Friday, February 29, 2008

Facebook Friends Foil Bill C-10 Scam

The slogan at the bottom of David Kahane's University of Alberta web page says it all: "Start Something."
Kahane certainly did. The associate professor of political science--specializing in democratic theory and practice--got an email Thursday from a friend, playwright Brad Fraser, outraged at something he'd read in the Globe and Mail. Attached was the story, "Tories plan to withhold funds from offensive productions."
Inspired by a Facebook group looking at new copyright legislation, Kahane--contacted by TV Feeds My Family through Facebook--decided to see if he could "help to make a difference around C-10 using such a group."
The result: within 24 hours, 5000 people had joined "Keep your censoring hands off of Canadian film and TV! No to Bill C-10!" Many were mobilized into action, following the links Kahane provided. They contacted senators and members of parliament and voiced their outrage over this sneaky, 11th hour amendment to a tax credit bill.
The Facebook campaign was part of a storm of protest over the perceived attempt to impose a moral rider onto future Canadian film and television production (see posting below). Talk radio stations were all over the issue throughout the day. The Writers Guild and the Directors Guild of Canada sent out releases calling for a public review of the tax credit guidelines, pointing out the potential production upheaval could cost millions. Letters, faxes, phone calls and emails poured into MP, senate and even the Governor General's offices.
The effect: by late Friday afternoon, as reported over at Dead Things ON Sticks (all over this from the beginning), Bill C-10 was suspended from Third Reading and being sent back to committee.
That doesn't mean this is over; don't stop sending those cards and letters. Find the links to the call to action here. Get in on the democratic rush.
And what a rush it is. Far from being "The death of hope," as Denis McGrath despaired yesterday, the Bill C-10 kerfuffle could restore faith in the democratic process. This electronic, effective grassroots uprising gives new hope to all of us who shudder at the lack of opposition from The Opposition as well as from a mainsteam media muzzled by conflicting corporate ownership interests. If it is left to the people to be adversarial, well, more power to the people.
Kahane is modest about lighting this fuse. "I'm actually an academic," he writes, "specializing in democratic deliberation; and so it's been fascinating both to witness the mobilizing power of Web 2.0 (4000 people in a day -- I mean really!), and how chaotic and sometimes infantile the conversations that you get going can be."
At least he won't have to mark any of them. Hats off, professor.

Tempest in a Tax Credit

Holy Lord, Canadian TV is going all to Hell.
News that the Tories are trying to sneak through a morals clause in a tax bill has put a chill into Canada's creative community. In a nutshell, the Harper government has added a clause to Bill C-10, which is heading into a third reading before the senate, that would give government bureaucrats the power to exclude tax breaks for films and TV shows they deem as offensive or not in the public interest.
Basically, once this bill is passed as amended, if somebody at the Heritage Ministry finds your project offensive or even, well, a little funky, bye bye tax credit. It's sorta like how they used to do things in the Soviet Union. Trailer Park Boys nyet. Anne of Green Gables da. Welcome to CCCP 1, comrade.
Today, Bill Curry and Gayle MacDonald at the Globe and Mail broke the story even further, pointing the finger at Bible thumper Charles McVety, president of the Canadian Family Action Coalition, for bending the ear of senior Tory ministers Stockwell Day and Rob Nicholson about the need for a moral brake on the film and TV purse strings. Here's his quote: "We're thankful that someone's finally listening," he told The Globe. "It's fitting with conservative values, and I think that's why Canadians voted for a Conservative government."
Reached for comment by TV Feeds My Family, Christian leader Jesus Christ had this to add: "Why didn't McVety come to me? I'm always listening," he said. The Lord Almighty also threw in a quick plug for Oprah's Big Give (premiering Sunday, 9 p.m., CTV/ABC), which he called "uplifting, if a little unfocused."
Read the full Globe piece about McVety and the Christian lobby here; there's also a general report by Bruce DeMara in today's Toronto Star ("Tax credit changes are ominous for local film industry").
The news even reached the U.S., with The Hollywood Reporter warning that there are new strings attached to Canadian tax credits. Foreign producers shooting in Canada, they fear, may be subject to this morality strip search. That Devil guy on shot-in-Vancouver Reaper? Denied a Visa. End of series.
What does this all mean? City-TV has to change Hell's Kitchen to Heck's Kitchen? Little Mosque on the Prairie is now known as Hymn Singh? Those Bell TV beavers can now only be shown from the waist up?
Would that this was all a joke. This is the government sticking a big fat cork in the Air Farce chicken cannon next time it's aimed at Brian Mulroney.
Nonsense, says Heritage Canada. A spokesperson there told The Globe that any tax credit claw backs would be limited to matters "such as gratuitous violence, significant sexual content that lacks an educational purpose, or denigration of an identifiable group"--such as Conservatives.
Fundamentalist pressure on the culture community isn't just limited to Canada. Ever since Janet Jackson waved her tata on that Super Bowl, "family" lobbyists have attacked network television with renewed Christian zeal. The Republican government in the States have responded by leveling record fines at broadcasters over anything deemed remotely obscene. Lobbyists are smart: if you want to shut something down, go for the money.
It happened to NBC when they dared to launch a TV show about a less than saintly man of the cloth. The Book of Daniel was crucified before it ever aired. The lobby was so effective no advertiser would touch it. I remember sitting in a room with other critics and trying to count the commercials. There was one--the rest were all NBC promotional spots.
That's in a true free market system. In small market Canada, there's no production without some sort of government subsidy, be it grants or tax cuts. So the smart lobbyists go after the government purse strings.
But this isn't just about the cork in the chicken cannon, although civil liberties are at stake. There's so many issue here it is almost impossible to know where to begin. Just as the Canadian TV business is struggling back to its knees in the ratings--after years of cut backs in dramatic production and in the face of a constant tide wave of American fare--along comes a new headache for producers trying to obtain funding. If you haven't been disheartened by network neglect and politics, by the challenges of the up and down Canadian dollar, by threats of labor unrest, now you have to pass the morality sniff test. Good God.
Blogger Denis McGrath went so far as to headline this as "The death of hope" yesterday over at Dead Things ON Sticks. Don't know if I'd go that far. Lobby groups are always going to work their cause before ministers in Ottawa, especially if they're singing from the same hymn book. Hope returns if Canadians care enough to stand up for freedoms, and there is evidence today that that is happening.
You do it by fighting fire with fire. You lobby back. There's already a Facebook group, for example, called "Keep your censoring hands off Canadian film and TV! No to Bill c-10!" You can join up here.
From his pulpit, McGrath has been urging readers of his blog to call, email or fax your local MP and let them know this isn't cool with you.
I've already been on with Mike Stafford on AM 640 this morning on this hot topic. This is manna from heaven for radio talk shows, and most are going to hold McVety up to ridicule, not glory. You can catch the good reverend today on CHCH's Live @ 5:30, where, as luck would have it, he was previously booked to talk about a sex trade show at the Hamilton Convention Centre. I'm guessing the sex show will be sold out.
Can a grass roots push back work? Last I checked, ducking controversy was kind of a priority for minority governments, especially those intent on widening their base among voters who already think they are control freaks and censorship cops. I'm guessing this little amendment gets yanked before the evening newscasts. Still, take nothing for granted; keep up the heat. Otherwise, bye bye Trailer Park Boys, hello Camp Kumbaya.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Numbers Not There for MVP

No amount of monkey business seems to be able to save MVP. The steamy CBC drama scored 258,000 viewers Tuesday night, down 20,000 from the week before. This the same night CBC 8 p.m. lead-in The Rick Mercer Report soared to 1,025,000.
Across the ice, the last half of MVP faced off against another Canadian production--the season premiere of CTV's Robson Arms. Despite the most erratic scheduling in television (comet sightings are more predictable), Robson Arms attracted 686,000 viewers in the estimated overnight ratings.
Now, following American Idol (2,326,000) didn't hurt Robson's return. MVP should be so lucky. But even Big Brother on Global managed to scare up 766,000 viewers opposite MVP and Idol. The rookie CBC series, which premiered last month on Friday nights before being moved, is the low point on an otherwise strong Tuesday night for the public network.
Other Tuesday numbers: Global's The Guard slipped to 431,000 viewers at 10 p.m. opposite CTV's Law & Order (1,045,000) and the CBC National News (749,000). CBC's This Hour Has 22 Minutes, which has three new episodes left this season, clocked in at 639,000.

