In the world of television, an “upfront” is where a network presents its upcoming season’s new shows to advertisers and media buyers in the hope of selling ad space.
In early May, TSN held one of the most important upfronts in its history. Held in a film sound stage in Toronto’s east end, the event took place in an enormous, dark room with five cinema-sized screens, each showing different angles from the same sporting scenes.
If such a venue were used for more than a short video presentation, it would feel oppressive; instead, it turned out to be quite impressive. The screens were literally a show of sports force, an in-your-face way of defiantly saying, “Despite the reports, we’re not dead yet.”
TSN is on the cusp of reinventing itself. Once the Chicago Blackhawks finish playing the Los Angles Kings next week in the NHL’s Western Conference final, TSN’s 12-year relationship with the league to air NHL games nationally — a succession of rights deals that helped define TSN in the minds of viewers as the home of hockey — will come to an end.
The Hawks-Kings playoff series is the last TSN has the rights to air under its current agreement with the NHL, as the league’s new agreement with Sportsnet kicks in this fall.
Today, TSN is the nation’s most watched and successful specialty channel. It has 9.1 million subscribers, with revenues of $400.4 million and a pre-tax profit of $102.3 million in 2013, according to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission.
Tomorrow? Who knows. But TSN isn’t planning to give up its share of the market. Its response to losing the crown jewel of sports properties in Canada was to add channels, increasing its current two to five. What is the company going to put on all five channels without national NHL games? Welcome to the five-hole.
The answer is that hockey is now just one sport among many for TSN.
At the upfront, TSN president Stuart Johnson emphasized: “Of the 37 properties that have averaged over 2 million viewers in Canada on specialty channels, all of them have been on TSN.” He paused for effect. “And only four of them have been hockey games.”
James Duthie, the network’s star anchor, took the stage and spelled out what the company is calling its four main pillars: hockey, basketball, soccer and football.
The ad agency reaction was mixed.
“They had to say what they were going to do with hockey next year,” said Max, who works for a large agency and didn’t want his last name used. “They’ll be fine, although with some of my bigger clients who want hockey with national coverage, I’m going to have to go to the other guys.”
Watching hockey in Canada will not be the same next year. CBC is hemorrhaging after the loss of Hockey Night in Canada. Rogers Sportsnet is in a race to get its much-expanded hockey operations up and running for the beginning of next season. TSN is the former front-runner that now feels like an also-ran.
A great deal of money stands to be both made and risked. Sports has become a huge money-maker in the television business. It is appointment viewing, PVR proof and candy to advertisers. Since Rogers and Sportsnet decided to go all in on sports, the dollar figures that have been thrown around are massive. Rogers bought the TV assets for The Score for $176 million. Rogers and Bell combined to spend $1.32 billion on Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment in 2011. And last November, Rogers paid a whopping $5.2 billion for hockey rights for the next 12 years.
This is not the first time TSN has lost the national rights to hockey. From 1998-2002, the national package was with Sportsnet. At that time, TSN picked up the Leafs’ and Canadiens’ regional rights. This time, the network, which already had all of the Winnipeg Jets games, beefed up its Leafs regional package to 26 games and added the Ottawa Senators’ regional package. TSN also has all of Hockey Canada’s games, and of course, the world juniors.
The TSN of the future will place more of a focus on SportsCentre while still carrying plenty of hockey news and analysis despite the loss of national games.
“It will be a little like ESPN in the U.S. People watch the football game on NBC, but then turn to ESPN to watch the highlights,” says TSN anchor Rod Smith. “We have to make sure they still come to us for that.”
The five feeds will all be national feeds, although they will also accommodate the regional hockey packages.
“We are not branding any one of the feeds in any way, so whether it’s regional or thematically, like the ‘action sports’ feeds, these are five feeds of TSN. And that’s what you should expect,” says Johnson, TSN’s president.
He said it will give the network the technical ability to accommodate its regional hockey games, which can’t air on the feeds nationally. Beyond accommodating regional hockey, Johnson continued, the expansion will allow the network to show more games from the many events it has. For instance, TSN can now air all of the games from the world junior hockey championships, or more courts from Grand Slam tennis tournaments. As well, the expansion will resolve conflicts between the scheduling of live sports events.
Lastly, Johnson said TSN plans to leverage its partnership with ESPN, which still owns 20 per cent of the network. Having only two channels limited TSN’s ability to buy more sporting events, he said, and now that the network is no longer on the hook for a massive hockey deal, it will have more money to spend on new properties.
Soccer, particularly next year’s Women’s World Cup, and NFL and NCAA football will be showcase events on TSN, Johnson said. The Raptors and basketball in general is another area where the network expects growth. As well, with the world juniors split between Toronto and Montreal this year, the event will be hyped even more than usual.
