journalism that swims
against the current.

A Modest Proposal to Save Canadian TV

First, kill the Cancon rules that block American ads on shows from the U.S.

Darren Atwater 17 Mar

Darren Atwater was the publisher of alternative papers Terminal City in Vancouver and Snipe in London and a co-founder of the Street Corner Media Foundation, publisher of Megaphone Magazine. He lives and works in London, England.

image atom
‘The Trouble with Tracy’ was terrible, but our own. Illustration from YouTube.

Screwing Bell Canada out of their Superbowl advertising revenues wasn’t just a enjoyable thing to do, it was the first step in fixing Canadian television.

Last month, for the first time in a generation, Canadians watched the Superbowl the way Gaia intended — with American advertisements. Reacting to years of complaints, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission ordered cable companies to allow the U.S. broadcaster, Fox, to transmit freely, without substituting the channel holding the Canadian Superbowl rights, Bell Canada’s CTV. Canadian viewers experienced U.S. advertisements, an American folk art form, instead of the generally lame and uninspired Canadian ads.

This hit CTV’s advertising revenue hard, as 40 per cent of Canadian Superbowl viewers chose to watch Fox instead. Unsurprisingly, Bell Canada is crazy mad about this and has taken the CRTC to court. This situation is exactly what the CRTC’s simultaneous substitution policy was created to avoid.

The CRTC implemented the simultaneous substitution rule in 1972 as a favour to Canadian broadcasters, primarily CTV. TV channels would license U.S. programs for a pittance — in those days, U.S. producers didn’t consider foreign licensing a lucrative business.

The Canadian channels argued that they had paid the fee for Canada, so anyone watching the program north of the border should see their commercials — even people watching the broadcast from a U.S. station. The CRTC accepted the argument and ordered cable networks to make sure the Canadian feeds replaced the U.S. versions. Literally, some guy at each cable company had to work out when to turn the U.S. feeds on and off.

And this is pretty effective, as 92 per cent of Canadians get their television from cable or satellite.

In the 21st century, Canadian commercial television doesn’t work the way that you probably think. You probably imagine the networks commission a TV program, the producers make it and they put it on the air. Then they sell ads on it. If the ratings are reasonable, they can sell advertisements at an acceptable rate and everyone makes money. If they show is a dog, it gets cancelled. That’s the way it’s done in the United States.

No, in Canada the TV stations and networks are merely delivery systems for American programming, while collecting Canadian advertising revenue. Look at CTV, CTV2, Global and City. Almost every hour of programming from 7 p.m. until midnight (excluding the 11 p.m. news) is simultaneously substituted with an American station.

The only spanner in the works for the stations is another 1970s CRTC rule that requires 50 per cent of the shows broadcast from 6 p.m. to 12 a.m. be Canadian-made. So you get two hours of news, at 6 p.m. and 11 p.m., and one hour of insipid entertainment news presented by pseudo-celebrities: eTalk on CTV and Entertainment Tonight Canada on Global. With those three hours accounted for, Canadian stations is free to fill the other 21 with another country’s wares.

It wasn’t always this way. In the old days, the people who ran TV stations wanted to be broadcasters, even if they didn’t have the money that their U.S. counterparts had. Mornings were filled with game shows like Acting Crazy, The Mad Dash or Definition, the last filmed in Toronto with the grand prize being a dinner at a local restaurant. CTV and Global were proud to create prime time dramas and comedies like The Star Lost and The Trouble with Tracy and show them during the hours that people actually watch TV. They were terrible — no one is arguing that — but they were ours. If you wanted to watch American TV, you had to get cable and watch a U.S. channel.

By the 1990s, the money people figured out that licensing formula: why spend money producing Canadian television, when you can license American TV for cheaper and force the cabled U.S. channel to show your advertising? It was the move of evil geniuses. It’s been lucrative, but at the expense of Canadian culture.

Wait, you say. There are all sorts of Canadian programs — Rookie Blue or Mary Kills People — on the air. Don’t they show a robust and healthy culture?


The funny thing about shows like these is that whether they are every broadcast at all is irrelevant. Each broadcaster must pay into a Canadian production fund. That production money is augmented with cash from the federal Canada Media Fund and buckets of provincial tax credits. If producers are lucky, they’ll get some cash from a foreign broadcaster.

But the production is paid for before it’s ever shown, even if no one watches. And whether there is anything Canadian about these shows is debatable.

The solution to this televised imperialism is wickedly simple — remove the simultaneous substitution rule. When Canadian TV cannot just license an American hit and collect the advertising money, they will be forced to come up with content of their own to compete. This, of course, is anathema to TV executives, but fuck them.

You can see an example of Canadian TV executives’ haplessness in the Shomi debacle. Rogers Communications and Shaw Media looked at Netflix and said, ‘Doh, we can do that. We know how to license stuff.’

And they did, launching Shomi and filling it with hours and hours of old TV shows and movies. Meanwhile, Netflix spent millions on creating new programming. Rogers and Shaw, despite owning more than 30 cable channels (including, ahem, Viceland) and TV networks between them, could not create TV programs that people would pay for. Shomi shut down in November.

Ending simultaneous substitution would cause carnage across the Canadian TV landscape, of this I have no doubt. But a new TV world, growing within the shell of the old, will more than make up for it.  [Tyee]

Read more: Media

  • Share:

Facts matter. Get The Tyee's in-depth journalism delivered to your inbox for free

Tyee Commenting Guidelines

Comments that violate guidelines risk being deleted, and violations may result in a temporary or permanent user ban. Maintain the spirit of good conversation to stay in the discussion.
*Please note The Tyee is not a forum for spreading misinformation about COVID-19, denying its existence or minimizing its risk to public health.


  • Be thoughtful about how your words may affect the communities you are addressing. Language matters
  • Challenge arguments, not commenters
  • Flag trolls and guideline violations
  • Treat all with respect and curiosity, learn from differences of opinion
  • Verify facts, debunk rumours, point out logical fallacies
  • Add context and background
  • Note typos and reporting blind spots
  • Stay on topic

Do not:

  • Use sexist, classist, racist, homophobic or transphobic language
  • Ridicule, misgender, bully, threaten, name call, troll or wish harm on others
  • Personally attack authors or contributors
  • Spread misinformation or perpetuate conspiracies
  • Libel, defame or publish falsehoods
  • Attempt to guess other commenters’ real-life identities
  • Post links without providing context


The Barometer

How Are You Engaging with Black History Month?

Take this week's poll