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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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.
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Last week’s CRTC decision to ban simultaneous substitution from the Super Bowl broadcast starting in 2017 has generated mounting criticism in recent days. While analysts initially noted that the lost revenue for Bell Media would not be material (a prediction borne out by a quarterly conference call where the decision was not raised by anyone), anger over the decision has continued to grow. Nothing compares with Kevin O’Leary, a Bell Media commentator, ranting against the decision on Bell-owned BNN as he repeatedly calls the CRTC “insane” and laments lost foreign investment into a sector that still has Canadian ownership requirements. However, with Bell seeking private meetings with CRTC Commissioners to discuss the decision and more serious critiques from CMPA’s Michael Hennessy and Cartt.ca’s Greg O’Brien, the decision has clearly left many unhappy.
If the critics are right, the CRTC decision is the “beginning of the end of the system”, erodes the value of rights, and will lead to job losses and less Canadian content. It is undoubtedly true that changes are coming to the Canadian broadcasting system, but this simsub decision is at best a small part of the reason. The post raises six points in response to the decision and the critics.
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