Once upon a time, Canadian football fans could tune into their network of choice on Super Bowl Sunday and watch the exact same game—and more importantly to some, the exact same commercials—as their neighbors to the south.
A fragile peace allowed Canadians and Americans alike to raise their glasses to the Bud Knight, cheer at Doritos’ celebrity cameos and indulge in WeatherTech’s patriotic made-in-America messaging. But that arrangement was short-lived. After a series of tense cross-border political interventions, millions of dollars worth of mistargeted TV advertising, and a protracted legal battle that made its way to Canada’s highest court, U.S. Super Bowl commercials were wiped from Canadian airwaves as quickly as they’d arrived.
So, just how did America’s closest ally wind up outlawed from watching most of its best Big Game commercials on live TV? It’s complicated.
The law of the land
To understand the context of the situation, it’s important to understand “CanCon.” Shorthand for “Canadian content,” the term describes an umbrella of laws that require the publication of work written, produced or contributed to by Canadians for the sake of leveling the United States’ competitive advantage in most media. (Canadian radio stations are legally obligated to play at least 35% home-grown music, for example.)
Being unable to watch American Super Bowl commercials is nothing new for those north of the border, who were long barred from enjoying them as CanCon-adjacent regulations limited wider broadcasts. But that began to change in 2013 when Canada’s national regulator, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, undertook a sweeping public consultation about the country’s entire TV system.
“The Commission received 458 complaints regarding simultaneous substitution,” which allows networks to swap one TV feed for another interchangeably, according to CRTC's final report. “Of these complaints, 20% were related to commercials that were broadcast during the Super Bowl, with viewers preferring to have seen the U.S. commercials instead of the Canadian commercials,” the report said. In response, it issued a unique order in 2016: because many considered Super Bowl commercials to be integral to the event itself, Canadian TV would no longer be bound by “simsub” and networks could freely broadcast U.S. versions of the game, commercials and all.
Many Canadian football fans rejoiced at the decision, and from 2017 to 2019, audiences were able to watch identical broadcasts to their American counterparts. (A quirk of this order is that viewers were occasionally subjected to ads for products not available in Canada, such as Hulu, T-Mobile and Bon & Viv Spiked Seltzer.) But as the Super Bowl was being viewed in its entirety by Canadians for the first time in recent memory, a chorus of discontent was growing.