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The CBC's reliance on Don Cherry's NHL cost them dearly by Michael Stewart

Nov 29, 2013

Source: Rabble.ca

On Tuesday, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman announced a 12-year, $5.2-billion deal awarding Rogers Communications exclusive rights to all NHL games on all platforms -- cable, internet and mobile. In an instant, the Canadian sports media landscape shifted. TSN, the Canadian sports broadcasting leader for years, appeared to lose everything. Meanwhile, the CBC's venerable Hockey Night in Canada franchise, still reeling from losing their famous anthem a few years earlier (to none other than TSN), was reduced to a mote in the eye of Rogers' massive telecommunications network.

Stripped of editorial control, HNIC will show one or two games a week (of Rogers' choosing) until they fizzle out four years from now when their contract is up. Call it a parting gift from Bettman for their six decades of service to the NHL.

The deal has huge implications for hockey fans, of course -- Saturday night's big Canadian team games will no longer stream for free on cbc.ca, nor will they be available on public airwaves. It also signals a shift in the way media rights are distributed. CBC lost the television rights to 2010 Vancouver Olympics because they were outbid by CTV -- but it seems no amount of money would have saved them this time around.

The plum of the Rogers deal is not exclusive TV rights (although that ain't too shabby), but the cross-platform monopoly: no matter what size screen is showing the game -- cell phones, tablet, desktop, television -- Rogers is pulling in a handsome penny. Only a corporation with a huge army of smartphones could make this deal profitable.

But of course the real revelation from this story is the fate of public broadcasting. It's impossible not to hear the panic saturating Radio One as they report on this story every ten minutes. And who can blame them? It's estimated that half of CBC TV's advertising revenue comes from hockey. That's now gone. Even though the CBC will continue to broadcast Rogers' crumbs on Saturday nights, with a devious turn of the blade, Rogers -- not the CBC -- will collect all advertising and sponsorship revenue from the games shown.

Already the CBC's enemies are licking their chops at what this means for the future of publicly funded media. "Without hockey, CBC TV is little more than a make-work project for Canadian television producers who make content that very few people want to watch," Jesse Kline declares in the National Post. "Would it not be better to privatize the network and allow private managers to find a business model that will sustain the institution into the future?" Hmm. Good question, Jesse. Do tell.

On one hand, hockey has always been part of the national public broadcaster's nation-building mandate: only hockey, it was said, could unite the diverse, bilingual, people of Two Solitudes. On the other hand, isn't it a bit ridiculous to think that a game predominantly played by white, male millionaires can still gloss the Canadian national question in the twenty-first century? Can Roch Carrier's Hockey Sweater still bear the weight of ethnic and cultural pressures which no longer stretch from Bobby Orr to Maurice Richard, but from Nunavut to Sri Lanka?

Since the emergence of the first national private broadcaster, CTV, the CBC has had to balance its nation-building project with a perceived need to compete for market share. As its monopoly on televised sport eroded (some argue CTV would never have survived if it hadn't won the right to broadcast CFL games in the 1970s), CBC, particularly its television arm, contorted itself more and more so it could keep one hand in the respectable, intelligent corduroy pocket of its heritage and the other in the blustering, red-faced fanny pack of cable sport spectacle. Or in other words, they hired Ron McLean and Don Cherry.

For supporters of public broadcasting, it can be hard not to look at this deal as the CBC reaping what they've sown. For the better part of the last decade, Don Cherry's HNIC has become an advertisement for the Canadian Armed Forces and the government's foreign, imperialist adventures. Under the auspices of hockey commentary, Cherry has been given a platform to vent his xenophobic, pro-violence and sexist rants without consequence, and the more unhinged he became, the more CBC decided they needed him. His offences number far too many to catalogue here, but you could do worse than start here, here or here.

And of course, who could be prouder than the CBC when Cherry showed up in Toronto wearing a pink suit to give the inauguration address for the then-new mayor Rob Ford, in happier times. "I say he’s going to be the greatest mayor this city has ever seen,” Cherry said. "you can put that in your pipe you left-wing kooks.” Hello Canada and hockey fans in the United States and Newfoundland. The voice of the CBC.

The main culprit in this, of course, is the successive Liberal and Conservative governments that whittled away at the Canadian public broadcaster's budget, rendering the CBC more and more desperate for advertising and sponsorship revenue and vulnerable to the whims of a market they did not control. But the CBC has always employed the strategy of protecting what they had instead of making a case for why a national broadcaster is a public benefit. Instead, it was left to citizen movements like ReimagineCBC to remind Canadians that having a publicly funded alternative to corporate media protects cultural patrimony, encourages diversity and focuses on the social good rather than profit.

Instead, on-air personalities who would be at home on Fox News like Kevin O'Leary flourish while CBC strategists wonder why they continue to bleed market share to the private, corporate giants. As It Happens host Barbara Budd is replaced by the dude who made a good beer commercial one time. As for Cherry, there is something tragicomic in watching the CBC hitch more and more of its load to a cliché-spouting maniac in a gold lamé jacket because it's the only product it can sell.

Hockey is a great game: and the CBC should be proud of much of what it's done for hockey culture the last 61 years. But at some point -- maybe it was when the Leafs traded Frank Mahovlich, maybe it was when the Winnipeg Jets moved to Arizona -- it should have occurred to the CBC that flogging professional hockey because that's what they've always done was not a strategy built to last. The CBC got found out, it's as simple as that.

It's tempting, at least for public broadcaster advocates, to look at this deal as an opportunity to redefine, reimagine what the CBC should look like -- but there's blood in the water. And Stephen Harper, whose book about hockey you can purchase from Amazon for $17.50 CAD, knows what to do when an enemy shows weakness. Just ask Stéphane Dion. Harper, embattled from too many scandals and facing leadership fatigue, needs an issue to mobilize his base for 2015. A CBC bereft of funding and morale is an early Christmas present.

So keep your head up and your stick on the ice, CBC. It's going to be a long playoffs.

© Rabble.ca