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Did CTV give WTSN, the women's sports network, a fair shot at finding an audience and becoming a success?

The answer is yes. CTV's mistake was probably launching the digital channel in the first place.

Initially, WTSN, which will close at the end of the month, had an advantage over other sports digital channels. It was classified as a Category 2 service by the federal regulator, which meant its carriage by cable and direct-to-home distributors was mandatory. For the other sports diginets, distribution was discretionary.

But WTSN's ace card wasn't enough to override its disadvantages.

For starters, programming was expensive. "WTSN had to buy a lot of competitive live-action sports," a source said. "And these things aren't cheap, compared to, say, Fox Sports World, where you're getting four-day old soccer games."

The NHL Network, principally owned by the National Hockey League, gets its live look-ins free of charge. For club-owned Raptors NBA TV and Leafs TV, rights fees aren't an issue. TSN-owned ESPN Classic Canada airs content either already bought by ESPN or controlled by TSN. Fox Sports World Canada's programming consists of taped soccer, rugby and cricket matches.

WTSN, despite paying big dollars for programming, received little in return. Its business plan projected 714,000 subscribers in its first year of operation. But two years after its start, only 438,000 had signed up. Its audiences ranked lowest among the sports diginets and so its did advertising.

Why didn't WTSN perform better? The truth is women don't watch a lot of sports on TV. Figure skating draws a critical mass. Some women like hockey, football or basketball. They might have an interest in athletics, skiing or tennis. But overall, the number is not large. At TSN, the audience gender breakdown is 70 per cent men and 30 per cent women. In a market the size of Canada, there were not enough viewers to keep a channel dedicated to women's sports afloat.

Perhaps the biggest problem confronting WTSN was that women get more than enough sports content from the main networks.

"My wife, who is a sports nut, had no time for WTSN," an executive said yesterday. "I firmly believe that women who want to watch sports watch mainstream sports. They're not gender specific. They're fans."

Within CTV, there was skepticism about WTSN before it launched. There was a feeling it would succeed only if it were able to attract male as well as female viewers.

Sue Prestedge, the head of WTSN, says she is proud of the channel's programming accomplishments. Without WTSN, for example, Hayley Wickenheiser's debut in the Finnish men's hockey league last winter would not have been shown on Canadian television.

"I don't think we ever hid the fact that this was one of the most ambitious digitals to be launched out there," Prestedge said. "In concept, it was almost revolutionary in terms of what we were trying to accomplish."

WTSN may have been a good idea that was ahead of its time, but in an era when the TV audiences for the main network sports are decreasing, the projected success of the channel was more than hopeful. It was unrealistic.

Will other sports diginets follow? Global's Xtreme Sports channel may be vulnerable. Audiences are small, but, unlike WTSN, its content is cheap. The strongest appear to be the Fox channel, NHL Network and Raptors NBA TV.

All diginets are hurting because growth in the digital tier has been slower than expected. Right now, about three million households in Canada have access to digital channels.

Scribe cries foul

Toronto Sun hockey columnist Al Strachan felt our characterization of his work at the Toronto Maple Leaf news conference announcing John Ferguson Jr. as the club's new general manager was unfair.

Strachan was harshly critical last week of the club's decision to hire Ferguson, but his first question at the news conference struck us as tame. He asked Ferguson whether he was aware of the club's payroll budget.

What went unreported, Strachan told a Globe and Mail editor, was his comprehensive interview with Ferguson and Richard Peddie, the president of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, after the formal question-and-answer session ended.

Strachan could not be reached yesterday for an elaboration.

Rick Briggs-Jude is leaving TSN to join Rogers Sportsnet as the vice-president of production. He replaces Scott Moore, who resigned earlier in the summer. It was speculated last week that the job might go to the head of hockey, Scott Morrison, who "interviewed well," according to a source. A few months ago, Briggs-Jude was moved laterally at TSN from executive producer of National Hockey League games to overseeing the production of golf, the Olympics and international hockey.

The CBC's audience figures for the world track and field championships in Paris were down from two years ago, when the competition was held in Edmonton. However, compared with the 1999 venue of Seville, Spain, the Paris numbers are up slightly. The CBC averaged 383,000 viewers a telecast at Paris, compared with 566,000 for the Edmonton coverage and 372,000 for Seville.

TSN pulled in its second largest Canadian Football League audience ever for last Sunday's prime-time game between the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and the Saskatchewan Roughriders. It drew 539,000 viewers, just behind 573,000 for B.C. Lions-Calgary Stampeders on Oct. 27, 2002.

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