Americans watching the Super Bowl are fed big-budget, celebrity-heavy commercials that have become almost as big a draw as the game itself, and Canadians have been missing out — but not for much longer.
This year could be the last in which Canadians are prevented from watching American commercials during the big game after the CRTC ruled that the U.S. ads were an integral part of the Super Bowl broadcast.
The federal regulator ordered Bell, which owns the exclusive rights to the NFL championship through 2019, to stop inserting Canadian ads for customers watching the game on an American channel.
That means that after the new rule comes into effect in 2017, Canadians who want to watch the U.S. ads during the Super Bowl can simply switch over from CTV to Fox, which has the U.S. broadcast rights next year.
Perry MacDonald, who heads Bell's English-language TV business, said the CRTC's "arbitrary" decision makes no sense given the importance of ad revenues beyond his company's bottom line.
"A decision like this will have a direct impact on Bell Media's continuing ability to support Canadian jobs, generate tax revenues and contribute to Canadian programming," he said.
Bell is challenging the decision in the Federal Court of Appeal, and the NFL has filed a brief supporting the company's claim.
MacDonald said many of the U.S. ads are available online — some of them even before the game. He said the CRTC's ruling hurts the ability of Canadian companies to reach their market and harms Bell's ability to promote Canadian shows.
"This decision takes money out of the Canadian economy and puts it into the hands of American companies that will get additional exposure to millions of Canadian consumers at no additional cost, while making it impossible for homegrown businesses to participate in the most important advertising event of the year," he said.
Some U.S. ads make their way to the Canadian airwaves, but most do not. And despite the lack of U.S. ads, the game remains one of the highest-rated TV shows in Canada.
CTV said 19.3 million unique viewers — more than half the Canadian population — tuned in last year to its Super Bowl broadcast, which averaged 9.2 million viewers for the entire game.
Those ratings translate directly into ad dollars, with last year's game reportedly fetching CTV between $170,000 and $200,000 for a 30-second spot.
Broadcasters taking the American feeds of events like the Academy Awards or shows such as Survivor and inserting their own commercials, a practice known as simultaneous substitution, has long been a part of the Canadian TV landscape.
The practice has generated millions for the Canadian TV industry and given Canadian advertisers a way to access their local market for far less than it would cost to run a commercial on a U.S. network.
When it decided to carve out an exception for the Super Bowl, the CRTC said one of its biggest complaints about simultaneous substitution was from Canadians complaining about missing out on U.S. ads during the game.
CRTC spokeswoman Patricia Valladao said in an email that Canadian commercials will still be available on Canadian channels and there is nothing prohibiting Canadian advertisers from buying time on the U.S. broadcast — although she noted that would be expensive.
Warren Shiau, a consumer analyst with IDC Canada, said watching the Super Bowl commercials has become an important pop-culture experience and few Canadians will miss the local ads.
"The way Canadian Super Bowl ad time purchases have been implemented, with the same commercials repeating over and over again, may actually alienate consumers watching them," he said.
Humber College advertising instructor Michael Rosen said the CRTC decision wouldn't have a big impact for the advertising industry in Canada because Canadian companies, while they do spend more during the Super Bowl, don't go all out as the Americans do.
"They might do something a little different, but they're not doing the big Super Bowl campaigns," he said. "The only people that really stand to lose if the decision goes ahead are CTV and Bell."
But Ron Lund, president of the Association of Canadian Advertisers said the effect of allowing Canadians to watch U.S. commercials will be felt throughout the advertising food chain.
"Not only do Canadian advertisers not get to reach their audience, you've got the media agencies, media companies like Bell, and the creatives and producers that depend on that yearly bump," he said.
If U.S. ads are an integral part of the Super Bowl, Lund said, then the same could be argued for other high-profile events such as the Academy Awards that are targeted for big spending by advertisers.
"It befuddles me, frankly," he said. "They're effectively going to be shutting out Canadian advertisers during that very important program time. Where does this go?"