2013-01-09

MLB and NHL without a satellite/cable subscription

A new (short) NHL season is almost upon us now that the lockout is over, and since it's looking like Zazeen's new IPTV service won't have Rogers Sportsnet when they launch later this month, that means I'll only get nationally televised NHL games via CBC and TSN. Sportsnet has the regional broadcast rights for Ottawa Senators games, so they're the only TV station that can carry them.

I was in a similar bind for the MLB playoffs last fall but managed to find a way to watch all of the MLB games on my PS3 in HD over the Internet without the normal blackout restrictions, and it didn't end up costing me very much either. I expect/hope that a similar approach will work for NHL games this season. Read on if that sort of thing interests you.

NHL Gamecenter and MLB.TV


There's nothing special involved in watching NHL or MLB games on your Playstation, Roku, or other Internet video streaming device. The problem most people have with the sports subscription packages - even the satellite & cable versions - is that they only show you games for "out of market" teams. If you live in the Ottawa Senators local TV market, subscribing to NHL Gamecenter Live doesn't help you see any Ottawa Senators games - they're all blacked out. For MLB it's especially bad since all of Canada is considered the Blue Jays local market area.

The reason sports packages work this way is that the leagues sell the local TV rights to the highest bidder - Rogers Sportsnet in the case of the Senators, and to attract the highest possible price, the league grants them exclusive rights within the team's home area. The buyer hopes that having the games on their station will increase subscription and advertising revenue so they're willing to pay for those rights. The exclusivity is that viewers have no other option for watching the game - the cable/satellite package (ex. NHL Center Ice) and the Internet streaming package both blackout the games for the team from your local area. If you're a fan of a team from far away - a Vancouver fan living in Ottawa for example, the subscription packages are fantastic since you get to see every game for your favourite team. That's why they call them "out of market" packages - you get to see all of the teams that aren't in your local market. Some of the leagues will let you watch archived games for your local team 24-48 hours after the game is over, but most sports fans prefer their action to be live.

The only thing I find a little bit odd in all of this is that we cord cutters who are fans of the Ottawa Senators would still be watching the Rogers Sportsnet feed, we'd just be doing so over the Internet rather than via a cable/satellite provider. Sportsnet gets to have our eyeballs viewing their product for 2 hours so it helps their advertising numbers, but they lose out on the monthly fee they'd be getting from our cable/satellite company since we don't subscribe to their channel full time. Still, what does a channel like Sportsnet get per cable/satellite subscriber, $1-2 per month maybe? Surely the league could kick back a bit of the revenue to the local channels, or maybe factor that into a slightly lower cost for local TV rights. For sports leagues, getting as many people as possible watching their content should be their focus, not protecting old industries and business models.

For the MLB playoffs the problem was even worse - all playoff games were blacked out in North America since various networks had purchased national TV rights to all playoff games. They'd let you watch a replay the next day, but that little bone they throw you goes in the "whoop-de-doo" pile for me.

If the blackouts don't bother you, i.e., if you're a Senators fan in Edmonton or a Red Sox fan in Toronto, then you have it easy - just sign up and use the NHL or MLB package as per the standard instructions.


Getting Around Blackouts

How can a cord cutter avoid these restrictive blackouts and see the games they want to watch? The last thing I want to do is go back to paying over $80/month after taxes for satellite service just so I can get the Senators games on Sportsnet Ontario. Luckily, where there's a problem that people will pay to solve, eventually there's a solution. Over the last year or two, several companies have sprung up whose sole purpose is to help people get around restrictions like this. The one I use is called Unblock-US and you'll find a link to sign up for a free one-week trial of their service at the top right of this blog page. Unotelly is another popular one and, oddly enough, both Unblock-US and Unotelly are Canadian companies. Perhaps that's because we Canadians are stuck behind the equivalent of the East German side of the Berlin wall when it comes to online video content.

If you know what a VPN is, these services do something similar, but they're simpler to configure, cheaper, and have a lot less overhead. A VPN typically redirects all of the Internet traffic for one or more machines to a remote server which then passes that traffic on to the rest of the Internet (normally your local ISP acts as your gateway to the Internet). If the VPN server is in another country, the US for example, anybody talking to your machines via the VPN will only see traffic going to/from a US peer, so they'll think your machines are in the US.

