An open letter to NBC, the NHL, and American hockey fans

Setting the Stage

On Saturday, 20 May 2007, the Ottawa Senators and Buffalo Sabres played Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals in Buffalo. That game was on American broadcast television on NBC. The stakes were high in this game. An Ottawa victory would end the series, giving the Senators their first berth in the Stanley Cup Finals since the team’s pre-Original Six incarnation. For Buffalo, a win would force a Game 6 in Ottawa on Monday night.

NBC had scheduled coverage of the Preakness Stakes at 5:00 pm Eastern Daylight Time. The third period of the hockey game had already run long, and the score was tied 2-2 at the end of regulation. Without returning to the studio, the play-by-play announcer stated that, due to the Preakness, overtime of the Ottawa-Buffalo game would switch to Versus, except in the Buffalo viewing area.

Viewers who switched to Versus found that the cable network had not yet joined NBC’s intermission report. They were still showing a strongman competition. The intermission was almost over before Versus picked up the NBC feed.

NBC obviously had no way to predict how long overtime would last. This season, there has already been one three-overtime game. Last season, a playoff overtime lasted only 90 seconds. As it turned out, Ottawa scored to end the game before the post time of the Preakness itself. NBC was still covering the pre-race festivities and interviews, even after Versus had shown the Prince of Wales Trophy presentation and the post-game studio show.

How to Kill Your Already Low Ratings

By switching the hockey game from NBC to Versus, a number of viewers had no way of following the game:

  • Viewers who don’t have cable or satellite were lost entirely, as the hockey game was taken off broadcast television.
  • On Dish Network, Versus is only available on their $90/month top-tier package, the America’s “Everything” Pack. Dish customers who have a less-expensive package were lost.
  • On DirecTV, Versus is available on their $45/month second-tier package, Choice Xtra. DirecTV customers who have the least-expensive Choice package were lost.
  • Versus is owned by Comcast, so most Comcast customers have Versus in their basic service. On many other cable providers, Versus is part of an up-market package if it is available at all.

To compound the problem, high-definition viewers probably had to switch from NBC’s HD feed to the Versus standard-definition feed, since Versus HD has limited market penetration.

Meanwhile, NBC Universal’s other cable networks, which have better coverage than Versus, were showing the following at the 5:00 pm hour:

  • USA: Movie: 50 First Dates
  • Sci-Fi: A rerun of Heroes
  • MSNBC: Documentary: Blood Ties
  • CNBC: Paid Programming

Insult upon Insult

To American hockey fans, this is a blatant slap in the face. NBC had an obvious monetary reason for dumping the game on Versus. There are no TV time-outs in overtime, so NBC would lose the commercials scheduled during the Preakness pre-race show.

However, the way NBC managed the switch displayed nothing but contempt for hockey fans. A perfunctory announcement, then boom, we’re at Pimlico. There was no apology in the announcement. NBC didn’t wait for Versus to pick up the feed before switching to the Preakness.

Worse, Sunday’s broadcast of Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals between Anaheim and Detroit made no mention whatsoever of the mismanagement of overtime on Saturday. Neither the pre-game studio hosts nor the game announcers acknowledged the situation.

On NBCSports.com, there has been no mention of the situation. On NHL.com, there has been no mention of the situation, either. There has been no statement at all, from any of the parties involved. No attempt at placating irate hockey fans.

Dick Ebersol, you owe us an apology. Gary Bettman, you owe us an apology.

If you are a hockey blogger willing to excuse NBC’s decision as “good business,” you have no self-respect.

Backbone

NBC, your silent treatment speaks volumes about your attitude toward hockey fans. You apparently consider us so far beneath contempt that we’re not worth apologizing to. Your actions on Saturday demonstrated, in a nutshell, the decades of disrespect that the sport of hockey has suffered at the hands of the American media.

Had this been any other sport, you wouldn’t have left the game in the first place. Even if you had to cut away for the race itself, you would have bent over backwards to keep as many viewers happy as possible. Instead we were disregarded and dumped on Versus without so much as a by-your-leave.

Of course, your insistence on showing games on Saturday afternoon doesn’t help. Saturday prime time is the lowest rated night of the week, so NHL games wouldn’t do much worse than the drama reruns you air now. Ratings might even (gasp) improve in prime time! Saturday night also allows CBC to have more Hockey Night in Canada broadcasts during the playoffs. Best of all, it would give you room to handle overtimes without running into other sporting events. Saturday Night Live is in reruns by playoff time anyway.

Gary Bettman, you and the NHL look desperate to allow NBC to run roughshod over your games. Yes, the Lockout weakened your bargaining position with the American media. (Not that it was strong in the first place.) Allowing your broadcast partners to cut off overtime on a whim, however, is inexcusable. You should have protected HNIC by pushing NBC to air Saturday night games. You should have, at the very least, made sure you weren’t running the end of a playoff hockey game up against another sport’s biggest events.

Hockey bloggers, if you give enough of a damn about the game to write about it on a regular basis, you should have enough pride to put the screws to everybody involved. Aren’t you insulted by this? Aren’t you embarrassed by this? Don’t you feel just a little bit of humiliation when you have to justify your continued support of hockey to all the haters out there?

Allan Muir, I’m calling you out specifically because you’re toeing the corporate-synergy party line. “Just don’t make NBC out as the villain here.” Are you serious? Count the Peacock icons on the front page of SI.com, and then ask yourself why you’re giving NBC a free pass. There is more than enough blame to go around. Nobody should be getting away unscathed.

I fully expect hockey-hating tools like Skip Bayless and Jay Mariotti to pounce on this in their columns and on ESPN’s screaming-head talk shows. Every word they write or utter about hockey is an insult in the first place. But I also expect typically reasonable national columnists to show no sympathy whatsoever. They’ll fall back on their dog-eared copy of the American Sports Writer Book of Clichés, trotting out the usual passive-aggressive insults of the game and those of us who love it.

I’m tired of this. Aren’t you?

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3 responses

  1. My feelings, as usual, are that Bettman knows less about running a business than some mom and pop store owners do in Queens. (http://www.businessweek.com/magazine/content/05_02/b3915648.htm)

  2. As much as I hate to agree with Bill Simmons, I think I can go along with one of his David Stern conspiracy theories:He pushed for the NHL to hire Gary Bettman as commissioner because,
    deep down, he knew Bettman would do an atrocious job and eventually
    eliminate the NHL as a winter competitor. Which is exactly what
    happened.

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