Canadian Broadcasting Crisis

BILL LANKHOF -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:07 AM ET

Nothing has been the same since Mr. Rogers left the neighbourhood. In fact, if many more Chris Cuthberts and Bob Coles disappear there won't be enough bodies left for a decent street hockey game. These may not be desperate times at the national sports broadcaster, but they are definitely changing times.

All is silent on the CBC sports front. Too silent. It is a hush much like the one that stills the countryside before thunder crackles and lightning splits the skies.

Once the pillar of Canadian sports broadcasting, the network has been through a litany of controversy and change, disappointment and acrimony.

Nancy Lee, the head of CBC Sports, has been stamping out more brush fires than Smokey the Bear -- but not with quite the same success.

The winds of change date back to 2002 when Lee and Hockey Night in Canada host Ron MacLean got into a public snit over his contract. For the CBC, as a public relations move, this went over about as well as punching out that nice Canadian boy who lives next door -- you know, the one Don Cherry is always talking about.

It only was after much public lashing, and the intervention of CBC producers, that Lee and MacLean made peace.

Then came the hockey lockout. While not of the CBC's own making, this boondoggle will cost the corp $20 million in lost revenue, CBC president Robert Rabinovitch told a Parliamentary Committee on Nov. 15. Thirty Hockey Night in Canada regulars took the gaspipe for the duration of the lockout last September, including Cherry and Cole.

Worse was yet to follow.

The CBC lost the bid for the 2010 and '12 Olympics to a conglomerate including rival CTV and, last month, it all culminated when Lee fired Cuthbert. And then the network managed to alienate much the nation by messing up its curling coverage.

"(The mood) is not very healthy and I think the Cuthbert thing goes even beyond the sports department now because if they can fire Cuthbert, they can fire anyone," says John Shannon, once one of the most powerful men in sports broadcasting before he, too, was fired in 2000 by Lee. In his five seasons as executive producer of Hockey Night in Canada, Shannon oversaw the debut of Saturday night doubleheaders and helped create the Satellite Hot Stove.

Shannon remains an often-quoted observer of the media business and is head of Leafs TV, the hockey team's satellite network. "There's only one person who can give (the definitive answer to Cuthbert's firing and how it plays into the network's future) and I don't think she's speaking to anybody," says Shannon of Lee.

Cuthbert has declined comment for this article. Some CBC staffers talked, but only on condition of anonymity. Lee did not reply to several requests for telephone interviews to discuss the future of the CBC and network sports coverage.

But several things are evident. There is an evolution in sports broadcasting and the Cuthbert firing is only a symptom of a much wider issue: If a network is going to dump Cuthbert, who won a Gemini in 1999 for Best Sports Broadcaster for his call of the 1998 Grey Cup in Winnipeg, and he's your sports future, what does that tell the rest of the staff about how the CBC sees its future in sports broadcasting?

Publicly, Cuthbert was the heir apparent to succeed Cole as the voice of Hockey Night in Canada and, he was also its CFL and figure skating announcer.

But, CBC insiders say, Lee and Cuthbert had a fractious contract negotiation more than a year ago. Additionally, while Cuthbert may have been dubbed heir to the throne, there is a segment within the broadcasting industry who believe that the CBC may not even have NHL games after the current Hockey Night in Canada contract expires after 2007.

"The scuttlebutt," Shannon says, "is that Chris is one of those guys who spoke his mind ... and, given the fact Nancy was probably told she had to cut some dollars. The lack of a relationship between Nancy and Chris made it easy for Nancy to say you're the odd man out."

While the ouster is blamed, officially, on the NHL lockout, it also comes at a time of ever-increasing evidence that the world of sports broadcasting has changed forever.

"What the CBC, particularly with the Olympics, is coming up against is corporate media. Sports is business and it's a business that is getting more expensive," explains Christopher Waddell, a media expert and associate professor of journalism at Carleton University, in Ottawa. "BCE is the parent of CTV and TSN and is a $20 billion a year operation in terms of revenue. If they want something they can outbid a lot of other people. And they may be prepared to take a loss on it because it benefits other aspects of their overall corporation."

So there's every possibility a corporate convergence -- possibly involving CTV, or Global or the specialty channels -- could outbid the CBC for future NHL rights in much the same way CBC lost the Olympics. Just this week, the Blue Jays announced that 145 of its games would be carried by TSN and Sportsnet.

Where once the CBC had an advantage in bidding on sports properties because it was publicly funded, it now finds itself hamstrung by a public purse with limited resources.

"The economics are changing," Waddell says. "It's not just a bunch of (sports) broadcasters bidding anymore. That changes the dynamics of what people are willing to pay and why they are willing to pay it. It's difficult for CBC to compete in that kind of environment."

