Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Superbowl 3-D – What Will I Be Seeing?

Absolutely nothing! (In 3-D. At least as far as I can tell.)

This saga is all part of the vagaries of the Canadian broadcasting system. The first thing you need to know is that many years ago the Canadian networks made a deal with the Canadian Radio, Television and Telecommunications Comission (CRTC) that requires Canadian cable companies to substitute the local Canadian signal over any American signal of the same show provided that the Canadian and American shows start at the same time. So, for example, if CTV has CSI on Thursday at 8 p.m. Saskatoon time, and CBS has the same episode of CSI on Thursday at 8 p.m. Saskatoon time, the cable company has to put the CTV signal over the cable channel that we get CBS on. It has to be the same episode or the same sporting event and it has to start at the same time. This has caused some problems in the past when a sporting event has run long (as they inevitably do) and what I assume must be the computer at the cable company doesn't know about it. Shades of the "Heidi game" if that game you're watching is suddenly pulled off for a show you hate. This is known as "simultaneous substitution" or simsub. This way the ads that the networks sell get seen by everyone who watches a show – whether they like it or not (and we don't).

(And of course the Canadian networks aren't satisfied with simple simsubbing. From time to time the networks go before the CRTC and demand that they be allowed to substitute over shows regardless of whether or not they show a particular episode at the same time as the American networks. This say the networks will allow them to "program their own networks." The CRTC inevitably files these demands with the requests to allow the networks to count Canadian made infomercials as Canadian content in a circular filing cabinet, but I always get the sense that the networks go off from these meetings saying "one day my pretties." But back to the matter at hand.)

The biggest complaints about simsubbing come at Superbowl time, and speaking as one of those complaining I think we've got good cause. For years advertisers have literally spent millions on commercials for the Superbowl, and for that money they feel they need to do something that really stands out. I suppose that for the advertising community the Superbowl is like the last couple of weeks of December is for movie makers, the time when you put out the serious films that you desperately hope will be rewarded at the Oscars and the other award shows. The Superbowl is when you put together the commercials that you hope will get nominated for the Clios and the other advertising awards. And if you're Canadian there is a better than 50/50 chance that you won't see the multi-million dollar commercials, you'll see the run of the mill commercial from Leon's or something from The Great Canadian Oil Change or some local body shop. I'm trying to think of an analogy here that really works and having difficulty with it. I suppose it's like going to see a great musical on Broadway only to find out that tonight they're letting a high school production do the play.

In recent years – for me at least – there have been some developments that have allowed me to see the American feed of the Superbowl. For reasons that elude me, the broadcasters in Saskatoon never simsub the time sharing channels out of Spokane that I get as part of my basic digital cable. It doesn't happen, so for the past couple of years I've been able to watch the Superbowl with the American commercials. Now that we have the HD service we can also see the game in HD without simsubbing. Why? Well the CRTC has ruled that Canadian channels can't simsub over HD broadcasts until they are capable of providing a local HD signal, and Saskatoon and Regina are probably the last places that will be converted to HD by CBC, CTV and Global (CTV has only just decided to make CFCN in Calgary an HD station – CFRN in Edmonton is still not HD).

So in other words I will be able to see the American commercials during the game, including the 3-D commercials that Pepsi and Dreamworks will be doing for the Super Bowl. Pepsi is doing a commercial for their SoBe beverage line in 3-D, and Dreamworks will be doing an ad for their new movie Monsters vs. Aliens in 3-D. In addition on February 3rd the NBC series Chuck will use the exact same technology to broadcast that show in 3-D. The commercials will of course be using 3-D glasses, not the red-blue type that are what one tends to think of when one thinks of 3-D, or the polarizing lenses which have been common for many years, but something called Real 3-D, which uses an red-orange/blue-purple combination of lenses. This of course means that you have to get those specific glasses to be able to watch the two commercials and the episode of Chuck. In the U.S. you can apparently pick them up in the supermarkets.

In Canada it's a different story. The Canadian rights holder for the Superbowl is CTV and CTV won't be showing the SoBe commercial or the Dreamworks trailer, so why should they distribute the glasses in Canada. There's no advantage in it for Pepsi (which owns SoBe) or for Dreamworks to distribute the glasses either. But what about that episode of Chuck? Well that episode of Chuck is part of the reason why the 3-D glasses promotion won't be running in Canada. You see, here in Canada Chuck doesn't run on CTV it runs on CITYTV. The CITYTV system (not a network) has stations in Toronto, Winnipeg, Calgary Edmonton and Vancouver. But people in those cities won't be able to get the glasses either. You see CITYTV won't be showing the 3-D episode of Chuck on February 3rd. They've got a more important show to put on that Monday – The Bachelor. Chuck won't be back on CITYTV until March 9th. Whether they'll offer the glasses then or not, or whether they'll even air the episode at all is absolutely unclear for the CITYTV system's website. Meanwhile those Canadians who will actually be able to see either the unsimsubbed Superbowl commercials or the episode of Chuck won't be seeing them in 3-D unless they can make a run to a stor across the border, can find them on eBay or Craigs List, or can figure out how to make a set of their own. Not that it matters to me of course; I've usually abandoned the Superbowl as a blow out by the time the half-time show starts, and I've never seen an episode of Chuck because I bowl on Mondays.

(Thanks to a tweet on Twitter from The TV Addict – aka Daniel – for turning me on to this. The TV Addict is a much more professional site than this one, and I'm only saying that because... well because it's true.)

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