But I know the light’s on in the television, trying to transmit, can you hear me?

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It’s not breaking any revelatory industry secrets that Channel 7 openly instruct their commentators to be “personalities” – they aren’t alone in that. Over the years, Channel 9s Sunday Footy Show turned Dennis Cometti into a jukebox by challenging him to put song lyrics into his Sunday commentary, 3AW once had so much “fun” in their commentary hitting a sound effects button they forgot to commentate on a goal, and of course Channel 10 would find any random visiting celebrity from Hulk Hogan to Miss Poland to be subjected to the standard “how much do you like Australia!” grilling of Mark Howard. However, at 7, it’s virtually station policy. Everyone has a nickname, everyone joins in the fun. It’s enshrined of course by Brian “Bristleman” Taylor, who has taken this year to spending time on bubble bath, people in the crowd who look like Elvis, and asking Josh Gibson what flavour of Gatorade he drinks. This is absolutely deliberate. Analysis is considered passe’ at 7. Troublesome. Bothersome. The coverage is set up to be like Twitter, the infamous “firework show” Colin Cowherd always talks about. If the game is poor, stay tuned! There will be a band on soon! Bristle will say something soon! Basil will make a “Curnow the Frog” joke and hope it sticks. Bruce might go off his head! Hamish McClachlan might say Winx and Sally Pearson are both female athletes! Wait, what? That actually happened? Oh…move on…

It’s the kind of thinking that converts long form writing websites into video only websites recapping TV shows, a la Fox Sports in America. The presumption is intellect and wit and insight are not going to hold your attention, but grabs and something to react to will. A tweet the commentators can react to is so important. If you are providing insight into the game, it’s positively discouraged. Stats and fuzzy logic and clichés are OK, but nothing too far. The belief is that a viewer, taking you “inside the game” doesn’t need to be too taxing. Big graphics do a lot of the heavy lifting. Research and insight at Channel 7 doesn’t even need to extend to knowing the players names some of the time. Basic errors and sloppy fact checking doesn’t matter. Even in the face of withering criticism of its commentary style, this emboldens them. After all, through the old PR staple of the reclamation of negative imagery, Channel 7 puts the (less sweary) critical tweets of the post match Wandering/Roaming Brian segment to air. Because if you react, you are “part of the conversation”, and that’s all that matters. Taking the time to tell the viewers something they might not know might interrupt that flow. And so that’s where we find ourselves, where even Bruce has become a parody of himself…

Into this world thus steps Daisy Pearce – Pearce brings a fresh perspective, an insight into the game as a current player, a champion player of her sport, an outstanding current football player not yet spoiled by clichés and beaten down by production notes. Pearce has even transcended the usual “what is a woman doing there!” twitter chest beating that besets, say, umpire Eleni Glouftsis. In fairness to Channel 7, they didn’t fall into the horrendous trap that Channel 10 did with Kelli Underwood where they presented her as if she was perpetually on trial, perpetually on a week to week basis like a rule change or a NAB Cup experiment. Pearce turns up and does her job, with insight, knowledge and research. She could easily anchor her own show without fuss. There isn’t a right or wrong way to launch a media career – after all, the disparate ends of insight are provided by Nick Dal Santo (closer to the Pearce end of the spectrum) and the clickbait of Kane Cornes. Both pitch to different markets of course, but given Channel 7 have a point of difference in a horrible clickbait year for media with Pearce, and the opportunity to use this gift is right there. From a PR perspective, using this natural gift is a no brainer.

So St Kilda play North Melbourne at Etihad Stadium. The theme of the game? Nick Riewoldts final home game. An easy game to bring the viewer at home into, to sell the emotion of the moment, as well as talk about the respective seasons of the two teams as they wound down. However, Channel 7 decided to take a different approach. After kicking a goal, Riewoldt was rewarded not with commentary that acknowledged the roar of the crowd or the emotion of the moment, but Leigh Matthews talking about the art of the drop punt, trampling over the moment. Brian Taylor talked for more than a minute about a fan who looked like Elvis. There was a discussion about long hair and man buns. Even aside from using Pearce on the boundary line for insight, they were with a contemporary champion of the game, Luke Hodge, and Leigh Matthews, the greatest player of all time ™. They eschewed any of their insight, and instead Taylor and co-commentator Hamish McClachlan roped them into the “fun”. At the end of the game, both Channel 7 and Fox Footy hurriedly cut away from the post game to go to other things. The game was secondary to chatter, to noise, to fun to fill in the time. There was no insight, no attempt to engage or enlighten the viewer.

In the second quarter, they threw down to their rising star Daisy Pearce, and invited her to get in on the fun. They took their champion footballer who is their best asset and invited her to use that insight to commentate a boundary throw in. Brian Taylor in a whispering, encourage voice, prodded her into describing that difficult task to the viewers of just how an umpire throws the ball 18m. After completing this desultory task, Hamish McClachlan rewarded the little woman with a verbal pat on the head and a patronising “well done” like a 1950s secretary had done the typing. Later, there then ensued a horribly awkward conversation about Daisy being a midwife and ready to drop everything to deliver a baby, that proved Taylor is as adept at talking to women as Mark Robinson is on 360, a textbook delivery of awkward, stilted banter straight from the Channel 7 top drawer. In a swoop, in one game they had encircled her into the Channel 7 fold, turned her into “Dais”, a Channel 7 personality, and given her a patronising bit of support for her efforts. That was of course before moving onto Brian Taylor talking about Etihad Stadium hot dogs or “Hammer” turning a players surname into a pun…

