Monday, December 31, 2007

Worst... Year... Ever

This year in television, of course, will be remembered for the writers’ strike. Now set to enter a third month, no talks are scheduled and no end is in sight, although this whole deal with David Letterman and his Worldwide pants getting to return to the air Wednesday night with his writers while Jay Leno, Conan O’Brien and the others do not might be the wedge that forces others back to the table. Letterman should draw huge numbers Wednesday night as viewers starved for their late night fix tune in to see if he slags the producers and sticks up for the guild. Letterman usually steps up in situations where the focus is real and important (as he did after the 9/11 attacks). Look for plenty of “Stupid Network Tricks” and “Great Moments in Network Presidential Speeches” to follow.
The writers strike, however, has distracted attention from an even more dire situation: the television business is in a free fall. Last spring, a big, fat chunk of the audience disappeared from the weekly Nielsen/BBM charts. Even hit shows, such as Desperate Housewives, Lost, Heroes, Ugly Betty and—gasp—American Idol, saw sharp declines in weekly viewership. This was blamed on several factors, including an earlier than usual shift to daylight savings time.
Less laughable and more significant, however, was the jump in the number of viewers who saved and stored shows and watched them when they wanted to watch them as opposed to the traditional network schedule. Whether it was through TiVo or PVR digital boxes, save now play later was fast becoming a growing chunk of the network audience.
The chill in network boardrooms on both sides of the border was the fact that these devices allow viewers to scan and skip commercials. If the trend continues, at what point will advertisers demand to pay less for diminished returns (no matter how the webs try to spin it that scanned ads still register)?
An even more chilling conclusion for programmers: viewers have just had enough. Boomers—who grew up with TV and remain the most loyal audience—are bored and have seen it all. Viewers under 30 would rather go on Facebook or watch YouTube. Almost overnight, it seems, the Box has been abandoned like last week’s Christmas wrapping.
Worse, all of this happens smack in the middle of TV’s worst season ever. None of the new shows have clicked. Older hits are fading fast. Even new reality shows, such as Kid Nation and Clash of the Choirs, are tanking. It is almost as if that big fade to black which ended The Sopranos was when the whole TV deal went off. Tony and his family didn’t die, TV did. The end.
With pilot season in peril due to the strike, next season could also go down in flames. There are one or two theories out there that suggest the networks might even be okay with that. Blowing up a model that no longer works may not be such a bad thing. Hosting lavish up fronts in May and June for seven or eight media buyers who control everything seems like an unnecessary waste in an era of belt tightening. If ad buying changes, you bet TV will change. All the economic models are being heaved overboard. For years the networks have been paying stiff licensing fees for the 80% of shows that fail in order to share the wealth on the 20% that succeed. Writers, and soon directors and actors, are demanding more of what the networks claim is an ever shrinking pie. Or maybe not. New media will emerge as big media. The nets themselves already claim it is a billion-dollar business. Its just not quite there yet and everybody is panicking.
For me, no more telling sign of the change came than at the annual Christmas family gathering. Like, I suspect, in thousands of households, as we drew away from the dinner table, lap tops came out where once TV’s came on. People gathered to see “Dutch TV Presenter Won't Stop Laughing” or “Brian & Katie's Evolution of Wedding Dance” on YouTube instead of It’s A Wonderful Life for the zillionth time on NBC or CBC. All the Whos down in Whoville on watching YouWhoTube. Or so it says here on the Internet.

Best & Worst of 2007? Fagetaboutit

One of the things I always hated doing when I was at The Toronto Sun was typing out those annual year end lists. It always seemed so phony and arbitrary to me. The lists would generally only reflect headlines from the last months or so, not the entire year. And the so-called “entertainer of the year” title was always an embarrassment. The title means nothing, it usually goes to some faddish nonentity and nobody remembers who or what was singled out when it comes time to do it again 365 days later.
Still, people like to read lists. A back page essay in Time drove this home for me a couple of weeks ago, especially as I stayed with the clever column until the very last line. In their annual “Ten Best” issue, the item counted down to the No. 1 thing about lists: “people will read anything after a number is placed in front of it.”
For example, Here are my Top-10 reasons why Top-10 lists suck:
10. They force you to remember back to last January or February when you can’t even remember what you had for lunch yesterday.
9. One more look at the Britney crotch shot and I’m going to vomit.
8. You know as you read them that this was just some lame do-it-in-advance idea designed to give the writers and editors a week off.
7. Why would you want to celebrate, say, the “Best New Show” in a season when Cavemen is in contention?
6. Sad reminder that there just won’t be any more Sopranos episodes.
5. Eggnog hangover has blotted out any memories of last season.
4. Sick, sick, sick of lists now that shows like MuchMusic’s Listed have already scraped the bottom of every list barrel.
3. Just opened a much more disturbing list—my post-Christmas Visa bill
2. Simply refuse to retype the name of any one of the dum-dum celebutants who continue to drive while impaired, drop babes, or spent 30 minutes in jail cells. It just promotes an even more disturbing offshoot, the business of slagging these skanks on bitchy, self-aggrandizing celebrity web sites. Go away, all of you!!
1. These lists are less interesting to read than my new book: “Truth and Rumors: The Reality Behind TV’s Most Famous Myths” (available now through Buy your copy today!

