When Bob McCown precipitated the departure of Stephen Brunt from his Prime Time Sports radio show because of Brunt's appearances on the Tim & Sid television show, the fan reaction was almost universal.In online comments under the original Globe and Mail story and on social media, people called McCown's resentment of Rogers Media's promotion of Tim & Sid, which is broadcast opposite his radio show in the supper hours, childish and petty. So did some of McCown's colleagues. One, who considers himself an admirer, called the situation ridiculous and said McCown is wrong to think Rogers Media promotes Tim & Sid more than it does Prime Time.
McCown is famous for his tirades, and the man himself insists this is just his typical crankiness, no worse than his usual curmudgeonly standard. He also admitted in a recent Globe profile to being "a little bit bored" professionally.
But many online commenters noted his professional malaise was getting a little too apparent on the air in recent months. And people in the industry say there's more to McCown's frown than just the character he plays on radio. They even question whether Rogers might do the unthinkable – opt to not renew the contract of sports radio's dominant voice when that deal comes due in just over two years' time.
So these are not happy days for McCown even though he continues to rule the sports radio airwaves. Prime Time's Toronto ratings are No. 1 in the show's time slot by a margin of almost 3 to 1 over TSN Radio 1050. And thanks to the success of the Toronto Blue Jays, which are also owned by Rogers Media, the flagship radio station Sportsnet The Fan 590 buried TSN over the summer and will again when the fall ratings come out.
But radio has the same problem as other traditional media – the size of its total audience, particularly in the younger demographics, is shrinking. So is its importance in the Rogers Media empire, which is obsessively focused on its national NHL broadcast rights in Canada while enjoying the unexpected bonanza of the Blue Jays.
To understand why McCown is so unhappy despite being the highest-paid radio broadcaster in Canada, you have to go back to December, 2011, when he was about to sign the contract that reconfirmed his pre-eminence.
At the time, McCown was the unquestioned star of Rogers Media. The last hour of Prime Time Sports (6 p.m. to 7 p.m.) was carried across the country and simulcast on Sportsnet's television networks. He was the guy. McCown revelled in that status and used it – along with implied threats of going elsewhere – to force his employers to pay up, in this case more than $1-million a year in that six-year deal.
His skill as a broadcaster is such that McCown routinely showed up at the Sportsnet studios in Toronto a few minutes before his show went on the air at 4 p.m., grabbed the day's schedule from the producer, flipped on his microphone and started talking off the top of his head. These days, the show depends more on the producer, who lines up guests and does the research, and on the savvy of that week's co-host. McCown still has contacts in the sports world, and he is supremely good at what he does – the ratings keep showing that. But by his own admission he's less engaged.
McCown has also lost some friends in high places. Rogers Media president Keith Pelley and Rogers Communications Inc. chief executive Nadir Mohamed have departed, as has Nelson Millman, program director of The Fan, who was an important confidant. Millman was skilled at rekindling McCown's enthusiasm when it periodically flagged. McCown does not have the same close relationships with Pelley's successor, Rick Brace, or with Sportsnet president Scott Moore.
McCown admits the new world at Rogers is not easy.
"It's not like I went to [Pelley] and cried on his shoulder every time I had a problem; that's not what I do," he said. "[But] it's difficult for somebody like me who's been around for so long, because the whole infrastructure has changed. It's human nature to cling to the people you know."
The arrival of the NHL's rights last year pushed radio well behind television on the Sportsnet pecking order. Now people like George Stroumboulopoulos are the big Rogers stars.
When Tim Micallef and Sid Seixeiro showed they attracted a younger audience than McCown, they went from the lead-in radio program for Prime Time on The Fan to weekdays on national TV from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. Management wanted to win the supper TV hours over TSN, and correctly figured Tim and Sid would do it. They now reportedly attract more than 100,000 viewers, which is a good number for a traditionally quiet period for television. McCown's television simulcast, bumped down to the sixth network, Sportsnet 360, averages about 13,000 viewers.
Moore has said he does not consider this as Sportsnet competing with itself, since Tim & Sid attract a younger demographic than Prime Time. And Prime Time is considered strictly a radio show. But McCown does not see it that way, and his reaction to Brunt's appearances on the TV show bears that out.
Now, at 62, McCown is no longer the guy at Rogers. He says he is unlikely to stay with Prime Time when his contract is up, and likes to talk about the possibility of a television show he is pitching to Sportsnet or spending more time with his wineries. A genteel retirement does not seem to be on his radar.
However, more than one of McCown's colleagues think staying with Prime Time is his best and only option. "[Radio] is the one thing he is really good at," said one. But they also think radio's fading importance could well mean there will be no new contract offer.
Rogers management recently indicated an interest in a contract extension, McCown says, "but at this point I don't see that as likely."