The $5.2-billion, 12-year commitment Rogers has made to televised hockey is getting an early, icy response from Canadians.
While the corporation is making a clear effort to rid itself of the homespun quality that was the hallmark of the CBC, a slick, Fox football-style approach led by a broadcaster who seems to be out of his element might not be a formula best suited to win over viewers in the long term.
The NHL debuted on October 8th, and immediately Rogers began to show off its flair for technology, or at very least, an affinity for gadgets. There were bench cameras, aerial cameras, even cameras positioned perilously on the top of a referee’s helmet.
“It seemed, for a moment, as though the beer vendors at the Air Canada Centre might soon be enlisted to film portions of the game — think “overpriced Pilsner cam” or maybe “sloshed guy cam” or “there’s vomit on my $200 jersey cam,” opined Montreal Gazettte writer Christopher Curtis.
The cameras, to the presumed relief of the most hardcore traditionalists, have faded into the background in the weeks since Rogers launched its hockey empire on multiple channels, including City, all Sportsnet networks, FX Canada, and CBC on Saturday night.
If the majority of Canadians weren’t comfortable with cameras, that’s an easy fix for Rogers. Another beef might have more long-term ramifications.
Early reports suggest Canadians simply don’t like Rogers poster boy George Stroumboulopoulos, who dominates air time in conversations with the likes of hockey stick holding analysts Nick Kypreos and Kelly Hrudey in Sportsnet’s space-age studio, and in features like last weekend’s reflective sit-down with Bob Cole and Dick Irvin to discuss the passing of Canadians legend Jean Béliveau.
In a segment with Bruins enforcer Milan Lucic in October, Strombo ended an interview by taking a bracelet from his wrist and handing it to the befuddled goon. “A buddhist monk gave this to me,” he said.
“Strombo”, who would often begin broadcasts of his popular CBC interview show with the words “Hello Canada, it’s your boyfriend George…” is struggling with hockey viewers in way that the CBC’s own “This Hour Has 22 Minutes” accurately spoofed in a piece that aired earlier this year.
“Tip of the hat to Don and Ron, they truly are the Tegan and Sara of hockey commentary,” said actor Mark Critch, playing Stroumboulopoulos. The trouble for Rogers is that the real deal isn’t that far from the parody. In a segment with Boston Bruins enforcer Milan Lucic in October, Strombo ended an interview by taking a bracelet from his wrist and handing it to the befuddled goon. “A buddhist monk gave this to me,” he said.
A recent Angus Reid survey found that 60% of 1504 Canadians polled felt Strombo was not a “credible replacement” for Ron MacLean. What’s more, 74% felt that MacLean’s reduced role had damaged the brand.
MacLean, meanwhile, is putting on a brave face, but he looks out of sorts in his new role, roaming the country in Sportsnet’s mobile studio as host of Hometown Hockey on Sunday night broadcasts. MacLean has a natural ease in dealing with regular middle-class Canadians, likely owing in part to his smalltown Alberta roots and the fact that he is still a referee who skates several times a week. But the man with the goofy charm and oh-so Canadian politeness had achieved an almost statesmanlike quality after nearly three decades with Hockey Night in Canada, and his new “Jimmy Olson Cub reporter on the scene” status is awkward and unfitting. MacLean, despite the fact that most Canadians of a certain age feel like they grew up with him, is still just 54-years old, decades younger than Bob Cole, who still excels in what some would say is a trickier gig.
If you are Rogers, you likely chalk all this up to growing pains. Any change to hockey in Canada will be viewed not with a magnifying glass, but with a quantum microscope. The broadcaster admits that the audience is fragmented somewhat by viewers moving up and down the dial looking for a game. It is reasonable to assume that a level of comfort with the new will sink in in time.
And some of the changes Rogers has made are clear improvements. The broadcaster is wise to have increased the visibility of ex-NHL’er Mike Johnson, who came over from the NHL Network. Johnson is the best of all former players at explaining the game from a pro’s perspective. Drew Remenda, who does color for Edmonton Oilers broadcasts, is exceptional. Jeff Marek, who was one of several recruits from the CBC, seemed a natural heir-apparent to MacLean, before Stroumboulopoulos was wedged into the role.
But as detailed by The Globe and Mail’s David Shoalts Saturday, the numbers Rogers is generating from its broadcasts are underwhelming, especially considering the broadcaster’s own projections.
“The big problem,” says Shoalts, “is that one-quarter of the way through the NHL’s regular season, Rogers is running around 9 per cent behind the 20-per-cent increase in television viewers it promised advertisers, who were also told there was a commensurate increase in advertising rates.”
In its move to shake up hockey broadcasting, Rogers may have shook a little too hard. Getting Ron MacLean off the road and into the studio more often would likely be step welcomed by viewers and advertisers alike.