Farce Could be with CBC in 2008

Who will take a chicken cannon blast on the chin in tonight’s Air Farce New Year’s Eve Special (8 p.m. on CBC)?
I already know, having attended the taping last week with my son and a friend. (While Air Farce Live episodes have indeed been live this season, the New Year’s special was taped in advance.) All three of us sat in the front row at the taping and caught some of the guck that spewed from the blast. There are several targets tonight, but lets just say the final bulleye was cheered by the 200 or so spectators in the bleachers (I’ll post a photo tomorrow).
The Air Farce New Year’s Eve specials, a tradition for the past 15 years, are generally among CBC’s highest-rated offerings. This one could also be the first blast in what is expected to be a big month for the network. With the U.S. writers’ strike continuing Stateside, CTV and Global are stuck with reruns and plenty of lame reality fare from their U.S. counterparts. CBC has seven new shows set to debut, including The Border, a 24-ish thriller that looks at terrorism and trafficking at Canadian entry points (starting Jan. 7 at 9 p.m.) and MVP, a sexy soap about NHL snow bunnies already dubbed “Desperate Hockey Wives” (Jan. 11 at 9 p.m.). Both have been getting good buzz from critics but that doesn’t always matter. Intelligence and even The Eleventh Hour were both recommended when they premiered, yet neither ever broke through to a mass audience (in fact, both failed the patented Brioux BPT (“Brampton Population Test”)—across Canada, both shows failed to draw and average audience larger than the population of Brampton, Ont. (aprox. 400,000).
The hope this time is that, as long as they can avoid slapping straight up against Fox’s American Idol (and they both should since Idol returns Tuesday, Jan. 15 and Wednesday, Jan. 16 in two two-hour audition episodes), The Border and MVP should at least get sampled by Canadian audiences. That, and plenty of promotion, is all a producer can ask for.
Other CBC rookies launching in January are Sophie, a quirky comedy about a young woman who’s life goes all to hell (Jan. 9 at 8:30) and jPod, a Chuck-ish entry about a nerd who gets mixed up with gangs and gory video games (Jan. 8 at 9 p.m.). CBC also launches its new daytime hope, The Steven and Chris Show, starring those Designer Guys, Steven Sabados and Chris Hyndman (Jan. 14 at 2 p.m.).CBC even has a new reality show but this one actually looks fun: The Week The Women Went follows a whole town full of women as they take a week-long break from their husbands and families. Does everything go straight to hell? The series debuts Jan. 21.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Huckabee Movie: Talking Down to Americans

Canadian viewers will recall that U.S. president George W. Bush was one of Rick Mercer's most famous victims on Talking To Americans. The hugely popular CBC special, spun off from This Hour Has 22 Minutes, first aired in 2001. Mercer, posing as a legitimate CBC reporter, thrust a microphone in front of the campaigning presidential hopeful and relayed greetings from Canadian prime minister "Jean Poutine." The bit got huge laffs north of the 49th.
If ignorance of Canada helps elect U.S. presidents, look for former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee to sweep the all-important Iowa presidential election primary on Jan. 3. The Republican front runner in some polls, Huckabee (who was much tubbier back then) was also quizzed by Mercer in that same CBC special:

That's right, "Congratulations, Canada, on preserving your national igloo."
Huckabee is also the dude who has secured the best celebrity endorsement ever--no, not from Oprah, silly, from Chuck Norris:

This is no joke--this "Chuck Norris Approved" message is posted right on Huckabee's campaign web site.
The fear, of course, is that Norris will come north and rip out Mercer's lungs once Huckabee wins the election. It could happen if anybody from Huckabee's campaign team can find Canada on a map. Stay in your igloos, Canada, and stop talking to Americans.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

And So This Is Christmas

The three wise men (Ricky, Bubbles and Julian) have finally arrived from the East (or at least from Alliance Atlantis). There they are, the Trailer Park Boys, in all their gingerbread glory, right down to the licorice empties stacked outside the house and the snow-covered cookie tires in the yard. They followed a star, which looks like the gingerbread star sent from Corus Entertainment, which seems to have crashed through the roof of the house my son and his buddy Eric made. That's the way the cookie crumbles.
Have yourselves a merry little Christmas, peace on earth, good will to men, be they gingerbread or otherwise.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Late Night Unscripted: Still Good For A Laugh?

