There is football diplomacy happening in the corridors of Canadian power, although at this time, it’s likely to amount to little more than a punt right before halftime.
With the Super Bowl rapidly approaching, this is going to be the first year that Canadians will be able to watch the U.S. commercials during the broadcast here. That comes as result of the Canadian Radiotelevision and Telecommunications Commission’s efforts to make Canadian television more consumerfriendly.
Since the 1970s, Canadian broadcasters have used simultaneous substitution — basically replacing American commercials with Canadian ones for U.S. broadcasts airing on a Canadian network. It has been a major source of revenue — the lifeline, really — for the networks in Canada.
It has also long been a sticking point to some viewers missing the big-budget U.S. commercials during the Super Bowl, and due to complaints — 92 in 2013 specifically about the Super Bowl commercials — the CRTC has created an exemption for the big game.
The decision has run afoul of BCE Inc., whose Bell Media owns the Canadian rights to the big game, as well as Canadian advertising associations and unions, like ACTRA, who believe the move is taking production jobs away from their constituents.
Those involved have started a publicity campaign to explain the potential consequences. Bell Media has created a site touting its position, while ACTRA has created the site supportcreators.ca to argue its case.
The NFL and other stakeholders have been holding lobbying events in Ottawa and Toronto the past few months in the hopes of forcing the government to do something before this year’s game. Bell Media gone to appeals court to hopefully reverse the decision, but the case has a way to go before being heard.
Like anyone who paid for something that subsequently lost value, it’s understandable why Bell Media is upset. The broadcaster signed its NFL rights deal in 2013, which includes regular-season and playoff games, and expected to be able to place Canadian ads, for which it would have charged a premium.
Without the vaunted American commercials, last year’s game reached an average of 8.3 million viewers in Canada. That’s one reason the NFL is lobbying on behalf of its broadcast partners. It is in the league’s best interest for the game to be more valuable, which it is with local ads.
Another argument is that if the CRTC allows simultaneous substitution to be taken away from the Super Bowl, then what’s to stop it from ending the practice for other high-profile events? That could be devastating for the industry here.
The CRTC, meanwhile, badly needs some kind of consumer win. Its latest policies, like mandated skinny basic packages and pick-andpay TV, have been duds and haven’t fomented any kind of competition or lowered people’s cables bills. The Super Bowl decision is an easy crowd pleaser, even though on its face it is the worst kind of exceptionbased decision making.
So where does that leave us? Well, according to a recent Bloomberg story, the “Hail Mary” lobbying is now focused on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to enact an executive power — to direct TV feeds in the case of urgent importance — that has only been used once before, by Prime Minister Jean Chretien to address the nation during the Quebec referendum 22 years ago.
Despite the institutions huddling over how to fight the decision, it is clear that the average viewer wants to see those commercials. The NFL has done too good a job hyping them. They also serve as the perfect bulwark against a bad game.
So get ready for the Budweiser puppies or Clydesdales and whatever GoDaddy has in store; Canadians will finally be let in on the commercial party. But the dispute will likely continue long after the game ends.