Pat Marsden was obviously perturbed by my line of questioning as we sat in his office at CFTOTV in Toronto. His face was beet red, sharply contrasting with his white shirt and natty blue suit-the same face that has been closely associated with television sports in Canada for 28 years.
I had just asked if basing his sports programming solely on his preconceived notions of mass appeal didn’t somehow undermine the journalistic quality of that programming.
“Let me tell you what to do with journalism: shove it in your ass because it doesn’t make five cents for anybody in this business. If you’re in this thing because you want to reform the world or you want to reform sports, then what you should do is, uh, write books about it because you’re never going to get mass appeal. We’re in the business of mass appeal. We live in a capitalistic society, and that’s the way it’s got to be.”
Marsden’s attitude typifies the approach to television sports coverage in Canada, an approach that all but ignores the basic tenets of good journalism. Probing, digging and analyzing significant issues are sacrificed in favor of timidity, superficiality and a seemingly endless array of scores, videotape highlights and cliches. In-depth interviews usually consist of the star player telling the fawning television reporter before the big game, “We’ll win if we put more points on the board,” or the last-place coach predicting, “Things will turn around if we keep working hard.”
TV viewers seeking quality sports journalism are bound to be consistently disappointed by the puffery and pandering that pervade television sports. But there are exceptions.
Dick Beddoes is unique. His startling collection of suits, hats and capes jars even the most seasoned eyeballs and provokes snickering from supporters and detractors alike. He’s outrageous and controversial, sometimes annoying, but never boring. He also runs the sports department at CHCH- TV in Hamilton, one of the few operations that actually serve a steady diet of real sports journalism.
It’s difficult to tell where Beddoes the self-acknowledged showman ends and Beddoes the proven journalist begins. His tendency to overstate and exaggerate in order to live up to the maverick image he so obviously relishes often detracts from the otherwise solid approach he takes to his station’s sports coverage. But he’s serious in his desire to provide a fundamentally different style of sports reporting than his competitors and deplores the superficial and banal sports coverage offered by most television stations in Canada. “I’m scornful of my electronic peers. Most aren’t literate, don’t know how to cover a news story, and don’t have any balls,” he says.
For 11 years Beddoes wrote a daily sports column for The Globe and Mail. After another five years as the paper’s civic affairs columnist, he joined CHCH in 1980 as sports director. While not as polished as some broadcasters, and sometimes poorly acquainted with current facts and faces in pro sports, he’s candid and straightforward.
“I don’t think there are many good sports journalists in Canada, especially in the electronic area. Few television people have the solid background you get in the city room of a daily newspaper, and it shows,” he says. “Viewers are attracted to me because I offer something unique and they know I’m going to tell them the truth.”
To Beddoes, the key is telling the viewer “what’s really going on,” regardless of whose toes he steps on. He also employs two reporters with solid credentials in sports journalism: Fred Anderton and Kathy Renwald. “I expect when a news story occurs they can handle it as news,” says Beddoes. “Both have spent time in the newsroom and have the ability to do solid, journalistic work.”
Beddoes hosts a weekly sports news and commentary show, Beddoes, that has received favorable reviews since it was launched in September, 1984, notably for an insightful piece on the plight of ex-hockey star Derek Sanderson. His post-game talk show following Toronto Maple Leafs hockey games returned last fall after an enforced absence of one year. It seems the executives at Canadian Sports Network, Hockey Night in Canada’s production company, weren’t happy with Beddoes’s opinionated and controversial style, which they felt detracted from their on-ice product.
Such criticism doesn’t deter Beddoes. “The guys out there watching aren’t stupid. If it was a lousy game they don’t want some schmuck coming on television and saying it wasn’t. But people in television knuckle under instead of saying what they think. As long as we’re prepared to be namby-pamby and mollycoddle around, nothing’s gonna change. People in television have got to learn that we’re not part of the promotion of pro sports. They need us more than we need them.”
Getting CBC’s Tom Alderman to address questions about sports journalism seriously can be maddening. Alderman tackles most of the sports stories The Journal covers:but he dismisses his sorties into the ~porting world as little more than “fun and games.” “There are no great issues in sport,” he says. “I mean, what more can you say about Wayne Gretzky? He’s good. He’s great. But most athletes say all they have to say on the field.”
Alderman joined the CBC’s nightly current affairs show after a successful career in magazine writing. The stories he does tend to be full of the kind of witty urbanities that provide a clever smokescreen for what is usually a pointed and carefully crafted commentary. As he rattles on in his flippant and animated manner, he begins to betray an affinity for the underdog, the unknown, the never-weres and the never-will-bes. He describes his efforts as “magazine articles set to pictures.”
“I stay away from the usual jock pieces. I’ll do a guy like the hockey coach Roger Neilson. He’s been with about four clubs. But here’s a guy who’s intelligent, well spoken and sensitive. I want to understand the pressures of coaching, the ups and downs, things that are above and beyond a regular profile.
