Simultaneous substitution (also known as simsubbing or signal substitution) is a practice mandated by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) requiring cable television, direct broadcast satellite (DBS), IPTV and MMDS television distribution companies in Canada to distribute the signal of a local or regional over-the-air station in place of the signal of a foreign or non-local television station, when the two stations are broadcasting identical programming simultaneously.
The practice has become controversial because its implementation will often pre-empt 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, where the famed high-profile Super Bowl commercials are virtually blocked from viewing on Canadian television. The Canadian network that broadcasts the National Football League championship game 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) had a monopoly on television broadcasting in Canada (its first television station, CBFT, began operating 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 the CBC. These broadcasters began operating in 1961, and through international distributors, acquired the domestic broadcast rights to many American television programs.
Since about 30% of the Canadian population – those who resided close enough to the American border – had access to over-the-air broadcast signals from networks based in both Canada and the United States, 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 networks' broadcasts. Consequently, many Canadian broadcasters began broadcasting programs purchased from American-based broadcast networks before they aired on the American networks to attract more viewers and to earn money from domestic advertising, and some Canadian businesses that advertised on the domestic stations also purchased broadcast time on the American stations that were receivable in the same areas, although federal legislation was eventually 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 television market that targeted Toronto and the Golden Horseshoe region, and in the most extreme case, Pembina, North Dakota station KCND-TV (channel 12), which was based in a town with less than 1,000 residents but made its money by targeting the much larger city of Winnipeg across the border 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 television services 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 direct-broadcast satellite television gained popularity and then were granted licenses 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 U.S. 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 the medical drama House to a new time slot, the Canadian broadcaster that holds domestic rights to carry 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 smaller markets which depend on audiences from 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, Fox affiliate WFFF-TV (channel 44) in Burlington, Vermont, continually rescheduled its daily broadcasts of That 70's Show in order to prevent CH/E! station CJNT-TV (channel 62; now a City owned-and-operated station) 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 television series:
- In 2003, Global flagship station CIII (channel 41) in Paris, Ontario (since relicensed to Toronto) transferred its coverage of the Ontario provincial election to its sister station CHCH (channel 11) in Hamilton, Ontario, to maintain simsubbing rights to an episode of Survivor: Pearl Islands; earlier the same year, the network's Winnipeg station CKND had opted not to produce any coverage of the Manitoba general election at all, instead airing its regularly scheduled prime time lineup.
- In 2006, CBC Television received criticism after it announced plans to bump its primary network newscast, The National, to a later time slot one night a week to broadcast the short-lived singing competition 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 cable channel 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 available on cable television 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 incorrect 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. In addition, 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 by one to two minutes 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 signals must also be simultaneously substituted, although this only applies if a local over-the-air digital transmitter that broadcasts HD content 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 simsubbing is not currently enforceable in many rural areas.
Although the CRTC's policy regarding simultaneous substitutions for high definition 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 the logo bugs of U.S.-based networks on simulcasts of The View on CTV and The Tonight Show on CTV Two, but have since 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 (62 mi) 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 television. Similarly, cable television 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 Super Bowl XLII in 2008, 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 over-the-air transmitters.
On January 29, 2015, the CRTC announced changes to the simsub rules as a result of Let's Talk TV, a series of hearings which mulled reforms for the Canadian television industry. While the CRTC did not completely eliminate the simsub rules, "despite certain reservations," it did propose that broadcasters and television providers be accountable for programming lost from improperly implemented simsubs: providers will be required to provide rebates as compensation, and stations could temporarily lose their ability to simsub programming. Additionally, the CRTC proposed an explicit mandate that only over-the-air broadcasters can use simsubs, and that, considering it an "integral part" of the event, it would ban the use of simultaneous substitution for the Super Bowl beginning in 2017, thus allowing U.S. feeds of the event and its commercials to co-exist with Canadian simulcasts. However, Bell Media, the current Canadian rightsholder to the Super Bowl through CTV, filed an appeal, arguing that the move would devalue its exclusive broadcast rights to the game, and violated the Broadcasting Act, which forbids the "making of regulations singling out a particular program or licensee."
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, which operate on a national basis and not regionally as cable providers do;
- Shaw Direct invokes simsubs according to a 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 2009 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 competitor.
- 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, these feeds also invoke simsubs on network programming being simulcast by specialty channels owned by Bell Media, such as 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 an out-of-market Canadian station in a given market. For example in Montreal, the signal of Ottawa station CJOH-DT (channel 13) has frequently been substituted by the signal of locally based CFCF-DT (channel 12), 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 (channel 10) had its signal substituting that of its Sherbrooke sister station CHLT-TV (channel 7) (which was receivable in the Montreal area through 1995).
- "Signal substitution replaces one TV signal with another". Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission. Retrieved March 7, 2009.
- "Canadian Super Bowl fans shut out". CTV News. February 1, 2007. Retrieved March 7, 2009.
- "Simultaneous substitution on cable TV". Canadian Communications Foundation. Retrieved March 7, 2009.
- "Simulcasting". Merriam Webster. Retrieved March 7, 2009.
- "CTV backs down on Juno air time". CBC News. March 28, 2007. Retrieved December 17, 2013 – via Friends of Canadian Broadcasting.
- B. Beaty (2006). Canadian Television Today. Calgary, Alberta: 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. Tribune Publishing. November 2008. Retrieved September 13, 2009.
- "Broadcasting Decision CRTC 2008-358: Complaint regarding the simultaneous substitution of the high definition broadcast of the 2008 Super Bowl". Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission. December 22, 2008. Retrieved February 2, 2009.
- "CRTC opens door for U.S. Super Bowl ads to air on Canadian TV". The Globe and Mail. January 29, 2015. Retrieved January 29, 2015.
- "Broadcasting Regulatory Policy CRTC 2015-25". Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission. Retrieved February 3, 2015.
- "Bell appeals CRTC decision to air U.S. Super Bowl commercials". The Globe and Mail. Retrieved March 12, 2015.