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Is the return of Onrait, O’Toole too expensive in this frugal TV period?

When SportsBusiness Daily broke the news that popular Canadian television personalities Jay Onrait and Dan O'Toole were cut loose by U.S. network Fox Sports 1, speculation immediately started about their potential return to Canada.

Talk swirled on social media Thursday night that TSN was poised to announce Onrait is on his way home and there are indications the news could be unveiled as soon as Friday. He and O'Toole became stars on TSN for providing comedy along with the sports highlights, but there are as many arguments against an easy return to the Canadian airwaves as there are for it, at least as it concerns them coming back as a pair to preside over a highlight show.

Before we explore the arguments, it must be noted that the official cone of silence descended on those involved when the news broke on Thursday that their 3 1/2 year run on Fox had ended. The only person who replied to our queries was Onrait, who said via text message that "I really can't say much right now," and then added, "just appreciating all the love from Canadians from coast to coast. I'm just relaxing with the family and enjoying a Property Brothers marathon right now."

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Of course neither Onrait nor O'Toole can say much, since their contracts do not officially expire until the end of March and their return to the job market depends on whatever non-competes, severance, etc., are in their deals.

The first and most compelling argument against a quick return home is that neither Bell Media, which owns TSN, nor Rogers Media, the Sportsnet owner, is awash in money right now. The parents of both companies, BCE Inc., and Rogers Communications Inc., of course, remain vastly profitable.

However, both of the media subsidiaries are not pulling their weight for various reasons, including cord-cutters to falling television ratings for a lot of sports (even if the Canadian NHL numbers are much improved this season).

As someone familiar with the Sportsnet operations said the other day: "Yes, the hockey numbers are a lot better, but money is as tight as ever." And don't think TSN is rolling in cash, either. When his contract came up a while back, one broadcaster was told by his agent, "You picked the worst possible time to renew."

However, as anyone who has worked at any large company during an alleged round of cost-cutting and job losses knows, if the suits want someone bad enough, they can make it happen.

The Onrait and O'Toole duo, though, is an act most broadcast executives at either TSN or Sportsnet would want. Their comedic stylings around the highlights on TSN's late-night SportsCentre drew big numbers for what used to be a ratings graveyard, especially among young viewers when the show was repeated in the mornings when they were getting ready to go to school.

But the pair, assuming they come back as a package, may not be an easy fit at either TSN or Sportsnet. On the television side, the young viewers who made Onrait and O'Toole so popular no longer consume their highlights solely from television. They get them on their phones from YouTube and other providers. That is why Fox moved away from highlights on the Onrait and O'Toole show and then cancelled it.

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There is no indication the Canadian networks are about to ditch highlight shows, so there is an argument that Onrait and O'Toole would be highly desired simply to boost ratings by attracting viewers who want to catch their comedy act.

Then the argument becomes where do you put them? Would TSN want to install them at the supper hour as competition for Sportsnet's Tim and Sid? Or would Sportsnet want them as a replacement for Tim and Sid? Or either network could put them on in prime time or as a lead-in for prime-time programming.

Radio is a possibility, although the pair are probably too expensive for that medium.

Too expensive in this frugal period? Yes, because Onrait and O'Toole do have options. Their Fox show may never have come close to mighty ESPN in the ratings, but they were a critical success. Perhaps another U.S. network or one of the big local stations in a major market may come calling.

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About the Author
Hockey columnist

A native of Wainfleet, Ont., David Shoalts joined The Globe in 1984 after working at the Calgary Herald, Calgary Sun and Toronto Sun. He graduated in 1978 from Conestoga College and also attended the University of Waterloo. More

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