TSN is historically good at promoting its properties — the world juniors and the CFL are two good examples — but the future will put that skill to the test.
The big question comes in terms of counter-programming. What will TSN put up against its competitors’ hockey games? Will SportsCentre become the around-the-clock fill-in when there’s no game to broadcast?
“People seem to forget that Sportsnet was fine and profitable for eight years without (national hockey), so I don’t see it as that big a deal,” says Jay Onrait, anchor for Fox Sports 1 and a former TSN host. “Now, are we going to be seeing a lot of showings of Tin Cup on a Wednesday night in October (on TSN)? Perhaps, but that’s a good movie so I’m cool with it.”
As usual, he’s joking, but there’s some reality there. Will ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentaries become filler? Or something else imported from TSN’s American cousin?
TSN has to find carriers that will want to find room for all its feeds. Obviously, they will be on parent company Bell. Johnson said discussions are going well, but he was not sure which carriers will have all the channels at launch.
Looking to the longer term, two major factors are audience erosion and the potential for consumers to get pick-and-pay cable packages. Its new hockey deal will allow Rogers to advertise certain events and hope that people will stick around to watch their other shows. As for pick-and-pay cable — if and when it arrives (and both Rogers and Bell will fight to retain the current bundled world for as long as they can) — the big question is whether Canadian consumers will want to pay for the many all-sports channels being created.
There is also the industry rumour that Rogers may have bitten off more than it can chew and that TSN will end up buying back some national games before the 12-year deal is up. TSN executives say they can’t see that happening in the first year, though, if at all.
Nevertheless, the network did lock up its hockey talent. It lost the games, but kept its people.
Duthie doesn’t like to talk about being pursued to be the new face of hockey on Sportsnet, although various reports say he was. Instead, he speaks about loyalty and working with his best friends, and how CTV promised him that his profile would be even bigger.
“As much as I love hockey, I like doing other things. And what CTV presented to me was the ability to do other sports again. The term they used was sort of like a Bob Costas type of thing where you’re on all of the big events,” says Duthie.
“Grey Cup’s happening, you’re there. The Super Bowl is happening, you’re there. Golf is something I love, so I’m going to be at the Masters. The Women’s World Cup of soccer next year, which is going to be huge, all of these things. I’m a hockey guy, and I will continue to do all of our big hockey events. But I never got in the business just to do hockey.”
Several of TSN’s onscreen talent and production personnel spoke of how important it was that Duthie chose to stay. His signing was the first domino; subsequently, Bob McKenzie, Darren Dreger, Aaron Ward, Ray Ferraro, Chris Cuthbert, Gord Miller and Pierre Lebrun all committed to the network long-term.
Two weeks after the glitzy upfront presentation, Duthie, McKenzie, Ward and Darren Pang are sitting in their Studio 6 set, setting up Game 6 of the playoff series between the Kings and the Anaheim Ducks. It’s a convivial set, with nicknames for most of the crew members. It’s a huge change from the funereal tone Duthie used to announce the news when the rights deal broke in November.
After their live hits, crew members wheel up a frame holding three big screens so the anchors can watch the games from behind the desk. When Boston Bruins forward Milan Lucic threatens a Montreal Canadiens player in the handshake line, Ward gets up and runs to the 20-foot screen behind and tries to lip-read what he says.
It’s fun to watch these guys, with Pang and McKenzie keeping an eye on Twitter, shouting out news and funny tweets. Duthie has a laptop, but it’s flipped over, and he is jotting things down on sheets of paper, while the other three scroll on their iPads. After the first goal of he game, Ward sees Teemu Selanne away from the play, and works with an editor cutting software to highlight the mistake.
“We’ve had emails going around in the last month saying, ‘Hey guys, give us your best moments of hockey on TSN over the past decade for our montage package,” says Jennifer Hedger, SportsCentre anchor. “That’s what makes it real, when you start thinking, ‘Oh my god, they’re putting together a best-of package because this baby’s going to bed.’”
The one thing Duthie wants to get across is that while the national games are going to Rogers, TSN’s personalities aren’t going anywhere.
“All the time on Twitter, people write me and say, ‘We’re going to miss you guys next year.’ I keep having to answer, ‘We’re still going to be there.’
“I know it’s not the same. I’m not avoiding the fact that we don’t have the national rights. I know it’s different, but I think people think that we’re gone, that you’re not going to see the panel anymore.
“For people east of Winnipeg, you are probably going to see more of us. Like in Toronto, the most we’ve done is 15 Leafs games a year for the last 12 years, and now we’re going to do 26. With the Senators, we’ve got 50,” Duthie says, sounding exasperated.
“I think the biggest misconception is that somehow we’ve died and gone away. I think that’s the thing that bothers me the most.”