By Sean Davidson 03-10-2012
The ongoing contract dispute between the National Hockey League (NHL) and its players is creating headaches for Canadian networks as programmers look to fill gaps in their schedules and brace for losses in ad revenue.
The likes of CBC and Bell Media-owned sportscaster TSN have been without hockey since the NHL locked out its players on September 15 and cancelled all pre-season games. Talks on a new contract continue but are reportedly making no progress, raising fears that regular season games will also be cut – an unwelcome possibility in Canada, where broadcasters rely on hockey the way retailers rely on Christmas. The regular season is scheduled to start on October 8.
There will be a “loss of tuning” and ad revenue if the dispute drags on, says Christina Laczka, group director of the Toronto-based ad firm PhD. She predicts that 20-30% of advertisers normally associated with hockey will pull their ads from TV entirely, while the others will move to other programming.
Those losses will be offset, some say quite significantly, by what the networks save on licensing fees to the NHL and the production costs of their sportscasts. A large broadcaster like Bell/TSN will also have an easier time making up the difference with other sports programming.
But any loss is sure to be felt at the already cash-strapped CBC, where Saturday night’s Hockey Night in Canada is a major revenue stream. The national pubcaster was hit with a 10% budget cut earlier this year and left straining to fill its 2012/13 schedule even before the lock-out.
During a recent town hall-style meeting, CBC chief financial officer Suzanne Morris noted the network is lining up “replacement programming and cost containment” to deal with the delay and possible cancellation of the NHL season. The national pubcaster has recently been filling its Saturdays with movies.
Its biggest commercial competitor, CTV, has meanwhile capitalised on the situation by running back-to-back episodes of the country’s top-rated sitcom, a block of shows it bills, somewhat cheekily, as “Big Bang Night in Canada.” Laczka doubts that much can be done to the Saturday night ratings on either network, however. “Saturday night is going to fall off,” she said.
Neither CBC nor TSN will discuss their plans for an extended NHL dispute. But privately, programmers and buyers note that filling in for hockey is difficult because, in the event of a settlement, games can be back on the air in just over a week, which leaves little room to commit to other shows.
During previous disputes broadcasters have turned to a combination of minor-and foreign-league games. Poker games were also a popular choice in 2004/05 when a prolonged dispute led to the cancellation of the entire NHL season.
But it is unlikely networks will make the same choices this time. When TSN aired games from Europe’s Kontinental Hockey League in 2004/05, the scheduling was difficult because of the time difference and the ratings were dismal. Hockey fans also showed little interest in the minor leagues and the odds seem long on another poker craze.
“I personally don’t see something like that happening again, a big phenomenon like poker,” said Laczka. “At this point we’re just taking it day by day. You can’t make any sudden moves.”