For the past few years, a loophole in the CRTC's simultaneous substitution rules has allowed Videotron HD subscribers to watch the Super Bowl and other programming with the U.S. commercials.
This year, CTV is determined to close that loophole, and has setup a digital HD transmitter on Mount Royal to do so.
Though he called the timing "coincidental" (it only just got approval from Industry Canada to start transmitting), CFCF station manager Don Bastien confirmed Friday the rumours that have been spreading online. He says the transmitter has been setup and is expected to begin testing within hours (UPDATE: The transmitter is running, with signal reports coming in from all over). He also says the station informed Videotron and other television distributors weeks ago that it intends to enforce the rule on simultaneous substitution and replace the Super Bowl feed on WFFF (Fox 44) with its own on Feb. 6.
The loophole explained
Simultaneous substitution is a CRTC policy that requires cable companies to replace a U.S. channel with a feed from a local Canadian TV station when the two are running identical programming. The idea is that advertising revenue would remain in Canada, because the advertising is sold by the local station.
Most of the year, this isn't an issue (assuming it's done correctly - often there are glitches, particularly when live shows run past their scheduled time). But Super Bowl Sunday has a reputation as much for its million-dollar commercials as its championship football and rocking half-time show. And those while those commercials air nationally in the United States, not all of them will air on Canadian television as well.
Canadian viewers have been seeking out the U.S. broadcast to get the full Super Bowl experience, so much so that in the past Videotron has even advertised the fact that it has an unsubstituted Super Bowl feed, and bars and restaurants have advertised the "American broadcast" of the game. (The CRTC even has a frequently-asked-questions page about it)
Under the rules of simultaneous substitution, the Canadian signal must be a local, broadcasting television signal, which is of equal or greater quality than the American one. Since CFCF was not broadcasting in high definition, Videotron was not obligated to substitute the U.S. HD feed with the special HD feed that CFCF provided the cable company off-air. Nor could they replace the U.S. HD feed with a standard-definition feed from CFCF.
Now, with a digital transmitter running and expected to remain that way during the Super Bowl, the only way to get the game with U.S. commercials (legally) is to setup an antenna and pick up WFFF over the air from across the border. (We'll see how many bars want to go through that much trouble.)
Because the analog transmitters are still running on Mount Royal, broadcasters have setup temporary digital transmitters across the city in less prime locations. CFCF's is just next to the Mount Royal transmitter, on Channel 51 (the PSIP system has it show on TVs as "12.1"), with an effective radiated power of about 6,000 Watts. Though it's nowhere near the 325 kilowatts being put out by its analog transmitter, it's probably good enough that people who can see the mountain can pick it up over the air.
In August, when analog transmission is required to cease in major markets like Montreal, CFCF and others should have a stronger signal. CFCF is licensed for 10,600km ERP transmitter on Mount Royal that will operate on Channel 12.
"Getting what we paid for"
When asked about preventing Montreal cable viewers from getting U.S. commercials, Bastien wasn't sympathetic. "We have paid the Canadian rights to the Super Bowl," he said. "The broadcast should be a Canadian broadcast. It's not a matter of taking away something from Canadian viewers, but rather us getting what we paid for."
I suspect that will be cold comfort to some of those viewers.
Just watch them online
Many of my suggestions from last year on how to watch the U.S. commercials no longer apply, except for two:
- Watch WFFF over the air with an antenna, assuming you get good enough reception. (Your TV must have an ATSC digital tuner)
- Watch the commercials online after the fact, on sites like YouTube. It's not like the advertisers want to put roadblocks between their works of art and your eyeballs.
UPDATE (Jan. 31): CTV has issued a press release announcing the station being on the air, which I guess means it's out of testing now. Like most press releases by media companies, it's intentionally misleading for the sake of pretending to be better than the competition. It says "CTV becomes Canada’s only broadcaster to have HD transmitters in Toronto, Vancouver, Calgary, and Montréal," but it obviously chooses those cities selectively, leaving out that even with CFCF, it trails Citytv and Global in the number of cities with digital transmitters (and it matches CBC at four). It also talks quite a bit about CFCF's newscast, which might give people the impression that the newscast will be in high definition, but that's months, probably years away.
UPDATE (Feb. 4): Brendan Kelly writes about this issue in The Gazette. It includes the statement from Bastien that an HD upgrade of the newscast would cost between $8 million and $10 million.
UPDATE (Feb. 6): For the record, Videotron subscribers outside of the following areas get the Super Bowl feed (and other U.S. programming) unsubstituted:
- Montreal and on-island suburbs
- The north shore
- The south shore
- St. Jérôme
- St. Jean sur Richelieu