Chanelling Houston

Posted by Ottawa Sports Guy4 CommentsApr 29, 2009


William Houston: Great insight into the TV racket

William Houston: Great insight into the TV racket

No, not the city. “Channeling Houston” is a feature I hope to turn into an OSG regular in tribute to a dearly missed member of the sports-writing community, former Globe and Mail journalist William Houston. Mr. Houston was the G&M’s resident sports media critic/reporter, and he was awesome. He’s still awesome, he just doesn’t work for the paper anymore. A sudden, understated farewell ended his last column:


After more than 5,000 bylines in The Globe and Mail over 29 years, this is my last. I’m moving on to new pursuits. I leave with fond memories and good friendships. Thanks for reading.

His departure has left a void on the Globe’s sports page. I think anyone who watches a lot of sports develops an interest in how the business of bringing it to our homes works, and that was Mr. Houston’s specialty. I am not a journalist, and so I won’t be able to fill the void left by his departure, but I will try and comment on what I see when I’m watching sporting events on the television. Commercials, play-by-play announcers, colour commentators, anchors, reporters: I am committing to offering my views on their performance on a regular basis, from a fan’s perspective. Long ago, in what seems like another life by now, I studied television production at a college here in Ottawa. I never finished my degree but it did give me a particularly keen insight on how difficult producing a television program actually is: what looks slick and almost zen-like is actually sometimes controlled chaos behind the camera. My real job is also closely connected to the business of broadcasting. What I’m trying to say is that I’ll try to be as fair as possible through my (limited) knowledge of the industry. Having said that, I won’t hold back because to be truthful the screen can sometimes seem filled by a bunch of bozos.

Sportsnet: Much Improved

Sportsnet: Much Improved

To kick things off I will offer praise where before I have been critical: the production values at Rogers Sportsnet. I’ve even gone so far as to liken the quality of their sportscasts to community TV. Since that post things have changed dramatically. The newscast looks fantastic, especially in HD, and the non-hockey on-air talent has really shone. Brad Fay, Martine Gaillard and Evanka Osmak are about as good as you’re gonna get in this country out of a sports anchor. They are professional, entertaining and provide a degree of gravitas. Sportsnet seems to have figured out that its audience isn’t just comprised of drunken frat boys and macho Razon Ramon wannabes: that must be why Jim Lang and Mike Toth have been relegated to the website. Another good example of quality at the network is Jason Portuondo: he certainly takes a more light-hearted approach, but also delivers the goods in terms of facts and on-screen presence.

Not only has the talent improved, but the presentation quality is now slick and pleasing to the eye. The on-air graphics look modern, the scrawler isn’t overbearing (although I’m still on the fence about the hockey-themed scrawl during the dinner-time news show – I think I like it), and the in-game informational tools are sufficient and understated (as they should be). Most of the commercials touting Sportsnet products look fantastic, especially the MLB stuff (I’m thinking the Derek Jeter frozen in mid-air stuff here). They’ve replaced Rob Faulds as the default voice-over man and the improvement of his nameless replacement is notable.

As I predicted a few years ago, their lineup of sports properties now leaves a lot to be desired. What they do have, however, they do well. The baseball broadcast is the leader in this country, and I’d put it up against most American broadcasts as well. Hockey on Sportsnet is middle of the pack: the quality seems to depend on which Canadian team is being featured. Soccercentral lives on despite the dramatic scaling back of its footy coverage: it’s a quality show offering Craig Forrest’s welcome observations (The Score’s Footy Show has surpassed it in relevance, mind you). Basketball, which I don’t really watch, seems passable (but I believe it’s the same crew that does it on The Score and TSN – feel free to correct me and fill out my blind spot). 

The Bear: Teetering between love and hate

The Bear: Teetering between love and hate

Sportsnet’s weakness is its filler. Poker, extreme sports, bottom-tier MMA, bottom-tier curling, darts and more poker are not very inspiring. The Best Damn Sports Show Period can be entertaining, but really: how many lists can you come up with? Bob McCown is a love or hate proposition (love from this quarter when Stephen Brunt is the sidekick). Admittedly, I barely ever land on Sportsnet save for when one of their premium properties is being featured. 

Then there is the hockey coverage – hours and hours and hours of hockey coverage; Hockeycentral radio over lunchtime, Hockeycentral TV over dinnertime, more hockey coverage during the main news shows over dinnertime and nightly wrap-up. There is so much hockey coverage that the topic merits its own future post (which will come).

All in all, this is but a brief overview of the network. I plan on examining their (and other sports networks) shows and personalities in more depth in the future. For now, however, I’ll consider this an adequate first entry in honour of Mr. Houston.

What about you? What would you like to see discussed in this space? Do you agree with my general assessment of Sportsnet?

4 Responses to "Chanelling Houston"

  1. moonturko says:

    I was just wondering the other where Mr. Houston was! That blows he won’t be writting anymore, he was a very good read and a unique one at that.

    I do like the Sportsnet news as well. One thing in their news cast they do better than TSN is giving you the full stats after highlights. I can’t stand TSN giving the quick score overlay at the bottom of the screen which quick stats. I want to know the teams record, the pitchers stats and record.

    The one thing I cannot stand with Sportnet is their hockey coverage/shows. I dislike all their analysts, that’s where my problem lies I guess!

    They have excellent baseball coverage though. I like how this year they added other games to the regional channels while the Jays remain on the HD channel. Jamie Campbell has improved so much since his first years, and the color guys are all great and different which adds variety to the broadcasts.

  2. Steph D says:

    I always enjoyed Houston’s insights. No other writer I’ve seen in the mainstream had the same slant on things, analysing the medium more than the message. His insightful comments on ratings and behind-the-scenes dealings were always enlightning.

    OSG, you got a high bar to reach on this one!

  3. Zach says:

    The Sportsnet hockey crew are a bunch of arrogant blow-hards. TSN is way better, even the CBC is better. All in all I much prefer TSN to Sportsnet, they take themselves way less seriously, which is appropriate as they are covering fun and games.

  4. Steph D says:

    Actually, I think it’s more about the balance of levity on the broadcasts. TSN has usually done a good job of balancing the comedic with the reporting, and adjusting when necessary (like booting Toth). Sportsnet seemed to go much too comedic at first, with Toth and Lang for example. Then they switched to a more serious take. They’ve yet to find that balance (and no, just because you get rid of the desks doesn’t make it “hip”).

    That said, for TSN, I think Jay Onrait often tips the scales a bit too far on that balance, and it’ll be interesting to see if they eventually give him the Toth treatment. Great blogger, but sometimes overshadows the news with his forced delivery.