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Media Bites: In Losing Hockey Night in Canada, CBC Might Have Scored

11/28/2013 08:24 EST | Updated 01/28/2014 05:59 EST

The CBC isn't normally one to balk at a price tag. This is the outfit, after all, whose annual budget comprises a guaranteed billion dollars of taxpayer cash -- plus another half billion-a-year in advertising revenue. But such was the case on Tuesday.

In a truly savage blow to the station that has inspired a flurry of armchair death-watching, Canada's beloved state-run broadcaster was muscled out of the hockey biz the other day after the Rogers corporation secured a $5.2-billion deal with the NHL for the exclusive right to broadcast League games in this country for the next dozen years.

The CBC is "not in a position to spend taxpayers money on this game of high stakes," conceded corporate president Hubert Lacroix glumly in a post-deal media scrum, later clarifying in an interview with his own network that billion-dollar bidding wars are probably "not, we think, the best way to spend taxpayers' money."

So no more hockey for the CBC. Which means no more Hockey Night in Canada, either. The flagship program will soon be under the "editorial control" of (i.e., made by) Rogers producers and aired on Rogers-owned channels, with Rogers executives pocketing all the ad money. True, under the terms of a patronizing little side-deal, the CBC will still be permitted to air the new HNIC for a little while -- just not earn any cash from doing so. Four years later, the show will formally divorce the network altogether. And since I'm sure you're wondering, no, we don't know what's going to happen to Don Cherry.

President Lacroix has done his best to put a happy face on things, and not all his arguments have been entirely specious. For one, no longer being able to broadcast hockey means the CBC no longer has to pay for hockey, which is good, because rights to the sport have become enormously expensive in this multi-platform era of ours. Even in their first, cheapest contract year with the NHL, Rogers will be paying an enormous $300 million to air simultaneous live coverage of all games featuring Canadian teams, a figure three times higher than what CBC currently pays through their stingy "gatekeeper" model, in which calculating HNIC producers air only the League's most profitable matches.

Similarly, even if the show no longer brings revenue to the network, airing the new Rogers-made HNIC for four lean years still represents a vastly cheaper option for the CBC than creating something new to fill the enormous three-hours-a-week time-slot the show currently hogs -- say, three new seasons of Arctic Air. Overall, said Lacroix, it was "a very fiscally responsible transaction" for a public broadcaster already reeling from Harper-imposed belt-tightening.

Yet let's not understate just how many eggs the CBC has placed in the hockey basket. Browse the Canadian television ratings and you'll see that on any given week, HNIC is routinely the sole CBC offering to crack the nation's Top 30 most-watched, which is to say, shows commanding a weekly audience of a million or more. Contrary to widespread belief, CBC's national news reporting is not actually popular -- CTV's Lisa Laflamme easily clobbers Peter Mansbridge -- while their prime time dramadies, Republic of Doyle and whatnot, are exactly as well-liked as you'd expect television shows created by a soulless government bureaucracy to be. The end result is that HNIC-related revenue is said to rival that of all other CBC shows combined. The network's "deal" with Rogers, such as it exists, is thus quite literally a band-aid solution -- it can stop the short-term outflow of blood, but won't do much to actually heal the gaping wound it covers.

Which has some folks on the right already salivating with schadenfreude. Jesse Klein in the National Post, for instance, suspects that a "weakened CBC will bring renewed calls for its privatization" and a re-election temptation for a Conservative government "looking to throw a bone to its base." Lefties foresee the same, but in obviously more ominous terms.

Such premonitions of radical change, however, presume that the folks charged with running the CBC, from the Prime Minister on down, are actually capable of judging the network's usefulness as a public broadcaster with something resembling humanoid logic. And for that we have very little evidence.

Logical managers, after all, would have never allowed the CBC to get into the hockey business to begin with. Televised sports are a good the private sector has never had any trouble providing, nor one the public has ever expressed any reservations about paying for (which is especially good given all this gossip about looming post-deal cable hikes). But for 60 years the mother corp has been permitted to blow millions of tax dollars providing the nation with this redundant subsidized "service" anyway, a more-than-half-century absurdity whose bluff is only now being called. Far from being a stirring symbol of CBC success, Hockey Night in Canada has long been the single most wasteful monument to the network's fundamentally confused mandate -- a crown corporation that's deeply concerned with popularity and profits (hockey), except when it's not (everything else).

Dying dogs are slow to learn new tricks. The incoherent thinking that's propped up the CBC for seven decades is what brought the network into its present mess. It would be naive to assume anything different will be used to clean it up.

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