"Delivering the Male": Sports, Canadian Television, and the Making of TSN

Robert Sparks (University of British Columbia)

Abstract: The Sports Network (TSN) is a 24-hour all-sports specialty programming service that is widely distributed in the Canadian cable television system. In eight years of operation, TSN has achieved significant financial success following a pragmatic market plan conceived in the face of the technological, regulatory, and market conditions of sports and Canadian broadcasting in the early 1980s. This paper examines critically the market strategy of TSN in light of these conditions, and evaluates some of the impacts of this strategy on TSN's programming, as well as some implications of the changing regulatory environment of the 1990s for the network's continued operation.

Résumé: TSN (The Sports Network) est une chaîne spécialisée dans la diffusion d'émissions sportives 24 heures par jour, qui est largement distribuée sur le réseau canadien du câble de télévision. Au cours de ses huit années de fonctionnement, TSN a remporté un grand succès financier grâce à une habile stratégie de mise en marché conçue en fonction des conditions du marché, de la réglementation et de la technologie touchant les sports et la télédiffusion au Canada au début des années 1980. Cet article analyse de manière critique la stratégie de marketing de TSN en regard de ces conditions et évalue son impact sur la programmation de TSN. L'auteur analyse également certaines conséquences sur la poursuite des activités de la chaîne du changement dans l'univers de la réglementation au cours des années 1990.

In this paper I offer a brief but critical account of a recent specialty programming undertaking, The Sports Network (TSN), as a case study in the political economy of commercial television production. The study is focused on the business plan and market strategy of TSN and attempts to comment on the social consequences of the network from within the broad context of commercial television markets, sports broadcasting, and Canadian culture. Particular attention is given in the paper to two sets of related theoretical issues: (1) the role of the state in setting the market conditions of commercial television; and (2) the role of market conditions and, in particular, the audience commodity in commercial television production. By audience commodity I refer to the market relation whereby audiences (measured by demographics, psychographics and viewing rates) are assigned commercial values by the television industry (typically expressed in CPMs [cost per thousand]) and sold, as a commodity, to advertisers. The audience commodity plays a central role in the market economy of exchange values in the television industry and constitutes the principal means by which most commercial television (other than "pay TV," which relies wholely on subscriptions) is revenue producing (Jhally, 1982, 1984; Todd Gitlin, 1985)

The conception of the audience as commodity is well established in media studies as what Richard Collins, borrowing from Norman Mailer, would call a "factoid" (1989). Although there is disagreement among scholars about what the audience does when viewing television and how the process of viewing constructs value (see Jhally, 1982), from the industry standpoint the issues are reasonably straightforward. The crucial question is how to consistently produce a high-value audience commodity (large numbers of active consumers) at a low cost in order to maximize revenue and profits (Gitlin, 1985; Gruneau, 1989a, 1989b). I return to these issues later in the paper.

TSN constitutes an important case in Canadian television. The network is a business partnership between Ault Foods Ltd. and Labatt Brewing Company Ltd., the latter widely known for its "Labatts Blue" brand of beer. Both of these companies are subsidiaries of John Labatt Ltd., a large Canadian food and beverage conglomerate. TSN was undertaken to integrate John Labatt Ltd.'s marketing functions and to assist Labatt Breweries in reaching its primary market segment of beer consumers--males aged 18 to 49--the same demographic group that consumes television sports programming (Johnson, 1971, 1988). The network provides an opportunity to study how market factors and conditions shape television programming and contribute (in this case) to the gendering of television contents. The network also exemplifies contemporary managerial strategies of rational planning and offers an occasion to examine how corporate-level market strategies (diversification, integration, use of technology) and patterns of ownership (concentration) affect television production.

The rationale for focusing on TSN's business plan and market strategy is that these are fundamental sites where the relationship between television markets and programming are worked out. They help to establish the market logic of the network as well as to identify its social consequences. The business plan proposed in TSN's 1983 licence application (ACSN), for example, provides valuable insights into the network's intended audiences, preferred kinds of programming, and ad revenue strategies. Focusing on such features has the virtue of emphasizing the centrality of market considerations in TSN's undertaking, without reducing TSN's actions to a simple axiomatic expression of the market. A business plan is a calculated intervention as well as a response to historical market conditions. It is not simply a reflection or epiphenomenal consequence of market forces and relations. Business plans and market strategies can and do miss their mark, although, as I shall attempt to show, TSN's intervention ends up being, on the whole, quite successful, measured in economic terms.

In this paper I emphasize regulatory and market conditions while readily acknowledging there are other "historical" forces that are equally as important in the making of TSN. For example, one condition--the ritual basis of sport and beer consumption as "male preserves" in North American culture--is an essential feature in the logic of TSN's market strategy and helps to explain (but not justify) the overtly masculine character of the programming the network develops. In TSN's case, however, the network's prerogative of producing masculine sport is seen to emerge as an extension of the prerogative of media ownership and therefore the ulterior bases of masculine power (patriarchy, masculinist social practice) are not separated from the political economic bases of power (private ownership of means of production, rights to a "regulated" monopoly) in this case study.

I am well aware, however, that these "ulterior" bases of power and their mobilization in televisual sports production warrant their own analysis, and I comment on this possibility in the discussion section of the paper.

The paper has three parts. In the first, I provide a brief overview of the regulatory context of TSN. In the second, I examine the corporate ownership and structure of TSN and the conditions of its licence to operate. Lastly, I evaluate the importance of the audience commodity in TSN's market intervention and its implications for TSN's program contents. I conclude with some comments about TSN and regulatory conditions in Canada.