What is Jon Stewart supposed to do on The Daily Show when it returns without writers Jan. 7--just mug for half an hour?
Some might say he does that now. But, seriously, it is a half hour satire of daily news events. Is he just going to sit there, read the paper and make faces? How is such a thoroughly scripted show supposed to work without writers scripting his desk bits plus all those "senior correspondent" reports? Do you remember the army of Harvard grads who swarm the Emmy stage every time this show wins the Best Writing award? Can this show still work without them?
Still, as reported at Nikki Finke's must read web site, Deadline Hollywood Daily, both Stewart's The Daily Show and The Colbert Report are scheduled to return Jan. 7 without their writers. Ratings have been in the toilet since both these comedy shows went into reruns nearly two months ago due to the writer's strike. And no wonder--the only thing worse than old news is old news satire.
Also back, officially, by Jan. 7 is Jay Leno, Conan O'Brien and Jimmy Kimmel. The Big Man, David Letterman, along with his CBS colleague, Craig Ferguson, will also be back by then, but that side deal to come back with their writing staffs intact is very much in question. Rob Burnett, who runs Letterman's Worldwide Pants (which produces both CBS late night talk shows) is reportedly meeting today with the WGA to try and rescue the deal which would have made an exception for Letterman and Ferguson's writing staffs--although the reason why never really seemed to make a lot of sense, especially, I would think, if you are a striking writer still on the picket line and not working for either one of those shows.
Reasons given were a) these two shows employ an army of cameramen, grips, hair and makeup people and dozens of other non-writers who are all suspended due to the strike and they need to get back to work--but so do the large staffs at the other late night talk shows. b) Letterman back on the air would be great PR for the Guild because cranky Dave would tee off on the evil producers every night. Like Kimmel wouldn't?
The other reason it was ever even a possibility is that Letterman, through Worldwide Pants, owns these two shows and thus could sign a separate deal. Leno, O'Brien and Kimmel's shows are owned by their networks. The WGA is done dealing with the walk away networks and signing separate deals is seen as an end run around an otherwise united producing front. It is the oldest tactic in the booK divide and conquer.
The hitch in the deal is apparently the fact that CBS still retains ownership of the show on its web broadcasts--ironic because future residuals from that kind of streaming revenue are at the heart of this labor dispute. So Letterman's writers, striking to get a penny or two per web hit, may be forced to remain on the picket line because of a %&*!#! dot com dispute.
So, let's assume that everybody goes back Jan. 7 without writers. Who will be funny and charming and watchable and who will wish he'd stayed on strike? If you could predict their grades, how would they score? Thanks for asking:

Craig Ferguson (A): The forgotten man in this whole equation will have the smoothest transition back on the air. The biggest hurdle for most of these shows will be that opening monologue. Ferguson's is unique and personal; it's like a fabulous dinner conversation. He literally stands there and bonds with his audience, sometimes for 11-and-a-half minutes. I know because I timed him when I sat in his studio and caught a taping almost a year ago.
There are no cue cards or TelePromPter to guide him through his rant. Ferguson, I'm told by the producers, sits in his office for a couple of hours each day and works up the opener. He does invite his writers in to punch it up at one point, although he has a much smaller writing staff than any of the other talkers. But look for him to be just as charming, engaging and quick on his own two feet when he returns Jan. 7.
He's also great at the desk, where he frequently ignores his notes and just wings it with guests. The man has a gift for the gab. CBS might have even moved him up to 11:35 and held Letterman back if everything wasn't so competitive and cutthroat in late night. Still, this should be Ferguson's chance to shine.

David Letterman (B): After 25 years, Dave could do his show in his sleep. The hurdle for him will be the first half hour, which is intensely scripted. A lot of comedy bits will have to be shelved.
Still, the best moments on Late Show are often the unscripted, live and dangerous ones. Please, please, please bring back "Know Your Current Events," for example. Stupid Pet Tricks wouldn't seem to require any writing, either. As for "Great Moments in Presidential Speeches," Bush writes that for free.
The other plus is the strike could force Letterman to hand more of the show over to Paul Shaffer's CBS Orchestra, always a plus. The bad thing is that we could be in for more of that awkward banter between Dave and Paul, or too many of Dave's odd idiosyncrasies, those desk bits where he coughs or repeats one phrase over and over.
Still, if the strike means we finally get a peak at the real Dave for a few minutes each night, including more stories about Harry, that might not be such a bad thing. The other plus is the prospect of Letterman having more time to interview guests, to really have intelligent conversations, especially with politicians heading into the U.S. primaries.

Jimmy Kimmel (B-): Where Kimmel is screwed is in that first ten minutes. That has become the best opener in late night, with the sharp, irreverent host taking a razor to the news of the day, trashing stupid celebrities and politicians with equal ease.
He'll either have to ditch most of that and move to the desk sooner or try and wing it on his own. Kimmel is naturally quick and funny (as are all these guys, really) and might just be able to pull it off. He's also got a regular guy thing going for him--Kimmel will be easy to root for in the coming weeks.
The fact that he'll probably have to go without all the scripted bits may be a blessing in disguise. Most of the stuff with Uncle Frank and Guillermo are signals to switch back to Letterman. More of Jimmy at the desk is a good thing. That all-over-the-map interview style keeps things keen and lively plus he's libel to say anything (as he did on Monday Night Football earlier this season, getting the former Fox NFL football comic banned from the ESPN booth). That is tough on censors but great fun for viewers. Kimmel will do just fine without a net if he doesn't get kicked off the air first.

Conan O'Brien (C+): The writers' strike is going to hurt this guy, who has perhaps the most scripted half hour opener of them all. O'Brien's show has always been more SCTV than Tonight Show. Having to kennel Triumph the Insult Comedy Dog, to name just one example, will be a loss.
Not that O'Brien isn't a brilliant writer himself (having penned for both Saturday Night Live and The Simpsons)--but that could be a drawback, too. O'Brien will likely be very conflicted about carrying on his show without his writers. As much as he wants to help keep his large production staff employed, he may hold much of his wit in check until the whole issue is resolved.
The one plus is that his opening three-jokes-and-out monologue will not be as hard to replace as Leno's marathon of jokes. My guess is we'll see more of O'Brien at the desk chatting up guests, and while that is not what he is know for, we may see his more thoughtful self emerge as he matures toward the guy who will take over the Tonight Show (maybe) in 2009.

