The following article is from OPENWIDE’s January 2014 Issue, and written by the Volume 14 Editor-in-Chief, Chris Ling.
When the puck drops this upcoming October to signal the beginning of a new National Hockey League (NHL) season, Canadians will be watching their national sport through a different lens. A recent deal saw the league’s exclusive broadcasting rights signed away to Rogers Communications in a surprise transaction worth a staggering $5.2 billion, a move that has provoked cries of injustice and the unpleasant word monopoly to spring from the lips of many. The decision follows decades of the NHL’s rights distributed between The Sports Network (TSN), the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), as well as Rogers Sportsnet. The new contract spans a minimum of 12 years and provides Rogers with sole national broadcasting rights to the league across all of its networks, on all platforms.
TSN is almost unanimously considered to have the best televised hockey product available. It surpasses other networks in its in-game calling and analysis, and is widely recognized for its superior production quality. NHL hockey is the lifeblood of the TSN: hockey-related programming constitutes the majority of the network’s total programming, more than all its other sports combined. Over the years, the “source for all things hockey” has built a reputation as the go-to network not only for colour commentary and analysis, but also for insight into the league’s activity: trades, contracts, draft picks and the like. Rogers is not celebrated for its proficiency in this area, nor for the quality of its production. In fact, many hockey fans consider Rogers’ programming to be “low-budget” and to lack the nuances that the TSN has so finely shaped in its hockey product. While the deal may not result in TSN’s big guns immediately jumping ship to join the Roger’s cast, what it can guarantee is some drastic cuts to the numerous personnel employed by the network’s large-scale hockey productions, something The National Post aptly denoted as a “looming death by unnatural causes” for Canada’s Sports Leader.
Criticism thus far – and there has been an onslaught of it in the Canadian media – has centered not only on the fallout for TSN, but on the debasement of a Canadian tradition, the assailment on an essentially religious gathering that takes place in countless bars and living rooms nationwide on Saturday nights. The CBC’s Hockey Night in Canada turns 62 this year, and for the first time in its history it will not enjoy exclusive NHL airtime during its weekly broadcast. Rogers will simulcast games on Sportsnet and its other channels, at the expense of CBC’s once dominant audience positioning. Though it was Rogers who made the merciful decision to allow Hockey Night In Canada (HNIC) to carry on for the next four years, the impact of their new deal on the national broadcaster will be evident as the new season kicks off. CBC Television already struggles in a Canadian market saturated by American networks because of the low costs and typically higher quality of American programming. Poor regulatory practices on the part of the CRTC don’t alleviate that pressure either. Many fear that losing HNIC will cause a slippery financial slope to become even more treacherous for the CBC; the popular weekly broadcast is valued at $200 million, generating over half of the network’s advertising revenue. The continuation of HNIC may sustain CBC’s audiences for the time being – save those numbers lost to Rogers’ Saturday-night simulcasting – but effective this season Rogers will collect the advertising revenue generated during the broadcast, gutting the CBC of its largest revenue source. Rogers will also overhaul the production, editorial content, and all that Don Cherry, Ron MacLean and the rest of the veteran cast at the CBC fine-tuned over the years. At the end of the day, the CBC will be no more than a masthead in a corporate storm.
The future for CBC Television looks dim because of the deal, though dismal audience figures indicate that it was never all that bright. Audiences were down 40 percent as of 2012. Primetime programming and the CBC news lure a mere five and two percent of the national population, respectively, and those numbers are in decline. Federal budget cuts of $110 million last year combined with this latest hit to HNIC paint a gloomy picture for the largely publicly-funded network. Cultural capital notwithstanding, it may not be in the national economic interest to sustain such a floundering network, particularly one swimming in a pool of private sharks like Rogers. In the meantime, further financial losses will have immediate effects on the CBC’s current programming, though what that means exactly is uncertain at this point. The only upside for CBC here is the fact that Roger’s will absorb HNIC’s production costs; hopefully this will offset revenue losses enough to save the network from a financial freefall.
In spite of the criticism that this deal faces, one glaring fact has been repeatedly overlooked: “This just means I get to watch more hockey.” Though Rogers’ monopolistic actions may defile tradition and considerably alter the way hockey looks, it also means that NHL games will be broadcast across all 4 of Rogers’ regional feeds from coast-to-coast, giving fans numerous options. Montreal Canadiens fans in Ontario, for example, are delighted that Toronto’s blue and white will no longer occupy centre stage without alternatives (as Leafs games traditionally have) because Rogers has both the means and motive to screen more hockey on Saturday nights than the CBC’s customary double-header. For the well-rounded sports fan, the deal may in fact be a blessing. Along with Rogers’ channels that will give consumers more NHL access, the absence of hockey from TSN’s schedule will result in more free programming space and perhaps a more diverse network, provided the network can survive the financial hit. That would be welcome news for fans of less popular sports like tennis, which was pushed to TSN2 (the network’s paid channel) a few years back to accommodate increased hockey coverage.
Whether or not you’re a die-hard hockey fan, or even a sports fan for that matter, the deal reflects what is becoming alarmingly normalized in the Canadian media industry: monopolistic, largely unregulated behaviour, the elimination of competition and the reduction of consumer choice. Our national broadcaster, perhaps the only network free from direct American advertising influence, hangs dangerously in the balance.
Maybe the true north isn’t so free after all.