@AmeriCanadian2 It's due to the CRTC rules so no way to watch the Fox feed sorry. ^map
— RogersHelps (@RogersHelps) January 20, 2014
It started with a simple to-the-point reply from a Rogers Twitter account to a Rogers cable customer complaining that the San Francisco-Seattle NFL playoff game on FOX had been replaced with the same broadcast from CTV containing CTV commercials.
But for CRTC chairman Jean-Pierre Blais, it was a source of “dismay” because it provided “contradictory information.” So he sent a letter to Rogers asking for them to make sure their customer service agents provide more accurate information about the nature of simultaneous substitution, and file a report about its training methods.
Specifically, Blais notes that it’s up to the Canadian broadcaster to request simultaneous substitution, and both the broadcaster and the distributor (the cable, satellite or IPTV company) to ensure it’s done properly.
When I first read the letter last week, I thought maybe Blais had become confused, mistaking Rogers the broadcaster for Rogers the distributor. If CTV had blamed the CRTC for this, it would have been one thing, but Rogers is required by CRTC regulation to follow CTV’s request for substitution. So why is the CRTC getting mad at Rogers?
A call from the commission’s communications department, which actively monitors what people say on Twitter about the commission, reassured me that there was no error here. Blais simply wants a more accurate answer to these complaints and for everyone to stop blaming the CRTC.
Except the CRTC is to blame here. And what Rogers answered may not have been complete, but it wasn’t incorrect.
Three hours a year
This Sunday is the Super Bowl. It’s the biggest event in American television, and the only three hours a year when Canadians actually want to watch U.S. ads, because of the hype that has been built up about the creativity that go into the hugely expensive spots.
Normally, Canadians couldn’t care less that they don’t see ads for DirecTV, Verizon, U.S. politicians or other things that have no relevance to them. But on Super Bowl Sunday, it’s not that we want to know any more about those services, it’s that we want to get a glimpse of how those services are advertised.
So around this time is when people start complaining to the CRTC about simultaneous substitution, the practice whereby a Canadian distributor is required to replace distant television feeds with local stations when the two are carrying identical programming. (Theoretically it applies to Canadian feeds as well, but it’s mainly used by CTV, Global and City to take control of advertising on the big four U.S. networks.) The substitution is optional for the local station, which could choose to not ask for the feed to be substituted (but why wouldn’t they?). But if they ask, the distributor is required to comply.
The complaints go up so much around the Super Bowl that the CRTC has a special page on its website just to explain it in that context.
There are complaints the rest of the year too. Sometimes, like in the case above, people are annoyed at the excessive promotional ads by the Canadian broadcaster. In many cases, the problem is that the substitution is done incorrectly, causing Canadian customers to miss parts of their programming. This usually happens during live programming that goes beyond its scheduled end time (the Super Bowl itself is an example of these kinds of events), when the same Canadian network does not simultaneously air the program that follows it.
In these cases, it’s up to both the broadcaster and the distributor to ensure that substitution happens properly. But that’s not easy. Even discounting live programs like sports events or awards shows, there are all sorts of TV series that start and end a minute or two after the half-hour mark, or even just a few seconds because the networks’ feeds aren’t synchronized with each other. It’s enough to cut off the end of the credits for one show or the beginning of the opening for another.
What if we just got rid of it?
For many Canadians, the solution is simple: End the practice of simultaneous substitution. It makes things easier for the distributors, it gives us the freedom to watch either the U.S. or Canadian feed according to our preference, and it might even encourage Canadian broadcasters to be more innovative without relying on the crutch of buying U.S. programs and selling ads against them. (The fact that Bell airs even regular-season NFL games on CTV and CTV Two but puts the Grey Cup, Canada’s pro football championship, on TSN is mainly because of simultaneous substitution, and a prime example of why the policy could actually be detrimental to Canadian broadcasting.)
