Telecom by yum9me (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) https://flic.kr/p/53jSy4
Bains Gives Bell-MTS Merger a Pass Despite Competition Bureau Finding Serious Wireless Market Problems
The Canadian government has prioritized innovation as a marquee policy issue. There are signals that Innovation, Science and Economic Development Minister Navdeep Bains will use the upcoming budget to overhaul the myriad of innovation funding and support programs that have cost billions of dollars with only a limited return on investment. There is no reason to doubt the commitment to innovation, but a national strategy must involve more than changes to how the government doles out cash incentives.
Yet when presented with the opportunity to address a core component of any serious innovation strategy – the communications sector that provides the foundation for the digital economy – Mr. Bains last week took a look at a market that the Competition Bureau found suffers from coordinated behaviour among the three dominant providers and simply whiffed. The decision to approve the merger of BCE and Manitoba Telecom Services (MTS) with only minor tinkering seems certain to increase wireless pricing for Manitoba residents and eliminate one of the few competitive bright spots in Canada.
The National Post has a story today on a research note written by Maher Yaghi, a telecom analyst, warning about the “regulatory risks” of the CRTC’s review of the wireless code. The article focuses on a single analyst, but there is a long tradition in Canada of the industry saying one thing to the regulator and another to the business community (see, for example, Bell’s position on investing in fibre networks) so the comments likely reflect industry concerns. What regulatory risks might arise from changes to the wireless code?
Yaghi cites two concerns that lay plain why the industry has been fighting potential changes. The issue is not, as some would have you believe, increased regulatory costs. Rather, the fear is that changes would create better informed consumers who would seek cheaper pricing and be freer to take advantage of marketplace competition.
The release of the television ratings for the Super Bowl unsurprisingly sparked a wave of reports yesterday blaming the CRTC for a decline of viewers at CTV. The Hollywood Reporter claimed there was a ratings collapse, the National Post talked about a 39 percent drop, and Cartt.ca argued that the CRTC had failed Cancon with its decision. While CTV’s numbers may have dropped by 39 percent from the 2016 Super Bowl, that number on its own means as much as saying that Tom Brady’s quarterback rating dropped from his last Super Bowl appearance (it did).
When assessing the impact of the CRTC’s simultaneous substitution decision that opened the door to competing U.S. and Canadian feeds for the game (but not for the pre and post-game broadcasts), the far more important number is the Canadian audience for the U.S. feed. It tells the story of how many switched away from CTV to the newly available alternative. Although Bell indicated that this data is not available, that does not appear to be accurate. The Globe and Mail reports today that some Fox stations are measured in Canada, but that Numeris did not provide it with the numbers.
However, Richard Deitsch, the lead media reporter for Sports Illustrated, tweeted on Monday that the CTV feed drew 4.5 million viewers, while the U.S. Fox viewed garnered 803,000 in Canada. Deitsch’s source for the report was Sportnet’s John Shannon, a longstanding sports television producer, who discussed the issue on the Prime Time Sports program on Monday afternoon. The Fox number may involve some guesswork given that Numeris does not track all Fox affiliates in Canada, but I am reliably advised that its data showed low numbers for some U.S. affiliates, including the Buffalo Fox affiliate feed [update 2/9: new reports indicate that the Buffalo number may be in error, suggesting a higher number of Fox viewers in Canada that reported by Shannon/Deitsch. CTV still retained a majority of the Canadian audience].
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.
Upon Further Review, the Ruling Should Stand: Why the CRTC Made the Right Call on the Super Bowl Simsub Ban
The CRTC’s 2015 decision to ban simultaneous substitution from the Super Bowl broadcast starting in February 2017 has generated renewed criticism in recent days as the NFL, Bell, and the U.S. government launch a lobbying blitz against the decision that will take effect with this season’s game. The league, broadcaster and their supporters argue that the inability to block the U.S. feed will mean lost revenue for the Canadian broadcaster and presumably reduced licensing revenue in the future for the NFL as the Canadian rights may be viewed as less valuable.
Despite claims about damage to Canadian broadcasting, the ban on simultaneous substitution for the Super Bowl does not eliminate the ability of the Canadian broadcaster to air its own commercials. In fact, the use of simultaneous substitution for the Super Bowl is an outlier when compared to the broadcast of most other major sporting events in Canada. Whether the Stanley Cup finals, the World Series, the Olympics, or the World Cup, Canadians typically have access to both Canadian and U.S. feeds. Canadians often opt for the Canadian version, perhaps because they like the commentators or the Canadian-oriented coverage. No one suggests that Canadian access to the Stanley Cup finals on NBC or the World Series on Fox (Sportsnet uses the international feed and many commented this year that they preferred that version that included Buck Martinez on colour commentary) eradicates rights or eliminates the ability for a Canadian broadcaster to successfully air the same event.