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Usual Suspects

Changing The Score Add to ...

So what in the name of Steve Ludzik is going on at The Score? The network that wants to be known by more than f-bombs alone has performed another rethink of its mandate in the past week ( see recent Usual Suspects). On-air personalities Tony Ambrogio (an excellent reporter) and Nikki Reyes and seven staffers were let go, shows were dropped, new concepts begun. But to what end?

In talking with The Score's effusive CEO John Levy, the new mandate is nothing short of totally rethinking how new generations will consume sports TV. In Levy's opinion, the standard highlights-and-tape wrapped around event coverage is headed to the wood shed.

"The clock is ticking on your father's TV sports show," Levy told Usual Suspects on Tuesday.

"There will always be a place for live 'event' sports coverage for the Stanley Cup or World Series. But the emphasis will be less on regular seasons and more on the chatter, the personalities. I understand that it won't be popular to try to change minds in the minds of the (baby) boomers. But we're looking at the next phase."

To be replaced by? "The new generation of kids don't watch sports they way we did growing up," says Levy. "They see it in bits and pieces. If it goes too long, they lose interest. They want it now. And they want to know more than this guy has a good slap shot or a great fastball. They want to know where they go after the game, what they drive and who they're dating."

Levy has in mind what TMZ and Deadspin and a raft of social websites have done to redefine the relationship between those being covered and those doing the covering. With Twitter and camera phones, fans can engage their heroes in new and - sometimes - frightening ways for traditionalists (ask Alex Rios of the Blue Jays). It also means putting younger people on the air who may not have experience but do connect with the target audience.

As viewers have seen, the results can be mixed. The live "Hardcore" radio concept that allows hosts to swear has a major cringe factor when the cursing quickly becomes gratuitous. Some indulgent promos wouldn't be acceptable on college stations. And having both Cabbie (Cabral Richards) and Al Strachan working in the same format is often too jarring a concept to contemplate for Usual Suspects.

While Levy has the destination, he can't be as certain about the map to get there. He says the network is happy with its established sports properties - NCAA basketball, NBA, CIS football, WWE, soccer - because they skew well to the 18-34 demographic on which The Score is focused. For now he's happy with the numbers and the advertiser response The Score is getting as it heads off into the wild blue yonder.

The Score will emphasize its entertainment features such as Cabbie, Gerry Dee and the profane Hardcore radio format featuring Gabriel Morency. There will be attempts to connect more directly with viewers through all the platforms and soliciting material from viewers. And the network will still let its hosts pretend they're rappers in the parking lot of the station.

But Levy readily admits that the rest of the plan is flying by the seat of his programmer's pants. With no established template to consult there is going to be some experiment and improvisation along the way to the promised land. He's ready for mistakes, but he also says the excitement of creating a radically different format is worth the bumps and bruises. The past is not the future for the Toronto-based network. And, based on conversations this week, John Levy is prepared if some people don't like the product.



You Wanna' Go: At least the CBC can laugh (sort of) at its image. A huge poster on the side of the network's Toronto headquarters shows NHL tough guys Tie Domi and Bob Probert going head to head. Grr. The only message says "CBC.ca/battle". For those who believe the people's network might have a certain... oh, bias toward the role of the Domis and Proberts in the sport, the poster seems like a red flag. Here we go again.

But no! The battle in question is CBC's new program "Battle Of The Blades" matching former NHL stars with figure skaters in a reality format. Instead of dropping opponents with haymakers, our boys will be lifting their sequined partners to new heights. This October. Don't miss it. Ron MacLean and Kurt Browning are your hosts. Maybe the Corp can get (the much misunderstood) Garth Drabinsky of Triple Sensation fame to judge this one, too. He has plenty of idle time on his hands now.

Struck Out: Can you be upset over the cancellation of a film you didn't know was even being planned? If so, Usual Suspects was crestfallen to hear that director Steven Soderbergh's plans to film "Moneyball" (by Michael Lewis) have been shelved. Lewis's runaway bestseller - which vaulted Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane into the category of baseball genius - was one of the most original sports books ever and changed the way that many looked at evaluating baseball talent.

Beane's reliance on iconoclastic thinkers such as Bill James was a revenge of the baseball nerds that struck a chord with fans who regularly shout "Start the runner, Cito!" at Toronto manager Cito Gaston via the TV-- to no effect. After some initial success in the early part of the decade, Beane's Athletics are now amongst the worst teams in baseball, casting doubt on his legacy. You might also want to seriously rethink that genius label for Beane, because Moneyball also, indirectly, brought J.P. Ricciardi (a Beane disciple) to Toronto as GM.

Too bad on the film, though. Especially as Brad Pitt had agreed to play the A's GM (Benjamin Button Beane?). Phoenix Municipal Stadium, Oakland's spring training home, had been transformed into a replica of the A's clubhouse. Beane's office had also been recreated, and the outfield walls of the A's home stadium, McAfee Coliseum, had been designed in Phoenix. Former A's manager Art Howe, hitting coach Thad Bosley and outfielder David Justice, had signed on to play themselves.

Gone. Just like that. Sex, lies and baseball videotape.

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