Cable Television, Canadian Broadcasting, and TSN

TSN forms a unique case in the Canadian broadcasting system. The network was one of two "specialty programming services" (the other: CHUM Limited's Much Music) originally licensed on April 2, 1984 under new federal guidelines intended to stimulate Canadian content in cable television programming (CRTC, 1984). It remains Canada's first and only English-language all-sports cable service. TSN has been instrumental in developing additional television services and facilities under the framework of the regulated monopoly provided in its licence agreement. The network is presently a corporate partner with "le réseau des sports," a regional all-sport French-language service licensed in 1989, as well as with Dome Productions, the televisual production facility that was built into the new (in 1989) Toronto SkyDome. As a result of these conditions, TSN stands as a benchmark case in Canadian federal broadcasting policy as well as in Canadian televisual sports production.

"Specialty Services," Cable Television, and the
Audience-Subscriber Issue

The development of "specialty programming services" in Canada in 1984, wherein a licensed satellite-to-cable network is permitted to generate revenue from advertising as well as subscriptions (as compared with "pay television" which is restricted to subscription revenue only) was conceived as part of a broader federal strategy to force greater Canadian content in cable television and to stimulate the Canadian television production industry (Caron & Taylor, 1985; Hollins, 1984; Salter, 1986). All the "specialty services" licensed under this new policy were restricted to the discretionary tier. This meant, at the household subscriber end, that the services had to be purchased separately as an additional monthly expense on top of the basic subscription fee paid to the local cable television company. Pricing and distribution were left to the discretion of the cable companies (Canada, 1986, p. 483), a decision intended to bring the specialty services into existence as private undertakings regulated by market forces in a manner parallel to the pay services.

The combined result of these policies was an inherently conflictual market relationship between the specialty services and the cable companies, intended presumably to stabilize the market and benefit both the production industry and the consumer. There were two kinds of countervailing tensions built into this system. First, as an essential market condition for revenue production, the specialty services licensed under discretionary tier (TSN and Much Music) had to balance potential income from subscriptions against potential income from advertising contracts. High subscription rates passed on to the consumer obviously tend to reduce potential audience size which, in turn, reduces audience ratings for advertisers. Low subscription rates, on the other hand, simply erode the possibilities of subscription as a revenue base. To maximize revenue in this environment requires working both of these ends to some equitable middle. This market relation is not different in kind from commercial broadcasting in the sense that both types of undertakings (specialty programming services and commercial broadcasting) require the licensee to systematically develop an audience in order to assure adequate revenue production from advertising. The important difference for specialty services is that their overall audience pool is constrained by subscription and subscription is determined by how the services are distributed within the cable system. Service subscription ends up being the principal revenue limiting condition both for revenue from fees and for overall potential audience ratings and ad revenues.

This essential tension of specialty service markets was complicated in the Canadian case by the positioning of the cable companies as intermediaries between the specialty services and the consumer. Although the latter appears to reproduce a traditional producer distributor retailer relationship, the catch was the cable companies were empowered to act as both distributor and retailer. This was the second point of tension built into the market. The conditions under which the specialty services were licensed resulted in their having to negotiate contracts with each of the cable companies that carried their programming. Wholesale rates charged on a per capita basis by the specialty services were "passed through" to the consumer by the cable companies utilizing the service, but carriage of the service and the retail rate were left to the cable companies. This meant the profit interests of the cable companies were in tension with the specialty services in a relationship in which the cable companies effectively held the upper hand. The result was that the specialty services had to rely on the business acumen and good will of the cable companies in order to optimize the balance of subscription rates and ad revenue. How well each specialty service managed its wholesale contracts would reflect directly on its revenue performance in the subscription-ad revenue relation. Not surprisingly, cable contracts, service distribution, and subscription fees were matters of concern for the TSN's management from the beginning.

TSN went into operation on September 1, 1984 providing a 24-hour-a- day service distributed through a national satellite-to-cable system. Programming originating from TSN's Toronto facility is fed via a microwave link ("backhauled") to the CN Tower in downtown Toronto and then uplinked to Canada's Anik D1 satellite, a domestic geostationary satellite with a broadcast footprint that covers the entire nation. The total Canadian market of licensed cable television undertakings within Anik D1's reach is 1,797 systems (CRTC, 1989, p. 56). Only approximately 850 of these, however, are major commercial cable undertakings with head-end facilities for receiving satellite signals and retransmitting them on cable. Eleven principle MSOs (Multiple Service Operators), in turn, either own or broker transmission rights for most of these cable companies, and as a result TSN ends up negotiating contracts primarily with the MSOs (ACSN, 1983; Thompson interview, 1988).

TSN's subscriptions from start-up in 1984 to 1989 follow a pattern of development remarkably similar to projections in the network's licence application (ACSN, 1983, p. 42). In February 1985, in their first submission to the Matthew's List, TSN reported 389,976 subscribers. From this baseline their subscriptions climbed steadily to 1,600,000 reported for February 1989. After this there occurred a sudden and dramatic increase in subscribers as a result of a change in TSN's licence conditions. TSN applied to convert its discretionary licence to basic tier in 1987 when the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) issued a call for applications for new services. This change was subsequently approved by the CRTC for September 1, 1988. Two of the largest MSOs (Rogers Cable and Maclean-Hunter Ltd.), however, elected to phase in TSN's move to basic tier after February 1989 (Canadian Press, 1988). The result was that between June 1989 and October 1989, TSN's subscriptions jumped from 2,100,000 to 5,300,000 and began to approach the upper limit of potential subscribers in the cable system. (That is, of all potential subscribers served by the MSOs. The total potential subscriber market in Canada is larger, because licensed cable undertakings exceed commercial cable undertakings.)

The number of subscriptions, of course, does not determine viewership, and despite these robust figures, TSN's viewership has remained quite small. One journalist put TSN's regular viewer pool at about 2% of market share (Drainie, 1990). The actual numbers vary with specific programming and are difficult to average out in a meaningful way. However, one point emerges in bold from TSN's ratings: if TSN could run more major-league sports programming, more first events, and more American sports programming, it would probably have better ratings than it does at present. Each of these points offers commentary on the difficulty of sustaining Canadian audiences--fed on American programming--with Canadian content only. TSN's licence restricts the network's operation in each of these areas (CRTC, 1984). TSN is prohibited from "siphoning" events from the two major broadcast networks (CBC and CTV), from airing coverage of major-league sports which competes with the broadcast networks, and from competing for rights to events with the networks. TSN is also restricted in the amount of American programming it can run under the CRTC's Canadian content regulations, and in how it produces its own Canadian programming.

