Monday, March 31, 2008

Trojan Horse Left At Gate

Are TV movies finito? CBC's much ballyhooed The Trojan Horse, starring Paul Gross, drew 690,000 viewers Sunday night. The political espionage thriller, which also starred Tom Skerritt and Martha Burns, failed to pull them in the way the prequel, 2004's H2O, did (it bowed to close to a million viewers), despite plenty of on-air promos and magazine covers. CBC's The Englishman's Boy opened to over 800,000 earlier this year.
It didn't help that reviews were only so-so. Eric Kohanik at TVTimes called it "cheesy," although he found the cast charismatic.
Would rave reviews have helped? Maybe. My guess is that viewers would rather watch real U.S. presidential political intrigue on CNN than a fictional take on a U.S. takeover of Canada. Reality programming has hammered several TV genres, but TV-movies may have taken the biggest hit. Even CTV doesn't draw as big a crowd for the few TV-movies it still programs.
One other pet peeve about these two-parters: does scheduling these things on consecutive Sundays really work? Throwing away the conclusion of The Trojan Horse against The Junos next week is just begging for bad ratings.
Some other recent CBC numbers, for those who still like to keep track: The Border (March 24): 610,000. Anne Murray Duets: 823,000. Rick Mercer Report: 885,000. Sophie (March 26): 407,000. jPod (March 28): 307,000.
If those numbers seem low to one anonymous TV Feeds My Family reader, check out these national numbers from last week on Global: The Unit (March 24) 181,000. Very Bad Men (March 25): 150,000. The Office (March 26): 311,000. My Name Is Earl: 297,000. Amnesia (March 28): 352,000. Aside from the finale of The Celebrity Apprentice (which drew 1,396,000 viewers last Thursday) Global would like to have amnesia about all of last week.
Not everybody had a bad week. CTV breathed a sigh or relief as 1,874,000 viewers returned for a new episode of CSI: Miami last Monday. American Idol (2,317,000 Tuesday; 2,302,000 Wednesday), Dancing With The Stars (1,855,000 Monday; 1,863,000 Tuesday) and CSI (1,631,000 Thursday) all creamed the competition.

Sherri Woodstock

Spread the word--celebrate the memory of Sherri Wood this summer at a music festival held in her honor. Call it Sherri Woodstock.
That was one idea pitched today at services for Wood, who died last Monday after a brave battle with brain cancer. She was not yet 29 years old.
Wood wrote concert listings and covered breakout bands in the GTA for three years in the Toronto Sun. A glance through the messages posted at the Sun's tribute page shows how much Sherri meant to even casual acquaintances who only knew her as Toronto's super cool indie music messenger.
"Sherri Woodstock" needs a venue, bands, promotion, a driving force. Knowing Sherri and her daily lust for tea, the whole things should be sponsored by Starbucks. The hope would be that a music festival could help raise money for brain cancer research. It would also be a wonderful way of celebrating her warmth and embracing spirit.
If you are involved in the Toronto music scene and would like to offer suggestions and advice on the best way to push this all forward, please leave a comment here or reach me at tvfeedsmyfamily@rogers.com.
There were suggestions at the "after wake" at a west end pub today that Three Dog Night, an early '70s band Sherri never heard of (and the rest of us at The Sun grew up with), should headline. Stranger things have happened.
Music played a role in today's private service for Sherri at the Turner & Porter funeral home in Toronto's west end. Her family sent her off in style today to the strains of Bobby McFerrin's "Don't Worry, Be Happy." "Leavin' On A Jet Plane" was sung earlier, as was "Puff The Magic Dragon." Who knew Wood was such a folkie, but apparently these were the tunes she rocked out to in her final weeks at St. Michael's palliative care unit, part of a guitar therapy routine she always enjoyed. As much as her memory dimmed in those final weeks, the "Puff" lyrics never left her head.
A few of us stood and watched as the family said their goodbyes out the front door in the rain. As the hearse pulled away, it was followed down the street by a big white "Mobile Repair" truck. Seemed about right, I thought, given Wood's history of car trouble.
Remember: Sherri Woodstock. Pass it on, make it happen.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Zucker's Zingers Come Before A Fall Launch

Deadline Hollywood Daily's Nikki Finke asks "Has NBC Uni's Jeff Zucker Lost His Mind?" is response to this promotional spot for the return of My Name Is Earl, embedded below. Finke, who's site became "Must See" during the writers strike, strongly objects to a few pot shots Zucker makes at scribes in the teaser. I just think the spot is funny as hell and, since it won't air in Canada (it's scheduled to run April 3 on NBC, just before the return of Earl), judge for yourself below:



