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CBC loses control of 'Hockey Night in Canada' to Rogers in blockbuster deal

The Rogers Communications sign is marks the company's headquarters in Toronto, April 25, 2012. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Aaron Vincent Elkaim

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The Rogers Communications sign is marks the company's headquarters in Toronto, April 25, 2012. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Aaron Vincent Elkaim

TORONTO - Canada's hockey TV landscape underwent a seismic shift Tuesday as Rogers Communications wrested control of NHL multimedia rights with a blockbuster 12-year, $5.2-billion agreement that will preserve "Hockey Night in Canada" but limit CBC's role in the iconic broadcast.

The deal, the largest in NHL history, gives Rogers national rights to all NHL games, including the playoffs and Stanley Cup final, on all of its platforms in all languages.

"It will be the NHL like never before," Rogers Media president Keith Pelley promised at a packed news conference Tuesday, touting a "transformational day" for the industry, as well as Rogers' position as a burgeoning sports broadcasting titan.

A sub-licensing agreement with CBC allows the public broadcaster to continue airing "Hockey Night in Canada" on Saturday nights for four years, while TVA in Quebec earned all of the Canadian French-language multi-media rights.

But the Rogers coup includes rights to the venerable "Hockey Night in Canada" brand, allowing Rogers (TSX:RCI.B) to also air the weekly staple across all of its platforms, including City and Sportsnet.

"Sometimes it's almost surreal—acquiring the most coveted content in all of Canada, and there is nothing even close, which is the national rights to 'Hockey Night in Canada,'" Pelley told reporters after the news conference.

"And that's pretty exciting but it's daunting and overwhelming at the same time."

The broader arrangement guarantees there will be no further regionalization of games or local blackouts. Rogers has three exclusive windows to broadcast any game involving a Canadian team—Wednesday nights, Saturday nights (including the weekly match-ups on CBC) and Sunday nights.

The deal is a devastating blow to Bell Media's all-sports channel TSN, a bitter rival to Sportsnet that has relied on the NHL to build its brand, and to the beleaguered CBC, which gives up lucrative hockey revenues that have traditionally subsidized its slate of original Canadian programming.

And even though "Hockey Night in Canada" will continue to be a staple, it's likely to undergo a radical new look.

"From next year on, the content of that show, whatever features are being done, that's a Rogers responsibility and you know what, it's kind of fair, they just paid $5.2 billion for 12 years for that," CBC president Hubert Lacroix said following the announcement.

He outlined the shift in an internal memo to staff, noting that "starting next year, Rogers will assume all editorial control (all editorial decisions with respect to the content, on-air talent and the creative direction of HNIC—we have the right to be consulted and there is a commitment to excellence) under the new agreement."

He added that it wasn't "the outcome we had hoped for," confirming there will be job losses, though not as many as there would have been had they lost the NHL altogether.

Lacroix said at the news conference that the NHL had high financial expectations and the CBC was "not in a position to spend taxpayers money on this game of high stakes."

While CBC will no longer make money from "Hockey Night in Canada," Lacroix said airing the games will still be good for the public broadcaster.

"We think the ability to still have 'Hockey Night in Canada' is something important to us ... and that's what we get out of this," he said.

He notes the deal allows CBC to promote its programming in primetime across all Rogers networks.

"So when you're going to see a minute promoting 'Cracked' or promoting 'Arctic Air' or the 'Dragons' (Den)' it's going to be something that's not only going to be on our network but it's going to be on all the other networks," he said.

Nevertheless, Lacroix acknowledged that lucrative hockey profits will no longer be available to help fund original series such as "Republic of Doyle" and "Mr. D."

He said discussions were underway to possibly generate income in other ways, should CBC partner up with Rogers in the production of "Hockey Night in Canada."

"Then if they use some of our resources—and we have different agreements going on right now—it will be something that will either be paid in kind or in services or in cash."

The ramifications of the deal are myriad and ongoing. For example, Pelley floated the possibility of CBC newscasts airing on City, for example, after a playoff game.

The deal also raises questions about the future of CBC's talent, especially fan favourite Don Cherry. The high-profile hockey commentator wasn't sure what would happen to his Coach's Corner segment when he spoke to reporters Tuesday night.

"I can't make a comment because I don't know what's going on," said Cherry. "Usually I'm the best guy in the world for a comment but I can't comment on something when I don't know what's going on."

Pelley said it was too soon to answer those questions, but noted that Grapes could very possibly turn up as a commentator on City or Sportsnet.

"Over the next months and years, we will evaluate all facets of our production and our programming, certainly in consultation with CBC regarding 'Hockey Night in Canada,'" said Pelley.

TSN will be severely impacted by the blockbuster agreement, although it still has some regional hockey deals.

Bell Media vice-president of communications Scott Henderson said TSN would have 10 Leafs games next season under a regional agreement and that, starting in 2015, the network would have 26 regional Leafs games. TSN also has a deal for more than 60 regional Jets games through 2021.

TSN personality James Duthie reminded fans on Twitter that the specialty network is still airing games and is gearing up for the World Juniors in a month.

"Been a privilege being a part of The NHL on TSN the past 12 years. Congrats and best of luck to Rogers/HNIC," Duthie tweeted.

Sports consultant Brian Cooper, president of S&E Sponsorship, noted that TSN still holds a lot of popular championships in basketball, soccer and golf but called the news "a severe body blow (to TSN)."

"In this country, there is only one sport that really matters," said Cooper.

"They have a lot of programming that they probably weren't using around those championships that they're now going to have to employ instead of putting on the shelf but this has changed the landscape tremendously in this country."

In a curious wrinkle, TSN retains the rights to the "Hockey Night in Canada" theme song. It secured ownership in 2008 after CBC was unable to negotiate a new agreement with the song's composer.

Pelley said he couldn't comment on the song except to say it's not part of the deal "for obvious reasons."

Rogers CEO and president Nadir Mohamed said the new agreement makes sense for Rogers, which has made sports investments a priority.

"We've had a focus on sports for the last few years," he said. "I talked about the investments we've made, whether it's the Jays, the MLSE, investment, The Score, regional rights to hockey. So really, in some ways, this is the icing on the cake."

"Categorically this is positive for shareholders at Rogers," he added. "It's a financially good deal for us."

The deal is subject to approval by the NHL board of governors, which meets Dec. 9 and 10 in Pebble Beach, Calif.

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