Canadians Can't Watch 'The Real' Superbowl Commercials

from the ads-ARE-content dept

After 20 years living in the USA, I’m familiar with the scale of spectacle that is the Super Bowl (Mike, am I allowed to use that word here?) The annual championship brings in an estimated 111.5 million US viewers, according to Nielsen. But it seems our borders are somewhat porous, and the game also was viewed by some 8 million Canadians. The Big Game had “don’t touch that dial” benefits, as apparently some 1.6 million Canadians, dazed in a chicken wing and poutine coma, stuck around to watch MasterChef Canada. With that massive US audience, year after year, the price of commercial time for the game broadcast goes up, this year reaching $4.5 million per 30-second spot.

As a result of the high price of the advertising, and the size of the audience, the ads have also become better and better. No sense paying $4.5 million only to bore an audience. And because of the superior quality of advertising during the Super Bowl, the ads themselves have become an important part of the overall TV program, as much as the half-time entertainment, and to some such as myself, more than even the game itself.

As it happens, for the first time in two decades, last year I found myself settling in to watch the game with my Dad in lake country North of Toronto on his fine big screen TV with a Bell ExpressVu satellite TV subscription. And we tuned into the CTV feed of the game. When the first batch of ads started, it was clear to me that they were not the big-budget productions that I was expecting. You see, CTV bought the Canadian rights to the game from the NFL, and of course it has to sell its own ad inventory in order to recoup the investment. So, instead of the blockbuster Budweiser ads that were lighting up my Twitter feed, I was seeing Canadian Tire ads, or some sale on hockey sticks…I don’t remember. Many of the ads were clearly NOT premiere showings, nor even remotely well-produced.

“My error,” I thought, as I switched over to a US Fox affiliate that was broadcasting the game. And as the next batch of ads came on…poutine and hockey stick ads all over again! Why am I seeing Canadian-specific ads, when the channel I’m tuned to is the US Fox network? The TV package my Dad paid for specifically advertised and listed the ability to watch Fox, but I was most certainly being diverted during commercial breaks. What’s the story? Well, it seems it’s yet another case of government policy aimed at supporting some media company’s business model. Two years ago, the Globe and Mail’s Susan Krashinsky described it as follows:

The process is known under CRTC regulation as “simultaneous substitution”…So, whenever a U.S. station is showing the same program as a Canadian channel, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission requires that upon request the cable or satellite provider must switch the American feed over so that the Canadian commercials are visible and the broadcasters’ rights deals are upheld.

Now, in many ways, it’s good for Canadians that CTV has re-broadcast rights, because this allows Canadians to receive free over-the-air transmissions of the game if they live within range of a CTV affiliate. But for the vast majority that subscribe to cable or similar services, “simultaneous substitution” or “simsub” actually removes value to the citizen, by reducing the range of programming options. And simsub can be even worse: If the “simultaneous” part is lacking, Canadians can actually miss part of the game itself while waiting for their ads to end.

The CRTC argued that this keeps advertising dollars in Canada and protects Canadian broadcasters’ rights. Protectionism, sans even bothering with a euphemism. Subscribers’ and citizens’ rights be damned. Doubtless that during the Super Bowl broadcast, CTV requested that Bell ExpressVu remove the ads from Fox, and insert the feed from CTV. Let that sink in. Canadians paid for access to view Fox in order to see Fox’s programming including Super Bowl ads, but their cable providers were required to take over our screens and run CTV ads. Canadians’ eyeballs were sold to CTV without consent. Canadian customers are being treated like a commodity that has been bought and delivered to CTV. Change channels, see the same programming — the same thing that happens in movies when some evil overlord or revolutionary takes over all the airwaves. No need for CTV to compete in any way for the viewership, just regulate for it.

The issue also brings up a common topic of discussion here at Techdirt, and that is: Where is the line between content and advertising? In 2008, Mike wrote “Advertising is content. You can’t think of ads as separate things any more.” But Mike also made the point that this is only true when the audience isn’t captive, and thanks to the CRTC’s compliance, CTV’s audience is so captive that switching to a competing channel gets you the same feed. How many Canadians actually care about seeing the ads from the TV channels they paid for? A large number of Canadians offered the CRTC their feedback mostly anti-simsub, although unsurprisingly the entire media industry stood in support of the existing procedures. Shaw Cable submitted the following:

There is no content objective of the Broadcasting Act that would be achieved by providing Canadians with access to U.S. commercials that are widely available on YouTube.

