FOR A MEDIUM in which unreality predominates, in fact is the touchstone of success, there is something almost excruciatingly real about television sports. Real real. From the deft stroke of a billiard cue through to the mass formations of muddy gorillas advancing on a goal line, the operative word with TV sportscasters is “real.”
The nightly sports news on CBLT, the CBC’s Toronto outlet, is generally five minutes of fast talk punctuated by beer commercials. But every so often the show makes a pathetic attempt to become visual by running a dated film-clip interview provided by one of the American networks. The interview invariably goes like this: INTERVIEWER: Flello, Orville. It’s real nice talking to you. As you know, you’re currently the league’s leading third-baseman with successful bunts at bat. Now that’s a real fine record and I bet you’re real proud of it. PLAYER: Gee thanks, er, Chuck. Well, I had some real bad luck at the start of the year. Some real mean pitches kept coming across the plate and I hurt my bunting fingers real bad. Then I guess I got hot. I just like to add I wouldn’t be bunting half so good, ’scepting I got real good teamwork going for me. They’re a real bunch of guys.
The trouble is that total reliance on the adjective “real” is spreading beyond the sports world. I first began to fear for the future when the original U.S. astronauts (things improved with the Apollo 8 flight) returned from space with the news that, “the Earth looks real beautiful from out there.” That apparently exhausted their powers of description.
All of which leads me to CTV’s Sports Hot Seat, the only network TV program in Canada that attempts to deal with sport on a level higher than locker-room jargon. Although there is a fair quota of “reals” per show, the overall standard of English is as good as you’ll find in, well, in the average newspaper sports column. What often saves the show from itself is the performance of the guest.
This was true a few weeks ago when racing driver Graham Hill was in the hot seat. With politeness, a flair for description and a modicum of wit, Hill proved to be the most articulate man in the studio. He was contending with bad lighting, atrocious camera angles, a rude interruption or two and a goose-neck microphone that wagged under his chin like a metronome. But he said what he had to say well and came through like a gentleman.
Not that Hill had much trouble negotiating the curves laid out by the panel of three sports journalists. All the questions were splendidly predictable. There was no attempt to pry into the character and motivations of a man like Hill. It is not enough to ask him if he is a fatalist, have him deny it and leave it at that.
The show’s rotating panelists can sometimes be so uncouth it’s embarrassing to be a Canadian. When grilling Cassius Clay about the racial issue they displayed the sensitivity you’d expect from a mob of Georgia rednecks. When confronted by Canada’s Very Own Nancy Greene, there was so much fawning that the hot seat became a love seat.
But the show’s least winning factor is its host, Johnny Esaw, who also heads the network’s sports department. Watching him, I realized just how little Laugh-In's Big AÍ is exaggerating. Esaw’s contribution to the discussion is sometimes more disruptive than helpful. During the show with Hill, Esaw broke in with an irrelevant film sequence showing the driver spinning out and losing a wheel at Silverstone:
ESAW: HOW about that, Graham? HILL (COLDLY): Hmmm. Well, that’s very nice. Thanks very much.
Esaw’s main duty as host seems to be to herald each commercial with a fanfare of facetious promises. “Don’t go away sports fans. We’ll be right back in a minute or two. There are lots of questions we’ll be asking Graham Hill. Questions like . . .” Burble, burble, burble. On a show that starts late, ends early and has two long breaks in between, such burbling is annoyingly wasteful. We’d rather hear more from the guest.
The point is Sports Hot Seat doesn’t need Esaw. He is redundant on camera; one of the panelists could make the introductions. Doubtless Esaw is an excellent organizer behind the scenes, and he should stay there. Perhaps if he stuck to his desk, he might be able to figure out ways to improve the format. Or let me pyt it in terms the sports follower too often hears: “It’s been real nice watching you, Johnny. And you’ve got the makings of a real good show. But at the moment it’s real tundra league. So why don’t you be a real kind coach and stay off the field?”
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