They're Back-- Now What Happens?
In real estate, timing is everything. And location, location, location.
Which might explain the odyssey that has led sports anchors Jay Onrait and Dan O’Toole back to Canada after a few frustrating years in the Excited States. The pair are back at TSN, from whence they came, to the excitement of the many fans who missed them while they entertained at FOX TV. The network says it’ll slap them back in their old time slot and add new duties on other formats that are intended to exploit their charms.
For those not in the habit of staying up late, Onrait and O’Toole became cult figures at TSN doing a zany version of the late shift on the sports desk. Onrait’s schtick was the kid who ate all his Halloween candy at once, a dissociative take on a person with a need for attention. O’Toole’s task was to corral Onrait and keep the show on the rails.
It was a take on the ESPN model of the 1990s and early 2000s when people like Keith Olbermann and Dan Patrick turned the highlight program into a comedy routine of word play, inane nicknames and cultural references. (Having done the job of TV sports bingo caller myself for 15 years at CBC-TV I empathized with the urge to deconstruct the format.)
And while I remained beyond the juvenile charms of Onrait and O’Toole I gave them props for moving the needle with a younger audience. Apparently FOX TV felt the same way about the pair, luring them to Hollywood for real money in 2013 to anchor the late-night spot on its new all-sports format. One of their biggest fans lamented the move: “Stephen Harper @stephenharper Worst play of the day: Jay & Dan leaving TSN. Best of luck in the US, gents. http://ow.ly/kGRuX@tsnotoole @JayOnrait”.
Harper was not alone. TSN could never quite fill the void when they left for FOX. Combined with losing the NHL national TV rights to Sportsnet, TSN’s timing could not have been more unfortunate. But, as they also say in real estate, markets are cyclical. What was good for Onrait and O’Toole eventually became good for TSN again, and the pair were led back home.
Why didn’t they succeed in the U.S.? Their reviews in American media were positive and a high-profile pairing on the desk was just what FOX thought it needed as rivals CBS, NBC and ABC (via its sister channel ESPN) also geared up to catch a piece of the lucrative sports broadcasting market. Sports TV was the last vestige of the traditional relationship of viewers to advertisers brought you via cable.
But here’s where Onrait and O’Toole’s timing sucked. Just as they made the move to host a desk-driven show, digital technology was making this venerable highlights format extinct— or close to it. The explosion of online and portable technologies suddenly allowed viewers to see all the highlights from their favorite teams and players immediately via phones and tablets. Without the host doing Pacino impersonations or Simpson references.
With all the info they wanted for fantasy leagues or betting already satisfied, who needed to stay up late to see two dudes wisecrack about power slams and crunching tackles? Across the industry, numbers for highlight programs plummeted. At ESPN, cord cutting went from a trickle to a flood. All the wise-ass comedy and cultural irony was not working anymore.
FOX’s original commitment to Onrait and O’Toole quickly waned. The pair were then put through a gamut of new formats, sets, approaches and times in an effort to maximize the loveable goofs karma that had made them stars at TSN. After almost four years of jerking them about, the network finally gave up this year. It didn’t help that they were being well-paid at a place looking to cut costs.
So now they’re back at TSN, and, for the meanwhile, loyalists like Harper will be placated. For a few reasons, the cord-cutting in Canada hasn’t reached epidemic proportions yet. With national and regional NHL rights, the networks can still keep their customers’ attention. But the same factors that have slammed the U.S. sports broadcasting model will eventually tell in Canada, too.
If you look at what FOX and ESPN are doing now, it’s moving away from desk formats to feature outsized personalities shouting about a half-dozen proscribed topics (LeBron, Steph Curry, Tom Brady, Russell Wilson, Carmelo, Tony Romo, anyone wearing a Red Sox uniform…). Fans have the highlights. What they are (for now) looking for is meat on the bones of those video snatches. Opinions. Usually shouted at high decibels.
The model for this idea is Pardon The Interruption, where Michael Wilbon and Tony Kornheiser run the topics du jour though a Cuisinart. Although even that format is showing wear. Bloviators Skip Bayless and Stephen A. Smith are the new gods of gassing it.
So how will Jay ’n Dan fit into the new landscape? TSN is giving them a presence away from the desk to strut their stuff, but will it be any better than what happened to Sportsnet’s Tim ’n Sid, who switched from desk jockeys to set pieces with diminishing results? Canadians love their fellow citizens who’ve been successful in the U.S. (the Wayne and Shuster factor). Can that be enough to protect Onrait and O’Toole from the ravages of new tastes?
As they say in broadcasting, stay tuned.
Bruce Dowbiggin @dowbboy.is the host of the podcast The Full Count with Bruce Dowbiggin on anticanetwork.com. He’s also a regular contributor three-times-a-week to Sirius XM Canada Talks Ch. 167. A two-time winner of the Gemini Award as Canada's top television sports broadcaster, he is also the best-selling author of seven books. His website is Not The Public Broadcaster (http://www.notthepublicbroadcaster.com)