Hot Tubs and Hot Topics: CTV’s First Night as Canada’s Olympic Broadcaster

Hot Tubs and Hot Topics

February 13, 2010

As Donald Sutherland has been telling me for weeks now, through the ubiquitous and overexposed commercials CTV has been pummelling us with, the 2010 Winter Olympic Games are Canada’s, in more ways than one. While there is always a sense of pride surrounding the honour of hosting the games, it seems as if the games organizers are intent to engage the entire nation (rather than just those on the West Coast) in the excitement surrounding the games.

This is, clearly, an honourable discourse, and of course those of us on the opposite end of the country want to feel as if these games belong to us to some degree. However, I can’t resist pointing out that these efforts exist to drive viewership more than national pride, and in some ways I’m more interested in how the media is covering these games than in the games themselves (if only because I have serious issues with suspense during sporting events, and the focus on Canadian athletes makes my heart race involuntarily).

This is likely fairly niche for most of you, and I promise to talk a bit about the Opening Ceremonies to keep non-Canadians from being too detached, but I want to take a look at CTV’s coverage leading into the ceremonies, and what it tells me about how the network is handling its takeover of the games from the nation’s public broadcaster, CBC.

The back story, if you’re not aware, is that CBC (who has had the games for almost two decades, I believe) was outbid for the Vancouver games by a combined proposal from CTV and TSN (owned by BellGlobeMedia) and Rogers’ Sportsnet channels. As a public broadcaster, CBC felt that trying to match the bid would be a misuse of taxpayer dollars, sensing the scandal that would have erupted had they not taken this particular stance. It meant, though, that things were going to be changing, and speaking as a person stuck in his ways this is problematic for me. So much of how we experience the Olympics is based on who is calling the shots, and who is introducing the action at hand. This probably seems strange, but I’ve become accustomed to seeing certain people running the coverage, and even if I might not recognize their names I could certainly recognize their voices. As someone who has always preferred CBC’s news coverage in general, I just prefer Peter Mansbridge over Lloyd Robertson, and the CBC Sports team had been calling the Olympics for so many years that we became accustomed to their presence.

It’s no coincidence, then, that two familiar voices (Brian Williams (the Canadian one), who resigned from CBC after the Turin games and moved to TSN largely to cover these games, and Catriona Le May Doan, who provides colour commentary for the Long-Track Speed Skating events) were with Lloyd Robertson for the Opening Ceremonies. CTV is aware of the concerns over continuity, so they’re doing everything they can to make things seem familiar while stressing how a large media conglomerate is uniquely suited to capturing the stories that define the games.

The two-hour preview that aired before the opening ceremonies, however, was the ultimate test of their coverage. First, they had to deal with the day’s earlier tragedy, the death of Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili, which tests the ability of the anchors (TSN’s James Duthie and CTV’s Lisa LaFlamme) to handle that situation with tact and respect. Regardless of whether you believe they should have aired the footage of the crash (which is about as disturbing as you’d expect, by the way), the bigger concern is the way that the coverage seemed to turn it into a story rather than a tragedy. They talked to the reporter who was on the scene at the time of the crash, and then they had a sitdown interview with a sports psychologist and someone who could explain how the track worked and how the crash happened; both are logical, but both were without any intimacy. Rather than an anchor sitting at his desk talking to someone, it had the cozy fireplace atmosphere of a fluffy post-event chat with a gold medallist; the visuals didn’t match the content, and while CTV never exploited the tragedy its coverage didn’t seem prepared for something of that magnitude.

Considering TSN’s involvement, the coverage does a better job with less sombre intrigue. Michael Landsberg’s Off the Record is an intriguing program, an issues-driven talk show where Landsberg moderates a panel of individuals about relevant sports issues: it’s Canadian, so it resists the over-confrontational nature of such shows that 30 Rock parodied with “Sports Shouting,” but it is nonetheless built around digging deeper into stories. TSN has a lot of people who know sports, rather than just Olympic sports, and Landsberg’s discussion with three injured Canadian skiers was really interesting, resisting the romanticized image of Olympic athletes (they’re human after all!) and showing viewers something that they might not see when the big events go down. Of course, they also interview a skier’s mother, and there’s plenty of the traditional romantic notions of gold medals (considering that Canada has never won a Gold on home soil, this will be the games’ overwhelming narrative until someone does), but there’s some interesting diversity there.

