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Hockey Night in Canada: Where Rogers got it all wrong

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Hockey Night in Canada is tough to watch and change is necessary.

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Toronto Maple Leafs v Ottawa Senators Photo by Phillip MacCallum/Getty Images

It was Saturday night. Game 3 of the NHL's Stanley Cup Final was on Hockey Night in Canada. It's a genuinely exciting match-up between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the San Jose Sharks. Two great teams with lots of recognisable star names: Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Joe Thornton, and especially Phil Kessel.

A lot was on the line for the Sharks. Down two games to none in the series, and in front of a home crowd, they needed to win this one. An early first-period lead for the Penguins shocked the crowd, but the mood turned around when the Sharks tied it up. In the second period, the Penguins scored and took the lead again. Then Joel Ward tied up the game again in the third period.

With about five minutes left, the Penguins took a terribly timed double minor penalty for high sticking. It was a tense four minutes, but the Penguins successfully killed the penalty, and held out through the end of regulation time.

It came down to what’s always the best hockey: sudden-death overtime. After an exhilarating eight minutes, the Sharks won on a goal by Joonas Donskoi. It was one of the most exciting games of the Stanley Cup Final so far -- yet few Canadians watched it.

In fact, Canadians haven't been watching much of the playoffs, or even the regular NHL season, at all.

The story of Rogers' declining ratings has been well documented in the news for some time. Ratings for the Stanley Cup Playoffs are down 44%, mirroring a decline in regular season ratings.

Explanations for this decline are numerous: a bad Maple Leafs team, no Canadian franchises in the playoffs, competition from the Raptors and the Blue Jays, demographic shifts, cord-cutting, nice weather, Glenn Healy...

Those are all valid explanations. Some are transient events, and some permanent changes to the media landscape. PPP itself has not escaped the impact of some of them. That same Saturday night Stanley Cup Final game had a record low number of comments, especially considering the participation on each roster of some former Maple Leafs much beloved by PPP commentors.

At Rogers, those explanations have also been used as excuses to avoid acknowledging a structural shift in what new hockey fans expect from a TV broadcast. Adapting to this shift requires expertise on new ideas about the game, and innovative and creative coverage to engage the new audience. But Rogers doesn't seem to understand, or, at least, badly misjudges these fans.

NHL hockey in Canada has been nationally broadcast on television by CBC since 1952. Various networks and stations have also aired local or regional broadcast rights over that time, but by 2013 the majority of regional broadcast rights were held by networks owned by Bell and Rogers.

In November 2013, the NHL announced it had reached a new 12-year broadcast rights deal with Rogers, effective the start of the 2014-15 season.

It was well known in advance that CBC lacked the financial resources to participate meaningfully in the bidding. Nationally broadcast hockey games in Canada were going to move, either to Rogers-owned Sportsnet, or Bell-owned TSN.

Both networks bid, but Rogers ultimately won, with a bid widely reported to be many millions higher, which Bell refused to match.

Rogers did legitimately need to make changes to hockey broadcasting. CBC's Hockey Night in Canada was old and tired. Don Cherry was mostly known for having enough time on air to stray into xenophobic bloviation. The panels had the enthusiasm of attendees at an auditors convention listening to a three hour lecture on proposed changes to National Instrument 23-101. The intermission hallway interviews were, well, what they still are: pointless (though TSN seems to get good ones).

Rogers also knew it couldn't use what Sportsnet had been doing up to that point, like having Nick Kypreos and Doug MacLean shouting at each other in obviously scripted arguments over their contrarian opinions.

So they embarked on what they called a "listening tour," supposedly to figure out what changes Canadians wanted and didn't want to TV hockey broadcasting.

One result of this research was confirmation that HNIC needed to be modernized to attract the Millennials. Apparently P.J. Stock's popped collar wasn't enough to attract this demographic, which is coveted by their advertisers (you've all opened up your accounts at Scotiabank by now, right?).

The question was how were they supposed to connect with those Millennials that will be their future audience?

I picture a boardroom full of Rogers executives, sometime in early 2013, nodding their heads as a hired marketing consultant spews out buzzwords to explain what those confounding Millennials like.

When big corporations try to be "hip" and "trendy" to appeal to new consumers they rarely do it by crafting a new innovative or creative product. Instead they climb on a trend bandwagon just as it's about to drop off a cliff. This is why your local McDonald's is now selling a baby kale salad. Kale is what all the cool people are eating, right? Inevitably, underneath the facade of being "hip," you find that nothing has changed.

Rogers thought that by changing the look and feel of hockey broadcasting as far as possible in the opposite direction of what CBC had been doing would attract new viewers. Instead of dowdy auditors in a conference room talking about the game, we ended up with loud investment bankers in flashy suits at a financial district watering hole shouting "do you know who I am?" at their own viewers.

Instead of a small and relatively plain set, we have a giant two-story set with dozens of TV screens, and a smattering of embarrassing gimmicks. There is a glass wall case holding pucks with team logos in them. For a brief time, before they realised it was dumb, a host would take out a puck and insert it into a slot to activate a screen showing stats about that team.

