Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Waffle House

Pay attention. Because I'm about to show you how and why Canada's broadcasters have failed their audiences.

And I'm going to do it using the example of another Canadian institution -- hockey.

As well as something we all know and love -- the lowly waffle.


This is Toronto's Air Canada Centre, home to the symbolic of failure Toronto Maple Leafs hockey team and the never-won-nothin' Toronto Raptors basketball club. It also houses the corporate offices of the perennially losing Toronto FC Soccer Club.

It's additionally named after an airline that isn't flying as high as it once did.

Henceforth, this place may be called "The Waffle House". Because as anyone who's been on any American Interstate late at night and pulled into a waffle house knows -- it's always full of losers.

Waffle Pic

This is a waffle. Not noted for its nutritional value and in its mass marketed form not much recognized for taste either. But they're quick and they're filling and when slathered in just about anything from syrup to peanut butter, they'll at least give you enough energy to get down to Tim Horton's for a real breakfast.

I'm not sure that you can purchase a waffle in the Waffle House pictured above. But if you could, I'm sure it would cost you upwards of $10 given how much you have to pay within its confines for such other lowly food items as beer and hot dogs.

Recently, disgruntled Maple Leafs fans have begun pelting the team with waffles. The practice has caught on to the point that Vancouver's notorious Green Men got into the act during a recent road game.


And the whole thing has become a media sensation, with endless stories about fans thrown in jail and banned from the Waffle House as well as all the franchise's other venues for hurling food products on the ice.

It has also left the established sports media scratching its collective head, I mean, "Why Waffles? What do they symbolize?"

The same question seems to be troubling many of those inhabiting front row seats at Leafs games -- or rather not inhabiting them for about the first 10 minutes of each period as they sip cocktails and nibble on Sushi and Kobe Beef in the private lounges beneath their $300 chairs.

empty seats

And here's where we make the turn into the realm of explanation.

Most of the folks in those seats aren't real hockey fans nor regular waffle consumers. They're well-paid corporate executives from wealthy companies that share the same mindset as those who manage the Toronto Maple Leafs; one that says it's all about the bottom line and increasing profit and shareholder value.

The product actually placed on the ice or the grocery shelf in the breakfast aisle is of lesser importance. Because if you're smart enough you can market anything. Ice boxes to Eskimos. There's a sucker born every minute.

And for a long time those people have been in the driver's seat, giving the little people what they wanted -- only not quite or only in dribs and drabs or with just enough of a hint of the original flavor that they can be deluded into thinking they're getting the real thing.

The Toronto Maple Leafs, for example, have been a shadow of their storied selves for over 4 decades. But they were once so loved that their fans willingly sat through more disappointing sequels than the most ardent "Star Wars" geek in the hope that the next draft pick wouldn't turn out to be Jar-Jar Binks.

But with the coming of sports networks that couldn't get Leafs games and had to program somebody else's, then time-shifting cable packages and then all-inclusive league packages, they've started to realize that several other cities have more exciting teams and far better players.

The Leafs might still be the richest team in the League. And they know their corporate boxes and every available seat will be filled long into the foreseeable future. So they don't have to try to make anybody but the shareholders happy.

So they promise. And they hype draft choices and trades and new managers with Cup rings and new coaches who were once successful elsewhere.

But nothing changes.

The losing continues.

Because winning or losing doesn't make much difference to the bottom line.

fanboy breakfast

And one day at 5:00 a.m., fanboy, still digesting last night's Leaf loss and waiting for his eggo to pop before heading off to his dead end job -- has an epiphany.

The toaster DINGS and he looks at that pointless, tasteless circle of simple-carb cardboard and realizes…

It's never going to change.

My only purpose in life is to be lied to, manipulated and milked.

Revolutions have been ignited by far smaller sparks.

And he vows to go to a game and toss his waffle in the face of all who have played so heartlessly with his dreams.

Which brings me to another dream killer and serial disappointer -- Canadian television.

Where it has been long made clear that our broadcast networks only do as little as possible to depict Canadian culture on their screens.

And they'll only do what little their terms of license demand. And they'll make it as cheap as possible. And they won't even try to promote it.

Because they don't have to.

