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City TV cuts reporters out of Sportsnet Central Montreal

City TV cuts reporters out of Sportsnet Central Montreal

Sportsnet Central Montreal panel discussion, from left: Sean Farrell, Jeremy Filosa, host Wilder Weir, Alexandre Despatie and Elias Makos. (City TV)

Photograph by: City TV , Montreal Gazette

Two years ago, after Rogers bought a television station in Montreal and added it to its City network, its first local series promised to “tell good stories about Quebec athletes, whether they’re amateur or professional.”

Montreal Connected (since renamed Sportsnet Central Montreal) was a weekly half-hour magazine show, a mix of sports talk and short, slickly produced documentaries about offbeat subjects like dodge ball, arm wrestling and sports-themed art, done on a shoestring budget with a staff that could fit into a minivan.

But this summer, its focus is changing, and key members of that staff — show producer George Athans and producer/reporters Kelly Greig and Sean Coleman — have been told their services are no longer needed.

Instead of its own dedicated team, it will rely on staff of Breakfast Television to produce the show, including Wilder Weir (co-host of Breakfast Television, and host of Sportsnet since its debut as Montreal Connected), supervising producer Jeffrey Feldman and editor Ian Graham, who was responsible for its eye-catching visuals.

“We wanted to reformat this show,” Jordan Schwartz, vice-president of in-house productions for Rogers Media, explained to the Montreal Gazette. “The new format does not require reporters.”

“We’d like it to be a fast-moving commentary and opinion program,” explained Renato Zane, an in-house production executive with Rogers. “We’re trying to keep the show moving forward in a vibrant way. Resources are finite, and we think this is a better way to reach the Montreal audience.”

The new format will be mainly panel discussions and interviews, which are easier and cheaper to produce. But Rogers denies this was done to save money — and hence denies any link to spending $5.2 billion for National Hockey League rights.

“This is not about money — it’s about format,” Schwartz said.

Athans said he was told “we don’t have the funds to be able to support it the way you’ve been doing it.”

Though Schwartz said it’s still “very early days” for the two-year-old station, Sportsnet Central Montreal’s ratings are poor. The fact that it has received virtually no promotion, or that its first airing — Thursdays at 6:30 p.m. — is up against CTV Montreal’s evening newscast, might contribute to that.

“We can certainly look at time slots,” Schwartz said.

Zane said they have been using alternative means of promotion, such as “reaching out to local organizations.”

Sportsnet Central Montreal is produced as part of a promise to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission made when Rogers sought to purchase CJNT in 2012. Its licence requires it to produce a half-hour weekly show “dedicated to professional, amateur, university, CEGEP and junior league sports in the greater Montreal area.”

But without producers and reporters going out into the field to find and produce stories about amateur athletes that show what they do, the quality of the show suffers, regardless of Rogers’s pleas to the contrary.

The good news for the three people let go at the end of May (though Zane specifies that Coleman and Greig were technically freelancers) is that they’ve already found other jobs.

“I’ve always dabbled in a million different things,” said Athans, 63, who said he took the job in the first place as a favour to former executive producer Bob Babinski. “Bob was a really good friend, so I said yeah. My plan was, ‘I’ll give you a year.’ As it turns out, I had a lot of fun with these kids.”

Athans, who used to work for CBC Television in Montreal, until he was laid off in 1991 — “the best thing that could have happened to me,” he said — is a freelance producer, and in the final stages of financing a big-budget motion picture, the details of which he can’t talk about yet.

“I don’t have any hard feelings,” he said. “It was about time for me leaving anyhow.”

Coleman, 23, who had been in the unique position of being a contributor to both Sportsnet on TV and TSN on radio, was hired a week later as the weekend sports anchor at CTV Montreal.

“It was pure coincidence,” he said of the timing.

And though he’s happy with his new job, Coleman is also proud of the work he did at City.

“Everyone’s covering the Impact, or the Alouettes, but nobody’s talking about the skydiving team in Ormstown,” he said. “There’s a little bit of a void in the Montreal sports scene. In that sense, I am disappointed. Hopefully my arrival at CTV can bring some of that flavour.”

Greig, 27, was hired as a video journalist at Global Montreal. She also has fond memories of her work on Sportsnet Central Montreal.

“I’m incredibly proud of what we put together,” she said. “We kind of pushed the boundaries of what’s being covered. I still have a lot of stories I want to tell.”

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