Did signal substitution kill the Canadian conventional television industry?
Every week when Canadian television ratings are released, the bulk of top rated shows in this country are American shows that have been rebroadcast on Canadian conventional television networks.
According to critics, the lack of Canadian programming during primetime and the recent failure of the Canadian conventional television industry is the consequence of a CRTC policy known as simultaneous signal substitution.
Critics say the policy has allowed Canadian over-the-air television broadcasters, such as the CTV and Global, to reap billions of dollars in windfall profits for many years by becoming resellers of American television programming.
In April of 2007, in response to growing pressure from taxpayers fed up with the lack of Canadian content during primetime, high television costs and the apparent lack of consumer choice, the CRTC commissioned Laurence Dunbar and Christian Leblanc to conduct a comprehensive review of the existing regulatory framework for broadcasting services in Canada.
Released in August 2007, the report tabled numerous recommendations including one which proposed the CRTC reassess the impact that simultaneous substitution was having on the Canadian broadcasting system.
Dunbar and LeBlanc concluded that rather than encouraging more Canadian programming on Canadian networks during primetime, simultaneous substitution rules actually provided an incentive for broadcasters to simulcast more American content during primetime.
In its report, Dunbar and LeBlanc clearly came down on the side of the critics. Supporters of simultaneous substitution – the CRTC, conventional broadcasters and various national arts organizations – however, continued to argue that the critics were wrong and the practice was necessary to foster a strong and financially viable domestic television industry.
The result was the CRTC did not act on the recommendations of Dunbar and LeBlanc and carried on with a business as usual report.
Fast forward two years and we find a Canadian television production and broadcasting industry that appears to be in its death throes. For the week ending October 11th, 2009, the top 15 shows in Canada were all simulcast viewings of shows developed and produced in the United States. Not one of the top 15 shows during primetime was developed and produced in this country.
In addition, rather than fostering a strong and financially viable broadcasting industry” CTV and Global are now begging the government for money, selling off stations for a dollar and pleading with the CRTC to even further reduce their Canadian content requirements.
Despite earning windfall profits for decades by reselling U.S. programs and despite receiving close to a billion dollars annually in subsides, conventional broadcasters are still not financially viable.
In summary, the policy of simultaneous commercial substitution has been a miserable failure.
Rather than throw more money at conventional broadcasters, perhaps it’s time the CRTC and federal government took the Dunbar / Leblanc report off the shelf, dusted it off, and thought about implementing many, if not all, of its well reasoned recommendations.