Joe Clark: Accessibility ¶ Design ¶ Writing

Not Exactly Off the Record:
My Day in the Maw of the TSN Gag Machine

The Background

In 1998, TSN, the main English-language sports channel in Canada, embarked on a departure from its steady diet of stock-car racing, Major League Baseball, street luge, and hockey telecasts with Off the Record, an “irreverent” sports-related talk show modeled after Politically Incorrect.

It’s pretty simple: Host Michael Landsberg interviews two guests – one fabulous (A-level), one less so (B-level) – along with some other TSN personality who pretends to be a guest. Though hilarity and topicality are meant to ensue, the show is wildly uneven and aims a bit low, assuming, without ever consciously realizing it, that the only kind of humour that works is humour aimed at a working-class audience with no smarts.

Landsberg is quite affable and is skilled in sussing out just the right interview path to take with his subjects (and pretty much everyone Landsberg talks to – more later), but he’s hamstrung by the choice of guests, which again hews to a working-class ethos. Kim Mitchell. Irrelevant local radio vulgarian Joey Vendetta. Hockey goon Nick Kypreos. There have been a few gems: Donovan Bailey comported himself well. Bruce Dickinson, of Iron Maiden fame, arrived looking like a Spinal Tap roadie (and we know he was invited because he’s a heavy-metal dude) but later grippingly discussed the psych-out techniques of his favourite sport, fencing. On the whole, the show mixes flaws with promise – with the former winning out.

Where I Came In

I had grown more than a little annoyed by the most obnoxious habit of the Canadian media – reusing the same guests and “experts” and columnists and commentators over and over again on different shows. Worse yet, half of these guests already have day jobs, usually in the media and usually in the field they talk about on-air. In the most egregious example, Stephen Brunt writes a sports column in the Toronto Globe and Mail and appears on every program you could think of, like TVO’s Studio 2 and even TSN’s unabashed clone of CBS Sunday Morning, TSN Sunday. Other miscreants include butch sportswritrix Mary Ormsby of the Toronto Star and “music journalist” Kim Hughes.

This practice of media double-dipping is pernicious and helps explain why journalism graduates can’t get jobs. It’s the result of clubby insularity in Toronto media cabals, clueless producers who can’t be bothered to cultivate their own commentators and experts, and the perverse Canadian mediascape, which bases fame on having already garnered fame. (Sure, Hollywood does the same thing, but here we base double-dipping on status or situation d’emploi more than knowledge, freshness, or relevance: “Oh. Sports. OK. Put Stephen Brunt on. He’s a Globe columnist, and he does all right on TV.”)

I took an ethical stand against double-dipping and several times declined offers to appear on TV discussing something I’d written about elsewhere. But since my journalism career is now toast, I am freed from that constraint and have spent the last several months presenting myself as a possible guest<slash>commentator on topics I know about, like social issues in sports and graphic and industrial design.

I pitched my services to TSN Sunday executive producer Brian Sobie and never heard back. (Typical.) I wrote another letter asking him to at least tell me if he definitely couldn’t use me, and received a phone call on September 25 [1997] in which we talked mostly about Off the Record. He proposed that I’d be a good guest on the show, which I disagreed with, but by the end of the conversation he’d been so persuasive that I relented and asked him to phone me if a show were upcoming with some topic on which I could comment germanely.

Twenty minutes later, Brian rang back and invited me to a “creative meeting” to be held at TSN on October 1 in an effort to improve Off the Record. I smelled a rat. I smelled an attempt to siphon ideas from me and unnamed other visitors for free, or at least for very low cost.

The Big Day

Still, I showed up, at the unnatural hour of 0930, at TSN HQ in the middle of nowhere. And here my adventure began. Soon another person arrived in the downstairs foyer, a tall guy of indeterminate age in a leather three-quarter-length jacket and shades clutching a Partners’ Film Company briefcase. Hmm. Looked like a writer, if writers have a look.

I struck up a conversation and discovered that he was present for the very same meeting. We continued to chitchat tensely (he was dying for a cup of coffee) and I remarked that this felt like an audition. Since his mom is a casting director, he knows from auditions, and he got my drift.

