If it was about ability rather than birth certificates, Rod Smith might be offended by TSN’s play-calling.
But the veteran broadcaster is ceding some Thursday night Canadian Football League hosting territory to the admittedly younger, hipper Kate Beirness. Smith is also returning to the play-by-play booth on occasion, for the first time in decades, so he’s fine with the switch.
“I understand it,” Smith said earlier this month. “Some of it is experimental, I think, that they want to see if they can get a younger audience because the demographic of the CFL is largely guys my age. I’m in my 50s.
“If it was based on ability, I would probably be more bothered by that, but they have made it clear they love the work I do and it’s not at all to do with that. I think they’re just trying to change up the look,” he said. “I don’t think it’s an indictment of my work. I just think they want a younger look to see if it will attract a younger audience.”
The installation of the 34-year-old Beirness as host for all 11 Thursday games represents just one step toward younger and hipper. TSN also announced a Thursday night concert series, one for each of the nine venues, aimed at younger fans.
“What it really means is the 30-minute pre-game show prior to kickoff on Thursday will be catered a little more to a different audience,” said TSN vice-president and executive producer Paul Graham.
The show will feature popular segments from Kate McKenna and Derek Taylor, as well as CFL broadcaster Brodie Lawson, who will “capture more of the atmosphere in the stadium,” according to Graham.
“It really is a bit of a shift in our thinking where we’re not 100 per cent dialled into the football game,” he said. “We’re leaving a few doors open to go down some different paths.”
Thursday nights are a double-edged sword for the CFL. TV ratings are strong, but in some cities, in-stadium attendance takes a whack on that night.
“So what we’ve done, in partnership with TSN, is really worked on enhancing those game days and making that one of the places to be this year,” said Christina Litz, the CFL’s chief marketing, digital and strategy officer. “And TSN is definitely changing the look and feel of the broadcast that night. Teams are really excited with the potential of this.”
There were 13 Thursday night games in 2016 and 11 in 2017, and the ratings were good.
“Thursdays as a night for television is a great night — that is just tradition,” said Litz. “If we were going on the past two seasons, that has emerged as the highest-rated night on average for CFL. But of course it depends on the matchup. A close game also works in our favour, given that 60 per cent of our games are decided in the last three minutes.”
TSN is broadcasting all 81 regular season games, while RDS is doing 45, including all 18 of Montreal’s tilts.
The 2018 CFL season kicks off with the Eskimos in Winnipeg on Thursday, and Smith will host the panel comprised of Matt Dunigan, Milt Stegall and Jock Climie.
The bonus for Smith is that he will handle play-by-play duties for two Thursday games in June, and is hoping for at least three more throughout the rest of the season. He also retains in-studio duties on Fridays and Saturdays and for the three Sunday games on the schedule.
“I really love getting out, watching football live and talking about it,” said Smith. “So as much as I love the studio work and will predominantly continue to do that, it’s a thrill to get out and call some games.”
He shared play-by-play duties with John Wells and Gord Miller back in the late 1990s, and eventually made his way out of the booth to be home with a young family. He has also called college games, Olympics and Canada Games events.
The moves made to bolster and alter the Thursday night package aren’t seen as a corporate shift away from the Friday Night Football franchise.
“We still have our full slate of games on Friday nights and Friday Night Football is still a big, marquee night for us,” said Graham.
As for nuts and bolts, Graham said TSN is fully committed to having super-slo-mo at every game this year.
“I think it really adds an additional element to the telecast that makes it look bigger, if you will.”
TSN will also deploy a cable camera for games in Toronto and Hamilton.
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