Hockey in July fails to score on TV

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Thursday night's Blue Bombers game was a barnburner — an exciting, action-packed live sporting event filled with big plays and capped by a thrilling, nail-biter ending that brought great relief and a glimmer of hope to local fans.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 08/07/2016 (2233 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Thursday night’s Blue Bombers game was a barnburner — an exciting, action-packed live sporting event filled with big plays and capped by a thrilling, nail-biter ending that brought great relief and a glimmer of hope to local fans.

And paired with the second half of that night’s CFL doubleheader, it created six hours of live programming that were exactly what cable-sports programming should be. Fast. Fun. Fabulous football.

But enough with the happy talk. Let’s chat for a few moments about what sports-network programming shouldn’t be — as in dull, static, talky, uneventful, seemingly interminable and pretty much pointless.

CANADIAN PRESS FILES TSN's 'Frenzy' was largely pre-empted by the earlier completion of blockbuster deals by two Canadian teams, including the Habs' trade of P.K. Subban.

Coverage of the opening of the National Hockey League’s free-agency period — dubbed “Free Agent Frenzy” by TSN, with not even a whiff of sarcasm — provided yet another demonstration of why it’s a lousy idea for sports networks to try to turn the back-room business dealings conducted by agents, accountants, general managers and owners into hours-long “event” programming.

Just as they do every year on the NHL’s trade-deadline day, this country’s sports channel’s did a full-court press on free-agency day (also known, in these parts, as Canada Day), and the results were predictably … meh.

For the purposes of this column, we’ll focus on TSN’s “Free Agent Frenzy” effort. Since I was off being patriotically festive at a non-cable-connected lakeside retreat on Canada Day, I recorded TSN’s coverage on my at-home PVR and watched it this week in a couple of viewing sessions that felt much longer than they actually were.

I did not record whatever it was Sportsnet did to cover the free-agency launch (surely, no one could be expected to sit through a dozen PVR’d hours of this stuff), but TSN’s decidedly non-frenzied “Frenzy” did all that was needed to reinforce my long-held view that these special-event non-events — free-agency coverage, trade-deadline marathons, draft-lottery specials, actual draft-day programs, and college-talent combine shows — are as close as sports television comes to a complete waste of time.

The first, and biggest, problem facing these types of long-form sports-network specials is that when it comes to trade deadlines and free agency, there’s every chance that the biggest, most-anticipated transactions will take place hours or days before the networks’ heavily hyped Trade/Free/Frenzy/Deadline/Agent/Centre show hits the airwaves. Such was the case on Canada Day, when the excitement of TSN’s “Frenzy” was largely pre-empted by the earlier completion of blockbuster deals by two Canadian teams (the Habs’ trade of P.K. Subban and the Oilers’ dealing of Taylor Hall) and the re-signing of Toronto-coveted pending FA Steven Stamkos by the Lightning, which eliminated all hope of joy in Leafsville on this Canada Day.

TSN’s show, which started at 10 a.m. CDT, an hour before the opening of free agency, began with a recap of those deals followed by an almost-plaintive declaration by host James Duthie: “But the frenzy isn’t over…”

In fact, it was. The hour-long lead-up to the 11 a.m. free-agency opening was filled with recycled speculation of who would go where, with commentary from three separate panels within the TSN studio. There were also remote reports from all the Canadian teams’ cities, one of which actually included a nugget of information prefaced by the phrase “unconfirmed reports out of social media” — which, in news-reporting terms, is roughly the equivalent of saying, “I know it’s completely irresponsible to repeat this, but I’ve got a 60-second live segment to fill and I left my juggling balls at home.”

When 11 a.m. CDT finally arrived and the confirmations of free-agent signings started to roll in (with Milan Lucic’s move to Edmonton being the biggest news of the day), pretty much everything unfolded as had been suggested by TSN’s experts in the pre-show hour and in several days’ worth of SportsCentre Insider panels earlier in the week.

Names. Teams. Dollar amounts. Terms. Spin. Rinse. Repeat. Despite the best efforts of what remains the top hockey-analysis team on Canadian TV — that team includes hosts Gord Miller and Gino Reda, “Insiders” Bob McKenzie, Pierre LeBrun, Darren Dreger; panelists Ray Ferraro, Jeff O’Neill, Pierre McGuire, Craig Button, Dave Poulin and Martin Biron — “Free Agent Frenzy” was anything but. A record amount was spent on free-agent NHLers during the first hour of TSN’s show, but it was still about as exciting as asking your accountant to read your latest tax return out loud. And after that busy but still boring first hour, Duthie basically summed up what everybody else was thinking: “My greatest concern is what we’re going to do with the last five hours…”

As it dragged on, it became evident that the hardest-working people in TSN’s broadcast team were the camera operators — their almost-dizzying use of tilts and pans and zooms in an effort to bring movement to this very stationary exercise was on par with the most elegant faux-motion trickery employed by PBS documentarian Ken Burns to bring the stories of dead Civil War soldiers to life.

Look, I get that TSN and Sportsnet, with their around-the-clock schedules and their multiplex-channel tiering, are under immense pressure to create programming to fill all those hours. I also understand that this is a hockey-obsessed country and that, in the age of talk radio and social media, a presumption exists that there is an endless appetite for sports information, regardless of what form it takes.

But scheduling six (or more) hours of live TV to cover, re-cover and re-hash what could easily be handled in a six-minute segment on any of the dozens of SportsCentre reports that run throughout TSN’s broadcast day is simply an exercise in making bad television. One of the prevailing buzz-phrase bits of advice in the business world these days is to “under-promise and over-deliver,” and these shows unfailingly do exactly the opposite of that.

brad.oswald@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @BradOswald

Brad Oswald

Brad Oswald
Perspectives editor

After three decades spent writing stories, columns and opinion pieces about television, comedy and other pop-culture topics in the paper’s entertainment section, Brad Oswald shifted his focus to the deep-thoughts portion of the Free Press’s daily operation.

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