Soon two guys with lots of curly or ponytailed hair emerged from a secret door and talked with the receptionistrix. “Looks like Gino Vannelli’s managers,” I quipped, and just as my new friend shushed me, Brian Sobie appeared and introduced himself and the Vannelli duo, who turned out to be the show’s two writers, George Stroumboulopoulos and Bob Mackowycz, both young guys.

We retired upstairs, met Michael Landsberg, and sat down in a small conference room. Also present was Mark Jacobson, a chase producer who locates guests, and an intern I later tried to steer away from the heartbreak of journalism. Mr. Leather Jacket turned out to be Steve Mann, 25, a dead ringer for a friend of mine, a resemblance that set my mind reeling for the first hour. With his cigarettes and caffeine habit, Steve acts like a writer and is one, having laboured at various Toronto radio stations. Bob and George also have good writing pedigrees despite being under 30.

The Meeting

I forget who said whatever brought this on, but before even sitting down I outed myself as the token homosexual in the room. (The atmosphere was already jovial.) Landsberg asked “Why are you ‘token’?” I said if I were a black lesbian in a wheelchair, think of all the diversity points I’d rack up. I could even be host.

Brian started out by asking us what we liked about the show. After some half-hearted responses and a lot of silence, we immediately began talking about improvements. And jeez, did we have improvements. I laid heavily on a few themes of my own:

Topics brought up by others at the table included: Scanning a wider range of papers for story ideas and angles. Single-guest shows, again like Politically Incorrect. A wider variety of guests (Brian pressed repeatedly for specific names, bearing out the rat I smelled), with the B-level guest being absolutely anyone rather than someone with a sports link. (In fact, letting viewers win an appearance on the show, or earn one via clever applications for same, was an idea everyone liked.)

We talked about the overlit, tack-sharp look of the show, including the dullard typography – Helvetica Condensed uppercase all over the place, just as it is all over the place throughout TSN programming.

Fixing the echt-TSN look was the first idea to jam Brian’s radar. He immediately pooh-poohed the concept as unworkable in the short term. But short-term solutions weren’t the focus of the meeting, and if we’re here to brainstorm, I replied, just jot the idea down and work on it later. Brian pointed out that even getting the show on air, and getting it on air with actual guests instead of TSN heads talking amongst themselves, was a major coup, and any changes had to occur gradually to avoid alarming the Executives upstairs. (Are they that conservative and jittery? Perhaps this explains why two of TSN’s flagship shows are direct clones of two existing American shows.) We’ll come back to this disagreement later.

More ideas? Use anyone who works for TSN as the second TSN guest, not just the on-air people, some of whom simply do not work in that role. (Why not put the janitor on the air?) Uncap the third studio camera from its tripod and rove. Be quicker with cuts to video segments. Write funnier lists of “quirky facts,” and for God’s sake, get rid of that name. Use popular music better. (Steve Mann, a hip-hop nut, pushed this strongly.) Kill the existing theme music (an idea Brian rebelled against on the spot).

One from me: Take story ideas a further step. Instead of examining the way long road trips affect athletes and their mates and families, discuss the more troubling fact that the mobility of athletes today makes the “home” nature of a home team irrelevant. (What is distinctly Bostonian about the Bruins? Carolinan about the Hurricanes? Phoenician about the Coyotes?)

Do interviews with athletes in dressing rooms (where there is always a TSN camera) and with the megastar hangers-on lingering near the big-name athletes.

Twice I tried to broach discussion of the Web site, which could become a parallel realm with its own discussions and featuring jokes and topics that aren’t quite right for TV, rather like the Homicide: Second Shift skein on the NBC site. (TSN unerringly picks the wrong Web ideas: Frames, graphics-heavy pages, and – the ultimate! – funnelling real-time streaming video of the Canada Games, as though people using Mac LC IIs with 14.4 modems could ever find that video feed anything other than an exercise in dashed expectations.)

The Friction

I wasn’t expecting to spend the whole day at TSN, but that’s what happened. We lunched at the TSN commissary ("Der Kommissary"), where a vegan like me had no real choices and where the Hollywood studio system recapitulated itself, with writers taking one table and management another. (For some reason, every woman I saw at TSN was dressed in a pristine business suit, with impeccable grooming. The male employees looked like sports dudes, decked out in khaki pants or jeans, fashionless shirts, stubble, and machismo.) George, Bob, Steve, Dan the intern, and I had a nice chat, replicating the rampant good humour of the meeting itself.