Jay Leno (C): What will Leno's opening monologue be like? That is what most viewers will tune in for, at least for those first few shows. The guy tells, what, 100 jokes in 10 minutes? He can't make them all up himself.
My guess is that this always resourceful comedian will find a way to get his hands on enough jokes to weather the strike. Leno would take joke steroids to keep batting 300.
Where Leno doesn't always shine is when he has to vamp without a script. Still, the guy does, what, 300 stand up dates a year. He has a million of them and loves to perform so we will probably never see him sweat.
The prospect of fewer Tonight Show comedy bits shouldn't deter fans from watching, either. The lamest part of the show for years, they have been sharper lately. Leno could probably still do bits like Jaywalking since the man on the streeter stuff is unscripted. Holding up those stupid newspaper headlines should also still be on the table.

Jon Stewart (C-): That first show back will be hilarious. "What??? WRITERS???" Stewart will look under his desk, reach for a gun and shoot himself in the head. HUGE laffs.
Shows three, four and twelve--not so funny. Satire is rarely spontaneous. It is the best writing staff in the business that makes The Daily Show soar every day. Taking them out of the equation has to hurt.
Plus, I didn't think his stint hosting the Academy Awards was Stewart's finest moment, but mainly because--unlike Leno, for example--he makes very little effort to try and ingratiate himself with his audience. Being the smart guy in the room works behind the desk and the script, but may not wear as well night after night off the cuff.

Stephen Colbert (D): Colbert is gifted and brilliant but this guy won't be just working without a net, he'll be working without pants. That may be funny, too, but no show depends more on sharp writing and nuance than Colbert's and while watching him try to squirm through this predicament may be fun for five minutes it isn't going to work every night. What will help, however (just as it will for Stewart and, really, all the others), is the fact that the U.S. is heading into an election year with plenty of primaries to goof on in January and February. It just won't be as funny without the writers--which hopefully will be obvious enough on all these shows to help bring everybody back to the table.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

This Snowman Has Snow Balls

Wrote about this at length today for The Canadian Press but here is a Frosty new promo from CBS that demonstates that, when it comes to Interactive content, the Tiffany network is ahead of the curve:

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

"Family" Radio Tunes Into Late Night

On this week's podcast, CHML's Scott Thompson and I talk about the late show hosts and the writer's strike, especially the exclusive side deal Letterman's production company Worldwide Pants has cooked up (but still hasn't officially announced). Plus there is some fascinating chat about a certain Truth and Rumors book that you might have read about once or twice on this very blog.


Nothing says "You are still on our mass mailing list" like a corporate e-card at Christmas. The folks at MuchMusic sent their holiday Ho Ho today and it is a bit of a laff. Check it out here. All we can say is, Britney is now officially marooned on the island of misfit toys.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Not Such a Friendly Place Anymore

Bolted out of Brampton today to grab a little face time on CBC Newsworld. Specifically, to tape a segment for Newsworld's CBC News Today with David Gray. The topic was Letterman, Leno and O'Brien, all returning to late night, strike or no strike. (I'll update on that shortly).
On my way out of CBC's cavernous broadcast bunker I passed by the CBC Museum on the ground floor, curious to see if someone had turned out the lights and pulled up the drawbridge. As everyone knows by now, the family of Bob Homme--better known to millions of boomers as the late, great Friendly Giant--were so offended by a sketch which aired during the most recent Gemini Awards they demanded their puppets back.

If you haven't seen the sketch, and, since it aired during the Geminis, nobody did, you can check it out on YouTube. It showed Rusty the Rooster and Jerome the Giraffe, along with some other rumpled CBC puppet pals (no, not Peter Mansbridge), slumming at an old puppets home.

The bit was really no more of a tweak than something Wayne & Shuster would have done back in the day, but the Homme family had a deal and the deal was no puppet pranks without our permission so they took their dad's rooster and giraffe and went home.

Too bad. Last June, when I snapped these photos, I brought my son's grade eight class down to the CBC museum. We were on our way to a MuchMusic taping and had some time to kill. I worried that the kids would think Jerome and Rusty were so 1965 but they were all over the museum. (It helped, too, that Rick Mercer stopped by and gave them all a photo op to remember.)

Anyway, today I walk into the CBC Museum and the first thing I see is the Friendly exhibit, stripped down to the bare castle wall. Where Jerome once stuck out his neck, an open window, where Rusty hung, a sad little hole. That chair for two to curl up in? Storage. As Friendly would say, Goodbye. Goodbye.

Taped to the wall was a plain white piece of paper. On it was written: "Exhibit work underway. Sorry for the inconvenience."

Gone too was the castle, which once stood in a case behind the Friendly wall. It was cool to peer inside it and see the tiny gears and springs that once opened and shut the castle doors and drawbridge.

To rub it all in, the familiar Friendly Giant theme could be heard echoing throughout the empty museum space. The rest of the gallery, free and open to the public, stands exactly as it has for many years, filled with old microphones, sound effect props and assorted other dusty kiddie show critters.

