'Hockey Night' power play bad news for CBC


Not since CBS trumped NBC for the rights to Major League Baseball telecasts in 1988 and Fox wrested the NFL from CBS in 1993 has a bidding war for an established sports franchise had as many potential ramifications as what is currently playing out north of the border.

Canada's government-owned CBC has traditionally thrived on Saturday nights thanks to the venerable "Hockey Night in Canada" franchise. The primetime doubleheader of games featuring Canada's own NHL teams has epitomized "must-see TV" in the country for about 55 years. If you include radio, the CBC has been identified with hockey for some seven decades.

That could all come to a sudden halt after the 2007-08 season. With the private company Bell Globemedia (owner of the CTV broadcast network and TSN, Canada's cable cousin to ESPN) poised to up the ante with a reported 10-year, $1.4 billion bid for the Saturday package, the CBC is looking square into the goalie's mask at life without hockey and the ripple effect that would have on the network goes well beyond pucks and body checks.

According to The Hockey News, the CBC currently pays about $65 million a year to air "Hockey Night in Canada." The money is derived from tax dollars only. The CBC gets back more than $30 million in ad revenue, which the newspaper says is used to support the network's worldwide newsgathering operation. Thus, the loss of hockey would directly impact the news operation at the CBC, cutting into production of documentary and other longform programming and likely prompting a significant loss of jobs.

Also affected would be the network's ability to launch new shows and promote its primetime schedule, which apparently can use all the help it can get. Outside of "Hockey Night in Canada," no CBC show cracks the top 20 in Canada's national TV ratings. Much of this has to do with the heavy influx of U.S. programming that predominates its competitors' schedules.

Take, for example, the recent 10-hour CBC documentary "Hockey: A People's History" that aired over five weeks in primetime on Sunday nights. Despite heavy promotion on and off air, the Sept. 24 episode that aired opposite "Desperate Housewives" on CTV was able to attract just 390,000 viewers compared with "Housewives'" 2.7 million, according to the Toronto Sun. And that's with "Hockey Night in Canada" as a potential driver.

While sports franchises tend to shift among networks in the U.S. with some frequency, "Hockey Night in Canada" has been a CBC staple, and the network has consistently set the standard for how hockey telecasts are produced. But like the Montreal Forum and Maple Leaf Gardens, nothing lasts forever and the CBC must now consider a future without Canada's national pastime -- a future that poses many questions about the network's own health and welfare.

Howard Burns' new "In the Nosebleeds" column appears exclusively on hollywoodreporter.com. It offers analytical view of sports media, with emphasis and commentary on the latest trends in broadcasting and a look at the personalities making news.