NHL Network Can't Get Out of Its Own Way

We're in the waning weeks of the NHL season. Over the next few weeks, the schedule will be filled with games that have interesting playoff implications which could not be foreseen last October when the season started. As such, the broadcast plans of these various games are getting moved around to take advantage of fan interest.

Last week, the Red Wings had two such games picked up by the NHL Network. Thursday's game in Florida and Friday's game in Tampa. These two broadcasts highlighted a big problem with the way the NHL presents games: namely that the league's own network takes value away from their product rather than adding it. The NHL is using the draw of their games to built their network rather than the opposite.

To start, NHLN severely limits the means for hockey fans to enjoy watching games. NHLN games black out Center Ice channels, giving viewers only the option of watching the NHLN feed instead of on channels where they generally have the option of watching either team's local feed. Additionally, online subscribers of Gamecenter Live are completely blacked out as well. This leaves the option to watch open only to people living in the local broadcast market who get the stations showing the game, national NHLN subscribers, and people willing to explore/exploit alternate means of getting a feed which may or may not be legal.

For a subscriber of both NHLN and Center Ice, it's merely an inconvenience in that my choices are limited and the product is given to me in an inferior manner (more on that later). For a person without a cable or satellite provider, or whose provider doesn't even offer NHL Network, it forces hardcore hockey fans to black market the NHL's product. For would-be casual fans outside of local markets, these games may as well not even exist.

As for the product itself, NHLN treats broadcasting a hockey game like an afterthought. The NHL Live pregame isn't actually a pregame. The interchangeable and largely-forgettable faces on the network give boring kid-glove lip service to both teams before getting on with the rest of their boring clip-heavy highlights show. When the broadcast time starts, they rarely bother to build up that they're actually going to be broadcasting a live hockey game until the puck is all set to drop eight minutes later, at which time they abruptly stop talking and simply start showing the home team's local broadcast.

Intermissions follow the same formula, with a brief, vanilla recap which offers nothing even approaching insight before going back to sterile-Sportscenter-for-hockey coverage until it's time for the next period to start. Even worse is that NHLN broadcasts regularly come back from intermission late. Call me old-fashioned but I'd say a cardinal rule of broadcasting a sporting even is to actually show the entire event. I've seen far too many 11-second goals to start a period to be ok with consistently watching broadcasts that miss 17 seconds or more of period-opening action because some random dillweed couldn't be troubled to hit a button on time.

The trouble isn't just for intermissions though. NHLN is bad at in-game action too. You'd think that simply stealing an independently-produced broadcast and putting it on your network would be easy, but NHLN insists that no local on-screen graphics survive their broadcast. Since local channels will often build in ads to upcoming arena/team events and their own broadcast schedules or player information cards, these get wiped.

The means that NHLN uses to wipe all locally-produced graphics is to go with a standard full-screen graphic overlay showing their own upcoming broadcast schedule. The problem with this is twofold:

  1. The announcers whose broadcast they're jacking are still talking about a graphic that we're not seeing, which is annoying.
  2. Many of the local graphics are designed to only take up only a portion of the screen, allowing the viewer to see things like faceoffs in the few brief seconds the graphic is on-screen. Since NHLN's only go-to move is a screen-eclipsing overlay, they end up not showing these things... you know, the things that are actual hockey being played? Yeah, those things.

The reason NHL Network takes broadcasts for itself while stealing it away from its own paying customers is clear to anybody who has ever watched a 30-minute segment of the network and has seen the same five infomercial-level commercials repeating forever. It's not a good, solid moneymaking network like it appears they have at the NFL and MLB levels. To grow their network, the NHL forces their hardcore fans to chase down an inferior regurgitated product. It makes the game worse and it makes me like the league less.

Either end the NHL Network experiment or fix the PBS quality. The product as it stands is bad. Making game broadcasts worse is not how to get people to enjoy your network more. The game sells itself, let it do that.