"Specialty Services" and CRTC Regulation of Cable Television

The regulatory terms and conditions under which TSN was licensed in 1984 positioned the network in the Canadian television continuum as an intermediate form of commercial television undertaking, part way between pay TV and broadcasting. This pattern has already been demonstrated with respect to the network's authorized revenue stream (above), but it was no less true with the other conditions of TSN's licence. Of particular importance in the array of restrictions placed on TSN was a guideline in the CRTC's licence decision wherein the Commission acknowledged "the applicant's commitment to rely totally on independent producers and directors for all of the network's event coverage, except for the news segments which (would) be produced in-house" (CRTC, 1984, p. 10). The wording of the guideline gives the impression TSN was caught in the rhetoric of its own licence application. The truth more likely was the network's planners had read correctly the mood of the CRTC and slanted their application to give them more purchase in the market-think of the Commission at the time. The new pay TV services licensed in 1982-83 (C Channel, First Choice, and Super Channel) had been prohibited outright from producing their own programming. The specialty services were intended to have similar restrictions as the pay channels and TSN simply responded to this condition in its licence application.

The rationale for restricting pay and specialty services from producing their own programming originated from two historical issues in the development of cable in Canada. Audience fragmentation resulting from greater channel selection in cable markets severely eroded traditional audiences for the broadcast networks during the 1960s and 1970s when cable saw its greatest expansion in Canada. The broadcast networks therefore became an early and powerful voice against licensing further cable channels beyond the American 3 + 1 (three commercial networks and public TV) and an assortment of Canadian channels that included the two major Canadian networks, a community channel, and one or two local stations. At the same time they lobbied against enfranchising cable companies with rights to produce their own programming. The idea was that if the cable companies were forced to keep retransmitting the networks' signal in a finite spectrum of channel offerings, even though the cable companies were not obligated to pay the networks for these retransmissions, this would at least not further erode the broadcasters audiences. The second issue was that cable, as Hollins puts it, was "the horse that bolted" from the Canadian regulatory stable. Federal regulators, realizing it could not be put back (because consumers wanted it), decided to use cable's wide appeal to broaden financial support for the production industry (1984, p. 87).

A brief historical retrospective helps to make sense of these policies. The advent of cable television in Canada dates back to 1952, the same year the first Canadian broadcasting was undertaken by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (Hollins, 1984). Cable television was not regulated as a broadcasting entity in Canada initially and was allowed to develop in response to market demands of urban Canadians who wanted to receive American programming. In 1968 cable television became defined federally as a "broadcasting receiving undertaking" under the revised Broadcasting Act and the CRTC was given federal authority to regulate cable companies. Between 1952 and 1968, however, the industry had inserted itself deeply into the Canadian broadcasting system while under the authority of the Ministry of Transport.

The result was that by the end of the 1960s the Canadian cable industry constituted a powerful lobby and proved to be extremely difficult for the CRTC to monitor and control. The CRTC in the early 1970s decided the industry could not be easily contained nor even particularly well directed. Rather than continue struggling to get the cable companies to put money back into Canadian production, the plan developed by the CRTC during the 1970s was to license separate cable broadcasting undertakings that could not be owned by the cable companies but that would generate revenue from cable subscriptions that could be put back into the broadcasting system. The result of these decisions undertaken in the late 1970s was that the new services licensed in the early 1980s were required to utilize a portion of their revenue to help support the existing television production industry, which is to say, independent domestic production houses, the two major broadcast networks (CBC and CTV), and independent or network-affiliated broadcasting stations that produce most of Canadian television programming. This stipulation was tied into a related condition that the services also maintain high levels of Canadian content.

TSN's Response to Regulatory Conditions

In the case of TSN's licence, the network was required to spend 75% (65% initially) of its programming monies on the Canadian production industry and to guarantee that 50% (as a minimum) of programming during primetime (6:00 pm to midnight) would be Canadian (CRTC, 1984). TSN's response to these requirements was two-pronged: (1) purchase rights to air or reuse other network's (or station's) programming; and (2) hire independent crews to produce original programming of its (TSN's) design. The network's market strategy was to complement existing television sports broadcasting and to develop the facilities to rebroadcast any televisual material to which it could obtain the rights. One of the essential technological tools for implementing this strategy was a satellite "dish farm" which TSN built into its facility. The network regularly monitors and records sports programming from all over the world. In the language of TSN's general manager, Jim Thompson, the "dish farm" acts as their receiving system and the Anik D1 their transmitting system: they can control the whole operation in-house, instantly rebroadcasting to the Canadian market any sports materials for which they have obtained the rights.

Concomitantly with rebroadcasting or relaying other people's material, TSN also airs events such as play-offs and lead-up games to major-league sports matches as well as major international sports events that do not usually get national television coverage, again provided the network can obtain the rights to this coverage. TSN also runs several sports news telecasts, one of which--Sports Desk--is essentially a half hour version of what most North American audiences would recognize as the five-minute sports report in conjunction with the evening news. What would seem to be one of the more restrictive conditions of the network's licence, producing a 24-hour service, was handled by turning the 24-hour day into three eight-hour blocks and offering repeat showings (TSN staff call these AVs, for "alternate viewings") of the six primetime hours plus two sports news telecasts and one other new (one hour) program element. While it was necessary at the beginning to rely heavily on AVs, by the end of the first year, according to Thompson, they already had more material than they could air continuously, and the point became to use the AVs for replaying feature events that their audiences wanted to see at other times.