Now, forget the writers guild and the Alliance of movie and TV producers--can somebody please bring the Hommes and the CBC back together? Homme taught several generations of Canadian kids all about dignity and grace. The family is right to guard his memory and his legacy. Build a better TV museum, one that showcases props from Front Page Challenge, Hockey Night in Canada, the Anne of Green Gables films and other CBC triumphs. It would be a Giant step in the right direction for a network that is slowly starting to look up, look waaay up.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Dave back in January? Hair's Hoping

So, whaddaya think David Letterman and Paul Shaffer have been doing while this writers strike has been going on--just sitting around growing beards?

Well, yes, actually. Bushy Dave was snapped earlier this week leaving a Christmas dinner he hosted in New York for suspended staffers. Shaffer showed his white whiskers on the picket line last week.

Are the two angling to play the leads in some new Broadway salute to the Keebler Elves? Slumming as Macy store Santas? No and, in fact, they may need to get to a barber soon. A day after I wrote a column for The Canadian Press speculating that Letterman, Leno, Conan and Craig Ferguson could be back on the air in January, separate stories in Variety and The New York Post both suggest that talks to get the late night talk shows back on the air are indeed taking place.

Variety's Josef Adalian reported Thursday that the return date could be as early as January 7, 2008:

So who will come back first? There's some talk that the Big Four hosts -- David Letterman, Jay Leno, Conan O'Brien and Craig Ferguson -- may all return around the same time. While informal discussions between the NBC and CBS camps have continued via backchannels throughout the strike...absolutely nothing like that has been agreed upon.

Latenight insiders, however, believe Leno and O'Brien are most likely to return in early January, no matter what Letterman decides. NBC has to be concerned about the plunging ratings for both shows, which in recent weeks have lost nearly half their audience.

Adalian goes on to suggest that Jimmy Kimmel's return may be harder to predict. One reason: his show has been doing just fine in reruns, perhaps because Late Show and Tonight Show fans have migrate to ABC and started sampling Kimmel reruns during the strike.

But, wait a minute, won't the Writers Guild of America (WGA) flip out if Letterman and others return? After all, writers gooned NBC late late nighter Carson Daly just last week, infiltrating his audience and heckling his guests. Ellen Degeneres was roasted earlier for attempting to tape episodes of her daytime talk show.

Still, it might be good for the WGA if Letterman and others took up their cause on a nightly basis. As Don Kaplan at the Post writes:

If the late-night shows go back into production before the strike is settled, at least some members of the Writers Guild will understand - the late-night comedy writers themselves.
"We will never be able to repay [Letterman] for what he did for us," says "Late Show" writer Bill Sheft, who also serves as the show's union rep for the Writers Guild. "Dave Letterman on the air without writers and pissed off about it would be as powerful as anything we [union members] can do. He will rail nightly at the greedy pinheads that put him in this position.

Nothing is official so far and, besides Sheft, nobody went on the record for either of these stories. Along with millions of fans, the hundreds of suspended staffers on all these shows must be hoping there is some truth to the rumors--if just to force Dave and Paul to can those brutal beards!

Thursday, December 13, 2007

This Just In: Cancelled Press Tour Not End of the World

Does anyone, outside of 200 TV critics, care whether this January's gathering of the semi-annual network press tour has been canceled?
This thought occurred to me after reading several reports this week that the January Television Critics Association press tour has been ditched due to the on-going writer's strike. First NBC declared they were going to keep their peacock signs and rugs in storage and sit ths one out, then PBS, then MTV--three strikes, you're out.
Regular folks, citizens, readers, can be forgiven if they have begun to suspect that press tour is all about the perks and the hotel. That's how it often gets reported nowadays, and that is wrong, wrong, wrong.
I'll never forget former NBC president Brandon Tartikoff--the brilliant young Yoda of network chiefs, returning from exile as a studio boss toward the end of his life to mingle with a few familiar press faces from back in the day. He held court--only Les Moonves glories in a scrum to that extent today--looked us all in the eye and gave us a label I'll never forget: "America's guests."
Please understand--off and on, I have attended TCA press tours since 1984. Since Cosby, L.A. Law and Cheers. I love press tour, always have--especially in January, when Toronto winters suck. I love it because it is a privileged seat at a table I couldn't otherwise afford. But I also love the challenge of trying to bring readers along for the ride.
On my rookie tour, which was held at the historic Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Arizona Biltmore hotel (where CBS and PBS used to airlift stars and producers far the usual Hollywood distractions), Angela Landsbury was promoting a new little show called Murder, She Wrote. Flip Wilson, Redd Foxx and major nut job Robert Conrad ("Go ahead--knock that battery off my shoulder!") were all trying in vain to restart stalled TV careers. Even Newhart's Larry, Darryl and Darryl were in the house. As a TV beat rookie working for TV Guide Canada, it was a long way from covering Fraggle Rock.
As I've always said, press tour is the Super Bowl of the TV beat. You're not a real TV columnist until you've been in a scrub with Moonves, and--especially if you're a lowly Canadian scribe--you can't get close enough to smell 'em anywhere else.
Having said that, after some 30 years of existence, the tour could use a correction. The emphasis in recent years has been to file off the tour like it was a sporting event, with hourly blog updates about what was served at lunch, which network executive insulted another suit, and who threw the biggest star hissy fit at the increasingly electronic media-driven red carpet evening sessions. It reads like some cozy combination of celebrity Survivor or Big Brother, a reality show for people who cover reality shows. It has become all about the two weeks at the hotel and not about what the readers really care about--the shows.
As a former TCA board member, I know how hard president Dave Walker worked to save this tour and he did it for all the right reasons. He saw the strike as actually making a press tour more valuable, giving journalists a reason to flock to L.A. for two weeks to grill network execs and producers about the impasse and the impact this is all having on the entire industry. He saw it as a big, fat story.
That would have been cool, but taking one January off might also be a good idea in the long run. Scribes need to re-think the tour and the sessions. The pack mentality of throwing the same quotes back from 150 laptops is part of what is killing television reporting opportunities in individual markets. There's a sameness to it all, feeding into the convergence mindset of six owners getting six writers to feed 200 papers.
Better to let individual reports go after individual stories rather than having it mass fed to a sea of open laptops. To that end, and, again, thanks to some hard working members of the TCA board, there has been a shift away from endless hotel sessions and toward more studio set visits. Now there is a reason to visit L.A, twice a year. Scrumming Kiefer Sutherland on the set of 24 sure beats talking to him on the back lawn of the Ritz Carlton in Pasadena (or, these days, some holding cell, although that might make for an interesting story, too). Access to writers, directors, crew members--even the people behind the craft services--is pretty damn fabulous, too.
This from someone who should be jaded as hell at the thought of another trip through the Paramount gates or deep into the Warners Burbank lot. But I never tire of it, there is always something to report and discover. Sitting at the feet of mad genius David Milch on the sun-scorched set of Deadwood--an hour north of Hollywood on the fabled Gene Autry Melody Ranch lot--is as close to a religious experience as you will find in the Godless world of television. Press tours and only press tours provide that, and that is why they should continue every January and July. But if it takes taking one off in 2008 to drive that point home, pass me my snow shovel.

