Thursday, January 31, 2008

jPod Gets Pucked

Well, that didn't take long. Effective immediately, CBC is switching MVP (featuring Kristin Booth, above) from Friday to Tuesday, sending jPod to TV's darkest night. Both shows were just launched earlier this month.

In a terse press release, the network announced that, "Beginning February 5, viewers can watch CBC Television’s sizzling new dramatic series MVP, 'The Secret Lives of Hockey Wives' on Tuesday nights at 9:00 p.m. Effective February 8, jPod will air on Friday nights at 9:00 p.m. replacing MVP."

As noted here earlier today, jPod got pasted this past Tuesday, scoring just 159,000 viewers nationally opposite a new episode of House.

The doctor is in again next week, which doesn't bode well for MVP in its new day and time. The sexy prime time soap has fans, including John Doyle at The Globe and Mail, but so far hasn't been able to deliver, drawing just 250,000 viewers nationally last Friday.

Still, MVP opened low and shed a little, while jPod has dropped like a jRock. A U.S. network would have reacted in exactly this way by now--which is why it is such a shock to see CBC flip shows so fast.

Many of us wondered all along why a slick series like MVP was buried on Friday. Tuesday is a much more competitive night, but also a night when people actually watch television, so this move makes sense if you see more upside in MVP than in jPod--which CBC clearly does.

Dr. Dave To The Rescue

Somebody explain to me this man-love thing David Letterman seems to have for Dr. Phil McGraw. The beefy Texan was a guest on CBS's Late Show with David Letterman last night where he was allowed to publicy wash off the stink from that Britney Spears fiasco.

Letterman has Dr. Phil on all the time, anointing him as "TV's favorite mental health professional." Last night, it was Letterman hosting an intervention, doing a rescue job on Dr. Phil's damaged reputation.

We all saw the headlines. McGraw looked opportunistic at best and unethical at worst as he stumbled into the Spears' family's latest dysfunctional meltdown. The incident raised questions about his qualifications beyond shouting at screw ups on television.

Still, Letterman waved it all away. "No good deed goes unpunished my friend," he told McGraw.

Sure, the two have that CBS Paramount connection, and you could see why the network would want McGraw on their all the time (last night to promote his upcoming 1000th episode, airing Feb. 11 and featuring Letterman as a guest!). But what's Letterman need this abusive hambone for? The shtick about Dr. Phil mending the Oprah-Dave fence is over and old. Now its just down to two tall guys talking. You can almost hear Howard Stern at home screaming "Sell Out!" at his television.

You can see why it works for McGraw. The Letterman appearances made him seem like a big teddy bear, albeit one with a sarcastic edge. He's always giving Letterman the gears about not getting married. Letterman goes along with it, enough of a showman to welcome a straight man with a jab, knowing that viewers get a kick out of seeing him fight in his class.

I guess that's it. But it was interesting last night when McGraw started going on about how he thought "the Spears are a great family, I think they're nice people." Letterman's audience thought it was a bit and started to laugh. They weren't buying it for a New York minute, not even from TV's favorite mental health professuional.

jPod gets jPasted

Some quick numbers. Mixed results for CBC newcomers with two shows moving in opposite directions. The Border has seen its ratings rise the last two weeks, reaching an estimated 760,000 Canadians Monday. (All figures overnight/preliminary data from BBM NMR). Tuesdays, however, have been tough on jPod (starring Alan Thicke and Sherry Miller as pot-headed parents, above), with the quirky gamer dramedy (159,000 viewers this week) getting flatlined by a new episode of House on Global (2, 159,000). Yes, that's exactly two million more House viewers. Stat!
The fact that jPod slips dramatically from This Hour Has 22 Minutes (well off its weekly average at 512,000) ain't good news, either.

CTV continues to win Tuesday with American Idol, scoring the night's (and likely week's) biggest number at 2,786,000 viewers. Rick Mercer still managed nearly a million opposite on CBC with 904,000.

Despite that huge lead-in from House, Global's new Canadian drama The Guard slipped to 650,000 viewers in week two, down from 770,000 the week before. Global's bragging rights to having the nation's No. 1 new domestic drama lasted exactly one week.

Also on Monday, The Week The Women Went (858,000) was a very competitive third behind CTV's Corner Gas (1,138,000) and Two And A Half Men (1,115,000) and Global's movie night entry Batman Returns (913,000).

In early evening, Degrassi continues to languish at 446,000 kids. Isn't it time for school to be out already?
UPDATED: One Monday show I forgot: Part Two of Would Be Kings was a royal bomb with 448,000 viewers, CTV's lowest-rated TV-movie numbers in memory. And that was opposite a nothing State of the Union address on the U.S. nets.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

WGC: Flashpoint Not a Struck Show

Writers Guild of Canada executive director Maureen Parker told TV Feeds My Family this afternoon that Flashpoint has created no foul. "This is a Canadian production, and has been a Canadian production for several years," said Parker.

Created by Mark Ellis and Stephanie Morgenstern, the Toronto-based police series has been in development at CTV since 2005, originating under the name Criminal Intent. CBS's pick up of the drama, which includes a share of financing, is unusual, concedes Parker, but "these are unusual times. CBS is out looking for content."

Just don't see this cross border deal as an end run around the WGA, Parker insists--although that impression is there as the strike lurches into its third month.

"It would be better news if everybody was working," she acknowledges. "Then it would just be CBS coming up here and saying, 'I want that show.'"

Flashpoint Counter Point





Update on that CTV Flashpoint deal with CBS.

The new, Emergency Task Force police drama, which stars Canadian-born actors Enrico Colantoni (familiar to U.S. audiences from Veronica Mars and Just Shoot Me), Hugh Dillon (Durham County), Ona Grauer (Intelligence) and David Paetkau (Whistler), marks the first time since Due South in the mid-'90s that a Canadian-produced drama has been picked up for simulcast on a U.S. network.

Certainly this is a huge coup for CTV: they add a new Canada drama to their schedule, scoring brownie points in Ottawa, and, at the same time, they add a new American network series to their schedule, scoring a big simulcast boost. This is the ultimate Canadian programming executives wet dream.

American networks have been saying they were going to start casting a wider net for about a year. NBC's Ben Silverman told critics at the Banff TV Festival last June that he would be combing the globe for new programming options. CBS has beaten NBC to the punch by teaming up with CBS on Flashpoint, a 13-part series set to go into production in April and air this May or June.

Bruce DeMara, in an article in today's Toronto Star, quotes CBS programming president Nina Tassler as saying the WGA strike had nothing to do with this reach across the border. "It was about exploring and looking for new business models," Tassler told DeMara. "We said that this was the year that we were really going to focus on finding new methods, new ideas, and this is what turned up."

Tassler's boss, Nancy Tellum (president of the CBS Paramount Television Group), told the Globe and Mail today that the Flashpoint sale was as much about the overall change in the development process as it was about being forced to look outside the U.S. due to the writers strike. "The silver lining of the strike is that it has enabled us from a creative standpoint to look outside the United States for creative ideas," she told The Globe.

Certainly network television is in revolution and the old ways of doing business are toast. NBC Universal CEO Jeff Zucker says pilots, like upfronts, are a thing of the past. Finding new ways to ramp up shows without breaking the bank is driving everyone to look north of the border.

Speaking of The Border, as that show continues to build on CBC (up to 760,000 viewers in Week Four Monday, it's best numbers yet), there is speculation that show could wind up on a U.S. network schedule. Other Canadian fare, from Little Mosque to another upcoming CTV project, The Listener (about a paramedic with telepathic powers) are reportedly getting closer looks Stateside.

Used to be that you could shoot in Toronto as long as it didn't look like Toronto. Digital houses kept busy here erasing the CN Tower from background shots in everything from Relic Hunter to La Femme Nikita.

Flashpoint executive producers Bill Mustos (former head of CTV domestic production) and Anne Marie La Traverse (former Alliance Atlantis producer and exec behind CTV's The Eleventh Hour) told The Star it was "sexy" Toronto, however, that sold the show to CBS. The series will be set in T.O., which means set dressers won't have to run around and set up U.S. mail boxes and cover up metric speed signs the way they usually do when the city subs for Chicago or New York.

As for those sexy, typed-in-Canada scripts, Writers Guild of Canada head Maureen Parker told The Globe that she didn't see this as a way around her striking brethren at the WGA. "This is in no way an American production," she said. "And it is not struck work. Flashpoint was funded with our tax dollars from the Canadian Television Fund."

