"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 Five: Decision Time
Losing Hockey Night in Canada would be “the greatest calamity in CBC’s history,” writes Richard Stursberg, former vice-president of English services, in his 2010 memoir, The Tower of Babble: Sins, Secrets and Successes Inside the CBC.
In his book, Stursberg describes the pressure he was under in 2008 to secure a new contract for HNIC. “If we did not renew our arrangement with the NHL, we would have to contemplate exiting sports altogether and losing one of the oldest and most admired parts of the CBC.”
“You can take it from me, you’ve talked to me directly; do I sound worried?”
With the broadcasting rights once again up for renewal, the pressure that Stursberg was under now belongs to Jeffrey Orridge, executive director of CBC Sports. While Orridge refuses to comment on current negotiations, he says CBC is “looking forward to continuing its 60-year relationship” with the NHL. He pauses before adding, “You can take it from me, you’ve talked to me directly; do I sound worried?”
Answering his own question with a laugh, he begins to address his critics. “People thought we couldn’t get the Olympics, they counted us out of the Pan-American Games and yet we’re going to bring these events of national importance to the country, at no expense to the taxpayer. It’s pretty awesome.”
Despite Orridge’s confidence, there is cause for concern, now that Canada’s largest media conglomerates Bell (owner of CTV and TSN) and Rogers (owner of City and Sportsnet) have explicitly stated their intention to enter into negotiations with the NHL. For the first time, CBC faces strong competition for the rights to Canada’s most valuable sports broadcasting property.
And without government intervention, commentators predict that the CBC will lose the broadcasting rights to the national game. This means that Canadians would have to pay for specialty channels or, if they live outside the reach of the TSN or Sportsnet One signals, satellite coverage to watch professional hockey.
"During the lockout it was dark days … I’m not going to lie, there was no work, people were out of jobs.”
This raises the question as to whether sport is a cultural right or an entertainment commodity, an issue this series has explored by looking at how other countries legislate their TV coverage. This discussion now ends by coming back to Canada, to take a closer look at whether CBC can survive without professional hockey.
If the public broadcaster does lose HNIC, it will need to replace nearly 450 hours of programming. While Orridge refuses to speculate on how CBC would pay to fill this void, Stursberg writes the following in his memoir. “We did not have the money to make up those hundreds of hours of Canadian programming, unless we showed endless repeats of the fifth estate and Rick Mercer Report. Our viewers would scream with boredom and abandon us in droves.”
This past hockey season, Carly Agro, a host and reporter with CBC Sports, experienced life without the NHL. “During the lockout it was dark days … I’m not going to lie, there was no work, people were out of jobs.”
For some, however, the problem isn’t whether CBC can exist without HNIC, but its failure to cover amateur sports. Bruce Kidd, former Olympian and professor at the University of Toronto, says “the CBC has abdicated its responsibility” by allowing corporate sponsors to dictate coverage. “My God, Canadians didn’t stop playing because of the lockout,” says Kidd, who believes the CBC would do well to highlight other sports, especially on the women’s side.
“...is a CBC hockey broadcast any different than one from TSN or Sportsnet?”
Stephen Brunt, back page columnist for Sportsnet Magazine, agrees, but says, “In the real world CBC has to pay its own bills.” This means that it needs to appeal to a mass audience to stay alive. If we want to change this, says Brunt, we need to “rethink the CBC and what it is.”
For Brunt, however, the immediate question is whether CBC should be competing “head to head, against two massive telecoms to hold onto Hockey Night in Canada, at all costs.” It doesn’t make sense, he says, for the public broadcaster to replicate “something that you can find in a million other places.” After all, “is a CBC hockey broadcast any different than one from TSN or Sportsnet?”
What’s different, says Orridge, is that CBC has “a specific mandate to serve the underserved and to reflect Canadians in our regional programming.” And since hockey provides a vital “nation-building experience,” HNIC is important because it “brings a national pastime into the homes of many Canadians … not just those who can afford an expensive cable package.”
These negotiations are part of a larger ideological struggle. At one point it made sense to fund the CBC to educate and promote Canadian identity. Today, these voices have been weakened by calls to build strong Canadian corporations capable of competing on the global stage. Sport has been caught up in this battle because of its popularity. And like the balance of this battle, the public’s perception of hockey has shifted in favour of the corporations.
“It was us against them, our way of life against theirs, we had to win.”
According to Roy MacGregor, columnist for The Globe and Mail, “there was a time when Hockey Night in Canada was the brand of hockey, back when it was all that was on, and everyone had to watch the same game. But I think you would be a fool to say, today, that it is that same iconic figure.”
Brunt agrees. “In terms of myth and culture and history, I think hockey is central to Canadian identity. But I think in terms of the day-to-day reality it is probably less than we pretend or imagine it to be.”
After all, says Brunt, “If you look at the numbers, Hockey Night in Canada is watched by two or three million people. That means that 32 million Canadians aren’t watching.”
The audience has also been fragmented. While some viewers remain loyal to HNIC, younger generations are accustomed to watching the games on multiple networks. If CBC does lose HNIC, those making the noise will be the ones who remember the 1972 Summit Series.
Although more than 40 years have passed since Paul Henderson’s goal, this series represents a seminal moment in Canada’s history. As George Brown, a former amateur hockey coach, says, “It was us against them, our way of life against theirs, we had to win.” For many who experienced it, the ’72 Summit Series was a moment of national significance.
If these moments are to be experienced again, they must remain available for all Canadians to watch. Even though the NHL is a business, it’s also a part of Canada’s cultural heritage. That’s why some government legislation may be needed, not necessarily to keep CBC involved, but to ensure that certain games of national significance remain on over-the-air networks, like the Stanley Cup finals.
The British and the Australians already use anti-siphoning legislation to protect events of national significance. And even in the United States, the NFL, the richest sports league in the world, keeps local games on over-the-air networks. It does this because it recognizes that many of its fans and players would never have gotten involved in football had they not been able to see at least some of the games on TV.
Dale Peters came to Canada in the 1980s. When he first arrived from South Africa, he used to watch HNIC on an old black-and-white TV with an antenna. “Nobody taught me anything about hockey, I learned watching it on Saturday nights.” He says HNIC was a good introduction, because when you’re new to the country you can’t always afford pay TV. However, now that CBC is no longer the only hockey broadcaster, he says “it’s losing its charm.”
“Nobody taught me anything about hockey, I learned watching it on Saturday nights.”
The problem, however, is that even though it’s possible for Rogers or Bell to show hockey on conventional networks, nothing is preventing them from broadcasting exclusively on specialty channels. Sports properties around the world are migrating to pay TV, because sports leagues get more profits by selling to these operators.
Before they do, Katrien Lefever, a media lawyer in Belgium who studies sports broadcasting rights, urges them to think long term. “It’s better to stay on over-the-air where you’ll eventually get more sponsors and sell more tickets,” because you’ll get more exposure.
But even if legislation is passed and Rogers or Bell keep hockey on City or CTV, those signals don’t serve the entire country. And while Internet and satellites offer a solution, they come at a cost. “Technology is great and many people can afford the latest technology, but some people can’t,” says Orridge. What remains to be seen is whether the rest of the country cares to split the bill.
© Ignacio Estefanell 2013