Finke herself goes on to report that Zucker taped the spot at the request of Earl creator Greg Garcia, who's own writers wrote the slams. Finke wails, "When did 'Must See TV' degrade into 'JZ TV'?" but, please.
Speaking of Zucker, the TV boss critics call "Zippy" has set next Wednesday--six weeks earlier than usual--as the date NBC will announce its fall schedule. Zucker seems determined to break from the old ways of splashy network upfronts and pricey pilots. Ben Silverman and Marc Graboff, co-chairmen of NBC Entertainment and Universal Media Studios, will unveil the new picks for fall.
But what will they show? The writers strike, which extended into January and February--the months when pilots are traditionally shot--left the networks with fewer projects to choose from. Some shows are going to have to go forward without any pilots at all. Some will be sold based on story outlines, sketchy clips and the track record of the creators. There are going to be more leaps of faith next season than ever.
Maybe that is why there is so much buzz about old concepts being recycled. And not just old concepts but cheap crap old concepts. There are plans to bring back everything from Match Game to Family Feud to Circus Of The Stars.
Just don't expect a lot of new, quality, scripted entertainment. "This fall is going to be a do-over," one industry veteran suggested to me yesterday. He expects many of the shows that stumbled out of the gate last September--like NBC's Life (starring Damian Lewis, left) or ABC's Dirty Sexy Money--to be relaunched like last fall never happened. Each network may only be able to ramp up two or three new shows each, and even those might not bow until November or even January, which could eventually become the new fall.
How is this going to play out in Canada? Traditionally, CTV and Global programming executives have flown down in late May with suitcases full of cash. They get locked into little screening rooms, schmooze with the studio heads and divide the spoils.
This year, there were be fewer screenings, more meetings with the likes of John Wells or whoever is selling the next West Wing or, gulp, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. Canadian buyers are going to have to go with their gut, or--as CTV has done in the past--buy everything in sight and hope to have the scheduling flexibility to program the winners and shelve the losers (or bounce them over to their newly acquired specialty and regional channels).
The network to watch will be Global, which had virtually no answer to the strike and aside from a couple of aging reality shows, barely kept the lights on this winter. They desperately need the next House or 24 to try and claw back into the national ratings race with CTV. Trouble is, the TV game has never been more of a crap shoot.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Sherri Sunshine