Does that make it acceptable to the WGA? Still waiting to hear back from those dudes, but they may be working on a little good news of their own: there's word that a deal to end the 13-week labor dispute is close.
TV Feeds My Family heard from a few Canadian television screenwriters not connected to Flashpoint (written and created by Mark Ellis and Stephanie Morgenstern). They seemed to be down with the deal provided it was green-lit by CTV well before the strike (which it was, according to CTV and the producers). "If it was already financed before the strike and then CBS stepped in," wrote one scribe, "then it would not be much different than if NBC bought Mosque and aired it."

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

CTV and CBS in Border Busting Flashpoint Deal

A story in today's Variety raises huge questions about the future of Canadian broadcasting, strike breaking and cross-border production.
CTV's aptly named Flashpoint--one of two dramas the network recently announced--is going to air concurrently on both CBS and CTV, beginning sometime this summer. The police drama will feature Toronto-native Enrico Colantoni (Veronica Mars) and other Canadian-born stars, and--most significant of all--is being written by Canadian writers.
This would seem to put those writers in an awkward, to say the least, position. The Canadian Guild settled their contract a year ago but their U.S. brethren are locked into a bitter, 13-weeks and counting dispute. Isn't CBS reaching across the border for a scripted solution? And how can the Canadian Guild look the other way?
Variety's Josef Adalian writes that "Flashpoint is believed to be the first scripted project developed and ordered to series by a broadcast network since the WGA walkout in November.
Final deal points between (CBS Paramount) and CTV were being finalized Monday, and a deal could be announced as soon as today." The series is expected to start shooting in Toronto in April.
More on this later, but check here for the full story in today's Variety.

We Stand On Guard

Big night on Global tonight: a new House at 9 followed by the second episode of The Guard.
The B.C.-based, Canadian coast guard drama launched to respectable numbers last week, clocking in at an estimated 808,000 viewers.
That's tops among the half-dozen 2008 Canadian series launches so far, nudging out CBC timeslot turnarounds The Border and The Week The Women Went.
Last week's pilot was a nice mix of action, including plenty of exciting sea and air rescue shots, as well as edgy character-driven drama as the coast guard crew dealt with the aftermath of a failed rescue attempt. Can't remember a scene in any network drama before where one of the main characters does a little one-handed typing in front of a porn site. Yet there was Steve Bacic last week as duty captain Miro Da Silva, fly undone in front of his laptop, getting ready to yank the main sail.
A promising first impression, plus a new House--the first of three new episodes in a row from U.S. inventory-starved Global--should give The Guard a shot at breaking the million mark in Week Two.
All good news for Zoie Palmer, who I had lunch with in Toronto last week. (I profiled her for Canadian Press; the story was picked up on CBC.ca and you can read that column here.) Born in England, she grew up an army brat (her dad was with the RCAF), living in exotic places like Cyprus ("loved it," she says). Her family moved to Ontario when she was nine. She's a proud graduate of York University's drama program, citing fellow grad Rachel McAdams as proof York is doing something right.
She says she's always wanted to be an actress. "There was a brief moment when I wanted to run a coffee shop. It was difficult--I let it go." Her acting heroes include the usuals--Meryl Streep, Kate Winslet, Cate Blanchett and Toni Colllette--plus two she's worked with and long admired, Christine Lahti and Judy Davis.
Palmer is a delight and one to watch. Tonight's episode of The Guard has her intense character Carly confronting ghosts from her childhood as she attempts to sell her dad's old fishing boat. There's even a chance Miro might pull himself away from the keyboard tonight when he meets a real, live, flesh and blood dame, an owner of an "all ages, clothing-optional compound." Go Miro!

Monday, January 28, 2008

In The Book, Bob

If you missed my visit Friday with Mike Stafford on Toronto's AM 640, click here to hear this exchange about one of the more famous tall tales in Truth And Rumors: The Reality Behind TV's Most Famous Myths. The story: Newlywed Game host Bob Eubanks once asked, "Couples, where is the most unusual place you've ever made whoopee?" To which a woman replied, "That would be in the butt, Bob."
Did it really happen? Click below on this YouTube posting (taken from a 1977 taping of The Newlywed Game) and get to the bottom of this thing once and for all:



If you want to hear the full, hour-long interview with Mike Stafford, tune in to AM 640 this Saturday at 11 a.m. for a repeat broadcast.

Analyse This

In an age when everybody has too many entertainment options and not enough time, can a smart, daily drama work?
In Treatment premieres tonight at 8:30 p.m. on The Movie Network (9:30 PT on Movie Central). The HBO drama stars Gabriel Byrne as psychotherapist Paul who, through the week, sees five very different patients. Monday it's Laura (Melissa George), who blurts tonight that she has a big fat crush on her shrink. Tomorrow it's Alex (Blair Underwood), a U.S. jet plot who is rocked after accidentally and tragically killing 16 kids in Iraq. Wednesday it's Sophie (Mia Wasikowska), a damaged teenager with a dark secret. Thursday it's a couple, Jake and Amy (Josh Charles and Embeth Davidtz), who are torn apart over a big decision.

By Friday, the doctor hustles off to retired therapist Gina (Dianne Wiest) to empty out his own cluttered head. As we learn, there is a lot to empty and even more to shake.

When I interviewed Underwood about a week ago in Toronto for an upcoming article in TVTimes magazine, we spoke about the challenges of basically doing a two person play for television. He marveled at how Byrne could do this day after day, but really, all Byrne says for the most part are things like, "So, how does that make you feel?" It's the patients who do the heavy lifting in this often searing and emotional drama.

Will people tune in every day? Probably not. Some studies suggest that, even if, say, House or Brothers & Sisters, is your favorite show, most of us only catch 6-8 of the 22 episodes each year. In Treatment will present, Monday to Friday, a total of 43 episodes over the next nine weeks.

Some of us do have PVRs and access to on-demand programming, as Underwood pointed out. So you can bank several episodes and watch them later. Some viewers today prefer binge viewing, renting a DVD set on a weekend and consuming a whole season of, say, Arrested Development, in one fat chunk.

In Treatment's timing is good, also, because, thanks to that damn writers strike, you're not able to catch those 6-8 new episodes of Brothers and Sisters anymore (although House is back with a new episode this Sunday, immediately following the Super Bowl game). If you're starved for good drama, especially now that that other TV shrink, Dr, Melfi from The Sopranos, has packed up her practice, In Treatment could be for you.

Viewers might also choose to just stick with one of the patient storylines, tuning in every Monday, say, to see Melissa George, or Fridays to see Wiest weight in. Underwood is terrific on Tuesdays, gradually allowing his character's true colours to smear all over the careful, black and white, all-American portrait Alex has tried to live up to his whole life.

Like a real therapy session, In Treatment is honest, challenging and revealing. Unlike a real session, when it ends, there is no bill to pay. See? You feel better already.

This Just In: Men Are Fools

Tonight marks the second episode of The Week The Women Went, a new CBC reality show my teenage son refers to as "Kid Nation, only with men looking like idiots instead of 10-year-olds."
Having screened tonight's hour (which airs at 8 p.m., preceding the fourth episode of The Border), I can see why the women went--anything to avoid having to sit through a third hour of this reality snoozer.

The show centres on the little town of Hardisty, Alberta, pop. 760. The series is more fascinating as a window on that rural and isolated western community then as a battle of the sexes.

Hardisty seems to be one of those places that you get the hell out of as soon as you can. The town teens are all bored and into sex at an early age just for something to do. The adults have moved on to drinking and smoking and eating too much beef. Almost everybody is over weight and out of shape. And why not? With such delicacies as bull testicles to chew on, you'd dig in, too.

At the start of the series, the women are all herded onto a couple of tour buses on their way to a spa vacation near Banff. Once they're on the road, out comes the booze. One women seems to be sitting all by her lonesome. Seems many of the other babes are still pissed that the little tramp slept with all their men. Shame on you, Lorelei!

In that instance, The Week The Women Went is like a soap opera on wheels, All My Children Are Back Home Crying. Back on the home front, men are shown struggling to change diapers and fix meals. The yappy little varmints are screwing with their poker games! Every family, it seems, has four or six kids under the age of three.

