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If you haven’t heard, Jay Onrait and Dan O’Toole are back on the air at TSN. I know, it was pretty much impossible not to hear about the dynamic duo’s return, especially if you watched or listened to any Bell Media stations at anytime this summer. I think I saw almost as much Jay and Dan during TSN’s US Open tennis coverage than I saw of Denis Shapovalov running around the hard courts of Flushing, New York in his bright red Nike Zoom Ultra Reacts. Nobody promotes like Bell Media. I had a chance to talk to Jay early last week about their return to the Canadian airwaves. We talked about the new show, old faces, American TV executives obsession with live television, and how much Jay loves doing Arizona Diamondbacks highlights. I’ve also added a couple of footnotes to the interview with Jay. I think they help add context. I’m not completely satisfied with the way I’ve presented the footnotes. They’re at the bottom of the interview. If you have any thoughts as to how I can best present them in the future, please let me know. As always, the interview has been edited for space and clarity.
After the interview with Jay, I write very briefly about the summer radio ratings in Toronto. Greg Brady of the Fan 590 was kind enough to weigh in on a question I had about the summer book. And I also have news about an upcoming interview.
But first up…Jay Onrait.
Todd T. Hayes: What was it like that first time going into the (TSN) building again?
Jay Onrait: It was different because, as you know, as you are a veteran of the Scarborough campus ¹, we’re now in your old studios. They built us a studio where the Off The Record studio was. So, it was different, but it was kind of nice because it felt different. It felt refreshing to go to a different part of the (campus), and just the fact that they translated exactly what we wanted for the set, which was as close to the old Sportscentre desk for the highlight portion that we could get. We wanted familiarity, as much as we could get. And then, a chat portion to bring in the elements that we had done down in the States. By the end of our time in the States, (our show) was essentially a late night talk show about sports. So, we wanted to take things that worked well from that show and bring it in to the new show. They’ve been able to do that. So, it felt amazing.
TTH: What was it like walking around the campus seeing people?
JO: It was weird. I was a ‘Newsroom’ guy forever. At TSN, you’re either in Programming or you’re in Sportscentre. You always wonder, ‘All these Programming guys, what the heck do they do all day?’ They’ve got desks! They’re on their own. They’re not really on any set schedule. It seems amazing. Yeah, it is amazing! They’re comin’ and goin’ as they please. They’re gonna hate me so much for saying this. The newsroom room is so regimented. You’re committed to being there at a certain time, almost like punching a clock. It’s a compact space. No natural light. You get over to the (Annex) where everyone is now. The whole network is over there, except for the (TSN) newsroom.
It was nice. I saw lots of familiar faces. It’s amazing how things haven’t changed. Lots of the same people. Most of them doing different things. It remains a nice place to work. You know that. People get along there. For the most part, we bitch and complain about any job we have, but people there get along very well, so if you like what you’re doing, there’s no reason to leave. A lot of people have stayed…the ones who were fortunate enough not to get caught up in layoffs have stayed. It was interesting to walk around and see so many familiar faces, because in your mind you’re like, ‘I can’t believe all these people are still here.’ Well where would they go? Why would they leave? If they didn’t have to.
TTH: How did building the new show work? How much input did you guys have? And (Producer) Tim? And, working with management on that?
JO: We talked about a whole bunch of different types of shows. Different formats. We talked about doing shows at different times of the day. We talked about not doing highlights. In the end, we’re highlights guys. I know people think that format is somehow going away. In the States it’s pretty much gone. What I love about Canada is (highlights) still seem to be thriving. I like highlight shows. I like watching them. I like hosting them. I know you can get all this stuff on your phone. I get it. But I still like the concept of rather than looking around finding the five highlights I might want on my phone, I like the idea of being able to sit down and have them presented to me by someone I enjoy as a personality. I think it adds to the experience. I’ve always liked highlights shows, because I’ve felt I’ve never had enough time to sit down and watch all the games I want to watch.