Yes, a major Canadian cable company just suggested Canadians seek TV content from YouTube. Oh, how confusing the world can get when content and ads start to blend.

According to the Toronto Star, “Canadians are more likely to search YouTube for ‘Super Bowl commercials’ than Americans, according to Google Trends.” And the number of Canadian YouTube ad searches don’t account for the cable and dish subscribers who aren’t aware that they’ve been diverted, or those who care, but won’t be bothered to sit down at their PC for ad binging. In fact, the viewing experience for the commercials, much like the Big Game, is very different on a big screen with a bunch of friends than it is alone on the next day with your 4″ smartphone’s YouTube app. But in fact, watching the ads on YouTube is what the CRTC recommends.

The valid arguments made by the media companies include the fact that simsub is a big profit earner for them, and that it offers Canadian businesses the ability to advertise to their market directly during a major event. The profits, some $250 million CDN they say, are rolled into supporting and subsidizing the production of Canadian shows and content, stimulating the local entertainment industry. While arguably true, the ends don’t justify the means. And there is no rule or guarantee that those $250 million are invested in starving artists. Regardless, the consumers are the ones really paying the bill here. They should have a choice. People that tune in to CTV should see CTV, and those that pay for and tune in to Fox…well, they should see Fox.

So while there will be no cable TV respite for Canadians hoping to see “the real” Super Bowl ads this weekend, as of this week, there is light at the end of the tunnel. The CRTC is suspending the simsub rule for cable operators starting with the Super Bowl of January 2017. Ostensibly this long lag will allow Canadian broadcasters to factor this new ruling into their negotiations for Super Bowl rights. Bell Media has the rights to the Super Bowl in January 2016, and has the option to ask for simsub, or not. Faced with a choice of “make more money or make less,” I’d guess Bell opts for simsub. Meanwhile the local affiliates who broadcast RF signals will still be allowed to simsub. And the CRTC is only talking about the Super Bowl here. Other popular broadcasts like prime-time US TV shows or the Oscar Awards will still allow simsub. Too complicated for me, I’ll just stay here in California for my Super Bowl fix this weekend… or maybe just sit out in the sun and watch some old NHL hockey reruns with a bag of salt ‘n’ vinegar chips.

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Comments on “Canadians Can't Watch 'The Real' Superbowl Commercials”

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19 Comments
Anonymous Anonymous Coward says:

I won't be watching

So there will be at least one less set of eyeballs on their money grubbing advertising (well produced or not). Nor will I be going to YouTube to see the highest rated ads, nor do I give a rats patootie as to who wins or loses.

(I used to, but not any more, and it is the money grubbing and holier than thou attitude of the NFL et al that is the cause).

Roger Strong (profile) says:

Re: Options

An antenna isn’t an option. Old-style TV broadcasts are discontinued, replaced with HDTV broadcasting. Very few channels made the switch, and instead stopped broadcasting altogether.

Living in the middle of Canada’s 4th largest city – even using a powered HDTV antenna – I can view only two HDTV channels reliably, and a third one intermittently. All three are Canadian, so there’s no American commercials.

Anon says:

Nice Diatribe

Nicely timed – the CRTC announced yesterday they would be phasing out the feed substitution… in 2 years. CTV claimed they would lose $40M just in Superbowl(r) ad revenue.

Among the other major complaints to the CRTC were that especially in the NFL with unpredictable commercial breaks, often Canadian advertisements would run over important parts of the game. This is nothing new, back even in the 70’s the Canadian channels would clip pieces of the syndicated US shows to extend the commercial breaks. I remember particularly one TV episode where I saw the same episode years later in reruns and found there was a scene crucial to the plot that had been blotted by Canadian commercials.

However, most people don’t live close enough to US broadcasting to get over-the-air signals… not that many people get digital TV over the air. Even in the 60’s and 70’s, TV from Buffalo was pretty fuzzy in Toronto – and that’s with those tall ubiquitous turned and tuned TV antennas.

Funny, Bell satellite got its license because a former prime minister’s son was employed by them; so the licensing process was reopened to give them an additional license. However, the commercial thing is much older. It stems from the elitist attitude that American mass entertainment was turning the average Canadians’ brains to mush. Fortunately, by forcing Canadian content on viewers, we averted this tragedy, since Canadian content was generally so abysmal nobody wanted to watch.

