Monday, June 07, 2004

49th and above "don't touch that dial; 49th and below and its "we gotta go"

The television ratings for this Stanley Cup playoff are brining smiles to the faces of the usually dour personas at the CBC. While the executive’s suits ponder the fate of Don Cherry, the financial suits are chuckling all the way to the Bank (surely not the Royal Bank for their deposits!). This playoff run by Calgary has captured the interest of Canadians from coast to coast to coast. From early morning St. John’s, to late night Prince Rupert and up to the never setting sun of Inuvik we’re watching in record numbers.

Saturday night’s game six brought the second largest television audience to the Stanley Cup playoffs in history. 4.6 million Canadians sat down to watch the double overtime thriller, only 1994’s Vancouver New York final has attracted more at 4.9 million viewers. To put into perspective the importance of a Canadian team in the final to the CBC, last years game six between Anaheim and New Jersey attracted a mere 1.5 million. The casual hockey observer has caught the Red Wave and is riding it all the way.

The love affair between Canadian television viewers and the Stanley Cup final is not being replicated in the United States. ABC which is in the last gasps of their NHL contract probably can’t wait to get the game off their monitors and perhaps were secretly wishing that NBC would pick up their coverage a couple of months early. The games outside of Tampa Bay are but a rumour for the average television viewer. The ratings for ABC have been the lowest since the game appeared first appeared on US network television. Whatever the excuse, a Canadian team and a non hockey market in the final, it seems that nobody is watching hockey in America. This playoff season has been lost to a variety of options, reruns, syndicated reality shows and the home shopping channel. The number four sport in the States has fallen off the television map. A worrisome trend for Gary Bettman as his grand experiment of southern expansion does not translate into a television success.

For Hockey Night in Canada it’s a winfall of epic proportions, beside the revenue stream generated by the millions of viewers the CBC flagship broadcast returns to its place of prominence in Canadian culture. The Stanley Cup playoffs frequently disrupt the CBC schedule sending what’s left of Peter Mansbridges follicles to the floor in frustration, but you can’t argue with success. 4.6 million Viewers translate into some serious cash from sponsors, money that the broadcast networks turns over into other programming options for the rest of the year.

The CBC counts on the big events like the Stanley Cup, the Grey Cup and the Olympic games to keep the treasury full. The folks in the news department, at CBC variety and all the other enclaves of public broadcasting should keep that in mind when they ponder the need for sport on a public broadcaster.

Over at ABC they probably can’t wait to get rid of hockey as a broadcast option, up above the 49th the CBC execs probably fear the day that hockey is taken off the line up board. The record for a televised hockey game in Canada is the Olympic Gold medal of 2002; the broadcast from Salt Lake City attracted over 10 million viewers for French and English television.

Game 7 tonight won’t come close to that record by a long shot, but the Ranger-Canuck record of 94 may be within reach. The game falling on a Monday night plays against a challenge, but if a Canadian hockey fan can find a TV set, they’ll no doubt be in front of it. The same can’t be said in the US, there never really has been any doubt, but the proof is still in view for those wishing to tune in. Hockey is still and probably will always be a Canadian game, a major event to celebrate. They just don’t get it down below the 49th, and it’s a situation that apparently is not going to change anytime soon.

Mr. Bettman should take note of this; there are still parts of Canada that would gladly and enthusiastically support an NHL franchise. Quebec City, Winnipeg and Hamilton are all centers that would embrace a team without a blink. The game should be featured where it has its strength and its passion. Give the Canadian viewer someone to cheer for and your ratings will soar, fail to do that and you’ll surely suffer the fate of American TV, a sport that apparently has become very easy to ignore.

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