The dads, who are usually busy on Alberta oil fields, haven't had much time up until now to bond with their babes and this whole domestic thing is beyond them. Some decide to sit it out on the front porch with Cletus, the slack-jawed yokel and the rest of their buddies until this whole thing blows over.

I guess you'd keep watching just to see how many kids die from neglect or if any of the men tie sponges to the kids knees in an effort to get the rug rats to clean the floors. I kept looking to see if I could spot Jethro over by the cement pond, or Elly Mae comin' 'round the corner with vittles. W00 doggie!

Anyway, it premiered last week to 770,000 viewers, a boost for CBC on Monday nights. As a social experiment it is about as valid as The Nanny or Wife Swap or, well, Kid Nation. It is not as uplifting as Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, or as trashy or soul killing as Fox's new lie detector series, The Moment of Truth, so I can't see if being as bit a hit as either, although there are plenty of other small towns out there for CBC to exploit. Maybe they could combine the next edition of The Week The Women Went with Hockeyville, bringing glory and shame to some other 'burb without actually exposing the townsfolk to any viewers.

AND THE AWARD GOES TO: Lowly SUN TV won the award show lottery with last night's broadcast of the SAG Awards. That's the forgotten statue-fest nobody usually wants, which suddenly became golden last night with actual stars on the red carpet and at the podium--unlike every other award show this season due to the writers strike. SUN TV viewership is usually measured on the fingers of two hands. (Back when the station was called Toronto 1, TV ad sales guys referred to it as Toronto 0.1.) Sunday night's SAG Awards had to be their biggest spike ever in the ratings.

Friday, January 25, 2008

New Day For Knight

Remember K.I.T.T. the talking crime-fighting car from the '80s? The one that out-acted David Hasselhoff? Twenty-five years later, NBC is bringing it back as a TV-movie with hopes that it leads to a series. The updated sequel will air Feb. 17 on NBC and Global. Here's the NBC teaser:



In the new version, K.I.T.T. (now short for Knight Industries Three Thousand) has been updated from a 1982 Trans-Am to a brand new Ford Mustang Shelby GT500KR. The Hoff is back, guesting as Michael Knight, but this time the focus is on a new hot shot behind the wheel, Justin Bruening (All My Children), who plays Knight's estranged offspring.

Bruening and executive producer Dave Bartis (The O.C.) fielded questions from critics the other day on one of this awkward phone conferences. Actually, Bartis did most of the talking. About all we learned from Bruening was that he is too young to have watched Knight Rider when it first came out. (He has since caught up through DVDs, which sounds like something that should come with a judge's order.)

It didn't matter. Most of the scribes were more interested in the car than Bruening. Why not a Trans-Am? (They're out of production, dummy, and there goes the big fat marketing opportunity.) Why a Mustang? A no brainer because it's the coolest car on the planet, said Bartis. Did car companies bid to see who got to place their baby in this two-hour ad? We had marketing folks who looked after that, said Bartis. Translation: Ford "ponied" up the most bucks.

One big change is K.I.T.T.'s voice. In the original, it was William Daniels, who brought a nice laconic tone perfected from all those years as a cranky M.D. on St. Elsewhere. (Listen to him here.) The new machine will be voiced by Toronto's own Will Arnett, busy on screen in plenty of bad comedies and forever JOB from Arrested Development.

Daniels is still with us but won't be in the movie, says Bartis. The producer was going for a fresh voice that kids today could recognize. Plus, back in 1982, a talking car was pretty weird. Today, with On-Star and other gadgets, not so much. The producer was after a more casual, conversational voice instead of something that sounded like an upgrade from 2001: A Space Odyssey's HAL-9000.

NBC owns the rights to Knight Rider and this project was wheeled out of the vault by new programming boss Ben Silverman. If its a hit it will join Bionic Woman as a series retrofit, but it has one big problem on the road ahead: Knight Rider has been a punch line for years on everything from Family Guy to The Tonight Show. How will anybody take this thing seriously?

It was hard not to laugh on the phone as Bartis was talking about striking a delicate balance with the tone of this show. Balance? Balance the tires, sure, but tone?

Maybe a set of hot wheels will be all it takes. The new K.I.T.T. is actually three versions of the Shelby Mustang, one a prototype that hasn't even hit the street yet. This car can morph, shift shape and colour, hack into computer systems and fire weapons.

But can it pass a gas station? Bartis says its also a hybrid and is extremely fuel efficient. Only in the movies.

My favorite Knight Rider joke: When Hasselhoff was picked up for D.U.I. a few years ago, Conan O'Brien cracked that police pulled him over "because his talking car was slurring its words."

Good luck and good Knight.

The Puck Stops Here, Anonymous

Some gutless wanker who goes by the clever handle "Anonymous" has been clogging my comment box with garbage. Seems he's offended by the notion that "Canadians like Canadian TV." Sez the big numbers this week for new shows like The Border, The Guard and Test The Nation--not to mention the 856,000 pulled Wednesday by Little Mosque On The Prairie--are made up. Sez I've jumped to the dark side by saluting the CBC. Sez shows like Rent-A-Goalie stink.
That's when he went too far.

Rent-A-Goalie rocks. It isn't for everybody, but I find it a surreal little gem. It isn't always laugh out loud funny, but now and then it really scores. (Just seeing Etobicoke bar "The Old Sod" as a sitcom setting makes me laugh.) It's not about hockey at all but about neighborhoods, one man's code and his rag tag family of misfit friends. It's different. I like it.

It probably costs less to make than the craft services budget on According To Jim. It's a resourceful little production, like The Red Green Show, a model for how to crank out domestic TV in a small market nation.
Best of all it is not a committee show but somebody's personal vision, creator, writer and star Christopher Bolton. Unlike, say, Mr. Anonymous, Bolton puts his name on his stuff. If you don't like it, fair enough, you know who to blame. Maybe Mr. Anonymous has created something he's proud of, too. We'll probably never know.

Anyway, last November when Rent-A-Goalie returned for a second season on Showcase (Sundays at 9 p.m.), Bolton invited members of the press to come out and play hockey with the cast and crew of his series. I was the only scribe foolish enough to show up. Most press wags jump at free beer; I jump at free ice.

Big mistake. I played on the cast team, with Bolton, Gabriel Hogan and the rest of the dudes. (Ironically, the game was held up a bit as we waited for the real rent-a-goalie. No lie.)

Against us were these waves of 6-foot-3 Teamsters. My neck still hurts from watching them blow past me on defense.

We lost, 6-5. I played crap. "Once again, blame the press," I told Bolton after the game.

We talked about how he chased Tie Domi into a men's room to get him to guest on the series (The Esposito brothers, Tony amd Phil, also made an appearance this year along with former Leaf captain Daryl Sittler.) Bolton got the Espos to play a couple of tough poker players. Bringing famous hockey icons in just to skate around the ice wouldn't be that much of a kick for viewers, he said. "If I wanna watch hockey, I'll watch hockey. I tune into this to watch the characters."

After the game, Bolton gave me the Rent-A-Goalie jersey, pictured above. I protested that, the way I played, I didn't deserve it, but he insisted. What the hell, I thought. Maybe some day I'll get a chance to post it on my blog. Thanks, Anonymous.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Shameless Self Promotion Plug No. 469

Friday at 1 p.m., punch AM 640 to catch Mr. TV Feeds My Family blab about--say it with me--Truth and Rumors: The Reality Behind TV's Most Famous Myths.
I'll be joining the one and only Mike Stafford on Stafford at Large. We will get to the bottom of several myths, including these tantalizing whoppers:
  • Lee Marvin appeared on The Tonight Show in the ‘70s and told Carson that the bravest man he ever knew was Bob Keeshan (Captain Kangaroo) who fought beside him during one of the biggest battles of World War II.

  • Tommy Hillier made racist statements about African-Americans, Hispanics and Asians on Oprah Winfrey and was tossed off the show.

  • Ensign Chekov was written into the second season of Star Trek after an editorial in the Communist daily newspaper Pravda chided the sci-fi series for not having a Soviet crew member aboard the starship Enterprise.
The book, of course, is available at Amazon.com (follow this link). It may also soon be available at your local Chapters/Indigo stores; there should be a deal soon to add it to their catalogue, with the possibility of some local store signings and other special events. I'm guessing there will be further updates right here on this very blog.

