You’re in Toronto, sitting in front of your powerful new computer screen. You go to Hulu.com, the digital streaming site owned by U.S. media giants NBC and Fox. It’s like a big video jukebox filled with all your favourite shows, everything from 30 Rock and American Idol to Heroes and Fringe, available on demand 24 hours a day.
You click on a clip and up pops a stark black-and-white warning: “We’re sorry, currently our video library can only be streamed within the United States.” There’s more, including a line about Hulu being committed to making its content available worldwide. But for now, step back, Johnny Canuck – you’ve been geo-blocked.
Geo-blocking – or geo-gating, as the networks prefer to call it – is how content providers like Hulu, and even Canadian networks like CTV and Global, restrict access to their online videos outside the territories where they hold the rights.
Except (shh!) there’s an easy way around it. You don’t have to buy a grey- or black-market satellite dish as you did in the old days to see HBO or ESPN. You don’t need to send cheques to a cousin in Albany to cover your dodgy satellite bill.
Just download one program to your computer and before you can say “cross-border cloaking,” Hulu can’t tell who-loo they’re dealing with, or what country you’re from, letting you sneak into their store.
As many as a half-million Canadians, among 5.5 million Web surfers worldwide each month, are already using AnchorFree.com to do just that, according to David Gorodyansky, founder and CEO of the northern California company. AnchorFree offers an ad-supported virtual private network called Hotspot Shield that, in addition to boosting PC security, allows Canadians to view geo-blocked content. Once installed (a process that takes about a minute), the shield prevents content providers from knowing what country you are in.
“Our job is not to promote Hulu or offer them in regions where they’re not available,” says Gorodyansky. “We’re just enabling people to be private and secure online. What people choose to do once they’re private and secure is kind of their business.”
AnchorFree makes money from ads posted at its site, including a banner that adds itself to your browser while the service is in use. Up to now, Gorodyansky says he has not received a cease-and-desist complaint from Hulu or anyone else.
There are other sites designed to guide Canadians and others around geo-blocked content, including SurfTheChannel.com. It acts like a search engine for video content, pointing users to the show they want to see via links to YouTube, Tudou (YouTube’s Chinese equivalent), The WB, ABC Family and even Canadian sources like CTV.ca.
So then why not go straight to CTV.ca, asks Stephan Argent, CTV’s vice-president of digital media. Argent says 337 million videos were streamed on the network’s website in 2008, including CTV’s popular TV hits Grey’s Anatomy, Mad Men and So You Think You Can Dance Canada.
While it’s hard to compare online and TV audience numbers, Argent says some of the younger-skewed shows CTV has licensed for Canada, like The CW’s Gossip Girl, are more popular online than on TV.
Globaltv.com also offers Canadians 24-hour on-demand access to its TV hits, including 24, Family Guy and, yes, Saturday Night Live. Global started by streaming Survivor in 2006, and now offers 75 shows online (if you include its specialty-channel offerings such as Holmes on Homes and Trailer Park Boys).
As with CTV.ca, Global’s clips or “webisodes” have a 15- or 30-second commercial attached, but that’s still better than the ad-to-show ratio on broadcast TV.
So Argent argues Canadians have no reason to use reach-around products like AnchorFree to access geo-blocked U.S. sites. “Given the choice between doing something illegal that takes effort and a legitimate, high-quality product … that’s easy to use, I think the majority of people are going to choose the latter.”
One current advantage of hopping the border and surfing content at Hulu or CBS-owned TV.com rather than, say, CTV or Global is choice. TV.com (geo-blocked in Canada) has the largest TV-show library on the Web, with 38,000 videos available at the click of a mouse. Besides current hits, it offers many classic shows from as far back as 1941. The top three oldies are currently The Three Stooges Show, The Twilight Zone and I Love Lucy. Worth using a geo-block “shield” to access? As Curly would say, “Soitenly!”