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Usual Suspects

Sliding officials lose the war for public opinion Add to ...

There's a famous New Yorker cartoon showing a businessman at a desk. His secretary buzzes him, "60 Minutes here to see you." Says the businessman, "Send Mr. Wallace right in." The caption beneath the cartoon: Man with a clear conscience.

We're reminded of the cartoon by the media bun fight between the CBC News: The Fifth Estate (Canada's version of 60 Minutes) and the Canadian winter sports establishment over VANOC's handling of the death of Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili. Perhaps you've already seen the promos for this Friday's Fifth Estate showing harried security at Canada Olympic Park shooing the show's cameras off the site during last fall's World Cup stop in Calgary. The impression left by the brief visuals is not flattering to sliding people who, just a year ago, were heroes of the nation.

So how did we get there? Fifth Estate has been working on Friday's piece since last April. Officials in the sliding sports (luge, skeleton bobsleigh) were less than eager to re-visit either the Kumaritashvili tragedy or allegations that they'd rigged practice times at the Whistler track to favour Canadian sliders. Over the course of months, contacts between the sides were characterized by apprehension and mistrust.

CBC felt the sliding community was making access impossible "We've got the e-mails telling us... no one on or associated with the Canadian team will talk to us and that we won't be given accreditation," host Bob McKeown told Usual Suspects. "Other TV people were invited to bring their cameras to the track for Media Day to interview the Canadians." The luge establishment thought CBC was looking to make a mockery of its modest sport. (Luge Canada spokesman Chris Dornan described CBC's behaviour in the process as "unprofessional, shady and manipulative".)

The crunch hit when CBC decided to tape during the December World Cup event at COP. While luge officials usually are overjoyed with even minimal media coverage, The Fifth Estate's request for accreditation received special scrutiny - not a shock in light of the strained relations between the sides. The matter was referred to Winsport, the agency that manages COP.

Tracy Cobb, Winsport's national director of communications and fund development, told Usual Suspects that Fifth Estate was a "documentary" unit and had won an Emmy for documentaries. As such, it is obliged to sign a contract with Winsport regarding distribution and sales of the show's product. While Cobb said that a range of fees was suggested, no precise fee was ever fixed in the negotiations. (CBC says that Winsport asked for fees to shoot.) She said that while other news outlets were not required to sign the same contract, their credentials had to be approved by Winsport and Canadian sliding authorities.

Declaring The Fifth Estate not to be a news program the same as other local Calgary TV crews on the COP hill ("What do they think CBC News: Fifth Estate means?" asks host Bob McKeown), CBC lawyers declined Winsport's contract, saying they never pay for interviews. Complaining they were being treated differently from other news outlets because of the possible negative tone of their story, The Fifth Estate cameramen and producers went onsite anyhow during practice for the World Cup event.

That brought out the security personnel pictured in Fifth Estate's promos. As Strother Martin liked to say in Cool Hand Luke, "What we have here is a failure to communicate."

Winsport's insistence that The Fifth Estate is not a news program would be risible in the TV industry. Its string of Gemini Awards in the news category reinforces its place as a news magazine like 60 Minutes. Denying access to a sports site because of a suspected negative story is belied by the hundreds of occasions when pro sports teams allow reporters on their premises to ask difficult, even negative questions of management and athletes. By pursuing their policy, Winsport created a negative story about themselves when the original story was only about VANOC and the Whistler track, not them.

One understands the exasperation of sliding officials over the re-emergence of some particularly trying stories and the trespassing of the CBC crew. But in winning the battle to keep Fifth Estate off the hill at COP, Winsport and sliding officials lost the war for public opinion.

Taking the Fifth: Speaking of The Fifth Estate, CBC viewers must wonder why this consistently brilliant newsmagazine is treated so poorly by the network. The list of sports stories alone it has broken - from Graham James' whereabouts to the VANOC sliding scandal - is unprecedented. But while CBS understands 60 Minutes to be a ratings winner (it gets a prime Sunday spot on the dial), the current CBC administration can't seem to bury the Fifth any deeper. The show was pushed from Tuesday to a lesser spot on Friday nights in favour of limp CBC sitcoms. It disappears during NHL playoffs. Its budgets are cut so we may be regaled with Being Erica or Little Mosque On The Prairie. Very strange way to run a network.

Picture this: Example 24,659 why no one will shed a tear when the broadcast policy of Canadianizing (e.g.., stuffing U.S. programs with domestic commercials) is killed by new technology. Sunday's FOX Super Bowl telecast on CTV was a clincher. Despite the best efforts of CTV, which endlessly flogged its own show Flashpoint showing right after the game, FOX kept promoting a new episode of Glee, which happens to be a Global program. Perhaps to avoid any further references to Glee, CTV briskly cut out of the postgame ceremony just as winning coach Mike McCarthy of Green Bay was warming up his tonsils.

Viewers expecting McCarthy instead got the fatuous TSN bingo caller Jay Onrait doing a brief update and then Flashpoint. Well then, grab the postgame at the FOX channel on the dial. Sadly, the cable boys were unaware that CTV has bailed so quickly, so we got 87 seconds of Onrait and CTV programming before McCarthy reappeared on the restored FOX signal - his speech finished.

Meanwhile, Global got to its appointed time for the new Glee episode. Problem was, FOX was only halfway through its SB postgame and thus held back the advertised Glee episode. So Global ran an old show with a crawl telling viewers that the new Glee episode will follow shortly. Unfortunately the cable company was again on autopilot, and it substituted Global's dated Glee feed (with its Canadian commercials) into the FOX slot on the dial. This, even as FOX was still in the midst of its postgame show. Hello recycled Glee program, again goodbye Terry Bradshaw - too much for weary football fans who'd stuck it out this far.

To quote comedian Oliver Hardy, "Here's another fine mess you've gotten me into." Is it too much to ask that the broadcasters and cable distributors communicate once in a while?

Missing Link: There were 111 million Americans watching Super Bowl LV on TV Sunday. Considerably fewer (26.8 million) watched SB I in January of 1967. Since then, no Americans have seen the first game matching the AFC and NFC champions. Despite two networks covering the game, neither NBC nor CBS preserved a tape of the game. Since then, SB I has become the holy grail of film historians, a missing piece of the NFL's lore. No tapes ever emerged in almost 38 years.

Till an unnamed man approached the Paley Center For Media in New York with an offer to restore his battered colour tape of the game. The Wall Street Journal reports that Virginia man's father had recorded the game on a reel-to-reel machine in 1967. When the man learned in 2005 the tape's worth was estimated at more than $1-million he decided to come forward. The NFL is claiming copyright on the tape-- which has partial segments missing, but has said it might give the man $30,000 for his trouble.

The dispute is not settled but it seems only a matter of time till football fans finally get to see a full cut of the game that started it all for the Super Bowl.

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