Late Thursday, the onscreen TV schedule for my Bell Fibe cable service still said TSN’s flagship highlights show, SC with Jay and Dan, would air as usual at midnight. But when Thursday ticked over to Friday, neither Jay Onrait nor Dan O’Toole was in his chair, goofing around, trying to make his buddy – and viewers – laugh at his dopiness while chatting about sports.
Instead, the network subbed in a by-the-numbers edition of SportsCentre, hosted by Sarah Davis and Mark Roe, who dutifully (if understandably) ignored the biggest Canadian sports story of the day.
Hours before, TSN had cut Mr. O’Toole loose without warning, shocking sports fans across the country. The move came amid hundreds of layoffs carried out this week by Bell Media, the division of telecom giant BCE Inc., where cuts also hit CTV and several local radio stations. Earlier this month, a number of Bell Media’s most senior executives were cut after a new president came in from the telecom side of the business.
The news about Mr. O’Toole trickled out in a fashion that seemed especially awkward for a corporate behemoth in the business of communications. On Thursday afternoon, internet sleuths noticed the show’s Twitter account had disappeared and its followers had been transferred to an account bearing only Mr. Onrait’s likeness, @JayOnSC. They began speculating.
Then, late in the afternoon, Mr. O’Toole officially broke the news to his followers on Twitter, with a whiff of his trademark self-mockery. “Had I known last night was my final show, I would have tried a little harder,” he joked. “Ahhhh, who am I kidding. I probably wouldn’t have. It was a wild ride. If you got our show, then you laughed along with us. Thank you! Peace and love and let’s raise a glass together once Covid is over.”
In response to a query from The Globe and Mail, a BCE spokesman framed the move as a cost-cutting measure.
“We have made some changes at TSN as we streamline the organization. The changes have affected some on-air personalities, who depart with our sincere thanks for their contributions to the network and the sports community,” wrote Marc Choma in an e-mailed statement. (Other on-air staff cut from the network included SportsCentre regulars Natasha Staniszewski and Brent Wallace, as well as soccer reporter Kristian Jack.)
Mr. Choma added: “The media industry at every level is changing fast, and Bell Media is adjusting to stay ahead of the change. We’re focused on investing in content creation and new media platforms and at the same time operating much more efficiently in a tough marketplace.”
He declined to respond to follow-up questions about the shape of the show’s future.
Earlier in the day, BCE reported results for the end of its 2020 fiscal year, which showed the company had taken a hit from COVID-19 but seemed to be finding its feet. And though Bell Media’s revenue was down 14.5 per cent on the year, it was on an upswing. Besides, as the company noted in a news release, if COVID-19 continues to affect pro sports, that’s not all bad news for TSN because “savings can still be expected due to production delays, shortened sports seasons and possible cancellations from the … pandemic.”
The network may not be the cash machine it used to be, but it still appears to be a dependable profit centre for Bell Media.
In 2019, the most recent year for which data are available through the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, TSN’s revenue hit more than $500-million, a record high. Pretax profit was $84.3-million for a margin of 16.8 per cent. True, the number of subscribers who accessed the service through traditional cable-type services was down more than 4 per cent, a fall that has likely accelerated since the numbers were filed with the CRTC. But its direct-to-consumer streaming service, TSN Direct, has grown in recent years – though the company does not reveal those figures.
Whoever replaces Mr. O’Toole, the show will not be the same. The two midnight bros had a natural chemistry that was apparent from the moment TSN put them together on the SportsCentre desk in 2003, for what a Toronto Life profile dubbed “sports with a side of schtick.” Mr. Onrait was the loopy one, given to surreal flights of humour; Mr. O’Toole played the (suited slacker) straight man who kept his friend grounded.
They rode the indulgent buddy routine for a decade to greater and greater heights, until U.S. execs wooed the pair to Los Angeles in 2013 to anchor a similar show on the fledgling Fox Sports 1, which was looking for something cheaper and more irreverent than ESPN’s highlights show. Four years later, they came home.
If some fans felt the duo didn’t have the same snap recently, you could chalk it up to any number of factors: age, shifting viewership demographics and consumption patterns, sheer exhaustion. Did the partnership deserve to be euthanized, though?
Mr. O’Toole wasn’t the only one evidently caught off-guard. After someone at TSN migrated the show’s Twitter followers from @JayAndDan to @JayOnSC, the original account was abandoned, leaving it for anyone to commandeer. Sure enough, an apparent fan snapped it up, then used it to post a number of tweets calling for Mr. O’Toole’s return.
Late in the evening, Twitter suspended the account, most likely after complaints from TSN.
Social media was the place where hundreds of fans expressed their disappointment with Mr. O’Toole’s forced exit. It is also where they had already been taking Bell to task for carrying out the mass layoffs – immediately after its annual Let’s Talk Day, its high-profile campaign to raise awareness of mental-health causes.
Last summer, as Mr. O’Toole was himself away from the show for what he suggested was a mental-health break, temporary co-hosts stepped up to play the straight man, or woman, to Mr. Onrait. They were game, but it wasn’t the same. Every great pairing depends on chemistry, and that can’t be faked. The great couples just click: Bogart and Bacall, Rogers and Astaire, Brady and Gronkowski.
Jay and Dan, RIP.