Book 'em, Danno

Christmas came early in TV Feeds My Family land yesterday when a dude from DHL Express knocked at the door. In his hands was a box from Greenwood Publishing containing ten brand spankin' new copies of my book, Truth and Rumors: The Reality Behind TV's Most Famous Myths.
I may have mentioned the book once or twice on this blog before. Hey, what can I say, it is a kick to see your name embossed on a spine.
I was especially pleased to see the 14-year-old crack open a copy and gawfaw over entries like, RUMOR: Jimi Hendrix was once the opening act for The Monkees" (True), and, "RUMOR: Soupy Sales once asked kids to go into their parent's wallets and send him 'those funny green piece of paper with all those nice pictures of guys with beards on them'" (also true!).
While we're knee deep in self promotion, a couple of blogger buddies, John Cosway at Toronto Sun Family: 1971-2007 and Dennis Earl have also been kind enough to post a report or two on the book. I'll have more news in the coming weeks about store signings and stuff so, hey, you've been warned.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Next on Oprah: Election Makeover

News that thousands came out to see Oprah Winfrey at a Barack Obama rally over the weekend got me to thinking--is there a Canadian TV figure with that kind of clout?
As popular as Rick Mercer is (and over 1.2 million viewers tuned in to the Rick Mercer Report last Tuesday, the CBC comedy's highest rating ever), it is unlikely that the Newfoundland native would tip the scale for any one candidate. Certainly skinny dipping with him last year did nothing for Bob Rae's Liberal leadership hopes.
Brett Butt from Corner Gas has proved that a Canadian sitcom can sell on both sides of the border. But as a political warm up act, he'd probably not fill a Rogers video store, let alone the Rogers Centre.
Fact is, there is no equivalent to Oprah in America let alone in Canada. The lady can move books and magazines as well as viewers. The question is--can she move voters?
Barack Obama Logo
Have to admit I was skeptical when I first heard the queen of daytime TV was backing Obama. Celebrity endorsements seem to backfire as often as they connect. Is there a bigger kiss of death than getting an endorsement from Barbra Streisand? Republican candidate Mike Huckabee has Chuck Norris and Ted Nugent in his corner. Too bad he's not in a bar fight.
Winfrey, too, has been a punch line for so many years on David Letterman as well as in the tabloids that her political capitol would seem to be past its best before date. Still, there they were, as snow was falling, nearly 30,000 fans in a stadium in South Carolina. What you can not deny, in an era when the very word celebrity has been downgraded through dumb-ass reality shows and too many shallow heiress sightings, is that Winfrey is a star and that her star power is real.
The Illinois senator gets it. He joked that he would name Winfrey as his running mate, "but that would be a demotion--you realize that." She's already raised millions of dollars for the candidate at a privately held fundraiser.
There are suggestions that the Winfrey factor will backfire and that Obama will look desperate and opportunistic as the real primary dates draw near. Still, if you had a book to sell in a month or two, or a recipe, or a candidate--who would you want on your side? And if you don't think being a big shot celebrity can sway votes, two words:
Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Incidentally, Winfrey has a new ABC reality show in the offing: tentatively titled Oprah's Big Give. It's a reality show and part of a flood of replacement shows coming in January due to the on-going strike by the Writer's Guild of America (WGA). The premise has Oprah turning dreams into reality for needy families, sort of a cross between Extreme Makeover: Home Edition and, if anyone remembers this show, Queen For a Day.
Sounds wince-able. Look for ratings to go through the roof.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Shrek: The next Grinch or 30-minute Infomercial?