However, there are limitations to the value of diversity, as they found out when the coverage at Whistler was turned over to the good people at MuchMusic (also owned by BellGlobeMedia), which has been transformed from Canada’s answer to the Old MTV to Canada’s version of the current MTV over the past ten years or so; while it might have played music videos a bit longer than its American counterpart, it has similarly devolved into trash, although trash that young people seem to enjoy. The problem, though, is that CTV turned over a few minutes of their broadcast to the people at Much, and they apparently didn’t quite know what they were getting: the MuchMusic hot tub was fine, perhaps, but the talk of Lloyd Robertson and Brian Williams doing body shots was apparently unexpected. When they came back from the segment, Lisa LaFlamme seemed flummoxed, remarking that parents of teenagers are horrified right now, and even went so far as to assure viewers that she had nothing to do with writing the copy for that piece. James Duthie, more used to these sorts of interludes on TSN (where jokes are more common), was able to quip about his hope that the VJ was wearing a bathing suit in the hot tub and assured viewers that there would be no body shots, but the segment demonstrated that CTV’s cross-brand strategy has created products which are incompatible when mashed together, and could risk alienating viewers (if LaFlamme’s response is any indication) if their main coverage becomes associated with the teen-oriented Much “at the base.”

Once they got to the Opening Ceremonies themselves, CTV was more comfortable: Brian Williams’ comfortable presence helped assured viewers these Olympics would be familiar, and while Lloyd Robertson was incapable of offering anything beyond the blandly written anecdotes placed in front of him (Peter Mansbridge, he is not) he was inoffensive and there was little commentary offered throughout the various spectacles. They took an approach of “maintain silence and comment on things after the fact,” sticking to the general description of each section and only interjecting to contextualize rather than comment: they didn’t even cut in to explain the torch malfunction until it became clear what was happening, and even then they only told us what we were supposed to be seeing without remarking as to the disappointment of the fourth column refusing to rise from the fake snow. The coverage was simple and effective, celebratory without seeming boastful, but the Opening Ceremonies are the easy part; the challenge comes when things begin to get complicated, and we’re looking for information rather than the occasional comment.

The two-hour pre-show demonstrated that they might have more problems in this area, but we’ll see for certain later today when the real coverage (at least of the events that aren’t canceled due to rain) begins.

Cultural Observations

  • Cornel Sandvoss has some interesting thoughts on the Winter games over at Antenna; my one contention with his argument that the games struggle to create “stars” like the Summer games is that it’s an America-centric perspective (Canada loves its Winter Games, for example), and ignores some sports like figure skating which offer both stars to root for and a situation where Americans are capable of seeming underdogs compared to the dominant Russians.
  • They bastardized “O Canada” something fierce, and the lip synching was a bit overt from everyone but K.D. Lang, and the pacing was a bit questionable, but that floor stole the show and delivered some really compelling bits of artistic expression that felt diverse if not reflective of the breadth of Canada’s diversity, which would have been too much to ask. Really, though, I would have been content with anything after that brilliant blowhole trickery: genius.
  • I would have been able to take the Poetry Slam more seriously if a) it was just called a poem and b) it wasn’t just the slightly more artistic (and in some ways, more cliched) rendition of a beer commercial.
  • Random aside (for this post, but not for the blog), but I’m still amazed that Jennifer Hedger remains at TSN: she got her start after appearing on a low-rent Canadian reality show, U8TV: The Loft, and then transitioned onto TSN. She had a journalism degree, so this isn’t an example of reality TV creating a career, but rather a rare circumstance where it actually provided a legitimate launching pad to a long-term job.


Filed under Olympics

12 responses to “Hot Tubs and Hot Topics: CTV’s First Night as Canada’s Olympic Broadcaster

  1. Cornel Sandvoss “American-centric”? Hmmm. He’s a German working in England (though he is/was a Yankees fan, I believe). Perhaps it’s best to say that figure skating is an exception to his comment. Even hockey hardly makes the stars — it just shares them.

    • Yeah, that’s overstating it, you’re right: I got caught up in the alternate references to exceptions (The Summer Olympics’ Dream Team, the Miracle on Ice) being largely American in context (which does, at least somewhat, place that particular argument in an American context).

      I would contend, though, that hockey is capable of making stars when disassociated with professional hockey leagues: Belarus in 2002 is an example where nobodies become national heroes, for example. It’s an exception to the rule, certainly, but in smaller countries the star-making process is very different – Sandvoss, obviously, is focusing more on global stars, so this is not an argument but rather a further investigation of the phenomenon.

  2. Zora Adams

    I was a parent watching the “hot tub” incident with my two young children and I can tell you I am DISGUSTED that a News program would show something like that on National Television at that time of night. I don’t allow my children to watch Much Music and to have that kind of content thrown at us in the middle of a news show about the Olympics is shocking. “DROP YOUR GEAR FOR BEER” ! That sounds like a great idea Canada…way to go! I for one am embarrassed and ashamed and totally unimpressed with the way that was handled. At least Lis LaFlamme had the decency to acknowledge that it was not exactly what viewers would appreciate! I didn’t find it funny or entertaining or anything except offensive!

