Simultaneous substitution (also known as simsubbing or signal substitution) is a practice mandated by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) requiring Canadian cable TV, direct broadcast satellite (DBS), IPTV, and MMDS television distribution companies to distribute the signal of a local or regional over-the-air station in place of the signal of a foreign or nonlocal television station, when the two stations are broadcasting identical programming simultaneously.
The practice has become controversial because its implementation will often preempt the signals of American networks available through Canadian cable and satellite providers such as those of ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox. Simsubbing usually receives nationwide attention in the days leading up to the annual broadcast of the Super Bowl football championship, where the famed high-profile Super Bowl commercials are virtually blocked from viewing on Canadian television. The Canadian network that broadcasts the championship is eligible to request that the American broadcaster's signal be replaced in Canada with its own signal, so long as both broadcasts are telecast simultaneously.
The CRTC first commissioned simsubbing in 1972, and it is sometimes erroneously called simulcasting, the name of a practice different from simultaneous substitution in that there is no signal replacement. According to the CRTC, the practice of simultaneous substitution is necessary "to protect the rights of broadcasters, to enable television stations to draw enough advertising revenue and to keep advertising money in the Canadian market". Canadian broadcast television networks, which must request each and every substitution on an individual basis, have been criticized for exploiting the regulation and not investing enough money into Canadian content.
During the 1950s, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) was the monopoly broadcaster in Canada. (Its first TV station began transmitting in Montreal in 1952.) In 1960, the Board of Broadcast Governors, the predecessor of the CRTC, began granting licenses for commercial stations in order to provide an alternative to CBC. These broadcasters began operating in 1961, and they acquired Canadian rights to many American programs.
Since about 30 percent of the Canadian population – those who were close enough to the American border – had access to over-the-air broadcast signals from both Canadian and American networks, and they could choose to watch American programs on either a Canadian or American network. Many of these Canadians chose to watch the American network (either CBS, ABC, or NBC) rather than the Canadian network broadcast. Consequently, many Canadian broadcasters began broadcasting their programs bought from the United States before the American broadcaster to attract more viewers and to earn money from Canadian commercials, and some Canadian businesses that advertised on the Canadian stations also bought broadcast time on the American stations receivable in the same areas, although later federal legislation was passed that limited the tax-deductibility of these purchases.
Several of the stations in smaller border markets in the United States openly targeted the larger cities in Canada by getting as close to the border as possible. Examples include most of the stations in the Buffalo, New York, TV market that targeted Toronto and the Golden Horseshoe, and in the most extreme case, the Pembina, North Dakota, station KCND-TV, which was based in a town of less than 1,000 residents but made its money by targeting the much larger city of Winnipeg to its north).
When cable television began to proliferate across Canada in the early 1970s, viewers far from the American border were beginning to obtain access to American TV broadcasts that were once unobtainable. In 1972, in response to pressure from Canadian broadcasters, the CRTC introduced the simultaneous substitution regulation as a method to circumvent diminution of the value of Canadian networks' exclusive broadcast rights to American programs (within three years, the aforementioned KCND was effectively moved to Winnipeg and relicenced as CKND-TV). Through the 1990s, while satellite TV service gained popularity and then were licensed in Canada, simultaneous substitution became a requirement on these services as well.
By the late 1990s and into the 2000s, the simultaneous substitution regulation had reached its full potential, with Canadian broadcast networks telecasting nearly all of their American programming at the same time as the American network's broadcasts to ensure maximum eligibility to request substitution.
The high incidence of simultaneous substitution requests by privately owned Canadian television networks to draw advertising revenue has had profound effects on various spectrums, ranging from Canadian network schedules to portions of programming being lost due to mistimed substitutions.
Since private Canadian broadcast networks such as CTV, Global, CTV Two and City often rely heavily on American programs, their programming schedules are often heavily affected by the schedules of corresponding United States network broadcasters. For example, if the American network Fox were to move their series House to a new time slot, the Canadian broadcaster of first-run episodes of that program would need to move its broadcast of House to correspond with the new Fox time slot if it wished to retain simultaneous substitution rights.
