NBC Sports released their television schedule for the 2017-18 NHL season on Monday morning, and if you’re like most people you probably skipped over the platitudes at the beginning (“the most diverse broadcast schedule in history!”) and just did a ctrl-F for “Carolina.”
And then the document keeps scrolling...
...until it lands on the fourth-from-last game on the schedule.
Yep. That’s it. That’s the extent of the Hurricanes’ appearances on national television, for the third straight season. One game.
And it’s against the Flyers which, as one of our regular commenters pointed out on Twitter, likely means a national distribution of a local broadcast.
With the CSN Philadelphia announcer team, certainly.— Lord Puckethead (@joshcvt) July 31, 2017
(The byproduct of this schedule is 81 games of John, Tripp and Mike, so while the distribution won’t be there, at least the broadcast quality and the consistency on Hurricanes broadcasts will be.)
Now, many of you know that I work in broadcasting as my day job, so I might have a little different perspective on this than most people. One of the first things I learned in television production in high school, which has stuck with me even though I ended up in radio instead of television, is that any commercial broadcaster has one prime directive: to sell and air commercials.
It was so fundamental to our understanding of how to interpret every programming decision ever made that it was the first question, without fail, on every test we took.
So from NBC’s perspective, when their goal is to sell as many commercials as possible, this is close to a perfect schedule.
Comcast owns NBC, and three of the four NHL markets which have CSN/NBC Sports affiliates are treated royally:
- Philadelphia Flyers (CSN Philly): 17 appearances
- Chicago Blackhawks (CSN Chicago): 17
- Washington Capitals (CSN Mid-Atlantic): 15
- San Jose Sharks (NBC Sports California): 6
Putting them on frequently is good for NBC’s bottom line in the long run because (in theory) it drums up interest on the local broadcast, which also puts money in NBC’s pocket.
Then from there, you have proven local ratings draws like the Pittsburgh Penguins (16), the New York Rangers (14), the Minnesota Wild (12) and the Detroit Red Wings (12). Again, these are teams that always draw viewers (especially locally) no matter what network they’re on, so putting them on NBC properties allows the national broadcaster to grab a share of that pie.
Even the woebegone Buffalo Sabres will almost always get a decent number of NBC appearances (seven appearances this year, similar to past years), simply because they’re such a huge ratings draw in western New York even if they have little to no relevance nationally.
Go back to the original point: NBC’s not doing this out of the goodness of their heart. They don’t necessarily care about magnificent hockey being played at the highest level, although if that happens all the better. All they care about are eyeballs.
Which brings us to the real problem here: the fact that the NHL doesn’t really bring NBC to bear in any meaningful way on trying to promote the product being aired. But again, NBC’s success is tied into the NHL’s success: more viewers watching NBC games means more money in NBC’s pocket, which means more money the NHL’s able to charge at the next negotiation (and, by extension, more money you’ll be charged on your bill).
So that’s how you wind up with half the league making three or fewer appearances on national television. If it was a hockey decision, both Connor McDavid vs. Auston Matthews matchups would be on American television, but since the Toronto and Edmonton markets count for bupkis when NBC tries to sell commercials, too bad.
Hell, there’s no McDavid vs. Sidney Crosby matchup on the schedule, even with the Penguins being as much of a ratings lock as any team in the league. That’s inexcusable, and it shows a lack of creativity on NBC’s part as well as a willingness on the part of the NHL to simply roll over and say “thank you sir, may I have another Flyers/Bruins matchup”.
That’s where the NHL needs to step in. The ideal solution here is probably for NBC to keep their cash cows and match them up against “lesser” draws. Instead of airing, say, Rangers/Penguins three times this season, why not air that matchup once and pair up the Rangers with - I dunno - the Hurricanes and, say, the Blue Jackets for the other two?
This is similar to what the NFL does. Sure, the Panthers (for example) may not be much of a national draw. But pair them up with, say, the Giants and you still get the bump of the big draw and some exposure for a lesser-seen team. NBC uses this scheduling strategy all the time for Sunday Night Football; teams like the Vikings, Falcons and Lions would never be spotlighted on Sunday night if not for the fact that they were playing the Packers, Patriots and Steelers.
It works fine for the NFL, the 800-pound gorilla of American sports that could draw viewers if they just put two generic teams on a field, called them Team A and Team B and played the game in Sioux Falls. (To that end: wait until you see how many people watch the Hall of Fame Game this Thursday, a preseason game featuring mostly fourth-stringers played on a high school field in Canton, Ohio.)
Why can’t it work for the NHL?
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a Blue Jackets/Sabres Wednesday Night Rivalry game to get ready for.