So, we wanted to have that highlight element, and like I said, when we were in the States, we were essentially doing a chat show by the end, and we actually enjoyed it. We missed highlights, no doubt, but we actually enjoyed (the chats). So, we definitely wanted to bring that element to it. And, as you know, we do the podcast, and people really like (it). We really wanted to bring (the podcast) feel to the chats, where it didn’t feel like a debate show, because one of the reasons we parted ways with FOX, was that (debate) was the direction they were going, and that’s just not who we are. We can’t do it with straight faces. It feels like an act to us, because it is an act. Those guys will admit it to you. A large part of what they do down there is an act. We can’t do that. So, our chats are much looser, much less serious, and we wanted to bring an element of that to the show. So, we’re kind of amazed. The most amazing thing about the new show is it feels like the natural evolution of the show. It never would have come together this beautifully if we hadn’t had left and seen what worked outside of a highlight show. It was almost like going to LA was our way of going to a small town and learning what works about a non-highlight show, and then bringing the best elements of that back to the original show and updating it for the present time. I’m just amazed at how well it’s worked. It still feels like the same old Jay & Dan.
TTH: Do you guys have writers? Help me understand how the show is put together now compared to four years ago?
JO: Everything is kind of the same. Producer Tim is back. We’re even lucky enough to have the same director that we had. We have people who understand us, and what we want, and who are creative enough to want to challenge themselves. We do have writers for the bits. We’re bringing in some elements that are different…comedy bits. We’ve hired a couple of writers in LA that were friends of ours from Toronto – sketch comedians Brendan Halloran and Norm Sousa. Those two guys are responsible for shepherding a lot of the bits that we’re not necessarily in. We have another producer named Greg Bonnetta who is responsible for shepherding the chat (and interview) segments. So, it’s almost like there are three productions going on within the show, and they all fit seamlessly together.
TTH: What are you looking for in those chat segments? Who are you going after? Do you pre-record those?
JO: Sometimes yes. Our goal is always to do everything live because we think it has a better feel, but when you’re on at midnight eastern, it’s obviously impossible to do that all the time. I don’t think we’re going for certain people. I don’t think the interviews are the crux of the show. We had big names on our show at FOX, (and) what I find about all late night talk shows, I don’t watch talk shows for the guests. I watch late night talk shows for the hosts, and if they happen to have a great guest, it’s a bonus for me. I don’t flip around to a talk show I don’t like because I think the guest is good. I might if it’s Norm MacDonald or Martin Short, or some elite, generational guest, but it’s very rare. Usually I’m watching because I like the personality hosting the show. So, we’re not obsessed with who we get. Too be honest, one of our main goals is to get TSN people on who people might not realize have amazing personalities. Someone like Ryan Rishaug, who we just think is the funniest guy, and has such a hilarious personality. He’s very button down on TV and a great reporter. We love to get him on and needle him a little bit. So yeah, we’re looking for that kind of thing.
TTH: Just getting back to the highlights. What do you think is the difference between the States and Canada, when it comes to highlights?
JO: The one thing about the States is, you have so many other players involved. There are basically two communications companies involved up here. Down there there are a million players involved, and it’s way more reactionary. The thing that blew my mind probably the most about being at FOX, and specifically FS1, was that we were a blip on their radar, ratings-wise. We didn’t have the live content. We didn’t have the tradition that ESPN had, 30-plus years of watching, and knowing where the channel was. People couldn’t even find our channel. And yet, the things that we were doing all along, they would never admit to it, but ESPN was reacting to them. ESPN was changing up their show formats almost because FS1 was changing up their formats, especially during the day. Programming against stuff that was going on during the day that we were doing, that honestly, shouldn’t have mattered to them. I think it goes back to when (ESPN) first started doing a live, morning Sportscenter. I remember when I first got to the TSN newsroom as a writer, it was the mid-90s, I got to catch the end of the Dan Patrick/Keith Olbermann era…but even more influential to me, the Craig Kilborn (and) Rich Eisen 1am show era. Their show would loop all morning, just like ours does now. So, I’d get into the newsroom, because the interns always worked during the day, and I’d see their show from the night before, and I just fell in love with it. The sensibilities. It was looser. They obviously felt, even back then, that they could have a little more fun, than what even Dan and Keith were having. I loved that morning loop. When (ESPN) made the decision to go to the live morning Sportscenter…I remember Mark Milliere² and I looking at each other like, ‘What the fuck are they doing? Why are they bringing in a whole crew?’ to do this show Cold Pizza, with Thea Andrews and Jay Crawford, and there’s nothing going on. There’s never anything really going on in the early, early morning. They did it because they always want to be live. Even at FS1, they were obsessed with that. (Dan O’Toole and I) said to (FOX), the way to grow this show, in the beginning, we said ‘Why don’t you loop it?’ Instead, they would rather put on two day old Big East basketball games, because they just saw the concept of looping a late night highlight show as so 90’s. This is a long winded way of saying, they almost get too ahead of themselves down there. They’re so desperate to leave their mark on what they’re doing. The executives are so desperate to say ‘I did this! I did that!’ that they don’t just leave things that are kind of working anyway. I honestly think, would ESPN be worse off if they looped Neil Everett and Stan Verrett’s 1am show all morning, then if they spend the millions they’re about to spend on this Mike Greenberg show that they’re going to start? I realize Neil and Stan focus West Coast more now than the old 1am shows did, but for the cost per return analysis, I’d be shocked if it really played out the way they want it to. I don’t understand the concept of live morning shows in sports, because all you’re doing is looking ahead at games that are way, way in the future. They are hours and hours from starting, and I just think, people like myself, get up in the morning, and we haven’t necessarily had the chance to see what happened the night before. Even now as I speak to you, I didn’t get a chance to see all the NFL highlights from last night. I’d like to watch Sportscentre this morning and watch them. When you’re waking up in the States, you’re not seeing much of that anymore. Looking back for them is kind of the Devil. They just don’t want to do it.
TTH: Well, if you think about morning radio, other than if it’s Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final tonight, the morning shows would be talking about what happened last night.
JO: Exactly. Yes, on a Monday, would morning shows in the States be talking about what happened last night? Yes, of course they would. Absolutely. To me, I don’t need that deep of analysis. I want to see it personally. Maybe that’s just me. I’ve always been a guy who just loves highlights. I’m obviously going to defend them when people say they’re a format that’s going away. That’s probably another good thing about leaving and coming back, we’re bringing in elements that make it not just a highlight show. So, if highlights aren’t your thing, you’re still maybe going to get something from us that’s a little bit different, and that might make you tune in…and maybe that evolves over time. Maybe over time there are less highlights and more chat.
When Dan and I started doing Sportscentre, the misconception is that we came out and were doing jokes immediately. It was very straight forward when we started. We gradually added elements of our personality to the show, and that’s probably how this show will be. Gradually the format will change slightly over time, but hopefully it happens in a natural enough way that it’s something people embrace. In the States, if it’s not working for a second, to their credit, they’re not afraid to tear it down and try something new immediately.
TTH: When I as watching (your show) last week, I was trying to pay attention to the actual highlight packs, and trying to figure out, are (you guys) cutting out the Diamondbacks-Padres pack. Do you think you guys run just as many (highlight) packs now, as you did four years ago?
JO: I think so. That’s probably Dan and I. TSN, I can’t speak for them, but they might say you don’t have to run all these. You don’t have to run the Diamondbacks-Padres, but Dan and I would always be, ‘I want to see the Diamondbacks-Padres.’ Show me the good elements of the Diamondbacks-Padres. I want to know what’s happening in all sports if I’m watching Sportscentre. It was always less about the Diamondbacks-Padres, then it was about how we presented (them). And, I’m not just talking about a comedic aspect. Dan and I always bonded over the fact that we liked picking unique and interesting stats out of packs that we thought were interesting, we thought the viewer would as well. We’ve always done the show in a way that we would want it to be done. We try to make it so that, yes, you are watching highlights on tv, but you’re getting more than you would get just watching them with just the game sound on your phone. We’re giving you more information. We’re telling why you should still watch (these) Diamondbacks-Padres highlights. We’re doing now these new segments like ‘The Jannies’ where we’re essentially taking the goofiest, and wackiest. We’re doing the old Marv Albert on Letterman kind-of-thing. And, that’s great, and I love that. But, we’re probably going to fight tooth and nail for those Diamondbacks-Padres highlights, because we just like highlights. We like doing them, and we think we do them well, and we think when we do them they’re entertaining, and maybe when we do them that you’re watching us do them and saying to yourself, “I like highlights too!” I’m still a person who likes to watch a highlight show. When we were off for a few months in between finishing at FOX and starting at TSN, people didn’t come up to us in the street and say, “I hope you guys do a totally different show than you were doing before.” They came up and said, “I can’t wait for you guys to be back doing the show I remember.” So, that resonated with us, especially in the beginning. It goes back to us wanting to have a desk that was similar, a show formula that was similar. We wanted it to feel familiar.
