Perhaps you remember the 2007 Stanley Cup Playoffs. The Ottawa Senators were taking on the Buffalo Sabres in the Eastern Conference Finals on Saturday, May 29 of that year, the same day as the Preakness Stakes. The game went to overtime, at which point NBC execs decided to dump the broadcast to show an hour-plus of pre-horse race coverage.
Not the actual race, which lasts about, what, three minutes? No, pre-race coverage. Back when William Houston had a job with The Globe & Mail, he covered the story:
NBC pulled the plug on coverage of the overtime period between the Ottawa Senators-Buffalo Sabres on Saturday, denying viewers in most of the United States the conclusion the Eastern Conference final's Game 5.
A source close to the National Hockey League Saturday called the decision to prematurely end the telecast "disappointing," but said the network's contract with the league allowed it to pull out after three hours.
NBC dropped the overtime period, which decided the series and sent the Senators to the Stanley Cup final, because it didn't want the hockey telecast running into its scheduled 90-minute coverage of the Preakness Stakes starting at 5 p.m. EDT.
They passed the broadcast over to Versus for the overtime period, so it's not like the game was just dropped from television altogether. But there are two problems: one, it's a cardinal sin in sports broadcasting to drop a live event before it's over, and two, if you missed a quick "switch over to Versus" message at the end of the third period, you likely missed the end of the game.
A year ago, the Penguins and Capitals were facing off as the lead-in to the Derby. NBC controlled things as they usually do, forcing the NHL to bump the game up to an early afternoon start to accommodate their Derby coverage. It was certainly a step forward when the network released a contingency plan, saying that a potential first overtime would be covered on NBC and that any other overtime periods would be covered on Versus.
Luckily, it never came to that. Contingency or not, it's unacceptable.
The NHL is finally in the position where they have some leverage in negotiations with television rights holders, as the league is finally an attractive property for these rights holders to buy. So, in a nutshell, why the hell should we have to deal with this crap? I understand the deal with NBC was re-upped about a year ago when maybe things weren't as shiny as they are now, and I also completely understand that the money is with the Derby and not hockey.
But it's an absolute joke that we even have to worry about our games being shuttled off from network to network because of some other event. If NBC wants to broadcast our games and bump them up to 12:30 in the afternoon and control the schedule like they routinely do, the league should be guaranteed complete, un-interrupted coverage of the game. If it's Derby day and there might be a conflict, they can put the game on Versus in its entirety at a normal evening hour.
The NHL is finally in the position to stand up to these networks a bit and they better start. Contingency or not.