“On The Fly” Gets Swatted

For several seasons, baseball fans have been able to enjoy a nightly dose of Quick Pitch, a condensed, no-nonsense highlight reel that covers all the day’s action without the blather and waste that plagues today’s other sports wrap-up shows (**cough** SportsCenter **cough**).

Jamie Hersch in

On The Fly‘s Jamie Hersch: “Explain it me, Mr. Random Hockey Guy! Tee-hee-hee!” (photo from NHL.com)

Now, the NHL Network has gotten into the act with their own show built on the Quick Pitch model, On The Fly. So hockey fans get to enjoy the same fast-paced, (mostly) fluff-free highlights package the baseball fans have come to know and love, right?

Well…let’s just say, leave it to the NHL to screw up a good thing.

The DFR: MediaFor those who have not seen it, Quick Pitch is an hour long and features one host–normally Heidi Watney, sometimes Sam Ryan, occasionally one of several assorted others–introducing highlights of each of the day’s games, often with the play by play from each teams broadcast left in situ. Though the show is sprinkled throughout with other content–brief features on a given player or team, division and conference standings, standout statistics, as well as a few of the inevitable sponsor intrusions–Quick Pitch generally presents a minimum of nonsense and a tight focus on all the most important plays of each game. Simple and elegant, the show is generally a pleasure to watch, and a welcome antidote to the proliferation of ridiculously bloated highlight programs sports fans are increasingly subjected to these days.

“Having Jamie Hersch stand there…and toss softball questions at Kevin Weekes wasn’t just a waste of the viewer’s time; it was borderline insulting to the show’s nominal host.”

If that sounds like a show that would be perfect for a fast-paced sport like hockey, then you were thinking right along with me. I was happy to see On The Fly appear on NHL Network’s schedule, and the obvious parallels to Quick Pitch only heightened my anticipation. Drop the puck and let’s go.

Alas, it’s not working out the way I–and, I suspect, many other hockey fans–had hoped. Sometimes, On The Fly lives up to its promise; there are nights when the show’s host–generally, a tag-team partnership between Jamie Hersch and Kelly Nash–delivers straight-up packages of all the night’s game highlights just like OTF‘s sister-show QP. Promise fulfilled.

But then there are those other nights–too many of them in recent days–when On The Fly veers off the rails. The main culprit is the addition of an analyst who joins either of the principal hosts on set. Then everything breaks down in an alarming way.

To understand what the problem is, or at least part of it, let’s stop and consider the differences between having one or two hosts on a show like On The Fly. As with any live television program–especially one that is a news program, or is at least news-ish, like a sports highlight program–having one host on camera places certain constraints upon the show–good constraints. That single host is explicitly there to have a “conversation” directly with the viewer. Unless that one host is going to stand there and rant, rave, divulge stream of consciousness, or have some sort of out of body experience–the kind of performance that has not been seen much this side of Glenn Beck’s old Fox News program–then the focus of that conversation needs to be tightly focused on the show’s content. For a highlight show, the focus needs to be on the highlights. Things need to be crisp, sharp, and laser-like in remaining on point. Otherwise, what the hell  is the show about? Things would get weird in a hurry. (Again, a la Glenn Beck).

Put a second body on that stage, and the dynamic changes significantly. Just as with theater–where Chekov famously dictated that if you introduce a gun in the first act, that firearm must be used by the third act–adding that second host inevitably means that the show’s “conversation” is going to turn–and it’s going to turn away from the audience.

The inevitable result of that set-up is exactly what we see everywhere else on today sports media landscape, starting at the top with ESPN’s SportsCenter and oozing all the way down the programming food chain. You end up with two (or more) people on set endlessly blathering about the minutia of one game, or one team, or even one play in a game. Scores and highlights? We’ll get around to it…eventually. Maybe. After we’ve sucked all the air out of the room.

That’s not what makes Quick Pitch so great. That show works because it’s specifically not the same hot air festival that every other coverage program has become. The baseball brethren have, to this point, stayed true to that vision.

