OTTAWA — The broadcast regulator is denying that its controversial decision to end a ban on U.S. Super Bowl ads had anything to do with a drop in ratings for the Canadian broadcasts of this year's big game.
Bell Media, which holds the Canadian rights to the game, says an average of 4.47 million viewers tuned in to watch last month as the New England Patriots defeated the Atlanta Falcons 34-28 in overtime — 39 per cent fewer viewers than in 2016.
In the days following the Feb. 5 broadcast, Bell — owner of CTV, CTV Two and TSN — blamed the decline on the 2015 decision by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission.
A response from CRTC chairman Jean-Pierre Blais, released this week, says audience numbers for the Super Bowl have been in decline for some time and that there is more programming competing for viewers.
Citing complaints from Canadian viewers, the CRTC decided in 2015 to end the so-called "simultaneous substitution" of Canadian commercials for the star-studded American ads, starting with this year's game.
Bell Media, the National Football League, Canadian advertisers and several artists' unions launched a high-profile but ultimately unsuccessful campaign to have the ruling reversed.
"It should be noted that the Super Bowl (average minute audience) in Canada had already decreased by 9.5 per cent from 2015 to 2016 and that, according to news reports, the NFL has been experiencing lower viewership overall," Blais said in the Feb. 28 letter.
"This fact, combined with the reality that there are more programming services and high quality programming than ever before competing for consumers' attention, makes it difficult to draw a direct correlation between the total drop in the AMA for the Canadian broadcasters of the Super Bowl and the commission's decision on simultaneous substitution."
In the U.S., Fox drew an audience of 111.3 million viewers for the first Super Bowl to ever go into overtime, a smaller audience than the game has had in the last two years but still ranking among the biggest for a television program in the United States.
The Nielsen company says the Super Bowl saw its biggest ratings south of the border in 2015 when 114.4 million viewers saw the Patriots beat the Seattle Seahawks.
Blais also cited increased audience numbers for French-language sports channel RDS, which carried the game with French ads, as a "clear sign" that Canadian broadcasters are capable of attracting larger audiences.
According to audience measurement firm Numeris, 994,700 people tuned into the RDS broadcast, up from 951,300 in 2016 and 935,000 the previous year, Blais wrote.
Bell Media declined to comment on Blais's letter. But in a statement issued shortly after the game, Scott Henderson, Bell Media vice-president, communications, said the CRTC's decision had "a direct and negative impact on Canadian viewers, advertisers and the broader broadcasting and creative community."
In late December, the media giant and the NFL jointly filed legal action against the regulator, asking the Federal Court of Appeal to reverse the commercial decision. No date has been set to hear the appeal.
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Terry Pedwell, The Canadian Press