CBC Should Keep Hockey Night in Canada Only if it Makes Cents

By Jason Menard

Hockey is a part of our national identity; Hockey Night in Canada is a part of our national history. That distinction alone is why the ongoing debate about the CBC’s involvement in NHL broadcasts should come down to nothing more than finances.

Like clockwork, every year someone somewhere questions the CBC’s involvement in Hockey Night in Canada. This year, it was an article published in the Toronto Star that opined about a potential bidding war between the Bell and Rogers-owned media giants and our national, publicly funded broadcaster.

The article itself didn’t say anything new. The comments, however, revealed that this not simply a question about one TV show – it’s a lightning rod topic encompassing multiple issues and even the question of what the CBC should be.

This question encompasses a number of debates, ranging from whether a public broadcaster spend taxpayer dollars on one asset to whether a public broadcaster compete with private companies? And, of course, there are the inevitable “Rogers/Bell is evil/Why are we funding the CBC at all?” comments.

But the ones that struck me most were the posts that insinuated that watching Hockey Night in Canada was somehow a guaranteed right. I did a little checking, and someone may want to help me by pointing out where that section is located, because I checked the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and I just can’t find it.

Maybe my version doesn’t include “Every individual is equal before and under the law and has the right to the equal protection and benefit of the law without discrimination and, in particular, protection of the presence of Bob Cole on free TV.”

(Note: there is a line about how “everyone has the right not to be subjected to any cruel and unusual treatment or punishment” yet Coach’s Corner remains a regular segment. Who knew?)

Yes, Hockey Night in Canada is a Canadian institution. Since 1952, it’s been beamed into living rooms from coast to coast. It once was one of the few ways that Canadians from Vancouver to Halifax could feel connected. But times have changed. The market has become fragmented. And, most importantly, it’s a TV show. The CBC does not have the same hold on Canada as it once did.

The world wouldn’t end if TSN started broadcasting Hockey Night in Canada. After all, they’ve already got the theme song and the sun kept rising. And there’s more to hockey than just whatever Leafs’ broadcast they can shoehorn into each and every market. There are other leagues and teams. The incredible numbers that watched the Memorial Cup and the World Juniors prove that there’s a market for all types of hockey. The CBC could adapt.

The only argument that matters is whether it makes sense, financially, to keep Hockey Night in Canada on the CBC. If the amount of money the public broadcaster pays to retain the rights and produce the show is less than what they get back in advertising and sponsorship revenue, then it makes sense.

And for all those who complain that the CBC should focus on more culturally relevant programming instead of dedicating so much time to sports, it’s important to note that HNIC can act as a subsidy in itself – the profits from this show can go towards paying the production cost of whatever pastoral drama based in PEI you want. It’s a very snobbish attitude to believe that it must be an either-or.

On the flip side, if it costs more to produce the show than what it brings in, then you have to reconsider it. Especially if there are not enough tangible benefits from the self-promotion of other CBC properties during the broadcast.

History alone is not enough. And if the decision is made to get rid of HNIC, then it may, in fact, help the CBC. Currently it’s caught between trying to be a viable commercial network and producing culturally significant content. Rarely does the latter equal the former. There’s nothing wrong with being PBS. But then again, there’s also nothing wrong with being the BBC.

Keep Hockey Night in Canada on the CBC? Only if it makes sense – and cents.

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