Every Wednesday, Mr. TV Feeds My Family talks TV on the radio with CHML's Scott Thompson. Last week, the topic was, naturally, all those wall-to-wall Christmas specials that have been airing since, what, Halloween. Specifically, is the new Shrek The Halls (which repeats Tuesday at 8 p.m. on ABC) the next classic--finally taking the baton from last century gems like Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer, How The Grinch Stole Christmas and A Charlie Brown Christmas--or is it a big, fat, 30-minute infomercial? What do you think, Donkey?

Friday, December 7, 2007

Swag vs. Swag: Terminator Meets Trailer Park

In the post below, TV Feeds My Family awards our first "Swag of the Week" award to a box full of cute chewy Trailer Park Boys gingerbread cookies. Yum.
Less edible but no less intriguing was the arrival of a small white envelope a week or two ago containing one tiny brass key. Attached was a note:

"We have hope. Join the resistance to ensure our survival."

I checked the envelope. No, not from the Writers' Guild. Instead, some gibberish about a mysterious company called "Tech-com." The note continued:

"Keep this key. You will need it in the near future. Do not let it fall into enemy hands. It's time to TAKE BACK THE FUTURE!

Yesterday, a large box arrived from Fox (always big on promotional swag, bless 'em. It's as if they get that we're in the fun business). Besides enough foam chips to wipe out an endangered species, inside was a squat, steel safety deposit box. The key fit (another was attached in case notoriously absent-minded TV critics lost the first one) and inside was a DVD screener of the first two episodes of Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. The series premieres Sunday Jan. 13 at 8 p.m. before switching to its regular timeslot the next night at 9 p.m.

There was also a nifty little flash drive which contained the following brief message:


The kid seems kinda obsessed with this take back the future thing. There were more messages but my 14-year-old son said "Dibs" and made off with the whole enchilada.

It all sounds intriguing but I couldn't help thinking: what if the Trailer Park Boys gingerbread cookies had been in the Sarah Connor box? What if Julian, Ricky and Bubbles were the ones fighting to take back the future, or at least take back the empties? It'd be a cool show, eh?

Man, this writers strike thing is killing me...

Swag of the Week Award

Mister TV Feeds My Family gets goofy TV stuff sent to him every week. Some of it is junk, some of it is helpful, none of it ever winds up on eBay.

But hands down the coolest promotional thingy to arrive via courier this holiday season came yesterday. The good folks at Alliance Atlantis send over a little box containing, not another DVD screener or informational flash drive or old fashioned paper press release but three perfect Trailer Park Boys gingerbread cookies.

There, wrapped in cellophane tied up with cute little bows were Julian, Ricky and Bubbles. Julian even has his ever-present rum and coke in his right hand. Aww...
Having traveled to the Sunnyvale Trailer Park out near Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, where the series is shot on a hill next to what once was a mental institution, I can say that the bakers have done the boys justice. (That's me on the right, by the way, wiseguy. Bubbles has just awarded me Mr. Lahey's car).

Now if only we could get word that more episodes of Trailer Park Boys have been ordered. Geez eh, it wouldn't even be affected by that dumb-ass writer's strike. What the &*%$!#* up with that, eh?

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Christ You Know It Ain't Easy

It seems like a terrible idea for a Christmas documentary: What if Jesus Christ never walked the earth and the whole Jesus story is based on Egyptian myth and metaphor?
That’s the premise behind The Pagan Christ, an hour-long documentary airing tonight at 9 p.m. on CBC’s The Doc Zone. The special is based on journalist and theologian Tom Harpur’s 2004 best seller of the same name. That controversial book makes the argument that a close examination of Biblical scripture produces very little real evidence that Christ ever really existed. That the eye-witness testimony in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John comes down to a handful of sentences. That what little is there is contradictory.
Harpur goes much further, suggesting that the whole story of Jesus is ripped off from ancient Egyptian mythology. In particular, on the tales of Horus, an Egyptian man-god and miracle worker who also happened to be born of virgin.
The fib was concocted at the insistence of Constantine, a third century Roman emperor desperate to shore up his crumbling empire with an official religious order. He even ordered his department of homeland security to effect a massive cover up, destroying books and evidence that might contradict the new state dogma.
Ho-ho-no! Why stop there? Why not produce a documentary revealing that George Bailey really did abscond with the Building and Loan savings in It’s a Wonderful Life. Or that Rudolph’s nose glowed due to too much alcohol consumption, no doubt poured into him from Yukon Cornelius, in Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer. Or that the Grinch returned all the toys to Whoville at the end of How The Grinch Stole Christmas, only to be beaten to death by all the bitter Whos.
Harpur’s assertions go much further than mocking plotlines in holiday TV favorites. They strike at the very heart of Christian belief. But, then again, ‘tis the season to crucify the church. While a British school teacher nearly got jailed in Sudan over naming as toy teddy bear Mohammad, Jesus jokes abound on everything from Robot Chicken to Family Guy. Sales of The Da Vinci Code weren’t exactly slowed due to the controversial nature of that book.
“Da Vinci,” however, was a work of fiction. While some might argue so is The Pagan Christ, Harpur’s credentials as a religious expert cannot be dismissed. Besides being a long time religion columnist at the Toronto Star, he is an ordained Anglican priest and a Rhodes scholar who taught courses on the New Testament at the University of Toronto.
He also insists that accepting that Jesus never actually walked the earth should actually strengthen faith. Stop taking the Bible literally, says Harpur. See Jesus as the way to salvation as an example of how to live, not as some flesh and blood Biblical hero.
The documentary also takes pain to present contrary views. Producer David Brady and associate Milt Avruskin allow religious experts such as McMaster University president and New Testament studies dean Dr. Stanley Porter to poke holes in Harpur’s assertions. Bible historian Ward Gasque also weighs in, as does pagan mystery expert Peter Gandy.
Objectivity aside, it does seem a little, well, un-Christian, to present this documentary in December.
The Pagan Christ also cuts back and forth to an outdoor Florida Passion Play featuring well-tanned actor Les Cheveldayoff as Jesus, hoisted on a cross for camera-toting tourists. If Michael Moore was making a documentary on the Church, he would probably see Cheveldayoff as a gift from God.
Still, even a Pagan Christ is some attempt to put Christ back in Christmas in a TV schedule otherwise filled with secular holiday fare. Tonight marks the 300th episode of ER—a series that almost goes back to Constantine—and, even though there are still 18 more shopping days, it is a Christmas-themed episode. Tomorrow night, there is a Christmas-themed episode of Las Vegas, and what could be more Christmassy than slot machines in the desert?

