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Soccer documentary a testament to CBC’s relevance

The Macdonald-Laurier Institute is sponsoring a debate on October 4 with the title Resolved: Canada no longer needs the CBC. Mark Starowicz, the legendary CBC documentary producer, who is arguing against the proposition, might want to point to the documentary tonight on CBC News about soccer match fixing around the world and even here in Canada.

The doc, says CBC, "looks at a gang from Germany responsible for manipulating games in top professional soccer leagues all around the world—and reveals stunning wiretap evidence of how players were paid to fix a Canadian Soccer League (CSL) game played in Trois Rivieres, Que." There have been allegations from journalist Declan Hill of soccer match fixing in the past, but nothing quite so detailed as what CBC reporter Diana Swain reveals in the piece.

The segment proves how closely gamblers operate to sports teams and leagues - a fact emphasized by the exposure of crooked NBA referee Tim Donaghy several years ago. It also is a testament to why CBC still has relevance. Who else in TV will do a piece about sports bribery in minor Canadian soccer leagues? Who else will spend the money necessary to sustain the weeks of research, travel and staffing to do such stories?

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These in-depth investigative pieces are simply not in the DNA of the dedicated sports TV networks in Canada who tend to concentrate on personality and programming. Without CBC, such stories and their implications would simply never be realized in Canada. Newspapers and magazines still break great stories, but the internet has put their future is in peril. Mr. Starowicz has a strong brief in the debate if he simply shows tonight's documentary.

Tennis Anyone?: The CRTC hearings into the sale of Astral Communications to Bell Inc. are trying to determine a proper level of media concentration in Canada. In the sports realm, that concentration might have been reached this weekend as the beginning of the NFL season, the U.S. Open Tennis, the CFL and the PGA Tour's FedEx Cup playoffs all collided on TSN and TSN 2.

TSN has smartly acquired its A list of properties (they also carry extensive auto racing, curling, NBA and NHL) but, so far, it is constrained by having just two dedicated channels for its inventory (TSN has back channels for its regional NHL coverage.). Typical of the traffic jam came Monday as the brilliant five-hour U.S. Open final between winner Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic, delayed from Sunday, was bumped to TSN 2 in favour of the first NFL Monday night of the 2012 season.

Understandable, as tennis is popular, but the NFL is God in TV programming. While TSN is carried on basic cable and has over nine million subscribers, TSN2 is an optional service with about 6.3 million subscribers.Tennis fans who don't get TSN's secondary channel were upset. That was exacerbated when many CBS affiliates carried on Canada's cable/ satellite systems stuck with local news coverage through the early hours of the five-set match. Hence, no tennis.

Now, there is no constitutional right to watching tennis, but don't tell that to tennis fans who missed some or all of the epic win by Murray.

When asked by Usual Suspects about having just two outlets for so many products, TSN president Stewart Johnston acknowledged the tight squeeze over the past days, but said all the events were shown. He added that TSN has no immediate plans to launch another channel. Johnston says TSN looked at purchasing The Score on four separate occasions but nothing came from the talks. Its competitor, Rogers' Sportsnet, will have six channels if its purchase of The Score goes through in October. Interestingly, Rogers is among those protesting Bell's acquisition of Astral on the grounds of too much concentration.

The increasing use of live streaming may alleviate some of this pressure in the future for all networks. But thus far, the streaming numbers and sponsorship don't justify placing a premium event solely on the web. NHL (if/ when it begins) and NFL rarely fall from the main TSN channel, but for all other TSN properties it remains a juggling match to make sure fans of those sports don't wind up feeling left out the way tennis fans did Monday.

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MNF Changes: Speaking of NFL, it was interesting to see Monday Night Football dispense with its usual "Are You Ready For Some Football?" openings this season. Hank Williams Jr., who was the face of MNF intros since 1989, was dispatched last October for comments when he compared president Barack Obama to Adolph Hitler.

Instead of finding a replacement this year, MNF simply segued from its pregame show to the game itself with little fanfare. Viewers heard the theme music but saw little hoopla. It's part of several changes to ESPN's MNF which has been supplanted by NBC's Football Night In America on Sundays as the top football program in the U.S. Ron Jaworski was punted from the announce booth to allow more time for Jon Gruden to like everyone he sees on the field. As well, MNF gassed the usual player intros that used to have players announcing what school many of them never graduated from.

We like one of the two changes, and it isn't the player intros.

Canada Cup Redux: Canadian programmers are still a little fuzzy about what to do without NHL games should the lockout occur. But they can do worse than TSN's decision to re-live the entire final of the 1987 Canada Cup on its 25th anniversary. While the 1972 Summit Series gets the headlines, the 1987 tournament probably represents the greatest single collection of hockey talent across the six teams participating. (Look for a youthful Dominik Hasek in the Czech net.)

The impact of Wayne Gretzky and international play can clearly be seen in the wonderful hockey that was played that fall. The broadcasts of Dan Kelly's iconic call of the final began Tuesday night with TSN supplementing the games with contemporary interviews with Canadian coach Mike Keenan and others. And no, Alan Eagleson, the chairman of that tournament, will not be among those asked to reminisce.

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