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.