There’s some logic to these arguments, which have been heard by the CRTC as part of its Let’s Talk TV campaign, which will lead to hearings on TV policy later this year. Ending simultaneous substitution would have its advantages:
- Canadians would have the freedom to watch U.S. ads when they choose to do so, such as during the Super Bowl
- There would be no more substitution errors cutting off the beginning and ending of shows
- Distributors would save on resources that could be put to better use elsewhere
- U.S. border stations could target Canadian cities and ad revenue would go more directly to the networks that actually make the shows
- U.S. border stations would not have to engage in schedule wars to get around simultaneous substitution, and similarly Canadian networks would not be a slave to U.S. network schedules
- Canadian broadcasters would lose their incentive to schedule popular U.S. shows in the best time slots and would be encouraged to produce more original programming
That all sounds great, but what would really happen if the CRTC just ended this policy?
First of all, it would be pretty disastrous to the big three conventional television networks: CTV, Global and City, not to mention . Though their parent companies are quite rich, the networks are struggling to break even. CRTC statistics show that the private conventional television industry lost money in four of the five years from 2008 to 2012. (In Quebec, it made money in each of those years, so we can assume the losses are even higher in English Canada.) Rogers tells the CRTC in its licence renewal that it plans to lose $17.7 million next year for the City network, and another $12 million with OMNI if it doesn’t get relief on its conditions of licence.
Specialty channels, particularly older ones with wide distribution, are very profitable, with some having margins around 50%. But conventional television networks aren’t a prerequisite for specialty channels, so if conventional TV’s business model is yanked out from under it, we could eventually see City, Global and even CTV networks collapse, wiping out most local television along with it.
Simultaneous substitution isn’t just about making an easy buck. It’s also a very strong promotional tool. When City got the Grammys for the first time this year, it went all out promoting it, and aired an original red-carpet special that lasted an hour and a half. During the show itself, which was substituted on CBS, City promoted just about every program it aired, knowing that this was the biggest audience it would have access to. In fact, the Grammys turned out to draw the largest audience in City’s history. And it meant a lot of people being exposed to promotions for the rest of its primetime lineup as well as original shows like Breakfast Television.
City, of course, is owned by Rogers. So, for Rogers to blame the CRTC for forcing simultaneous substitution on it is a bit hypocritical since it’s one of the companies that benefits most from it.
The argument that Canadian broadcasters would be forced to stand on their own two feet and present more original programs sounds promising. And there’s some logic to it. U.S. primetime schedules lock up the hours of 8pm to 11pm six days a week (nobody really cares about Saturdays), leaving Canadian hours to the news hours of 6pm and 11pm, and Saturday nights. There’s also the miscellaneous 7pm hour weekdays, which CTV and Global have filled with celebrity gossip shows and City uses to air reruns of Modern Family.
But original programming is expensive, more so than acquiring foreign programs, even as those costs go up now that City has become more of a national player competing for them. And removing from the Canadian networks a major source of revenue isn’t going to give them more money to develop their own programs (most of which they don’t really own anyway because they have to use independent producers, as Rogers recently complained to the CRTC).
And the argument that Canadian broadcasters hide their Canadian shows in low-rated time periods doesn’t hold much water anymore. CTV’s new series Masterchef Canada airs Mondays at 8pm, and has been given a very high-value promotional spot airing right after the Super Bowl. Its medical drama Saving Hope airs Thursdays at 9pm. The mega-hit The Amazing Race Canada aired at 9pm on Mondays. Global put Bomb Girls on Wednesdays at 8pm. City puts Storage Wars Canada on Sundays at 8pm, and its original animated series Mother Up! on Thursday nights. These are hardly low-value time slots.
Even if you don’t care about Canadian networks or Canadian programming, ending simultaneous substitution could have unintended consequences that might be even worse. U.S. networks, not wanting to lose the extra revenue that comes from Canadian licensing fees, could seek more money or other compensation from U.S. border stations. Or they could demand blackouts like you see with out-of-market hockey games. Or the CRTC could simply disallow the distribution of American networks in Canada (which probably won’t happen if only because of the public outrage that would ensue).
