Monday, September 06, 2010

For All The Marbles

Apparently, Rogers Communications, unable to get its corporate rocks off by gutting CITY-TV and erasing one of the only truly unique brands ever created in Canadian broadcasting, has now decided to drive fans away from the country's only remaining Major League baseball team.

If ever one company epitomized a Capitalist scorched earth policy as well as everything that's been allowed to go wrong in Canadian Broadcasting, it's this pitiful specimen. The children of their employees must be so proud.

"Daddy, tell me again how you took the fun out of everything! Remind me that nothing matters in Life except money. Especially when you can make it at the expense of everybody else."


When I was about eleven and going to Grant Road Public School in Regina, we were hit by an obsession with playing marbles. Within days, every recess and all the hours after school would find dozens of guys my age carving circles in the dirt, laying out handfuls of spherical glass and playing for "keepsies".

Those of us adept at the skill swaggered around with our winnings slung from our hips in one of those gold tasseled purple felt bags that our fathers' Christmas bottles of Crown Royal came in.

Every Thursday afternoon back then, the curriculum required us to trek to the next nearest school, Vincent Massey, where the girls studied Home Economics and we went to Shop, learning to hotwire cars and sever our fingers with a band saw.

We knew Massey had gone marble crazy too and polished up our best shooters, ready to come home pockets brimming.

That first hour of shop dragged past as we flexed our thumbs and debated whether the prairie topsoil in their playground was any different from the surface we were used to playing on.

When the bell rang for recess, we charged into the school yard, ready to wreak havoc and brought up short by the chaos that greeted us.

Somehow Massey had evolved past mere circles in the dirt and a dependence on keen aim and rebound strategy. The place was like the red light district of the Barbary Coast on a night miners rolled into town with pokes of Gold dust.

Every inch of the yard had been staked out by some pint-sized Carnie barker with a pitch and a plan to acquire every marble available. There were hand-made Skeeball slides, teetering wooden labyrinths and balsa obstacle courses, all designed to swallow Aggies whole and impossible to beat.

Each and every one of these set-ups had two or three guys running it. One attracted the rubes while the other two scooped up their losses by the handful, dumping them in plastic buckets big enough to hold a whole case of Crown Royal.

We watched dumbfounded as kids were fleeced of their precious orbs as fast as they could put them into play. Fortunes changed hands faster than getting into a card game with four guys named Doc.

It was like watching Goldman-Sachs being born.

But two memories of that afternoon remain above all. The first was seeing all those marbles being scooped and dumped with such disdain that they transformed from cherished diamonds to worthless pieces of glass.

And second -- nobody was having any fun.

It was all about greed and acquisition with no thought to the pleasure of competition or the pride of winning fair and square.

That's the thing about Greed. It not only robs the victim of everything he's got; but whatever the winner gains comes at a cost to his own reputation and self-respect that no amount of wealth can re-purchase.

It also quickly devalues whatever he was selling, turning it into something people either decide to find elsewhere or simply do without.

In the end, the Gordon Geckos of the world may lounge on a private beach with access to all the finer things in life. But even they know they're hollow Charlatans mostly surrounded by other Charlatans assuring them "Yeah, that really is the going price for Champagne these days".

Last week, Rogers Communications, the fine folks who invented the "Negative Billing Option", "Unlimited Data Plans" and "Net Traffic Shaping" decided it was time to go for all the marbles in Sports television, using their corporate reach to get a stranglehold on both the competition and their subscriber base.

Never mind that the goal comes at the expense of cheapening their only asset with access to people's hearts and imagination -- the Toronto Blue Jays.


The idea the Rogers brain trust came up with was this…

1. Get a license from the CRTC for a new Sports Channel called "Sportsnet One".

2. Wait until their baseball team is finally attracting viewers by playing like the world champions they once were.

3. Move most of the Jays' games in the final month of the season onto said "Sportsnet One", which is currently unavailable to most of the country.

4. Tell the fans they can only watch those games if they subscribe to or pressure their Cable companies to find a spot on the dial for the new channel.

5. Make Bell, Shaw, Cogeco and other Cable operations look like the bad guys for not making the new service immediately available by paying through the nose for it.

In other words, the Rogers concept was to take what people were already paying for on one Sportsnet channel and charge them more so they could see the same thing on another Sportsnet channel.

It is the equivalent of putting "Lost" or "The Sopranos" on one channel and then creating an entirely new one requiring an additional fee in order to get the final episodes.

