Game over for the CBC

-- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 5:19 AM ET

For more than half a century, Hockey Night In Canada and the CBC have gone together like Don Cherry and plaid.

But Grapes might as well get himself fitted now for a CTV/TSN jacket. When the NHL's current contract with the CBC expires at the end of the 2007-08 season, look for them to get the puck out of there.

Hockey Night In Canada returns tonight at 7 p.m. with Toronto facing off against Ottawa in the first half of a double header. Calgary at Edmonton follows.

Fact is, the Leafs have a better chance of winning their first Stanley Cup in 40 years than the CBC has of re-signing with the NHL.

It's not just that CTV, which has coveted HNIC for years, is reportedly prepared to make a $1.4-billion, 10-year offer. It's not just that picking up HNIC would give CTV the one night of the week it doesn't automatically win now -- Saturdays.

Rather, it's that so many Canadians have stopped watching CBC that the NHL almost has no alternative. After all, you wouldn't play hockey in a dark rink.

The CBC brass know this. Last week in Ottawa at the CRTC's television policy review, the network basically admitted it would soon be out of the hockey business after a 70-year association on TV and radio.

CBC president Robert Rabinovitch said it was "distinctly possible" that the NHL would skate over to CTV. This would mean a loss of revenue for CBC estimated at $100 million a year, the committee was told. The CBC brass went on to say that if they lose hockey, they want more taxpayer money. Otherwise, Rabinovitch said, "we will have to seriously re-evaluate almost everything about English television."

So that's their pitch: We give up, and give us money.

Way to rally the troops after CBC chairman Guy Fournier's "bestiality and bowel movement" meltdown. (The 75-year-old Fournier, one of the most powerful and influential men in Canadian culture, resigned last month after blathering on like an idiot in print and on TV.)

If CBC isn't already seriously re-evaluating almost everything about English television, it may be too late. Ratings for this season are so low they're shocking even for dwindling CBC standards.

Hockey: A People's History, on billboards and bus shelters all over town, drew just 390,000 viewers Sept. 24. Nine times as many Canadians (2.7 million) watched Desperate Housewives that night at the same hour on CTV.

About a year ago, CBC programmers were all excited about a quirky little animated series called What It's Like Being Alone. The series finale Sept. 18 drew 163,000 viewers.

It gets worse. That miniseries on Rene Levesque? Part of CBC's high-impact programming strategy? A washout Sept. 21 with 131,000 viewers. Don't even ask about last season's Kraft Hockeyville fiasco, which plunged below 100,000.

This after a nightmare summer during which CBC programming head Kirstine Layfield got roasted for reaching across the border to try to boost her schedule. The One, a copycat ABC star-search series, was one of the biggest bombs ever, yanked after two weeks in the States.

Right idea, wrong show. CBC will have to take more chances if it wants to stay in the TV business, and Canadian nationalists be damned.

Otherwise, all that Canadian-made content they have lined up for next week -- Moses Znaimer's new gossip magazine comedy Rumors (Sunday), Chris Haddock's new crime drama Intelligence (Monday) and the South African-based medical drama Jozi-H (Friday, Oct. 13) -- is doomed.

The hard lesson for CBC programmers is you can't launch new shows if nobody is watching your network. Ask former WB executives.

The prospect of losing the one top-20, million-viewers-a-week-plus show on your schedule -- leaving a huge 400-hour programming hole -- is like Fox losing American Idol, times a billion.

It is condo time at 205 Wellington West. It is game over for CBC.


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