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john doyle: television

It was minus-23 on Monday morning when I landed here. And what, you might ask, took me to Winnipeg in December?

Some new and star-studded TV series in production? Nope. As constant readers will know, my daily viewing habit usually includes a look at the Fox Soccer Report, which airs nightly (Fox Sports World Canada, 10 p.m.). It is essential viewing for any soccer fan. This fact is known to many – Fox Soccer Report airs every night, seven days a week, in the U.S. on the Fox Soccer channel, which reaches 32 million homes.

Fox Soccer Report is simultaneously a huge and obscure show, a daily fix for millions of soccer devotees across North America. It tells you everything you need to know about the world's game. European Champions League results and highlights? It's there. A spectacular goal by a player from Venezuela in the Copa Libertadores in South America? It's there. And it all originates in Winnipeg, of all places, far, far from the centre of the soccer world.

How did this happen? "Well, I gather it's a very long story," Eoin O'Callaghan, one of the FSR anchors told me. O'Callaghan, a young man from Ireland, has been with the show for about a year. The intricacies of Canadian content regulations are still something of a mystery to him.

CanCon regulations are at the heart of the answer. A decade ago, CanWest Global was granted a licence for a digital channel, Fox Sports World Canada. The idea was to air soccer, rugby, cricket and other sports that received little attention on mainstream TV, but had a potentially enormous audience here.

A good idea, obviously. But in Canadian TV there is always a caveat – some home-produced Canadian content must be aired. Joe Pascucci, sports director at Global Winnipeg, recalls getting the phone call from a CanWest Global boss – "Can you do a sports-news show out of Winnipeg for this channel?" Joe said "yes" even though he knew the budget was minimal and it would take effort to accumulate footage from around the world.

The first incarnation, a 30-minute program called Global Sports Link, was scheduled to debut on Sept. 11, 2001. The broadcast was cancelled that afternoon, as the whole world reacted to the terrorists attacks of 9/11. When the show finally began airing, it immediately found a small but loyal following – mainly because it had soccer highlights from leagues around the world. One thing led to another, and the show became the hour-long Fox Sports World Report.

Notice was taken in the U.S., at Fox, which was a junior partner in the creation of Fox Sports World Canada, supplying some footage. Fox was moving toward an all-soccer channel in the U.S. and acquired the Winnipeg-based show. Now, Fox Soccer Report is the American channel's flagship show. "I'm proud of the show," says Pascucci, who has since returned to handling local sports for Global – now owned by Shaw – in Winnipeg. "We created this show from nothing in Winnipeg and it's an international success."

Although the show can have 100,000 viewers in the U.S., few there are aware that it originates in Winnipeg. The program's special status – a Canadian-made sports news show known mainly to a U.S. audience – has made it something of an orphan. For instance, it has no official website. A Fox publicist in Los Angeles told me the show will get a makeover in January, and some new promotional developments might ensue then.

A reason for its popularity, apart from supplying the necessary soccer news, seven nights a week, 364 days a year, is the ambience that emanates from it. There's charm and wit. The anchors banter like the soccer-crazy people they are. And, unlike most sports-news and analysis shows, this one doesn't feature ex-professional players who are attention magnets but have zero TV presence. It has good reporters, rabid enthusiasts who are truly knowledgeable.

Anchors have come and gone over the decade, but the current crew – O'Callaghan, Derek Taylor, Michelle Lissel (on her second stint with FSR having left to work for Toronto FC for several years), and Asa Rehman – are an excellent combo. The show's ace, however, is one Bobby McMahon.

McMahon, originally from Scotland, is a Winnipeg-based accountant. He was writing a weekly soccer column for the Winnipeg Sun when he was approached to do some punditry on the show. It turned out that McMahon is a soccer analyst of some genius and a captivatingly droll TV presence. When Bobby McMahon (he appears Mondays and Fridays) talks soccer, people pay attention. He's that rare combination of a stats man and a storyteller. The precision of his statistical analysis is matched by the dry wit of his sweeping views on the strengths and weaknesses of teams from Buenos Aires to Zagreb.

Monday, I hung around the tiny space occupied by the Fox Soccer Report for a day. I watched the show come together as the anchors kept an eye on games and news from around the world. Derek Taylor did a funny running commentary on the Fulham v. Liverpool match from England, O'Callaghan hashed out, with McMahon, a tribute to the Brazilian striker Socrates, who died recently. Rehman was looking at various controversial referee decisions. Luke Crofford, the producer/director ("I'm not an executive," he told me twice. "I help put the show together.") took it all in, and roughed up an outline.

I watched the show go to air. O'Callaghan and McMahon had a good-natured argument about crazy refereeing, Taylor gave essential news about upcoming Champions League games. Socrates was celebrated with warmth. And then, in a career highlight for me, I appeared on the show for the final five minutes. Me, the fella who has covered soccer from many countries and written a book about it. I was worried I'd sound like a know-nothing among these guys. It was a tad surreal. But it was like chatting with people I'd known for years.

Across North America, every soccer fan knows these Fox Soccer Report people like family. They might not know it originates in Winnipeg. They might not know anything about Canadian Content regulations but, if they did know, they'd probably be glad that CanCon exists. I am. Never mind the cold in Winnipeg. It's here they make the best soccer show in the world.