But Rogers felt this was the best way of getting competing cable companies over a barrel. Because not only does Sportsnet One have exclusive control over the Blue Jays, they have deals with several Canadian hockey teams for an average of 13 games each in the coming season. Included on that list are Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver, cities where Rogers doesn't have a cable monopoly or even much of a corporate presence.

Local fans in Vancouver thought they had found a new friend when the company ponied up big bucks to slap their name on the city's hockey arena. Little did they know that money would be coming from them in the end.

Despite the risk of angering not only baseball fans but rabid hometown loving hockey fanatics, Rogers was confident the competition would have to cave and pay whatever Rogers wanted for the new channel. And if the price was too high? Well, it was no skin off Rogers if the competition had to pass those costs on to their customers.

How does a company get the right to conduct this kind of rampant consumer pillage?

With the help of the CRTC, of course.

Despite the number of sports channels already on the Canadian dial, whenever a broadcaster walks into his office, Commission Chair Konrad von Finckenstein whips out a tube of lube and bends over in the hope he can make them happy.


That's a picture I don't even want in my own head.

But how else do you explain the licensing of a channel nobody needs for any other reason than the creation of a new revenue stream for a semi-monopoly that already rakes in billions?

I know there are people out there who hope KvF doesn't get his pandering ass fired anytime soon because "He really is coming around to our way of thinking".

You poor babies!

I hope your awakening isn't as rude as it has been for the thousands of Canadian TV viewers who couldn't care less about Canadian drama but thought buying a sports channel from the guys who owned the team would assure them access to their home town heroes.

And if the CRTC isn't a broadcaster rubber stamp with absolutely no interest in following its consumer protection mandate, wouldn't you think they'd have noticed that all the sports channels we now have don't really broadcast sports and ask what exactly was the purpose of the new one?

dart champ

There are hours and hours of poker, darts and panel discussions with ex-jocks no more informative than your average guy in a sports bar on the channels we already have.

Last week, Rogers replaced the first shifted Jays game with one between two American teams barely anybody in this country follows and which they would have never broadcast under any other circumstances.

How's that for giving your audience what it wants?

Days later, as the Jays played the Yankees, 3/4 of the country got to watch a British airplane race.

And Sunday night, instead of doing something remotely sports-like such as replaying what had been a pretty exciting Jays afternoon win over New York that nobody got to see, Sportsnet Pacific was running a 30 year old movie.

As a result of all this, ratings for Jays games have dropped 94%.

Do we need much further proof that Canadian broadcasters have no interest in ratings, let alone trying to do the best they can for their sponsors?

Why would any owner treat an asset, its paying advertisers and the fan base this way unless they were completely oblivious or insensitive to the value of anything but their own selfish agenda?

Given the 29 times more Rogers Communications spends on US programming than Canadian product and this move, its safe to say that this is not a company that prides itself on customer service or business ethics. It's all about the arrogance of being a privileged monopoly who doesn't have to care to make money.

Only it appears that the strategy isn't working this time…

Unlike the hot house flowers who whine to Rogers' collaborator (the CRTC) for relief, Jays fans are skipping the monkey and taking the fight right back to the organ grinder.

Already tickets to games are being unceremoniously dumped at the "will call" windows. One group cancelled a booking of 250 seats it has annually purchased for decades.

Others have announced an intention not to renew season tickets and gone to the stadium to give away the seats they own to rob the team of earning additional revenue for their greedy ownership.

It's said that Jays manager Cito Gaston held a closed door meeting with his players to let them know that they need to play the remainder of the season for personal pride since nobody will be watching them.

Cable and cell phone subscriptions are being cancelled. Boycotts are being organized to make the Rogers Dome as empty as possible for Home games to embarrass Rogers at the League level. And a move is under way to target Sportsnet advertisers until they withdraw their contributions to the company's coffers.

Leading this charge are not the beer swilling young bucks Rogers lusts after to attract brewery Ad dollars while buying even more mobility and internet bells and whistles, but Seniors. Those on fixed incomes and with the free time to enjoy watching a ball game on almost every summer evening one is available have been the first to cry foul.

This is a disaster in the making. And it didn't have to happen.

If anybody at Rogers had stepped out of their private corporate box and wandered the stadium during the team's recent lean years, they could have easily seen that Seniors and people in low wage categories were their most loyal supporters. Even though the team sucked, they still cared enough about what baseball brought to their lives that they bought tickets.

