Hockey gets credit for ending CBC lockout

There have been rallies, demonstrations, and a cross-country caravan starring radio host turned blogger Shelagh Rogers. There’ve been newspaper ads featuring CBC broadcasters like Anna-Maria Tremonti and Hana Gartner staring grimly into the camera. Ten thousand signatures scrawled on petitions, bushels of postcards landing on the prime minister’s desk. Letters-to-the-editor, rousing concerts. And websites (like this one.)

All the pleading and politicking over some 50 days of the management-imposed lockout may have had less of an impact than a black rubber disc to get regular programming at Canada’s public broadcaster back on the air. Hockey Night in Canada returns this Saturday night. Coincidence?

No one claims to know for certain how big a role the hockey broadcast played during the weekend bargaining session that ended early Monday morning, October 3rd. But a leading voice in Canada’s trade union movement told CBC Unlocked it mattered a lot to his members, and they let it be known. Canadian Auto Workers President Buzz Hargrove said his union leaned hard on Ford Canada, as the auto maker prepared a new advertising campaign to coincide with the season debut of Hockey Night in Canada (HNIC).

„We were in bargaining with Ford and we told them it’d be absolutely unacceptable to our union for Ford to be advertising with a scab employer,“ Hargrove said. „We would not accept it and we would take some direct action if they didn’t agree to put pressure on to resolve the dispute.“

Hargrove said he’s „not at liberty“ to say exactly who called whom, but he confirmed that Ford had definitely called the CBC. „What I know I can’t share,“ Hargrove told CBC Unlocked, „but I know their top people clearly applied significant pressure to the top people at CBC. I know that things took place.“ A senior official with the Canadian Media Guild also told CBC Unlocked  that „the story about Ford is true and there’s no question the HNIC issue was an important factor if forcing the deal.“

The CBC’s power play

The tentative deal the CBC hammered out with the Canadian Media Guild came a scant few days before the launch of the National Hockey League’s regular season. Almost as soon as they shook hands over the memorandum of understanding, union and company officials worked out a protocol to get select CBC employees back on the job as soon as possible, especially those who will work on the Saturday night telecast of three NHL games. A very public acknowledgement that the hockey broadcast schedule was pivotal in ending the lockout at the corporation.

That was expected, according to Ian Morrison of Friends of Canadian Broadcasting, a lobby group that has long argued that the CBC is overly reliant on sports, and sports-generated advertising revenues. Morrison told CBC Unlocked that NHL hockey, in particular, has been the „tail wagging the dog“ at Canada’s public broadcaster.

„The CBC is addicted,“ Morrison said. „The CBC is a junkie.“

The CBC got its last fix more than a year ago, when the NHL management launched a lockout of its own. That’s a long spell without the millions of dollars in commercial revenues that hockey brings.

The last time CBC television aired an NHL game was on June 8, 2004, the Stanley Cup final between Calgary and Tampa Bay.  It was a near-record night for ratings, with 4.8 million viewers.  When it comes to selling viewer eyeballs to beer brewers or carmakers, no other Canadian broadcaster can boast of such a huge audience.

„During the regular season, hockey coverage is break-even for the CBC,“ said Morrison. „So no public dollars go toward broadcasting those games on Saturday nights. The profit kicks in during the playoffs. So for April and May and a few nights in June, that’s when the money’s coming in.“

(Coincidentally, hockey isn’t important to the CBC only as a top money-maker. It also allows the CBC to keep the federal broadcast regulator happy.)

„In the three months from March to May this year, the CBC’s level of Canadian programming in prime time fell to only 58 per cent,“ said the spokesperson for Friends of Canadian Broadcasting. „That’s short of the broadcaster’s commitment to the CRTC.“

Typically, the CBC airs 90% Canadian content in prime time, but in that hockey-free March to May period, the CBC was running Hollywood movies on Saturday nights.

NHL plays it cool

The National Hockey League is climbing back from a season of oblivion. The league is anxious to have its skaters back on the ice, and back on television screens. League officials have not admitted to any attempt, on their part, to apply pressure to the CBC to resolve the labour dispute. But one highly-placed source at the NHL told CBC Unlocked that the tentative agreement is, indeed, timely. „We were obviously very interested in the situation and talked to CBC frequently,“ said the source. „We’re very pleased with how things played out.“

The Canadian Media Guild, however, doesn’t believe CBC’s apetite for hockey was the biggest factor in the contract settlement’s timing.

„The public and political pressure were huge, and those had nothing to do with hockey,“ said Karen Wirsig, communications co-ordinator at Guild. „I think certainly, hockey was a pressure point for the Corporation. But this process started nearly two weeks ago, when (Labour Minister) Joe Fontana called the two sides to his office. And I don’t think hockey was foremost in his mind.“

One source of political pressure was the New Democratic Party’s culture and heritage critic, MP Charlie Angus. Angus recalled how the Liberals were feeling the heat from rural and francophone Canadians who are particularly under-serviced by private broadcasters.

„The day Parliament opened, this issue was in the political spotlight,“ Angus told CBC Unlocked. „Suddenly CBC became the number one issue for all these Liberal back-benchers. I think their feet were being held to the fire, and Fontana had to deliver.“

Don Cherry and Ron MacLean to the rescue?

The executive producer of Hockey Night In Canada, Joel Darling, also downplayed the impact of the NHL at the bargaining table. Darling was a locked out CMG member and heard all the picket line scuttlebutt. From the first day, he said, many locked out workers predicted it would last until the eve of hockey season.

„But people could be saying that hockey was driving it even if we were back at work after three weeks of lock-out,“ Darling told CBC Unlocked, „so I don’t know that it’s true.“

Still, he allowed that HNIC has always been important to the network — too important to allow managers to muddle through, putting on a bare minimum of hockey coverage.

This Saturday night game’s, for instance, with the Montreal Canadiens visiting the Maple Leafs,  would normally require 35 broadcast staff „or a few more, because we do a pre-game show,“ explained Darling.

Add another 35 bodies for the other 7pm EDT face-off, with Buffalo at Ottawa, and the same number again for the late game, which will have Vancouver at Edmonton. That’s about 100 technically adept people needed, suited up and ready to work Saturday, to fulfill the CBC’s broadcast deal with the NHL.

CBC managers were able to keep the Canadian Football League on the air during the lockout. But hockey, with its hyper-active schedule, demands more of the broadcaster’s resources, not to mention the colour-balancing technical skill needed for the famous Don Cherry wardrobe.

Playing the odds

It may be a mug’s game, trying to guess what went on at the bargaining table.  The mugs at the august British publication The Economist were of the same mind as many of those locked-out CBC cynics. In its October 1st issue, the magazine predicted that the CBC might not be shut down much longer.

„The betting is that the dispute may end by October 5th, when ice hockey starts up after its own year-long lockout over player wage demands,“ The Economist declared. „Canadians found they could live without hockey. Journalists can hardly claim to be more indispensable.“

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