As the term of former CRTC Chair Jean-Pierre Blais came to an end, I wrote a post arguing that he left behind an enviable record, commenting that “a new commissioner may bring a different perspective, but there is no reversing a more open, accessible CRTC.” Less than a year later, it is becoming increasingly clear that I was wrong. Apparently, reversing an open, more accessible CRTC was entirely possible.
Blais understood at least two things with respect to Canada’s communications laws and the CRTC. The first was that in the digital environment the commission should eschew protectionism in favour of a regulatory approach premised on competition. The second was that the CRTC would never gain the trust of the public unless it was seen to operate in the public interest in a transparent manner that offered everyone an equal opportunity to shape Canadian policy.
New CRTC chair Ian Scott has only been in the position since last September, but it feels as if both principles are under threat.
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CBS, one of the major U.S. networks, announced yesterday that it plans to take its All Access video streaming service global starting with the Canadian market next year. The move will increase consumer choice and once Hulu follows suit (which it eventually will), all the major U.S. broadcasters will be streaming directly to Canadians. Assuming broadcasters such as CBS begin to retain the video streaming rights to their own shows, this means that the Canadian broadcast licensing model that relies heavily on exclusive rights to U.S. programming and simultaneous substitution will rapidly come to an end. While the industry has been focused on the fighting the recent CRTC decision banning simsub from the Super Bowl, U.S. broadcasters are independently eroding the value of simsub, ultimately leaving Canadian broadcasters to bid on less attractive, “non-exclusive” rights.
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Jean-Pierre Blais’ term as CRTC chair was marked by dramatic changes in how policies were developed and in the substance of the policies themselves. As I wrote on his departure, Blais placed the Internet at the centre of the communications systems and worked to gradually revamp broadcast safeguards in an effort to make the Canadian system more globally competitive. With the appointment of new chair Ian Scott and vice-chair of broadcasting Caroline Simard, the established stakeholders will unsurprisingly test the new leadership to see if a change in approach is on the way. Yesterday, Bell took a major step in that direction as it asked the CRTC to rescind its order banning simultaneous substitution from the Super Bowl broadcast in Canada.
Bell had already filed a legal action, asked the government to intervene in the case, and ramped up lobbying pressure from the U.S., but the government rightly declined to overturn the decision with the case still before the courts. I’ve written extensively about the issue, making the case for why the CRTC got it right (if anything, it did not go far enough as simultaneous substitution has become less relevant as more subscribers cut the cable cord). After the Super Bowl broadcast, I argued that the viewership data largely vindicated the CRTC. Indeed, Bell’s data confirms that it massively over-estimated the impact of the simsub loss. In advance of the broadcast, it forecast a $40 million loss. It now claims an $11 million advertising loss, a fraction of its earlier estimate.
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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].
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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.
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