Saturday, May 22, 2004

Spinning silk out of a sows ear? Or Just plain spinning?

The NHL has a new American television agreement in place, leaving the folks (or more likely being told to leave) at ABC and moving on over to NBC, the network that inflicted the XFL on us and is now the home of Arena Football and other second tier sporting activities.

The deal announced earlier this week has the financing in place to benefit NBC, which won't have to pay a dime to the NHL until the network breaks even on it's televised productions. Despite many attempts to get a foothold on the US networks, hockey just doesn't seem to have any staying power. Fox came and went taking the blue tail on the puck with them, CBS at one time tried hockey but quickly shuffled it out of the line up, ABC the most recent rights holder will follow the puck for the remainder of these playoffs, insisting on noon hour starts despite the fact that apparently no one is watching. So with ESPN 2 now the only sports network offering hockey it's back to NBC, which way back when once gave us Peter Puck, Brian McFarlane would set up the fables and foibles of an animated puck that explained the rules and built up fan interest. Judging by the lack of success over the years on American Network TV, we can only assume that Petey was a failure, which may explain why he's not coming back.

Dick Ebersol is saying all the right things about hockey returning to his network, how he respects the game and won't attach any gimmicks to bring in an audience, but the simple fact is that the NHL is almost providing filler programming for the Saturday or blocks, once again hockey will be ignored until the all star game and for Seven Saturdays in the regular season. Viewers stumbling across the good ole hockey game cause the good ole boys in the Nascar vehicles had taken the week off. Building an audience seems almost an impossible idea if the game is not featured on a steady basis. With ratings lower than bowling, poker, dog shows and Arena Football it's hard to argue that Hockey is still one of the Big Four sports on TV.

In Canada Hockey rules the ratings, two sports networks, the CBC and various local television stations build their programming and station image on the game, ratings peak when the game is on. In the States it’s the filler between questionable sporting activities and block programming.

Gary Bettman can claim that the future of hockey has never been better on US network TV, but the fact is it barely registers. No amount of spin can change that. The much ballyhooled footprint in the US has yet to show any tangible results, viewers outside of the main hockey cities of Boston, Chicago, Detroit and New York for all intents and purposes still haven't fully adopted hockey as their sport. As long as they choose to not watch, then the NHL will have to give itself away and hope for the best.

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