With the Super Bowl only a few weeks away, an unusual coalition comprised of the National Football League, Bell Media, Canadian advertisers, and an actors’ union have launched a full lobbying blitz aimed at overturning a 2015 ruling that will allow Canadians to view both the U.S. and Canadian feeds of the game. The change addresses longstanding frustration with Canadians’ inability to view U.S. commercials during the Super Bowl, since simultaneous substitution policies dating back to the 1970s allow Canadian broadcasters to block U.S. signals and substitute their own feed and commercials.
My Globe and Mail opinion piece notes that the fight to block the U.S. feed has led to some unlikely arguments. CRTC critics who typically call on the regulator to get out of the way are now calling on it to impose the simultaneous substitution rules. Meanwhile, in an odd role reversal, the NFL is emphasizing the Canadian culture benefits of blocking its U.S. broadcast and ACTRA, which issued a press release calling the Super Bowl ruling balanced and protective of the public interest when it was first unveiled, is going to bat for Canadian coverage of a U.S. sporting event.
In fact, given the vocal criticism, Canadians could be forgiven for thinking that the CRTC sprung the decision on broadcasters without a proper hearing (it did not as the future of simultaneous substitution was squarely on the record), that it will spell the end of the Canadian broadcasting system (the estimated cost is $18 million in a $16 billion industry), that the ruling bans Canadian commercials (it does not as Bell is free to air its own feed with local commercials), or that dual feeds are unusual for a major sporting event (they are not as Canadians already have access to multiple feeds for the World Series, Stanley Cup, MLS Cup, and Olympics).
Critics contend that relatively few people have filed official complaints about the issue, but if they are correct that few Canadians truly care, most will presumably watch the Canadian feed with limited impact on domestic television ratings. However, if Canadians opt for the U.S. feed, that will signal that many more were unhappy and preferred greater choice.
Beyond the Super Bowl broadcast, the far bigger issue is the future of a policy born decades before specialty channels, recording devices, and Internet streaming that have combined to render simultaneous substitution increasingly irrelevant. Recording television shows, watching them on demand, or subscribing to sports streaming packages largely eliminates the simultaneous substitution issue since Canadians control when and what they watch. Moreover, while the Canadian industry has grown addicted to the revenues from licensing the relatively cheap U.S. programming that triggers the ability to block U.S. feeds through simultaneous substitution regulations, the policy arguably undermines the long-term success of the Canadian system and Canadian programming.
The full column – which also discusses why ending simultaneous substitution is consistent with the government’s emphasis on promoting Canadian content to a global audience – can be found here.