Not so with On The Fly. I recently tuned in to one episode of OTF where Nash was joined on set by some Random Hockey Guy in a suit for a whole hour that was short on highlights and long on major weather systems of hot air. I have no clue who the RHG analyst was. Yes, I could probably find out with a little research…but I don’t want to know who he is. He’s not somebody I care about–certainly not enough to care about what he has to say about this, that, or some other NHL subject. Not because he’s a bad guy; again, I have no clue who he was. His analysis just isn’t why I tuned in to the show. I wanted scores and highlights. Period.

The lack of scores and highlights was bad enough; what was worse was the fact that each segment of the show fell into a mind-numbingly rote procedure, where Nash presented some subject to the RHG, who then expounded on his answer for a television eternity, all while standing as the lone focus of the camera–I think that’s called a ‘one-shot’ in the TV business–while Nash was left to dally off-camera. This was especially galling, for a male viewer such as myself, because–for whatever reason–Nash was looking particularly mesmerizing that evening. Off-camera was definitely not where I wanted Nash to be.

But I digress.

No, wait–I don’t digress. Because let’s face it: being eye candy is the reason Nash, and Hersch, and Watney and others, are on these programs in the first place. There’s a reason why none of the women who host any of today’s sports programs are clones of Eleanor Roosevelt. Why then would you want to air a show where the direction from the control room keeps shoving your hostess off-camera?

That may strike some as sexist, but consider this: when the gal hosting the show is flying solo, she’s the one making the points to the audience about what’s going down in the game that’s being covered. But that scene with the RHG and Nash? Everything about it–the set-up of their back and forth, RHG’s domination of the camera time, his pontificating–made it feel like some little girl was standing there saying, “Please, Mr. Hockey Man, could you please explain all this to me? Tee-hee-hee!” The “optics” of the thing, as they say, were terrible.

And it wasn’t just that episode; I witnessed the exact same dynamic when Kevin Weekes joined Hersch for another episode several days later. (Yes, I recognized Weekes; he is, shall we say, highly identifiable in the hockey community.) Having Hersch stand there–in what looked for all the world like a little party dress–and toss softball questions at Weekes wasn’t just a waste of the viewer’s time; it was borderline insulting to the show’s nominal host.

Why are they screwing this up so badly? Clearly, there’s a couple of things going on.

The lesser answer is, probably, that the network just hasn’t thought it all through, and they are–stupidly–trying to make On The Fly into something more than it (or its model, Quick Pitch) is. But they don’t need to do that. Follow the QP model and it will be fine.

The bigger problem undoubtedly results from the NHL’s schedule. Unlike baseball, hockey can’t be played every day. Thus, unlike Quick Pitch, On The Fly is not supplied with a full daily slate of games. Inevitably, there are days when the card is light. The intrusion by Weekes and other RHGs is probably an innocent attempt to fill time on nights when the schedule is light. Nevertheless, it’s a clumsy and unwelcome attempt, and should be discarded. (The same goes for the endlessly repeated “Top 10” highlight packages; guys, you’re not SportsCenter…and you don’t want to be!)

What then is the solution to the airtime problem? Flexible scheduling.

The biggest problem right now seems to be that NHL Network is committed to On The Fly being an hour long show. That’s fine when you have twelve or thirteen games on a Saturday; it doesn’t work on those days when there’s only four or three games on the docket. So what do you do? Simple: on the light days, make the show a half-hour program. Tighten everything up, do it in half an hour, and just run that episode twice hourly. It’s not like the show isn’t repeated all night anyway; just reset the clock every half-hour instead of an hour.

And when February 8 rolls around and there’s just one game on the schedule? Go ahead and invite all the Random Hockey Guys you like onto the show; none of us will be watching anyway.

There’s an opportunity here for the NHL and its flagship media outlet to do something right. And they don’t even really need to think about it all that much–the blueprint has already been laid out for them. Just follow it, and give hockey fans an already proven winner–and leave the bloviating blokes to the four-letter word in Bristol.


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