Time to single out my Brampton Buddy Fred Patterson, he of "Humble & Fred" fame. (Check out his blog. FreddieP.ca; it is to laff.) Ever since I had lunch with Fred a few weeks ago at the lovely Montana's at the Trinity Centre, I've been getting calls from all his radio pals throughout Southern Ontario (including Stafford), saying come on by and blather about yer book. The man is a well connected mensch. He's a frequent guest on CH Live @ 5:30 and on various radio shows all over the dial.
He's just posted a very cool podcast featuring his exclusive interview with Peter Griffin, half of the "Pete 'n' Geets" radio team. Griffin helped bring "underground rock" to CHUM-FM back in the '70s. While you're at it, check out Griffin's vintage Radman TV spot, a YouTube oldie Patterson has posted, it brings back memories.

This Just In: Canadians Like Canadian TV

Been a monster week for Canadian TV, topped with news that The Rick Mercer Report hit its highest rating ever this Tuesday with an estimated 1,275,000 viewers. That puts it ahead of CTV's perennial made in Canada ratings winner, Corner Gas, which drew 1,230,000 Monday. (All figures BBM Nielsen Media Research.)
Even red white and blue Global had reason to wave the Maple Leaf flag for a change, with their B.C.-based drama The Guard opening to 813,000 viewers Tuesday. With CBC's The Border up in Week Three to 659,000 viewers, Canadian scripted series are having the kind of week not seen in years.

Things got off to a fast start Sunday, with CBC's live Test The Nation broadcast pulling 858,000 viewers. Even CBC's new reality show, The Week The Women Went did well, with 770,000 tuning in for the estrogen exodus. Just goes to show you just have to give the viewers what they want: men looking like hopeless boneheads!

Why the sudden interest in Canuck content? Three factors: the U.S. writers strike has bumped new episodes of shows like 24 and Desperate Housewives out of the race, opening the field for Canadian shows to get sampled. It has also allowed TV beat writers to swing their full attention toward the Canadian fare, meaning more magazine covers, newspaper features and just generally more buzz. Finally, and most important, these are all terrific shows, worthy of a mass audience. Go Canada, finally.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Pel-a-D'oh! Part Deux

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The Degrassi Myth

Is it time to stick a fork in the Degrassi franchise? The teen drama is into its seventh season, drawing 585,000 viewers Monday night on CTV. That's okay for a domestic drama, but below the 650,000 CBC's The Border has been averaging so far and less than half the audience of the show that followed it on CTV Monday night: Corner Gas (1,230,000).
In fact, aside from eTalk at 7 p.m., Degrassi: The Next Generation was by far the lowest rated CTV series of the night, ranking far below Medium (1,158,000), Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles (960,000) and Two And A Half Men (850,000). It also ranked behind Global's Entertainment Tonight in the 7:30 timeslot (664,000). This despite the full muscle of the CTV promotional machine ("a shocking two episode premiere"), which drummed up plenty of press attention when the series returned Jan. 10.

True, the teen soap has a loyal and dedicated fan base and always scores with the 12-34 demo. Yet, in terms of total households, except for a few, intensely promoted, "very special episodes of Degrassi", it has never been a ratings hit in Canada and is always among CTV's lowest rated shows of the week. The network has made a 24-episode commitment to it this season, the series' biggest season order ever. With the writers strike derailing so many of CTV's U.S. imports, why not try it out a bit later in the evening? Because, after six years of testing, CTV knows Degrassi will never grow beyond its half million-a-week base. Any other show on its schedule with those kind of numbers would be quickly shipped off to A-channelsville or--worse--CTV's digital Siberia.
One other ratings note: CBC that same Monday night scored 902,000 viewers with fossilized British soap Coronation Street, making it CBC's biggest hit of the night--at 7 p.m.! Maybe Degrassi should spin off old farts Snake and Wheels and have them blather about the good old days at their local pub. The franchise could come full circle--Degrassi Street. Don't rule it out.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Border Boost

Ratings for the new CBC drama The Border went up in Week Three--a very good sign for the action hour. Is adding easy on the eyes Sofia Milos to this show a factor? I'm guessing yes.
An estimated 659,000 Canadians tuned in last night at 9 p.m., up 60,000 from the week before. Over at CTV, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles slipped under the million mark to 960,000. Strike challenged Global vamped with that lame-ass Starsky & Hutch movie, starring Ben Stiller, which somehow drew 675,000 viewers.

CBC scored an even bigger number at 8 p.m. with the bizarre new reality series The Week The Women Went. An estimated 770,000 tuned in according to the overnights. Women viewers probably loved it--Canadian men have never looked dumber.

The highest rated show of the night? CTV's dependable Corner Gas, which drew 1,230,000 viewers.

Oprah Takes A Hit: Blame Obama?

Oprah Winfrey may be paying a price for her endorsement of U.S. presidential candidate Barack Obama.
The Queen of daytime TV still leads the syndicated talk show field, but her lead over TV pseudo-shrink Dr. Phil McGraw is shrinking. Worse, her ratings are down 17% year-to-year—21% among her core viewers, women 18-49.
That was one of the tid bits tossed today by Marc Berman, Mediaweek’s “Programming Insider.” The New York-based ratings expert crunched the latest syndicated numbers today in a webcast timed to preview shows being offered at the annual syndicated marketplace NATPE (Jan. 28-31 in Las Vegas).
Berman remarked off the top that almost all of the syndicated fare is getting old. After 20-plus years of dominance, shows like Oprah, Entertainment Tonight and Wheel of Fortune are all still tops in their fields, but they’re down year-to-year, too, as are many other syndicated favorites. “Audiences are getting bored,” Berman suggests.
Still, Oprah seemed particularly hard hit. There has been a great deal of negative reaction to her Obama endorsement at her own web site. Many female viewers apparently see Oprah’s Obama boost as a betrayal to the first female candidate to ever have a shot at the White House—Hillary Clinton. Berman says he wouldn’t be surprised if Dr. Phil didn’t ultimately overtake his TV mentor in the syndicated talk show ratings—despite his botched Britney Spears intervention earlier this month.
Berman doesn’t think that blunder--seen as brazenly opportunistic--will be much of a set back for McGraw. “The audience forgives and forgets very quickly,” he said.
Taking an even bigger drop in daytime has been Tyra Banks, down 27% in households and women 18-49. This despite the fact that the writers strike really hasn’t impacted any of these daytime talk shows. Their writers are members of a different guild.
The only daytime talker to show no loss—and no gain—in the past 12 months is Ellen DeGeneres, who ranks behind Oprah and Dr. Phil.
Next week at NATPE, a new daytime talk show starring Bonnie Hunt will be shopped. There’s also a new show from McGraw’s son Jay called The Doctors featuring a shrink, a plastic surgeon and other medical experts answering questions about health concerns. That show will likely bump Montel Williams off the schedule; his show is also shedding viewers.
A shorter, half-hour version of Deal Or No Deal, hosted by Howie Mandel, will also be shopped at NATPE as is a new TV game show version of Trivial Pursuit.
Berman noted that the fall off in sitcoms over the last decade has led to a sitcom drought in syndication. This fall’s two newcomers, Two And A Half Men and Family Guy, are doing well, but viewers seem to be tiring of reruns of Everybody Loves Raymond, Seinfeld and Friends, with the last one down 26% in adults 18-49.
Berman sees the sitcom drought being filled in the near future with cable fare. Shows such as American Chopper, Punk’d and Pimp My Ride all enter the syndicated market next fall.
Among the newsmagazines, TMZ is the hottest rookie, the highest-rated new show in all categories in syndication. While Entertainment Tonight is down 18% in adults 18-49, it's still "the No. 1 entertainment show in the universe."

Monday, January 21, 2008

Good Night, Emily

Susanne Pleshette and Tom Poston were at a TCA press party a few years ago, standing on the back lawn of the Ritz Carlton in Pasadena like they owned the place; maybe they did.
The two first met in 1959 when they appeared together in a Broadway play called "The Golden Fleecing." They had a brief fling before moving on and marrying other people. (Pleshette was briefly married to teen heartthrob Troy Donahue before a happy, 31-year union with businessman Tom Gallagher. Poston was married--twice--to Kay Hudson; that union also spanned 30 years.)

When they both found each other widowed in 2000, they reunited and got married the following year--more than 40 years after first hooking up. I remember seeing them arm in arm together at that TCA party as word spread from critic to critic--"Hey, did you know those two were married?" It just seemed so perfect, like something that would and could only happen on television. You gotta hand it to people who know how to cast their own happy ending.

