OTT, VOD, IPTV, DVR… The alphabet soup of new TV

The digital television revolution

How do you consume television? That is one of the questions that the CRTC asks as part of a new public consultation that was launched at the end of October: Let’s Talk TV: A conversation with Canadians.

Do one or the other of the following distribution modes ring a bell: OTT, IPTV, DTH, SRD, VOD, SDM, TVC, PPV, VDSL or DVR? So many acronyms floating on the surface of the alphabet soup of new TV…

In this post, we’ll try to make sense of some of these acronyms and define afferent terms in an attempt to dissipate some of the confusion surrounding the contemporary media ecosystem.

“Some of us watch it as we always had in the past, others watch it using means that were unimaginable a decade ago,” states the CRTC in a video posted on the consultation’s website.

Case in point. The first video on YouTube did not appear online before 2005 and it wasn’t before 2008 that Netflix offered the possibility of viewing streaming video content over the Internet as part of its DVD rental mail service.

However, the digital revolution did not wait for these innovations to disrupt the audiovisual industry. A little more than 20 years ago, the CRTC held a public hearing on the industry’s structure to examine the future of communications—forecasted for the year 2000 at the time. One of the main factors involved in the announced transformation was digital video compression (DVC). DVC made it possible to increase distribution channel capacities and enabled distributors to transmit different programming services directly to individual subscribers. It is what the CRTC had slugged “universal addressability.”


One of the consequences of this new technology was the introduction of CRTC-regulated video-on-demand (VOD) services by distributors. However, their introduction proved somewhat complex. Indeed, it took five years from the moment the CRTC granted the first Canadian VOD licences in 1997 before the first VOD service was launched by Rogers in 2002.

In today’s world, as Sasha Boersma explains it in her post titled “Video on demand – What is VOD?” on Trendscape, the term VOD “is being used more loosely. Apart from technical CRTC regulations, it can refer to video accessible at any time on any platform.”


How did the term VOD come to take on this meaning? Of course, it’s thanks to OTT, over-the-top television.

In more general terms, “OTT service” designates a video service that is distributed directly to consumers using a public Internet network connection without the service provider having to negotiate the distribution of the service with an intermediary or having to invest in infrastructure.

Thus, OTT bypasses both CRTC regulations and authorized video service distributors. However, OTT is perfectly within the rules seeing as the CRTC does not regulate the Internet and has decided to exempt until further notice “digital media broadcasting undertakings” from the licensing requirement (under the Exemption order for digital media broadcasting undertakings (CRTC 2012-409)).

In light of this new form of competition, Canadian services began popping up: Rogers’ Anyplace TV, Shaw’s Global Go, online COGECO On Demand, Videotron’s and Bell Media’s TMN GO. However, these are not OTT services strictly speaking given they do not bypass the authorized services. To access them, you must subscribe to a distribution or programming service (e.g., Rogers’ mobility or distribution services or Bell’s TMN pay TV).

There are only two Canadian services available directly online without having to subscribe to another service, and both are French-language services: Radio-Canada’s free and Videotron’s Illico Club Unlimited available to subscribers for a monthly fee of $9.99. When it acquired the assets of Astral, Bell Media had promised to offer a service that would compete against Netflix but it would not be available directly to consumers.

Very often amalgamated with Netflix in practice, OTT services in Canada will soon be improved by the arrival of a new foreign player, i.e.,Canal+ Canada. This French channel provides a service that is very similar to Netflix.


Simply visit Canadian television networks’ websites and it becomes obvious: just about everyone offers VOD through their web platform. In most cases, it’s catch-up TV: a current series’ last broadcast episode is made available on the network. Some networks also propose exclusive webseries. The online VOD services proposed by Canadian programming services are modulated in accordance with their operators’ other properties. For example, on its website, Global grants universal access to the last broadcast episode whereas access to previous episodes is limited to Shaw Cable subscribers that pay for the Global Go service.


IPTV (Internet Protocol Television) is a service that uses the Internet protocol through telephone lines to distribute programming and interactive services to households. IPTV distribution services use a private Internet network (a walled garden).

IPTV reduces bandwidth costs and thus offers small local companies the opportunity to gain market shares from the five major players in the distribution industry, namely by adding Netflix to their offer. It’s a risk that the larger players are not willing to take. (Source: “IPTV’s new wave looms over cable’s old guard”, Steve Ladurantaye, The Globe and Mail)

In Canada, IPTV has experienced tremendous growth in terms of both revenues and subscribers. Indeed, in the last five years, revenues have increased by 52% whereas subscriptions are up 45%. However, for the time being, IPTV is a marginal service in Canada’s ecosystem and accounts for only 7% of total distribution revenues and 8% of the total number of subscribers.


The digital revolution and the Internet led to the breakdown of video content distribution services. Universal addressability first and foremost gave distributors the opportunity to deliver additional services to their individual customers.

We now live in the TV Everywhere era, a concept initially developed by Comcast and Time Warner to push OTT out of the market according to certain observers. This expression has become a rallying cry for service promoters providing free access to television on all screens. To become a reality, “TV Everywhere” will need to master interoperability both in terms of technology—and gadgets like GoogleChromecast, Apple AirPlay and Miracast seem to have done it—and in terms of negotiations between right holders and operators.

However, between universal addressability and TV Everywhere, a change in paradigm occurred and the formula is no longer devoid of meaning. Predetermined service packages are no longer addressed to consumers. Today, consumers are the ones who decide and who dictate their choices on a piecemeal basis.

Danielle Desjardins
Danielle Desjardins offers analysis, research and writing services for media and cultural enterprises through her company, La Fabrique de sens. Before that, she was director of planning for Radio-Canada, where she was responsible for strategic, corporate and regulatory matters for more than 20 years.
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