“Or I’ll do a story on the Medicine Hat Blue Jays, the lowest link in the Toronto Blue Jays farm system. Or a story on the fourth line of the Edmonton Oilers, journeymen who once dreamed of being big stars who must come to terms with mediocrity. I always try to get something wider than sports itself.”
tie calls it sports for the “not-hot sports fan.” But he flashes a mischievous grin when he tells me the Canadian Football League won’t return his phone calls because of a critical piece he did on the floundering Montreal Concordes in 1983.
He says there isn’t much worthwhile sports journalism being done on television. “Maybe there isn’t a market for it. I don’t know. Most people are interested in watching the sports events themselves, so I guess they’re getting what they deserve.”
I ask how his years in magazines compare with his adventures in television. Television’s superficiality is frustrating at times, he admits, but it also offers many possibilities for experimentation and innovation. Television can show how an athlete walks, how he talks, how he breathes. No matter how good a writer is, Alderman says, it’s difficult to match the promise of television. “I mean, you can hit a home run in TV that might only have been a double in a magazine.”
“My mistake was thinking these people were journalists and they’re not. If you’re willing to suppress your principles, fine, you’ll do okay. But there is no true journalism in TV sports in this country.”
A scathing indictment. Yet coming from a man who has won two national magazine awards for sports writing, reported on such controversial issues as corruption in boxing and drugs in pro hockey, and published two books with sports themes, it can hardly be dismissed.
Earl McRae, now a weekly sports columnist with Starweek, was a casualty of a behind-the-cameras war between light, fluffy television sports coverage and creditable sports journalism. And he’s convinced the fluff is winning.
In September, 1983, McRae was hired as a sports broadcaster by CBL T, the CBC’s Toronto station. He had been approached by Henry Kowalski, then CBL T’s executive producer of news and operations, who was interested in significantly altering the format of the station’s sports newscasts. McRae was impressed. “Henry wanted guts and texture. He said he wanted controversy where controversy was necessary.”
Five months later the experiment was over. Kowalski had moved to CTV and CBL T had bought out the remainder of McRae’s contract.
McRae admits to being disillusioned and somewhat bitter about his experience with television sports, a venture he had initially undertaken with excited optimism. But he’s refreshingly un-jaded by his years in journalism, often referring to it as an “honorable profession.” He’s still loud, opinionated and brash, the same qualities that made him a standout writer-and entirely unsuitable to the CBL T brass.
“I’ve never considered myself a sports writer in the strictest sense of the word,” he says. “I like to think that I’m a writer who, for a period of time, devoted himself almost entirely to important figures who happened to be in sports. What I like dealing with is the human condition: the athlete’s fears, his fantasies, what makes him tick. The fact he’s in sports is almost secondary.”
McRae believes sports reporting generally in Canada is plagued by an essentially non-journalistic attitude, an attitude television takes to an extreme. “My philosophy is that you’re not in it to perpetrate and perpetuate myths. There’s too much of that in sports journalism. It’s pro PR! Too many reporters are simply recording secretaries. That’s not their job. But this country has a tradition of soft, house journalism, especially in sports. Athletes have always been revered, placed on pedestals. They come to expect an ass-kissy treatment from the media and they’ve been getting it for years.”
McRae’s early performance at CBL T was uneven. While his on-air delivery was ragged compared to that of his colleagues, his solid background as a sports reporter paid off. He worked the phone, a basic of reporting that he says was all but unheard of among his fellow sportscasters at the station. He looked for creative angles to stories, attempting to inject life into the lazy let’s-havea-look-at-the-highlights approach that characterized most of CBL T’s reports. McRae remembers in particular the reaction he got from a senior producer after he reported a relatively minor but interesting tidbit concerning Toronto Argonaut President Ralph Sazio. The producer was dubious about the story, asking McRae where he had found the information and how he knew it was true, since none of the networks or local stations had it. “I told him by getting on the phone and being a reporter,” says McRae with more than a hint of sarcasm. “He looked at me like I’d just told him how to split the atom.”
The real problem arose, however, with McRae’s twice-a-week commentaries. Kowalski had encouraged them, and McRae had thrived on writing them. But soon after McRae started, a senior producer, Alex Frame, arrived on the scene. Frame soon began criticizing McRae for his commentaries, which were usually an attempt to get beyond the scores for a closer look at important issues in sport. They also had run-ins over numerous non-journalistic aspects of the job such as McRae’s wearing a red bow tie with white polka dots on the air. Frame wanted a businesslike, nuts and bolts approach to sports, nothing more.
The final confrontation occurred in early February, 1984, over a tongue-in-cheek commentary in which McRae proposed a way to beat the Russians in hockey: retire Wayne Gretzky to stud and form a syndicate for breeding purposes among the NHL’s 21 teams using the owners’ daughters. The CBL T executives were not amused, labelling the commentary disgusting and filthy.
