Monday, February 07, 2011

The CRTC Gets Super Bowled and Steam Rolled


So, I'm hosting a Super Bowl party yesterday afternoon. Still operating on Eastern Time, I'm in a hurry to get the last of the fixin's just right -- because on the West coast the game seems to start mid-afternoon.

The "boys" are all arrayed in the den. Friends of my dad in their 80's who'll nurse one beer through the first half and opt for a nice cuppa tea if they're awake after zoning out during the Black Eyed Peas.

I thumb the remote for the Shaw cable box wondering if the CTV feed will be as muddy as it always appears in Toronto, landing on FOX-HD and thinking its actually pretty good. Then the pre-game show breaks for one last set of commercials and I realize they're not Canadian commercials, they're American. And there's no CTV logo glowing in the corner.

Oh God! Can this really be happening? The biggest ratings night on television and somebody forgot to flip the sim-sub switch?

As they doffed their coats and picked out a La-Z-boy, a couple of the fellas had mentioned what a shame it was that Canadians couldn't watch all those commercials everybody was talking about. One or two had managed to peek at a couple on the Internet and didn't understand what the harm was.

Being in Canadian showbiz, I tried to explain how Canadian broadcasters were struggling financially and needed to have their audience protected, how simultaneous substitution worked and the like. It all went in one hearing aid and out the other.

Protecting cash strapped broadcasters doesn't make much sense to guys who all saw their cable rates jump fairly significantly in the last year and just got notices from Shaw about how they needed to protect themselves from sudden shocks on their Internet bills by pre-buying new packages of data.

The guy with the most net-savvy gestured to the commercial he'd sneak peeked on his daughter's laptop and asked how I was getting it. "Do you show people have special codes or something?"

As the game kicked off and the US feed, complete with all-new commercials and FOX promos for "Glee" instead of the CTV hype for "Flashpoint" CanCon, I wondered if CRTC chair Konrad von Finckenstein's previous week from Hell was but a prelude to an even larger upheaval.

Maybe the revolutionary winds blowing across the Middle East were also sweeping through Cable company boardrooms.

I flipped on the phone and Twittered a quick "Nyah-nyah, I can see the commercials and you can't" to all my Canadian friends -- promptly discovering that a lot of them had made the same discovery. The news from elsewhere was that Rogers also hadn't closed off the Fox HD feed in many of their markets either.

Toronto and Vancouver seemed to be the only exceptions.

So -- what was going on?

Was somebody pissed that Konrad had lost the Usage Based Billing argument with the government and now Bell had to get by on the $200,000 it makes every hour while still claiming rural broadband and urban fiber optic cable is just too expensive to achieve at the moment?

Were Shaw and Rogers, realizing that the CRTC is toothless, or still intends to make them pay for the local broadcasting CTV can't afford (and still hasn't scheduled) -- were they reminding KvF who's really in charge now?

I mean, it's not like we haven't been here before.

In 2008, Bell Expressvu (now Bell TV) broadcast the US feed of the Super Bowl on its satellite service claiming an exception because the game was/is "…a Pop Culture Phenomenon".

Local rights holder, CTV, disagreed and the CRTC agreed with them in their traditional stance of "whatever the broadcasters say goes for us too".

Nobody got fined or anything because the CRTC can't do that  -- making you wonder why anybody else feels the need to comply when they pull a radio license or say you and I have to cough up a few more dollars for cable, mobile or Internet service. 

But they made Bell promise to follow the simultaneous simulcast rules in future. They also did the same with Shaw who had broadcast the American version on their HD service due to -- ahem -- "technical difficulties".

For the 2009 and 2010 Super Bowls everybody did what they were told. I'm not sure how much that had to do with the "No TV Tax/Save Local TV" debate that was raging at the time with cable operators trying to convince the CRTC they were the real good-guys fighting for the rights of Canadians.

