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Screen Shots: CBC's loss a costly proposition

As was made completely clear during the 2004-05 lockout, the NHL's strategic business decisions can affect a considerable and varied group of people – including thousands not under the direct employ of Gary Bettman or Ted Saskin.

Food and beverage workers (inside and outside the arenas), ushers, and those in the hockey equipment industry, among others, were forced into abrupt career changes due to the season's cancellation. For the most part, those folks suffered in silence, with nary a multi-million-dollar war chest to offset the pain. It was a brutal reminder of the precarious economic domino structure that allows people to make their next mortgage payment, and few who felt its sting will soon forget it.

Unfortunately, we're about to witness another evolution in the NHL's business plans, and its ripple effect on other enterprises. This time, though, the league's decisions have the potential not only to again increase the unemployment rate, but also to fundamentally alter the fabric of a nation.

That's the first thought that came to mind when we heard a private Canadian company – Bell Globemedia, whose massive portfolio includes the CTV national TV network, TSN (Canada's top sports broadcaster), and a share of the Toronto Maple Leafs – intends to drastically outbid the government-owned Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) for the rights to show NHL games.

Now, if you're reading this outside of Canada, other thoughts may have come to mind, including (a) Huh? and (b) How could a simple transfer of broadcasting contracts change the very nature of a country?

Here's how: The CBC currently pays some $65-million annually to air NHL games on its stations, and doesn't charge Canadians a penny more than they pay in taxes to watch those games. In return, the network generates more than $30 million each year in advertising revenue, which helps cover the costs related to its world-renowned news services.

If the CBC loses those rights when its contract with the NHL expires at the end of the 2007-08 season – and with Bell Globemedia's initial offer reported to be in the $140-million-a-year range for 10 years, there is little doubt it will – its biggest moneymaker will shake for the competition, and the fallout on the public broadcaster's hard news division will be horrendous.

Hundreds, if not thousands of jobs will be lost. Important documentaries and educational programs will go un-financed, un-purchased and un-aired. Sooner than later, the CBC will become PBS minus the ponderous pledge drives, reduced to airing Engelbert Humperdinck concerts for the blue-rinse demographic.

Indeed, when we talk about NHL broadcasting rights and whether or not CBC's legendary Hockey Night In Canada program will become mere legend, what we're really debating are the nature and focus of Canada's national broadcaster.

Some feel the CBC is a tax-wasting propaganda tool of the country's political left, and deserves to be privatized post-haste. Others believe the network provides a vital public service by keeping the population informed, and should be protected from advertiser pressure by fully bankrolling it via government funds.

We're squarely in the latter group. And that's not because this writer has been paid to appear on CBC programming for the last few years.

All you need to do is look at some of Canada's other private broadcasters – such as the one that decided against airing live coverage of two separate provincial elections in favor of Friends and Survivor episodes – to see what bottom-line economics and ratings fixations can do to a newsroom. The CBC's relative independence means it can afford to avoid Brangelina, Vaughniston and other symptoms of our celebrity-smitten culture, and instead pursue stories of real and lasting civic consequence.

Regardless of your leanings on the debate, there is little doubt the CBC is approaching the biggest crossroads in its history, and it is being delivered to the intersection by the NHL's business interests.

In this instance, Bettman and the owners can't be faulted for pursuing the best deal for their product (although some might argue moving games from “free” TV to cable will result in a viewer drain similar to the one that took place when the league left ESPN last year for a broadcasting deal with OLN). Bell Globemedia's offer is simply too rich for any sane business executive to reject.

There is an outside chance the federal government could attempt to keep NHL games on the CBC choose by matching the $1.4 billion offer. But seeing as Bell Globemedia is hiring hockey experts from rival networks – as well as the fact they've already secured the rights to the Olympic Games in 2010 and 2012 – it is likely they would go the extra mile to beat the CBC's best offer.

So it seems undeniable, and undeniably sad, that a relationship which has seen Hockey Night aired on the CBC for nearly 55 years will soon come to an end.

Sadder still will be the new reality for Canadians who value their news untainted by the odor of commerce.

Adam Proteau's Screen Shots appears every Monday only on throughout the season and bi-weekly throughout the summer only on Want to take a shot at Adam Proteau? You can reach him at

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