Why NBC Doesn't Hate Hockey As Much As You Think

Tim KingCorrespondent IFebruary 22, 2010

VANCOUVER, BC - FEBRUARY 21:  Zach Parise #9 of the United States, Jamie Langenbrunner #15 of the United States and Ryan Kesler #17 of the United States celebrate after Kesler scored an empty net goal in the third period during the ice hockey men's preliminary game between Canada and USA on day 10 of the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics at Canada Hockey Place on February 21, 2010 in Vancouver, Canada. Team USA won 5-3.  (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)
Alex Livesey/Getty Images

As I spent a pleasant Sunday afternoon evening and early Monday morning watching what amounted to end-to-end hockey all-star games from Vancouver, my email inbox and Facebook page were rapidly filling with anger.

They were filled with anger from fellow hockey fans that NBC had put the screws to them.

They were angry that their cable companies were complicit in some sort of overarching conspiracy to steal meaningful hockey games from them in the dead of February—anger too that the NHL had done nothing to prevent this calamity. 

Much as I love my friends and respect their intellect, I can't agree with them this time around.

There was an entire day of hockey to be had on the tube, even if that meant paging up to the upper reaches of the system where I seldom go and settling for games not in HD. It was there, and I didn't have to spend a second watching curling, ice dancing, biathlon, or luge. All hockey, all day is fine by me, no matter how hard I have to work to find it.

I can't really blame NBC for the perception that they are putting it to hockey fans across the USA. As a broadcaster on hiatus, I understand the way the suits in 30 Rock think and why they do the things they do. This time around it even makes sense.

Long before the torch was lit, it was obvious that NBC was going to have to draw large numbers of non-sports fans to the tube if it had any hope of generating revenue large enough to break even on this deal. This meant that one of its channels was going to have to be dedicated to spectacle and not sports.

The prettiest pictures had to go on the biggest screen, or this wasn't going to work financially. It didn't matter how many people understood or followed the sport; it mattered that it caught the eye of the causal observer.

But what to do about the one team sport in these games that you can't edit to death? You have three other networks losing money on almost everything else they do; why not try to balance the books there and keep hockey fans' interest?

The three or four people in 30 Rock who understand that the 25 share they can get for a USA-Canada game in Detroit, Pittsburgh, Minneapolis, and Buffalo can't be ignored also understand that hockey fans will go to about any length to see a game. If you put it on your worst signal in analog, hockey fans will still watch. 

Those network people also understand that because of a cratered economy and cable companies who don't like to play nice, a majority of Americans don't have access to an HD set or signal in their homes. That means the network could shave some production costs out of its package by broadcasting games in good old-fashioned analog.

This is the last time they can get away with it, and they know it, but they can get away with it this last time for sure.

So the hockey tournament has bounced between USA, CNBC, and MSNBC at a dizzying pace, yet hockey fans have largely found the games. The overnight numbers are trickling in, but it's already obvious Sunday's games were some of the highest rated events so far. 

Some of my friends have been screaming that they can't get some of these channels because their cable company pushed them off the expanded basic tier and would have to move to a programming tier they can't afford to see the games.

Unfortunately, neither they, the NHL, nor NBC can control that and the cable company in this case. The company in question, which shall remain nameless, always finds in favor of its own wallet and not your viewing pleasure. Remember that when it comes time to renew your subscription.

None of this is to say that this is a perfect situation. If I were the general manager of an NBC station in Pittsburgh, Detroit, Minneapolis, Boston, or Buffalo, I'd want someone's head on a stick over this because the decision took viewers and revenue away from me. 

If I were the NHL, I'd be screaming too. While NBC has shown every second of every game, they have not even attempted to sell the personalities involved to any great degree.

The league shut down for two weeks for what has been, so far, a very entertaining week of hockey, and their supposed "partner" has gone to no great lengths to showcase the talents involved. Most Americans know far more about Lindsey Vonn than they do Ryan Miller. 

In this regard NBC might be shooting itself in the foot down the road. There is great talk within NHL circles that the league isn't really interested in an Olympic hiatus in 2014 when the games move to Russia and out of prime time. If the league doesn't go, it takes with it a lot of eyeballs that NBC won't be able to get in the middle of hockey season and thus might find itself headed on a bobsled run of red ink. 

If the USA makes it to the gold medal game this coming Sunday, you can bet that the game will be on NBC and in HD. But if that is the case, then hockey will have crossed the line like it did in 1980 and 2002 and turned into a spectacle—a spectacle they'll even watch in Alabama.