Screwing Bell Canada out of their Superbowl advertising revenues wasn’t just a enjoyable thing to do, it was the first step in fixing Canadian television.
Last month, for the first time in a generation, Canadians watched the Superbowl the way Gaia intended — with American advertisements. Reacting to years of complaints, the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) ordered cable companies to allow the broadcaster, Fox, to transmit freely, without substituting the channel holding the Canadian Superbowl rights, Bell Canada’s CTV, in its place. Canadian viewers experienced US advertisements, an American folk art form, instead of the generally lame and uninspired Canadian ads.
This hit CTV’s advertising revenue hard as viewers chose to watch Fox instead, tanking their ratings. Unsurprisingly, Bell Canada is crazy mad about this and has taken the CRTC to court. This situation is exactly what the CRTC’s simultaneous substitution policy was created to avoid.
The CRTC implemented the simultaneous substitution rule in 1972 as a favour to Canadian broadcasters, primarily CTV. TV channels would license US programmes for a pittance—in those days, US producers didn’t consider foreign licensing a lucrative business. The Canadian channels argued that they had paid the fee, however, for Canada – so they should get the advertising revenue from US channels that also showed the programme in Canada. The CRTC bought the story and ordered cable channels to make sure Canadian feeds were shown. Literally, there is some guy at each cable company who has to work out when to turn the feeds on and off. And this is pretty effective as 92% of Canadians get their television from cable or satellite.
In the 21st century, Canadian commercial television doesn’t work the way that you probably think. You probably imagine the channel commissions a TV programme, they make it, and they put it on the air. Then they sell advertising against it. If the ratings are of a reasonable number, they can sell advertisements at a reasonable rate and everyone makes money. If they show is a dog, it gets cancelled. That’s the way it’s done in the United States.
No, in Canada, the TV stations and networks are merely a delivery system for exchanging American programming and collecting Canadian advertising. Look at CTV, CTV 2, Global, and City. Each hour of programming from 7pm until midnight (excluding the 11pm news) is simultaneously substituted with an American station.
The only spanner in the works for the stations is another 70s CRTC rule, that 50% of the broadcasting hours 6pm – 12am must be Canadian made. So you get two hours of news, at 6pm and 11pm and one hour of insipid entertainment news presented by human garbage: eTalk on CTV and Entertainment Tonight Canada on Global. With those three hours accounted for, Canadian TV is free to fill the other 19 with another country’s wares.
It wasn’t always this way. On the old days, the people who ran TV stations wanted to be broadcasters, even if they didn’t have the money that their US counterparts had. Mornings were filled with game shows like Acting Crazy, The Mad Dash, or Definition, the last filmed in Toronto with the grand prize being a dinner at a local restaurant. CTV and Global were proud to create prime time dramas and comedies like The Star Lost and The Trouble with Tracy during the hours that people actually watch TV. They were terrible, no one is arguing that, but they were ours. If you wanted to watch American TV, you had to go get cable and watch a US channel.
By the 90s, the money people figured out that licensing formula: why spend money producing Canadian television, when you can license American TV for cheaper and force the cabled US channel to show your advertising? It was the move of evil geniuses and it’s been lucrative but at the price of Canadian culture.
Wait, you ask. There are all sorts of Canadian programs: Rookie Blue or Mary Kills People on the air. Don’t they show a robust and healthy culture? No.
The funny thing about shows like those is that whether they are every broadcast at all is irrelevant: each broadcaster must pay into a Canadian production fund. That production fund money is partnered with the federal Canada Media Fund and buckets of provincial tax credits. If they’re lucky, they’ll get some cash from a foreign broadcaster. But the production is paid for before even airing. Whether there is anything Canadian about their stories is debatable.
The solution to this televised imperialism is wickedly simple: remove the simultaneous substitution rule. When Canadian TV cannot just license an American hit and collect the advertising money, they will be forced to come up with content of their own to compete. This, of course, is an anathema to TV executives but fuck them.
You can see an example of Canadian TV executives haplessness in the Shomi debacle. Rogers Communications and Shaw Media looked at Netflix and said, ‘Doh, we can do that. We know how to license stuff.’ And they did, filling it with hours and hours of old TV shows and movies. Meanwhile, Netflix spent millions on creating new programming. Rogers and Shaw, despite them owning over 30 cable channels (including, ahem, Viceland), and TV networks between them, they could not create TV programmes that people would pay for. Shomi shut down in November.
Retracting simultaneous substation would cause carnage across the Canadian TV landscape, of this I have no doubt. But a new TV world, growing within the shell of the old, will more than make up for it.