For a few short, wonderful years, Sherri Wood sat directly in front of me at the Toronto Sun. Between us were two computer monitors and about 20 years. Both occasionally got in the way, but neither was really much of an obstacle. I was always more interested in reading her face than anything on my screen. Her vibrancy carried me through a trying time. It was the best seat in the house, and I always knew it.
After a courageous fight against a relentless disease, Sherri's life was cut short yesterday. She was 28.
For those of us who were lucky enough to work beside her, her death is almost unimaginable. Sherri was a life force, a girl to watch.
Most days, she showed up wearing some crazy cap, usually something that looked like a freshly-popped Jiffy Pop bag. It hid tigerish, wavy hair that clashed blonde and brunette like two kittens fighting.
The girl had her own style and shook up our newsroom with her striped hose, kooky Keds, plaid kilts over jeans and cereal slogan T-shirts. She was the bratty kid in school, the one who knew who had smokes and could charm a light from the principal.
She embedded herself at The Sun, breaking into the entertainment department despite a strict hiring freeze. Wood took the floor as an intern and never left; she simply kept showing up for work and filing club columns, concert reviews and basically any cool event too noisy and rambunctious for the rest of us coots.
We all fell in love with her. We’d laugh when she’d ask who Three Dog Night was, even though it meant we were Rama and she was Mod Club. She’s shoot me that look whenever film kids Slo and Liz and Bruce Kirkland would spat or Coulbourn would eviscerate some poor sap on the phone. She’d mock me for using words like “kerfuffle” or “rigmarole.” She’d bug Tilly to fetch her a latte and sass back at Mel. She lived to please "mom and dad," entertainment department bosses Kathy Brooks and John Kryk.
We envied all her firsts, even the bad ones, like the time some schmuck left her a nasty voice message for daring to gush about a band. It tore her up and we were amazed. Here was someone in front of us who still dared to feel. We prayed she’d never lose that.
When the editors realized she’d simply squatted her way into the Sun, she was rewarded with a part-time job. Soon she had two. She even scored a parking spot—a thousand tickets too late.
She could have been the next Maureen O’Dowd, or, heaven help her, Barbara Amiel. She had that work hard, party hard newspaper gene. Nobody knew there was also a time bomb ticking inside her head.
Almost exactly a year ago, after I had been whacked at The Sun, she sent me an e-mail. “Miss you. Love you,” it began. That was Sherri, disarming and direct, getting right to it in her lead.
Things were not good, she went on. A careless friend had banged up her car. She was under tons of pressure at a workplace gone relentlessly sour and her head felt like it might explode.
Days later it did. Wood hoped an afternoon nap might put out the fire in her head. The searing pain got worse. Her mother Debbie called an ambulance and she was rushed to St. Michaels. Alert paramedics prepped her for the emergency brain surgery that was certain to follow. A leading surgeon who happened to be in town that weekend cracked open her skull and was astounded by what he found inside. Three tumors in three different places had seized and strangled her brain. For five hours he chipped away as artfully as only he could. Her mother and step-father were told it might have bought her two more hours with their child. Sherri was given the last rites. It was days past her 28th birthday.
What followed was truly death defying. Wood survived the night. There might be a chance she could linger, the family was told, but brain damage was certain. If she lived, she would not walk or talk.
The shocking news spread and hit hard. Nobody could believe it or accept it. After a punishing year, it was the low blow nobody saw coming.
Then, the miracle. Sherri survived an hour, a day, a week. People wanted to visit but the family, naturally, was protective. When I finally crashed the hospital 10 days into her impossible recovery I met her courageous mother, Debbie, out by the nursing station. She said Sherri was resting but making progress and to come back next week. A few days later I found my way into her room. I braced myself for a broken body attached to a machine. Instead, there sat Sherri, on the edge of the bed, wearing those crazy striped socks and a pair of Keds. Her eyes still danced. She was alive and she was Sherri. It was a gift I could not have hoped for or imagined.
Most of us fear the sudden loss of a loved one. If only I had been able to say goodbye, or tell them how much they meant to me. If only I had one more minute, 30 seconds. We all have been warned; so many times, that death comes like a thief in the night.
So to be able to hold her, look her in the eyes and tell her how much she had touched me—that was a gift I’ll never forget.
The joke was you had to be prepared to tell her again and again. Besides some slight paralysis, the tumors had robbed Sherri of her short term memory. For the next few weeks at least, she remembered nothing. She told me 15 times that day that she had finally quit smoking, not all that remarkable really considering she was confined to a hospital bed.
Still, who needs memory when you have today. We laughed like little kids as I helped her shuffle around the hospital, her taking baby steps on wobbly legs. I lied that I had bought and sent all those flowers in her hospital room. She would never remember anyway. She was the dream audience, laughing at the same old jokes like she was hearing them for the first time. Memory loss made her the perfect woman.
This gift, however, came with a high price: an expiry date. Sherri’s time had not yet come, but the clock was ticking. We clung to hope, but as news filtered back and test results were shared, we lurched from sorrow to elation to sadness to acceptance. All of us except Sherri, who played overtime like Gretzky in Edmonton, head up and fearless.
There was a fun night with her last summer, an outdoor 16mm film get together reuniting many of her Sun colleagues and friends. She showed off her new Chemo-‘Do like it was just another zany style choice.
Months later, I kidnapped her for a run downtown to see former SUN TV dude Darrin Maharaj. He had landed this crazy gig at Telus TV. Darrin had invited me on his regional entertainment show to blab about my book. Sherri rode shotgun and helped scarf the fruit and veggie vittles the crew ordered for lunch. It was a rainy day on Queen Street East but Sherri was all sunshine. After all she had been through, I never once heard her complain about her deal, her odds, her anything. This from the girl who used to whinge if Starbucks was out of lids.
Back in the old days, Darrin had put up with the two of us constantly screwing with his SUN TV “Inside Jam” show. (Sherri's club report had the best title ever: "Wood On The Weekend.") It got so silly I once talked equally smitten Bill Harris into helping me dump plants and stuff into Sherri’s lap while she was doing a live hit in the newsroom. The girl stuck to her script like it was a real TV station. (Check out the tribute clip, below, from torontosun.com.)

