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So, for those of you who pay attention, I’m a Canadian. You can’t deport me, because I’m safely ensconced north of the border. But that doesn’t mean I don’t have opinions – sometimes, impolite opinions.
One of my particular peeves is about the qualities of Canadian broadcasting regulations, and in particular about the satanic majesty that is “Simultaneous Substitution”. Long story short: Canadian channels are allowed to impose their feed over a US broadcast (if on a regular channel) in order to allow the showing of Canadian commercials, generating revenue for that Canadian broadcaster.
According to an ACTRA study from 2009 (adjusted for 2016/17 inflation), the average cost for a 30-second ad for a program on national Canadian TV is about $10-20000, jumping to $50,000 for a Top-20 program, escalating to $70,000 for a Top-10 program. Ad rates for the Canadian Super Bowl broadcast were $200,000 per thirty-second commercial. This is one reason why the trend in Canadian advertising in recent years is to shorter ads, usually 15-20 seconds, which also benefits the network, because they can get more ads in per programming block.
Here were the top-ranked daily measured shows in Canada for Jan. 16 to 22, 2017.
1. The Big Bang Theory on CTV Thursday at 8 p.m.: 3.77 million viewers
2. NCIS on Global Tuesday at 8 p.m.: 2.32 million viewers
3. NFL Playoffs (Pats-Steelers) on CTV Sunday at 6:35 p.m.: 1.91 million viewers
4. Bull on Global Tuesday at 9 p.m.: 1.83 million viewers
5. Blue Bloods on CTV Friday at 10 p.m.: 1.81 million viewers
This is all important, because the broadcasters cannot make a profit on their programming without cable licencing fees and repeated broadcasts. In the case of “The Big Bang Theory”, the ability of CTV to show one first-run episode via SimSub during CBS’ broadcast, a repeat of that episode on the weekend via their “Comedy Network” station, a further repeat a week later prior to the next “live” episode, and a guaranteed 5 repeats across their various networks during the year. Because of the guaranteed regular time length (20 broadcast minutes; 10 minutes for advertising), they can program around this particular block of television.
The reason Canadian comedy ‘staples’ like “Corner Gas” and “Red Green” are still on the air long after their conclusion is because showing them now is free money for a network, and helps satisfy their Canadian content quota. Programming like “SCTV” and “The Kids In The Hall” also works, but is tied up in rights & issues with royalties. That’s why it is seen less often on rebroadcasting networks.
Tuesday night, the “Westminster Dog Show”, shown on FS1 in the US, was shown on “National Geographic Canada” up here, a Shaw network channel. The broadcast was scheduled on my cable provider to run from 5:00-8:00 Best Coast time. However, the broadcast ended up going 45 minutes over time. Once the broadcast crossed over into 8:00, the network had no more advertising to show, so if the screen didn’t go black when FS1 cut away from its broadcast, “NatGeoCan” was forced to run bumpers for their own programming. By 8:30, the network shut off the feed and instead just left a station card in its place.
When the dog show ended (I assume), they then switched their signal back on, and broadcast an in-progress repeat episode of “Border Security”,
a show that has suspended production (in Canada) and been cancelled due to a successful complaint to the Canadian Privacy Commissioner. They will be allowed to show repeats, except the episode that launched the complaint, in order to recoup their production costs & allow networks like NatGeo Canada to maintain their 35% Canadian Content quotas.
So, Canadian viewers were forced to go to the Westminster site (wkc.org) to watch the last 15 minutes. One couldn’t go to the FS1 site because its programming is geo-blocked. This is the constant frustration for Canadian viewers, as any Canadian watching the last minute of a US TV show knows all-too-well.
[For example, if a Canadian is watching a CBS feed of “The Big Bang Theory, that show runs 8:00-8:31 (according to CBS’ website), and is followed by “The Great Indoors”. In Canada, “TBBT” is owned by Bell/CTV, but “TGI” is owned by Shaw/Global, so they cut the CBS broadcast at 8:30 because that’s when their SimSub starts, not when “TBBT” ends. It’s an aggravation, because a viewer usually misses the end & promo of one show, and gets an awkward immediate fade-in to another show. Also, rights ownership means the network can impose their own promotions over a program’s end credits, often ignoring that same program’s “next time on…” promo.]
Because Shaw/Global doesn’t have a sports network at its disposal, the show was farmed out to one of the corporation’s specialty providers. Previously, I raised the issue of rights acquisition vis-à-vis US cable programs. Media conglomerates in Canada can both own multiple cable networks and purchase the international rights to a foreign cable network or program, which has the effect of allowing those conglomerates to shift programming in order to direct customers to their other offerings. Here are four such examples:
- HBO Canada is offered by Bell, and prevents HBO Go from operating in Canada. Bell puts some HBO shows on their other pay networks (The Movie Network, for example) to broaden their subscription base. They have created their own subscription service instead.