Avoiding ridiculous gimmicks like that is a lesson Canadian (and maybe the whole worlds) TV executives refuse to learn. Remember way back in 1997 when CTV News Network (then called CTV News 1) launched with a set that had a desk for the anchor which rotated around in a circle for absolutely no reason? Or how about when CHCH changed to a CGI set that was badly projected on a blue screen background with a fake elevator? The poor weather forecasters had to humiliate themselves riding the fake elevator up to the fake second floor to do their segment. At least the new Sportsnet studio is real.

How is it that TV executives don't quash this kind of crap before it makes it past the concept stage? These are examples of prioritizing changing style instead of substance. Almost no effort is spent on innovative or creative ways to present their content.

At the same time as they tried to become more hip, Rogers' 'listening tour' found they needed to retain elements of the old Hockey Night in Canada, like Don Cherry, to bridge the gap between the old and new shows. They knew some people wanted big changes, while some people didn't want any change. The result is the Star Trek: Generations of hockey television. Kirk was added to a TNG film because change is weird and scary, and someone has to hold the viewers' hands through the process.

When a network adds something new to placate some viewers, but then forces in something old to placate other viewers, it usually doesn't work.

Perhaps a better analogy comes from the episode of The Simpsons where Bart and Lisa take part in a focus group about the Itchy and Scratchy cartoon show. The cartoon's producer can't figure out why kids don't like the show anymore. The kids in the focus group offer conflicting suggestions, and keep changing their minds about what they do and don't want. Eventually the producer explodes in frustration:

You kids don't know what you want! That's why you're still kids: 'cause you're stupid! Just tell me what's wrong with the freakin' show!

The producer's solution is to add a new character to the cat and mouse team: a dog. Thanks to meddling by a network executive, the dog morphs from being a simple cartoon into a caricature of all that is hip and trendy.

For Rogers, the parallel move was hiring George Stroumboulopoulos to host Hockey Night in Canada. There had to have been a meeting at One Mount Pleasant where a Rogers executive said "We need to hipster-fy hockey by 10%. Hire that Strombasomething guy all the kids watch!"

Strombo is a competent and professional TV personality, yet, two years in to the new Hockey Night in Canada, he is still stumbling through the show. Perhaps after spending years doing long segments he can't adapt to the rapid 60-seconds-per-topic cadence of an intermission segment? He often flubs when throwing to someone else on the set, and occasionally shows up unexpectedly in the middle of other people's segments.

When the 'hockey guys' are playing with sticks and the net on that stage made of TV screens, Strombo will pop in halfway through. When he participates in the conversations it's mostly to repeat points already made, or to tell a joke. Perhaps the problem is his co-workers. Sometimes when he tries to add a comment to the discussion Kypreos talks over him, or flat out turns away and ignores him. There is no chemistry there.

This is a result of changing the show to have 'something for everyone' by cramming disparate elements together into the existing format, instead of going all-in and creating a brand new show from scratch with innovative and creative ideas that add value for viewers. Ironically, that's actually what Strombo did with his old show, The Hour. It was a show oriented to a younger audience with one-on-one interviews, some comedy, and a touch of commentary on current events. There wasn't really anything like it on TV in Canada at the time. Strombo and his team created it from scratch and it was a success.

But Rogers simply plucked Strombo from that show, put him beside Nick Kypreos, and expected to replicate that success with new and younger viewers.

It's frustrating to see how much innovation is going on with the analysis and presentation of hockey information outside the mainstream. It's work which could add value to the show for all viewers. Instead we have two guys in suits holding hockey sticks, awkwardly re-enacting a play from the game.

Hockey fans started complaining about the new show almost immediately in the 2014-15 season. At first, Rogers said viewers simply needed time to "get used to the new format," meaning "we're right, and you, the viewers, are wrong." Some insiders have reported that Rogers producers are still baffled by reactions to the new broadcast. They still don't understand cobbling together elements that appeal to different viewers and smashing them together in one show doesn't make anyone happy.

After two years of PR about how there were only transient ratings problems, and it would all soon turn around, there were layoffs of behind the scenes staff, and a sense that trouble was brewing.

The layoffs and cutbacks were driven by a decline in ad revenue from low ratings, which were in turn caused by the variety of factors previously mentioned, and not necessarily the changes to the show. However, while the ratings drop may be explained in only a small part by viewers being turned off by the new show, the network is also failing to pull in new viewers. Those new viewers are out there, waiting for something to bring them in, but they don't see it in what Sportsnet has to offer them on TV.

In April, Rogers took the bold step of firing the top producer of hockey broadcast content, Gord Cutler. This was a shock to insiders, coming directly before the Stanley Cup Playoffs. There have been further signals that more change is imminent.

Next week I will share my ideas about what Rogers can do to make their broadcast better. Some are "low-hanging fruit" that can and should be implemented immediately, some are more broad in scope, and some are simply visions for what they should strive to be like 10 years from now.

I'm not going to make any suggestions that impact the actual game, nor demand people be fired (not even Healy!). These are constructive and actionable ideas that many good people on the air and behind the scenes at Sportsnet can work with.

I expect Rogers' staff to take all this with many grains of salt, if they even read it. I'm not an industry insider, or a trained media critic. I'm a fan who watches the games, increasingly with the sound off, if not the TV, for the intermission, turning attention to places like this website and Twitter. I no longer watch anything before the puck drops. Indeed, believe it or not, I've found Don Cherry's breakdown of the games is now often the only intermission content worth watching.

Until my next post, please share in the comments what you think should change and why, because change is definitely coming.