When Conan O’Brien went from ‘Late Night with Conan O’Brien’ to ‘The Tonight Show,’ they built him this giant studio in Burbank in LA. I remember the first episode (thinking), ‘This studio is too big. This doesn’t feel like the same show anymore.’ It was jarring. As a long time fan of that guy, as part of the appeal of that old show was the tiny studio and the intimacy, how close he was to Max Weinberg, and the bits really sang because of that. When he went to this giant studio, he lost a lot of that to me. So, something as little as a studio change can really effect your viewership, so that’s why we wanted to give everyone a dose of familiarity in the best way possible, especially to start.
TTH: Last question – I’m going to use the word power. I don’t think it’s the proper word but what kind of influence do you guys have on the show, small picture, big picture, that you may not have had four years ago?
JO: I think it’s like all aspects of our business. Had we stayed at TSN, we would have been perfectly happy. We were perfectly happy doing the show we were doing. But, do you honestly think if we had gone to Mark Milliere, if we had stayed, and four years later had gone to Mark and said, ‘Hey, will you build us a giant new studio over in the Annex? And put us on an hour earlier and let us do comedy bits?’ He would have (said), “No fuckin’ way.” So, it’s like all aspects of our business. You have to leave to move up. You have to leave and prove yourself somewhere else, and be wanted back. They wanted us back. They approached us about coming back. And that gave us the chance to have more of a say in what we were doing. I guess that’s no different in any business. Any business is like that, but especially our business. I think that’s why when people say, “Do you regret going down to the States?” (It was) the exact opposite! It was incredible! It was an amazing experience day-to-day. Met amazing people. Had a blast. Worked in LA. So fun. And then, coming back to a better version of what we were doing before. If anything, I would have only regretted had I not left. That would have been the only regret. HPSM
- The TSN campus is in the east end Toronto suburb of Scarborough. There is one large building and one small building on the site. The larger building houses CTV News productions and TSN’s Sportscentre shows. The smaller building is referred to by staff as ‘The Annex.’ Jay and Dan’s show is shot in the Annex, along with the show That’s Hockey. I produced the show Off The Record with Michael Landsberg
- Mark Milliere is the Senior Vice President of Production for TSN
The Canadian radio summer ratings were released to stations last week. As usual, Jonah from the Toronto Sports Media Blog was able to get his hands on them. You can look at the Toronto sports radio station’s numbers here. I asked Fan 590 Toronto morning show host Greg Brady how much value he puts on summer radio ratings. Here’s what he had to say. I think you’ll find it interesting.
Greg Brady: Every ratings book is a snapshot of some sort, but summer is when vacation time just has to be used, so it’s far less significant than spring or fall. The three voices on our show probably out of say, 45 summer shows, probably worked fully together for 16 or 17 of them? For a generally new show, even with accomplished broadcasters, that isn’t ideal. So it’s tough to gain much insight. There’s a reason why TV and radio habits change so drastically in the summer. That said, it lets us expand out topics and test things that work or don’t work in the summer months so we hit the ground running in the fall, which I’m confident we have. The Blue Jays not being in a race in September for the first time since 2013 will be a factor in ratings this fall. And yet, the buzz on the Maple Leafs is as big starting a season as it has been in 15 years. It’s up to a show like ours to take advantage of that and prepare well and bring the opinions when their games start.
One other radio note – TSN 1050 Toronto Program Director Jeff MacDonald has agreed to do an interview with me in the next couple weeks. Please let me know what you would like to me ask him. You can leave comments here, or tweet me your ideas @toddthayes.