Roger Over and Out?

Roger Catlin has always been one of the sharpest cats on the TV beat. On press tours, his questions from the floor can be counted on to penetrate through the thick haze of spin and mediocrity. His wry observations for The Hartford Courant are a daily must read for TV fans everywhere, thanks to his constantly updated "TV Eye" blog. Roger's razor sharp wit cuts through the cheese. He knows the questions to ask and his readers get answers.
So, naturally, his job is in jeopardy.
Catlin (seen above, right, in happier days on the July, 2006 TCA press tour with Vancouver Province columnist Dana Gee and Minneapolis Star Tribune TV critic Neal Justin) gets right to it on his blog. You can read his typically dry and detached summation of his predicament here. The dude has until tomorrow to make up his mind about whether to take the buyout package or risk staying and losing out in some later round of staff cuts. Big of the paper to give him that extra Leap Year day to think about it.
Catlin may become one of a growing list of seasoned TV columnists who seem to be on the front lines when it comes to casualties in the current and bloody newspaper wars. As circulations drop, ad counts dwindle and profit margins shrink, newspaper staffs are being slashed. It happened to me a year ago. It continues to happen to others.
As newspaper ownership is converged into the same five or six mega-owners, a more centralized approach to beat consolidation is taking place. Why get buddy from Albany or Vancouver or Philadelphia to cover it if we can get the main person in the chain to string it for us all. Local voices are going the way of the Dodo.
A quick, top of my head look at who has been offered and accepted buyouts in the last year or two reads like a who's Who of TV criticism: Ed Bark, The Dallas Morning News. David Bianculli, The New York Daily News. Mike Duffy, The Detroit Free Press. Bob Laurence, the San Diego Union-Tribune.
Others have been retained by their papers but stripped of their beat. Gail Shister, The Philadelphia Inquirer. Susan Young, Oakland Tribune. Dana Gee, The Vancouver Province. Mark McGuire (now covering sports), Albany Times Union.
A big loss on the semi-annual TV critics' TCA tour is the retirement of Dusty Saunders, a career man like no other at the Rocky Mountain News. At least he got to keep at it until he was well into his 70s (and can still beat any man in the room on the tennis court).
When young and smart Melanie McFarland bolted from the Seattle Post-Intellgencer earlier this year (she's now TV editor at IMDb) her paper even didn't bother to replace her. Same with Jim Bawden, the long time Toronto Star TV columnist who took a package in January.
There isn't a TV critic in North America who isn't looking over his or her shoulder these days. As San Francisco Chronicle critic Tim Goodman comments on Catlin's blog, you dare not look at the industry blog Romensko these days, "because it's like reading the obituary for journalism."
Catlin's a sharp dude and will figure something out. Maybe he'll keep his head and his job. It just sucks that he has to even think about this at all.
It's also a sharp slap in the face for readers who keep putting quarters into news boxes. TV has never been in more of a revolution and context and insight has never been more timely in terms of navigating through it all. So why shoot the most experienced, proven messengers? It just doesn't make sense.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

This Week's Podcast: Kimmel and Bits

More TV talk with Hamilton's Scott Thompson, including why Jimmy Kimmel should host the Oscars, what's the deal with that show Tom Green does out of his house and the storm brewing in late night with that whole hand off to Conan O'Brien of Jay Leno's Tonight Show. Plus Oprah's Big Give--does it give you the willies? Catch the CHML Talk Radio podcast here.

Life Imitates Art?

Is the Barack Obama U.S. presidential campaign retyping old West Wing scripts? Saw this over at Denis McGrath's Dead Things ON Sticks today:



You can read McGrath's take on this here. The Slate video cleverly juxtaposes the real and imagined campaigns but the underdog, outsider bid by Matt Santos (Jimmy Smits) wasn't that much of a creative stretch and the parallels are more about rhetoric and style than substance. There was no Hillary in The West Wing script, for example, just a weak VP character as a Democratic rival (played by Gary Cole). There was, however, a charismatic minority candidate riding a desire for hope and change into battle against a Republican who was a little too Red for many Republicans.
Those street scenes of Santos on the hustings, by the way, were shot up in Stouffville, Ont. Smits and the extras were standing outside the "Fickle Pickle" bar in Stouffville. I interviewed Smits that December day back in 2004 when The West Wing came north to shoot their presidential primary scenes in and around Southern Ontario. You can read that interview, plus a sidebar where co-star Bradley Whitford rips into George Bush (then newly re-elected to a second term) here.
Interesting to note, too, that the original West Wing scripts called for the Republican candidate, California Senator Arnold Vinick (Alan Alda), to win the fake TV election. The writers changed the outcome after West Wing star John Spencer, who played Smit's fictional vice presidential candidate, died suddenly in the run up to the election episodes.

Jaywalking All The Way to the Bank

Nobody has a better handle on the late night scene than Bill Carter at The New York Times. The author of The Late Shift and, more recently, Desperate Networks, Carter's connections with industry power players runs deep, even after he's spilled the beans so many times in the past. I know from personal experience that he's an easy guy to talk to and one hell of a listener. Being the Times' guy, he gets to sit down on a bench next to Les Moonves at the CBS press tour party and share a private moment. He also knows when to lock all that up in the vault and when to run with it large--which is why Moonves and others keep talking to him.
So when Carter says Jay Leno will bolt NBC once his Tonight Show deal is done in 2009 to become the highest-paid player at 11:30, take it to the bank.
The full story is here in today's New York Times. Among the highlights: Conan O'Brien, promised the Tonight Show in a deal to take effect in the fall of 2009, will probably shut down NBC's Late Night with Conan O'Brien in January of next year. That will give him six months or so to take over The Tonight Show, which will be shot in a new studio NBC is building now.
Replacing O'Brien on Late Night at 12:35 will most likely be former SNL star Jimmy Fallon, Lorne Michaels' hand-picked successor. Michaels, who snatched O'Brien from obscurity, producers Late Night through his company, Broadway Video.
Leno will remain under contract to NBC and can not launch a rival show until Jan., 2010, allowing O'Brien a few months to get a leg up at 11:30.
NBC, of course, wants to keep both Leno and O'Brien. All Leno wants, as Carter re-states, is to keep "doing jokes at 11:30." NBC takes that away late next year, despite the fact that Leno, even without writers through the strike, continues to dominate arch rival Letterman in the ratings.
Which is why Leno, NBC's ultimate company man, is likely to walk. While no one is supposed to be negotiating with him yet, among the networks and studios circling are ABC, Fox and Sony. The latter is said to be offering Leno his own new studio on their lot and $40 million a year--well above David Letterman's current take, rumored to be north of $30 million. Carter figures Leno now squeaks by at a mere $25 million (plus whatever he hauls in through hundreds of club dates a year).
If Leno chooses ABC, one rumored scenario, they'll cancel Nightline and give him their 11:30 slot. Fox would likely offer him 11 p.m.
Not mentioned in Carter's piece is the fate of ABC's Jimmy Kimmel, who keeps steadily inching up on his rivals in the ratings and has generated a lot of heat lately with his hilarious "I'm F***ing Matt Damon" videos with girlfriend Sarah Silverman. Leno and Kimmel teamed up during the recent writers strike, guesting on each other's shows. Have they formed an alliance heading into this high stakes game of network tribal council? Will Leno eventually cut a deal where he owns his show and owns Kimmel's that follows?
All that is certain is that NBC's gamble to keep O'Brien in this protracted five year Tonight Show hand off is not going to be enough all by itself to keep the Peacock network No. 1. Like everything else in television, late night is up for grabs heading into 2009. Look for Carter to explain it all to us before then.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Viewers Run Back to The Border

That "Yes!" you just heard came from CBC where The Border rocketed back up to 716,000 viewers Monday night.
The Week The Women Went had another solid outing Monday, drawing 802,000 viewers. The Series finale is in two weeks, but look for CBC to bring this one back, with small towns in other regions like Quebec and The Maritimes likely on the radar.