The result of these programming strategies is a considerable latitude (unevenness may be a better word) in the kinds of sports events that get aired on TSN and the times when they get aired. The network covers all manner of sports ranging from darts to tractor-pulls, University sports to World Cup events, auto-racing to major-league baseball. At the same time that TSN has proven versatile in obtaining sports programming, it has kept its operational overhead low by rationalizing its corporate structure and minimizing in-house production activities. For example, by only hiring outside crews ("mobile units") on an occasional basis to produce its network programming, TSN spares itself the overhead of maintaining crews and getting them out to remote locations. CTV has adopted a similar strategy over the last several years, and has been eliminating its mobile units. It is a strategy that appears to work from a management standpoint. It is less clear, however, from a resource utilization point of view whether this policy optimizes the use of television crews on a national basis or aids in the long-term development and stability of the production industry.

TSN's in-house staff roster is similarly rationalized. The network has approximately 130 personnel, a level of staffing which, according to Thompson, is far below that required to run even a small regional television station such as CBUT (CBC) in Vancouver, let alone a national television network. The answer why this apparent understaffing works is contained partially in the technological solutions that TSN has been able to exploit (use of satellites whereas, by contrast, regional network television stations still use microwave transmissions which are more costly of plant and personnel) and partially in the business opportunities that TSN has exploited, rebroadcasting other people's unused materials. The ultimate convergence of these two strategies is seen in the network's "graveyard shift." There is only one person on site from midnight to six. The person's primary job is to watch the computerized programming mixer while it selects different video playback units and seamlessly produces the late night show.

On first examination, then, TSN epitomizes much of current managerial thinking regarding corporate structuring and the use of technology. Indeed, the more one looks, the more evidence of this one seems to find. For example, the network has avoided making extensive investments in editorial and copywrite staff, choosing instead to put its money into the visible "talent" who go on air to call the shots or broadcast sports news. They tend to employ recent journalism school graduates as media directors to the considerable annoyance of some of the announcers. Or again, rather than purchasing studio-quality video technology, they have elected to use a high-grade beta system at only a fraction of the cost. The network is interesting enough in this fact alone: it is a commercially successful all-sports cable network which has positioned itself in the competitive television sports market using innovative responses to regulatory and technological contraints. The question of course is to what end? The answer requires a closer look at the corporate structure of TSN.

Beer, Baseball, and Corporate Ownership of TSN

John Labatt Ltd. not only owns Ault Foods Ltd. and Labatt Brewing Company Ltd., it also owns 90% interest in the Toronto Blue Jays, a major-league baseball franchise (Christie, 1991), as well as a number of different television sports properties including the rights to televise major league baseball in Canada.

Unlike the U.S., Canada's television sports market is small enough that large corporations such as John Labatt Ltd. can successfully bid for the television rights to broadcast major league sports events. Despite this, until fairly recently, Canadian rights to television sports were largely bid for and procured by the two competing broadcast networks in Canada, CTV, and CBC. Corporations like Labatt simply bought commercial time from the networks. This all changed in the late 1970s. In an article entitled "Beer Wars," Bruce Dowbiggin (1984) documents how, once the three major Canadian breweries (Carling O'Keefe, Molsons, Labatt) realized they could buy the television rights to sports events themselves, they precipitated a bidding war between them. Dowbiggin quotes John Hudson, then director of media properties for Labatt:

Five or six years ago [in 1977-78], advertisers like us bought commercial time on CBC and CTV.... At the same stage, we realized that for Labatt's to own the Blue Jays and not have the rights to the World Series and playoffs [then controlled by CBC and Carling O'Keefe] didn't make a lot of sense. We started all of this crazy situation by going directly to the U.S. networks, offering them more money than they'd been offered before, and they sold [the Canadian TV rights] to us. (Dowbiggin, 1984, p. 17)

More than one year before Hudson made these remarks, John Labatt Ltd. had already filed an application with the CRTC (August 1983) for starting up a specialty programming service called Action Canada Sports Network (ACSN), later to be renamed TSN. The application emphasized the need for CRTC protection from direct competition in the Canadian cable television system as a precondition for the network's success during the initial licence period. The weight of the argument focused on the difficulty of competing with U.S. programming if a U.S. network were allowed entry into Canada through a Canadian outlet. Undoubtedly this was not an idle concern, because only a few months later (King, 1984; Wright, 1984) First Choice, a general interest Canadian pay-TV network licensed in 1983, announced that it would be carrying 14 hours per week of ESPN programming (Entertainment and Sports Programming Network, a U.S. all-sports network with a similar national market position in the U.S. to that of TSN in Canada). One suspects, however, that TSN's owners and directors in the Labatt group were also thinking of potential competition from the rival breweries, Molsons and Carling O'Keefe.

This was a matter of intense concern for the CRTC. TSN's official position was they would not infringe on the rights of others already in the market. In their licence application, TSN argued in so many words they would make the pie bigger rather than taking a bigger piece (ASCN, 1983). The CRTC reiterated this argument in TSN's licence decision together with the applicant's assurances that although TSN would utilize the marketing and merchandising expertise of the Labatt organization, "they [Labatt] would not be involved directly in implementing any marketing strategies" (CRTC, 1984, p. 8). This was an obvious attempt by the Commission to avoid what would otherwise appear to have been inevitable, that Labatt would use TSN as the centrepiece in the brewery's beer marketing portfolio. In fact, the CRTC commissioners went out of their way to ensure this would not be the case. In his concluding remarks in the decision, the secretary general of the CRTC, J. Patenaude, again raised the Labatt-TSN connection and noted that TSN had promised that "fair and equitable advertising policies and practices [would] be maintained." In context, Patenaude restated TSN's "commitment to ensure that no preferential treatment will be given to Labatt products" (CRTC, 1984, p. 10). He also warned that "the Commission... expects the licensee to take necessary steps to ensure that beer advertising does not occupy an undue proportion of available advertising spots." There was perhaps a degree of irony in a CRTC commissioner advising a sports network owned by the largest brewery in Canada (at the time) to go easy on the beer ads, and to give equal air time to the company's chief rivals. The real irony, however, was that this was more or less what happened, although perhaps less as a result of regulatory constraints than because of the internal logic of the market conditions in which TSN's directors found themselves (York, 1984).

