Jim Hughson didn’t have any trouble filling the time during the previous two NHL lockouts.
But the current one poses a greater challenge for the “Hockey Night in Canada” play-by-play announcer.
He kept busy by taking his children to various sporting activities during 1994-95 work stoppage and served as a coach for his son’s minor hockey team in 2004-05 when the entire season was cancelled due to a lockout.
But Hughson’s kids are older and more independent now—his son is in university and his daughter is in her last year of high school—and he expects he’ll be “terribly bored” if the current lockout extends into the regular season.
“But we’ve been through this a couple times. I was through this in ’94 and I was through this in (2004-05) and, I guess, apparently, we’re going through it again,” he said in an interview. “So you find other things to do.”
The other things include a weekly radio gig on a Vancouver all-sports station (which he would do anyway), possibly taking a course on boating, running, cycling and doing countless things around the house.
The 30-year NHL broadcast veteran is one of hundreds of television industry personnel, both staff and freelance, who will be affected by a lockout if it stretches into the regular season.
Hughson, who will not be paid by CBC during the lockout, lends a high profile to anonymous behind-the-scenes photographers, producers and technicians, as well as announcers, who face a sharp drop in income. Staffers can work on other broadcasts for their networks, but freelancers face an uncertain future.
Networks stand to lose broadcasts that attract millions of viewers and generate millions of dollars in advertising revenue. CBC president Hubert Lacroix acknowledged this week that a delayed or cancelled season would be “a cash flow challenge for us.”
While Lacroix said CBC has ”replacement programming”, it’s still not fully clear how networks will fill the void created by a lockout. Hughson is not anticipating any exceptional replacements.
“In Canada, if you want to start a conversation, you either talk about hockey or the weather—and now we’re reduced to the weather,” he said. “There isn’t any hockey at the National Hockey League level to talk about, and I just don’t think that the networks have found adequate replacements for that.”
In previous lockouts, the networks aired more major junior and American Hockey League games. But Hughson said the ratings and revenues do not justify the production costs, which are about on par with NHL telecasts.
“With all due respect to all of the networks, we’ve not found anything that can replace the numbers,” said Hughson.
Paul Graham, a TSN vice-president and executive producer of live events, said his network is not worried about what will happen in the short-term because it has plenty of programming tied to CFL, NBA, NASCAR and other events. He hopes a long-term hockey hiatus can be avoided.
“At the end of the day, everyone wants hockey,” he said. “That’s the sport of our country, and that’s the sport that brings in the most consistent ratings on our network.”
TSN could expand its slate to include additional live events, news, talk shows and documentaries. Some potential additions include expanded Major League Soccer playoff coverage, more NFL programming and increased world junior hockey championship coverage, a spokesman for the network said.
With the first regular-season telecasts not scheduled until Oct. 11, representatives from CBC and Sportsnet say their networks are taking a wait-and-see approach and will be prepared to roll out a different programming plan if necessary.
Hughson is not worried that lost games will harm long-term ratings in Canada. But after witnessing the game’s strong growth in the some parts of the U.S. during the 2011-12 post-season, he is concerned about the potential lasting impact on American TV ratings.
“Last spring, television in the United States was a revolution,” he said. “It was something I’d never seen. You used to have to clamber everywhere to watch a game anywhere in the United States and, this year, you could see every playoff game anywhere you went.”
Hughson is worried the NHL will lose audience gains that resulted largely from a new NBC contract, the annual Winter Classic game played outdoors and the HBO documentary “24/7” that focused on the lead-up to the Winter Classic. He believes the threat of losing the Winter Classic and “24/7” will force the league and players to try and work out a deal sooner than expected.
“Those are huge events in the United States,” said Hughson. “I also think that NBC’s (10-year, US$2-billion) contract in the United States is a bigger contract than they have in Canada, so it puts pressure on them.”
Hughson is also worried about the impact on producers, directors and technicians as well as businesses that earn considerable sums from TV broadcasts. So is Larry Isaac, a 30-year veteran freelance producer who works an average of 65 to 75 games per season airing Vancouver Canucks, Calgary Flames and Edmonton Oilers games.
Isaac has produced games for “Hockey Night in Canada,” TSN, Sportsnet and others since 1982. He now works exclusively on hockey for Sportsnet while working for the other two networks or event organizers on other sports.
He cut down on hockey broadcasts a few years ago after working on 15 Stanley Cup finals for CBC, but took on more work than usual this summer, such as the final two rounds of the Canadian Women’s Open golf tournament, Rogers Cup tennis and Davis Cup tennis, to offset the effects of the anticipated lockout.
“With the various work stoppages that started in the ’90s, I started to get a sense that I should not lay all my eggs in the hockey basket,” he said.
He estimated NHL broadcasts account for 70 per cent of a Canadian freelance TV photographer, producer and technician’s income. Unlike their U.S. counterparts, Canadian freelancers do not have as many other sports telecasts to work on.
In previous years, Isaac, 55, spent late September and early October preparing for the regular season and working on some pre-season games. This year, he is applying concrete stain to the driveway and sidewalks at his Coquitlam, B.C., home and cleaning up the 5,000-tape library in his basement office. He and his wife are also planning a trip to California.
Depending on how long the lockouts lasts, Isaac will pursue opportunities to broadcast other sporting events.
“I have no protection,” he said. “It’s a complete freelancer dilemma as to how much other work one chases, because if you try and find other things to work on and, suddenly, hockey comes back, are you able to get out of some commitments and get back to a regular job you’ve had for all these years?”
Graham said it’s ultimately up to the NHL and union to put together a long-term deal that makes everybody happy. In the meantime, the networks wait.
“We all know that, if and when the (league and union) get together and sign a new deal, then everything will have to happen immediately,” said Graham. “So a lot of your planning gets thrown out the door and you basically have to start from scratch in a lot of cases.”