  3. I had heard people complaining “O Canada” was going to be a bit different, but I thought it was just old folks being old folks. Well, it was damn terrible. It sounded like a generic Christmas carol or weird slow jam or something. Ugh. The Furtado-Adams collaboration also felt either terribly auto-tuned or completely lip-synced.

    The MuchMusic bit blew my mind. I think most of us are accustomed to their unique brand of drivel, but I wasn’t expected a nationally televised piece on in early prime time (I think that bit was before 9PM AST) to be about 60 seconds of “WOO I AM TELECASTING FROM A SNOWBOARD HOTTUBHOTTUB LETS GET WET USHER YEAH YEAH…YEAH YEAH! BODY SHOTS BODY SHOTS WET STRIP 4 UR BEEEEERRRR.” It was mindblowingly inappropriate, retarded, and outright bizarre given the context. Except for select artist performances, they should probably keep the Much crap on Much. I imagine CTV rightfully received a lot of complaints.

    So far, the TSN anchors like Duthie and Onrait (who all look sort of plastic and old and weird under the bright lights instead of the TSN studio, hah) really stand heads and shoulders above the others in terms of professionalism and animation. I hope the use of the “brand synergy” star opportunities is kept to a minimum.

  4. I laughed at just about everything Lloyd Robertson had to say. He sounded like an idiot during the entire opening ceremonies.
    But in general I was very impressed with the Opening Ceremonies. I didn’t think Canada had that much to offer (I live just outside of Vancouver so I can say that). But having the four tribes welcome everyone was great, then the different segments were absolutely beautiful. The Orcas are getting all of the attention from most people, but the ice breaking up and the totem poles turning into the trees… it was all very, very well done. Also having Celine Dion cancel was a stroke of luck. I’m not a K. D. Lang fan, but I would much rather hear her than Celine Dion.

  5. CTV’s coverage really sucked compared to NBC in editing, cinematography, commentary and preparedness of the commentators.

  6. djones

    Glad to see another Mansbridge fan, based on what I’ve seen of other Canadian and American news media I don’t think there’s anyone as smart and versatile as he is. Lloyd Robertson was dead weight as he always is, and I mainly just wanted the two of them to shut the hell up during the ceremony. It’s a predominantly visual ceremony, people don’t need to be told that the things that look like trees are trees, and that a bear is about to pop out of the floor. I’m also glad I missed the MuchMusic thing, it sounds awful. That channel was never very good, but having grown up with it being a decent music channel it’s depressing to see the mess it is now. And as far as lip-syncing goes, I’m pretty sure KD Lang was actually singing based on the number of vocal tics and slight melody changes, I can’t imagine it being easier to perfectly mimic that than to just sing it live since she’s not going for a studio slick sound.

  7. Gerry

    I saw that MM bit via PVR, and I was disgusted. A VJ in a hot tub with three UNDERAGE girls?!

    On Day 2’s coverage, that tramp female VJ mentioned to Hedger, “What happens in Whistler stays in Whistler–at least that’s what the guys keep telling me.” Then she mentioned about “golden showers”.

    Holy F, CTV get your butt in gear. Duthie is not meant for the big seat. I can’t take him seriously, he has no vitality. FAIL.

  8. Tausif Khan

    Howard Bryant reporting for NPR’s Weekend Edition Saturday (a writer for ESPN) speculated foul play on the part of the Canadians in the luge accident because they wanted to keep their informational advantage about their own course and did not allow athletes to get to the course early and get in some early practice runs:

    Myles I understand your sentiment about CBC losing its coverage of the Olympics. I felt the same when NBC lost its ability to cover the Winter Olympics in 1998 to CBS.

    As far as Canada-centric blog posts (I am saying this as an American) please include more. This site is after all called Cultural Learnings (hopefully your readers will get as much cultural learnin’ as you do from your analysis). Also, in terms of niche, as Felicia Day says its all about narrow-casting on the internet:

    • DC Nate

      NBC didn’t lose its ability to cover the Winter Games to CBS in 1998; CBS (with daytime coverage on TNT) had the rights to the 1992, 1994, and 1998 Winter Games. Until the Salt Lake City games in 2002, NBC had only purchased the rights to the 1988, 1992, 1996, and 2000 Summer Games. And prior to the 1988, ABC had been America’s Olympic network. Their last Games was the 1988 Winter Games from Calgary.

  9. Dragonflye

    I’m so glad that someone finally brought up where Jen Hedger got her start. Whenever I see her face on t.v., all I can think back to is that stupid show, “The Lofters” where she had sex (under the covers) with her boyfriend on television Big-Brother style. It sort of takes away from the credibility of her appearing as a national sports broadcaster…

    As for CTV’s coverage, it is extremely disappointing. Sound and picture quality have got to be worked out, the internet “live-streaming” web sites on are very poor and choppy visuals and lacking audio commentary. All in all, I find the network coverage a disatrous mess.

  10. Nordweidene

    Hello! what about …



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