“I told them commentaries are a forum for a writer’s idiosyncratic viewpoint of events,” says McRae. “You don’t go and edit them the same way as a news story. They’re controversial at times, but that’s what they’re there for.”
Two weeks later McRae was gone. He was offered a field reporting position, but his contract stipulated he was an on-air sportscaster only.
“I was naive to think I could change their attitude,” he says, shaking his head. “I realized that these people in television don’t want journalism. They want gloss, trash and flash. They’re more interested in how your hair looks, how your tie is done up, whether you smile nicely, than in the things that really matter, like good journalism.”
McRae is convinced viewers are being cheated because they are offered no alternatives to the “constant pandering, pandering, pandering” of television sports.
“If you’ve been taught two and two is five all your life you believe it. But four might be a lot more truthful.”
Disturbingly, the majority of those involved in TV sports reporting are quite satisfied with the status quo. It’s also clear that all the possibilities of sports journalism aren’t being even adequately explored by television.
Most sports reporters approach their subject very differently than journalists who report on politics, business or social issues. They are fans at heart who thrive on being able to talk to star athletes and being privy to inside information. The temptation is strong not to blow that by criticizing teams or players.
Television particularly suffers from this kind of mentality. All too often the home team is “our” team-even the sports reporters assume the role of boosters. Add television’s excessive reliance on glossy packaging and propensity to scalp newspapers for content and sportscasts are left virtually devoid of any credibility.
Pat Marsden sees no way around this. “First of all, you have to understand that television only exists if we have enough money to convey and portray the things people want. I am not going to put on a show that I think may be really ultrasensitive and journalistic to 50,000 people, because 50,000 to this station means nothing. I can run a game show and it will attract 350,000.”
Is Marsden right? There’s no way of knowing whether 50,000 or 500,000 would watch issue-oriented sports programming because it’s virtually nonexistent in this country. The excuse often advanced is that stations have neither the resources nor the time to provide in-depth coverage. This argument has two major flaws. First, a television station such as CHCH-TV in Hamilton manages to do an effective job with no more resources than most television sports departments. Second, at issue is not the amount but the quality of coverage.
Ken McKee is a long-time sports reporter with The Toronto Star. He believes a large part of the problem is the inherent laziness of most TV sports reporters. “They don’t do their homework. They’re not well prepared and it shows in their broadcasts. I mean, how many times does Marsden go to an Argo workout?”
McKee says that sportscasters usually are selectively critical, praising the individual and criticizing only the team. While the print media is damned for being too negative, he says, television goes to the other extreme and becomes promotional.
Marty York of The Globe and Mail echoes McKee’s sentiments. “There’s a limited degree of down-to-earth sports journalism on television,” says York, who is considered one of the toughest sports reporters in the country. “Frankly, it baffles me sometimes. Time is a great restriction for television, but that’s not a good enough excuse. I think there’s a reluctance to step on toes because it’s so important to get a face on camera.”
Some critics say television executives are hesitant to do anything that might be considered negative or controversial for fear sponsors would be reluctant to advertise. But Terry O’Malley, president of Vickers and Benson, one of the largest sports ad agencies in the country, says no client of his has ever complained about the style of a particular sports broadcast. “Advertisers are buying the audience. The program is only the vehicle to buying that audience.” O’Malley says advertisers may even choose to buy a program with a controversial broadcaster if they feel the show will draw the best numbers to sell their products.
Even more widespread is the fear that negative sports reporting will offend a league or a team, thereby jeopardizing access to coaches and players or, in cases where teams sell their broadcast rights to one station, result in the loss of the rights to that team’s games. To an independent station, that can mean the disappearance of hundreds of thousands of dollars of advertising revenue.
The contract between the Canadian Sports Network and the NHL teams featured on Hockey Night in Canada broadcasts contains a clause that provides for mutual agreement on which announcers are used for game broadcasts. A source inside CSN said that while the network attempts to be honest and analytical in its approach to Hockey Night in Canada, “We know which side our bread is buttered on.”
Oliver Babirad, business manager of CTV Sports, says its coverage of Canadian Football League games involves “a kind of joint partnership with the CFL in promoting the CFL. We don’t need a commentator or analyst saying a player is 50 pounds overweight or that a coach is dumb. That would be like sitting down at a table and stabbing yourself with your fork.”
Canadian television executives are reluctant to change what they see as a winning formula for sports coverage. It’s not journalism, but it sells. Yet in the final analysis, distorted and boosterish sports coverage shortchanges the sports fan. In addition, pro sports need wide exposure, so it follows that television shouldn’t have to bend over backwards to make athletes, owners and sponsors happy.
But for the current situation to change fundamentally it will take innovative television producers and executives who are primarily interested in journalism, not ratings and glitter. The ball’s in their court.”