Imagine turning on your television, searching for your local CBC channel, only to find out it no longer exists.

No more Hockey Night in Canada on Saturday nights, no more summer or winter Olympics, no more dinner-time newscasts with Peter Mansbridge—such is the reality the network may soon face given the loss of its flagship programming, NHL hockey, to Rogers Media, says David Taras, a professor of communications at Mount Royal University in Calgary.

Taras says his initial reaction to hearing that the CBC lost the rights to broadcast NHL hockey was the “death of the CBC,” but he also notes that the race for broadcasting rights for sports and entertainment points to a larger issue in Canadian broadcasting.

“We have the networks betting on sports for two reasons. One is sports are very popular. There are huge amounts of money in it, and it’s central to the culture. And the other reason is cord cutting. So if you own live sports, and I would even say beyond that, live entertainment, then it prevents cord cutting because in order for people to get sports, they have to watch live,” says Taras.

Taras suggests that, for the CBC, it appears as though the loss of NHL hockey to Rogers was only the spark that may soon ignite a forest fire.

However not all are ready to question whether CBC can survive the loss of NHL hockey revenues. Ian Morrison, president of FRIENDS of Canadian Broadcasting, a non-profit watchdog group for Canadian programming, unaffiliated with the CBC or any other broadcaster, says the idea of CBC dying off is merely a myth.After the NHL and Rogers announced a 12-year mega deal to earn all national broadcast rights, other big name sports broadcasters like TSN and CBC’s Hockey Night in Canada have been put on the ropes, and need to find ways to stay afloat in the Canadian sports broadcasting industry.

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia Creative Commons

“There are people around that want to create the impression that the loss of the NHL rights is bad for the CBC and that it explains certain cuts that are happening at the CBC and one group that I would accuse of that is CBC’s board of directors who are all appointed by the Conservative government, and actually by [Stephen] Harper,” says Morrison.

Moreover, contrary to popular opinion, Morrison suggests the broadcaster is now in a better position than when it had the rights to NHL hockey.

“Losing the rights saves the CBC 200 million in expenditures plus the cost of actually producing the games, which is in the range of 25 million dollars in a year. So they save that money and they are now filling about 300 plus hours of primetime on Saturday night, and that would include primetime during the playoffs, and they don’t have to pay a cent for the programming they get during those hours,” says Morrison.

Though not all agree on the future of Canada’s only national, public broadcaster, it is clear that the CBC is not the only network searching for a clearing in the smoke.

For Bell Media’s TSN, as well as Rogers’ Sportsnet, the future remains just as hazy and the fight for survival is just as intense and just as necessary in this new world of broadcasting says Taras.

“What’s coming is Netflix, YouTube and Hulu and all of this Internet broadcasting. So what’s the defense against Internet broadcasting? Having a product within cable where there’s a lot of sticky glue for the audience.”

This reality works to explain why companies like Rogers will put forward over half a trillion dollars over the next twelve years for a product like NHL hockey, and why broadcasters like TSN and CBC may now be holding on for dear life. Representatives from Bell, Rogers and CBC all chose to not respond to requests for interviews.

Bruce Dowbiggin, a former sports journalist for CBC agrees with Taras, saying, “the future, most people concede, is going to be with people who control product, and there’s still no product like Hockey Night in Canada for Canadian broadcasting.”

But does owning the rights to NHL broadcasting ensure Rogers’ success and survival? The short answer is no.

“For Rogers this is a big bet,” says Taras. “This is a big gamble. This is dice on the table. And you know, you don’t want to lose.”

Though that may seem like stating the obvious, for Rogers there is plenty to lose, but also plenty to gain. If Rogers succeeds, like CBC, they will gain “Hearts and minds: an audience,” says Taras. This leads to advertising, which in turn leads to profit.

For CBC, the loss is felt even deeper as Hockey Night in Canada constituted such an important part of their network.

“Hockey Night in Canada was generating half the revenue of English language television,” says Taras, “And the problem for the CBC is that it was the mandate, it was the brand and it also provided access to a different audience than it normally gets.”

This is the unfortunate reality the CBC now faces. To make matters worse, not only did CBC lose any rights to their product, but also much of their dignity in the process.