Once Labatt owned an all-sports network, it had to operate it as an effective broadcasting entity in order to secure the revenues the network required. By 1984, as a result of the "beer wars" of the 1970s, the Canadian rights to many of the major sports events were held by the three major breweries. What had previously been a main point of competition (the struggle for television sports properties) now became a zone of mutual interest for maximizing revenues. The breweries owned the rights and TSN commanded the means of production and national distribution. In May 1985, Gordon Craig (President of TSN) confirmed:

The bottom line is that we're a broadcasting enterprise, regardless of who our owners are, living within a Canadian licence to broadcast and we must do business with all three breweries. First of all, they own or control the rights to all the major sports in this country. Secondly, just like any other network that has to deal with all the oil companies and automobile manufacturers, we have to deal with all the breweries. (Quoted by Wayne, 1985, p. 21)

While the national broadcasting networks (CBC, CTV) were hardly disenfranchised by this arrangement, they did, in the end, have a serious third competitor (TSN), who ironically was not bidding against them directly for the rights to many of the events that it would air. TSN was an astute corporate undertaking when assessed in these economic terms. Through TSN, Labatt was able to integrate and concentrate its corporate holdings, enhance its position in the beer market, and, at the same time, diversify its corporate portfolio. The CRTC gave TSN the regulated monopoly they sought, which, in effect, gave their parent company a lasting edge over the competition. One suspects, therefore, that when the Labatt directors changed the name of Action Canada Sports Network to THE Sports Network, they knew exactly what they were about.

The story does not end here however. John Labatt Ltd. is owned by Edward and Peter Bronfman who also own a controlling interest in a number of other major corporate entities in Canada that include well-known names like Brascan Ltd., Edper Enterprises Ltd., and Hees International Bancorp Inc. Taken in combination, the Bronfman holdings encompass 152 corporations, the largest number of companies organized under a single group in Canada. Best & Shortell in their popular book on the Bronfmans, The Brass Ring (1988), argue the "Brascan empire" has the most extensive reach and influence of any corporate group in Canada. Their assets total nearly $120 billion and the combined equity of their holdings is $30 billion. They are allegedly involved in all aspects of Canadian commerce. The corporate linking of TSN with Dome Productions in 1989, mentioned above, was not simply a result of good management, it was a consequence of further corporate integration, diversification, and concentration by the Toronto Bronfmans. Brascan was one of the principals in Stadium Corp of Ontario which was the development corporation responsible for SkyDome. The relationship is typical of integrated corporate structures. Through its association with Dome Productions, TSN achieved access to a production facility. Dome Productions secured the contract for televising events held in the SkyDome (Thompson, 1989; York, 1988) among which were featured at-home Toronto Blue Jays games televised on TSN. Like each of the other holdings, Dome Productions also provided its own revenue base by leasing its two post-production studios to private television producers (Davis, 1989). John Labatt Ltd. which owned all three companies (TSN, Dome Productions, and the Toronto Blue Jays) profited from the direct revenue production of each and the integration of its televisual marketing functions for its sports properties and brewery that resulted. The media holdings of John Labatt Ltd. were reorganized in 1988 as the JLL Broadcast Group, and Gordon Craig, the man who successfully engineered the original licensing and start-up of TSN in 1983-84, was appointed President. The media holdings presently include TSN, Dome Productions, and the French-language specialty programming service "le réseau des sports" (RDS) which is 50% owned by John Labatt Ltd. For Quebec cable networks, TSN is offering special wholesale rates for carrying both TSN and RDS (CRTC, 1990). A significant part of the TSN and RDS menus during the regular major league baseball season of course are the "televised live from the Dome" Toronto Blue Jays games. TSN's schedule for the 1992 season, for example, includes 120 major league baseball games of which 75 are Blue Jays games (Globe and Mail, 1992). Ironically, these also count towards the specialty services' respective Canadian content requirements.

The point in this, however, is not Labatt's (or the Bronfman's) corporate success so much as TSN's market success and the manner in which it was engineered. The market performance of the network is not in doubt. Year-end figures proposed by William Houston of the Globe and Mail (1990) indicate the network's profit margin in 1990 approached $20 million on $80 million total revenue or 20%, which, as Houston put it, "is an outstanding return for any business" (p. C13). What makes TSN a troublesome case is not its profitability but the programming and marketing strategies the network mobilized in order to attract viewers and earn this revenue. In the original licence decision for TSN (1984), CRTC Commissioner Patenaude emphasized the assurances given in TSN's licence application that "normal television and advertising practices that are employed by any other network in the country [would] be the same sort of guidelines that [the network would] have to use." This stipulation, in the end, formed a critical part of the network's licence agreement because it was what tied TSN to the traditional market practices of commercial television. This finally brings me to the issue of the audience commodity.

TSN and the Audience Commodity

Television networks develop television programs not only with an eye to overall audience numbers but also with a sense of what market segment a particular variant of programming is likely to attract. This means that each program is the result of a series of market calculations that generally have to be supported with consumer research. The point for the network, as Todd Gitlin (1985) tells us, is to try to control all the contingencies to produce a predictable audience commodity in sufficient proportions to warrant a high 30-second-spot prime rate which is the basic standard of fee structures for charging advertisers. Networks attempt to minimize uncertainty by using proven formulas where they can, and by conducting sufficient market research to have a firm economic calculus of whether a new programming formula will work. The goal, of course, is not simply to produce individually successful programs, but to stitch together a series of productions which capture and retain audiences throughout the high viewer times of day (prime time), thereby gaining a major market share of the total available audience and beating out the competition for advertising dollars.

