Understanding the regional blackouts appears to be the No. 1 problem for Canadian television viewers in the first year of the NHL's national broadcast rights coming under the control of Rogers Communications Inc.
More games are being shown nationally on Rogers networks as well as the CBC, but judging by the reaction from people who read a recent Globe and Mail story on the mixed results in the ratings after the first two months of the season, many of them are frustrated that some games are still blacked out in their markets. This is probably the result of a combination of factors, from Rogers' enthusiastic promotions that promised more games than ever before – which may have resulted in some viewers assuming that just about every game would be televised – to flawed listings that fail to indicate which games are blacked out in which markets.
In simple terms, the NHL does not allow the broad distribution of one team's games in another team's market area. The idea is to maximize the price for each team's regional broadcast rights, which are sold in packages separate from the 12-year, $5.2-billion national deal that Rogers struck with the NHL. For example, the league believes that if it allowed every Toronto Maple Leafs game to be shown in Vancouver it would drive down the price of the Canucks' regional broadcast package.
However, many games are designated as national broadcasts – 350 this season on the Rogers networks and the CBC – and they can be seen across the country, generally on Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday nights. The regional games are shown on the networks that bought them from the individual teams. In Canada, the regional English rights for the Montreal Canadiens, Canucks, Edmonton Oilers, Calgary Flames and some of the Leafs games are held by Rogers in addition to the national package. Rogers says it added 10 Canucks, Oilers, Flames and Habs games to the national broadcasts this season because it owns their regional rights as well.
TSN, owned by Rogers rival BCE Inc., has the rights to 26 Leafs games in addition to the Ottawa Senators and the Winnipeg Jets. BCE also holds the regional French rights to the Senators and Canadiens through RDS.
There are two ways around the regional blackouts – but both cost money, of course. One is a subscription to NHL Centre Ice, the cable package that carries all the regional broadcasts that are blacked out in certain areas on conventional channels. With Rogers cable, that will cost $219 for the full NHL regular season (playoff games are all available on regular channels) or, if you wait until Jan. 1 to sign up, $139 for a half-season. Prices are similar with Bell and other cable providers.
The second solution is a subscription to Rogers NHL GameCentre LIVE, a video-streaming service. This can be purchased even if your Internet or wireless provider is not Rogers. A full season costs about $200, but again the price can be prorated if it is bought later in the season. There is one catch here: Rogers is offering the service free to its Internet and wireless data customers until Dec. 31 and for the rest of the season on a couple of other wireless and Internet packages.
While the GameCentre LIVE package is cheaper than NHL Centre Ice, Canadian regional games that belong to TSN and other Rogers rivals are blacked out on GameCentre LIVE.
Some of the unhappiness of viewers was caused by mistakes in the television listings, which generally are provided to media outlets by an outside company. On Nov. 4, the Chicago Blackhawks were in Montreal to play the Canadiens, an attractive game between two top teams. Many listings, including Rogers', did not indicate that the game was blacked out in other parts of Canada, including Ontario, which upset a lot of viewers who had tuned in to the Sportsnet channel carrying the game.
An unscientific survey of online television listings showed it is hit-and-miss when it comes to noting specific blackouts. But a Rogers spokeswoman said the company shows which games are subject to blackouts on the Sportsnet listings at www.sportsnet.ca/schedule/.