The beneficiary of all this good fortune on Mondays is CBC News, which scored 822,000 yesterday evening at 10.
CBC's highest-rated show Monday night? What else, Coronation Street, with 856,000 viewers. I am at a loss.

Again, CBC had a better night than Global, with the Sean Combs' starrer A Raisin In The Sun coming third in Canada, managing only 547,000 viewers opposite The Week The Women Went. In the U.S. on ABC (where it benefited from all that Oscar promotion), the two-hour TV-movie won its timeslot.

CTV won Monday night but not by much, with The Moment of Truth (986,000), Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles (833,000) and a new episode of Medium (1,183,000) all winning their timeslots in households according to BBM NMR overnight data.

CTV's Degrassi: The Next Generation continues to underwhelm at 455,000 Monday. CBC, meanwhile, continues to get bonus numbers from the under the radar family offering Heartland, which quietly scored another 625,000 viewers Sunday night.

Travel Back in GSN's TV Time Machine

Want to take a trip back in time? Back to an era of manners and civility on television? You'll have to stay up half the night or be able to tape, TiVo or PVR to find it. I'm talking about GSN's 3 a.m. blast of "black and white overnight," the vintage airings of panel shows What's My Line and I've Got A Secret.
This morning at 3, GSN went to the back of the vault to unearth the very first episode of What's My Line, a simple show where panelists tried to guess the occupation of various contestants by asking a series of questions. The Feb. 2, 1950 debut looked like it was made in 1850. Instead of long time regulars Arlene Francis and Bennett Cerf, the panel consisted of three forgotten older men, including a former governor of New Jersey. Among them was New York columnist Dorothy Kilgallen, who remained with the show for 15 years until her death--under mysterious circumstances--in 1965.
GSN is showing What's My Line, the longest-running U.S. panel show (17-and-a-half seasons), in sequence, so you can catch the second show tonight. I believe that's when Francis makes her debut on the panel. Host John "Charles" Daly (as Cerf used to call him) was the only regular to be with the series from first to last episode.
The live, early shows are cruder both technically and in spirit. The post-war world was a little less mannered than in the later '50s and early '60s, with panelists puffing away on cigars and asking pretty blunt questions. The show took a few months to find its feet, with contestants being asked to parade up and down in front of the panel, balance books on their heads and other pointless stuff.
While it is a rare glimpse into what TV was like just as coaxial cables were making coast-to-coast network broadcasts possible, it is the later episodes of What's My Line which are more interesting. The series mystery guest element brought all kinds of surprises, with stars as diverse as Frank Sinatra, Woody Allen, Elizabeth Taylor, Marlon Brando, Steve McQueen, Jane Fonda, John Wayne and Barbra Streisand showing up to see if they could stump the panel. Even God, apparently, was a What's My Line mystery guest.
Take a look at this clip from the late '50s, with mystery guest Alfred Hitchcock signing in with his usual flourish:

Hitch's cheekiness about his Rear Window leading lady, Grace Kelly, is an eye opener given how that relationship has been, pardon the pun, Psycho-analyzed over the years.
There are dozens of other What's My Line postings on YouTube, with Groucho Marx, Salvador Dali, Burns and Allen and even The Supremes being featured. What fascinates me is the sophistication and formality of the Broadway-based panelists, who were always done up in tuxes and gowns.
Taken today, What's My Line stands as an elegant, irony-free zone. It must have seemed like your grandfather's game show when it was edged off the air in 1967, just as the Smothers Brothers wer slowly starting to change the culture at CBS. It was not a "happening" show, it was square, man. But it seems admirably so today, especially in an era when so many so-called celebrity guests squirm their way through whatever reality show will keep them current. (see more about this in a CP story I wrote last week posted here.)
Give the diginet credit for pandering beyond the 18-49 demo, even if it is in the middle of the night. GSN historian David Schwartz, who I spoke with last week by phone from L.A., says nobody else is doing it these days. The network is fortunately that almost all the old Goodman-Todson panel shows still exist, although that final, colour season of What's My Line only survives in black and white prints. Another hurdle, and this is ironic, is embedded advertising. Many shows in the '50s had sponsor signage posted on screen, especially in game and variety shows such as the Texaco Star Theater and the Buick Berle Hour. Several seasons worth of I've Got A Secret, for example, cannot be shown on GSN due to cigarette advertising being displayed on the wall or on the desk in front of the panel--even though many of those brands no longer exist. Schwartz agrees that GSN could probably digitally cover the old sponsor signs with new ones (now there's a marketing opportunity). The way technology has advanced, it wouldn't cost a fortune to do that today, but that call is up to the network, says Schwartz.
Ironically, a cigarette sign prevents GSN from airing one of the rarest sightings in its panel show vaults--the one and only appearance on television of the man who invented it--Philo T. Farnsworth. The subject of a play, The Farnsworth Invention, by West Wing creator Aaron Sorkin, Farnsworth was the mystery guest on I've Got A Secret on July 3, 1957--a few weeks after I was born. Nobody on the panel guessed that it was he who invented television. Farnsworth was rewarded with $80 and a carton of cigarettes.
Farnsworth is still getting short shrift--Sorkin's poorly-reviewed Broadway effort closes March 2.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Kimmel's Oscar Worthy Revenge

Sunday night after the Oscars on ABC, Jimmy Kimmel got his revenge on saucy girlfriend Sarah Silverman. You'll recall her musical confession that she was F***ing Matt Damon. Kimmel hit Damon where it hurts, taking away the one person even more precious in his "We Are The World"-inspired get even video, I'm F***ing Ben Affleck.

More proof that Kimmel deserves the next shot at hosting what's left of the Academy Awards. There's more star power in this four-minute spoof than in the entire four hour Oscar telecast--including shout outs from Robin Williams, Don Cheadle, Cameron Diaz, Harrison Ford and (!) Huey Lewis.
UPDATE: For insight into how Kimmel's revenge video came together, including how the 22 celebrities who took part were booked (including Brad Pitt as the delivery guy), check out this piece at MTV.com. And look for "I'm F***ing Ben Affleck" again Friday night at 12:05 when the entire post-Oscar party will be repeated on Jimmy Kimmel Live.

No Ratings For Old Men

There may be blood after preliminary ratings for last night's Academy Awards suggest that it was by far the lowest-rated Oscarcast ever.
According to Nielsen Media Research, the overnights show a 14% drop below the previous worst ever performance by an Oscar, in 2003. Worse, it was down 24% year-to-year in the 18-49-year-old demo. Sunday's show drew around 32 million U.S. viewers, which isn't that different from what American Idol scores on a strong week (or at least, what it scored on a strong week last season).

Last night's telecast, which saw the Cohen brothers' No Country For Old Men win Best Picture, was also down a staggering 21% from the year-ago numbers, when Martin Scorsese's The Departed won the top prize. Around 40 million viewers tuned in last year.

Why didn't viewers rush back to the red carpet after the writers strike wrecked The Golden Globes and other awardfests this winter? Pick your theory. The Best Picture nominees, aside from Juno, were all serious dramatic downers this year. There was no big blockbuster to drive moviegoers to the party. Jon Stewart was less than hilarious when he first hosted two years ago and didn't grab people this year. The rains in L.A. put a damper on the red carpet event. The show never got up to speed with just two weeks after the strike to prepare. Younger viewers think the whole thing is a big fat bore. Five years of nightly, round-the-clock entertainment stalker shows has led to celebrity burn out.

Whatever the reason, TV is still reeling after the writers strike and the Oscars did nothing to stop the bleeding. All those promos on CTV last night telling viewers to hang in there for new episodes of Grey's Anatomy, ER and Desperate Housewives in April basically also said turn off the set until then. Can these hit shows expect similar drops when they all return? If you are in TV ad sales right now, you couldn't be more scared than if Javier Bardem was on your trail.