In part, then, what is at stake here is the ability of a network to construct audience allegiances. By regularizing programming that by design is familiar and meaningful to audiences, the network attempts to insert itself into people's domestic lives as a consistent source of entertainment, news, drama, and information. The goal, in sum, is to sell the network. The result is that networks attempt to construct unique images and identities.

The lesson is that the audience commodity tends to enter into the television production calculus already at the network level before individual telecasts are ever produced. This "factoid" of broadcast network life, I would argue, is even more crucial to "specialty programming services" such as TSN. To attract audiences, TSN must bill itself as a reliable source of quality sports entertainment. The network was sensitive to this point in its licence application. Repeated mention was made, for example, of the world-class quality of the programming it would provide, of the importance of featuring familiar Canadian sports, and of the network's intention to use state-of-the-art computer technology to give its programming a distinctive image.

A crucial question, of course, was who TSN's audience would be? This question was answered somewhat unsatisfactorily in TSN's licence application. The applicant wrote: "The primary target audience for the service will be people interested in sports. Traditionally the largest demographic segment within this group has been men 18 to 49 years old. Due to the diversity of our program offerings, and to growing interest of both sexes in sports and fitness, we would expect to reach a broader spectrum including both men and women of all age groups" (ACSN, 1983, p. 61). What did this mean? Was TSN entertaining an alternative menu of sports to the traditional male-oriented diet of the broadcast networks in the hopes that the selection would attract a broader audience? Were TSN's production methods themselves anticipated to have a broader basis of appeal in which case the programming diet would not change so much as its presentation? Were more men and women of all age groups simply watching more sports? These questions were not answered in context, but the passage gave a distinct impression that the network's ratings and subscription calculus was based at least in part on winning a broader, more general interest viewership than that of "traditional sports" programming. Information elsewhere in the application also contributed to this impression. A half-hour show called Sports Woman was scheduled for air 15 times in a three-week sample of programming exhibited in the application (1983, pp. 79-81), together with twelve hours of women's volleyball and one hour of women's billiards in one of the weeks (p. 80) and eight half-hour segments on Children's Sports in two of the weeks (pp. 79-80). Much of the application had a distinctly progressive tone. TSN's programming was going to bring to the national television sports diet more regional sports coverage, amateur, and collegiate sports, women's and children's sports, and fitness as well as major league playoffs and international and world cup events (p. 92). A "greater range and variety of sports and fitness programming [would be provided] than can now be accommodated on conventional television. The viewer would benefit from increased choice and enjoy the luxury of being more selective in his or her sports viewing habits" (p. 95). These exhibits and others like them suggest TSN's directors were considering positioning the network as a more general interest sports service and attracting a broader viewership than the broadcast networks by offering more regionally and demographically balanced sports coverage and a broader more progressive concept of sports news and entertainment. This impression was deceptive, however, because a second set of audience criteria existed alongside these in the text of the application, and the second criteria forecast a somewhat different kind of specialty programming service.

The "typical TSN viewer" foreseen by the applicant was "the dedicated sports fan who has an appetite for more television sports programming than is available on conventional television" (pp. 96-97). This conception of the viewer-as-dedicated-sports-fan conflicted with the notion of "men and women of all age groups" already cited, and corresponded more closely to the composition of network sports audiences which traditionally were male. That the creation of a male audience commodity was TSN's real intention is confirmed by the financial assumptions advanced by the applicant in support of the network's business plan. As a precondition for its ad revenue calculations, TSN assumed that "the percentage of males aged 18-49 in the [network's] service subscriber base [would] equal the national percentage" (p. 48). There is no mention of women in context nor of other demographic groups typically represented in general interest programming such as children and young people. This is to say, the network's primary audience commodity would be a young to middle-aged male viewer and that the network's ad revenue performance would be contingent on amassing a male subscription base and viewing rate that was at least representative of male consumers nationally.

To what extent did this decision, apparently made quite early on, come to affect the network identity and programming contents of TSN when it went to air? Off-air sampling and live viewing of TSN's programming between 1988-92 demonstrate that TSN's presentation and narrative standards have been conceived to give the network a distinctly "high tech" and masculine image and appeal. As well, a retrospective examination of the network's marketing materials for advertising agencies shows that TSN has attempted to promote its ability to garner male sports audiences by constructing a "macho" corporate identity for its clients. TSN's marketing mottos, "we deliver the male" and "first class male delivery," succinctly capture the network's marketing strategy, and the network's ad campaigns directed at advertisers in Marketing, a trade journal, routinely feature the network's ability to reach a male viewer, often with a copy platform that is boldly masculine. One ad in 1988, for instance, featured a black and white news file-type picture of Mike Tyson landing a hard right hook, with supportive copy that read, "Some messages are simply delivered in a more direct, meaningful, and relevant fashion." Audience figures published in TSN's publicity materials suggest that this marketing strategy has worked, at least to the extent the network has been able to identify and separate out a male market segment that is of interest to some advertisers, particularly the fast food, electronics, automobile, and beer industries, even in the small numbers TSN is able to deliver.

On the programming contents side this strategy has also had consequences. As "the other" of TSN's market plan, women viewers have not been well catered to. This is demonstrated in part in the relative underdevelopment of women's sports programming on TSN in comparison with men's sports. Results from a TSN program analysis between 1985 and 1991 indicate that women's sports events constituted 3.1% or less of total network broadcast hours during this period. These results were obtained by independently coding all the women's sports offerings found in a representative sample of TSN listings published in the Vancouver Sun's TV Times weekly magazine. The sampling schedule encompassed the first week of each month between January 1984 and December 1991 inclusive. Fitness programming and mixed men's and women's sports were also coded and all figures summarized by year. Overall, programming for 588 of 2,555 days (23%) was analyzed with 94.9% agreement between the two coders. Disputed programming was clarified by phoning TSN. In spite of its rigour, the sampling method may have underestimated women's sports events. TSN may, for instance, have scheduled women's events more extensively in the second, third, and fourth weeks of some months in some years. The method also did not control for program changes which may have been made after TV Times went to press, or for programming which may have been misidentified by TV Times or which lacked a clear "women's" or "mixed" event label. These sampling limitations notwithstanding, the results from the analysis show that women's sports constitute a very small amount of TSN's overall schedule.