Both, of course, were linked professionally to Bob Newhart, with Pleshette unforgettable as his sardonic wife Emily in his hilarious '70s series. Poston, one of Steve Allen's zany "Man on the Street" players back in the original, '50s version of The Tonight Show, played a handyman in Newhart's '80s comedy.

Pleshette returned to that show for the best finale in the history of television. In it, Bob, playing innkeeper Dick Loudon, wakes up next to Pleshette's Emily, his wife from the first series. The entire, eight season long second series, we are led to believe, was all a bad dream. As The New York Times points out today, The Onion goofed on this unforgettable TV moment in a fake 1999 headline: "Universe Ends As God Wakes Up Next To Suzanne Pleshette."

Pleshette told critics several years ago she could hear the studio audience tittering as she hid under the blankets; they were clueing in as they started to recognize the old familiar set. "They were laughing at the wallpaper," she said.
We all wanted to wake up next to Suzanne Pleshette. There was always something very adult and adulteress about her. Her perfectly symmetrical face and pretty green eyes were one thing, but it was her husky voice and snappy attitude that put you away.
I collect old 16mm films and have a copy of "40 Pounds of Trouble," a cute little time waster she did in 1961 with Tony Curtis. It was Norman Jewison's first film. When I met him a few years ago and mentioned I owned a print of his first film he begged me to burn it. Sorry, Norman, it's worth holding on to just to see the two stars run around a new little theme park called Disneyland. That and for Pleshette, who is just so damn deliciously beautiful. I'd gush a little more but I gotta go thred the projector.

Pleshette died Saturday in Los Angeles; she was 70. Poston died last April, he was 85. They were like family and they will be missed.

Another familiar TV face--and voice--passed away on the weekend. Allan Melvin, who, like Poston, worked steadily over five decades of television, died at 84.

Again, I own him on film. He was one of Rob Petrie's army buddies on The Dick Van Dyke Show. (I've got the one where he is the corner man for Camp Crowder boxing ace "Pitter-Patter Petrie.") He played a memorable army pal on Phil Silver's '50s comedy You'll Never Get Rich and, later in the '60s, Gomer Pyle USMC.

Melvin was everywhere in the '70s, including All In The Family and Archie Bunker's Place. Brady Bunch fans will remember him as Sam the Butcher. He even worked such Saturday morning oddities as H.R. Pufnstuff and The Banana Splits.

In between he voiced countless cartoon characters, including Magilla Gorilla, one of the lamest Hanna-Barbera efforts ever. I know 'cause, yes, I also have a print of that on 16. You can never collect too much Melvin.
Again, one of those faces you never forget.

Best...Day...Ever

It is a year to the week when I was canned by Quebecor's Sun Media. What were the odds Quebecor Inc. CEO Pierre Karl Peladeau would declare bankruptcy before I did?
Wish I had made that bet. Over the weekend, Pel-a-D-oh! ran out of deadlines in a last ditch attempt to persuade European bankers to bail out the horrible mess he's made of the printing business his daddy built into the world's biggest. (The Globe and Mail's Konrad Yakabuski sets it up here in "Scenes from a meltdown: Inside the collapse of a printing giant"). Quebecor World shares have plummeted from above $40 to a thin dime on the Toronto Exchange Friday; New York has suspended the penny stock. Five years ago, Peladeau could have sold the doomed pulp and paper business for an estimated $5 billion.

For my reaction to Peladeau's misfortune, go here.

Week Three: The Border Tightens


When I first weighed in on The Border two weeks ago I acknowledged the trap TV critics often fall into--judging a series by its pilot, as bad as judging a book by its cover. Time to turn that page. Tonight at 9 p.m., the CBC action hour returns with a third episode and, three chapters in, I'm hooked.

Guess I'm not the only one. Of the four shows CBC launched this month, The Border remains the most-watched, pulling 710,000 viewers the first week and 599,000 in Week Two. It also won last week's TV Feeds My Family's totally unscientific poll, with 37% of respondents voting it their favorite new CBC show, ahead of MVP at 27%, jPod at 24% and Sophie at 10%.

What delighted me about tonight's episode, "Bodies On The Ground" (written by Mr Busy Keys himself, Denis McGrath) was the sure-handed growth in both plot and character. The episode got off to a flying start with an unidentified private jet making an emergency landing on a remote stretch of road in rural Quebec. Mike Kessler (James McGowan) and his elite Immigration and Customs Security squad zero in, only to learn from special agent Bianca LaGarda (sizzling CSI: Miami babe Sofia Milos) that terrorists were on board and that a hostage situation is in play. Suddenly, three armed terrorists are roaming free throughout rural Quebec. Zut alors!

Now you've got Quebec cops pissed that the Feds are all over their crime scene and the Canadian super cops pissed that the Yanks are threatening to invade their turf. What could be more Canadian in a crime drama?

Which is a big reason why I liked this episode so much. I no longer felt like I was watching a clone of an American action hour, a CSI: Niagara or Toronto. The Border is a slick, exciting, all-Canadian show, with CN Towers and Parliament Buildings in backgrounds for essential plot reasons, not just to wave flags.

Gone, too, were a lot of the one-dimensional aspects which I felt diminished almost every character in Episode One. The Father Figure, the Cowboy, the Computer Nerd--all grew beyond their sketchy pilot profiles. We had time, for example, to get to know the show's beat cops a bit better this week, especially Al "Moose" Lepinsky, played by ubiquitous Canadian actor Mark Wilson. Det. Gray Jackson (Graham Abbey) also seemed more real after coming under fire in the field. Catherine Disher continues to shine as a level-headed ICS field commander. Unlike the pilot, there are real characters to care about and root for tonight.

Cranking it all up a level is Milos as LaGarda, the Yankee thorn in Canadian squad leader Mike Kessler's side. Milos makes everyone sexier on this show, especially McGowan, who, as the Canuck in control, benefits from having a formidable sparring partner. "You guys are not good with quiet," he lectures LaGardia in one of tonight's he said/she said face offs. "You have to stop swatting flies with bunker blasters."

Which brings up a point raised by Robert Fulford in the National Post last week and given a thorough airing on McGrath's wonderfully insidery blog, Dead Things On Sticks: how much is too much when it comes to pushing the Ugly American button on Canadian TV? Have to admit the Yankee bashing felt a little forced when I watched episode one and it pops up over and over again tonight. There are snide cracks about the war on terror and American aggression and imperialism, with the bitchy Homeland Security hottie dismissing the Canucks as "just so naive."

Pushing the Canadian pride button has become a popular TV shortcut. Those beer ads where the smug Yankee dude yammers on about how bland Canucks are with their hockey and their beer before he gets duct taped into submission are all about what unites Canada more than anything else these days--anti-Americanism. If it can sell beer, it can sell TV shows, and it might even help export them everywhere but in the U.S.

I guess, but The Border doesn't need to play this David and Goliath card quite so often. There are plenty of other reasons to watch, including 24-level action, intriguing characters and snappy dialogue. Take this lament from frustrated computer geek Hieronymus Slade (Jonas Chernick), who at one point can't stop a sensitive posting from popping up all over the Internet: "Doesn't anybody just surf for porn anymore?"

TV Feeds My Family should have such problems. Maybe if I keep writing about The Border...

Friday, January 18, 2008

Couric Uplugged: Shearer Nonsense


This just in: Katie Couric is not a rocket scientist.
Not big news, true, but nice excuse to throw to this nasty little news clip currently posted on My Damn Channel, a fun little Internet destination from brilliant satirist and versatile Simpsons' voice man Harry Shearer. (Thanks to Aaron Barnhart's TV Barn Ticker for pointing me to it.)

Couric has been a steady target since taking over the CBS Evening News and this clip will cause many of her skeptics to go, "See? Told ya." But, really, she's just had her pants pulled down the same way so many newsreaders have in the past when these off-air satellite feeds have found their way onto the Internet.

Dumb anchor moments have been career killers in the past. Toronto's Gord Martineau looked like an insensitive chimp a few years ago when a blooper reel featuring the veteran City-TV anchorman made the rounds. (He immediately apologized but--even after a 30 year career--it dented his rep.) In 2000, CTV Newsnet reporter Avery Haines slagged minority groups and stutterers in off-the-wall, off-the-cuff remarks that somehow made it to air. The skunk-haired announcer was immediately canned.

