Hockey: TV on the Fritz

The other day, Cassie wrote an article talking about the National Hockey League and their US television contract.  The article started out with a lament we've all heard since 2005-06:  people complaining they'd prefer games broadcast on ESPN as to Versus.  There are so many extra facts and opinions to throw into that  piece that I had started to think about the issue seriously from the moment I first saw the article and to talk about the broad mess that is the US media dealings of the National Hockey League.
Lets start with an intangible:  Broadcast contracts being separate and singular are not an option any more.  Media conglomerates dominate broadcasting, and with such a wide reach over network broadcasts - such as cable and other forms of media - to sign a deal with one of the top media players is akin to signing a deal with their conglomerate.
How dominant are media conglomerates?  How exactly does this all effect the National Hockey League in the US and why the hell am I bringing it up now?  Join me below the fold to further discuss the broadcast picture in the US for the NHL.  It's not as simple a take as "Put it on ESPN!  I can find it easier than Versus!"

Lets start with the major media players here in the US and show how broad eaches respective reach happens to be:

  1. The American Broadcast Company (ABC) is owned by the Walt Disney Company.  The Mouse's movie ties are unforgettable, but they also own ESPN, the Disney Channel, ABC Family, E! Entertainment Television, Lifetime Network and A & E Networks (The History Channel, Biography).
  2. The FOX network is owned by News Corp which owns 20th Century Fox, Fox News, Sky network in the UK, Fox Sports (most regional sport channels and other niche channels), FX, The New York Post and Wall Street Journal newspapers, a multitude of local broadcast stations including WTVT 13 here in the Tampa Bay area.  It is in a partnership on the Major League Baseball Network with MLB.
  3. The Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) is owned by Viacom which also owns Paramount pictures as well as all of the cable offerings from MTV Networks (MTV cable channels, Nickelodeon cable channels, BET channels, Comedy Central, Spike TV, VH1 and an assortment of other cable stations).  Viacom does it's best to keep it's properties separate unlike ABC and FOX, who seek to mix and match and cross-promote as much as possible.
  4. The National Broadcasting Corporation (NBC) is part of two much larger entities.  It, in itself, is part of the NBC-Universal company and is owned by General Electric (GE).  NBC-Universal, on top of having the broadcast station and Movie company (Universal Pictures) also owns USA Network, Bravo, the spanish language network Telemundo, MSNBC, the Weather Channel, CNBC, SyFy (or the Sci Fi Channel).
  5. Lets not even get into Time Warner.  It has such a broad multimedia offering of cable, Internet, film and print that a clear picture couldn't be explained in a single post like this.  But they have a joint stake with Viacom in the CW.  (a combination of UPN and the WB broadcast channels)

But just what does this all have to do with the NHL?

The fact is, you're not dealing with one station alone in any media deal...  The only leagues with the viewership and leverage to piecemeal a substantial contract together of that variety are the National Football League (which has deals with CBS, NBC, FOX and ESPN) and NASCAR.

Network TV deals effect cable, and cable TV deals limit network options with thanks to these mega-media players.  With the NHL having extended it's contract with the Versus sports network (owned by a smaller player in the media conglomerate field: Comcast) in 2008, the league has tied their own hands with options.  It will  be shopping for a new network TV contract after the conclusion of the 2008-09 season and  many a party will not just be looking to fill air time on their broadcast network stations.  No, in most cases, these companies would sooner air NHL games on their cable broadcast properties instead of network TV at all.

It's also important to note that Versus deal with the NHL may not call for it to be the exclusive cable provider for NHL games, it does seek special emphasis for it's broadcasts.

OK, fine,  Versus can be the go-to station for Cable, but why can't ESPN get games too?

Before I answer that, can you recall the 2003-04 season and the ESPN/ABC coverage (their final season)?  Games were few and far between on ABC, and relegated to ESPN2 on cable (if carried at all), all while TV coverage continued and applied knowledge focused on the northeast teams alone (much like Versus now).  This really shown through during the playoffs as TV personalities such as John Saunders were made to sound buffoonish by their producers as the smaller market teams advanced in the East and West.  There was also the new National Basketball Association television deal between The Walt Disney Company and the NBA that ate into a majority of airtime on both stations, effectively shutting out hockey coverage in favor of basketball.  This was on top of other offerings from the network (baseball, college sports, the NFL, NASCAR, poker and even made-for-TV-movies).

So why not ESPN?  Because ESPN has limited the options.  If the NHL wants to reach new viewers, it won't happen while being treated as a red-headed step-child by the Walt Disney Company.  And even if the league is better reaching die-hards  that sooner know the location of ESPN on the dial before Versus, the game offerings would be few, as the Worlds Strongest Man re-broadcasts and the World Series of Poker are given extra airtime.

The NHL needs to realize that it's not in the 1980's and the dawn of cable TV anymore...  It simply can't expect the league to become a Pay Per View TV offering like it is in Canada and preach solely to the choir as it continues milking the die-hard fans for their every last penny.  Any new broadcast TV deal has to be a forward thinking media partnership, reaching across traditional media lines.

There are options for the league if they are willing to think long-term instead of short-term financial gain.  A lengthy deal with any company could paint a life-after-Versus picture.  For example, NBC-Universal could sign a new deal with the league, continuing to carry weekend games on NBC as well as begin airing hockey games on USA Network after the Versus deal expires.  A partnership between the NHL and USA Network also gives the league a unique pocket to expose it's brand to:  USA Network has long been tied to World Wrestling Entertainment's "Monday Night Raw" pro-wrestling broadcast.  There's no better group to try to draw into pro-hockey than the action-demanding fans of pro-wrestling.

Of course, CBS has plenty of air-time to fill on top of it's devotion to college sports and the NFL...  Again, any deal would have to be long-range and forward thinking about not just a CBS broadcast but also potential cable TV.  Spike TV (formerly TNN) is supposed to be a male-dominated network and could likely host games on the channel...  But it's not that known a network and just another basic-cable also-ran channel.

FOX may have interest, and may have desire to redeem itself after it's horrible attempt to market the sport in the past.  Its TV empire being so broad, already has ties to most local cable stations that air games.  This could benefit network coverage by having a decentralized knowledge base helping to cover games instead of renown national TV faces.  And while Sunday's are locked down through the fall and early winter as FOX covers the NFL, Saturday's are not.  This further offers a unique niche for the sport on the national radar.

A long term deal with the Mouse could be struck, which sends games back to ESPN in the future...  But with how much ESPN already has on it's plate and how much ABC shares from that plate, it would likely be a sign by the NHL that it was waving the white flag.  A slow dime of a payout from Disney instead of a fast nickel from elsewhere...

We've seen that failing by the league too often in the past, and by failing to find it's own voice in the broadcast world, it would likely continue to be background noise and filler to a broadcast company that could care less at this point in time.

Money may be the deciding factor in any deal, but the picture goes so much further than the contract payout.   Sadly, league history says the payout is all that matters in the end.  And both the league and the fans suffer in the long run because of this.