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Wednesday 31 October 2012

First Person View – Soccer on Canadian Television

    It’s been a volatile time for soccer on Canadian television. Counter intuitively, it seems the more the big players get involved in broadcasting and rights holding, squeezing out the smaller boutique outlets, the less is available for viewers.

    It wasn’t so long ago that one could find at least a match or two available live every day and replays of matches dotted the overnight schedules, but now large swathes of the programming calendar are left empty, while the sport plays on.

    The beIN Sport conundrum, of gathering up rights with no channel on which to broadcast them, while failing to even establish an online wing in order to satiate the yearnings of those who follow the Spanish, Italian, and French game, is verging on ridiculous. It really came to the forefront on derby day earlier this month when El Clasico, the Milan Derby, and Le Classique all played out on the same day; none of which were broadcast on Canadian television. Pathetic.

    Yesterday there was an unbelievable twelve-goal thriller that was absent our televisions as Arsenal beat Reading 7-5 and today Chelsea hosts Manchester United, again, not on television.

    Starting a channel from scratch in Canada is apparently more complex than it is south of the border; I recall when Setanta came to these shores they had some difficulty negotiating their entrance, resulting in their partnership with Rogers as a means of easing their way.

    EuroWorld Sport has become dormant, airing a constant loop of old FIFA Films and the occasional Women’s match. Surely it is only a matter of time until something is worked out between themselves, beIN Sport and the CRTC.

    The lack of action from some of Europe’s top leagues is despicable, but coverage of the Champions League and Europa leagues has been much better.

    Sportsnet World’s Extra channels are nice, but without offering the matches in high definition (HD) and only using them to provide live coverage they are of limited use.

    At first, I was concerned that there was a slightly cynical application of their availability.

    The transition from Setanta, which was primarily focused on soccer, to World which increases the rugby and cricket coverage in its programming, has seen the hours available for replays diminish – a necessary evil to expand the subscriber base.

    Combining more matches at once with fewer replays later in the evening could create a demand for PVRs that could record more than two channels simultaneously, but upon having discovered that the online Sportsnet World coverage is available with one’s on-air subscription that fear was dissuaded.

    Champions and Europa Leagues, English and Scottish Premier Leagues, and the FA Cup action will all be streamed online and archived – for a limited time – to allow viewers more choice both live and on demand.

    One need only register for Rogers TV Anyplace – this hasn’t really been made public knowledge, I only discovered it in my frustration at the lack of replays; though after having signed up I did receive and email alerting me of the extended service - and then use that information to sign in; not sure how the system works for subscribers with other non-Rogers service providers. I would assume that paying for the channel on any platform should grant access to all content, but I suppose that remains to be seen.

    The recent news that TSN (Bell Media) and Sportsnet (Rogers) will split the English Premier League in the future is slightly disconcerting; the two have a history of offering better access to subscribers of their cable package, rather than committing the same quality to both platforms.

    The mention of matches being available on TSN Mobile without clarification of what exactly that entails is worrisome, but I suppose we’ll find out when the time comes.

    It has irked me slightly that streaming of MLS and Canada matches by TSN have depended not on cable subscriptions but on what sort of phone package one has chosen. I understand that it is a perk of choosing one or the other and that the integration of technology services between television, internet, and phone will only continue, but to be selective in what is offered cross providers, thereby limiting availability seems silly and petty.

    I suppose it comes down to how one views the nature of the phone. Is it a separate entity or are smartphones just mini-computers? But then again iPhone users still can’t run flash and then there’s the whole removal of YouTube and Google Maps debacle, so propriety is king.

    But I digress.

    The expiration of Fox Sports World and its immensely popular Fox Soccer Report left a gap, however slight, in the market, which Sportsnet has attempted to fill.

    Fox Soccer News is without doubt a flashier show with higher production values, and it’s in HD, which is great. They really shouldn’t stretch non-HD broadcasts, but perhaps that’s just me.

    The Final Whistle is entertaining, while The Banter Zone is a little unnecessary.

    If I wanted to know what a bunch of random folks on twitter thought I would follow them, but I submit to the need for modern programs to integrate viewer participation and at least they use a free platform rather than the text-for-cash model employed by other programs.

    A slight twist that might make it more appetizing to the more hardcore footy fans would be to scour the timelines of known football sources and share their ideas on incidents, but that would remove the participation aspect that is the point of the whole exercise.

    The debate on which cast is better will be left to others; frankly I could care less who brings the knowledge, as long as it is brought.

    There has been a slight drop off in the amount of in depth analysis, but that is the cost of appealing to a broader audience less concerned with the X’s and O’s.

    I suppose that is the sacrifice that must be made; higher production values require more eyes.

    Part of the charm of Report was that it knew it lacked the bells and whistles of modern sports coverage and made up for that with its ability to not take itself too seriously, while getting more in depth on a higher number of issues than the English news cycle that currently dominates its successor.

    What does concern me is the lack of international coverage and the preference to focus on properties they broadcast.

    Every network suffers from the same flaw, so it’s hardly a criticism of Sportsnet itself, more a critique of an industry that sees the highlight show as just another vehicle to push their interests, as opposed to fully informing their viewers.

    The beauty of Report was that it provided a nice overview of all the goings-on in the game, pretty much worldwide. Sure the Belgian league, for example, isn’t particularly crucial to the average fan, but it was nice to get a regular update and see clips of players that might one day grace the higher profile leagues.

    Luckily, GolTV News has made its return from a short absence to provide at least some scope beyond its immediate purview.

    Lost amongst the shuffle as the big boys spread their wings has been The Score.

    The longtime companion of the soccer fan has found themselves marginalized in the live broadcast racket and their recent partial sale to Rogers has left them in a sort of limbo, despite remaining the best source for in-depth, knowledgeable discussion about the game.

    And finally, to close out the rambling discussion, a note on Canadian Content.

    CanCon has long been an issue in all forms of broadcasting; one that promotes local initiatives rather than succumbing to the influx of foreign creative barrages.

    Soccer channels have sought to fulfill that requirement with replays of Toronto FC Champions League matches and past Voyageur’s Cup broadcasts – the match versus Los Angeles at the SkyDome and the visits Tauro FC and Arabe Unido have gotten an awful lot of airtime; it’s a little much.

    I would love for somebody to reach out to the Canadian Soccer Association and replay classic – or mundane – matches from the Men’s and Women’s National Team’s back catalogues.

    I’ll admit I don’t know much about what kind of outlay costs would be required to air Canada’s matches from the 1986 World Cup – FIFA is renown for valuing their product highly - but surely the expenditures for CONCACAF properties – particularly the 2000 and other Gold Cups, as well as international friendlies, and past World Cup Qualifiers, cannot be overly prohibitive.

    ESPN Classic Canada provides timely rebroadcasts of MLS Cup and All-star matches; prior to the European Championships this summer they ran condensed versions of nearly every final dating back to the sixties.

    More of that sort of thing please.

    The bigger an institution gets, the more things slip through the cracks. With the building profile of the game in Canada, and the constant shuffle of rights, fans are being left with fewer options and less expansive coverage at a higher expense.

    Hopefully, the current lull is only temporary, as the respective companies get their houses in order to ensure their customer bases are best served.

    I use to rave about all the content that was available to the soccer fan in this country; these days I find myself raging.

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