In some instances, American television stations near the border – especially those in small markets which depend on their audience in a nearby Canadian market for their financial viability – have intentionally counter-programmed against this rule by altering their schedules to avoid substitutions. In one notable instance, WFFF-TV in Burlington, Vermont, continually rescheduled its daily broadcasts of That 70's Show in order to prevent CJNT-TV in Montreal from invoking the rule.
Many American networks telecast their most popular programming during prime time, meaning that in order to maximize simsubbing opportunities, Canadian private broadcasters are often unable or unwilling to broadcast their own original programming during these hours. As a result, Canadian content programming is commonly scheduled as a secondary concern, to fill holes where an American program cannot be placed for substitution. This issue has also extended beyond scripted entertainment programming – all three major networks in Canada have faced criticism for at least one incident in which the network seemingly deemed a live Canadian news or cultural awards program to be less important than simsubbing an American reality show:
- In 2003, Global flagship station CIII offloaded its coverage of the Ontario provincial election to its sister station CHCH in Hamilton, Ontario, to maintain simsubing rights to an episode of Survivor: Pearl Islands.
- In 2006, CBC TV was criticized when it announced a plan to bump its primary network newscast, The National, to a later time one night a week to broadcast the short-lived TV series The One: Making a Music Star.
- In 2007, CTV was forced to back down on a plan to tape-delay the 2007 Juno Awards to maintain its simsubbing rights to an episode of The Amazing Race.
Since 2008, CTVglobemedia (now Bell Media) has held both the exclusive rights to the Canadian Football League and the rights to Sunday afternoon and playoff games of the American National Football League, broadcasting most NFL games on CTV, while relegating CFL games (including the Grey Cup) to TSN, making CFL games unavailable on broadcast television for the first time in Canadian history. The move was in part due to the desire to gain simsubbing rights over the NFL broadcasts, something that was not necessary for CFL games because, as of 2010, those games are only on cable TV in the United States.
Portions of programming lost
Due to the high number of simultaneous substitutions requested by Canadian broadcasters, portions of programs are sometimes lost. This may occur for a variety of reasons, including the cable provider erroneously timing the substitution or substituting over the wrong distant signal, the Canadian broadcaster making a scheduling error when requesting a substitution, the American broadcaster making a last minute change to its schedule, or adverse weather conditions sometimes affecting a Canadian station's local signal. Also, should a Canadian network interrupt its programming to provide information on a breaking news event while simsubbing an American show, the American program cannot be telecast.
With the increasingly common practice of American networks extending programs for a minute or two into the start of the next hour in order to avoid audience loss, such errors are sometimes unavoidable if the Canadian station is not able to match the altered start time. This slight differentiation in timing between the Canadian and American stations can lead to a short period during which the Canadian viewer is watching the original American station's signal before the Canadian network starts its simsubbing, resulting in the show's jumping back to the start again. This is not a problem for American viewers who choose to watch the same network across time slots, but Canadian viewers could miss critical content.
High-definition television (HDTV) signals must also be simultaneously substituted, although this only applies if a local over-the-air HDTV transmitter is receivable in the market served by the local cable provider. Since many broadcasters were only required to convert their main, typically major-market transmitters during the 2011 digital television transition in Canada, this means that HD simsubing is not currently enforceable in many rural areas.
Although the CRTC's policy regarding simultaneous substitutions for HD broadcasts do not require them to be applied if the quality of the Canadian feed is not equal or better than the American feed, there have been instances in which inferior Canadian feeds were substituted over higher-quality American feeds. In such cases, complaints can be filed to the CRTC, whereas the commission will confer with the applicable BDU and Canadian network about the issue.
Implementation of simultaneous substitutions can also cause issues involving digital on-screen graphics applied by the originating broadcaster, if a clean feed of the program is not available (particularly for live programming), the Canadian broadcaster will often place their own bug in a different corner of the screen, or not add one at all. CTV and CTV Two occasionally used an opaque logo to cover American logos on simulcasts of The View on CTV and The Tonight Show on CTV Two, but it has discontinued this practice.