Couric doesn't commit any serious slip up here, she just looks like a lightweight, which is probably even worse. Check out her high-pitched, helium giggle and remarks about senator John McCain's wife's intense blue eyes. ("She looks like a Husky!")

As for Shearer, met him in Toronto last year (he was in town to help promote his wife Judith Owen's singing gig at the Drake Hotel) and found him to be as sharp, smart and funny in person as he is on TV. There's an edge to Shearer who doesn't suffer fools easily (remarkable we got along at all). At one point, toward the end of our interview, I dared to broach a sensitive topic--his salary. The five main Simpsons voice artists have banded together on two contract renewal occasions and managed to jack their stipend into the stratosphere; each pulls down an estimated $360,000 per episode or $8 million a year.

Get off my back, Shearer basically said, pointing to the fact that nobody said boo when NFL commentator John Madden stashed the same amount of loot into his bus for working 16 Sundays a year for the network in the mid-'90s--back when Shearer and company, the stars of Fox's most successful brand, were making a tenth of what they take home today.

You can check out Shearer's word-for-word response in a Simpsons cover story I wrote in the current issue of Bell TV's SHOW magazine. I'll try and post more of that Shearer interview here in the coming weeks. The man is up to speed on everything, especially U.S. (and Canadian) politics (he's a frequent and articulate contributor to The Huffington Post), his Spinal Tap and other improv film antics and the criminal neglect which continues to plague his adopted home town, New Orleans.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Moment of Truth Arrives

We have reached the point in this strike-ravaged TV season which can now be officially declared The Moment of Truth.
That’s the title of a new Fox reality game show that EW.com describes as “…one of those is-it-genius-or-is-it-the-end-of-Western-Civilization? masterpieces.” It begins next Wednesday, Jan. 23 at 9 p.m. on Fox. (Show rich CTV has it two hours earlier at 7 p.m. )
You’ve probably already seen the promos, airing incessantly during American Idol. This is the show where contestants are strapped to a lie detector and asked a series of increasingly personal questions by a polygraph expert. As long as they answer the questions honestly, they can win up to $500,000.
Sounds simple enough, until you hear the questions. They start off harmlessly: “Have you ever parked in a handicapped spot?” “Have you ever made fun of your friends behind their backs?” Then they get pretty tough: “Have you ever thought that your parents would be better off if they were divorced?” “Is there a part of your husband’s body that repulses you?” “At your current job, have you ever touched a female co-worker inappropriately?”
Making it all the tougher is the fact that the participants parents, spouse and co-workers are right out in front, sometimes brought up on stage by host Mark L. Walberg (Temptation Island) to ask these very questions. On the teasingly sensational preview reel sent to critics, one father stands in front of his shocked-to-see-him, teary-eyed son and asks, “Will you forgive me for not being more present in your life?”
The show, then, is all about seeing people squirm, stammer and sweat. It is already a hit in the UK , where it is hosted by none other than tabloid TV icon Jerry Springer. It is also popular in counties as diverse as Columbia , France, Italy and Spain.
Seems lying, cheating and squirming is universal. Who knew?
Howard Schultz knew. He’s the creator and executive producer of The Moment of Truth. In a Fox conference call last Friday, he described how the idea came to him while he was on a treadmill at the gym. “I was just getting sick and tired of how much lying is going on around the world,” says Schultz, who must have been tuned to U.S. presidential primary election coverage at the time. He talked about how we seem to live in a perpetual spin zone. “You don’t even know who to trust anymore because everything just sounds like a bunch of BS.”
Schultz, who has been developing this idea for five or six years, said he wanted to produce a show that got to the truth. “I’m a firm believer in [the saying that] the truth shall set us free.”
The truth is that Schultz was also responsible for the original Extreme Makeover, a show critics assailed for carving up individuals through plastic surgery in the name of mass entertainment.
Those willing participants, Schultz would argue, simply wanted to overcome physical abnormalities in order to live a better life. What possesses people to go on The Moment of Truth? Besides a desire to get on television and win a lot of money, Schultz says some people are just convinced they have either nothing to hide or that, if they do, they “won’t get caught and they can get it by us.”
Schultz admits he’d squirm if he was on this show’s hot seat. He says he was watching a taping of the show in the control room with his wife when a question came up: “Is your spouse the best lover you ever had?” “I suddenly turned to her and said, ‘Well?’” Schultz says his wife never really answered the question. He confessed that the memory of one old flame might have caused him to try to lie his way out of a corner.
He’s probably counting on most players having the same moment of doubt or guilt. Otherwise, this could be a pretty easy TV payday. In what other game show do you already know all the answers to all the questions?
Walberg feels there's another hurdle: some contestants might think they are telling the truth but they’re not. “There are certain subjective things that we’re not really sure what’s true,” he suggests. “I’m sure there are plenty of truths that I have been denying myself over the years.”
Slipping up in this way will be costly on this show. One lie and all your winnings disappear. Contestants can walk away at anytime, if they’ve won $1000 or $100,000.
Schultz isn’t worried about the show stirring up controversy—in fact, he’s counting on it. “The really good stuff lies on the other side of the envelope,” he says.
At the same time, he says he’s “not here to destroy people—that’s not the goal. I’m here to say, if you’re an honest person, would you like to play a game? Can you be honest 21 times in a row? That’s the game.”
The show does have boundaries. There are no questions which pertain to minors. A parent or a divorced parent, for example, would never be asked if he or she prefers one child over another. Schultz says he is also bound by the federal broadcast regulator to steer clear of graphic sexual inquisitions. “Aside from that,” he says, he’s “basically willing to go anywhere.”
Despite the pitch that the show is really just a quest for truth, look for feelings to be hurt and tears to be shed. Seems to work every week on American Idol.

“Might there be a sting or a wound here and there? Yes,” admitted Schultz without the aid of a lie detector test. “In the hands of another producer, this show could be a bloodbath. I’m not that way. That’s not what I’m about.”
What he’s about is creating Fox’s next big hit. “It’s going to open up a dialogue in the homes across America ,” he feels, “because you can’t watch this show and not ask those questions of yourself.”
Would he ever consider a celebrity version of this show? Already working on it, says Schultz. His dream "get" for the hot seat? Who else but pitching ace Roger Clemens. "Mike Wallace asked if he would take a polygraph. I sure would like to be the one to give it to him."

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

American Idol-Inspired Radio Rant

On this week's scintillating podcast, some Idol talk with Scott Thompson at Hamilton's Talk Radio CHML, including my reaction to Tuesday's season premiere and my discomfort at watching one contestant's dream come to a shattering end (see today's earlier post on the same subject). You can listen in here.

Thursday morning at 8:05 a.m., tune in to another Hamilton radio station, K-Lite FM 102.9, where I'll be guesting on Sunni & Hayes Morning Show. The topic? What else: "Truth and Rumors: The Reality Behind TV's Most Famous Myths." Find out if this rumour is true or false: Joanie Loves Chachi was the biggest TV hit ever in South Korea because "Chachi" is Korean for "penis."

Idol's Impact Jars jPod

American Idol roared back in Canada last night, drawing 2,926,000 viewers on CTV. While that's probably good enough to rank as the No. 1 show of the week, it was proportionally off from the estimated 33.2 million viewers who saw it on Fox in the U.S.--where it registered its lowest series debut in four years.
The two hour return of Idol was a major setback for the new CBC dramedy jPod, slashing its ratings down to 250,000 viewers across Canada--a steep decline from the 472,000 who caught the debut one week before. Losing almost half your audience in one week is not good.
Unscathed head to head with Idol at 8 p.m. was the Rick Mercer Report, which actually went up last night to 832,000 viewers. (Last week it drew 810,000).
Meanwhile, Monday's second episode of The Border was seen by an estimated 599,000 CBC viewers, just 15% off last week's solid debut and more than the CBC National News drew that night (596,000). Not bad considering the stiff competition: CTV's Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles (1,114,000 in Canada and an even bigger hit in the U.S. on Fox) and the Drew Barrymore movie 50 First Dates on Global (946,000), as well as City-TV's savvy pickup of American Gladiators in the Toronto market.

La-Dee-Effin-Da


Diane Keaton drops the F-Bomb, live, on Good Morning America. It happened yesterday. Somewhere, Diane Sawyer's mom is shocked.

