Canadian TV Uses NHL And Cheaper Reality Fare For Doomsday Planning

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TORONTO -- Can money solve advertising woes for Canadian free, over-the-air TV?

That is the question posed as struggling Canadian conventional TV networks unveil survival strategies to deliver higher ratings and ad revenues to fend off predictions of doom in the digital age.

Adding NHL games to the line-up will pay handsome dividends at the loss-making City network, Rogers Media president Keith Pelley told the CRTC, the country's TV regulator, at the end of last week's license renewal hearings.

"It (NHL coverage) will provide a significant boost to City television by giving us the opportunity to reduce our reliance on U.S. programming and giving us a promotional platform for all our programming that we have never had before," he argued, with an eye to easing City's advertising revenue woes.

NHL games are already commonplace on Canadian TV, well before Rogers Media agreed to pay CAN$5.2 billion (US$4.9 billion) over 12 years for the exclusive Canadian rights to NHL games from next season.

Those games have long aired on rival channels like CBC, TSN and Sportsnet, and brought big ratings, ad dollars and audience buzz.

Now Pelley will use NHL games to eliminate around 20 percent of the U.S. network series on City to stem losses.

That's a departure for a City network that previously relied on filling out its national footprint with new TV stations, and increased spending for U.S. network dramas and comedies, to claw back audience share from market leaders CTV and Global Television.

Now City will use marquee Saturday and Sunday night hockey to promote the remaining U.S. shows and Canadian fare on its primetime schedule.

For rival CBC, which will lose NHL game ad revenue from next season as the hockey rights shift to Rogers, the pubcaster is betting it can boost ratings by replacing big-budget "shiny floor" reality competition shows like Battle of the Blades with cheaper shows.

"When you're going to take some risks with this stuff, you can't blow your brains out with these hugely expensive [reality] shows that then have a high risk of either they succeed or they fail. But if they fail you've bet the farm," Heather Conway, executive vp English services at CBC, told reporters Thursday after unveiling plans to cut 657 jobs to balance the books.

"So instead of that, we're going to look and say we can do two or three smart, distinctive, very Canadian, very unique unscripted shows -- things like Canada's Smartest Person -- and that's a lot less money, so we hope it's going to work," added Conway.

The CBC will also gut its TV sports department and scale back regional coverage to trim operating costs, and ease the impact of disappointing TV ratings.

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