by mike in boston @mikeinboston [hatemailaccount a/t/ gmail /dot/ com]
The changes to Hockey Night in Canada represent the biggest shift in Canadian sports media in several years. Rogers took over an established social institution and, rather than maintaining the status quo, they made some pretty bold moves.
This is interesting even if one is not a hockey fan, since it brings together a bunch of related issues. We have seen sports departments cutting back, we have seen more and more media convergence, we have seen newspaper writers shift to radio or TV, and most importantly we have seen sports leagues exercise editorial pressure as part of their TV rights negotiations. If we had a sharp distinction between “house reporters” and real journalists that would be fine. But since most writers now work for broadcasters in some capacity or other, there is a real risk that sports media coverage will be very different going forward.
In an interview with Simon Houpt, senior media writer at the Globe & Mail, new HNIC host George Stroumboulopoulos claimed that he would approach the job as both a fan and a journalist:
Q: Do you see yourself as a fan, or as a journalist?
A: I think you can do both.
Q: They’re not supposed to be the same roles.
A: But sports is different, right? I mean, think about what the whole premise of sports is. Sports is a bunch of people gathering around, watching something that they’re not actually connected to – they’re just emotionally connected. And you pick a team and you’re passionate about a team. Sports is entertainment; sports is for some people a job; for others, it’s a way to teach your kids valuable lessons. Sports means so many different things to so many different people. So this isn’t like covering Syria. And it’s a mistake to think it is like covering Syria.
These answers are interesting and shed some light into the kind of role Rogers wants Strombo to occupy as host of HNIC. Rather than pontificating about the subject, I asked the experts to weigh in. The following people very graciously agreed to contribute their thoughts:
- Simon Houpt – Senior Media Writer, Globe & Mail
- Nelson Millman – long time Program Director for FAN590
- Bruce Dowbiggin – long time media critic for the Globe & Mail
- Chris Zelkovich – long time media critic for The Star, now with Yahoo!Sports
- Jonah/TSM – long time owner of this website
Here are some questions I asked, followed by their answers. Chris Zelkovich is on the road so just sent me a long response, which I have kept intact rather than shoe-horning into individual questions.
Q: It is not surprising to hear that a sports journalist is a fan of the sport he covers, but do you think the job can be done well if he is public about his attempt to merge the two roles?
Houpt: I like that he is transparent about his approach – that, as he said during the press conference, “I’m a hockey fan, so I will host the show like a hockey fan hosts the program.” No host of a sports show – especially not a show like HNIC – begins from a position of pure objectivity: even Ron MacLean, after the press conference to announce the Rogers on-air team, said it was getting harder for him, after all these years, to come up with new ways of starting each broadcast by promising viewers that they’d be in for a great game that night.
I’m wary of making too many judgments too early, since we don’t yet know what exactly Strombo’s role will be. As host, he’ll be the public face of the program – its most prominent ambassador – but there will also be a crew of reporters, analysts, and producers. He may be the one to set the tone, leaving room for others to dig for harder news.
Millman: I think most people who cover sports are fans of one team or another. Keep in mind that before they entered the profession they would have watched sports and like all of us “lived and died” with their favourite team. I’ve never understood why people think journalists can’t be fans. In fact it’s likely they will be tougher on their favourite teams if they are not performing well. In my years in the sports business I can’t think of very many occasions where someone covering sports as a reporter, has led to noticeable biased coverage
Dowbiggin: There is an allowance for a declared conflict, but it depends on how the host manages the conflict. We know that Bob Costas and Joe Buck are St. Louis guys, but it doesn’t colour their editorial approach. Cherry’s loyalty to Boston and Toronto does skew his coverage. If he wants to be seen as credible, Strombolopoulos will need to be very careful not to have his Habs love become a crutch or a running joke. My biggest curiosity is, feeling out of his comfort zone, will he be sycophantic in his interviews? Can his edgy style (that frankly drew few viewers on CBC) translate with hockey people who are notoriously lousy interviews?
Jonah/TSM: I’d like to think that those who earn a living covering and reporting on sports do so because they are fans of the game. I think there is a fine line between being a homer and being objective. In fact, I started this website out of frustration because I thought that the mainstream media in Toronto was too negative about our teams. You don’t have to be all pom poms, nor do you have to be chicken little all the time either. If a team does something well, there is nothing wrong saying so. If they do something stupid, I have no problem slamming them. In the end, to me, it’s about being authentic. I don’t think enough people in the business are that anymore.