Implementation and exceptions
Enforcement, or lack thereof, of the regulations, as well as legal exceptions and simple circumstance, has led to instances where some Canadian cable and satellite subscribers are able to receive the original American channels in Canada without simultaneous substitution. Cable providers in areas with populations of less than 20,000 people or who are more than 100 kilometres away from any one local television provider (for example, CTV, Global or the CBC) are not legally required to have simultaneous substitution implemented.
Many viewers in the Greater Toronto Area can pick up American stations from Buffalo, New York, over-the-air, as well as unmatched high definition versions of the stations from both Buffalo and Seattle, Washington, on cable TV. Similarly, cable TV viewers in Greater Vancouver may receive unmatched HD stations from Detroit, Michigan, and Rochester, New York. Many viewers from Toronto were able to watch these stations for events such as the 2008 Super Bowl in which there were no Canadian commercial interruptions. However, following a complaint filed by CTV in 2008, the CRTC has tightened up enforcement, issuing a statement that the Super Bowl XLIII standard and high definition broadcasts must be simsubbed for providers within range of CTV's OTA transmitters.
Specific television providers
In terms of television providers, the practice of simsubbing is implemented in different ways, depending on the company, especially in the case of satellite providers, who operate on a national basis and not on a regional basis like cable providers;
- Shaw Direct invokes simsubs according to the subscriber's postal code, and is implemented by the receiver's firmware; this method enforces simsubs only in areas where they are legally needed. Beginning in February 2012, however, Shaw Direct began implementing simsubs for the Global network's HD feed (channel 256) for all of their high-definition subscribers, which affects ABC East HD (WXYZ-TV), CBS East HD (WWJ-TV), Fox East HD (WUHF) and NBC East HD (WDIV-TV). It is speculated that this is due to the recent purchase of the Global Television Network by Shaw Communications. At first, no other channels were simsubbed, but Shaw Direct later began implementing simsubs for City, but still does not do so for CTV, its main competition.
- Bell TV invokes simsubs to all subscribers nationwide, implemented by its uplink centre (which also provides services for other service providers); by doing so, simsubs for a particular channel are implemented nationwide, regardless of where the subscriber lives or which feed the subscriber watches. Notably, despite not legally needing to do so because they are specialty channels, all Bell-owned TV services also invoke simsubs on network programming being simulcast by channels owned by Bell Media, such as M3 and TSN.
- Similarly, Rogers Cable has periodically invoked simsubs on U.S. network affiliates for sports programming simulcast on its Sportsnet specialty channels (such as the 2013 World Series on Fox in lieu of the MLB International feed).
Although simultaneous substitution was conceived to substitute the signal of a foreign station, the practice has been applied as well to substitute the signal of a nonlocal Canadian station in a given market. For example in Montreal, the signal of Ottawa's CJOH-DT has frequently been substituted by the signal of local station CFCF-DT, even though both stations are part of the CTV network.
Simultaneous substitution has also been implemented on French language television stations. From the 1970s to the mid-1990s, TVA's flagship Montreal station CFTM-TV had its signal substituting that of its Sherbrooke sister station CHLT-TV (which was receivable in the Montreal area through 1995).
- Signal substitution replaces one TV signal with another – CRTC.ca. Retrieved on March 7, 2009.
- Canadian Super Bowl fans shut out – CTV.ca. Retrieved on March 7, 2009.
- Simultaneous substitution on cable TV – Canadian Communications Foundation. Retrieved on March 7, 2009.
- Simulcasting – Merriam Webster. Retrieved on March 7, 2009.
- CTV backs down on Juno air time – CBC.ca. Retrieved on Dec 17, 2013.
-  – Friends.ca. Retrieved on March 8, 2009.
- Beaty, B. (2006). Canadian Television Today. Calgary: University of Calgary Press. p. 71. ISBN 978-1-55238-222-6.
- CJNT & WFFF, A War over Canadian commercials heats up. TVHat via archive.org.
- Extended episode of House could plague DVR users – Los Angeles Times. Retrieved September 13, 2009.
- "Broadcasting Decision CRTC 2008-358: Complaint regarding the simultaneous substitution of the high definition broadcast of the 2008 Super Bowl". CRTC. 2008-12-22. Retrieved 2009-02-02.