Differences in programming between the seven years were found to be minimal. Although there was some evidence of incremental increases in women's sports coverage from 1985 to 1989 (1.7% to 3.1%), the year with the least women's sports programming was 1990 (1.6%). Figures for women's sports events as a percentage of the broadcast year ranged in the sample from 1.6% to 3.1% while fitness programming ranged from 2.6% to 3.0% and mixed sports from .05% to .55%. Combining these three figures in each of the seven years to get a rough measure of the presence of women in the TSN programming universe during this period yielded a range of 2.6% to 5.7% with 1989 again standing out as the exemplary year and 1990 as the low year. This means that male athletes, male celebrities, male sports events, and male commentators predominated in 94% or more of TSN's programming during this time. The same absence of women is documented in the Sports Desk telecasts which averaged two and a half hours a day, or 10.4% of the typical broadcast week (CRTC, 1988, p. 4). The sports news, scoreboard, and background information presented on this show overwhelmingly featured male announcers offering masculine commentary on men's sports. It is not surprising therefore that TSN's ratings show an overrepresentation of men when compared with prime time television which generally tries to attract and appeal to both women and men. According to TSN's average audience composition figures, the network draws men, women, and children in a ratio of 54:32:16 (CRTC, 1988, p. 3). In TSN's 1988 marketing materials these figures were replaced by another ratio of 68:49:139 which compared the percentage of males reached by TSN (68%) against the percentage of males reached by all TV (49%) to yield what was called the "TSN index" (139%), that is, the overrepresentation of males in TSN's audience commodity. The comparable "TSN index" for women was 63% (32:51:63), a figure which confirmed the underrepresentation of women in TSN's audience in comparison with other TV programming.


Several questions need to be answered. Why did TSN's directors limit the scope of the new service to a men's sports channel? Why did the CRTC let them? What alternative possibilities were there? It would be a mistake, I think, to see the decision-making process that led to TSN's market plan as foreclosed before it happened. There were a number of plausible ways to construct a successful all-sports satellite-to-cable service in 1983-84, and this was only one of them. The strategies discussed in TSN's licence application for a more general interest approach themselves stand as an alternative to the traditional sports formula the network adopted. And there are certainly other programming options that TSN could have exercised, such as emphasizing more lifestyle and life-long sports, adventure activities, regional sports festivals, men's and women's amateur competitions, sports for the disabled, travel and recreation, educational programming (focused, for example, on active health, diet and nutrition, children's games and active play, physical activity for the aged), as well as more gender-neutral sports coverage, and investigative television sports journalism modeled on CBC's The Journal.

TSN's emphasis on a masculine network image and traditional men's sports should not be idly dismissed as yet another instance of the crass pursuit of media profits or the naive celebration of masculinity, even though this may be tempting. Both explanations fail to engage the political and economic issues which surround the case. It is more instructive to try to understand the bases on which these decisions were made. Such an analysis helps us to generalize from the case, and to anticipate how we might undertake constructive change. I would argue that as the TSN directors struggled with the uncertainty of producing a successful new service, they resorted to an expedient market formula of television sports production. This formula was constructed under the direction of Gordon Craig, a man with a long history of involvement in network sports production, who was no doubt informed by Labatt corporate expertise in beer advertising and marketing. The organizational initiative behind TSN, therefore, was guided by traditional network conceptions of sports coverage which were embraced pragmatically in the face of TSN's urgent need, as a new specialty service, to use proven methods to generate and secure a sports audience of known value to advertisers. The CRTC licence decision for the new undertaking, in turn, provided a framework of guidelines and restrictions that in many respects amounted to a laissez-faire endorsement of current market practices, particularly with regard to the network's preferred audience(s) and programming contents. CRTC restrictions included a quota for Canadian content, a non-siphoning requirement, an expectation to use independent Canadian producers as well as a restriction on the exhibition of Labatt commercials. It also contained a guideline for following the normal advertising procedures in commercial television, including restrictions on the amount of advertising allowable per hour. Not covered by the CRTC, however, were conditions that came to play a significant role in shaping TSN and its affiliates. For example, there was no discussion or restriction on TSN's cross-ownership of other media interests such as production facilities and television sports properties or on procuring events from third parties such as the major breweries. Standards of objectivity and balance were not well specified, particularly with respect to the equitable representation of women and men in event coverage, news, and information. Only a minor provision was made for "male and female sports personalities [to] provide Canadian continuity to the programs" that TSN would air. "These on-camera hosts [would] introduce and link events, and provide background analyses and sport headlines..." (CRTC, p. 10). The point to emphasize is that the start-up of TSN was facilitated as much by what the applicant was not required to do under its conditions of licence as by what it was required to do.

There were other options to TSN's chosen course of action, and the network demonstrated and continues to demonstrate some sensitivity to these. For example, TSN recently bought five-year rights to televise Canadian Interuniversity Athletic Union (CIAU) events, and announced its intention to carry some women's events live (Fedunkiw, 1989). In 1988, the network hired a female sportscaster, Diana MacDonald, in an attempt to round out its otherwise all-male on-air staff and to finally meet an expectation stated in its 1984 licence agreement (CRTC, p. 10). My argument, however, is that the market niche that TSN is committed to exploiting severely constrains these alternatives. As long as the audience commodity that TSN is committed to generating is predominantly male, its production methods and codes will tend of necessity to be configured with respect to reproducing this commodity. The results of this will tend to be a regressive, not a progressive series of production decisions, negotiations, and accommodations to the television sports market that, when viewed outside the logic of reproducing this audience commodity, may appear narrow, even occasionally illogical.

