TV and Radio Advertising Basics

Broadcasters sell air time to advertisers to earn revenue. TV broadcasters depend mainly on advertising revenue, with these exceptions:

  • CBC gets most of its operating funds from Parliament
  • public educational television services get most of their funds from provincial governments
  • specialty services get about half their revenues from a part of the fee subscribers pay to their distributors
  • pay television and pay-per-view are financed entirely through subscription fees
  • video on demand undertakings are permitted, by condition of licence, to advertise in programming only if it is acquired directly from an unrelated licensed Canadian broadcaster or from a related broadcaster that has also acquired the linear rights to the program

Broadcasters don’t have to air commercial messages, public service announcements or advocacy ads. But during an election campaign, broadcasters must follow the policies set out for federal, provincial and municipal elections.

Limits to advertising time

There are limits on the amount of time most broadcasters can air commercials. They are:

  • Specialty services: 12 minutes per hour
  • Pay services (pay television and pay-per-view): don’t carry advertising
  • Commercial AM and FM radio stations: no limits
  • TV stations: no limits
  • CBC radio networks: prohibited from carrying advertising except for programs that are available to networks only on a sponsored basis
  • CBC Espace Musique and Radio 2: 4 minutes of national advertising per hour, divided into a maximum of 2 blocks per hour

These time limits don’t include: the promotion of Canadian programs, public service announcements, political ads, product placements within a TV program and virtual ads.

Advertising on community-based television and radio

There are also limits on the amount of time that community-based television and radio services can air commercials:

  • Cable community channels: don't carry commercial advertising, but can air sponsorships and contra advertising
  • Community-based, low power TV and digital services: 12 minutes of local advertising per hour
  • Campus radio stations: 504 minutes per week; up to 4 minutes per hour
  • Community radio stations: no limits

For more information, consult the Policy framework for community-based media (Broadcasting Public Notice CRTC 2002-61). and the Campus radio policy (Public Notice CRTC 2000-12)

Content of advertisements

The CRTC doesn’t directly regulate advertising content, except advertising to children and alcohol ads.

Children's advertising

Children's advertising includes:

  • any paid commercial message carried during children’s programming
  • any commercial message that’s directed to children (defined as those under 12 years of age), whether it’s during children’s programming or not

Broadcasters must adhere to the Broadcast Code for Advertising to Children published by the Canadian Association of Broadcasters in cooperation with Advertising Standards Canada.

In Quebec, commercial advertising aimed at persons younger than 13 is generally prohibited. See the Office de la protection du consommateur.

Ad clearance

Advertising clearance is the process of previewing commercials to make sure they meet applicable standards. Advertising Standards Canada provides the service, but clearance is only mandatory for children’s advertising.

Advertising for specific products

The CRTC also expects broadcasters that carry advertising for alcoholic beverages to report annually on how many alcohol-education messages they broadcast.

  • Drugs, medications and condoms
    Health Canada has standards for advertising these products.
  • Tobacco products
    Radio and TV broadcasters can’t advertise tobacco products. Health Canada is responsible for Tobacco Control.
  • 900 numbers
    These ads are aimed at adult audiences, so broadcasters limit the frequency and time of day these ads come on. The Telecaster Services of the Television Bureau of Canada has guidelines for these commercials.

There are also Consumer safeguards to protect consumers from unforeseen charges.

Types of ads

Infomercials

A TV infomercial combines entertainment or information with the sale or promotion of goods or services in a program that’s more than 12 minutes long. Broadcasters must clearly inform viewers that infomercials are paid commercial advertising.

On commercial radio stations, an advertisement that’s more than 3 minutes long must be identified as a paid commercial, by clear and prominent announcements, before and after the segments. The announcement must be repeated when the program breaks, and before returning to the program.

Local promotions on US channels

You may see a promotion for a Canadian show on a US TV station. Both US and Canadian stations set aside some advertising time (1 to 2 minutes per hour) for “local availabilities.” Distributors use this time for their own purposes, and Canadian distributors air promotions for Canadian broadcasting services.

Virtual ads during TV sports programs

Virtual advertising places advertising within a TV program, not during a normal commercial break. Virtual ads are often used for large sports events.

You may see a computer graphic of an advertiser’s name in the scene, or you could see a computer-created "virtual" billboard for TV audiences in a place where a real billboard might appear.

Sponsorships and contra advertising

A sponsorship is when a community program acknowledges that it has received direct financial assistance. Contra advertising is when a community program acknowledges that it has received free goods or services to use in connection with producing the program.

Questions and complaints

If you have a question or complaint about advertising, go to How to make a broadcasting complaint.

False and misleading ads

Broadcasters must meet the Canadian Association of Broadcasters’ Code of Ethics on advertising. If you think an ad is false or misleading, contact Advertising Standards Canada or the Competition Bureau at Industry Canada.

Related information

OTA television policy (Public Notice 2007-53)
Local Availabilities policy (Public Notice CRTC 2006-69)
Broadcasting Distribution Regulations, sections 42 and 43
Loud TV Commercials
Super Bowl TV commercials – why are the ads different?