CBC Mid-Season Schedule: NHL Lockout Leaves Big Hole to Fill

2012 NHL Winter Classic Action Shot - P

The Canadian pubcaster uses returning shows and repeats to deal with lost revenue from no live TV hockey Saturday nights and deep budget chops by Ottawa.

TORONTO – Canadian pubcaster CBC is to air Sunday night The Phantoms, a TV movie that portrays the true-life aftermath of a 2008 highway accident that cost the lives of seven Bathurst, New Brunswick, high school basketball players and the coach’s wife.

But sports being all about stepping up, overcoming the unforeseeable and giving it your all for the team, the Bathurst high school miraculously won the provincial championship a year after the tragic crash.

“It’s about the resiliency of the human spirit,” The Phantoms director Sudz Sutherland explained ahead of the CBC debut. “It’s about getting up after you were knocked down.”

That same dynamic of trial to possible redemption is at play with the CBC, which faces a widening revenue shortfall as the NHL lockout threatens to drag into 2013.

“We would like to see the Saturday night games back on Hockey Night in Canada,” said Kirstine Stewart, head of the CBC’s English-language services, as repeats fill the void left by the absence of popular live NHL games on Saturday nights.

The pubcaster relies heavily on TV hockey revenue, especially in the spring when it airs the NHL’s Stanley Cup playoff and championship rounds.

So Stewart is doing her best to make do and move on as the CBC this week unveiled its winter 2013 schedule.

And given the CBC also faces $115 million in budget cuts over three years imposed by the federal government, the CBC topper is also trying to do more with less.

That includes the new Wednesday night reality series March to the Top, about 12 wounded Canadian soldiers training to climb to the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro.

“This is their journey,” Stewart says, and the CBC’s own as it faces an uphill battle to keep pace with rival private sector Canadian networks that stuff their prime time schedules full of U.S. network series.

This winter, the CBC is moving the Republic of Doyle dramedy to Sunday nights, and the new police drama Cracked will air on Tuesday nights at 9 p.m., with the returning and popular The Rick Mercer Report as a lead-in at 8 p.m.

There’s also returning seasons of Heartland, the Canadian version of Dragon's Den and Mr. D, and the debut of Murdoch Mysteries on the CBC after it was cancelled by Citytv.

The consolation for Stewart is the Canadian programming allows the CBC to distinguish itself on a primetime dial north of the U.S. border for the most part dominated by American fare.

“I don't think many find us similar to other Canadian networks, given their schedule is predominately U.S. shows redistributed on their networks,” she said.

If anything, having more weeknight slots for Canadian shows also gives the CBC more of a chance to have homegreown shows connect with Canadians.

“I think by pure volume, we have the opportunity for more weeknight hits, as our schedule isn't dominated by U.S. simulcasts,” Stewart said.

She also applauded rival networks for success with their own Canadian shows, as a rising tide lifts all local series.

“It's great that they are having some success with the few Canadian shows they do make - it proves our adage that Canadians would watch great Canadian shows if they're made available to them,” Stewart argued.

And yet, the CBC’s road ahead would be less bumpy if the NHL got back on the ice, so the pubcaster can air fewer repeats and more new shows.

Until the NHL labor dispute is settled, Stewart is putting a brave face on the absence of live TV hockey on her schedule. “Surprisingly, and a good sign, is that it (NHL lockout) hasn't had too much of an adverse affect on the rest of our schedule,” she said.

“In fact, some fall timeslots were up, compared with last year. This is the benefit of a 'diversified' Canadian program schedule,” Stewart added.