There Will Be Bland

Well, there's four hours I'll never get back.
The 80th Annual Academy Awards were handed out last night, and as Johnny Carson once cracked, they managed to cram two hours of entertainment into four.
After lowering expectations with a lousy performance in 2006, a much more relaxed Jon Stewart was better this time as host, scoring early with a punchy, straight ahead string of zingers.
He pointed out Julie Christie in the audience, joking that her film, Away From Her, was "a remarkable story of a woman who forgets her own husband. Hillary Clinton called it the feel good movie of the year."
He mentioned that the Eddie Murphy dud Norbert earned a nomination (in makeup). That was a good thing, he said. "Too often the Academy ignores movies that aren't good."
There were plenty of shots at the writers strike and the U.S. presidential election. He joked that Barack Hussein Obama had overcome a name that sounds too much like America's enemies, just like that chap who ran in 1940, "Gaydolf Titler."
The opening monologue was all very Daily Show but it worked because Stewart was relaxed and the jokes were funny. Unfortunately, he only got off about one funny line an hour after that, all of them prepared bits. One goofed on versatile Cate Blanchett, nominated for playing both a man (Bob Dylan in I'm Not There) and a Queen (Elizabeth: The Golden Age). Stewart joked that she also played a pit bull in No Country For Old Men. Later in the show he was caught coming back from a commercial break playing a Nintendo Wii game on the giant screen. Noting Blanchett, Jessica Alba and Nicole Kidman were all pregnant, he awarded one of their babies to Angelina Jolie. She wasn't in the audience, noted Stewart. "It's tough to get 17 baby sitters on Oscar night."
Stewart had less luck with his ad libs. After Best Supporting Actor Award-winner Javier Bardem made a passionate speech in Spanish to his mother, Stewart translated his "French," suggesting Bardem was telling his mother where the library was. He had a whole commercial break to come up with that. Toward the end of the night, Stewart stooped to a joke about Harrison Ford being either a movie star or a car dealership. Cue the snare drum.
Even cutting to Jack Nicholson in the front row--usually Oscar gold--got old. Stewart's gag that Jack may sire new babies by the end of the night was either creepy or left over from a 1984 ad-lib.
The rest of the show suffered from the lack of prep time due to the writers strike, or some sort of Hollywood hangover, something. The set looked empty (Stewart emerged at the start from a giant tube) and the presenters seemed pedestrian. There was no show stealing moment from a Robin Williams or a Chris Rock. One musical number that cried out for production, the Happy Working Song from Enchanted, was just the one chick singing on stage. Way too many clips were shown (including scenes from all 79 previous Oscar winners), extending the show simply and way too obviously to allow more commercials. The clips went on so long 98-year-old honorary Oscar-winner Robert Boyle was only 45 when the night began.
Then there were the many less than impressive hours a the podium. To paraphrase Groucho, I thought my razor was dull until I hear some of the acceptance speeches. "Oh my God, we went blank," blanked one winner. "I'm blanking out too," went her equally forgettable partner.
It got so bad Colin Farrell nearly wiping out was an Oscar highlight.
There was actually more excitement before the show. Red dresses were everywhere, including on Anne Hathaway, Helen Mirren, Miley Cyrus and Katherine Heigl, but there were no Bijork or Cher-level clown suits. Crazyman Gary Busey crashed the red carpet, scaring the hell out of Ryan Seacrest and Jennifer Garner. Regis Philbin kept calling Javier Bardem "Xavier," perhaps confusing him with Cugat. It was that kind of a night.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Sun Shines on Truth and Rumors

It's nice to be back in The Toronto Sun again, thanks to my old pal Jim Slotek, who reviews my book Truth and Rumors: The Reality Behind TV's Most Famous Myths today across the Sun Media chain. (I missed the front page, knocked out of the Sun again by a Tory. Damn!)

You can read Jim's review here. He calls it a "bathroom book worthy of the great Lamparski," a reference to Richard Lamparski, the author of a series of fascinating and addictive "Whatever Happened to..." books. I'll take the compliment and swear I didn't write the review myself.

There's proof of that at the end when Jim corrects one detail in my book. Back when he was The Sun's TV columnist, Slotek worked the Television Critics Association press tour and was there that day when TV's Lone Ranger, Clayton Moore, roared into a TCA press conference with guns blazing. The crazy old coot nearly blew Slotek's head off, firing blanks up in the air at the Beverly Hilton hotel.

I wrote in the book that Moore was forbidden to wear his old Lone Ranger black mask at the time; Jim points out that the actor had just won the right in court to wear it again and, in fact, took it to his grave (he died in 1999). Damn! Wish that little nugget was in my book!

I stand corrected and also bow to Slo's knowledge of all things Star Trek. I say in Truth and Rumors that Kirk and Uhura never really shared TV's first interracial kiss. Slo says he "always considered it a specious claim anyway, since they were on a planet of telekinetic Greeks (would take too long to explain) who were forcing Kirk, Spock, Uhura et al to perform for their amusement. It would have qualified as a racial milestone if they'd got busy voluntarily after several pints of Romulan ale."

There you boldly go. Thanks Kemo Sabe, see you at the lake.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

And the Oscar Goes To...

Annual Oscar prediction lists are so lame, every numskull within a mile of a keyboard does one every year. Then again, they take less time to write than to read, so here we go:

BEST ACTOR

Nominees:
George Clooney in Michael Clayton
Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood
Johnny Depp in Sweeney Todd The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Tommy Lee Jones in In the Valley of Elah
Viggo Mortensen in Eastern Promises

WILL WIN: Daniel Day-Lewis. I haven't seen any of these films, always a big plus when it comes to handicapping the Oscar race. If just one of them had added Leslie Nielsen to the cast, I might have been tempted. As it is, I was depressed just typing these titles, so like I'm going to spend four dollars or whatever it is now to sit in the dark next to some gum-smacking yahoo while Cineplex bombards me with 45 ads for cell phones--then asks me to shut off mine.
Mortensen is in a Cronenberg film. That creeps out everybody, so, he's out. Plus his name rhymes with "Piggo." Jones was outstanding in No Country For Old Men but he's nominated for some sort of Israeli Green Giant commercial, so, pass. Depp once acted through an entire picture with scissors on his hands. Cut! Clooney just won a supporting actor Oscar already--back of the line, pretty boy. That leaves Day-Lewis, a come back kid, a foreigner and probably a big booze hound (he's Irish). A shoo-in.

SHOULD WIN: Brampton's Michael Cera for Juno or Superbad--take your pick. The kid has awkward cool down cold and isn't even 20 yet. Tell him he shoulda got at least nominated next time you see him in the club house up at Banty's Roost. Pray those Arrested Development movie rumours are true.

BEST ACTRESS

Nominees:
Cate Blanchett in Elizabeth: The Golden Age
Julie Christie in Away from Her
Marion Cotillard in La Vie en Rose
Laura Linney in The Savages
Ellen Page in Juno

WILL WIN: Julie Christie. I've only seen Juno, so again I'm pretty confident going into this category. Page is a doll and kicks ass in Juno, she should win every award there is, but the cranky old Academy will make the Canadian girl wait. Linney--what the hell was The Savages? I've seen pictures in newspapers of Cotillard from La Vie en Rose, she's either trying to be Edith Piaf or Edith Bunker. Either way, Gaak! Banchett plays a Queen, which won it for the other English dame last year, but John Travolta probably stole Blanchett's thunder this year playing a Queen in Hairspray. Plus she's also nominated in the supporting category for playing Bob Dylan. She walks, just like a woman, but she acts like a little man. Okay.
That leaves Christie, who is old and making a comeback and used to be really really hot. Take it to the bank.

SHOULD WIN: Page, Page, Page, brilliant in Juno. To think she used to be in ReGenesis!

