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and I can't do a thing about it

Dropping the Ball

A few years ago I was a guest on a Hamilton radio station discussing the proposition that sports journalism on television is an oxymoron. Brian Williams, who was still with CBC Sports at the time, was my opposite number on the debate. He took great umbrage at the proposition. His proof being his own excellent work on several Olympic games including the coverage of the Ben Johnson scandal and Ross Regabliatti’s near disqualification for having traces of marijuana in his blood among others.

Concerning himself, he was right. Brian Williams has made a long career of trying to actually practice sports journalism on TV. His recent Olympic and CFL mini-docs for CTV and TSN are no exception. Brian has proved to be a fine story teller and a prime example of how it should be done. But Brian could not name another television reporter who was doing the same. CBC did eventually produce an excellent weekly sports journalism show but today that’s long gone. Bruce Dowbiggin won a well deserved Gemini Award for his work on the Alan Eagleson scandal, but CBC sports refused to run his work so it ran on CBC News. Bruce is no longer a TV reporter, he’s a Globe and Mail columnist.

Now, name another sports journalist on TV today. I dare you. Rogers Sportsnet and TSN produce hours and hours of what purports to be sports “news” every week. A viewer is warned not to hold his or her breath waiting for journalism. For the most part, say 80 percent, the coverage consists of highlights from earlier action. On earlier shows there’s the odd preview of upcoming action. The rest of the show is filled with banter and lists of the top plays, best fights, whatever can be scrambled together from the archives to fill out the hours. But journalism, as in WHY an event or situation occurs and where it’s going, you won’t find it here.

It seldom existed on local television newscasts either. When you have only five or six minutes to recap the day’s events there is little room on the sportscast for actual journalism.

The one place I would expect some enterprising sports reportage in Canada is on hockey broadcasts. Now that games come in at just over two and one half hours there is a 30 minute hole to fill, and that’s on top of two 15 minute between period segments. So where are the stories? Where’s the field work? Where’s the old “up-close-and-personals” that we see on the NFL coverage and even NBA coverage. The same sportscasters that lament the lack of star power in hockey are doing nothing to alleviate the problem.

Hockey Night in Canada is truly a wasteland. The first intermission is always Coach’s Corner with Don Cherry and Ron MacLean. I will be the first to admit that it’s an entertaining segment. It’s like waiting for a train wreck. When is Don going to say something stupid about fighting or foreign born players? How will Ron get a word in and when he does what silly pun will the viewers be treated to? Between Don’s “I told you so’s” and Ron’s slavish support of the dinosaurs of hockey it is all too predictable and lacks any semblance of information.

Cut to the second intermission and the viewer is treated to a panel of rumor mongers led by Al Strachan. Has anyone kept tabs on how many times Al’s insights turn out to be correct? I suspect they are few. In any case this is inside hockey talk that speaks to a small minority of Canadians. If you want to sell the game and increase the ratings it’s time to go back to story telling. When I was a youngster there were actual feature stories on players, coaches, owners, referees, etc. They created interest in the people around hockey. They introduced us to the personalities that make any sport more accessible.

It’s not any better at TSN. The same panel returns intermission after intermission with the same predictable opinions. No depth. Nothing new. Cheapo TV that fills minutes rather than enterprising reporting and journalism that could really wow an audience. On TSN they even use the same formula for football, but at least on CFL coverage they do have the Brian Williams stories.

It is frightening to see how low game coverage has sunk to in Canada. Interestingly this has come at a time when sports journalism has been growing by leaps and bounds in this country. The newspapers are doing a great job. The Globe and Mail in particular has a fine group of writers and columnists. You seldom pick up a sports section without seeing great stories, interesting commentary and real insight into what is happening in the sports world. Writers like Stephen Brunt, Dave Shoalts, and Bruce Dowbiggin in the Globe and Damien Cox and Doug Smith in the Toronto Star never seem to fail in finding new stories and new angles that make one think about sports in new and interesting ways. They engage their readers with new information and new insights.

Even on radio, where sports radio has talk shows like Bob McCown’s show on The Fan 590, to delve into the issues by going to experts and people in the know. Sure, they have panels too, but they don’t stop there. McCown and the other radio hosts get interviews with general managers, coaches and players. They talk to Jim Balsillie and his lawyers. They get legal experts and business experts to help us understand the underlying decisions being made by leagues and teams. There is a strong attempt to answer the only real journalistic question: WHY.

At a time when sports is as much about the legal and business affairs of players, teams and leagues Canadian television is dropping the ball.

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3 Responses

  1. News reporting is one thing — but Lord Jim, down in the USA ESPN is doing honest to God sports DOCS

    http://30for30.espn.com/

    And they’re GREAT. Top filmmakers, top stories. TSN nor Rogers is even running them.

    Is there innovation anywhere, anywhere in broadcasting in this country? Or have all the journalists retired, gone to sleep or gone south?

  2. Tom Harrington says:

    Hi Howard:
    I must say I found it a bit depressing reading your piece lamenting the lack of broadcast sports journalism in this country. So I just wanted to weigh in on my own behalf because I doubt anyone else will.

    For more than 20 years on both CBC Radio and CBC Television, I’ve taken great pride in a body of work that includes 7 seasons as host and lead correspondent of the Gemini-Award winning SPORTS JOURNAL, 5 years as the first ever sports correspondent for THE NATIONAL not to mention the journalistic chops and versatility to host AS IT HAPPENS, THE CURRENT, CROSS COUNTRY CHECK-UP, CBC NEWS SUNDAY and a variety of other important CBC News programs.

    I’ve been nominated for 4 Gemini’s, almost all of them for my journalism, had a documentary on the 2nd ever episode of CBC’s Radio’s INSIDE TRACK in 1985…met students who say they want to emulate what I do after watching my career..in fact I might be the only reporter to ever host THE CURRENT and lead THE NATIONAL with a sports story on the same day!!

    It’s a solitary line of work because so few in the industry want to do this sort of thing, so few in the sports media seem to value it, and notoriety (as your article shows) is so rare.

    Still my record stands and I think what I’ve done matters.

    • hlbtoo says:

      Hi Tom, I indeed failed to recognize your work. I mentioned your excellent show in my blog but not by name and I did fail to single out your fine work. The fact that CBC did not stand behind your show though, and the lack of continuity of this sort of subject matter at CBC Sports speaks volumes, especially considering your work.

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