The theme song fiasco is only part of it. The CBC is letting its flagship sink.
CHARLIE GILLIS | June 11, 2008 |
Montreal isn't the only place where the natives are getting restless. "I believe the early game on Hockey Night in Canada is overly weighted in Toronto, mainly because of the time zone and mainly because Ontario's so big and mainly because Ontario hockey fans really do have a large vote in the size and the economic viability of Hockey Night in Canada," says Patrick LaForge, the president of the Edmonton Oilers. But just as fans in Montreal have turned to RDS, fans in the West have turned to other regional broadcasters like Rogers Sportsnet for their hockey fix. Sportsnet, for instance, is becoming an increasingly popular destination for fans of the Vancouver Canucks.
To be sure, Hockey Night's contemporary producers operate in an environment whose complexities dwarf those of the late '60s, when the show moved from a patchwork of telecasts to a regular weekend program. As the NHL spread to other markets across the country, as regional stations bought broadcast rights, as cable sports channels horned in on their territory, the challenge of keeping a distinctly national feel have grown. To his credit, Mellanby foresaw those challenges, and insisted that the show have its own distinctive trappings — "the theme, the jackets, the crests, all that stuff," he recalls.
None of those trappings has proven more important than Claman's song, which Mellanby and executives at McLaren Advertising, the private company that produced Hockey Night in those days, chose over four competing compositions. Neither he nor Claman expected it to last more than a few years. And while Mellanby was in favour of offering Claman $15,000 to release her claim to it, no one else seemed worried about future licensing disputes. "In those days, you just got paid a fee for writing the thing," says Claman. "I was really dumb. So for about 24 years the song was completely unlicensed."
That changed in the early 1990s, when Claman met John Ciccone, the agent who represents her to this day, and who could see that the theme was a potential money-maker. As a songwriter, Claman still held copyright on the tune, and Ciccone suggested she seek a licensing agreement from CBC, the first of three deals that would eventually pay her $500 every time the song aired on CBC, with ancillary payments for other uses. The deal, according to CBC, was worth $65,000 to Claman last year, not counting separate agreements for use of the song she made with other parties.
The pact has never sat well with CBC, says Mellanby, who worked on and off at Hockey Night for 21 years. Three producers who succeeded him have called him wondering why the corporation is still stuck with it, he says. "I'm with the CBC on this one," he says. "At 80 years old, she is a very lucky lady to be still making money from that song." But if the Mother Corp. is frustrated, it may be because Ciccone showed better foresight than they did. Since 1998, the year CBC and Claman's team entered their current licensing agreement, "Internet downloading, file sharing, and mobile ring tones have all become important," says University of Ottawa professor Jeremy De Beer, who teaches digital music law. "Not only did the technology not exist 10 years ago, business models and the licensing strategies didn't either." As Ciccone puts it: "The song started to develop wings of its own. The CBC were resentful they couldn't control it."
Ring tones have driven a particularly sharp wedge between the two sides, resulting in a 2004 lawsuit that formed the backdrop of the recent negotiations. According to the $2.5-million suit, Ciccone's company Copyright Music and Visuals was approached in 2002 by Bell Mobility, which was anxious to turn the hockey song into a ring tone. Ciccone in turn approached the CBC, which he says shot him down — unless the phone company agreed to buy "several hundred thousands of dollars" in advertising time, it couldn't use the name Hockey Night in Canada in its promotion of the ring tones. This despite the broadcaster's admission that it had repeatedly used the song in breach of its agreement, having sold its broadcasts in Japan, Scandinavia and the United Kingdom without paying Claman. The song was eventually licensed as a ring tone — Bell Canada has offered it since 2006. But by then their professional relationship "began to go off the rails," Ciccone says. The CBC has filed a statement of defence against the lawsuit, denying most of Claman's claims, and the case remains unresolved.