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. [Update: A Numeris spokesperson confirmed that it measures some, though not all, Fox feeds in Canada].
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].
Even with some amount of guesswork, the real story is that the Canadian feed maintained a healthy majority of the audience.
perhaps with as much as 85 per cent of all viewers. Far from representing a collapse (or – as the Hollywood Reporter inaccurately reported – that 40 percent of Canadian viewers turned to Fox), the Canadian feed did far better than the doomsayers predicted. Indeed, Bell’s claims of tens of millions in losses seems likely to have been overstated, particularly with additional revenue from a game that went into overtime.
The CRTC’s Super Bowl simsub decision was vindicated not only by the numbers, but also with the broadcast and the CTV response. The Super Bowl ads were available online, but watching the game and the commercials together demonstrated that the ads are (as the CRTC ruled) an integral part of the broadcast. For example, commercials for Budweiser and Lumber 84, which speak directly to the immigration controversy in the United States, are powerful on their own, but took on an additional meaning when viewed during the game alongside the customary Americana of the Super Bowl and several shots of Vice President Mike Pence in the crowd.
The CTV response also provided a measure of vindication. Once it became apparent that the lobbying campaign to overturn the decision would fail, CTV competed with Fox for viewers. The Canadian feed included a contest with cash prizes and a trip to next year’s Super Bowl along with additional on-air promotion. While there were glitches with the contest, the creation of two different feeds with different benefits is precisely what the CRTC had in mind when it focused on creating more choice for Canadians.
The Bell appeal of the CRTC decision continues, but the bigger question is what comes next for simultaneous substitution policies. Canadian broadcasters have long feared that abandoning the policy would result in hundreds of millions in lost revenue. The Super Bowl experience suggests that that may not be the case. With a majority share of Canadian viewers, decades of watching the Canadian feed may have had a lasting impact on television viewing habits of those who still watch conventional television.
The importance of simsub is surely declining given the availability of streaming and recording alternatives, but it appears that many Canadian viewers will stick with the Canadian feed even with a U.S. alternative. Since removing simsub altogether would free Canadian broadcasters from U.S. programming schedules and potentially reduce the costs for foreign programming, the regulator should consider expanding the removal of simsub beyond one program per year.