Note: This post has been corrected. I originally confused the two rulings for satellite companies as being the same. In fact, the Commission ruled in different ways for the two. Thanks to Patrick for pointing out the error.
Catching up on some CRTC broadcasting news over the holidays:
A complaint filed by CTV against Bell and Shaw, which run our two national satellite TV providers, has resulted in an order from the broadcast regulator forcing the two providers to close loopholes allowing Canadian viewers to see U.S. commercials during the Super Bowl.
Last year, both Bell TV (formerly Bell ExpressVu) and Shaw's StarChoice concocted a scheme whose logic was something like this:
- The CRTC requires broadcast distributors (i.e. cable and satellite companies) to use "simultaneous substitution" to replace U.S. channels with Canadian ones when both are airing the same show. This is so that Canadian networks get all the advertising money. Normally nobody cares that they're seeing Canadian commercials instead of American ones, but the Super Bowl is the one time of the year when people want to watch the commercials. Canadian Super Bowl commercials just don't measure up.
- The CRTC rules have some loopholes. The substitution is only done when requested by the Canadian network, it's only done when the Canadian signal is of equal or better quality than the U.S. one (which caused some issues in the early days of HD), and it's only done in markets that have a Canadian over-the-air broadcaster.
- CTV had high-definition broadcasters only in Toronto and Vancouver, so simultaneous substitution of the Fox HD signal is only necessary in those two markets
- Bell and StarChoice developed a way to substitute the signal only for Toronto and Vancouver markets, and kept the Fox HD signals unsubstituted outside those markets for the benefit of Canadians wanting to watch the U.S. Super Bowl commercials. Viewers outside those markets would be given a choice of watching a substituted signal or an unsubstituted one.
CTV complained, and the CRTC agreed, that Bell TV is required to substitute those channels nationally, even for customers in markets where there is no Canadian broadcaster carrying the HD signal, because that is the method of substitution they currently use. The company, it said, can't decide to use one method or the other depending on which is more convenient.
It dismissed Bell's suggestion that the Super Bowl is an exception because it's a "pop culture phenomenon". CTV's response to that:
CTV added that those viewers who really want to see the U.S. commercials can download them from the Internet within minutes after their being broadcast during the game.
The result is that Bell has to assure CTV in advance that simultaneous substitution will in fact take place for SD and HD signals nationally, and that Canadian subscribers not be given access to the U.S. commercials. Period.
In the case of StarChoice, the CRTC took a different tact. Unlike Bell TV, StarChoice substitutes channels locally through the receiver. They receive the U.S. signals, but are programmed to substitute them based on local requirements. This is the CRTC's preferred method of substitution, as it protects local broadcasters. Since StarChoice didn't deviate from their normal practice when they allowed subscribers outside of Toronto to view the U.S. Super Bowl feed, the CRTC ruled they are in compliance.
The CRTC did slap Shaw on the wrist about its cable TV service, which it said did not properly substitute the HD signal in 2008, but accepted the explanation that there were "technical difficulties" because Shaw had only started substitution for HD signals a month before the broadcast. They're on a form of probation for the 2009 Super Bowl, with orders to take special steps to ensure substitution takes place as required.
The Super Bowl, which I think is a game of rugby or something, airs on Feb. 1 on NBC and CTV.
More commercial substitution
An unrelated issue, which the CRTC will debate next month, concerns "local availabilities of non-Canadian services"
If you've ever watched CNN and noticed commercials for Viewer's Choice Pay-per-view or some other Canadian channel, this is what they're talking about. Canadian broadcast distributors are allowed to override commercials on U.S. networks, but only to put in programming ads. They can't put in their own commercial advertisements. At least, not yet. They're arguing to get that privilege.
Personally, so long as the advertising substitution is negotiated with the U.S. network, and it doesn't disrupt service, I don't see a problem letting this happen.
LCN has received approval to increase the amount of opinion and analysis programming during its broadcast day from 12% to 19%. CBC argued against the change, saying it would reduce the amount of news programming, which would hurt francophones outside of Quebec.
(As an aside, has anyone watched RDI and LCN and noticed how much local Montreal news and how little local news from outside Quebec are on those channels? It makes sense - that's where their audience is - but neither is really a national news channel)
LCN argued it needs to adapt to a quickly changing media environment, which I'm sure you know favours opinionated blowhards shouting their mouths off in prime time over any sort of actual news gathering.
Astral Media has received approval to add sitcom and drama programming to its MPix service, which used to be about movies. It's limited to 15% of its content coming from those categories, and they have to be at least five years old, but I still find it kind of silly that they want to add sitcoms to a movie channel.
They've also gotten a reduction in the lead time between a movie's release and the time they can start airing it, from five years to three years.
SuperChannel, a pay TV network which wants to compete with The Movie Network and Movie Central, is still trying to get carried on some cable providers, including Videotron, despite an order from the CRTC that gives it "must carry" status.
Videotron has refused, citing some minority language rule that I don't quite understand and probably doesn't make any sense.
SuperChannel notes that Quebecor applied for a similar service and was turned down in favour of SuperChannel, and this might be payback for that rejection.
De-CanConing The Movie Network
The Movie Network has gotten approval to reduce its Canadian content requirements by getting extra credit for priority programming. This extra credit system came after the CRTC and media watchdogs noticed that Canadian broadcasters preferred certain cheap kinds of programming (like reality shows) over more expensive dramas. So the CRTC decided it would let broadcasters claim 150% credit for dramas and other expensive programming, to encourage them to create more of it.
Digital Home calls this a "weakening of Canadian content regulations", though it's entirely consistent with CRTC policy, as flawed as that may be.