The federal broadcast regulator has seen the future – but does not want to go there soon.
Caught between old-media business models and content-hungry consumers, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) has come out with some politically expedient decisions that largely postpone the hard choices and big questions about Canadian TV. Canadians will get their U.S. Super Bowl commercials, but simultaneous substitution of ads on other programs and over-the-air broadcasting will be maintained as the CRTC makes an exception rather than crafts a policy.
The cheers could be heard across the land on Thursday as CRTC chair Jean-Pierre Blais announced in a speech in London, Ont., that, in time for Super Bowl 2017, Canadian broadcasters will no longer be permitted to drop their ads into the competing U.S. signals carrying the game. Pesky regulations craftily designed to protect Canadian broadcasters' ability to make money from the U.S. programs they buy will no longer stand between outraged consumers and those big-budget U.S. ads they keep reading about (and can check out on the Internet any time). Just in time for this year's Super Bowl, with its all-Canadian ads, Mr. Blais has cleverly passed consumer complaints back to the broadcasting industry.
That Super Bowl move was just one of several canny crowd-pleasers announced in the first major conclusions from the Let's Talk TV hearings the CRTC held last fall; Mr. Blais will also not let local stations wiggle out of free over-the-air transmissions, thus protecting students, seniors, cord-cutters – and local news. And he has forced integrated providers such as Bell to drop the data discounts they were offering customers who viewed their television offerings on mobile devices – thereby upholding the revered principle of net neutrality.
These are popular decisions, but they pull at threads in the mesh of protections and requirements that encircle the Canadian television industry without giving much idea of how the whole web might be untangled. Meanwhile, an unfettered Netflix scampers across the rapidly collapsing digital border. Mr. Blais came down hard on stations that might want to have their cake and eat it too, saying nobody was going to dump over-the-air-transmission (which is expensive to maintain and reaches fewer people than cable and satellite) without also giving up the very significant privilege – mandatory carriage on basic cable – that goes with it. And yet, while exposing that contradiction, he did not address the quid pro quo on the content side, where the broadcasters, who increasingly have to compete with unregulated Internet TV services such as Netflix, are permitted simultaneous substitution but required to provide Canadian shows.
The decision on simsub sends a mixed message about the future of a long-standing but controversial policy. In his speech, Mr. Blais recognized the larger criticism of the practice; not that it blocks Super Bowl ads, but that it pushes Canadian programs to the margins by tying the broadcasters to U.S. schedules. An unregulated Canadian television industry would have neither the prop of simsub nor the obligation of Cancon; it might be impoverished, but it might also have to create its own distinctive content. Mr. Blais is miles away from that future. He acknowledged the criticisms of simsub, but also said that as long as it is worth $250-million a year in ad revenue to the industry, it is "here to stay." That has not stopped him from dropping the rule not only for the Super Bowl but for specialty channels – thereby cutting into the revenues major sports events earn for TSN and Sportsnet.
Mr. Blais talks about maintaining the old broadcasting bridge while building the new, but that has not stopped him from chipping some bricks out of the old one. Meanwhile, he has yet to address how the new bridge might carry something other than once-a-year, big budget U.S. sports events, namely the Canadian programming that the Broadcasting Act sets out as the raison d'etre for the broadcasting system.