TV sports possible financial hit from NHL lockout

Missed paychecks and production fees will ripple through Chicago-area video companies unless the National Hockey League lockout of players comes to an unexpectedly quick conclusion. The NHL has already canceled all September pre-season games. 

So far, Comcast SportsNet Blackhawks Sept. 30 pre-season home telecast has been canceled.  WGN-TV’s only pre-season home game is Oct. 6.  A total of 71 regular-season Hawks games starting Oct. 13 are scheduled for CSN Chicago and WGN.

Longtime stalwarts like Lombard-based Program Productions and Chicago’s Trio Video’s existence won’t be threatened. But they’ll take some financial hits when pre-season games at the beginning of October start being lopped off the schedule.

Much worse off will be camera operators and other technicians involved in producing Blackhawks and other hockey teams’ telecasts. Largely paid per game worked, dozens of Chicago veterans will begin losing pay in the second straight year a winter sports season’s start has been delayed.

The NBA season last year was delayed until Christmas Day, with 16 regular-season games missed, on top of a varied number of pre-season games, some of which were televised.

Bob Carzoli of Program ProductionsThe Blackhawks already have postponed their Training Camp Festival this weekend, while other teams have begun laying off staff.

“You know it’s not good,” said Bob Carzoli, CEO of Program Productions, which took over employment of camera operators and other behind-the-scenes personnel from Trio Video last March.

“Our guys are getting caught in the middle of a labor dispute.”

Program Productions personnel work with Trio Video trucks, which also will be idled. Both companies won’t be paid by their broadcast clients unless the games are played.

“This is not good,” said Trio vice president Gary Meagher.

Lockout a financial hit for Program Productions

Program Productions usually fields a crew of between 30 and 40 at the United Center to handle production for both the Hawks’ and visiting team’s telecasts. Hundreds more work for the company at stadiums across the NHL for team telecasts, and for NBC and the NBC Sports Network, formerly Versus.

“We’re fortunate enough to have a significant amount of other work,” said Carzoli. “It will create a financial hit for us, but we do have college football, the NBA and we already handle the Chicago Wolves (minor-league hockey team).  We’ll be watching our pennies, nickels and dimes closer, but we’re not planning to cut back any corporate staff.”

“Like Warren Buffet said, if you farm for 50 years, you’ll have 45 good years and five years of drought. Some of our guys can work on Steve Harvey or Windy City Live.

“My heart goes out to them, not only the guys who work for me, but all the ancillary people (servicing a hockey game). As bad as it is for us, think of all the people who are hurt as you cascade down the line – bartenders, parking-lot attendants, security people. Start running through that laundry list.”

Losing a season of work a “worst case scenario”

Trio Video’s Gary MeagherMeagher, who is somewhat cushioned by other sports productions and a new corporate owner in NEP, doesn’t want to think about the worse-case scenario – losing an entire season, as happened when the NHL shut down in 2004-05.

“We were here and went through it,” he said. “A couple of competitors – National Mobile Television and Core Digital – were mortally wounded. Both were around then and both are gone now.”

Said WGN-TV production director Bob Vorwald, “The return of Blackhawks hockey to WGN has been great for both organizations.  We’ll follow their lead and be ready to go when the labor situation is settled.”

George Castle is a longtime Chicago-based sportswriter, author and radio talk-show host.