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Rogers' $5.2 billion hockey deal the boldest move of Canadian TV upfronts

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Now that the beer empties have been collected and the streamers swept away, what were the boldest moves at the Canadian television upfronts this week in Toronto?

Without question, Rogers' $5.2 billion power play to lock up all rights to national NHL games over the next 12 years is the biggest roll of the dice in Canadian television. Why "bet the company" on it, as one rival put it? Four out of every five new TV shows fail every year. NHL hockey is a proven winner with Canadian audiences. Games also draw young males, a demographic many advertisers covet. Plus, sporting events are almost always watched live, not PVR'd, meaning no scanning past commercials.

Still, rivals say Rogers overpaid. If you spent the same amount importing all the hit U.S. shows every year (which CTV basically did back when the ad market was more robust) you could boast having 19 of the top 20 shows in Canada — and still lose money.

Rogers needs three things to make the deal work: big seasons from Canadian NHL teams, especially Vancouver and Toronto. If the Leafs ever went deep into the playoffs, the way Montreal did this season, six or even seven million Stanley Cup viewers per game would not be out of reach. That would bring Super Bowl-sized ad revenue.

Rogers also needs the NHL to schedule key matchups for their Sunday night hockey games on City. Word is the Sunday NHL season opener will pit the Maple Leafs against the divisional rival Boston Bruins. A matchup like that could draw two million TV viewers, allowing Rogers to boast a breakthrough on TV's toughest night.

Rivals question, however, whether Sunday NHL games will still be a draw in households where sports fans hogged the set Fridays and Saturdays. Besides, they argue, sports fans turn to NFL football once Sunday rolls around. Bell will carry NFL games all day and night Sunday and programming president Phil King is betting TSN's "Sunday Night Football" game will outdraw City's "Sunday Night Hockey" over the course of the season. King's theory: NFL fans will watch any two teams, but hockey in Canada is more of a home team draw.

The next bold move is also by Rogers: City's 10 o'clock surrender. Programming vice-president Hayden Mindell explained he was moving towards a Fox-like model by shrinking prime time down to a two-hour block Mondays to Fridays. Instead of offering new hour-long dramas from 10 to 11 p.m., City will now program reruns of "2 Broke Girls" and "Two and a Half Men."

Try as they did the past few years, City — with fewer stations nation-wide than the competition — simply could not launch a hit show at 10. Their move was likely modelled on CTV Two doing the exact same thing last year by stripping reruns of "Anger Management" and "Mike & Molly" weeknights at 10 p.m. A rerun costs a fraction of what it costs to import a new show. Why spend millions on what will likely be the third-best draw in the timeslot when a rerun could fetch close to the same number of viewers?

Bold move No. 3: CTV's attempt to recover from a major U.S. network blindsiding. "The Big Bang Theory," "Grey's Anatomy" and "The Amazing Race" are Canada's most-watched comedy, drama and reality shows. All three got shifted Stateside, playing havoc with CTV's schedule.

CTV will try to make the best of a bad situation by temporarily slotting "Big Bang" into 7:30 on Mondays. They hope that will boost their biggest acquisition: the Batman-based comic book drama "Gotham." "Grey's" is getting moved to Wednesdays from Thursdays so that CTV can stick with their all-CBS Thursday night comedy block. "Race," which will move to Fridays in the fall, is a no-win roadblock. Even if it draws two million on a Friday, advertisers pay less on that night. Worse, the move robs CTV of their Sunday night anchor heading into that critical hockey showdown. CTV could, however, slide major draw "The Amazing Race Canada" into Sunday earlier in season than expected.

Bold move No. 4: Global's big play for women Sundays. With less bidding competition from Rogers, Shaw Media senior vice-president Barbara Williams came back from the L.A. screenings seemingly with every show her network needed, including the new "NCIS" spin-off, "NCIS: New Orleans." Her big grab, however, may turn out to be "Madam Secretary," a new political drama starring Tea Leoni. "Madam Secretary" pairs perfectly with Global's "The Good Wife" at 9 p.m., making a one-two block featuring strong female leads facing off against hockey on Rogers.

To make room, Williams did have to sacrifice her longtime Sunday night anchor, "The Simpsons." Pushed back to 10 p.m. in the fall, however, it seems poised to re-capture male viewers who flip back following Rogers' NHL game.

Bold move No. 5: CTV's superhero sweep. The network has enjoyed success with "Arrow" and "Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." They've added "Gotham," "The Flash" and "Agent Carter" for fall. Most will air at 8 p.m., giving CTV a family friendly start to each evening. They see that as an edge in the quest for advertiser dollars.

Bold moves No. 6: show swaps. CTV seems to have made the smartest swaps so far, grabbing second-year sitcom "The Millers" from Global to simulcast behind "Big Bang" when it returns to Thursdays in November. (Global had a conflict heading into fall with the relocation of "Bones" to Thursdays.) CTV also pried "Resurrection" away from City in order to shore up their suddenly vulnerable Sundays with a simulcast that started well this winter. Left unprotected on CTV is a shocker: "American Idol," once by far the most-watched show in Canada and the U.S., will likely air on another Canadian network come January.

Bold move No. 7: this fall, "Jimmy Kimmel Live" moves from City to Bell-owned Comedy. Bell claims they already own rights to five of the Top-5 late night shows in Canada, including No. 1 draw "The Daily Show." Kimmel's nightly pounding of Toronto mayor Rob Ford, however, almost qualifies this show as Canadian content — a homegrown edge all three private networks have pretty much surrendered to CBC when the season begins next September.

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Bill Brioux is a freelance TV columnist based in Brampton, Ont.

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