Bye George! Hockey Night In Canada Goes Back To The Future
News reports say that George Stromboulopoulos is out as host of Hockey Night In Canada after two seasons on Canada’s most prestigious TV property. And-- O, the irony-- his predecessor Ron MacLean is back in the chair he occupied for decades before Rogers Communication won the TV/ social media rights to NHL hockey in Canada and shunted MacLean off to the hinterland.
Next thing you'll tell me Stephen Harper will come back as prime minister.
When Strombo was handed the job as part of Rogers’ makeover of the venerable TV show, it was seen as an attraction for a younger generation to bring in the former VJ with his pipe-stem pants and hip-hop manner. Which, frankly, was a refreshing concept. By the time CBC lost control of the show to Rogers it had become mannered and stale, a cranky reflection of its octogenarian star Don Cherry. The show was white, old and male. Nothing personified that more than the creaky puns of MacLean.
If Strombo could bring in the hipsters it would mark a turning of generations for HNIC. There were a few problems with all this, however. First, Strombo was not quite the national media sensation he’d been made out to be in Toronto’s media hothouse. Frankly, the ratings for his highly praised interview show on CBC had been mediocre.
Not for lack of funds, either. There was much resentment within CBC about how so many A-list stars were funneled to Strombo’s show (and Jian Ghoemeshi’s ill-fated radio program Q) at the exclusion of others. Unfortunately the ratings didn’t reflect the expenditure. Many nights, Strombo was handed a six-figure audience and finished with just friends-and-family. In short, his rep in the general population was largely echo-chamber hype from CBC. Still, industry sources say he was given seven-figure compensation all the same.
The second stumbling point for the experiment was that, having made a move in the direction of a hip crowd, HNIC left the old crew around him in the studio. So while Strombo promised Bieber and Beyoncê, Rogers gave him Nick Kypreos and Glenn Healy. No knock on those guys in the studio, but if you replace Tony Bennett with Bono, wouldn’t you replace the musicians too? George was left with accordions and clarinets instead of synthesizers.
If Rogers truly wanted to transform the show, HNIC needed to surround Strombo with the latest culture heroes and musicians during intermissions, not more hockey pucks. Instead we had a desperate-looking Strombo, a fan out of his element, trying to keep up with the locker-room camaraderie of former NHLers. Many nights he resembled the kid trying to keep up with his older brothers and their friends.
Finally, any experiment in the HNIC format was undermined by the abject failure of the Toronto Maple Leafs, the “home team” for HNIC, in the two seasons George was on board. As the Leafs tanked this season in an effort to get the top draft pick, Hogtown fans found other things to watch. Such as the Raptors.
That was made worse in Year Two when all the seven Canadian teams bottomed out simultaneously, missing the playoffs. Many nights, HNIC resembled the waiting room at a funeral parlor as the family greeted the bereaved. No one— including Ron MacLean— was going to pump life into a scenario like that.
The big blow came when, after spending billions to establish itself as The Source for hockey, Rogers was beaten by TSN in the ratings for Trade Deadline Day in February. The hockey viewers had spoken loudly. Millions was spent on experts and studio folk like Strombo returned little.
By the end of the hockey season ratings ranged from the truly awful to just alright. The Final series between Pittsburgh and San Jose, two teams with little Canadian cachet, was down about 13 percent from 2015. Not terrible in a time when ratings on most programming have slid precipitously. And not considering the absence of any Canadian teams in the postseason.
But it was not enough to calm the concern in the executive suites at Rogers, where the $5.2 billion U.S. commitment over 12 years was eating a hole in the bottom line. Denying HNIC to TSN had reaped some benefits, but the franchise was not throwing out revenues needed to justify winning the NHL bidding war.
The first major public sign of alarm was the axing of veteran sports TV producer Gord Cutler as senior vice president of NHL production before the regular season was even concluded. In theory, the Strombo experiment was laid at his door even though it was made well up the food chain from that. The promised production revolution of new camera angles and studio improvements— another hyped promise from Rogers— was too costly and rarely employed. That left the public unmoved, too.
So where does HNIC go from here? Clearly going back to MacLean will be a humiliation— but one that saves money. The veteran broadcaster is already being paid, you lose Strombo’s salary, and you hope the old sweats in the audience will forgive you for your two-year loss of sanity. Industry sources say this won’t be the only cut. Next season the regional studio panels will disappear, and all in-game production will come from the arenas where the games are played. Technicians, sales people and others are being slashed from the rolls.
It is a delaying action till Rogers can think of something else. Ot the Canadian teams improve. Or the NBA, NFL and MLB go on strike. The way the money is flowing from the Rogers’ mother ship, the same-old same-old won’t work much longer as Gary Bettman dilutes his product. Good luck waiting for The Commish to rescue Rogers from its commitment.
Bruce Dowbiggin @dowbboy
Bruce's career is unmatched in Canada for its diversity and breadth of experience with successful stints in television, radio and print. A two-time winner of the Gemini Award as Canada's top television sports broadcaster, he is also the best-selling author of seven books. He was a featured columnist for the Calgary Herald (1998-2009) and the Globe & Mail (2009-2013).