TV feels lockout's chill

Rob Brodie -- Ottawa Sun

, Last Updated: 8:12 AM ET

Get ready for Poker Night in Canada. Or junior hickey. Or maybe the AHL. Or an extra dose of hoops or college football.

Yes, it's a whole 'nother set of cards being dealt as the NHL lockout digs in and takes hold for the long hauul. but it's what TV networks that make their livelihood televising sports have to do with no big league hockey to show for the foreseeable future.

"Hockey is king in Canada," admits David Akande, the VP of programming for Rogers Sportsnet. "When you'r talking about replacing live events, you replace them as best as you can with other live events."

Filling holes isn't the problem. The mere existence of multiple sports networks in Canada is indicative of the volume of sports programming available out there.

The real question is this: Are you going to watch?

"That's the issue," said Rick Chisholm, TSN's senior VP of programming and production. "Hockey is the No. 1 sport in Canada, no doubt about it."

Adds Akande: "Replacing (hockey) programming is not a problem. Gaining the audience performance associated with that programming is more of a challenge."

Sportsnet figures it should be fine in October, when it'll have as many as 41 baseball playoff games to air, including the World Series. TSN, meanwhile, is betting on a mix of classic hockey along with CFL, NBA and NCAA football games, among other things.

Make no mistake about it, though. The hockey story, as much as it seems a non-story at the moment in terms of new developments, isn't going away anytime soon.

Count on it being at or near the top of both networks' newcasts for awhile yet.

"It's still a significant news story and will continue to be for a long while yet," said Scott Morrison, Sportsnet's director of news and hockey. "As long as it's not resolved, it's an ongoing story."

Will viewers get tired of the legalese and lack of progress? Eventually, said Chisholm.

"We'll feel it the same time the fans feel it," he said.

But as Morrison says, "it's not up to us editorially to make that decision. It's our job to provide the information, than it's up to the viewers whether they want to watch it or not."

While some hockey fans might tune out sports altogether, they're not likely to be anywhere near the majority. Instead, many will choose to take a trip into something new along with the networks.

It might just be necessary. Who knows when we'll have the NHL back, after all. Morrison, who covered the 1994-95 lockout which wiped out nearly four months of the season for the Toronto Sun, paints an even more grim picture this time.

"Ten years ago, the training camps opened ... there was always a sense they were gnawing at something to get to the point of resolution," he said. "This time, I don't get the same sense of hope. I never felt the season would start on time, but I always looked at a January start.

"Now I'm convinced it's going to be the full year (gone)."

Poker, anyone?

rob.brodie@ott.sunpub.com


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