For example, with no apparent contradiction, TSN announced it was supporting Canadian university sports (including women's sports) yet restricted its air time primarily to high profile men's football and basketball events (Fedunkiw, 1989). As well, it hired Diana MacDonald and then turned around and fired her because she was not right for the network. Marty York of the Globe and Mail (1988) described MacDonald's firing as follows: "So conscientious is TSN about its news approach that it discharged a pretty face from its staff because she wasn't deemed by the network's decision-makers to be a bona fide newsperson" (p. A17). MacDonald's firing is a telling case. York's comments and MacDonald's qualifications aside, it is likely the real problem with MacDonald was not her performance considered on the basis of news-values in the abstract, but rather in the concrete terms of TSN's masculine news-values. The gender-specificity of traditional sports news-values and the identity problems these values cause for a woman who would attempt to cover sports in any way other than "as a man" are familiar to most female sports reporters (Myers, 1984; Eberhard & Myers, 1988; Watson-Rouslin, 1987).

There is little doubt that TSN's sports news-values are "traditionally" gendered as masculine. A male sportscaster I interviewed at TSN was especially blunt about this issue. In a discussion about the relation between sport and television, he confided: "I often think that if the media generally backed off some sports it probably would do them some good. I often say to people that I'm not sure that being on television is necessarily the best thing for your product. Women's sport in this country is just really boring. I'm sorry but it is." Although this constitutes the opinion of only one person, it is emblematic of the corporate culture of TSN as I experienced it in conjunction with my interviewing. Research on the "editorial construction function" supports this conclusion as does recent work on meta-communication in organizations (Mills, 1991). Corporations in their capacity as structured groupings of people have a gendered identity (Mills, 1991; Morgan, 1986). As seen in the MacDonald case, it is likely that TSN's mission of producing men's sports and a male audience commodity would influence staff recruitment as well as staff expectations, and would become broadly institutionalized in the organization. Indeed, as anticipated earlier in this paper, a useful analysis could be made of the institutionalization of masculine privilege in TSN as a condition of masculine prerogative of sports media ownership and management, or, viewed more broadly, as a condition of the gendered nature of sports media organization in Canada (see Hearn, Sheppard, Tancred-Sheriff, & Burrell, 1990).

A further example of the reproductive tendencies of organizational values is found in the client-agency relationship between TSN and Ambrose Carr Linton Kelly, Toronto, the marketing firm that handled a recent TSN radio advertising campaign. TSN's radio ads have been highly successful to the point of winning several Crystal radio awards in 1989. The copywriter for Ambrose Carr who produced them, Peter Byrne, summarized the campaign as follows: "Real life, real drama, real TV. It was easy. Cedric Smith (the announcer) had the voice. Steve Convery (on sound) had the know-how. And the client had the balls" (Riddell, 1990).

The implication seems to be that TSN lives its own marketing strategy as reality. To be fair it must be pointed out that TSN has demonstrated concern for these issues and has occasionally lent visible support to women's sports events. For example, TSN recently carried women's world cup hockey as well as the women's CIAU basketball playoffs. More importantly, these events were covered fairly and reasonably by sportscaster narrative standards. Additionally, TSN has taken pains to cover regional and local events where these have been judged to be of national interest, and recently aired an edition of the information show For the Love of the Game dedicated to women and sport. The issue is not whether TSN is a good corporate citizen (evidence suggests it is), but whether TSN's market strategy of securing a male audience commodity will not in the end outweigh whatever corporate good it can achieve with respect to supporting regional sports development, localized Canadian identities, and the empowerment of women.

This poses a continuing problem for the CRTC in regulating TSN. As long as the Commission remains committed to its present industrial/economic approach to regulation, it will have to weigh the cultural goals of the Canadian broadcasting system and the interests of Canadian audiences against the potential market performance of its individual licensees (see Raboy, 1990, chap. 7; Salter, 1986). The 1991 Broadcasting Act stands to substantially change the landscape of Canadian broadcasting, especially with respect to the new requirements for gender balance in programming and employment identified in Section 3. If change in TSN's service is warranted in view of these requirements, then the Commission will be forced to anticipate the cost to TSN of delivering a more democratic service in addition to the vexing issues of whether a narrowcasting undertaking, licensed specifically to appeal to a specialty audience, ought to be required to provide the kind of objectivity and balance in programming and employment which is mandated in Bill C-40. The economic justification for such a change is less certain than the cultural and moral one because this constitutes uncharted terrain in North American television sports markets, although there is reason to believe a more general interest sports service is feasible. TSN is a successful narrowcasting service licensed under the old CRTC guidelines. The network was required as a condition of its renewed licence in 1988 (p. 23) to adhere to Canadian Association of Broadcasters (CAB) guidelines on sex-role stereotyping, but these were narrow in scope and dealt primarily with avoiding unwanted use of sexist language and situations. The new Canadian Broadcast Standards Council (CBSC) Sex Role Portrayal Code (1990) is far more sweeping, and to some extent anticipates the conditions of Bill C-40, but was finalized after TSN's last licence renewal. Even while change appears to be imminent for TSN, therefore, the word is still out on how the present regulatory environment and market context might impact on the network's future identity and audience commodity when it comes up for licence renewal in 1993.


An earlier version of this paper was presented at the XIIth World Congress of Sociology, Madrid, Spain, July 9, 1990. I would like to acknowledge support from the Humanities and Social Sciences Research Grants Program at the University of British Columbia for this research.
This observation is based on my interview on August 17, 1988, with Jim Thompson, Director of Programming and General Manager of TSN.
This is not self-evident and goes against conventional wisdom that audiences have allegiances to programs but not networks or stations. Industry strategies for capturing and retaining viewers through the news hour into prime time, however, tend implicitly to construct a network identity. The remaking of CKVU in Vancouver into UTV provides an illustrative case study in station image-making (Brindamour, Jung, & Seitz, 1991).


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