“Among the number of blows, this is a blow,” says Taras. “To have someone else come in to your studio, into your building, take your guys and then they do the advertising and the revenue goes to them; it’s the humiliation. Aside from the loss of revenue, it’s just plain humiliating.”

However, humiliation aside, Taras believes the lack of NHL hockey may spell the eventual death of the CBC.

It’s not just a loss of revenue, or audience or even the Canadian content explains Taras—it’s a matter of whether or not the CBC can compete in such an environment. He says it will be difficult to compete with privately funded companies like Rogers and Bell Media (the owner of TSN) who can bid more dollars towards live entertainment and sports.

“For Rogers this is a big bet, This is a big gamble. This is dice on the table. And you know, you don’t want to lose.” 

David Taras, Communication Professor Mount Royal University 

Although Dowbiggin agrees with Taras, he’s not quite ready to pronounce them dead yet.

“I don’t think it kills them, but it certainly is the end of the broadcaster that we used to know as the CBC.”

On the contrary Morrison suggests that, at least in its present situation, the CBC may actually in a better position than its competitors.

“The CBC sort of blundered in to doing something, failed to accomplish it and is better off because of that failure. That story is not really out there, but it’s true,” says Morrison.

Furthermore, Morrison suggests that Rogers is now facing a huge crisis after overpaying for the NHL hockey rights. By offering hockey on all platforms at all times, he says, they’ve essentially spread themselves too thin: the supply doesn’t meet the demand.

On the other side of the fence lies TSN.

Although the network never completely relied on hockey like the CBC, it did make up a large part of their broadcast hence their slogan, ‘Hockey lives here.’ But after losing the bidding war to the NHL broadcasting rights for the next 12 years, TSN must also reinvent themselves or risk extinction.

“TSN has to have something they can fire back with, and right now what do they got?” says Dowbiggin. “They’ve got nothing until July when the CFL starts again. They’ve got some golf tournaments, some tennis tournaments, etc., but they haven’t got anything that’s going to hold the broad spectrum of Canadian viewers, so it’s a really, really challenging thing for them.”

TSN does maintain regional rights to broadcast English language, regular season games in the Montreal, Winnipeg and Ottawa regions, but aside from those games they are shut out from the action completely.

Losing the rights to the NHL may not be as big a deal for TSN then, as it is for the CBC, especially since, as Dowbiggin says, many Canadian fans are often just a fan of their local team.

The problem for TSN, he says, is out with the other half of the country.

“TSN needs some sort of brand identification in the west, and I don’t know how they’re going to get it because Rogers has tied up the Flames, the Oilers, and the Canucks for the next ten years,” says Dowbiggin.

This is a big problem for a national sports channel, whose other slogan is ‘Canada’s sports leader.’

Of course, TSN does carry many other sporting events, including NBA basketball, various major golf and tennis tournaments, and NFL football, and they have now expanded to five national channels to carry what they deem a revamped lineup of sports, but according to Dowbiggin this may not be enough.

At the end of the day it may come down to making a deal with their archrivals, Rogers.

“Their last good hope right now is they’re sitting there thinking, let’s give this 3-4 years, then they’re going to get desperate and they’ll come to us and they’ll sell us a package. That’s what they’re telling themselves,” says Dowbiggin. “And the Rogers guys, of course, they’d rather [die] then give them a piece of the package.”

Likewise, it appears as though a package deal may also be the saving grace of the CBC, says Morrison.

“One scenario I would have is that well before the four years is up, Rogers will try to renew the deal for a longer period of time because they need CBC as much as the CBC needs them: it’s a symbiotic relationship.”

Canadian broadcasting stands to look very different in the coming years given the falling of such a big domino.

Though the future remains hazy, what is already clear is the fact that there will be big winners, and even bigger losers. Ultimately in the determination of who wins and who loses, it will come down to the fans and the dollars they choose to spend, or save.

jdahl@cjournal.ca

The editor responsible for this story is Melanie Walsh at mwalsh@cjournal.ca

Thumbnail photo courtesy of Naila Jinnah/FlickrCreative Commons License