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR

Nominees:
Casey Affleck in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men
Philip Seymour Hoffman in Charlie Wilson’s War
Hal Holbrook in Into the Wild
Tom Wilkinson in Michael Clayton

WILL WIN: Javier Bardem. Again, only seen one of these, so trust me, I know. Affleck is probably related to Ben Affleck, so, please. Plus listing the entire, 10-word title of his movie on the screen would take up his entire acceptance speech. Hoffman has three names so it could be close but he just won last year for playing Harry S. Truman, or Truman Capote, of that guy from the Trueman show. Holbrook is a hell of an actor and really old but I'm pretty sure Into the Wild was a TV show and doesn't qualify. Wilkinson is in Michael Clayton, a film that was released twice and still nobody saw it.
Bardem was so bloody frightening in No Country For Old Men Academy members probably fear for their lives if they were to vote against him. He should get an Oscar just for sporting that bad '70s haircut for the entire picture, worst movie hair since Travolta in, well, anything recently.

SHOULD WIN: Bardem. I'm afraid of him, too.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

Nominees:
Cate Blanchett in I’m Not There
Ruby Dee in American Gangster
Saoirse Ronan in Atonement
Amy Ryan in Gone Baby Gone
Tilda Swinton in Michael Clayton

WILL WIN: Cate Blanchett. If you wear a hump, or a can't see or walk or hear or affect the worst handicap of them all--playing a man--you win. It's that simple. Advantage Blanchett. Ruby Dee has an outside shot because she's old and has a name you want to say over and over.
I'm pretty sure none of the other women in this category are really actresses at all, I think maybe they were all on Survivor Micronesia, or The Real World, or Girlicious. Fortunately, I haven't seen a minute of any of these films, so this prediction is a lock.

SHOULD WIN: Blanchett. How come Eddy Murphy plays men and women and even donkeys on screen (and, well, at home too apparently) and gets pasted by critics but Blanchett gets Oscars? Is it the fat suits? Doesn't seem fair, dammit.

BEST PICTURE

nominees:
Atonement
Juno
Michael Clayton
No Country For Old Men
There Will Be Blood

WILL WIN: No Country For Old Men. All the old men who run the Academy will rise up in confusion and vote for this, under the mistaken impression that it is some sort of attack on old men. The ones who actually saw it will be so damn scared of Javier Bardem they'll vote for it out of fear. If There Will Be Blood wins there will be blood.

SHOULD WIN: Knocked Up, Superbad, Juno. Take you pick, all way better then the depressing crap that dominates these Oscars. Go Juno.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Global Shortage

The untold story of the impact of the writers strike in Canada may be the Global effect. Meaning the once mighty Global TV network has slipped behind CBC for third place some nights in Canada.

Now, Global is down but not out. Thursdays are still strong with Survivor Micronesia drawing over 2 million viewers a week plus Celebrity Apprentice adding another million-plus.

But losing even one night a week to CBC (besides Saturday, where Hockey Night in Canada still rules) would have been unthinkable even last year. The strike changed the game but how the two networks strategized through the strike made the difference.

Credit CBC with good planning to go with plenty of luck and timing. While there are no breakout hits (MVP, in particular, has been a ratings disappointment), CBC has had consistent traction with two of its four January starters, well placed opposite strike imposed U.S. reruns on the private networks. Without new episodes of automatic money makers 24, Brothers & Sisters, House and Heroes, Global has been fading fast.

This comes after a lot of hollering from the CanWest network last fall about how it was finally breathing down CTV's neck in the ratings, especially in the prized 18-49 demo and especially in Canada's largest cities. That was before the strike. Since then, it has been hardest hit by the benching of its most valuable U.S. assets, especially Heroes (gone until the fall) and 24 (gone until next January). As mentioned here before, losing NFL football was a big fumble for Global this season, as CTV scored touchdown after touchdown during those crucial strike weeks.

Here's the really bad news: the headache for Global will throb for at least two more months. House isn't due to return with new episodes until April 21. That last new Prison Break? Aired Monday. Uh-oh.

Take a look at this Wednesday night: CTV is dominant across the night, starting with Jeopardy! at 7:30 (1,136,000), then a two hour American Idol (2,466,000) and a still strong in Canada Law & Order at 10 (1,762,000. All figures BBM NMR overnight data).

CBC comes second for the night with the inexplicably addictive Brit soap Coronation Street (719,000) at 7 followed by Marketplace (510,000), Little Mosque on the Prairie (just under 900,000), consistant if unspectacular rookie Sophie (538,000), the fifth estate (462,000), then The CBC News at 10 (889,000).

Now look at Global: Entertainment Tonight Canada (382,000, slipping behind CTV's eTalk despite the run up to the Oscars), a simulcast at 8 of CBS's tepid Big Brother (697,000) then shockingly low numbers for reruns of U.S. comedies The Office (203,000) and My Name is Earl (180,000). At 10, the lights were off for what was probably the last ever episode of Friday Night Lights (142,000).

Let this sink in: the ratings for three of Global's U.S. imports Wednesday night--The Office, My Name is Earl and Friday Night Lights--add up to less than the number of Canadians who watched Sophie the same night.

Consider too that Friday Night Lights was a simulcast of a new episode, a season finale. On Global, it got about half what much-maligned MVP managed on CBC this week. Can you spell "make goods?"

A half-assed strategy to coast through the strike Monday nights with worn out Blockbuster rentals hasn't helped. Neither has a cold hand when it comes to U.S. cable pick ups. Big Love drew big nothing last Thursday, just 275,000 viewers.

Global will try again tonight at 9 p.m. with the debut of NBC's big money game show Amne$ia. It hails from Mark Burnett and features smart ass Dennis Miller as host. Who knows--Deal of No Deal has brought Global briefcases full of cash. But unless something clicks soon, Global programmers will pray for amnesia just to forget this long, brutal winter.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Good Evening Hollywood Phonies

Is Jon Stewart too smart for this room?

The host of The Daily Show, back in a tux for the 80th Annual Academy Awards (Sunday at 8 p.m. on CTV and ABC), was seen as the Oscar saviour in 2006. It was widely anticipated that he would add edge and boost viewership among younger viewers. That he would bring down the house.

Did that happen? Not so much. Stewart badly misfired with jokes that landed with a thud on the red carpet. He called the Johnny Cash biopic Walk The Line, for example, "Ray with White People." Cut to a wincing Jamie Foxx. He told audiences to stop pirating movies. "There are women here who could barely afford enough gown to cover their breasts." Cue crickets chirping in the Kodak Theater.

"I kid because I envy," Stewart joked, but the Academy audience and viewers at home weren't laughing. (Read my original 2006 post-Oscar review here.) As for attracting more younger viewers, it was the second lowest-rated Oscar telecast ever.

Washington Post critic Tom Shales suggested Stewart should keep his Daily job. "It's hard to believe that professional entertainers could have put together a show less entertaining than this year's Oscars," wrote Shales, "hosted with a smug humorlessness by comic Jon Stewart, a sad and pale shadow of great hosts gone by."

That seems a bit harsh. Can anybody remember a single funny line from recent Oscar hosts Ellen DeGeneres or Whoopi Goldberg? Sure, Johnny Carson and Bob Hope had more stature but even they had off nights.

The guy they should have asked is Jay Leno. He's tight with all the stars and delivers what everybody wants to hear--jokes. Whatever you might think of The Tonight Show and its muzzled, Middle America approach, Leno can still work a room. He'd kill at the Oscars.

In 2006, Stewart made the same mistake David Letterman made before him--he preached to the converted, playing to his usual viewers and not to the room full of stars and celebrities directly in front of him. The No. 1 rule for an Oscar host is this: play to the room and America will follow.

Chris Rock was always screwed. Without his F-bombs he was up there an unarmed man. Nobody wants to see Chris Rock lite. Better to have three minutes of Rock as a presenter, jolting the room like a well-aimed hand grenade.

Billy Crystal, the most successful Oscar host of the past 20 years (of which he's anchored eight), always says that when you can make Jack Nicholson in the front row laugh, you can make America laugh. He gets that the Academy Awards are a fantasy and for one night. Viewers get to cosy up with George Clooney and Cate Blanchett, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie or to at least sit close enough to watch them all squirm.

Stewart's schtick in 2006 wasn't inclusive, it was an outsidery. His loyal viewers expect and embrace that, but people who tune in to the Oscars to be in on the party feel excluded by it.

