Bell Media thinks Canadian consumers should be grateful to it for ensuring that the ads we see during the Super Bowl are for products we can actually buy here. Because, you know, otherwise we might be forced to watch U.S. commercials for Budweiser, Skittles, Snickers, Doritos or Hyundai.
Of all the arguments Bell has made as it to seeks to save its bacon – in the face of the federal broadcasting regulator's order to force it to stop substituting Canadian ads for U.S. ones during the Super Bowl – the contention that it's got viewers' interests at heart is the hardest to swallow.
The reality is that most of the same advertisers line up to buy Super Bowl ad time on both sides of the border, though only U.S. viewers get to see the ads created by U.S. advertisers exclusively for the championship game. The substitution of domestic TV signals for American ones on U.S. shows that are broadcast simultaneously on domestic networks is simply a protectionist measure that benefits vested interests in the Canadian broadcasting and advertising industries. If it could be argued 40 years ago that so-called simsub was in the public interest, that is a much harder case to make in the digital age.
This has not stopped an onslaught of lobbying and lawsuits by Bell, whose CTV network owns the Canadian rights to Super Bowl broadcasts through 2019, to reverse the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission order banning simsub during the National Football League championship game, starting with the 2017 edition in February.
This week, Bell applied to the Federal Court of Appeal to force the CRTC to back down. If the court decides against it, the media giant will likely call out its big guns to sway Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's government to overrule the regulator. Will Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly, whose department is in the midst of reviewing Canadian content rules, side with Bell?
Bell has lined up a motley group of supporters – all of whom benefit from the status quo – that stretches from the NFL owners to Canadian unions and ad firms. But the fault lines in this alliance suggest that it's a marriage of convenience, not love.
The NFL loves the current arrangement, for now, since it creates a bidding war for Canadian Super Bowl rights. But in the longer term, the league might find it more lucrative to stream the big game, with its signature U.S. ads, directly to Canadian consumers online.
Simsub increases the value of the Canadian rights to the Super Bowl since CTV gets a monopoly on the game's domestic TV audience. That means extra cash in the league's pocket, while CTV can recoup its costs by charging higher ad rates.
That revenue, Bell argues, gets plowed back into Canadian ads and dramatic content, providing jobs for actors and producers here, while enabling Canadian advertisers such as Tim Hortons and Scotiabank to reach a bigger market than they could if the domestic audience for the same show was split between Canadian and U.S. broadcasters.
But if higher ad revenues merely offset inflated prices for the rights to U.S. programs, how much is really left over to invest in Canadian programming? And if their addiction to simsub-induced ad revenue forces domestic broadcasters to slot U.S. shows over Canadian ones in prime time, how does that benefit Canadian content?
"Too often, Canadian programs are shuffled around the television grid – relegated to less attractive time slots or secondary networks – to accommodate the scheduling whims of American network executives," CRTC chairman Jean-Pierre Blais said in a 2015 speech. "Why must our creators take second-class seats" on Canadian TV networks?
The broadcasters countered that simsub generates $250-million in additional advertising revenues for them. Still, without transparent accounting, or knowing how much domestic TV networks actually pay for U.S. shows, it's impossible to know whether that's a lot, or a little.
In the end, the CRTC decided to play it safe, limiting its simsub ban to Super Bowl broadcasts "for the time being." That seems like a reasonable compromise, allowing the regulator to determine whether there is any truth to the doomsday scenario Bell has advanced in defence of simsub before extending the ban to all live-event shows – or to all programming, period.
"In light of the evolving rights market and the availability of content on multiple platforms, the commission foresees a day when [simsub] may no longer be necessary or will be significantly less valuable for the support of Canadian programming," the CRTC concluded in 2015.
Canadian broadcasters should be forced get with the program, sooner rather than later.