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.
- 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.