Obama administration urges Canada to reverse Super Bowl ad decision

The Vince Lombardi Trophy at Super Bowl 50 in 2016. (Danny Moloshok/AP)

OTTAWA — Before handing over the White House to President Donald Trump, the Obama administration has taken one more shot at pigskin politics, urging the Trudeau government to overturn a regulation allowing Canadians to see U.S. Super Bowl ads.

The U.S. trade representative wants Canada to reverse a decision by Canada’s telecom regulator banning the so-called "simultaneous substitution" of Canadian commercials over American spots during the big — and big money — game.

U.S. Trade Ambassador Michael Froman made the request in a Jan. 13 letter to Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland.

The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission ruled in 2015 to prohibit broadcasters from swapping their own signals and ads into U.S. TV channels carrying the Super Bowl.

The decision took effect this past Jan. 1, preventing simultaneous substitution of the ads during the big game set to air in a little over two weeks time.

"I strongly urge the government of Canada to reverse the CRTC decision and eliminate the CRTC policy prior to the Super Bowl on Feb. 5, 2017," U.S. Trade Ambassador Michael Froman writes in the letter, obtained by The Canadian Press.

The broadcast regulator has been under intense pressure from the National Football League, politicians on both sides of the border and Bell Media, which owns the right to broadcast the Super Bowl in Canada, to drop the new policy.

Former Republican presidential hopeful Marco Rubio, along with unions and business groups, have begged the government to lift the ban.

Even Canadian entrepreneur and TV personality Kevin O’Leary has weighed in with a blistering attack against the CRTC, calling the policy "insane" as he formally launched his campaign this week to lead the federal Conservative party.

Liberal MPs Bob Nault and Wayne Easter wrote to CRTC chairman Jean-Pierre Blais before Christmas, warning that the ban jeopardized Canada’s broadcast industry, as well as the country’s cultural interests.

Blais has yet to respond directly to their formal complaint.

Instead, the regulator posted a message on its own website Jan. 12, where it suggested Canadian Super Bowl fans will be able to enjoy the best of both worlds.

"Viewers tuning to the Canadian channel airing the game will see Canadian ads, while those tuning to the U.S. channel will see the American ads," the regulator said.

Canadians have complained for years about being unable to see the much-hyped American commercials during the game, should they so choose, it added.

The federal government has insisted it cannot overturn the decision, since the CRTC is an independent agency. Not so, said Froman.

"Sections 27 and 7 of the Broadcasting Act of Canada permit the governor-in-council to overturn this decision of the CRTC upon the recommendation of the minister," he wrote.

Froman added that simultaneous substitution of commercials — also known as "simsub" — has consistently been allowed under provisions of the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement and the North American Free Trade Agreement, calling the change in policy "troubling."

He also noted the ruling only affects the Super Bowl. All other American sports programming would still carry Canadian advertising.

"The decision of the CRTC inexplicably and unfairly suspends simsub for only one program after decades of extending the policy to all programming."

Freeland was in Washington on Friday for the presidential inauguration. Her office did not respond to a request for comment.

"As the matter is now before the courts, we cannot comment any further," Pierre-Olivier Herbert, a spokesman for Heritage Minister Melanie Joly, said in an email. "We look forward to working very closely with the new U.S. administration, and with the United States Congress on issues of mutual interest."

Both the NFL and Bell Media, which owns CTV, filed notices of appeal last month of a recent court ruling upholding the ban. In late October, the Federal Court of Appeal allowed the appeal to proceed, but denied a stay of the ruling until the case could be heard.