So you're a public broadcaster who has just lost a shoot-out for a major sporting franchise, and as the victorious bidder skates away, the air fills with cries of surprise and dismay. That was the news for the CBC not just this week but 11 years ago, when NHL hockey was bought away from the Corp's French-language TV service. That's the first thing to note about the end of the English service's 60-year hold on NHL hockey: The CBC has been this way before, more than once, if you count lockouts like the one last season. The network survived, and can do so again, if it learns from experience and emerges from the crouching, risk-averse original programming of recent years.
The sky fell for many of the CBC's fans on Monday, when the successful $5.2-billion Rogers Communications bid for NHL broadcast rights was revealed. Hockey Night in Canada will remain on CBC for four more years, but Rogers will take over editorial control and all revenues. Early reaction had it that half the network's ad revenue was gone, and with it, financial support for dramas, radio and news programs that would be shredded or cut. A gaping 330-hour hole (plus playoffs) was being ripped into the prime-time schedule for which there would be less than no money to fill. A single private-sector deal seemed about to destroy an institution that decades of government cuts had been unable to kill.
But apart from the CBC's loss of face – after aligning itself so strongly with our national game – the direct revenue drop won't be nearly that dire. A sustained sharp rise in licensing costs for all major sports has reduced NHL hockey from a once-lucrative broadcast attraction to a high-status property that barely pays its way on the CBC.
"The ad revenues are paying more-or-less for the rights," said CBC president Hubert Lacroix in an interview. "Over the years, the profit margin became slimmer and slimmer, as our expense escalated over the life of our agreement" – namely the deal struck with the NHL in 2006, which was twice as rich as he previous one, and which became more onerous as the recession bit into ad revenue. The CBC's revenue also dipped whenever Canadian teams left the playoffs early, as in 2010-11, and advertisers left with them.
"People think that we are going to be putting ads on Radio 1, or cancelling programs, or that this is the end of the CBC," says Lacroix, who is already dealing with a $115-million cut in parliamentary subsidy over three years. "This is absolutely far from that."
True, without hockey, other ills ensue, as was shown during the lockout last season. The CBC mostly filled the gaps in its schedule with repeats, including games from yesteryear. Lacroix says that he thinks the strategy chosen seemed prudent for an interruption of unguessable length, but the CBC lost audience, share points and advertiser appeal. "The balance without hockey has to be different," he says.
The Radio-Canada experience of a decade ago underscores the profound differences between the English and French services, but it does offer a few key lessons. When Bell snatched away the French-Canadian NHL rights for its Réseau des Sports network in 2002, La Soirée du hockey "was far less popular than most of our drama series," says Marc Pichette, Radio-Canada TV's director of public relations. Les Bougons, the leading prime-time series of the day, drew an average audience 10 times larger than the 219,000 for Saturday-night hockey. Radio-Canada continued to show games for a transitional one-year period, just as the English TV service has agreed to do for four years. Then it set about developing programs such as En Direct de L'Univers, a music variety show that now draws a 24-per-cent market share on Saturday nights. The network was able to imagine and realize a hit TV show on a night that hockey had occupied since 1952.
For many reasons, Radio-Canada TV maintains a robust presence in the lives of its target audience, while the English service's audience share has crumbled from 34 per cent in 1967 to 5 per cent today. Faced with exploding competition and a dwindling subsidy, the English CBC clung to hockey as to a life raft, putting up with higher costs, the schedule distortions inflicted by the playoffs, and the erosion of its hockey monopoly. Even before the deal announced on Monday, NHL games could be seen via Sportsnet, TSN and U.S. broadcasters, and the proliferation of outlets will accelerate under Rogers' control.
"The Hockey Night in Canada brand will be tremendously weakened over the next four years," says Barry Kiefl, a former CBC research director and an independent media analyst. He sees no chance that HNIC will continue after that.
Lacroix says that the key thing is not the outlet, but the broadcast partnerships that are becoming increasingly necessary. He can even claim that the CBC showed the way for Rogers, by negotiating a deal for the coming Olympics, then sharing the content with other broadcasters while retaining the ad revenues. The new deal with Rogers will see CBC providing the resources and technical expertise for Hockey Night in Canada as an in-kind exchange for the broadcasts.
"I hope that Rogers will see in the CBC a partner they can trust," Lacroix says. As for a future without HNIC, "we've looked at a whole bunch of scenarios in terms of what we could do. Now that we are in it, we'll look at what we will do." When pressed further, he demurs, saying, "I'm not a programmer." Heather Conway, his neophyte incoming head of English-language services, starts her new job on Monday.
"The CBC has been handed an opportunity," says Ian Morrison of the advocacy group Friends of Canadian Broadcasting. "They've been given 48 months to plan and adjust. That's a lot of time to consider a future without professional hockey."
Morrison reckons it could cost $200-million a year to fill the gap with new prime-time programs. But the CBC doesn't pay the full tab for any new program development, the expenses of which are shared by an array of funding partners. With hockey gone, independent producers have a shot at more prime-time hours on a network that is highly motivated to program Canadian content. In any case, Kiefl suggests it may not be prudent for the CBC to throw its best new product up against the Saturday hockey juggernaut, but to look at the whole week's evening schedule with fresh eyes.
Perhaps the best thing that could come out of this week's development would be for Lacroix's new fervour for partnerships to open up new ways of developing shows. The current system, with parcels of money coming from several sources, all of them armed with their own risk-reward standards, has resulted in too many forgettable shows. As John Doyle wrote recently in these pages, the CBC hasn't really been a player in this so-called new golden age of TV. Maybe without the distraction of hockey, our public broadcaster can redirect its major effort toward its first priority: making really good Canadian TV.
Tips for Heather
Arts executive Heather Conway has never worked in broadcasting, but as of Monday she will be charged with overseeing all of the CBC's English-language services, and remaking the TV schedule after the CBC's long affair with hockey ends. Here are some suggestions for the rookie exec.
English CBC has a history of flinching from successful music-variety shows, such as Rita and Friends and Don Messer's Jubilee. It's time to rethink the genre, with a hard look at Radio-Canada's highly rated En Direct de L'Univers.
When U.S. reality-show entrepreneur Mark Burnett wanted to make a miniseries about the Bible, he mobilized the audience, then made the shows. Such a bottom-up approach could work for the CBC too, via smart use of social media.
Why not go beyond the proscenium and make TV about the artistic process, with media-savvy people like Daniel Lanois or Marie Chouinard?
A great video on YouTube can attract millions of eyeballs. It's time to bring some of that action to the CBC, for a curated package of the best citizen journalism.
Editor's Note: A previous version of this article said Rogers paid $5.2-million for NHL rights. In fact, Rogers paid $5.2-billion. That version also said the deal CBC struck with the NHL in 2006 was 50-per-cent richer than the previous one. In fact, the deal was twice as rich as the previous one.