American Idol: Where Dreams Go To Die

The return of American Idol usually conjures up words like "silly," "mindless" and "fun." Last night, for me anyway, the word was "heartbreaking." TV's biggest hit was off-putting last night, and maybe this time not just for me--the early, overnight numbers are in, and American Idol came in 15% lower than the debut of the series one year earlier. As Marc Berman suggests today in his Mediaweek "Programming Insider" column, "at this point it is safe to say that American Idol has officially peaked."
And not a minute too soon. There was a moment in the middle of the two hour (and it seemed like two hours last night) return when I felt ashamed for tuning in.

A 16-year-old girl, among the hopefuls trying out from Philadelphia, was there to sing for her mother. You could tell before the girl opened her mouth that her only hope was to sound like Alicia Keyes. Quite overweight, she didn't fit the pop star mold (although, Ruben Studdard--recently dropped by his record label--still gives everybody hope, I guess). Her name seemed mockingly inappropriate: Temptress. We learned from Ryan Seacrest that she is a middle linebacker. She seemed warrior fearless and at the same time, scared to death.

The judges, to their credit, got it right away. No snide dismissal this time from Simon Cowell. No devastating fit of giggles from Randy Jackson and Paula Abdul (what are these two, twelve?).

Instead, she got hugs, sympathy and walked outside by all three judges. Paula even hugged her mother, who was in a wheelchair and morbidly obese, like--and, please, this is not meant to be disrespectful--exactly like the people Richard Simmons used to visit. You saw this woman, you saw her daughter, you didn't see any way out.

The question is: why did the producers choose to single this girl out, to play up her story, to profile her mom beforehand, to milk this sucker for every ounce of pathos it presented? Was it to show that the judges were kinder this year, that even Cowell has a heart?

One thing I've always admired about Cowell was his honesty. Brutally honest, yes, but I believe him when he says that he feels being honest and direct is ultimately less cruel than giving deluded kids false hope.

But there was nothing "feel good" about this moment. It was exploitative. The producers screen the thousands who come out for the mass cattle call auditions and send a select few into the room with the judges.

Since this is television, these kids are not just singled out for talent. As they do here for Canadian Idol, the producers cast their show to include the freaks and geeks as well as the next Idol finalists. They know people come back to the audition shows each winter as much to see the train wrecks as the talent. William Hung, as they say, was gold.

But once you've got the fools, the comically deluded, the woman scorned (including a very angry lass from Allentown, Pa., who set a new record for being bleeped last night), what is the point of showing the saddest girl in the world? American Idol has always sent the word out to all of America: give us your poor, your downtrodden, your huddled masses. Last night they went too far. This proud young girl was singled out for pity.

As a viewer, you want an intervention to occur to help this family. After a decade of anything-goes-reality, you expect a media whore like Dr. Phil to step in and use this girl to goose his own ratings. You expect a crew from Extreme Makeovers: Home Edition to build this family a house. You expect the host of The Biggest Loser to invite this girl and her mother on their show, promising a lifetime of fitness and good health.

You expect TV to fix it, but TV can't. TV can barely fix itself these days.

Despite the kindness from the judges, the girl was devastated. Tears streamed down her face. Not because she wasn't the greatest singer in the world--deep down, she probably knew that--but because a dream had been shattered. And not just her dream. She was, as she stated, doing this for her mother. Now what.

Maybe, after the cameras were finally turned off, a producer approached this family and offered some constructive counseling. Maybe Oprah was watching and her staff is already inviting the family onto her show. Maybe something very positive will happen as a direct result of the girl lining up, putting on her best shawl and finding the courage to go before the cameras.

I hope so. I just don't think TV should be held up as the solution, and I hate American Idol for what they chose to show last night.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Moment of Truth for Idol

Over the past five year, I've written a billion columns about American Idol. I've got nothing left to say about it. It returns tonight at 8 p.m. on Fox and CTV, Another two-hour audition show airs tomorrow.

Will it roar back as big as ever? Probably. The other networks are still terrified by it. There was not much standing in its way even back before the writers strike ripped through the schedules. It will be interesting to see if the new Tuesday and Wednesday CBC shows, JPod and Sophie, can survive given a one week head start.

In a conference call with critics last week, Fox's highest-paid star, Simon Cowell, shrugged off speculation that the show might be ready to slip. "Last year just wasn't one of our better seasons," he said, admitting they dodged a bullet when Sideshow Bob-maned distraction Sanjiah temporarily hijacked the show.

Although Idol was still dominant, a few million viewers did bail last spring. Cowell feels that, based on the auditioners so far, this season should be much more legit and interesting. He agrees that the "show has to look better, has to be more fun." To that end they've tweaked the set, allowed the kids to play their own instruments and given Paul Abdul permission to start sleeping with contestants again (kidding!).

Fox is counting on Idol to jump start its strike replacement programming, including The Moment Of Truth, a new reality show starting Jan. 23 (following next Wednesday's Idol). Hosted by Mark L. Walberg, the series hooks participants up to a lie detector and a polygraph expert asks a series of questions. If they keep telling the truth, players can win the grand prize of $500,000. Sounds too easy, but as the stakes get higher, the questions get more personal. For example: Do you find any of your spouse's friends attractive? Have you ever stolen anything at work? Do you find this idea lame? Family, friends and co-workers are sitting out front. Attorneys are standing by.

EW.com calls The Moment of Truth "...one of those is-it-genius-or-is-it-the-end-of-Western-Civilization? masterpieces." Fox Publicity was so pleased with that back-handed compliment they lead with it on their press release.

TV Feeds My Family is looking forward to the celebrity version featuring Roger Clemens, Brian Mulroney, Paula Abdul and O.J. Simpson. If the strike drags on, don't bet it won't happen.

Monday, January 14, 2008

MVP: So Offside It's Icing

MVP, or as it is being called, "Desperate Hockey Wives," feels kinda wrong on the staid old Hockey Night in Canada network, which is exactly why CBC should be doing it. Still, for me, the pilot was, to borrow a phrase from west coast critic Dana Gee, "so offside it's icing."

I may not be the only one who feels that way. The series scored 383,000 viewers across Canada its first time out Friday. That's the lowest score of the four CBC series that premiered last week.

The problem: the Friday night soap suffers from comparisons to Desperate Housewives or even more outrageous shows like Californication. You want sex scenes? Duchonvy's show's got sex scenes. The puck bunny action here seems so '80s. Street Legal showed more skin.

The producers, including Mary Young Leckie (The Arrow, Shattered City: The Halifax Explosion) got the production values right. The babes 'n' hunks cast is wall to wall eye candy. This is the NHL by way of The CW which, judging by the CW's ratings this season, may not be the best approach. Still, MVP is Smallville slick.

Lacking, at least in the pilot, was the kind of killer script Marc Cherry churns out on Desperate Housewives, full of sparkle, snap and surprises. Several encounters in the pilot screamed out for memorable zingers (especially from pampered hockey wife Evelyn McBride, played by Deborah Odell). Instead, well, I can't recall a single line anybody says.

The characters are cartoonish and one-dimensional, but, hey, welcome to soaps. Peter Miller stands out as team enforcer and babe magnet Damon Trebuchet. He tapes all his sex encounters and keeps them neatly catalogued. Lucas Bryant plays Mustangs captain Gabe McCall, jaded by all the one night stands and looking for love. Enter Kristin Booth as Connie Lewis, so goody two shoes she still blushes at being labeled a virgin. The new kid is hot shot rookie Trevor Lemonde (Dillon Casey), sort of a Jiri Tlusty with pants. Will he be the next Damon or Gabe? So many questions.

The team owner and the coach are evil bastards. The former captain, high on booze and cocaine, did a two-storey face plant during a little party his wife was throwing for the team and died. Party pooper! Two minutes for ripping off Dynasty!

The music seemed muted and generic in the pilot, exactly wrong for the MuchMusic target audience.

One scene made me laugh. Half the town is holding and reading copies of what looks like The Toronto Sun when captain Gabe and cute Connie get outed on the front page. Again, very '80s--shouldn't kids be relaying these images on their cell phones and iPods? Has anyone even looked at The Toronto Sun since, say, last January 26?

The British hit Footballers Wives is apparently a bit of an inspiration for this series. I dunno if it translates; hockey culture seems quite different from the soccer world. You don't see, say, Sidney Crosby being mobbed by paparazzi or being trashed in the tabs like David Beckham.

For viewers who like a lot more realism in their CBC drama, The Border returns with episode two tonight at 9 p.m., with easy on the eyes Sofia Milos joining the cast as an American homeland security agent working in Canada. Frisk me! Frisk me!

