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The Usual Suspects

Is Rocco from Woodbridge a dying breed? Add to ...

The ubiquitous sports-radio caller ("Rocco from Woodbridge... I've got a trade the Leafs should make") permeates the air waves in most Canadian cities. Variations include "It's Tyler from Tswwassen" or "Pete from Pierrefonds" or "Oscar from Okotoks". While local references vary, the idea remains the same. The voice of the common man can be either cheap programming, extremely annoying or occasional comic relief -- or all three.

For most who've listened to (or even hosted) sports-talk radio, the daft trade ideas or conspiracy notions on referees are but a further illustration of why some people should be on the air and some people should be simply listening. Too often the same voices get on air or cranks are allowed to expound ad infinitum. (Sort of like Usual Suspects.)

From its debut in the early '90s to today, Canadian sports talk radio has reduced the number of callers to where there is a little if any public input during the prime daytime hours on most of the stations carrying the format. Most chat is concentrated in off-peak, postgame segments or weekends. And that little can go a long way.

Bob McCown has long hosted an hour of callers from 4 to 5 P.M. every day on Prime Time Sports. In McCown's hands it's a chance to riff on topics of the day suggested by callers. But in the past while, he has cut back on callers. "We've been experimenting for several months with having guests in the first hour a few days a week," says McCown. "There are a couple of reasons. First, with the show (simulcast) on Sportsnet, we can't have certain guests on who might be from competing networks. The first hour is a good time to have them on our radio-only segment.

"Second, with the new PPMs (portable people meters) we can get a picture of our audiences down to the quarter hour. We can see if the audience misses the callers or just at certain times. If it seems like listeners want call-ins then we'll put them back in. If the numbers are good, we may try to do other things in that hour."

McCown -- who also avoids interviewing athletes at all costs -- is willing to go with the PPM research. "I won't say I want to see it gone completely; the question is 'how much is enough?'"

Mitch Melnick, the longtime afternoon drive host on Montreal's Team 990, has virtually no phone-in content on his 3-6 P.M. show, but he says he hopes there is still a place for callers. "On a hot-button issue like Team Canada, there's nothing like a good caller," Melnick tells Usual Suspects. "We had one caller-- we called him Brother Roy-- who came on two seasons ago with his 'believe' campaign for the Habs. Next thing, a rap artist cut a song on it, and the city was behind it." Melnick says his station does count heavily on callers in off-primetime hours.

Rob Kerr does afternoon drive on Calgary's FAN 960. Like Melnick, he has no scheduled caller time in his 3-6 P.M. shift. Any listener feedback comes on special issues. But he feels that the trend away from call-ins is cyclical. "Right now, the programmers are saying 'more of the hosts'," says Kerr. "But there's nothing to say that in two years we might not be more caller-friendly. Especially if it looks like conventional radio is losing people to the internet chat sites.

"The days of saying, 'We have lines open, call now' are over. But if you have a good screener for your calls, you can make it work. We did two great hours on the Team Canada selection last week and had more the next day. It depends on the subject."

Number Crunching: While last Friday's NHL Winter Classic had all the earmarks of a ratings winner, NBC's 2.6 rating was down about 10 percent from last year. Hard to say why, with two major TV markets (Boston, Philadelphia) represented in the game. Perhaps the lack of scoring chances? Usual Suspects theory: No Pierre McGuire, who couldn't get out of Saskatoon in time to make his flight when Canada/ U.S. went into overtime.

CBC, by the way, saw 1.616 million tune in for their broadcast of the Friday game at Fenway Park with no Canadian rooting interest. Good, but overshadowed by the 3.2 million who tuned in for Canada/ Switzerland at the World Junior tournament on Sunday. (Another 1.3 million watched Sweden/ U.S. semifinal on TSN2.) Let it not be said that Canadians aren't homers.

Dr. Tongue Reborn: With 3D sensation Avatar banking a billion dollars since its release, ESPN has announced plans to launch ESPN 3D in June. The American sports cable giant claims their channel will be the industry's first 3D TV network, and it will air a minimum of 85 live sporting events during its first year. (The first broadcast will be a World Cup soccer game between South Africa and Mexico on June 11-- take Mexico and give the points.)

According to people much smarter than Usual Suspects, the lack of a sports content for 3D has been a major impediment to the technology getting home acceptance. Some experts are saying that the boom is on for 3D sets chez vous. But mass marketing of 3D TVs three to five years away, says Mike Lowe, creative director of Calgary's Headplay. "The TV technology is still in its infancy. This won't be Avatar at home yet. Whether you'll want to pay extra to get a picture that's not as good as in theatres will be the question.

"It's definitely coming, but the question is whether 3D is where it needs to be now for TV." Lowe's company is working on delivering high-quality 3D programming over the internet as soon as this year. The race will be on to see where consumers want to receive their 3D signal.

No Liquids Or Gels Please: FOX's Chris Myers after Detroit Lions rushers sacked Chicago's Jay Cutler in their contest last Sunday: "They broke through like they were at airport security in Amsterdam." What's most amazing about this remark is not the security snafu but the fact that the Detroit Lions actually sacked someone in 2009.

At season's start we wondered how the economy might affect NFL blackout. Well, the NFL had 22 local blackouts - approximately 9 per cent of regular-season games. (Jacksonville had just one game shown locally.) Last year there were just nine blackouts. The highest total ever? The 30 local TV blackouts in 2004.

And we're all for athletes getting higher education. Now if we could just get TV graphics operators to finish high school. In Monday's Fiesta Bowl, FOX told us that Boise State's Jeron Johnson's major in "cumminications".

Mac, Cheese And Dynamite: Finally, Kraft has won the rights to the demolition of Texas Stadium in Dallas. In a promotion called "The Cheddar Explosion", one lucky fan will press the button to flatten the former home of the Dallas Cowboys. Unless the Eagles do the job first when the invade Dallas Saturday in the NFC Wild Card game.

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