So what to expect this year? Look for Stewart to have learned from his mistakes and to seize his second chance. This time expectations are much lower, which actually helps. How can he be brilliant now that he's scrambling to catch up with The Oscars after the writers strike came this close to scuttling the whole affair? Another presumed disadvantage: the list of Oscars contenders this year is heavy on the heavy, with grim titles like Atonement, No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood--hardly the stuff of comedy, or is it?

Just when you think, how can he be funny? He'll be funny. He'll give directions to the big post-Oscar party this year--at Bob's Big Boy in Burbank. He'll hand out the Jean Hersholt lifetime achievement award--to Sofia Milos. (Okay, only 12 people in Canada would get that.) He'll set up a scene from No Country for Old Men and then cut to shot of Sen. John McCain. He'll announce a late entry: There Will Be Blood on the Floor of the Democratic National Convention.

He'll be funnier than that. A bigger question may be this: will viewers starved for some red carpet glitz roar back to the Oscars? Or is everybody still feeling a little blah about the whole deal? I'm guessing Stewart will be better but the numbers will not. Go Juno.

Still Live From New York: Don Pardo

Quick TV quiz: who is the longest serving member of the Saturday Night Live team? Darrell Hammond? No, but good guess. In terms of cast members, the uncanny impressionist has been with the show longer than any other player, 13 seasons. Trick question then--Lorne Michaels, right? Wrong Bass-O-Matic breath, Toronto-born Michaels created the show and is still the executive producer but missed five uneven years during the early '80s.
The answer--kinda obvious if you read the headline--is announcer Don Pardo, who turns 90 tomorrow and will be there Saturday when the NBC comedy franchise returns after its longest mid-season shut down ever, the three month-long writers' strike sabbatical.

Born Feb. 22, 1918, Dominick George "Don" Pardo, who joined the NBC Radio Network as an announcer in June of 1944--or, as Michaels pointed out on the last press tour, "before I was born," still flies to New York every weekend to work the show. He began when the show began in 1975, and, aside from one season (1981-82) has been the announcer ever since.
Tomorrow night, he'll leave his condo in Tucson, Arizona, fly to New York, then cab it to Manhattan's Rockefeller Plaza, where he will head for the eighth floor, stand in Studio 8-H and bellow, "It's Saturday Night Live!" He flies home again on Sunday.

He tried to retire in 2004, but Michaels worked it so Pardo could continue to be the voice of the show from a special studio built into his Arizona condo. "And that was all agreed, and then you look over, and there he is," said Michaels. "He's in the studio."

Pardo's distinct baritone is also associated with several game shows. He announced the old Art Fleming version of Jeopardy! during the '60s and worked The Price is Right back in the '50s.

As the on-duty booth announcer for WNBC in New York on Nov. 22, 1963, Pardo was also the first to break the news to NBC viewers that president John F. Kennedy had been shot. (His 1:45:03 p.m. EST bulletin interrupted a rerun of Bachelor Father in New York.) Believed for years to be lost, Pardo's historic announcement was recorded off the air and archived by then amateur audio buff Phil Gries, who donated it to the Kennedy Library in 1997 (read more about that here).

Saturday Night Live returns with the first of four straight new shows Saturday at 11:30 on NBC and Global. Former head writer and 30 Rock star/creator Tina Fey is this weekend's guest host, with Carrie Underwood the musical guest. The last new SNL aired Nov. 3.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

MVP DOA; Viewers Went With Women

Ever notice how Canadian TV overnights take several overnights? Should they call them "Over a couple of nights?" Monday's BBM/NMR estimates show The Border drew 548,000, up a bit from last week. The Week The Women Went went way up, to 929,000. Degrassi: 426,000. Corner Gas: 1,286,000.
Tuesday, MVP continues to skate into the boards for CBC, with just 278,000 tuning in. The Guard managed 504,000 on Global. CBC's back-to-back comedies Rick Mercer and This Hour Has 22 Minutes clocked 856,000 and 748,000 respectively. Tuesdays big draw, of course, was CTV's simulcast of American Idol, with 2,193,000 viewers--huge but not as crazy huge as in season's past.

Before you ask, the show I keep forgetting--Heartland--drew 509,000 CBC viewers Sunday.

The Canadian TV Fund: My Two Cents

If you've been watching The Rick Mercer Report, or This Hour Has 22 Minutes, or Sophie, or The Guard, or any other Canadian-made programming this week, you've probably noticed an ad for the Canadian Television Fund. If you're not in the TV game, you might have been a little puzzled by the pitch.
"What's that promoting--CBC shows?" my son asked. No, and especially no if you ask Jim Shaw or P.K. Peladeau, I thought. The ad is basically designed to raise awareness for the fact that, over the past 15 years, the TV Fund has helped many different domestic shows--from Trailer Park Boys to Degrassi to The Border--get up and running and stay on the air.

Like the little green, wing-shaped, Maple seed logo suggests, it is seed money. You pay into it, through your cable bill, and the cable companies throw it into a pot which gets distributed to savvy Canadian TV producers who know how to ask for it. It is about 10,000 times more complicated than that but that's it in a Maple seed.

My question is this: Who is paying for these ads? It is money that came out of the Fund? Is the air time bought with Fund money? If this is so, did some show not get the money it needed because the Fund had to use it to convince Canadian television viewers it was a vital part of the production industry? If somebody out there knows, feel free to bring me into the loop.

I know why the ads are on the air, and why now. The Fund is under attack. Just last week in Ottawa, cable bosses, especially from Shaw and Videotron, told the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission that the Fund is broken, obsolete, distributed to the wrong people, all of the above. They resent having to part with up to 5% of their gross broadcasting revenue, which is directed by the government toward the fund. Some have suggested the money goes to arty projects nobody watches, or worse, it goes to the CBC. They want a direct say in where it goes, or they want it split into two pots, one for shows aimed at mass audiences, one for arty crapolla. Or they say they want to give the money back to cable and satellite subscribers. Wow, look at that--Hell just froze over!

A bus load of Canadian actors, writers and producers and even executives from Canadian TV networks stood up with one voice and said the Fund works fine the way it is, we need it, if it wasn't for the Fund, we'd be screwed, not just for our jobs, but out of our very culture.

The big cable business interests are pretty good at getting the attention of the Harper government. The actors, writers and producers? Not so much.

The issue is very complex and emotional. It is worse than that--it is political. In Canada that means it will be dragged out until television itself has become completely replaced by microchips embedded directly into our skulls.

Others have been all over this story in the last few weeks. (Some even longer--read this year-old take by Antonia Zerbisias at The Star.) Saw John Doyle after his penance in Ottawa covering the CRTC Fund future hearing and he looked like he'd been at the wrong end of a soccer riot.

All I know is that the Fund is a tax. It is a sneaky tax, hidden in our cable bills. It is a tax, mind you, I'd willingly pay, for without it, Canadian private networks would simulcast mud wrestling before they'd air a minute of Corner Gas. They'd simulcast lie detector tests...wait, they already do that.

What I don't like is my tax money going to an ad campaign to justify this use of my tax money. Don't try and make me feel good about this thing you do with my nickels and dimes--as Nike says, just do it. Plant the seeds and let the Maple buds speak for themselves.

Idol Rumours on the Radio

Is American Idol fixed? Or is the fact that one of the finalists is a former Randy Jackson protégé just the latest Idol rumour designed to keep this karaoke charade at the top of the ratings heap? Scott Thompson and I get into it on this week's Hamilton Talk Radio CHML podcast, which you can listen to here. Also discussed: Knight Rider--stupid or idiotic, NBC's plan to ditch the traditional fall season launch and other fascinating end of civilization as we know it stuff.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Revamped KITT Wins Ratings Race

NBC's corny car opera, Knight Rider, drove off with 12.70 million viewers Sunday. In this day of depressed ratings, that's a hit! It won its timeslot and attracted probably enough viewers to move forward with a series order. Welcome to the desperate new world of network television.

This is the remake which featured Toronto's Will Arnett (Arrested Development) as the voice of KITT--the one reason to look forward to this series--until Ford, who sponsored the movie as a boost for their Shelby 'Stang, hit the brakes. Arnett has voiced GMC truck ads for a decade, as if the producers didn't know. Arnett was replaced just weeks ago by beefy ex-Batman Val Kilmer. Holy paycheck, Batman!