Of course, forcing a percentage Canadian content is obsolete in the days of PVRs, DVDs and internet. You cant force people to select a percentage CanCon (at least, not easily). But then, no organization gives up on its mandate simply because its unrealistic and unenforceable.

yepper says:

Sooo irritating

I was a massive CHAMPCAR/CART fan in the heyday and every single fn time a live event comes up, fucking TSN or whichever Canadian broadcaster shows darts or something instead. NO racing to be found. To top it off, whatever was showing, you can see the ticker updates about the race go by. Even which 3 or so CANADIANS in the series they did nothing. Sending complaints to CRTC didn’t help either.

I’ve been very bitter with Canadian broadcasters for a very long time. As for the super bowl commercials … Its the same run of the mill stuff advertisers pit out a month/2 months/6months prior. No investment making a premium ad for the super bowl. Its a sad state.

Dyspeptic Curmudgeon (profile) says:

@roger strong
You are wrong. In the GTA,EVERY broadcaster switched from analog to digital. And some added secondary channels in the same stream, so depending on your location there can be up to 25 digital channels available, at least 14 of which are in HD. And any TV built in the 10 years either has a digital tuner, or can accept an external tuner.

Roger Strong (profile) says:

Re: Re:

I’m in Winnipeg. Even using a powered HDTV antenna – I can view only two digital channels reliably, and a third one intermittently.

That’s several less than the number of analog channels I used to be able to receive, and several less than the number of digital channels that the CRTC claims are now broadcasting near Winnipeg.

Perhaps they’re only broadcasting at very low power to meet some licensing requirement?

Kudos on your ability to deny reality in favor of theory.

Ryan H (profile) says:

Broadcast rights

As a Canadian that finds simsub annoying, I’m thrilled to see anything that decreases its use. But, I also don’t think the arguments against it are particularly good.

CTV pays to obtain the Canadian broadcast rights to the Superbowl (and many, many other shows). However, most Canadians have access to US stations which carry the same programming. Given that, CTV is willing to pay $X for the rights because they are allowed to force simsum on the other channels. CTV, Global and the others are not going to pay huge money for rights if other channels, who are not paying for Canadian broadcast rights, are allowed to compete with them for free.

If they don’t have that right, they will do one of two things: 1, pay less for the rights or 2, negotiate exclusive rights and require a blackout on the other channels. From a content provider view, they’re going to push for option 2.

Simply to say, I don’t think removing SimSub is anywhere near as simple as it seems. Much as I wish it were otherwise.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Broadcast rights

What’s wrong with your #1?

It seems entirely fair. CTV can estimate how many viewers will watch the game on their network, not including how many Canadians watch on a US network, and then sell the ad space based on the number of viewers it can deliver to advertisers.

If that number of viewers is lower, then CTV and the other CDN networks will bid less to the NFL, but the US networks might also bid up a little higher because of some CDN audience numbers.

You know…measure your audience, and sell it to advertisers, the same way the advertising and media business always works.

hij (profile) says:

paying for ads?

I have to admit to thinking that the idea that one is buying ads may be a bit off. For example, this morning I went to youtube to check out a sneak peek of some of the Superbowl ads, and the youtube video ads had ads. There were ads on the ads that I was watching, and now people in Canada are complaining that the ads they paid for are not available.

I am beginning to understand how google is able to rake in money hand over fist on nothing but ads.

timmaguire42 (profile) says:

I’m forever protected from this dilemma by virtue of being a Brown’s fan.

The sad reality is, Canadians are not ashamed of protectionism. That was clear within days of moving to Toronto. The radio stations are required to play a certain percentage of songs by Canadian artists (I think it’s 10%) and you can always tell when one comes on. Not just because it sucks, but because it sounds just enough like a song you haven’t heard from a band you like that you listen to it for a minute before concluding, no, this just sucks, and you change the station.

Anonymous Coward says:

Perverse incentives

The Wikipedia “simsub” page has some interesting examples of unintended consequences:
– “In one notable instance, WFFF-TV in Burlington, Vermont, continually rescheduled its daily broadcasts of That 70’s Show in order to prevent CJNT-TV in Montreal from invoking the rule.”
– “earlier the same year, the network’s Winnipeg station CKND had opted not to produce any coverage of the Manitoba general election at all” [to maintain simsubbing rights]

Anonymous Coward says:

I’m going to listen to the CRTC’s advice of “its better watching the Ads on YouTube”, and help their money grubbing monopolizing of Media in Canada. A lot of people watch the game because of the commercials as I do. I do not really care who’s playing only who’s there with me watching as an event, even the commercials are usually more interesting than the half time show.

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