It was the third year in a row that Bell Media was stuck in its impossible position: One of the biggest television events of the year and half its audience is watching it on a channel it doesn’t control because those people want desperately to avoid Bell Media’s advertisements.
Though the USMCA specifically requires the abolishment of the CRTC’s special rule forbidding simultaneous substitution during the Super Bowl (the Trump administration added it at the request of the NFL, which would see the value of the Canadian rights to the NFL drop significantly if the rule were kept in place), the new trade deal hasn’t been ratified, and the commission isn’t going to act until it is.
If the USMCA is ratified this year (which is a big if), this could be the last time Canadians watching on cable will get to see big-budget ads from T-Mobile and other advertisers that have no interest in Canada.
I followed both the Canadian (TSN5) and U.S. (WCAX-TV Burlington) versions of the Super Bowl broadcast live to compare the two. Bell had no plans for a watch-to-win contest or other gimmick to get Canadians to tune in to its broadcast, and there weren’t many big announcements about big-budget Canadian ads (Bell pointed to one featuring Michael Bublé, but that ad also aired in the U.S.), so I was curious about the quality of the ads that would be broadcast.
Here is a playlist of all the ads I could find on YouTube that aired on CFCF-DT Montreal during the Super Bowl game (between kickoff and the end of the game, when the simsub exception applies).
Some of the ads were Super Bowl ads that appeared on both sides of the border, including one for Marvel’s Avengers: Endgame, an Olay commercial featuring Sarah Michelle Gellar, a Colgate ad with Luke Wilson, an ad for Persil ProClean, a teaser for the Amazon Prime series Hanna (which aired simultaneously in both countries) and a 30-second version of a Budweiser ad touting renewable energy.
For just the Super Bowl-style new ads that appeared only on the Canadian broadcast, you can follow this playlist.
Among the Canadian-only ads that tried something new for the Super Bowl:
- Wealthsimple had six different ads as part of its “Tomorrow Begins Today” series — 30-second vignettes of emotional life moments that suggest an important future (including, daringly, release from prison)
- President’s Choice had a 90-second spot featuring words by Alan Watts that seem poignant but it’s unclear how they relate to supermarket food
- Mazda Canada had this commercial called “Sleepwalking” that had curious statements like “people who defy convention by embracing tradition” and talked about taking pride in their work (i.e. their cars)
- Kijiji ran this ad three times featuring a race car driver driving a recliner to promote its car marketplace website Kijiji Autos.
- Skip the Dishes brought back Jon Hamm for a new spot that features him treating his man servant like a smart speaker.
- Centris.ca had a couple of 15-second football-themed animated text spots.
- Maple Leaf Foods had an adorable spot about fussy infants that you kind of wish was a bit longer with the examples of ridiculous excuses for not eating and a bit less on selling you hot dogs
- Sonnet Insurance had a young-versus-old ad featuring the Canadiens’ Jonathan Drouin, Leafs’ Willian Nylander and Flames’ Johnny Gaudreau, plus Mario Tremblay, Doug Gilmour and Mike Vernon
- Alpine Credits spent some animation money on this hard-sell ad
- Rexall ran this new ad nationally even though it has only one store east of Ontario
But probably the one that is most newsworthy is this ad from Unifor that straight-up attacks General Motors for closing its Oshawa plant, saying “we’ll never forget your greed.”
The quality of the Canadian ads is improving. More businesses are trying to make a go at longer, slower, more emotional or funny ads that keep you guessing what they’re advertising until the end. And some of those are succeeding while others fail.
On the other hand there were also plenty of completely forgettable car ads, some ads that are years old, or hard sells that were clearly done with no budget.
As I published a Twitter thread Sunday night listing the ads for both Canadian and U.S. broadcasts, the number of CTV and Bell ads (including Virgin Mobile, The Source, Crave, etc.) had some speculating that CTV couldn’t sell its inventory and filled airtime with house ads instead.
I don’t know how much of inventory Bell Media sold for the game, but a few things to keep in mind:
- The number of ads for Bell properties and services was higher on TSN (the feed I used in the Twitter thread) than CTV, which had some local ads mixed in.
- Many of the Bell ads were 5- or 10-second fillers at the end of ad breaks
- On CTV Montreal, the Bell ads made up about 20% of the total airtime, which doesn’t seem excessive (it’s 17% if you exclude those short bumpers)
- CBS also had a lot of house ads — 30 of 102 by my count, including ads for Showtime. Many of those ads came in the same blocks as local ads in the Vermont feed, so were probably part of local availabilities.
- Many of Bell’s internal ads were clearly meant for the Super Bowl. Like CBS, CTV and its sister channels used the opportunity to make announcements about new and returning series, including Jann, Whiskey Cavalier, The Enemy Within, Masterchef Canada, I am the Night, The Voice and Game of Thrones.
That doesn’t mean Bell made all the money it could, though. Its ratings are still in the four-million range across English-language channels, two million below what they were before the simsub exception was put in place. The loss of audience is still costing Bell millions of dollars a year.
Based on my recording of CFCF-DT (CTV Montreal) between kickoff at 6:32pm and the end of the game at 10:04pm, here’s how it breaks down statistically:
- Total broadcast length (kickoff to end of game): 3 hours, 32 minutes
- Total ad time: 3445 seconds (57 minutes, 25 seconds), or 27%
- Total ad breaks: 26 (or 27 if you count two breaks a few seconds apart)
- Longest ads: 90 seconds, President’s Choice (aired twice) and a Crave version of Game of Thrones Crypts of Winterfell
- Shortest ads: 5-second bumpers for Bell and CTV channels and closed captioning promos for Nissan and GMC
- Ads for Bell products (Bell, Virgin Mobile, CTV, Bravo, Space, Crave, The Source, etc.): 715 seconds (20.8% of total)
- Ads for Bell products excluding ads of 10 seconds or less: 570 of 3270 seconds (17.4%)
- Local ads (that didn’t also broadcast on TSN feed): 315 seconds (9%)
- CBS house ads (measured as total number of spots regardless of length): 30/102
No easy solution
It might be moot in a while — especially as more audience moves online, where the control of territorial rights is more strict and the CRTC doesn’t have a say — but until then, there’s no simple solution that would make everyone happy. Bell could encourage more U.S. big-game advertisers to put their ads on the Canadian feed, but some giants like T-Mobile and Hulu have no interest in paying for airtime to reach an audience that can’t buy its product.
Bell also can’t suddenly grow Canada’s economy 10-fold so that Canadian advertisers have the budgets to spend millions on creative ads. And even then, half the audience is watching the American feed, so why would Canadian advertisers bother when they can do ads during the World Juniors or Olympics instead?
There may be more technological solutions in our future — ways for Canadians to watch the big U.S. ads in a more seamless way while still respecting exclusive broadcast rights. Until then, we’re stuck in this awkwardness.
So watch the U.S. ads. And the Canadian ones too.