Anybody who tuned in Sunday will be shaking their head. The new Knight Rider TV-movie was little more than a two hour infomercial for Ford's pricey pony car. (See a bang-on comic strip panel about this at Joel Watson's Hijinks Ensue).

As David Bianculli posts on his blog, TV Worth Watching, "The commercials were better made, and slightly better acted, than the telemovie, but otherwise were indistinguishable from the program." Bianculli also notes that no Knight Rider screeners were sent in advance for critics--part of a growing trend. As more and more of these stinkers are hurled at screens (especially until new strike-delayed scripted episodes are back in late March and April), critics are getting fewer chances to see them in advance. TV Feeds My Family didn't see that horrible new reality timewaster My Dad is Better Than Your Dad, for example, but then, judging from the fast overnight ratings/share (5.0/7) neither did too many other people.

With Knight Rider hitting the fast lane, God knows what '70s retread NBC will green light next. They've already rebuilt (and abandoned) Bionic Woman. Can remakes of Police Woman, McCloud, CHiPs and maybe even My Mother The Car be far behind?

Too bad Dexter didn't drive a cool car. CBS's edited edition of this sizzling Showtime series drew 8.14 million viewers Sunday night, third in the timeslot behind Knight Rider and a new episode of Brothers & Sisters on ABC.

UPDATE: Canucks love cars that talk too, eh? Knight Rider won the night for Global, picking up 1.6 million total viewers Sunday night and easily besting CTV's edited simulcast of Dexter among 18-49-year-olds (1.071 million vs. 478,000).
In other U.S. network news, the 12 celebrity contestants competing on the next Dancing with the Stars have been announced. They are: former Man Show goofball Adam Corolla (who will be savaged nightly on his old pal Jimmy Kimmel's talk show), hunky Chilean actor Cristian De La Fuente, American Pie hottie Shannon Elizabeth, token has-been Steve Guttenberg, R&B singer Mario (not the Nintendo Mario, although that would have been fantastic), Marlee Matlin (you try lip reading Bruno Tonioli), gigantic magician/prankster Penn Jillette, token older babe Pricilla Presley (well, parts of her are older), whiny tennis champ Monica Seles, token sports hunk, Miami Dolphin Jason Taylor, Broadway whozat? Marissa Jaret Winokur (Hairspray) and seemingly unstoppable Olympic ice princess Kristi Yamaguchi.

Jillette's reaction (to OK! magazine): "I'm as speechless as Teller that America wants to see a magical sasquatch dance."

The series returns to ABC/CTV March 17. Look for several members of the Osmond family to be in attendance.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Every Day is Family Day

Today is Family Day, the new statutory holiday in Ontario. Leave the dog in front of the set and go out and do the family thing. TV Feeds My Family is celebrating with this photo of Tippy, my parent's first born, in front of their trusty ol' Admiral (or was it a Marconi?) He was probably watching Lassie.
Tonight is a busy night of TV with a seventh episode of CBC's The Border (penned by blogger buddy Denis McGrath, who has more info on it here, including a trailer for tonight's episode). It's up against another new Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles on CTV plus a rerun of House on Global. Tonight also brings the last new episode of Prison Break for a while (8 p.m., Global), a new Brothers & Sisters plus the debut of the FX thriller Damages on Showcase (10 p.m.). FX has already ordered two more seasons of this suspenseful law drama, featuring Glenn Close, Ted Danson, Tate Donovan and Rose Bryne. Or you can watch the dads do exciting things like clean their grills and pick up empties on The Week The Women Went. Also, there's a new Medium on CTV at 10, but you already knew that.
Or you can just turn off the damn set as this reader of Roger Catlin's TV Eye blog has done. Fed up with delays to his favorite show, 24, due to the writers strike (it's been postponed until January, 2009), he's staging a viewers strike. Somebody call Jack Bauer!

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Dexter Gets Slashed

Why can't Canadian network viewers see Dexter in all its bloody glory? It's a question John Cosway asks in his well read blog The Toronto Sun Family. The former Sun man is a big Dexter fan, as are many of us. The series, starring Michael C. Hall (Six Feet Under) as a Miami forensics sleuth, has been thrilling viewers for two seasons on the U.S/ cable network Showtime as well as here in Canada on The Movie Network and Movie Central.

The premise of the series is both edgy and creepy: Dexter Morgan (Hall) tracks down evil serial killers in his spare time. He then carves them up and liquidates them in his lab. He's an avenging monster, but he's doing the community a tremendous service. Hall is hypnotic in the role, turning a cold-blooded killer into a remarkably sympathetic character.

All out of fresh episodes of their powerful CSI's due to the writers strike, CBS called up Dexter from their cable farm team. They've prepared an edited version of the series for CBS viewers, starting with tonight's Season One premiere (10 p.m.).

The original, uncut episodes are too disturbing and profane for network television audiences, at least in the U.S., where CSI is about as bold as you can push it. Even the edited version of Dexter doesn't cut it with at least one U.S.-based parents' group. (For an interesting article on that debate, check out this Time magazine article here.)

Canadian networks, however, have sliced through those standards in the past, especially CTV, which took the bold step several years ago to run uncut episodes of The Sopranos in prime time. Big Tony let fly with every F-in epitaph and whacked with abandon and CTV enjoyed high ratings. Did they get a lot of complaints from outraged Canadian viewers? Fagetaboutit.

CTV also aired FX's racy Nip/Tuck and MTV's The Osbournes uncut in Canada. The Osbournes never aired uncut in America, where Ozzy's F-bombs were always bleeped. Not so on CTV, which I always thought was a mistake--the bleeps were funnier and you never needed to actually hear the language to understand what was going on. (Hell, you could never understand what Ozzy was saying anyway.) Nonetheless, CTV demonstrated how different community broadcast standards are in Canada.

That point was hammered home to me Friday night when I happened upon an uncut version of Team America at 10 p.m. on Teletoon. This blast of satire from the South Park creators is peppered with F-bombs, especially shocking since they all fall out fo the mouths of marionettes. While Teletoon isn't a broadcaster, it is a popular specialty channel, aimed at children in earlier hours. Hard to imagine this getting a similar window in the U.S., where NBC was reeling that same morning after Jane Fonda blurted the "C" word on The Today Show. (Fonda was talking about being asked to appear in The Vagina Monologues. There's an explicit take on Fonda's slip up here on YouTube.)

So why, Cosway asks, is CTV showing CBS's new watered down, edited version of Dexter? Eric "The Watcher" Kohanik has the answer in this week's TVTimes. "To capitalize on Canada's simulcast rules," writes Kohanik, "CTV needs to show exactly the same version that CBS does. That way, CTV can follow the ridiculous Canadian practice of getting the American TV signal deleted from Canadian cable and satellite systems and having its telecast show up on both channels. This allows Canadian networks to sit back and inflate their ratings artificially--and, of course, bilk advertisers for more money."

Kohanik is right--this unchecked business ploy is far more obscene than anything that takes place on screen in the uncut Dexter episodes. The long writers strike, however, has depressed ratings at both CTV and Global, where U.S. simulcasts are far and away the main money maker. CTV can't afford to stand apart and get too cute with uncut this or that when getting the numbers back up until fresh CSI's arrive is everything.

For viewers who feel cheated out of the full Dexter experience, you can always go out to a video store and buy or rent the entire first season in an uncut DVD boxed set. As for whether CTV or CBS will really score with this cable crossover ploy, may they have better luck than Global had with importing HBO's edgy Big Love on their lineup. The acclaimed drama, starring Bill Paxton as a Mormon with three wives, drew just 275,000 viewers and finished a distant third nationally in Canada when it aired on Global last Thursday night.