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Globes, Shmobes: CTV Still Scores Touchdown

Some observations at the end of what seemed like a long weekend from one bleary-eyed TV critic:
  • Was there a more important takeaway in Canadian programming this season than CTV snatching NFL football from CanWest Global? In a season gutted by the writers strike, football has been the one constant ratings winner. NFL playoff coverage took the Top 3 spots in the U.S. network rankings the week of Dec. 31. Exciting playoff games (like Saturday's Snow Bowl between the Green Bay Packers and the Seattle Seahawks, above) have goosed CTV's Saturday and Sunday night and afternoon schedules at a time when big draw award shows have been canceled and new episodes of old favorites have dried up. CTV was probably just looking to shore up their TSN brand at the time they made this deal last spring but the NFL has turned out to be a tremendous touchdown for the mother network. As for CanWest Global--thrown for a loss.

  • The Golden Globes have always been a joke, a self-serving industry wank thrown by one of the least credible organizations in a town full of phonies. Still, celebs falling out of dresses plus plenty of parties and booze was always good for ratings and a laugh. Take all that away and what have you got? I never thought I'd say this, but something WORSE than the Gemini Awards. Just entertainment mannequins standing at podiums in an empty room reading lists of names and throwing to clips of (for the most part) less than blockbuster films. Atonement, for example, was the big winner in the Best Drama category, with Sweeney Todd winning for Best Musical. Woo-hoo.

  • Imagine if there was an NFL strike before the Super Bowl, the players didn't show up, but the commentators still counted down the minutes. Shift the field to entertainment and that was the Golden Globes last night. Access Hollywood's Billy Bush and Nancy O'Dell tried to pretend they were actually covering something but they just looked more and more ridiculous as the pseudo-non-event dragged on.
  • Although not as ridiculous as the breathless woman who was live on the scene for CNN when she gushed to Larry King about how she felt this year's Golden Globes was the best evva. Another in a long line lately of Not-Great-Nights for television.

  • On the other hand, AMC's brilliant Mad Men beat out network hits like House and Grey's Anatomy to win the Best Drama prize, so maybe the Globes are legit after all. Almost all the big TV awards went to U.S. cable shows, which is exactly right. The best TV by far for the past 12 months was on U.S. cable. Glenn Close won the Best Actress in a Drama prize for Damages, an edgy little legal caper coming to Showcase next month. Mad Men (another savvy CTV pickup) also won the Best Actor prize, with uncanny Jon Hamm (above) beating out Michael C. Hall, scary good as Dexter, as well as Hugh Laurie from House and Jonathan Rhys Meyers from The Tudors.

  • I know I'm just restating the obvious here, but American Gladiators is jaw-droppingly stupid! NBC missed a great opportunity last night to combine Gladiators with the Golden Globes. Have the five Best Actor and Actress contenders line up and try to charge their way past Nitro or Gizmo or the Human Growth Hormono or whatever in a mad dash to win their awards. It would be just as legit as the usual Globe Awards and more fun for viewers.

  • There were exactly 147 Christmas tree ornaments on our tree this year. I know this because, for the first time in a decade--thanks to the cancellation of the January Television Critics Association press tour, usually held in Los Angeles--I was around to take them all off. Getting the tree ready for the composter was still more riveting than the Golden Globes.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Daily Smile: Writers Strike Edition

Check out this strike spoof gem from YouTube. It uses classic film clips to tell "The Writers Strike Story (So Far)." Don't miss the lolipop kids, they are to laff.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Shameless Self Promotion Plug No. 468

Gotta love my pals at CH in Hamilton, Mark Hebscher, Donna Skelly and producer Lawrence Diskin. They very kindly invited me on CH Live @ 5:30 today to blab about my book, Truth And Rumors: The Reality Behind TV's Most Famous Myths. The show airs at, believe it or not, 5:30 (and repeats again tonight at 11:30 p.m.).

They even let me talk about that famous Johnny Carson rumour. You know the one: Frequent Tonight Show guest Zsa Zsa Gabor once sat on Carson’s couch with her Persian cat on her lap. She asked the host if he wanted to pet her pussy. To which Carson replied, "Yeah, but the damn cat's in the way."

It NEVER, ever happened, even if your uncle or neighbor swear they saw it. The book details how that one, plus 150 other TV rumours, myths and urban legends, spread all over North America.

In addition to more radio and TV promotion (hey, somebody has to hump this book north of the border), I should have some local store signings to announce next week; check this space for details.

Sophie Comes Out On Top

What the? Despite being panned by critics, supremely unfunny sitcom Sophie bested jPod in the ratings this week as the CBC rookies continue to goose the CBC schedule.

jPod, starring David Kopp as a gamer dude, drew 472,000 viewers across Canada according to Tuesdays overnight ratings report from BBM/Nielsen. House on Global was the big timeslot winner with 1,312,000, followed by a new episode of CTV's disturbing CBS drama Criminal Minds at 965,000.

More worrying for the jPod producers was the steep fall off from what came before it on CBC: The Rick Mercer Report (801,000) and This Hour Has 22 Minutes (659,000). If that weren't bad enough, next week it faces the return of American Idol. Gulp.

Sophie, starring beguiling Natalie Brown as a career girl in crisis, scored 630,000 viewers Wednesday, easily beating Global's gamer Power of 10 with Drew Carey (476,000) but getting creamed by a new episode of Law & Order on CTV (1,412,000). The new comedy probably benefited from a very strong episode of Little Mosque on the Prairie, which attracted 804,000 viewers at 8 p.m. Both shows will have to deal with Idol next week.

So far, the new Monday drama The Border, at 710,000 viewers, has been the biggest hit among the CBC newcomers. The sexy new prime time soap MVP--described as "Desperate Hockey Wives"--debuts tonight at 9. Friday is usually where shows go to die but CBC could again benefit from a lack of stiff competition during the writers strike.

Leno, Kimmel Connect in Late Night Summit

More evidence that The Tonight Show is having a hard time booking guests during this writers strike: last night's opening guests were a Priest, a Rabbi and a Minister.

Good thing Jimmy Kimmel was Jay Leno's next guest.

The Jay/Jimmy love-in last night wasn't the vent-a-palooza I was hoping for last night but it was interesting nonetheless. The two admitted there had been a falling out and that they hadn't spoken to each other in six years (Kimmel's show has been on the air for five). Something to do with how Kimmel complained publicly about how competitive the late shift was and how Tonight was hogging all the good guests. Might also have had something to do with the fact that Kimmel once declared his ambition to be a funny version of Leno.

Not surprisingly, that didn't come up. Both hosts talked about the writers strike but tip-toed around taking sides. There seemed to be a sense (or an agreement) from both that the audience is sick and tired of strike talk, although there was this jokey exchange: "I miss my writers tremendously," said Leno. "It's terrible," said Kimmel, who then snuck in a shot at how Leno seems to have carried on with his usual monologues. "Will you write some jokes for me? Because it seems like you have plenty."

Kimmel then brought up the whole deal about big name guests ditching both shows because they don't want to cross picket lines. "Instead of movie stars, you get the cast from Celebrity Fat Club 5 on the show," he cracked.

There are advantages though, suggested Leno. "You don't have to see a lot of stupid movies and pretend they're good." Countered Kimmel: "But you have to see stupid reality shows and pretend they're good. You have to tell the Two Coreys how fantastic they are."

And so it went. Instead of strike talk, the two hosts took the opportunity to get chummy and personal. We learned, for example, that Kimmel had never been on a motorcycle before Leno rode him over on his chopper between shows. That's one way to get rid of the agents and publicists.
Later, on Kimmel's show, we learned that, after 27 years of marriage, Leno and his wife Maris still sleep in the same bed. Fascinating.
Meanwhile, over on David Letterman, the host with the writers countered with one of his biggest draws--Howard Stern. Always edgy and antagonistic, Stern needled Letterman about his never-seen girl friend ("You're like the Taliban, you keep her hidden away"), hectored him for "selling out" to Oprah and goofed about how antisocial they both are.

He also brought up the fact that Letterman paid his suspended staff out of his own pocket throughout the time the show was off the air, shaming Leno into a similar gesture. "I don't know anything about that," Letterman kept saying.

It was vintage Stern, even if Letterman looked like he'd rather be talking to Leno or Kimmel.