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Bell will fight CRTC ad policy after Super Bowl ratings drop

Bell’s Super Bowl ratings took a major dip this year.

TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images

A regulatory decision that opened up the U.S. broadcast of the Super Bowl to Canadian viewers – including those flashy big game ads – has also handed some Canadian advertising money to American TV stations.

On Sunday, the Fox affiliate in Buffalo aired an advertisement from Canadian chain Pizza Pizza during the game; the Fox station in Spokane, Wash., sold ads to Leon's Furniture Ltd. and a group of Canadian Mitsubishi dealers.

The change stems from a decision announced in early 2015 by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, banning "simultaneous substitution" during the Super Bowl, starting this year. The usual system subs in the Canadian broadcast – and Canadian ads – over top of the signal on U.S. channels, when the same program is running on both channels at the same time.

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That was not the case for this Super Bowl. Bell Media, which owns the TV rights to the game in Canada, said on Monday that its ratings dropped by 39 per cent this year compared with last.

It's hard to know how much of that drop was due to viewers migrating to Fox stations: Numeris, which tracks TV ratings in Canada, says it does not track all the Fox stations, and would not share the data for the Fox stations that it does track.

What is clear, however, is that while ratings were slightly softer in the United States compared to last year, the drop Bell saw in its audience was much more extreme than in the United States. Last year, CTV drew an average audience of 7.32 million people for the Super Bowl. This year, it put the game on more of its channels – CTV, CTV Two and TSN – but combined, they drew an average audience of just 4.47 million. The French-language audience on RDS drew similar ratings compared with last year.

In the United States, an average of 111.3 million American viewers tuned in to the big game compared with 111.9 million last year, according to Nielsen.

Most of the ads, particularly the most buzzed-about ones, are sold on a national basis by the American network, while a smaller number of spots are available for local affiliates to sell.

"Super Bowl is not just a cost-per-thousand [viewers] buy, it's such a high-demand product – that really drives the rate," said Lynn Stryker, national sales manager at Fox 28 in Spokane. The station estimates that it reaches roughly 723,000 households in Calgary and Edmonton – more than in its home market – and so the CRTC's rule change helped to increase demand for the 13 spots that it had to sell. "I hope they don't shut it down, for when we have [the Super Bowl TV rights] again in three years."

The "simultaneous substitution" rule has been around since the seventies, and is designed to protect the ad revenues of Canadian broadcasters who pay for the exclusive rights to air U.S. TV programs here: Because ad prices largely depend on ratings numbers, Canadian viewers who tune in to a U.S. station and see its ads would be lost revenue for the Canadian networks without that signal-swapping. (The only TV viewers not affected by "simsub" are the minority who still pick up over-the-air TV signals and are able to see U.S. stations that way.) In total, simultaneous substitution provides roughly $250-million annually to broadcasters here.

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The CRTC portrayed its Super Bowl decision as a consumer-friendly move that was a response to complaints from viewers. It applied only to the game itself: Pre-game and post-game coverage on Sunday featured the Canadian feed, even on Fox. Bell has challenged the decision.

"It's the outcome we predicted, despite our efforts to mitigate the loss, and the support of the Canadian companies that stepped up to advertise on the domestic broadcast," the company said in a statement on Monday. "The CRTC's decision is clearly having a direct and negative impact on Canadian viewers, advertisers and the broader broadcasting and creative community. We'll continue our fight alongside the NFL to reverse it."

The CRTC declined to comment.

To cope with the change, Bell Media put the game on more of its channels in hopes that viewers searching for the game would be more likely to stumble on the Canadian feed. It also launched a "Watch and Win" contest – with information on how to win cash and prizes only available to those watching the Canadian broadcast.

But the contest turned into a PR headache for Bell Media, as people took to social media to complain that their entries were not going through. Some entrants who followed the instructions to enter by text message received replies saying, "Unfortunately your entry was received outside the contest entry time period," even though they said they had sent in their entries immediately after instructions appeared onscreen.

On Monday, a Bell spokesperson explained that there was a glitch with the contest's text replies – when replies were delayed, they incorrectly sent the message above, even though the person's entry had been received and registered. The company says this glitch was fixed by the second quarter.

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Bell Media along with the National Football League and groups representing Canadian advertisers and commercial actors have all been lobbying the government to overturn the CRTC's decision. In December, Bell filed a new challenge to the decision in the Federal Court of Appeal, after an earlier challenge was dismissed as premature. The loss of nearly two-fifths of its Canadian viewers, and the ad revenues that go with them, is likely to be an argument Bell Media uses to demonstrate the pitfalls of the decision as it fights to win back the right to "simsub" in the future.

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About the Author
Media and Marketing Reporter

Susan covers marketing and media for Report on Business. Before joining The Globe and Mail in 2009, Susan worked as a freelance reporter contributing to the Ottawa Citizen, the Montreal Gazette and other publications, as well as CBC Radio's Dispatches and Search Engine. She has a Masters degree in journalism from Carleton University. More

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