The NHL versus NBC

Without trying to steal any thunder from my fellow blogger the Princess of Puck, I do have something to say about the Stanley Cup Finals—and it's not complimentary.


Not that I have anything bad to say about the Finals themselves. As of this writing, the Vancouver Canucks have a 2-0 lead over the Boston Bruins in the series, and both games have been terrific to watch, particularly for those, like me, pulling for the Canucks. (I'm not a huge Canucks fan—my allegiance is with the, alas, hapless Toronto Maple Leafs—but I do have an affection for the Vancouver team: It was the home team for the first-ever NHL game I saw in person, back when the Canucks skated at the Pacific Coliseum.)


Game One was a gem, from the physicality of the first half, which resulted in several power-play chances that neither team could capitalize on, to the net-minding heroics of the Bruins' Tim Thomas and the Canucks' Roberto Luongo, which kept the game in a scoreless tie. The most thrilling moment, of course, came with seconds remaining in the third period: Center Ryan Kesler flipping an across-ice pass to right winger Jannik Hansen, who then fed left winger Raffi Torres streaking through the slot, redirecting the puck past Thomas and ensuring the Canucks' Game One victory. Hollywood could not have scripted it better.


Game Two was also an exciting watch. The Canucks struck first, with a power-play goal from left winger Alex Burrows, whose digit-chomping during a Game One donnybrook involving Bruins' center Patrice Bergeron garnered instant notoriety, to cap the only scoring in a first period that began with aggressive fore-checking by both teams that stymied scoring drives. But the Bruins refused to roll over—in the second period, they got a goal from left winger Milan Lucic about halfway through the period; then Boston revived its moribund power play with a scoring deflection from left winger Mark Recchi just two and a half minutes later. Boston left the ice at the end of the second period having made this a series so far.


But in the third period Vancouver showed why it had the best record in the National Hockey League this year (including the best goal differential—with Boston having the second-best, by the way). Halfway through the period, superstar left winger Daniel Sedin connected for the game-tying goal (with an assist from Burrows), finally breaking the Bruins' successful shutdown of Vancouver's top line that includes Sedin and his slick play-making brother, center Henrik Sedin.


Then came the blink-and-you-missed-it first overtime period, in which Alex Burrows again put the bite on the Bruins—not in a dust-up, but with another Hollywood-type goal that stemmed from the period-opening faceoff. Taking a pass from Daniel Sedin, who got the puck in part because of a poor puck-clearing attempt by Boston's defenseman Andrew Ference, Burrows accelerated toward Thomas, who charged out of goal to challenge him. Burrows pitched the puck behind the net and ducked in after it, and with Boston's behemoth defenseman, team captain Zdeno Chara, riding his jersey-tails, Burrows then tucked the puck into the vacated net from the other side with just eleven seconds elapsed in the overtime period. It was a lightning strike that stunned the Bruins, who would doubtless be recoiling from its sting as they returned to Boston needing to win at home in order to stave off elimination and thus handing Vancouver its first-ever Stanley Cup.


Okay, so it's shaping up to be an exciting series, at least if you are a Canucks fan. So, what's your problem, then, DDT?


Simply this: I won't be able to watch Games Three and Four, at least not on television. NBCUniversal broadcast the first two Cup Final games on its network channel NBC, and will broadcast Games Five through Seven, if any are necessary, on NBC as well. However, Games Four and Five will be broadcast on Versus, the NBCUniversal sports cable channel. I don't get Versus; more correctly, I don't subscribe to Versus, which is available from my local cable company but not without my paying extra for it.


In the larger scheme of things, no one is going to care that I cannot watch the next two Stanley Cup Final games without getting Versus or going somewhere that does have Versus. From NBCUniversal's point of view, it is providing "complete coverage" because one of its channels is providing the service—and, furthermore, thanks to NBCUniversal's vertical integration model, it is even providing the distribution channel, cable television operator Comcast, for all its channels; recall that Comcast has recently become the majority owner of NBCUniversal, with General Electric now the minority owner.


My lowly consumer complaint is one of consistency: Why can't NBC carry the entire series? I understand that we are talking about hockey here. It is not a guaranteed seller in the United States. Or is it? Three-quarters of the NHL's 30 teams are located in the U.S—not a surprise, given the demographics, although in the last 40 years the emergence of teams in smaller markets (Anaheim, Columbus, Nashville) and in America's southern states (Arizona, Florida, North Carolina, Tennessee) suggest a broad appeal that deserves equally broad access.


Indeed, in my own Southern California market, which includes Los Angeles and Orange Counties, what does it say that there are two NHL teams (along with two each in MLB and in the NBA)—and no NFL team? Local television coverage for both the Anaheim Ducks and the Los Angeles Kings is fairly robust, albeit split between two Fox Sports cable channels and, for the Ducks, a former UHF station, KDOC, that still airs reruns of Fantasy Island and Hogan's Heroes. (Old-timers will understand what a "UHF" station was. I can still see the circular antenna needed to pick them up.)

Viewership for Game One of the Cup Finals was the highest since 1999, which might be a reflection of the cachet that Boston sports teams, particularly the Patriots and the Red Sox, have acquired in the last decade. Or it could be an indicator of hockey's popularity. NHL hockey, whether through expansion since the 1960s or the widespread influx of international players, is no longer considered a "regional" or even a "Canadian" phenomenon; like any sports championship, viewers are going to want to watch the Stanley Cup Finals. NBCUniversal should acknowledge that by keeping its coverage consistent, by not fobbing viewers off to its cable-sports franchise Versus—which might not be accessible to viewers for one reason or another. That sounds like a game misconduct to me.

Last modified on Thursday, 19 March 2015 18:47

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