In a conference call on Wednesday about the CBC budget cuts, a reporter asked Kirstine Stewart, the CBC's executive vice-president for English services, what the consequences would be for TV sports, and for Coach's Corner in particular. She said: "We have no specifics on Coach Corner."
Faced with a 10-per-cent cut in its federal funding, CBC could make a reasonable saving on the line item that reads "Flamboyant hockey analyst ... estimated $800 K." Especially after the year just past, in which Stewart rebuked Don Cherry for his on-air comments about three former players (he called them "pukes") and in which Canadian NHL clubs complained to Stewart personally about the Coach's Corner star.
If there's a change a-coming for Cherry and his sidekick Ron MacLean, it wasn't going to be announced this week. Not by Stewart (who could, ironically, win a lot of props within CBC for being the exec with the chutzpah to finally squeeze Grapes). HNIC is in search of a new executive producer, there are almost two months of playoffs to go and there's a late Friday afternoon this summer that would better suit the announcement of controversial news.
What Stewart did say on yet another apocalyptic "cut-to-the-bone" budget day is that CBC Sports is alive and well – even while other units such as Mark Starowicz's excellent documentary department are being trimmed. At least, the revenues that sports attracts are alive and well. "[Sports coverage] actually gives us a margin of profitability that we then invest in other programming," she said. "We are very committed to a relationship with NHL."
Whether the NHL is still as committed to CBC remains to be seen. To say nothing of other sports properties such as soccer, the Olympics and women's sports. (Sports reportedly supplies more than half of CBC's advertising revenues.)
But the message is clear. In a time in which Stewart needs every nickel to produce Heartland, Dragons' Den and Steven and Chris, TV Sports will remain the milch cow.
Can the Corp. make the case that chasing escalating TV and digital rights for the NHL and other properties is good policy for a public broadcaster? That's probably the question you ask right after "Is Don Cherry coming back?"
Not to disparage CBC's cuts, because they are serious to the business as it now exists. But the time has come for the Corp. to stop ragging the puck. CBC's core business, its relevance to the public, would probably be in the following order: 1. News and current affairs; 2. Radio; 3. Sports; 4. Light entertainment. The problem with the current CBC is that its executive structure has the order reversed. When so many avenues for private production of commercial material remain, Stewart is a purveyor of programming that, while diverting, is the least relevant of CBC's mandates.
In a time of acute financial pressure, CBC has chosen to broadly interpret its public mandate as "all things to all people" long after this became redundant. We once needed CBC to produce Don Messer's Jubilee, Front Page Challenge and Juliette. Those days are done. In fact, you can ask whether CBC needs to be in the fiction business at all. Dragon's Den at least has the relevance of seeing entrepreneurial Canadians, and The Rick Mercer Report/This Hour has 22 Minutes skewer the political class. How do fictional TV programs set in the North, Newfoundland and Alberta bind the nation in any way or reflect Canadian values – except "anything the Americans can do we can do also."
Excuse us if we're a little impatient. We've seen this disaster film for 15 years while at the CBC and in the 15 years since. CBC – and its masters in government – need to give the corporation a workable mandate that allows it to concentrate on what makes it unique and jettison the efforts at what makes it look like every other broadcaster.
One thing Canadians do better than Americans is broadcast the Olympics (CBC is hoping to pair with CTV for the 2014/2016 Games). If proof were needed it was offered by reports that NBC will be employing American Idol host Ryan Seacrest for prime-time duties during this summer's London Summer Olympics.
Seacrest works for the U.S. network E! (E! is part of the NBC Universal family) and, in anticipation of ululating to Whitney Houston songs becoming a medal sport, they'd be well positioned with the Idol worshipper being on scene. No word yet if Steven Tyler or Randy Jackson will be judges for synchronized swimming.
And for those keeping score at home, David Pratt has landed at Vancouver's CKNW. Despite high ratings for his afternoon drive show, Pratt was let go by the TEAM 1040 last year when the sides couldn't get together on a new deal. Pratt is doing fill-in work so far, but there's talk of a bigger role doing sports at the station.
Editor's Note: In a conference call about CBC budget reductions on April 4, Kirstine Stewart, the CBC's executive vice-president for English services, was asked by a Montreal Gazette reporter: "What's the impact on TV sports, in terms of programming, in terms of numbers, and Coach's Corner?" She replied: "We have no specifics around Coach's Corner…." She was not asked whether Don Cherry would be returning in the fall of 2012. Incorrect information appeared in the original newspaper version and an earlier online version of this column.