Now -- there is a loophole in the sim-sub rule…

A cable operator can opt not to replace a US program feed under three criteria:

1) The substitution must be requested by the Canadian network.

2) The Canadian signal must be of equal or better quality than the imported one.

3) The market must have a Canadian over-the-air broadcaster.

Since CTV has been dragging its feet setting up HD signals (because y'know they're broke and maybe the government, cable subscribers or somebody else should really pay for that) that means that cable companies are only required to substitute in two markets, Toronto and Vancouver -- which they did.

But -- the 2009 Bell ruling clearly stated that BDU's had to assure CTV in advance that simultaneous substitution would take place for SD and HD signals nationally, and that Canadian subscribers would not have access to American commercials.

So what happened?

Was CTV so busy hyping the final episode of "Flashpoint" following the big game and collecting the cheques for sponsorship within it that they forgot to request sim-sub?

Was the CTV signal not up to Shaw and Rogers standards (Stop laughing, technophiles!)

Did the Cable Operators pull a fast one?

Given that the Canadian media has been moaning about how hard done by Canadians wanting to see US Ads are in the lead up to the Super Bowl, how come neither Shaw nor Rogers came out and said, "If you don't live in Toronto or Vancouver, no problem!"

Because if what they did was on the up-and-up, what was stopping them from doing that?

Last week we were treated to the kind of populist uprising that causes responsible governments to realize the will of the people is what matters most. And no, I'm not talking about Egypt, I'm talking about the Canadian Federal Government responding to the groundswell against Usage Based Billing for Internet services.

We were also treated to obscenely profitable corporations claiming their systems would collapse unless they charged several dollars for delivering a Gigabyte of data that actually costs them about 3 cents to supply. These would be the same wealthy corporations that don't charge you more for leaving your television on 24/7 or making unlimited local phone calls -- even when that's made up of bits of the same digital data mostly travelling down the same pipe as the internet.

And we were treated to the Chair of the Commission which regulates that data sitting before a Parliamentary committee and confirming his Luddite status by assuring MPs as lost in this new world as he is that IPTV has nothing to do with the Internet.

Us Showbiz folks operate on an old Hollywood adage, "Nobody Knows Anything". And as more awareness of how the rest of the world operates comes to light, from Wikileaks to Bloggers, it becomes clear that the same theory applies pretty much anywhere else.

Did Canadians win last night because they got a chance to see a few high-concept commercials? Or did they lose because many of them wouldn't have been reminded to watch the finale of one of our finest homegrown television dramas?

Once again, it feels a little bit like the complete disarray in the regulatory agenda and an endless corporate dick-measuring contest ended up fucking a bunch of Canadian artists most of all.

I don't really care if the CRTC goes or stays. But it sure as hell needs to get its shit together.

And so does a government that doesn't seem to understand we are fully in an information and digital age that impacts every single aspect of our society from healthcare to retail to research and development. The Family Compact mentality that says we need to have Oligarchs and Oligarchic monoliths in charge of everything we do is about a century out of date.

And, on a personal note, Eminem driving through his beloved Detroit in a new Chrysler both made me tear up and gave me a sense of hope.


Anonymous said...

Just wait til next weekend when Global is airing the Grammies Sunday night which means Canadian viewers get to watch the Simpsons, Family Guy, American Dad, Cleveland Show, Bob's Burgers on FOX for 2 1/2 straight hours!

nick mancuso said...

excellent and well written jim,the institutions in charge of protecting canadian culture are "iatrogenic" creating the very disease they are supposed to be curing-when will people wake up? culture, and creativity cant be legislated but if the government institutions were serious, which they clearly are not they would be nourishing the creators and inventors not the framers and hot air swiftian ballonists who are indeed the very oligarchs you speak of- better zero legislation than this painful scenario- you cant legislate culture anymore than you can legislate languge...ah..oops.. nm

nick mancuso said...

by the way are you still pissed about "table rounde?" nick