The legality of it all is a bit murky because simultaneous substitution itself sits kind of set apart from the rest of copyright law. U.S. stations aren’t compensated for being distributed in Canada (something they’re not happy about), but it’s allowed because the first cable companies captured U.S. signals off the air and distributed them to customers. Simultaneous substitution was a compromise (proposed by the cable industry) to allow U.S. stations to continue being distributed while safeguarding Canadian broadcasters’ rights when they bought exclusive Canadian rights to a broadcast.
Without it, Canadian advertising money would flow across that border to the U.S. stations. It’s a hard argument to make that giving the advertising money to U.S. stations instead of Canadian ones helps the broadcasting system.
So where do we go from here?
Simultaneous substitution will probably be one of the issues discussed by the CRTC this year. Blais said it’s time for everyone to “start speaking up on simultaneous substitution,” so clearly he’s willing to listen.
But despite its very pro-consumer bend of late, the CRTC’s mandate is to protect the broadcasting system, not just the consumer. If ending simultaneous substitution does more harm than good, then the CRTC won’t do that.
There are alternatives. One is non-simultaneous substitution, where the Canadian network controls the ads even if it doesn’t air the show at the same time. This would free the Canadian network to make up its schedule as it sees fit, even intentionally offer counter-programming to give people more choice. It would also mean not having to redo the schedule every quarter based on what U.S. shows the Canadian network has the rights to. But it would require some technical infrastructure, because distributors would need to store ads for later playback, or the Canadian network would need to provide a feed for each of the U.S. networks it may wish to substitute.
All of that should be discussed at the hearing. And the CRTC will take careful consideration before coming to a decision. If this episode with Rogers has taught us anything, it’s that it’s paying close attention to what people are saying.
If you have a solution that ends simultaneous substitution but also has a workable business model for Canadian television, I’m sure the CRTC is all ears.
How to get your Super Bowl ads
CTV owns the rights to the Super Bowl, so in areas with a local CTV station (including greater Montreal and Gatineau), TV distributors are required to substitute the Fox signal. But there are alternatives if you really want those commercials:
- Watch Fox over the air: The transmitter for WFFF-TV on Mount Mansfield is 47kW, which isn’t very strong. TVFool rates it the weakest of the Burlington/Plattsburgh stations in terms of signal strength when receiving from Montreal. So it’ll be very difficult to capture it over an antenna.
- Watch the commercials online. YouTube’s Ad Blitz channel plans to post commercials as they air in real-time. They will be available elsewhere too. Advertisers want you to see their ads no matter where you are. In fact, many of them are already online because the advertisers want to capitalize on pre-game buzz.
- Find some pirated Fox feed online. This sounds like more trouble than it’s worth to me, but if you’re really desperate to watch the game and the ads on the same channel, you can try to find some feed (probably severely compressed) that’s illegally streaming a Fox station somewhere in the U.S.
- Go to a bar promising U.S. commercials. Here’s one that did it last year and again this year. There are probably others.
Those who live in areas not served by a CTV station (like Quebec City or Sherbrooke) can still get the U.S. feed on cable, since simultaneous substitution only applies to a station’s local coverage area. Bell satellite customers are stuck with substitution no matter where they live.
- The Globe and Mail with an explainer on Super Bowl ads, which discusses how much CTV is going to use commercial time to promote its shows. (The Globe says CTV has sold all ad availabilities for the game.) It also has a story about Blais’s letter to Rogers, with some comment from the latter.
- Michael Geist writes about the letter, and points to an earlier opinion calling for an end to simultaneous substitution.
- Cartt.ca on the Blais letter, also agreeing that what Rogers wrote was not inaccurate.
- Marc Weisblott on Canada.com about the Blais letter
UPDATE: Rogers’s Twitter account has been a bit more explanatory in responses about simultaneous substitution during the Super Bowl:
@jason_cheese If broadcaster (like CTV) request simsub, rules req us to do so to protect program rights, keep ad dollars in Canada. ^yg
— RogersHelps (@RogersHelps) February 2, 2014