Q: Strombo seems to suggest that the journalistic standards are different for sports because it is entertainment and not world news. Do you agree?
Houpt: I think he’s suggesting that we expect different things from sports / entertainment coverage than we do for world news. Which is true, though it doesn’t have to be.
Millman: I don’t think that what was what he was suggesting. Whether it’s news, sports or entertainment the job is to present facts and give the audience perspective so they can make their own decisions. Let’s give the audience some credit here. Is an opinion presented by a columnist or host or reporter going to change someone’s opinion? More often than not…no. And when it comes to sports people believe “my opinion is more right than yours”. That’s the beauty of sports talk radio and panel shows on television. But just because an on-air personality has a different viewpoint than you do, doesn’t make them wrong. Nor does it make you wrong.
Dowbiggin: The “it’s just entertainment” dodge has been HNIC’s alibi for decades, used when it suited their purposes after another Cherry meltdown. If, as stated, there will be less of Ron MacLean’s tall-forehead approach, then perhaps the entertainment dodge works. I think the best way to do entertainment in the show is to segregate it, as the NFL networks do with Rob Riggle or Frank Caliendo. But I’m looking for celebrity onslaught as they try to bring pop culture into what (editorially) was always “your grand dad’s show”.
Jonah/TSM: I think there is hard core news (wars, business, disasters etc) and then there is everything else. I also think there is a big difference between national and local. In Strombo’s case, he is now hosting hockey on the national stage; this isn’t the evening national news, but given the importance of hockey in our culture it may as well be. I do think that who the players are in the news of sports is changing dramatically. Take a look at the “insiders” on the sportsnet website on any given day, a number of them are or were from non-traditional media backgrounds. Cough, Cough, bloggers.
Q: When Rogers announced their partnership with the NHL they explicitly stated they were going to move away from coverage of issues related to the “state of the game.” In light of Strombo’s statements, should viewers be worried that Rogers/NHL is imposing an agenda on their coverage? Shorter version: is there a credibility issue here?
Houpt: I’m less concerned about Strombo’s comments than I am about a continuation of the trends we’ve seen in recent years, with leagues such as the NHL building up their own in-house reporting teams and media companies buying up teams. The Rogers purchase of NHL rights is only the biggest Canadian example of that. Access for reporters that aren’t affiliated with team ownership is getting harder. Yes, Rogers and Bell and other team owners still have many fine reporters, but the companies need to go to much greater lengths than they currently do, to demonstrate their editorial independence. For their sake, and ours.
Dowbiggin: It was lightly reported, but the NHL has imposed new standards on this contract and you will see a different tone that is less critical of the business. That may be the biggest change viewers notice as the show goes “soft”. They hated MacLean’s adversarial approach and were none too fond of TSN at times. It could get very squishy as Rogers’ NHL honeymoon commences.
Jonah/TSM: Bettman Inc. was clearly done with the Ron MacLean coverage of the past. Having said that, wasn’t the coverage better when the Hot Stove intermission was mostly about trade rumours and free agency picks than about what team is going bankrupt or moving where? I don’t think Rogers should have said anything more than we will provide the best coverage and insight into the game all the time. If the Phoenix hearings are going on, how do they do shows and not talk about them and be authentic?
Zelkovich: Overall, I think it’s a good move. The main reason is that Rogers had to do something different to put its own stamp on the NHL package. Leaving the old HNIC crew in place wasn’t really an option. This is not about catering to the average hockey fan. He or she is going to watch regardless of who’s sitting in the host’s chair. This is about attracting new fans, which Rogers has to do to get back its massive investment.
Is Strombo the guy to do that? That remains to be seen, but he does know hockey. He doesn’t know it in a Ron MacLean way, but that’s a good thing. In my opinion, hockey broadcasts in Canada, especially on CBC, were focusing a bit too much on the minutiae. At times you needed somebody to explain what they were talking about.
On the other hand, Strombo will be under intense pressure to get it right. There will be a lot of people just waiting for him to make a mistake. But from what I’ve seen, he knows how to roll with the punches. One thing is guaranteed: the first broadcast will bring in a huge audience. So in that respect, this has already worked.
My sincere thanks to everyone for contributing.
Thanks for reading, and please add comments below.
mike (in boston)