A rising tide lifts all boats, the old saying says.
For Winnipeg-based Ameba TV, it’s riding a raging river, as the world’s streaming-service industry is pulling all boats, big and small, along the current that flows directly into more families’ living rooms every year.
The service aimed at children, which began with a set-top-box product loaded with programming in 2007, has tagged along with the rise in streaming options to provide kids and parents the opportunity to watch educational and entertainment shows from past and present.
"We’ve gone through many growth spurts but nothing compares to where we are today," says Tony Havelka, Ameba TV’s chief executive officer. "In the last year it’s been amazing in how much we’ve grown."
The COVID-19 pandemic bolstered a streaming-service industry that was already in growth mode. Surveys suggest that in April 2020, 73 per cent of Canadians had streamed television shows, videos or movies online at least once a month and that 41 per cent of Canadians use TV streaming services every day.
Ameba joined the streaming party in 2012 — a lifetime ago in tech years — when it ditched its set-top box and created its own streaming channel that would be included on the Microsoft Xbox 360 video-game console.
"Microsoft came to us and said they needed a dedicated children’s channel for Xbox," Havelka remembers. "That was a whole retooling of how Ameba worked, how we stored things, how we delivered things. A massive rebuild."
The channel has since become part of preloaded packages on smart TVs made by companies such as LG and Vizio, as well as on popular streaming consoles, such as Roku.
Ameba has more than 11,000 shows in its library that add up to more than 2,200 hours of content, including longtime children’s favourites such as Gumby, Scaredy Squirrel, Om Nom and longtime Canadian classics such as Sharon, Lois and Bram’s Skinnamarink TV, or The Adventures of Dudley the Dragon.
While Netflix and Amazon Prime are quick to cancel series in favour of new ones that can be promoted heavily to viewers looking for the next water-cooler show, Ameba keeps shows that have become nostalgic to parents but are brand new to youngsters.
"Because our audience is growing into Ameba and then will leave — they start out at two years old and they leave by the time when they’re about 10 — we always have the next batch coming in," Havelka says. "Maybe the next cohort comes through and maybe they’re not interested in (a show), the next one might be, so we want to keep that quality content there."
Among animated action series, Ameba includes shows such as such as Yu-Gi-Oh!, which has been a fixture on kids TV channels for years, and is offered side by side with current fare such as BoBoiBoy, a show made in Malaysia that has expanded into feature films, and the Quebec-produced series MarbleGen.
Ameba subscriptions in Canada cost $4.99 a month or $19.99 annually. While all streaming services seek more subscribers, Ameba has also branched out with two free services, both of which include commercials. The first is the free version of the Ameba subscriber service; the second is a pre-programmed free package that resembles a regular television channel.
"We program the day, so you really don’t get much of a choice, but we put all the best stuff on these services," Havelka says. "We have millions of views a day on that because we’re on a lot of platforms."
Disney looms over the streaming-service industry like the Death Star featured on its Disney Plus service. Disney Plus began in November 2019 and has picked up about 100 million subscribers in the 18 months since. While its audience is largely drawn to content from the Star Wars and Avengers’ franchises it owns, Disney Plus includes children’s shows and movies the production company has created over the decades, none of which have ever been available to Ameba.
The ongoing battles for content among streaming services is in a whole different league than Ameba’s, Havelka admits.
"We don’t compete at that level. They’re up in the stratosphere," he says. "The Netflixes, Amazons and Apples of the world, they’re funded by hundreds of million of dollars, if not billions of dollars, every year.
"All it really does is bring more attention to the streaming community and educate the parent and child about what streaming is all about and they look for alternatives."
Ameba’s channel has recently been included as part of the Amazon Prime video service in the United States, and the Winnipeg streamer has earned a small slice of the Amazon pie.
They didn’t know how much of an effect the collaboration would have until Amazon offered a 30-day free trial for Ameba in the U.S., for a month instead of a seven-day trial. Ameba staff saw its data streams skyrocket and some of the trial subscribers stuck around after the 30 days were up.
"As Amazon grows, we grow as well," Havelka says. "Not at the same magnitude but in the same pattern."
Alan Small has been a journalist at the Free Press for more than 22 years in a variety of roles, the latest being a reporter in the Arts and Life section.