It's a great time to be a figure skating fan. Canada is peaking for the Vancouver Olympics and the Canadian team is our strongest all round squad in many, many years.
So, why is CBC picking now to get out of figure skating?
Let me set the record straight. CBC, like all broadcasters around the world, is dealing with not only a crisis in the economy, but a shifting environment in the broadcast landscape. But make no mistake, we are not getting out of figure skating. We're just prioritizing what we can afford to broadcast.
First, a little history and background.
Canadian events come to CBC
Up until two years ago, CBC had the rights to the World Championships and the Grand Prix events. A different network had the rights to the Canadian events, which include Homsense Skate Canada International and the BMO Canadian Championships.
Shortly before the season began in 2007-08, Skate Canada was informed that its previous partner would not renew its contract. That left Skate Canada with no television home for its events.
That's when Debbi Wilkes of Skate Canada called me. Debbi and I are great friends. We have worked together for many years when I was a sports producer. We did many great telecasts together from 1989 onward, including one that we're both very proud of in Helsinki where we exposed two judges at the World Championships for conspiring to influence the outcome of the pairs event. But I digress.
Debbi asked me if CBC would take over the Canadian events. As a long time supporter of the sport, I couldn't say no. But it created some programming challenges for us. We're not an all sports network and it was tough to fit it into our schedule. So we came up with a plan to provide more coverage on more platforms than ever before. We scheduled as much as we could on the main CBC network and then did something nobody had ever done before. We provided coverage of every single skater in each competition live on both Bold and CBCSports.ca. (In doing so, I think we created a monster in PJ Kwong, another long time colleague of Debbi's and mine).
This scheduling situation wasn't perfect, as many people don't have Bold, but we tried to get the right balance while maintaining the network schedule for important shows such as The National.
While we did all this, the rights for last year's World Championships were also in dispute. At one point, it looked like neither ourselves, nor any other network would be able to do a deal. So, once again enter Debbi and Skate Canada CEO William Thompson. They arranged a last minute meeting to try to broker a deal with ISU President Ottavio Cinquanta. The three of us, along with Skate Canada President Benoit Lavoie , flew to Paris to meet with Cinquanta. It was a challenging negotiation, but thanks to the skilled facilitation of our Skate Canada friends and great cooperation from Cinquanta, we were able to secure a two-year agreement to keep the Worlds on TV.
Scheduling an issue
But once again, it was at the last minute, so scheduling was a challenge. Again, we provided everything live on Bold and as much as possible on the main network.
This year, our schedule improved. We had more of Skate Canada and the Canadians on the main network, along with continuing our live wall-to-wall coverage on Bold CBCSports.ca.
The Worlds presented another challenge. The Pacific time zone was an issue and the event did not schedule draws to favour eastern prime time. So, our only option was to put much of the coverage in late night, in many cases live in the east and delayed across the network.
The good news on all this is that our skating audiences have rebounded nicely, but have not yet reached the height they were at in the late 80s and 90s prior to the Salt Lake City judging controversy.
So, that brings us to this week, when CBC was faced with a major budget shortfall. Some tough choices had to be made. Great radio and television programs were facing cutbacks. Sports was not immune. So we had to make a commitment to cut back where we could. But here's the skinny, as Debbi Wilkes would say:
We continue to be committed to the Canadian events. Next year, we will broadcast both Skate Canada and the Canadian Championships. These will be crucial pre-Olympic events. We will work to make as much as possible available on the main network, as interest will be at an all time high. I think viewer interest will certainly be at very high levels.
Broadcast landscape has changed
We have had to face up that even under our current arrangement with ISU, we simply couldn't afford to renew our contract to the Worlds in 2010 and the other Grand Prix events. But even that is not set in stone. While I've been stuck in Toronto dealing with staff layoffs (not a fun thing to do), Debbi and William Thompson have been working with the ISU and our Executive Producer Chris Irwin to see if there is an alternative business arrangement that would allow us to be able to salvage these events. I don't want to give any false hope, but I can tell you all sides are looking at new models as to how we try to keep these important events on the air.
I understand that many skating fans would be disappointed if these events disappear from the airwaves. But please understand that in these tough times, we have to make tough choices. One of the challenges of being a public broadcaster is that our viewers also provide some of our funding, and they want to have a say in the choices we make.
Unfortunately though, in this economic environment we can't do everything and funding that goes to produce skating events is funding that could go to some news programmes or some radio initiatives that other Canadians may be equally passionate about. Many of those shows have had to be cut back, so our skating coverage is not immune.
(Other sports events that faced cuts were Blue Jays baseball, international swimming, athletics and skiing).
Many of you might suggest we cut hockey. But at the CBC, it makes us money, which we use to fund other programming in all areas.
But rest assured, we are trying to find inventive ways out of the situation. For you figure skating fans, you know that Debbi Wilkes is a tough person to say no to, so we want to find ways to help.
Forgive the long storyline. But one of the few current perks of being the boss at CBC Sports is that the online editors can't shorten my blog.
Enjoy the rest of the skating coverage this weekend, congratulations to our Canadian team, and I look forward to bringing you the key pre-Olympic events next season.
Scott Moore is Executive Director of CBC Sports. Prior to coming to CBC in 2007, Mr. Moore held various senior positions at CTV, TSN and Sportsnet. As a producer, his credits include seven Olympic Games, Stanley Cups, Grey Cups, world junior championships, figure skating and auto racing, as well as various news and entertainment specials.