrested Development and Canadian cable's Trailer Park Boys are among the most popular collections.

Netflix's assortment also includes a lot of major-network offerings, from current favourites such as Grey's Anatomy and The Good Wife to vintage finds like The X-Files, That '70s Show and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, as well as big-name cable properties such as Weeds, Homeland, Dexter and The Shield, a stable of PBS dramas that includes Sherlock, Luther, Call the Midwife, Downton Abbey and the original early-'90s Brit version of House of Cards.

Priceless picks: The career-launching (Seth Rogan, James Franco, Linda Cardellini, Jason Segal) 1990 cult-classic dramedy Freaks & Geeks; Denis Leary's short-lived pre-Rescue Me ABC comedy The Job; all eight seasons of the classic '60s sitcom Bewitched.

The Property: Crave TV

The Pitch: Bell Media's entry into the streaming-content game launched last December and is currently available only to Bell cable and satellite-TV customers and subscribers to a select few other cable providers. Bell officials have said they intend to make the service available to a much wider audience in coming months (when asked recently if MTS TV is likely to offer Crave TV in this market in order to compete with Shaw's shomi service, an MTS spokesperson responded by email, "We don't have any plans to share at this time."), but given the competitive animosity between Bell and Rogers (which co-owns shomi), it's unlikely Crave TV will be available to Shaw customers in Manitoba anytime soon.

The Price: $4 per month (in addition to current cable/satellite subscription)

The Programming: The strength of Crave TV's lineup is its deep catalogue of HBO titles, thanks to Bell's ownership stake in HBO Canada. Crave TV customers have access to such coveted properties as The Sopranos, Sex and the City, The Wire, Deadwood, Oz, Rome and Curb Your Enthusiasm, as well as such lesser-knowns as Mr. Show, Carnivale and Flight of the Conchords.

Crave TV also recently announced a deal with U.S. cable's Showtime network, meaning such programs as The Affair, House of Lies, Weeds, Nurse Jackie, Ray Donovan and Masters of Sex will be part of the Bell-owned service's roster.

Under its "original" banner, Crave TV has exclusive Canadian rights to the atomic-bomb development drama Manh(A)ttan, which was produced for U.S. cable's WGN America, and Bosch, a new cop drama from Amazon Studios. Crave TV's roster of mainstream TV titles includes Seinfeld, The West Wing, Friday Night Lights, The Big Bang Theory, and seven seasons of Doctor Who, as well as such Canadian-content offerings as 19-2, Degrassi, Motive, Corner Gas and Saving Hope.

Priceless picks: David Lynch's 1990-91 cult classic Twin Peaks; Aaron Sorkin's vastly underappreciated pre-West Wing TV comedy Sports Night; and perhaps the best sitcom ever produced, Fawlty Towers.

The Property: shomi

The Pitch: It's rare to see giant cable companies agree on anything, so the launch of this collaborative venture by Rogers Media and Shaw Media last November was an interesting development. With shomi, the joint-venture partners beat Bell's Crave TV into the market by a full month, giving it a slight edge in terms of brand recognition. Like Crave TV, shomi -- which is currently still in beta (testing) mode -- is available only to customers of its parent companies' cable providers and a select few others; Shaw and Rogers have also stated the service will be more widely distributed in coming months, but the betting here is it won't be available to Bell subscribers in the foreseeable future.

The Price: $8.99 per month (in addition to current cable/satellite/Internet subscription)
The Programming: The first big "get" for shomi was the aforementioned Transparent, thanks to a rights deal with Amazon Studios that also places such titles as Mozart in the Jungle, Alpha House and Betas in the Shaw/Rogers service's stable. Because of Rogers' ownership of FX Canada, shomi can also offer its customers such high-profile FX titles as Sons of Anarchy, Louie, American Horror Story, The Strain, Justified, The Americans and It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia. Mainstream-TV offerings available on shomi include NCIS, Two and a Half Men, Jane the Virgin, Chicago Fire, Parenthood, Parks and Recreation, New Girl, Glee and The Office, as well as such Canadian series as Mr. D, Heartland, Republic of Doyle, Rookie Blue, Remedy, Seed and Arctic Air.

Priceless picks: The short-lived series that spawned a crowd-sourced sequel movie, Veronica Mars; Chris O'Dowd's brilliantly charming Irish sitcom Moone Boy; all five seasons of the classic '60s series The Twilight Zone.

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