In 1995, Keith Spicer, then head of the Canadian Radio and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) was interviewed by CBC television personality Pamela Wallin and was asked if the federal government would implement laws prohibiting Canadians from watching HBO and U.S. Direct-to-home (DTH) satellite television signals in this country.
Mr. Spicer replied "Absolutely no. We have spent, this country and the western world has spent 40 years telling the Russians it was immoral to block broadcasts. We're certainly not going to start doing that in Canada. Canadians are free people and they should act freely."
Yet despite Mr. Spicer’s denials on National television the federal government under Jean Chrétien went on to ban the viewing of American satellite television signals in this country, a ban that lives on to this day.
In addition, despite the massive growth in the number of eligible television channels now available in Canada from countries all over the world including stations from Britain, France, Germany, China, India and more, the CRTC has never allowed the one station Canadians have demanded the most - HBO - to be distributed here by a Canadian Cable or satellite company.
The only way to watch HBO in Canada today is to subscribe to a U.S. Satellite provider such as DISH network or DirecTV which, thanks to a 2002 Supreme Court ruling is illegal and could result in a fine of $5,000.
HBO and it's History in Canada
Watching HBO television in Canada was not always illegal. In fact, from the late 1980's to almost 1998, hundreds of thousands enjoyed HBO and many other U.S. cable stations, which are also illegal in this country, without fear or reprisal.
In case you don't know, HBO (Home Box Office) is a premium television programming subsidiary of Time Warner in the United States which offers two 24-hour pay television services, HBO and Cinemax, to tens of millions of U.S. households. The station, which first began in the 1970’s, is now known for its Live fights, comedy specials and cutting edge series such as Boardwalk Empire, The Soprano’s, Sex and the City, Big Love, Band of Brothers, and much more.
Over the years, many Canadians have been angry about not being able to watch HBO in Canada, because many of its most popular shows only came to Canada, months or even years after they first aired in the United States.
In the 1980’s when HBO’s popularity began to soar, Canadians were unable to watch HBO because the CRTC refused to allow Canadian cable companies to carry it.
Technology changed all that in the late 1980's and early 1990's when satellite television began appearing in the marketplace. Suddenly Canadians could put up a ten foot C-band satellite dish and watch HBO directly.
The number of Canadians using satellite dishes was small until DirecTV with their small 18" satellite dishes launched in 1994. Thanks to the small size of the dish and incredible picture quality, Canadians began buying DirecTV direct-to-home (DTH) satellite dishes and receivers in order to subscribe to U.S. satellite programming that included HBO.
During 1995, the number of Canadians watching HBO and other U.S. stations skyrocketed and the Canadian cable broadcasters and cable operators began complaining to the federal government about losing business to DirecTV.
At the time, opponents of DirecTV in Canada estimated that between 300,000 and 400,000 Canadian households were subscribing to the service. Since DirecTV had only 1.2 million subscribers in all of North America in 1995, its clear the number of Canadians subscribing to the U.S. DTH service were grossly inflated.
The actual numbers didn’t seem to really matter since it seemed that cable companies and the newly conceived Canadian satellite companies had convinced many Canadians, fearful of U.S. cultural imperialism, that the Canadian television and broadcasting industry was imperiled by invaders from the South.
It was his fear that formed the basis for Ms. Wallin’s question and Mr. Spicer’s response in 1995.
For the next two years after Mr. Spicer’s comments, Canadians with DirecTV satellite dishes were largely left alone and U.S. satellite dishes were freely sold in Canada in many big box retail stores.
I purchased my DirecTV satellite dish in 1995 at Costco because, if you wanted anything more than a few analog stations with lousy reception, you had no choice but DirecTV. DirecTV offered so many channels, including HBO for about $50 a month and the picture quality was simply astounding. In late 1996, ExpressVu and Star Choice did not exist, so when Price Club, now Costco, started selling DirecTV, it was an instant sale.
The growth in DirecTV in Canada continued until after the federal election of 1997 which saw the Liberal government return to power with a massive majority. Following the electoral landslide which saw the Conservatives almost wiped out, the CRTC and the federal government suddenly decided that, in order to protect the Canadian television industry, Canadians could not be allowed to watch HBO and U.S. satellite programming.
Within a year, hundreds of thousands of Canadians who had spent thousands of dollars to legally purchase and subscribe to U.S. satellite television services were being branded as criminals because they were watching "illegal American broadcasts."
For the next several years, the newly formed liberal government in conjunction with Canadian satellite providers destroyed numerous satellite television service providers by threatening them with lawsuits and jail time for “illegally selling” foreign satellite television services in Canada. The result was legitimate service brokers who sold legitimate DISH network and DirecTV programming packages were forced out of business.
Without a programming provider, Canadians found they were stuck with expensive satellite equipment and no programming. Sadly, the programming vacuum was filled by hackers who began offering Canadians who couldn’t get programming legitimately, ways to pirate satellite signals.
For the next five years, Canadians fought the decision by the government to censor U.S. television broadcasts in Canada, however, in 2002, the Supreme Court of Canada slammed the door shut on Canadians and to this day, it is illegal for Canadians to watch satellite television signals that originate directly from the United States of America.
HBO Canada: A Canadianized version of HBO
In October 2008, HBO Canada was launched and now offers Canadians a selection of HBO programs, however it is not be the HBO that Americans see. If you want to see that, you'll have to a commit a crime and that could cost you $5,000!
Discuss this and and more in Digital Home's Canadian Television Industry / Channels and Providers forum .