- Archer, which is on FX in the US, is not shown on FX Canada but is instead shown on Cartoon Network Canada, which requires a separate cable bundle. Sons of Anarchy, which was on FX in the US, had its first-run shows aired on Super Channel – a pay-TV network – in Canada.
- FXX Canada is prohibited from running their Simpsons marathons because those Canadian rebroadcast rights are owned by Bell; they can only show two episodes a day. Shaw owns The Simpsons first-run broadcast rights through Global.
- Top Chef, which is on Bravo in the US, is shown on Food Network Canada. Project Runway, which is on Lifetime in the US, is on Bravo in Canada, which requires a separate cable bundle. Lifetime Canada is also apparently a thing that exists.
A small light on the horizon was this year’s Super Bowl. For the first time, the CRTC amended its SimSub rules to allow the actual game to be broadcast uninterrupted on US stations, meaning that you could watch the Fox broadcast from pillar to post, with no awkward cutaways for Canadian advertising. [CTV, the Canadian broadcaster, was able to SimSub the pre- and post-game broadcasts.] Instead, CTV determined to recruit viewers to its channels by running a contest predicated on viewing its ads & texting/emailing specific keywords into the prize centre during the broadcast. They offered $300,000 in prizes, including a $150K grand prize.
This is in advance of their appeal of the CRTC ruling. Simultaneous substitution generates about $250-million in annual revenue for Canadian broadcasters, and $18 million a year alone for the Super Bowl. but viewers have long griped about substitution errors interrupting live programming and particularly about missing out on the spectacle of the high-budget U.S. ads during the Super Bowl. Bell is appealing the decision to the Federal Court of Canada, one step below the Supreme Court, saying it has cost them revenue, which they then allege they return into creating Canadian broadcasting, which is what the CRTC is supposed to protect. They even tried to obtain a temporary injunction, which would have blocked the Fox feed across Canada for that one day.
On the US side, the NFL, which stands to see the value of its Canadian rights decline, filed its own appeal. In addition, one of the Obama administration’s last acts was to file a brief in support of Bell’s appeal of the CRTC decision to the Federal Court of Canada, one step below the Supreme Court.
Imagine the same side of a legal argument containing cable companies and Roger Goodell?
While aggravating for Bell (which purchased the broadcast rights) and its networks, one key question remained mostly overlooked during the examination:
The mystery is why no Canadian companies ever spent much effort to make clever or artistically ambitious Canadian ads specifically for Super Bowl simsubbing purposes. Why does this controversy exist? Why didn’t we have better Super Bowl ads of our own in the first place? Is there a better answer than “unflagging Canadian devotion to mediocrity”?
The end result was a typically Canadian affair. CTV saw its audience decline between 33-39% from last year to 4.47 million, essentially proving people were tired of the usual Canadian Tire & Scotiabank ads. Behold the most Canadian & oft-repeated ads you’ve ever seen, from this year’s Super Bowl:
- Canadian Tire – 3 years old, so not made for the event
- Scotiabank – 6 months old, made for the start of hockey season, not Super Bowl
- McDonald’s – one month old; two hashtags so everyone gets a say / no one is left out. Canada!
A year ago, 18 million Canadians (English and French combined) watched at least part of Super Bowl 50. That’s 52% of the country, and equals the percentage of Americans who watched at least part of the same game. Viewership of Fox was not measured, because that data is tied to advertising in Canada; no Canadian ad sales on Fox = no measurement of Canadian viewers.
According to Steve Faguy, a real guy who blogged the different commercials shown in Montreal versus Burlington, VT and not a Buddy Cole Grindr alias, a major Canadian ad was repeated a minimum three times during the game, at equal or varying lengths, which typifies a Canadian network ad buy for an event like this. Local (regional) ads only appeared once, in specific blocks of time during the game. Outside of network bumps, there were no exact replays of ads on Fox. The contest Bell/CTV ran to draw in viewers? It crashed during the first quarter due to volume, which isn’t a good look for a national media conglomerate. (They fixed it by halfway through the second, but still.)
Viewer reaction to no SimSub? A demand that the Oscars be the next experiment. In fact, a movement is afoot to have all “live” event broadcasts be exempt from SimSub regulation. People have gotten a taste of what unblocked programming looks like, and they want more. Me? As long as they don’t geo-block football games like they do hockey, I’ll be content. If these complaints end up blocking my east coast feeds on Sunday, well
you’ll be able to see my rage from space.