That Rogers exec only had to venture to the cheap seats of the outfield, past the shuttered hot dog stands and cob-webbed beer wagons that had ceased bringing in money to find sections filled with folks in their declining years who enjoyed a sport that allowed them conversation during its progress and maybe wanted to take home a score card they'd filled out themselves.

Such an observant Rogers employee might have glanced across the field to the empty hundred dollar seats and realized that their real fans didn't have a lot of extra cash and maybe there needed to be a change in strategy to keep their business instead of chasing some phantom demographic.

But the guys who run Rogers aren't that smart about television.

They don't seem to realize that they've bought into an industry which, like the airlines, only has a small window of opportunity to make a profit on live or one time events. Once the plane leaves, those empty seats are worth nothing and it would have been smarter to take whatever offer came your way.

And once a game has been played, its value has been diminished as well.

That lack of understanding couldn't be any more obvious than by observing the position Rogers now find themselves with Bell, Cogeco and Shaw.

With a consumer backlash in full swing and the current value of the Sportsnet One package diminishing with every game that becomes history, the competition is under less and less pressure from its subscribers to make the kind of deal Rogers wants.

Some say Rogers had to make this move now, hurting Jays fans in order not to enrage hockey fans in Western Canada where Shaw dominates the cable landscape if they did it later. Unfortunately for them, Jim Shaw is a guy who has never heard of lube.


The lesson here for all us Creative types is clear. The CRTC and broadcasters like Rogers will never side with either us or our audience. They're more than willing to allow their own credibility to suffer before doing anything that is good for the country or its culture.

If we are to realize our own dream of a vibrant Canadian production industry, we need to make the public realize who is really preventing it from happening. We need to consider where we buy our phone and internet services as well as how we access television.

Jays fans angered by the Sportsnet One play are already posting dozens of web sites and links to streaming software that will deliver the games they want to see for free.

Maybe we don't need to go that far. But it might be worth calling up our cable companies and letting them know that if they're not going to be there for us, then we have no reason to be there for them.

If enough of us do that, it might make them realize that owning all the marbles isn't really going to be worth much in the end.



The Motorcycle Boy said...

It's so unfortunate for all of us to have to live in this world populated with these people, with their mountains of money, and not an ounce of taste amongst them.

And that's the short and sweet of it, isn't it?

They have no fucking taste.

flickerbat said...

Do you think there is a possibility that Rogers is trying to move/sell the team? This sounds like the tactics used that quickened the demise of The Vancouver Grizzles and The Seattle Sonics. Make it harder for fans to see games and undermine the value it has in that city. Perhaps the Jays have long just been a tax write off for Ted and his family. All very sad. Great article.

Dwight Williams said...

"If we don't run it into the ground, it'll prosper!"

Chuck Lazer said...

When you write great, incisive, telling shit like this, I remember why I love you, man!

John McFetridge said...

It does seem to be everywhere. MLSE was handed a gift with Toronto FC but they're starting to see demand for the expensive tickets drop off already.

I miss my Expos and it does look like soon enough I'll be missing the Jays.

John McFetridge said...

Wow, those Sportsnet One ads that came up and blocked half the screen during last night's soccer game between Canada and Honduras (2-1 Canada, yay!) were about the worst ads I've ever seen.

Anonymous said...

Well, just in case anyone is thinking of going to Bell's Fibe:

When our free preview of pretty much every channel ended, we had to scrunch up our aging eyes, get the magnifying glass and read through the PDF for the "packages". This was just before the SportsnetOne fiasco hit. My viewing satisfaction hasn't exactly grown...

Beyond having to order two different "sports" packages just to get TSN AND Sportsnet, I'd really like to see the memo that placed the Military Channel in one of the two (unbought) other "sports" packages.

Oh, and I thought I'd give "History" Channel another chance (but seeing as they are beyond Nostradamus into vampires, I wondered why I bothered): its in with news channels like CNN, and the only one I need, CP24 (Rogers, yes, nice to have on with the sound down in the morning).

Unfortunately, unlike waiting for the DVD of a good show to come out (and seeing it in true HD AND hearing it in surround sound), sports is pretty much best live.

Know how I know this? Because of the filler that is on what I call the "oldies" sports channels I get in my "packages". Anyone for a playoff game from an entire three years ago? No...?

Anonymous said...

Great article! You took the words from my mind. I havent even been following the blue jays since this disgrace. Way to treat customers of your product you greedy scumbags.