We returned to the increasingly stuffy room to spend the afternoon discussing comedy improvements per se. It was revealed that we were in fact the second brainstorming session TSN had held. The first was with actual comedians, who, Brian told us, didn’t crack a joke even once and were terminally unfunny. (Of course, I replied. Comedians are the most depressive people in the world.) My ratmeter hit the redline on this specific topic: It was strong evidence that TSN was driftnetting for ideas without actually hiring the originators of those ideas.

Steve was a dynamo. He showed up with six or ten single-spaced pages of ideas. We pretty much sat back and listened for two hours. Some of his ideas were derivative, many of them questionable, but if a mere half of them were put into place even once or twice a year the show would become required viewing for anyone with a sense of humour and a brain. I attracted concerned glances by laughing hard for long stretches over and over again. I became Steve’s biggest fan.

We discussed adding person-in-the-street interviews to the show, interviewing actual civilians and athletes. The questions might be light-hearted or serious or both. My addition to this idea was to propose that the interviewer be a drag queen. We’re not talking hookerwear here – rather, someone in a nice business suit, perhaps modeled after TSN’s own female employees. Brian loathed the idea. Everyone else had a good laugh. But by coincidence, an Executive, though not one in direct authority over the show, happened to pop his head in later. Brian asked, What if we did man-in-the-street interviews on the show? Sounds OK, the Executive replied. Brian continued, perhaps expecting to be blown out of the water, And what if the interviewer were a drag queen? Well, that could be interesting if handled right, the Executive replied.

Money: Twice I stated that the ideal outcome would be for Brian to talk the Executives Upstairs out of 70,000 extra dollars with which to hire Steve and me. (Not one or the other. Both of us.) Twice it was implied that exactly that sort of thing was not out of the question, though I knew it couldn’t happen quickly. Twice I read Steve’s mind: There’s no way they’re going to pay that much.

The Aftermath

We broke up in mid-afternoon and, after exchanging phone numbers here and there, I went on with my day very optimistic and stoked. There was palpable chemistry in the room. We got along fine (except for Brian) and floated and refined ideas without acrimony (again except for Brian).

I later endured the worst night’s sleep of the year, with spectacular synæsthetic nightmares through which I was semiconscious most of the time. Perhaps this derived from my late-day realization, as if delivered telepathically, that Brian had no interest in finding any possible means of hiring me and would turn over every stone to hire Steve.

The next day, I dashed off a nice letter to Brian along with some reprinted clips of my sports articles, which he had lost the first time and likely never read. I returned home later to find a message on my answering machine authorizing me to bill him $150 for the day ("Don’t forget to put your signature and your GST number on the invoice")... and wishing me good luck.

My ratmeter blew its top. I immediately rang Steve. I had to remind him who I was after having spent six hours with him the day before. Have you heard anything at all? I asked. No, he answered. I replayed the message for him, and he agreed it was a kiss-off. He promised to let me know if he heard anything at all from Brian. Steve repeatedly complained that a salary of $35,000 was a laughably excessive idea, as though that kind of income does more than pay the rent and keep you in spaghetti and tofu balls in this town. ($150 a day carried over an entire year is more than $35,000.)

Days later, I telephoned George. He counseled that I was being too pessimistic, and that any changes would be slow in coming, so I should remain patient. George too decried what he suggested was a demand for a high salary, and told me that, while Michael and Brian liked me, I turned them off majorly in my criticisms of the Web site. I rang off having bought his story, feeling a tad more hopeful.

I wrote Brian again, clarifying my Web-site ideas and asking him to do the right thing and keep me informed about the plans, or lack of plans, for expanding the Off the Record staff. Your thanks-and-good-luck message, I wrote, sounded like a brush-off, and the right way to handle a brush-off is politely and in writing.

Bingo! The very next day I received another high-class telephone message.

Yeah, uh, with regards to whether or not, you know, there’s any room for you here, I would say that obviously you’re a smart guy, but, uh, saying that, um, I just don’t think there’s a fit here at TSN. Um, and, uh, I’m sure you’ll do very well writing somewhere, but it’s just my opinion and my feeling, and I just don’t think there’s a good fit with you here. [...] I guess it is a bit of [a brush-off], but [...] for a number of different reasons – budgetary; um, what I feel makes a good group chemistry – um, are the two main reasons that I can’t hire you. So thanks again, and take care of yourself, OK?

