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Don Cherry looks on during the 2011 CHL/NHL top prospects skills competition in Toronto, January 18, 2011. (MARK BLINCH/REUTERS)
Don Cherry looks on during the 2011 CHL/NHL top prospects skills competition in Toronto, January 18, 2011. (MARK BLINCH/REUTERS)

CBC’s plan to win back hockey fans - more Don Cherry, social media Add to ...

The Canadian Broadcasting Corp. has a plan to win back the hundreds of thousands of viewers who found something else to do with their Saturday nights through the NHL lockout– double up on Don Cherry, throw in some social media and hope that a shortened season will push people back into their living rooms until the end of June.

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Many of the broadcaster’s plans focus on what happens off the ice as it celebrates its 60th anniversary as the official Saturday night broadcaster of the National Hockey League. It will host a series of free concerts throughout the season in NHL markets, and is hoping to use smartphones and tablets to get viewers to take part in contests and share thoughts and content via social media.

It said Thursday its highest-profile change will see Don Cherry do a live segment between the first and second period of the network’s second game in addition to his usual Coach’s Corner slot in between periods in broadcaster’s early game. It has also added Andi Petrillo to its in-studio team, a move the broadcaster says marks the first time a female has held that role.

The broadcaster watched its Saturday audiences shrink by as much as 85 per cent on some nights through the lockout, as hockey fans found ways to live without Hockey Night in Canada. And with only a year-and-a-half left in its current broadcast deal with the NHL, the CBC is anxious to play up the cultural aspect of the game rather than dwell on any residual anger fans may feel toward the league and its players.

The stakes are high in the shortened season, which starts Saturday afternoon as the CBC shows three games in a row across the country. In a typical year, it airs about 100 regular season games, but this year it will air half the number and it’s still not clear how that will affect its broadcast rights that expire at the end of the 2014 season.

“That’s all in negotiations,” said Julie Bristow, the CBC’s executive director of studio and unscripted programming. “But it’s half the games we usually have.”

With other broadcasters such as Rogers Media and Bell Media hinting they may bid when rights expire and end CBC’s 60-year run, the CBC is focusing on the off-ice product to showcase its strengths as a public broadcaster with a mandate to promote Canadian culture. It will once again do its Hockey Day in Canada event, this year from Peterborough, Ont., and will soon announce the lineups for its cross-country series of concerts.

“We’re really trying to bring people to the game,” she said. “We want to be talking about how hockey is part of the national DNA and what we hope to be doing on air is celebrating that hockey is back.”

The broadcaster has also made some changes to the way it staffs the Saturday night broadcasts – host Ron MacLean will anchor the night’s show, and will be joined by analysts Glenn Healy, P.J. Stock, Kevin Weekes, Elliotte Friedman and Ms. Petrillo. The broadcaster used to cycle analysts through its Hot Stove segment between periods, but will stick with that same lineup from the pregame until the final game ends.

As CBC ramps up for Saturday – it needed to rehire almost 250 freelancers who do technical work over the course of the season and redeploy staffers who were reassigned through the lockout – Canada’s other two broadcasters are putting the finishing touches on their strategies. Bell Media’s TSN initially announced plans to air 42 games, all starring Canadian teams, but is expected to add dozens more featuring American teams today.

Rogers-owned Sportsnet will air approximately150 games across its regional networks. President of broadcasting Scott Moore said aside from the obvious benefits of increased advertising and higher viewership, hockey’s return is also an opportunity to drive viewers to the other programming the company offers on its other networks.

“From a ratings standpoint [not having hockey] hurt a lot,” he said. “The trouble is when you have that big driver of four or five games a night you have a million people watching and that gives you a promotional platform to talk about Sportsnet World and City. Hockey and baseball are as big a promotions driver for us as anything else we have on any of our networks.”

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