The CBC isn't the first public broadcaster to be hit with the new fiscal global reality. In Britain, just a few years ago, the BBC was outbid by ITV, the private network for Formula One racing. That was followed by Big Sky, Rupert Murdoch's company, stealing away the rights to Premier Division football.

"It was the same situation," Waddell says, "with the public broadcaster either not having the money or resources. And Murdoch wanted football to promote satellite TV in the U.K.

"It was a case of corporate issues crossing into sports," Waddell says. "We're starting to see this in Canada. It (the CBC's loss of the Olympics) is probably a reflection of the consolidation that took place with BCE taking over the Globe & Mail and CTV.

"CBC is competing against corporations that now have broadcasting divisions but are bigger than just broadcasters and may be doing things for reasons other than just broadcasting. It's part of a fundamental change in the media in the country."

For instance, when BCE won the contract for telecommunications for the 2010 Vancouver Games, their $200-million bid was about $40 million higher than expected. But BCE executives pointed out that if the exposure increased market share for Bell Mobility or ExpressVu by only 1% then the corporation will already have recouped more than that $40 million.

Waddell believes the CBC lost its preeminince in the Canadian sports market some time ago but that it's just now becoming evident.

"It's an interesting question where things are going to go," Waddell says. "This isn't sports. This is business. Decisions about business are made on a business basis and that generally tends to be who can get the most money.

"The television world is changing in lots of ways and in lots of places. In most areas where the CBC was exclusive or had a leadership position there is now a specialty channel. If you ask a lot of people when they think of sports what television stations they think of, I'd suspect lots of them would say TSN -- which again is a change in the way the broadcasting business has gone. It's hard to see those changes being reversed."

So while the public posture of the CBC is to smile and nod, and note that sports properties come and go, there is private frustration and angst. Many CBC sports staffers are worried. They are worried about the corporation and where it is headed. They are worried about their own jobs. And, most of all, they are worried that even an opinion expressed honestly and openly might get them fired.

While he declined to be interviewed, Brian Williams' role with the corporation appears solid because he has immediate name recognition. MacLean would appear to have a role for similar reasons.

"You look at that next level of Scott Oake, Scott Russell, Elliotte Friedman and Mark Lee and you've got to wonder what might happen to them," says Shannon, noting the code of silence that has descended isn't surprising.

He says there is "a state of fear that if you talk out against the corporation we're going to get you ... that hurts the morale.

"There's a lot of people within the corporation who just don't understand (the Cuthbert firing) and now fear for their own positions. That's not a positive working attitude."

And there is work (the next two Olympics, the CFL and Hockey Night in Canada if the owners ever turn on the lights again) to get done right -- especially after that boondoggle called the Tournament of Hearts. The Canadian Curling Association was deluged with complaints for the lacklustre coverage.

"You know, she (Lee) is on a bit of a losing streak," Shannon says. "They lost the Olympic bid. The television curling has been a debacle, bouncing from Country Canada to (The Score) to the (main) network, not putting the key sudden-death games (at the women's tournament) on Friday. They have not handled it as well as TSN would've handled it. And then, this Cuthbert thing -- I think it's going to fester."

While Shannon is critical, he remains a staunch supporter of the merits of having a public broadcaster in Canada.

"There's too many valuable assets at the CBC. I don't see them entirely getting out of the business," Shannon says. "You need the CBC around at some level if you're the IOC, the CBC, the NHL ... you need them to be competitive in the marketplace, otherwise that partnership between Rogers and TSN is going to drive the world."

So, as the landscape of sports broadcasting changes, it is up to Lee and the CBC to redefine its niche.

"It would be a very sad situation if we didn't have a public broadcaster in this country," Waddell says, "but what that public broadcaster should do is a matter for everyone to debate. And it's more a matter of debate today than it was 20 years ago when there weren't the range of channels there are today. The CBC's problem is it does a lot of things. It may be getting to the point where it has to make some decisions about what it wants to keep doing because the government money isn't going up much ... and everything is costing more."

Maybe in the end Cuthbert will find his firing a blessing in disguise. His future may yet be as Canada's preeminent NHL play-by-play broadcaster. But, like a lot of things, it just isn't going to be happening on the CBC.

SURVIVOR: CBC SPORTS

BRIAN WILLIAMS

Dean of Canadian sports broadcasters

RON MACLEAN

Pun-meister of Hockey Night in Canada

VETERANS

STEVE ARMITAGE

CBC's chameleon always 'on record pace'

DON WITTMAN

Voice of the Brier. Kicked off Grey Cup

TERRY LEIBEL

Ex-equestrian rider loves amateur sports

VULNERABLE

ELLIOTTE FRIEDMAN

The new guy who used to be on The Score

MARK LEE

CFL guy has also done volleyball, cycling

CHRIS CUTHBERT - FIRED

High-pitched, but pegged as future star

SCOTT OAKE

The Headliner has interviewed 'em all

SCOTT RUSSELL

Mr. Smiley backup host for HNIC


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