Rogers Media Inc. wants to steal the venerable Hockey Night in Canada franchise from the Canadian Broadcasting Corp.
While Canadian broadcasters have had their eyes on the rights for years, a combination of budget woes at the publicly funded CBC and a station-buying binge by Rogers could see the rights to Saturday night hockey change hands for the first time since 1952.
"Sports is a major focus," said Keith Pelley, president of Rogers Media. "Is Hockey Night part of our plan? It's a little premature to talk about details, but we certainly have to take a look."
As viewers change their habits and increasingly watch television on mobile devices or on digital recorders, broadcasters are finding it more difficult to convince advertisers to shell out big money to buy prime-time slots.
Live sports is a different matter, because broadcasters can still draw large audiences at a specific timeslot and sell the advertising that goes with the guaranteed viewership. And in Canadian sports, there's no bigger programming opportunity than Hockey Night in Canada, which drew more than 2.5 million viewers to their televisions on March 3 for its busiest night of the regular season.
It can get those numbers because it guarantees the network is the only place to watch Canadian teams play on a Saturday night, a revenue opportunity the CBC has relied on for years to help fund other less-profitable ventures. But having recently expanded its CITY-TV network nationally through a series of deals and partnerships, Mr. Pelley said the broadcaster is taking a serious look at trying to outbid CBC for the rights when they come up for renewal in two years.
Rogers isn't the only one – Bell Media vice-president of communications Scott Henderson said the company, which owns CTV, would "most likely take a look at it when the time comes."
For Rogers, the rights auction comes at an opportune time. Earlier this month, the company bought Métro14 Montréal CJNT in Montreal and partnered with the Jim Pattison Broadcast Group to deliver CITY-TV content to communities in British Columbia and Alberta. Mr. Pelley said the broadcaster can now offer advertisers national packages with the promise of about 9 million potential viewers, and can pursue programming that is intended to reach audiences across the country.
CITY-TV doesn't have an Atlantic presence, but Mr. Pelley said there is a plan that is "not quite ready to be announced yet" that will address the gap.
Rogers unveiled its lineup of shows for the new season on Tuesday in Toronto, and one slot it would like to improve in coming years is Saturday night. Hockey would certainly fill that space, especially considering that Rogers is about to become part-owner, with BCE Inc., of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment.
"Saturday is still a very difficult night for us," Mr. Pelley said, adding he could partner with rival broadcaster such as Shaw Media to secure the rights. "With our distribution now, maybe we could actually bid for Hockey Night in Canada. … This is a conversation we couldn't have last year because we didn't have national distribution."
The rights to Hockey Night in Canada were last renewed in 2005, and come up for renewal again in 2015. With budget cuts biting deep, there has been speculation CBC could lose the rights, but at a recent industry event, executive vice-president of English services Kirstine Stewart said the public broadcaster would aggressively pursue a renewal.
The message was underscored at the CBC's annual new programs showcase two weeks ago, as NHL commissioner Gary Bettman trumpeted the benefits of a CBC-NHL partnership.
"There's probably no more iconic brands in Canada than the CBC, Hockey Night in Canada and the NHL," he said. "That accounts for 60 years of a great relationship, which is unprecedented, because we work so well together."
Ms. Stewart has said her network targets a broader audience than the sports broadcasters, which makes it an important player in any negotiations. But that was assuming that Rogers would want to put games on its Sportsnet channel, which it does not. CTV, which owns TSN, could also be a contender if the bidding heats up.
"What we provide is different from what TSN and Sportsnet does," she said at the event. "We provide a generalized audience, and these guys are at the top of the sports market."