This weekend, millions of people will be gathered around TV sets in living rooms and sports bars everywhere for the grand spectacle that is the Super Bowl (Go Patriots!). They will be anxiously awaiting the kickoff, the halftime show, and the tension of a third down in the fourth quarter. However, for some, the thrill lies not on the 50-yard line, but rather, in the commercials aired during the TV breaks. Companies pay millions for the coveted 30 second spots, and as a result, commercials are produced with a vigour usually reserved for TV shows and movies. Great ads from the likes of Coke and E-Trade are born during the Super Bowl and millions look forward to this cheap thrill.

That being said, if you tune in on Sunday expecting to be amazed by the feats of the commercial break, you will be greatly disappointed. Instead, you will see the same boring commercials you’re accustomed to. The Canadian Radio-Television Telecommunications Commission, or CRTC, mandates that all cable and satellite providers implement simultaneous substitution. This means that if a Canadian network and an American network are both showing the same program, the American network has to simulcast the Canadian network at that time. The same program is shown, except the Canadian network’s logo and commercials are shown instead. The backers of this law frame it as being good for the interests of Canadian culture. However, it has some unintended negative effects on the Canadian entertainment industry.

[pullquote]With fewer opportunities to go primetime, Canadian productions have a tough task of surviving in a time slot that has fewer viewers.[/pullquote]

Historically, before the days of cable, Canadian broadcasters were finding that in the border cities, when they aired popular American programs at the same time that the US broadcasters did, people still preferred the American networks to the Canadian networks. This translates into lost advertising revenue and ratings so the broadcasters successfully lobbied the government to implement a policy that would give them an advantage over the American broadcasters, which they got in the form of simultaneous substitution. This law is intended to protect Canadian culture, by preserving the Canadian networks that otherwise would not be able to compete. Other than the badly-placed logos, this doesn’t seem like such a bad idea. However, there is a catch.

In order for a network to be simultaneously substituted, it must air the programs at the same time as the American networks; this usually means during primetime. As a result, local programming gets the short end of the stick and is often pushed out of primetime in favor of more popular American shows. With fewer opportunities to go primetime, Canadian productions have a tough task of surviving in a time slot that has fewer viewers. What has been framed as a law to protect Canadian interests is actually a law to protect Canadian broadcasters: broadcasters who are dominated by American programming.

This policy has also forced some networks into making erroneous decisions in order to maintain the rights to “simsub” a program. In 2007, CTV planned to tape-delay the Juno Awards so that they could simultaneously broadcast The Amazing Race which was airing on CBS. After public outrage, CTV reversed its decision and aired the Junos live. The policy is also not fair to Canadian consumers—what is the point of getting American networks on cable, if they are going to be simulcasting the Canadian feed most of the time?

Simultaneous substitution may have had noble intentions from the outset; however, it is clear now that it is an outdated regulation that needs to be revised. In order to protect Canadian productions, the CRTC should impose quotas for Canadian content to be aired in primetime, much like they do on radio. Or, they should restrict the amount of American programming a network can show, thereby allowing some of the programming to air on the original network. Cable companies could also take the step of allowing Canadians to buy a separate American package that does not simulcast Canadian networks. This will reduce unnecessary redundancies in cable packages and save the consumer money.

Regarding the Super Bowl, the CRTC has taken steps in recent years to crack down on cable companies that do not simulcast during the event. That being said, don’t fret; commercials can still be seen online after the game.