CBC betting on hockey for ratings

Ron MacLean and Don Cherry are back in the limelight as Hockey Night In Canada returns to our...

Ron MacLean and Don Cherry are back in the limelight as Hockey Night In Canada returns to our livingrooms tonight.

BILL BRIOUX - Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 2:16 AM ET

Life would have gone on if Hockey Night In Canada was not returning tonight (7 p.m., CBC).

After all, Canadians managed to stagger through the entire 2004-2005 NHL lockout with only the occasional Quizno commercial for their bi-weekly Don Cherry fix.

Still, the question is could life have gone on for the CBC? Hockey Night In Canada means millions in ad revenue for the beleaguered network, which reportedly ponied up $1 million to secure tonight's sportscast.

Originally, the network and the Canadian Media Guild had agreed to return to work after the Thanksgiving Day holiday on Tuesday. In order to allow locked-out workers -- including Cherry, Ron MacLean, play-by-play man Bob Cole -- to return to the Air Canada Centre, however, CBC had to agree to pay all 5,500 affected staffers starting yesterday -- a payroll expense that works out to a cool million. (Gives you some idea of how much CBC saved during the other 37 days of the lockout).

Any question of whether this expense was worth it was answered Wednesday night when 2.1 million viewers watched TSN's Toronto Maple Leafs home opener against Ottawa. That is a staggering audience for a specialty network and could possibly top tonight's CBC broadcast. TSN's score will likely rank among the Top 10 shows in all of Canada next week, right behind such network hits as The Amazing Race and Desperate Housewives.

The CBC, in flames after a two-month lockout at the start of an extremely competitive fall, desperately needs a giant window on its new season. Besides satisfying an insatiable Leafs Nation, the broadcast will allow the network to promote the return of The Royal Canadian Air Farce (Oct. 28), the launch of Da Vinci's City Hall (Nov. 8), the upcoming TV movie bios on Walter Gretzky, Pierre Trudeau and Shania Twain (all next month) and dozens of other re-scheduled goodies.

With any luck, CBC will score close to three million viewers tonight. Even casual viewers will be back to hear what MacLean will try to rhyme with "lockout" and Cherry rant on unions, visors and the wussy new tag-up rule.

Hard-core viewers, like my dad, who hasn't missed three HNiC broadcasts since they began in 1952, will feel like they have their country back. Watching Hockey Night In Canada is a deep, 53-year tradition, part of who we are. Boomers genuflect when they speak of Ward Cornell and smile at the memory of Howie Meeker. Taking away HNiC is like watering down our beer or chopping down our maple trees. There is no American TV show that means as much to Americans as HNiC means to Canadians.

Having said that, TV is in an accelerated state of revolution. Digital channels, high-definition, telephone webcasts, all of it chips away at same old Saturday night. HNiC needs to step up to Hi-Def just to stay on the same level rink as TSN and others. If you've never seen a hockey game in Hi-Def, it enhances the game like no other sport. Two years after others have switched, CBC is still dithering over converting its sports showcase.

There will be some changes tonight. Veteran play-by-play man Jim Hughson joins HNiC, calling the second game of the doubleheader (Vancouver at Edmonton) alongside Greg Millen. Cole and Harry Neale return to the booth for Game One's tilt between historic rivals Toronto and Montreal.

More changes are needed. CBC needs to take a hard look at that petrified "Satellite Hotstove" segment. It should be called Hot Fridge, because that's where you head. Can't Grapes simply work a second shift?

Fact is, HNiC was slipping below the million mark on slow Saturday nights back in that last pre-NHL lockout season. If CBC wants to reclaim the one night of the week it used to win, it desperately needs to get back in the game now that it has its game back.


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