Thursday, May 24, 2007

NBC Bail out not easily forgiven

The decision last weekend of NBC to bump the overtime period between the Ottawa Senators and Buffalo Sabres off to the wilds of pay television still is making waves across Canada.

Not bad for a program that little impact on the Canadian viewer, most of whom were probably busy watching Hockey Night in Canada on the CBC anyways, but it’s more the principle of the matter that has Canadians upset.

The NBC decision was like a slap in the face, telling hockey fans across the continent that no your game really isn’t all that important to big media. Which while probably is quite true, none the less has left a number of people shaken by the blatant disregard for the game.

Jack Todd, who writes for the Montreal Gazette and, provides the therapy session for a battered Canadian psyche, complete with a warning that the NHL is playing with Canadian’s emotions a little too much and that the league had better best get back rededicating itself to hockey’s true home in the north.

NHL taking Canadians for granted
Jack Todd
CanWest News Service; Montreal Gazette
Wednesday, May 23, 2007

MONTREAL - All in all, Americans would rather watch Heidi.

That's the only conclusion we can draw from the Saturday afternoon fiasco that saw NBC abandon their telecast of the overtime between the Buffalo Sabres and Ottawa Senators in favour of the hour of natural gas leading up to the Preakness, the second leg of thoroughbred racing's Triple Crown.

On Nov. 17, 1968, the same network left an American Football League game between the New York Jets and the Oakland Raiders, with the Jets leading 32-29 and 65 seconds left in the game and cut to a made-for-TV version of Heidi.

While broadcasters Curt Gowdy and Kyle Rote were off the air, the Raiders scored 14 quick points and won 43-32. Millions of viewers were left in the dark, thousands of calls were made and NBC learned its lesson: You don't spit into the wind, you don't draw on the Lone Ranger, you don't step on Superman's cape and you don't mess with football.
The NHL? Mess with it all you like.

Matter of fact, when you do, the league will genuflect politely and beg for another kick in the teeth from its U.S. network of choice - while delivering the same to Canadian viewers from Newfoundland to Nanaimo, B.C. It's enough to make you believe the rumour NBA commissioner David Stern sent Gary Bettman to wreck the NHL. If the bad boys who ran Enron were the "smartest guys in the room," suggests my friend Kevin Vahey in Boston, then Bettman and George W. Bush are the dumbest guys in the room.

This one is frustrating from so many angles that it's enough to leave a columnist spluttering with inarticulate rage. On a sunny Saturday on the holiday weekend when Canadians put in their gardens and fire up their barbecues, the NHL chose to show the game involving the Stanley Cup finalist Ottawa Senators at 2 p.m. ET because NBC wanted it that way.

The contempt the NHL has displayed for Canadian fans knows no bounds. The league plainly takes Canada for granted: Bettman and his cronies believe Canadians will put up with anything and watch anything at whatever hour of the day or night U.S. networks want to show it.
Granted, Canadians have given the NHL some reason to believe that nothing can drive us away. Three-quarters of the hockey fans in Canada vowed never to watch another game in person or on television, but no sooner was the lockout settled than we came storming back in unprecedented numbers.

Nothing matters but that elusive network contract - even if the NHL has to give away its product to land a couple of hours on NBC, even if a decisive semifinal game between two of the league's most exciting teams is abandoned as overtime is about to begin.

League mouthpiece Brian Walker could say only that NBC was obligated to provide its traditional coverage of the Preakness and that the league "protected the game in Buffalo and alerted viewers ... that overtime would be shown on Versus."

Versus. Show me an American who even knows whether he has Versus as part of his cable package and I'll show you a man without a life.

Sunday, NBC decided to stay with the Anaheim-Detroit overtime rather than cutting away, then had the gall to claim that the decision had something to do with the network's undying commitment to hockey.

Right. That's like my undying commitment to American Idol.

One rule of business, I believe, is that you never take your customers for granted. Ask the Detroit Red Wings, who had 2,500 season-ticket buyers bail on playoff tickets after prices for the cheap seats doubled to $110 a pop.

While the NHL was doing the 50-yard bow-and-scrape for NBC, Canadian customers were getting stomped. Again.

How long will we keep taking it? For a while. Then there will come the season when the rules are too silly, the tickets too expensive, the games shown at 3 a.m. to accommodate The Poker Network.

Here's something Bettman clearly doesn't understand: Canada is the bedrock of the NHL. Even with the European influx, we provide the bodies and the heart and the people who will pay through the nose and battle their way through a blizzard to watch the game.

Perhaps for a change, Bettman should try to make the U.S. networks want the NHL, rather than the other way around. Perhaps he should act as though he actually believes hockey is worth paying for.

And maybe he should pretend that he can find Canada on a map. We're right up here, Gary - due north.

Now try to imagine what your league would be like without us

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