TV: Godless Zone?

This whole deal with The Pagan Christ (see above) got me wondering: If CBC can present a show in December that basically argues that the Son of God is a fake, what kind of effect will this have on future Christmas specials? Especially during these Godless, Hollywood strike battered season? Thanks for asking:

Larry King of the Jews Live
CNN, 8 p.m.
King interviews Moses and the two former school mates reminisce about old times.

Dancing With The Pharisees
ABC, 8 p.m.
Marie Osmond is stoned to death after failing to show sufficient humility in defeat. Host: Tom Bergeron.

Two and a Half Mennonites
CBS, 9 p.m.
Two rural pacificsts attempt to pick up women though abstinance and the wearing of black clothes. Tonight: Charlie's barn raising fails to impress some local skanks.

The Amazing Race
CTV, 8 p.m.
After a challenge detour causes a mix up at the airport, the Jews return to the promised land. [End of series.]

Dr. Phillistine Prime Time Special
9 p.m.
Dr. Phillistine is his usual intollerant self after meeting with various warring couples, accusing them of being "Bohemian wing nuts."

Victoria's Bible Secrets
Fox, 9 p.m.
Explained: just how Moses was able to tie his ass to a tree and walk 40 miles.

Ugly Bathsheba
City-TV, 9 p.m.
Bathsheba, the daughter of Eliam, the wife of Uriah and the mother of Solomon, tries to sqeeze into a pair of low-rise jeans while wearing a poncho. Get thee to a stylist!

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Truth and Rumors Ready to Take Off

The rumors are true: Truth and Rumors: The Reality Behind TV's Most Famous Myths arrives at the end of December. This bright and breezy book (sez me--hey, somebody's got to wave my flag), the result of hundreds of interviews and drawn from over 20 years on the TV beat, is available from Greenwood Publishing and can be ordered here.

Truth and Rumors: The Reality Behind TV's Most Famous Myths clocks in at over 70,000 words--roughly the equivalent of 100 daily newspaper columns. Guess I should have tried reading a book before I tried writing one! If you're into TV and ever wondered if Mikey really exploded from eating Pop Rocks and drinking soda, if Johnny Carson really told Racquel Welch to "move the damn cat" or if Charles Manson really was one of the hundreds who auditioned for The Monkees, I guarantee you'll find Truth and Rumors a fun and fascinating read.

What's it about? Here is the description from the publishers:

When you first heard it, you couldn't believe it: Jerry Mathers, from TV's Leave It To Beaver, had been killed in Vietnam. Then word came that Abe Vigoda, the actor who played the curmudgeonly cop Fish on Barney Miller, was dead; and that Mikey, who would eat anything as the Life Cereal tyke, had eaten too many Pop Rocks and exploded.

By the '90s, people were certain that Steve, from the animated kiddie show Blue's Clues, had died of a heroin addiction; that watching Sailor Moon caused convulsions; and that Josh Savino, Kevin's geeky pal on The Wonder Years, had grown up to become Marilyn Manson. Besides exposing us to things we couldn't otherwise believe, television can convince us of things that never actually happened. But how did these outrageous TV legends get started? How did they spread from classrooms to boardrooms across North America and beyond? And, most important, what do these rumors, so quickly transformed into facts and common knowledge, reveal about our relationship to reality through the medium of television?

Put in other words, what exactly is it that were doing when were dealing in these fabulous rumors--are we chasing after surprising truths or simply more incredible entertainment?

To take one telling example: Jerry Mathers was not actually killed in Vietnam--but the basic sense of this lie wasn't far removed from the emotions factually expressed in the two-page spread of the faces of the dead in Time magazine. In the course of this compelling work--which is supplemented with interviews with many of the people implicated in these rumors--author Bill Brioux exposes the reality behind the many stories that currently circulate in our culture. Through these stories (both true and false), he sheds a revealing light on just what role these rumors play in contemporary society--and what role our society plays in regard to these rumors as well.

Truth and Rumors will be available at the end of December from The Praeger Television Collection. Spread some Truth and Rumors today! Remember, buy extra copies--I'm only being paid in American money!