Canadian broadcasting regulation is becoming curiouser and curiouser. Last year, the CRTC put on a forum with the jaunty name Let's Talk TV. One result is an extremely targeted decision about one annual American program and one Canadian broadcaster – a regulation so specific that it can hardly be considered a regulation, but rather a special decree.
Bell Media, in its incarnation as CTV – a subsidiary of BCE Inc., which also owns 15 per cent of The Globe and Mail's shares – has bought the Canadian rights to broadcast the Super Bowl, the championship game of the National Football League.
For more than 40 years, with the CRTC's blessing, Canadian broadcasters have spliced Canadian advertisements into American programs to which they have rights, on the theory that this would not only yield profits to Canadian companies but also would help enable them to spend money on original Canadian programming. The practice is called "simultaneous substitution," also known as "simsubbing."
At the end of January, the CRTC declared that it would no longer allow the Super Bowl to be simsubbed as of 2017. The new rule prevents Bell from inserting Canadian advertising into this, and only this, program.
The decision seemed to be an aesthetic one: "The non-Canadian advertising produced for the Super Bowl is an integral part of this special event programming." It's true that many viewers enjoy the advertisements during the game, some more than the game itself, because of a custom of presenting particularly spectacular ads on this occasion. Populism may have been a factor in the CRTC's decision. But if populism is to be the criterion, there is surely little room for the CRTC itself.
Let's Talk TV's basic intention was good. It was an acknowledgement that scheduled broadcasting is turning into just one option among many – perhaps it was almost an admission, or a fear, that the regulation of visual media may become almost impossible before long – apart from extreme abuses to be dealt with by criminal law.
For the time being, however, there is still a CRTC. Regulations should be even-handed. There is a very legitimate case to be made for revolutionizing, root and branch, the whole scheme of the regulation of the Canadian broadcasting system. There should be no place for capricious singling out of this or that program.