I rang Steve. He knew who I was this time. Surprise, surprise: Steve had just finished his fifth day working for Off the Record. We were prohibited, as if by City of Toronto bylaw, from discussing his pay, but he told me it’s far lower than what I had expected.

The Analysis

Brian Sobie has a proven aversion to original thinking and risk-taking. The programs he produces are themselves ripoffs. He automatically countermands even innocuous proposals (e.g., new theme music) as though he himself were an ultra-conservative Executive in thrall to Reform Party viewers in rural Saskatchewan. But guess what? A “far-out” idea that Brian hated – hiring a drag queen for person-in-the-street interviews – passed initial muster with an Executive. Who’s really the most conservative?

Is this the right way to run a comedy show? More relevantly to me, is this the right way to let a job applicant down? I can handle rejection. Rejection, if expressed in a kindly, professional manner, never bothers me. I’ve received tons of rejection letters as a journalist, and if written well, if they acknowledge that I am a qualified writer and assume I have some measure of pride and integrity, then even if I don’t get the gig I leave the transaction with no hard feelings. These proper forms of rejection usually come from farther up the evolutionary ladder – New York agents, experienced editors at quality magazines, people who’ve actually read and digested my stuff.

Declining to hire someone by leaving telephone messages, and hinting of broad personality conflicts, are the signs of an immature, petty, graceless manager. This “good group chemistry” crapola is just that. He didn’t like me and wasn’t man enough to cop to it. Hey, I’m 32 years old and I’ve been around. I can handle it. What I won’t put up with is stonewalling and ill-concealed disrespect. Perhaps tellingly, at the outset of our creative meeting, Brian called for honesty in advancing constructive criticisms of the show. “It’s such a lonely word. Everyone is so untrue,” I immediately replied. I guess maybe not everyone, but I was on the right track.

The Dénouement

I wish Steve, George, and Bob well. I also wish Michael Landsberg well; he treated everyone just right during our meeting, very much including me. Brian could use his kind of people skills.

Steve will improve the program, but not as much as he and I, and George and Bob and Michael and Mark and – yes! – Brian could have done all put together. I thought a better show was the goal of the whole exercise.

The Response

Naturally, I complained to Brian Sobie’s boss, Rick Brace, head of programming and executive VP and general manager of TSN. He replied:

I spent some time yesterday reading your letter and speaking with Brian Sobie to get to the bottom of what transpired during the Off the Record creative session. Your opinions are well-stated, your criticism of TSN harsh and broad-based and your disdain for Brian Sobie is clear. Yet imbedded [sic] in your comments is seemingly the desire to work for the network. I would like to focus on this last point.

TSN has prided itself in [sic] building a team of people, both internally and from other segments of the business community. I personally credit the quality of our people for developing the objectives, strategies and actions that have been fundamental to the success of our business. As an integral member of the TSN staff, Brian Sobie has demonstrated leadership qualities leading to the launch of TSN Sunday and Off the Record, along with many other achievements. His mandate includes the selection of his team members based on the criteria and needs that he has established.

In summary, I respect Brian’s point of view and stand by his decision.

Well! He sure told me. However, things are not quite so cut-and-dried. Brian’s failure to hire me is beside the point. It’s his unprofessionalism that galls. Further, call me naïve, but aren’t we talking about the Sports Network and not the Business Network?

In any event, Brace tells us everything we need to know in his effusive praise for Brian Sobie’s creation of TSN Sunday and Off the Record, both of which are unoriginal in the extreme and as trite, self-limited, and hackneyed as sports dudes could be expected to churn out. And does Brian’s “mandate” include settling scores with journalists he doesn’t like? Grow up, TSN.

With this kind of aversion to new thinking, where will TSN be in five years?

Poetic Justice

George Stromboulopoulos is now a regular DJ on Toronto’s only unlistenable radio station, CFNY, and sounds far more hard-edged and self-impressed than I remember him. In other words, he has adapted brilliantly to his new milieu.

A squibette in the Globe and Mail in mid-1999 revealed that Brian Sobie had left TSN, presumably to pursue other interests. But I am not sure the world of infomercials is quite ready for him.

Posted: 2000.07.23 ¶ Updated: 2008.08.17, 2010.09.07

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