"The Rights to Watch" is a five-part series investigating the the future of Hockey Night in Canada and public access to the National Game. It was published in summer 2013 - prior to Rogers being awarded the broadcasting rights - by Ryerson University, completing my Masters of Journalism. My supervisors on this Major Research Project was Joyce Smith, then director of the School’s Master of Journalism program.


Part Four: Back to the Future


“It’s outrageous, a whole generation has been lost,” says Andrew Reeves, director of Sommet Sports. “After all, what does the future hold if there are no [readily available] sports on TV?” He speaks with passion, as he did four years ago when he and two friends sat at a bar and began discussing how to bring over-the-air sports back to New Zealand.


Sommet Sports, which launched this past July, is New Zealand’s first over-the-air sports channel in almost two decades. Reeves hopes that it will re-connect Kiwis with athletic events that have, until now, been available almost exclusively on specialty channels.

In the United Kingdom, where Reeves was born, “everyone watches Wimbledon” and as a result, “you can’t get onto a public court [during the tournament], because everyone wants to play tennis. Sports engages people, especially youngsters, that’s why it must be made available to everyone over-the-air.”


Now that the contract for Hockey Night in Canada is up for grabs, Canadians wait to learn whether access to their national game will remain available to them over-the-air or exclusively on specialty channels. So far, this series has explored the issue of whether sport is a cultural right or commodity by looking at how the United States and UK legislate their broadcasting rights.


But if you want to know where sports broadcasting in Canada is heading, then consider New Zealand. More than 16 years ago, its public broadcaster, TVNZ, could no longer compete for the rights to rugby, the national sport, and public protests were pressuring its government to intervene.

 

"Sports engages people, especially youngsters, that’s why it must be made available to everyone over-the-air."


Complicating the situation was the fact that TVNZ helped popularize rugby, just as CBC has done with hockey. Beginning with radio and then TV, these broadcasts transported the nation to hallowed sports grounds around the world. These ritualized events became a part of the country’s history; nevertheless, rugby was packaged and sold to the highest bidder.


TVNZ helped create the national appetite for rugby, but after decades of budget cuts it could no longer compete against private interests. Especially when it was being asked to produce local content for a small, English-speaking market that was more receptive to the foreign programming of its broadcasting rivals.


And since New Zealand had no anti-siphoning legislation to ensure that events of national significance remained available on over-the-air, Sky TV, a private broadcaster, won the rights. As a result, Kiwis can only watch their national game on pay TV. However, the pay-up or shut-up argument was undermined by the fact that Sky’s signal failed to reach more than 10 per cent of the population.


Advocates of pay TV, however, defend the contract with Sky because it’s funding the development of the next generation of players in addition to promoting the game’s international development. And while the government has acknowledged “a widespread public sentiment … that it is in the national interest for televised coverage of significant sporting events to be available live and over-the-air for all New Zealanders,” it has decided against legislative action.

 

“Growing up, we had no other sports channels. No one else was broadcasting hockey, but my sons, all they can think about is TSN and Rogers.”


And now, what was strange in 1996 has become commonplace to an entire generation of Kiwis. The young no longer associate TVNZ with rugby because they’ve become accustomed to pay TV. Dale Peters, a Toronto sports fan, believes the same will happen in Canada. “Growing up, we had no other sports channels. No one else was broadcasting hockey, but my sons, all they can think about is TSN and Rogers.”


In fact, look what happened in 2006 when CBC lost the rights to the Canadian Football League. Despite a long-running relationship, similar to the one between TVNZ and the New Zealand Rugby Union, the CFL didn’t even invite CBC to compete for the rights against TSN. And while people complained at first about the demise of a 50-year tradition, their voices have now gone silent.


The numbers show that TSN has done a better job selling the game, consistently attracting more than five million viewers to the Grey Cup, and as many as 6.1 million in 2009 or 18 per cent of the national population. The best that CBC could manage was 4.4 million in 2002, reaching just over 14 per cent of the population.


"I don’t mind paying,” says Don Mitchell, a Toronto sports fan, “as long as I’m able to watch the games I want, that’s the most important thing.” The problem with HNIC, says Mitchell, is that it doesn’t always show his favourite teams.


One of the advantages of pay TV is choice. While specialty channels also pursue lucrative match-ups, they can devote more programming hours to hockey than CBC, because they have a different mandate, which for many sports fans is worth paying for.


Furthermore, people no longer complain about the loss of the old HNIC theme song, which CBC lost to Bell in 2008. They’ve moved on and they may continue moving on should CBC lose the broadcasting rights to the NHL, because it won’t be the first time that they’ve lost HNIC.

That happened in 2002, when La Soirée du Hockey, the French equivalent of HNIC, disappeared. At first, when Radio-Canada lost the rights to RDS, a sports specialty channel owned by Bell, then-heritage minister Sheila Copps threatened to go to the CRTC, Canada’s broadcast regulator. But even though RDS was, at the time, inaccessible to more than 30 per cent of Canada’s francophone population and more than 18 per cent of Quebec’s households did not subscribe to RDS, La Soirée du Hockey was allowed to die.


Will things be different now that the English version of HNIC is being threatened? If you believe that sport is a matter of cultural citizenship, and that hockey is a national institution, then this is where the line must be drawn. But the real question is whether enough people will stand up to protest now that they’ve become accustomed to paying for access.

 
© Ignacio Estefanell 2013

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