No bucking TV puck gains

ROB BRODIE -- Ottawa Sun

, Last Updated: 7:53 AM ET

Everyone knew this was going to be big. But nobody imagined it being this good.

"I told everybody the ratings would be up," said TSN president Phil King about the astounding TV audience levels in the first month of the NHL's new era. "I just didn't think they'd be up this much."

King was referring specifically to the figures for his own network, which have been off the charts.

But he might as well have been speaking for every NHL television broadcaster in the country. There's good news absolutely everywhere.

- CBC's Hockey Night in Canada is averaging 1.652 million for the first game of its Saturday doubleheader. That's a jump of 42% over 2003-04, the last season the NHL was on the ice. It gets even better. Game 2's average is 1.223 million, a gain of 82% over '03-04.

- Through 11 games, TSN was pulling in an average of 684,000 for its NHL telecasts. That's a whopping 156% increase over 2003-04 at the same point (the season average that year was 322,000). The huge gains started right on opening night, when 2.1 million tuned into TSN's Senators-Leafs game -- the largest NHL audience in the network's 21-year history. No NHL game on TSN had even cracked a million before then.

- Rogers Sportsnet also hit the history books with the NHL this week. Monday's Bruins-Leafs game pulled in an audience of 791,000, an all-time NHL best for the 'Net. Here's the real kicker -- the game was only seen in southern Ontario. Canucks, Flames and Oilers ratings on the 'Net have also risen sharply.

- Senators ratings on Sportsnet have mushroomed in a major way. Through three games, the 'Net's average is 176,000 -- more than triple the 50,000 average for the first three Sens games on Sportsnet in 2003-04. It's the largest gain recorded for any of the 'Net's five regional team packages. "We're delighted," said Sportsnet spokesman Dave Rashford. "There's a real buzz around the Senators. It's an exciting team."

Okay, so it's obvious we've been starved for NHL hockey. But there's got to be more to it, right?

Hockey Night in Canada executive producer Joel Darling says it's simple -- the games are better and more exciting to watch.

"Everybody loves the new style of play," he said. "I was out playing hockey with some buddies last night, and it's all they wanted to talk about. The game has really opened up, and there's more scoring.

"That's obviously good for us."

So, too, is the fact that no lead seems to be safe anymore.

"It helps keep the audiences in their seats," said Darling. "In the past, if a team had a two or three-goal lead, you're turning the TV off. Now people don't know what's going to happen late in the game."

And they just can't stop watching.

NO McGUIRE IN THE MORNING: With TV gigs on both sides of the border, TSN's Pierre McGuire has become a media monster (to use one of the colourful analysts favourite on-air words). So it is -- as the Sun's Chris Stevenson first reported last Saturday -- that McGuire's regular radio stints in Vancouver, Toronto, Montreal and on Ottawa's Team 1200 will end as of Monday, at TSN's request. "Pierre is now doing hockey for two networks in the U.S. (OLN and NBC)," said King, who isn't ruling out radio guest appearances for McGuire in the future. "There's only so many hours in the day. Something had to give ... it was starting to compromise his work with TSN." McGuire is a studio analyst for OLN's Monday night games, and will be part of the game crew when NBC begins airing NHL games in January. He'll also work for NBC at the Turin Olympics.

A WORLD OF DIFFERENCE: No Red Sox, no Yankees ... and hockey's back. It doesn't take a genius to figure out World Series ratings for Rogers Sportsnet would take a serious hit. The four-game audience average for the White Sox-Astros series was 569,000, a decline of 23% from a year ago (740,000). But that Series came on the heels of the Red Sox' stunning comeback against the Yankees in the ALCS, which produced some of the 'Net's top baseball numbers ever. And, of course, the NHL was in full lockout mode. Despite the ratings drop, Sportsnet said advertisers were still happy with the numbers (the network based its ad rates on a five-year ratings average) ... Wednesday night's Game 4 produced Sportsnet best rating of the 2005 baseball playoffs, an audience of 681,000.

TUGGER STAYS ON: CBC has been pleased with Ron Tugnutt's work as a game analyst so far, and has assigned the former Sens goaltender to the Nov. 19 New Jersey-Ottawa game. He'll work alongside veteran Don Wittman -- the third partner he's had in three games (Mark Lee and Bruce Rainnie were the others). Darling remains bullish on Tugnutt's television prospects. "The key word for anybody you put in the booth is potential," he said. "I hear a lot of good things from Ron when he's doing analysis. There's been a good progression with him."

AROUND THE DIAL: The Score has signed a deal to provide content for a Canadian sports station on Sirius Satellite Radio Canada, which is expected to launch by year's end ... CBC will announce the location for Hockey Day in Canada between games of its doubleheader tomorrow night. The date for Hockey Day, which features an NHL tripleheader, is Jan. 7.

rob.brodie@ott.sunpub.com


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