According to recent BBM Nielsen reports, the top ten primetime shows in Canada in the 2009/2010 television season were American shows that had been rebroadcast on Canadian conventional television networks.
Over the years, critics of the CRTC has complained that the lack of Canadian programming during primetime and the recent failure of the Canadian conventional television industry is directly attributable to 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 rather than creators of Canadian programming.
The complaint that simulcasting is a failed CRTC policy which is destroying the production of primetime Canadian television is not a new one. Critics argue that as long as CTV and Global can attract huge audiences and earn billions thanks to simulcasting, they have little incentive to develop original programming.
In April of 2007, in an effort to fend off its critics who complained about the deleterious effects of simulcasting and the lack of Canadian content during primetime, the federal regulator 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 337 page Dunbar and Leblanc 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.
We recommend that the Commission reassess the net benefit of simultaneous substitution to the Canadian broadcasting system. The Commission should seek to determine whether there are other more direct means that would permit Canada to retain the revenues associated with program substitution while at the same time regaining Canadian control over prime time schedules of Canadian OTA television broadcasters, as well as enhancing the prospect for exhibition of Canadian content when most Canadians are watching television and when the revenues are likely greatest.
Supporters of simultaneous substitution - the CRTC, CTV and CanWest Global - however, continued to argue the critics were wrong and the conventional networks simply needed more money. Money they said could be used to create more original programming.
For reasons that are unclear, the CRTC did not act on the recommendations of Dunbar and LeBlanc report which it had commissioned and sided with the conventional networks. Since 2007, the CRTC has maintained the practice of simulcasting. In addition, the federal regulator has raised hundreds of millions more for conventional networks by increasing the amount of advertising simulcasters can insert into U.S. programming (thereby making simulcasting even more profitable) and has imposed hundreds of millions of additional taxes on cable and satellite subscribers through Fee-For-Carriage, (FFC), the local improvement fund (LIPF) and the Canadian Television Fund (CTF).
Three years after the report was ignored and taxes raised, we find a Canadian television production and broadcasting industry that is on its virtual deathbed. For the most recent television season, nineteen out of the top twenty in Canada were all simulcast viewings of shows developed and produced in the United States. The only show to crack the top twenty was Hockey Night in Canada.
In addition, rather than fostering a strong and financially viable broadcasting industry, conventional broadcasters such CTV and Global continue to plead the federal regulator for more tax money and the reduction in 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.