Unblock-US works by intercepting and redirecting just the bare minimum amount of traffic necessary to "fool" a service like Netflix or Hulu into thinking they're talking to a machine located in the US. The complexity of how this is done is taken care of by Unblock-US - they have to know how PCs, Smart TVs, PS3s, etc. do the handshaking with Netflix so that they can intercept all of the traffic that helps Netflix decide where the peer is, but then leave the rest of the traffic alone. If they redirected all of the traffic they'd be acting like a VPN and their operating costs would be a lot higher since all of your traffic would be going through their servers. In the case of most Internet video sites, the handshaking when the customer's app starts and at the beginning of video playback is the only part that needs to be intercepted. Once Netflix knows who you are and what video you want to play, it hands you off to one of hundreds of content servers for the actual streaming, and those servers don't care who they're talking to as long as they've been given authorization to access the file in question.

Watching the US catalogue of Netflix this way is child's play, because for most of the common Netflix-capable devices, you can sign up for a Canadian Netflix account, use it for a while to see how you like it, then sign up for Unblock-US, configure your home network to use it, and suddenly see about 5 times as many titles courtesy of the US Netflix catalogue.

Watching Hulu Plus is a little trickier because you have to make the Hulu sign-up process think you and your credit card are American, so that will be the subject of its own article in the future.

So how does this help when it comes to sports viewing? For Internet streaming services, the blackout restrictions for most of the major sports packages aren't tied to the home address of the subscriber. They work that way for cable/satellite packages, but for Internet streaming they can't really work that way or else people would just use a fake address when signing up. Virtually all Internet services that need to know the geographic location of the computer talking to them use what's known as geo-location - the Internet version of a GPS. There are large databases out there that tell Netflix, MLB, the NHL, and anyone else who wants to know what country a given IP address is from. It's much like seeing an area code on your caller-ID and looking that area code up on Google to see where the call came from.

Unblock-US is in the business of fooling services' geo-location software think your device is wherever Unblock-US wants. If you're accessing the BBC's video viewer, Unblock-US will make the BBC think you're somewhere in the UK. For Netflix they let you configure your Unblock-US account to make it look like you're accessing Netflix from any of the 10 countries Netflix supports.

For sports, the trick to getting around blackouts is to make it look like your computer (or PS3, Roku, etc.) is accessing the service from some part of the world where there's no blackout. For the MLB playoffs, Unblock-US made MLB think my PS3 was somewhere in Europe, so MLB was happy to let me stream the game live in high-def. Prior to the playoffs I was able to watch Blue Jays games and any other ones I wanted, so they must have found a part of the US where no team has local broadcasting rights and they make MLB think that's where you are. Either that or they always make MLB think you're in Europe... I don't know and I really don't care as long as it works.

I'm hoping it will work just as well for hockey; we'll find out in a few weeks I guess.


Legality

A lot of people who hear about this sort of thing for the first time assume it must be illegal. I am not a lawyer so my opinion doesn't really matter, but my take on it is that a service like Unblock-US merely helps their customers access content that they're otherwise shut out from due to geography. People still have to pay Netflix, Hulu, the NHL, etc. to access their service, so the company providing the video is getting paid - none of this helps you get something for free the way some Internet sites that stream low-quality copies of TV stations do.

If anyone was going to get upset about a service like Unblock-US, it's probably not going to be Netflix or Hulu since they're getting paid and gaining a customer. The business that's losing out when you access Hulu is the company that paid for the Internet streaming rights in your country for the shows you're watching, assuming those rights were even sold for your country. If I'm watching this week's episode of Modern Family on Hulu Plus it means I'm not watching it on CityTV (owned by Rogers), so if anyone is going to try to stop Unblock-US and similar services from allowing people to access foreign content, it will be the local licensees of the content. Guess who that is in Canada? Yup, it's the same big companies that control your Internet, TV, radio, newspapers, and magazines. Bell, Rogers, Shaw, and Videotron collectively own just about every possible way for you to see or hear something in this country, and they want to reach into your wallet every time you do. If anybody is going to try to stop Canadians from accessing foreign content, it will be those guys.

The good news is that there are other services like Unblock-US that don't have offices in Canada, which puts them beyond the legal reach of the Canadian media conglomerates, so it's unlikely that access to foreign services will get shutdown easily. If it does, then I'll be as upset as the next guy, but at worst I'll have lost part of a paid month of service for something like Hulu (month-to-month subscription), and a season-long sports package subscription will still work but I'll be saddled with blackouts.


Comments please!

I'm sure a lot of you have tried Unblock-US or a similar service. Post what you're accessing in the comments section - I'm curious to see how many are going beyond Netflix and Hulu with it. The comments are moderated to eliminate SPAM, but it usually doesn't take me long to approve them so don't be shy!
Post a Comment