The big question tonight: will Dexter be cut to ribbons to conform to network standards? Let's hope it survives better than The Sopranos did in this inspired early clip from Mad-TV.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Close Encounter with Facebook

If you're plugged into the whole Slap-My-Facebook thing, you know how addictive it can be. Between all the movie quizzes and the Scrabolicious and just inappropriate friend poking, well, it is a virtual high school without classes or cooties.
It is also a powerful marketing tool. Even I get that--I saw it as another way to flag my book and this blog. The folks over at Alliance Atlantis see it as a way to promote Damages.
That's the new FX Thriller starring Glenn Close, premiering Feb. 18 at 10 p.m. on Showcase. I was on the set last fall at the cavernous Steiner Studios down in Brooklyn, N.Y., with a few other "international" critics.
It's a great series, with Golden Globe-winner Close in top form as a ruthless DA bent on bringing down a despicable business tycoon, a real Enron-level weasel, played to the hilt by an energized Ted Danson. You can read the Canadian Press feature I filed on him this week here; I've also got a cover story on Close in the next issue of Bell TV's SHOW magazine.
The Facebook tease is intriguing because it is tailored to fit right in with the social website's bag of time wasting goodies, yet it also taps into the don't-take-this-too-seriously vibe of the series. If you like our little quiz, you'll like our new thriller. Smart.
Billed as the Ultimate Evil Meter Quiz (you can jump to it here), the Facebook link asks five questions to determine your level of nastiness. Stuff like, if some slick new social climber was stealing your thunder at work, would you a) sprinkle poison on his sushi, b) slip him a laxative before the big meeting, that kind of thing. I was declared a "Deranged Individual" at the end of the test, so beat that.
Of course, up pops a little video ad for Damages at the end. You can also get tricked into sending this to your entire community of "friends," but that's the whole point, isn't it? Still, if this is the future of series promotion, it's more fun than evil and a smart little blueprint. I'm guessing more Facebook TV teasers are on the way.

Radio: Writers Strike Free Since 1921

The topic of this week's podcast with Scott Thompson at Hamilton's Talk Radio Station CHML is the brave new world of television. Now that the strike is officially over, will House and Heroes and 24 ever return? (House in April, Heroes in September, 24 in January). Will The Daily Show bounce back with sharp writing (yes, judging by the last two nights). Will I sneak in another plug for my book? (Hell yes.) Click here to hear two reasonably intelligent guys sort it all out for you.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Bawden Uuplugged After 38 years

Jim Bawden's retirement bash was held last night at The Bier Markt on The Esplanade, with a good crowd of well-wishers in the house. The veteran TV columnist spent 38 years on the beat, the first ten with The Hamilton Spectator, the rest at The Toronto Star, where he was not-so-gently persuaded to accept an early retirement late last year. The good news, says Bawden, is that they backed up the Brinks truck to ease him down the road. The way the newspaper business is going, we all should be so lucky.

A proud native of Hamilton, Ont., Bawden was the first Canadian scribe to hustle down to the States for the semi-annual L.A. network press tours. I remember being a green newbie way back in the day and being greeted by Bawden at the Arizona Biltmore Hotel, where the 1984 confab took place; Bawden was already a cagey veteran by then. His interviews and features in The Star always took readers along as fans and placed them at the elbow of Joan Collins or Larry Hagman or who ever was being featured.

How long was Bawden on this beat? To put it in perspective, the year he started, the No. 1 TV show in America was Marcus Welby, M.D. Gunsmoke, Bonanza and Ironside were Top-10 hits. Wayne & Shuster and Front Page Challenge were the bomb. Millions watched CBC!
Nice to see so many industry folk at Bawden's bash. Classy CBC National News anchor Peter Mansbridge stopped by to personally offer a salute. Mansbridge's CTV counterpart Lloyd Robertson couldn't be there, but was repped by network PR chief Scott Henderson, who read a note from Lloyd congratulating Bawden and saying how much the anchorman would miss their semi-annual chats.

Bawden was always happy to shine some light on the Canadian scene. It seemed TVO Saturday Night at the Movies host Elwy Yost could count on at least one Starweek cover a year.

Stefan Brogren, a.k.a. "Snake" from the original Degrassi series, made the scene to tell how Bawden rescued that long-running Canadian series from obscurity. (Bawden is spellbound, left). It was a Bawden Starweek story that shed light on what was then a low budget little Sunday afternoon series. Bawden said it was fun and fresh and deserved a prime time slot. Then CBC programming boss Ivan Fecan acted on the suggestion and, 25 years later, the franchise is still cranking out new CanCon.

Bawden lost all that glory a few minutes later, when Henderson took the mike and thanked the Star man for being the only TV beat writer to take his pitch to interview the creator of Kevin Spencer. The cretinious detective comedy stunk up The Comedy Network for years. Turns out Bawden was to blame. Win some, lose some.

Many of Bawden's Star pals, including Joe Fox, former movie critic Ron Base and Peter Goddard, were on hand. Current Star TV posse Vinay Menon, Rob Salem, Tanya Workman and many others all made the scene, as did dozens of publicists from CTV, Global, CBC, Astral and Alliance Atlantis as well as independent PR companies. Rival TV columnists and editors, including John Doyle and Eric Kohanik, also toasted Mr. Television, who can now watch whatever he wants, whenever he wants. Lucky bastard!

MVP Needs Performance Enhancement

CBC's sexy new hockey wives drama is simply not scoring with viewers.
MVP's second Tuesday outing netted just 221,000 viewers, down from last Tuesday and down from the sorry numbers in its original Friday night timeslot. There was no new episode of House on Global this week, either, just the premiere of Big Brother (917,000). The timeslot killer was CTV's two-hour American Idol, which drew 2,605,000.

Does CBC dare move this show again? Wednesday nights would seem to offer a less competitive timeslot. Look for them to try one more shift--there's a lot invested in MVP billboards, subway posters and TV and radio promotion across Canada.

Why has MVP failed to gain a foothold? Some critics love the show. Here's my theory based on nothing: Canadians aren't quite comfortable with the concept of Victoria Beckham-style glamour and sleaze grafted onto our pure as snow game. In a perfect Don Cherry world, real hockey wives are fund raisers and loyal supporters, not bed hopping bimbos. Players are good Canadian boys from Kingston, not randy porn dogs. Leave all that sullied sports saga to tarnished baseball hurler Roger Clemens and his HGH-enhanced missus.

Viewers who could care less about any sports or hockey connection can find their trashy fix on Desperate Housewives, Grey's Anatomy or a half dozen other big budget U.S. shows. Even though MVP looks sexy and slick, it can't break out as a guilty pleasure against habitual viewing of frothy American fare. Plus it might have helped if there was one or two big name stars on MVP to snare viewers who aren't into either hockey or sex (oops, sorry, those would be TVO viewers).
The numbers are also starting to tilt the wrong way on Monday nights for another new CBC drama, The Border, down to 494,000 this week, despite an incredibly timely episode about illegal organ harvesting. This series hit 760,000 just a few weeks ago. Maybe it's that whole bizarre Sophia-Milos-gets-a-Banff-lifetime-achievement-award head scratcher.
The new CBC reality show The Week The Women Went drew 687,000 the same night, remarkable when you consider it has now officially become THE DULLEST TV SHOW EVER MADE. This week it was 44 minutes of some guy cooking hamburger. Would the kids get hamburger or steak? Would beer be consumed? Real edge of your seat stuff. No wonder the women left.

At 10 on Monday, the season debut of Jericho, which did not do that well in the States, drew 847,000 on CTV. Global's The Guard held steady at 538,000 Tuesday. Degrassi The Lost Generation was down to 407,000. More people live in Brampton, Ont.

As for The Border, there are reports that the action hour has been shopped to a number of U.S. networks, including CBS and TNT. But are Americans really going to buy a series that shows them in a less than flattering light? There has been some debate here in the press (especially in a Robert Fulford column in the National Post) and certainly on other sites about the anti-American button-pushing on this series. While it probably scores with a new generation of flag waving Canadians, portraying Yanks as condescending world cops may be too tough a sell to the folks at CBS Paramount. Just a thought.

The Border's future looks more secure in Canada. All that appears to be holding up an official renewal order for next season for The Border and Sophie are MVP's crummy numbers--the network would dearly love to spin this as a three out of four success story (with fellow January start up jPod's renewal now seen as a long shot at best).