They've got up to a buck a month coming in from cable subscribers no matter what they do. Complacency begats contempt for "whiners" who want more new shows or maybe something that isn't the clone of another show or a pale imitation.

They don't have to serve such an audience. Winning a timeslot or a night or even an armload of Gemini Awards isn't going to make that much difference to their bottom lines and it sure won't improve on the cocktails and Sushi and Kobe Beef on which they avail themselves at Banff and MIPCOM and the TV Week screenings in Los Angeles.

Given the culture of Canada, its passion for hockey and the generosity of governments eager to promote both, you'd think the best documentary anybody could possibly make on the sport of hockey would have long ago been made in this country.

For a generation, the CBC has been pretty much the only real TV money the NHL ever saw. That could have bought them full access to everything from coach's meetings to the VIP room of any Montreal strip joint when the Flyers were in town.

CTV and TSN, with an envy of CBC Sports so great they paid millions for a tired theme song, could have easily cut the same deal.

Heck, it would have been right up Showcase's alley for the swearing alone.

But they didn't.

HBO did.

That network is currently running an absolutely astonishingly good series of one hour specials entitled "HBO 24/7 Penguins - Capitals: The Road to the NHL Winter Classic".

Admittedly, not a catchy moniker but far less obtuse than "Terriers" since it follows the aforementioned teams in the weeks leading up to their New Year's Day outdoor game in Pittsburgh.

I don't believe I exaggerate when I say that this is one of the best sports documentaries ever made. One with a very large Canadian cast exemplifying just why Canadians are a very unique and interesting people you really want to see even more of on television.

It also repeatedly shows how hockey is passionately marketed in cities far from the land of its birth. It reveals the importance of putting the best possible product on the ice, of constantly demanding more of the players and better of those running the show.

In short, it's one of the best examples you can find on what it means to care about what you do and want others to share in your passion.


The series is being broadcast on HBO Canada Wednesday nights at 10:00 pm. Well, good for them for picking up something from the home office and it's well worth watching over there -- if you don't mind paying more than a dollar a month for that service.

Or -- you could watch the whole thing on Youtube or any of a number of other completely legal internet sites where it can be found.

Because, you see -- that's where feeding the audience a waffle diet has taken us.

You really can fool all of the people some of the time and some of the people all of the time. But sooner or later that toaster DINGS an awakening in everybody.

And more and more people have begun to realize they're not getting either what they want or their money's worth from any Canadian broadcaster and they've started finding what they do want elsewhere.

The party under the stands with the cocktails and the Sushi and the Kobe Beef only gets to continue as long as enough people feel they are getting full value for their emotional and financial investment upstairs in the rink.

Otherwise it all just goes away.

Canadian broadcasters could easily have given us something as sensationally good as "24/7". But they didn't and unless they begin to change, there will be a waffle house full of losers waiting for them at the next off-ramp.


John McFetridge said...

It's true, the material is all there. There have been hundreds of good books about hockey - everything from "uplifting" stories to plenty about the dark side (I always wondered why Laura Robinson's Crossing the Line was never made into a documentary or even a drama).

But it does seem like these guys can only sell what there's already a demand for. I was at the Marlies' game last weekend, one of the few who paid to get in, and I realized outside of the Leafs, these guys can't even sell hockey in Toronto.

And don't forget, they got a fully government-paid-for stadium for the soccer team and sold out in season tickets before they'd even played a game, but they sure take a huge amount of the credit (and profit).

It does sound a lot like the TV/film business...

Anonymous said...

The Leafs last won Stanley in 1967, to celebrate our centenary. So, it only makes sense that they are aiming to win it again to mark the bi-centenary, 2067.
Barry Kiefl

John McFetridge said...

There's one more thing to consider. Since I've been in Toronto (early 90's) I've seen Leaf fans drive some awfully good players out of town (like Larry Murphy who went on to win a couple of Cups with Detroit) and elevate second line checkers to MVP status (the funniest was the propping up of Doug Gilmour for league MVP while some guy in Pittsburgh was fighting cancer and winning Cups).

So, sometimes with the Leafs it looks like the problem isn't that they don't have to serve the audience, just that they aren't very good at it and they respond to the loudest, mos reactionary fans.

Is that what happens in film/TV - they give the loudest fans what they want? More film festival favourites?

John McFetridge said...

These will be popular.