We’ve spoken a lot about stale media this year, about the growing disparity between viewers seeking something different, something of genuine wit and insight. In truth, the gap in this game was a chasm. Channel 7 genuinely believing the negative reaction to Brian Taylor is just viewers “joining in the conversation” means they are immune to this change in taste. That they can immune themselves to anyone who isn’t “part of the fun”, as long as the react. He polarises opinions! That’s good enough for us! A commentator who people respect but who doesn’t move the meter is the absolute last thing Channel 7 want. If you vote Brian Taylor the worst commentator in the game, you’ve “engaged”. That much from a PR point of view is clear. Either be terrible or great, but get a reaction. We know how that works. What happened with Pearce though was patronising and tonally deaf. Instead of drawing on her insight and having her in the commentary box, they gave her a task as if she was at her first game, then simpered insultingly that she had managed it. Pearce deserves much better than that – instead of nurturing a natural, likeable ability that transcends even Twitter trolls and the acolytes of Triple M, they put her in a T-shirt and made her seem, even unwittingly, like a lesser commentator. It was positively horrible in tone, and in execution.

In 2017 media, we don’t expect much, and somehow, they can’t even manage that…

Subjected to the system, you’ll turn into a clone

I was always struck by something David Smorgon said when the Western Bulldogs sacked Jason Akermanis. When he said “We respect unique individuals, but unique individuals still need to play by team rules” – the ultimate contradiction, the ultimate guide to the male sporting environment. This is not a Collingwood post, but it references Collingwood. It’s a post about conformity, about something that isn’t discussed a lot in AFL. In PR, it’s our job to make sure that messages are delivered in a way that seems authentic, but in dealing with football clubs, we’re also dealing with subjugating some uncomfortable realities. Realities that are equally applicable to any workplace. Any time there is a social equality message, a message of tolerance, a message of support to a cause espoused by “the club captains”, in PR we’re totally aware that not everyone delivering the message is on board. Anyone who’s ever even been vaguely involved with one of those pre season talks about new rules, or how to properly use social media, or worst of all, a talk delivered around tolerance to women, is fully aware you aren’t engaging the whole room. There’s nudging, there’s giggling, there’s yawns. It’s the part of the game that remains unsurprising. It’s a male environment, and the dichotomy is that an AFL team, while everyone is publically on board with social equality, they are sharing e-mails about which girl in a shoot is the best looking. I’m not breaking any ground in telling you this…

In truth, AFL clubs are models of conformity. There’s a reason why Jason Akermanis, Jack Anthony, Phil Carman…the list goes on…a reason why they are estranged from the fold where as, say, Wayne Carey, “Fev”, Gaz…the list goes on…why they are welcomed back to the fold hastily in spite of seemingly far more serious crimes, actual crimes. The reason is simple – there is no crime quite like being a bad team-mate. Failing to conform is still the worst, most isolating crime in an AFL club. In a Male sporting environment. Terrell Owens in the NFL. Scott Muller in cricket. There’s no greater sin. The footy trip, the putting up with jokes no matter how brutal, the chasing of girls (we’ll get to that in a second), the drinking. Very few people are able to genuinely not fall into the traps, the desire for conformity in a male sporting environment. Very few Jim Stynes. It is, as they say, how it is. It’s what the Footy Show has espoused for many years, what Triple M espouses, it’s codified into the DNA of AFL. It’s why Eddie McGuire is so keen on “loyalty”, why people even in 2017 are willing to “die for the jumper”, why going outside the tent is still impossible…

Like I said, this isn’t a Collingwood post, but it is about the Collingwood football club, in regards to that conformity, purely as illustration. In her strangely overlooked book, “How to Dress a Dummy”, Cassie Lane recounts her time as a WAG, dating Alan Didak. She describes how the WAGs were grouped together by Eddie McGuire prior to one function like a team for a pep talk about how they were representing Collingwood. How Didak reacted to her wearing a low cut top by asking if she was “asking to be raped” – about a world where females around the players were either regarded as good girls, marriage stock, or wanton predators. How she was hounded out of a function by staring eyes because Didak was out of control and SHE was blamed for not keeping control of her man. In a similar vein, Heritier Lumumba has spoken about his experiences tackling racism and sexism inside his football club for a forthcoming SBS documentary. Most notable to me at least, and unsurprisingly, given his penchant for footy style loyalty, Eddie McGuire never forgave Lumumba for challenging him post Adam Goodes live on AFL 360. The quote was “thrown under the bus”. Bad team-mate, not to be trusted, ship him off….

Now, in both cases, these tales are simply illustrative anecdotes, not attacks on Collingwood (who deny or at least gently refute the tales). They are textbook examples of everyday PR in 2017. For Lane and Lumumba, failure to conform was swiftly dealt with, because conformity is now as in demand as anything. More than ever, safety, caution rules. Why put out a fire when you can avoid a fire starting? Why deal with recalcitrant thinkers, those challenging? Bland everything down, keep everything conformed. At least publically. Privately, nothing has changed. Just don’t get caught. Don’t be public. Take it to Las Vegas. For gods sake, take it to Las Vegas! As much as football clubs promote one thing, they privately deal with another, every single day. As long as you don’t question or think too much, everything is just fine…

 

 

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