The last time I saw Sherri was another blast of pure joy. I knocked on her door and presented her with a copy of my book. We sat in her kitchen and, as she would say, “shot the shit.” She introduced me to her new distraction, a budgie. She insisted I stick my finger inside the cage and move him to the top. Naturally, the pidgeon took off a piece of my finger. This made Sherri laugh her ass off. Later, I stood on a chair and stripped off a piece of border tape behind her fridge that had been bugging her for a year. This made her laugh her ass off again.
I wish there had been 350 more days like that. I signed her book, left that house, made a note to do that more often. Not for her, for me. She never lost an ounce of that vibrancy, and it was such an incredible high.
Sadly, there would be no next time. Sherri's condition rapidly deteriorated over the last month. Debbie called last night on the way home from the hospital to confirm what quick messenger Kryk had already conveyed, that Sherri had run out of miracles. Her family has lost a daughter, a sister, a brave and heroic life force who battled right down to a heartbreaking end.
What do you say? I said something about Sherri hanging on through Easter, giving all of us one more grand opportunity to pray for her.
“Isn’t it funny,” said Debbie. “She was born on an Easter Monday, and she died on an Easter Monday.”
I don’t know if it is funny, or profound, or just way too tidy to be Sherri. I’m sorry I won’t hear her laugh her ass off about that one last perfect joke. But I feel blessed to have known her and I’m forever humbled by her courage. I’ll miss her sweet, symmetrical face, so open and so bright. I’ll always look for her, just beyond my monitor, just behind my words.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

The Baron: A Salute From The Outside Lane

Although I worked at The Toronto Sun for seven years, I never got to know the late, great George Gross. I'm sorry about that now, especially after reading the many tributes pouring in after his death from a heart attack this past Friday morning.
The internationally renown sports editor was 85. You can read many memories from colleagues past and present here at The Sun (from fellow Day One-er Peter Worthington) and here at The Toronto Sun Family.
Here is what I did observe, what anybody with eyes could report. Gross was a dapper fellow from another era, always impeccably dressed in a suit and tie. He seemed more like a CEO than one of us. Twice a month, he would float noiselessly into the entertainment department and flirt with department manager Melinda Mantel. I wasn't a sports guy, so all I would get is an occasional nod or a wink. (From Gross or Mantel.)
What I knew long before I worked there was that Gross was one of those larger-than-life Toronto players, part of the disappearing landscape of his adopted city. All those towering figures, Ed Mirvish, Sam Sniderman, Milt Dunnell, Al Waxman, many others. They all survived a great depression and a world war, went on to live their dreams, make a little money and leave their mark. They seemed so permanent, like Simpsons, Eatons and Frans.
It must have been tough, I sometimes thought when I would pass him in the hall, for Gross (and, for that matter, for Worthington) to still be on the floor of the Sun after so many of his peers has passed on. It must be different when you are in on the start, when the paper is your legacy.
I'll never forget seeing Bob MacDonald, sick and in his '70s, roused to the point of fisticuffs at the end of a particularly suffocating human resources meeting. MacDonald, who wrote the Sun's very first page one story, sat and listened as his job and others were reduced to bottom line statistics. Eyes blazing, defiant, he turned around at one point in this meeting and suggested he could still "lick every man in the room." He was like Rudy on Survivor, the Navy SEAL who battled the odds to make it to the finals. Nobody was going to snuff out MacDonald's tiki torch.
These genuine newsmen bled Toronto Sun red and black ink and it still burned in their belly. Gross's fire always seemed more contained from where I sat but I'm guessing he shared the same fierce passion for a business that was once all that and more.
I did have one, memorable, chance encounter with Gross on the highway. Once, barrelling westbound on the Gardiner Expressway in the usual mad dash home, I exited off the Islington Ave. North ramp. Hogging two lanes in front of me was this poky Mercedes. Through the back window I could see that there was some old dude driving. He's got one hand on the wheel, one hand on a cell phone. I honk hoping he'll pick a lane. Suddenly he has one hand on the cell phone, one hand held up in the air for me to see. The old bastard is giving me the universal one finger salute! He now has no hands on the wheel and I'm wondering how he is steering. I'm both pissed and impressed.
I charge up behind to give it to gramps and I get close enough to read the licence plate: BARON. Uh oh. It is Sun Legend George Gross.
I fade back and give him his due. That's all I can do today. Wish I had gotten to know him better.

Friday, March 21, 2008

More Fun With Satellite Feeds

More behind the scenes "Found Objects" fun over at Harry Shearer's My Damn Channel. The featured players this time are Ann Coulter, Bill O'Reilly, Katie Couric and Chris Matthews, all primping, grousing and chewing gum between takes. Check out O'Reilly working his Fox News vanity mirror. It should come with a warning--"Egos in mirror are bigger than they appear."

Can Sophie Survive Survivor?

Did CBC jump the gun on that Sophie renewal?
Ever since CBC announced they were picking up two of their four January starts, Sophie and The Border, the rookie comedy series, starring Mimi Kuzyk and Natalie Brown, has been sinking like a rock.
This Wednesday it was down to 290,000 viewers. That's a 99,000 drop from the week before, an already low 389,000. Both numbers are well off Sophie's average audience for the first ten weeks of the season, 541,000 viewers (all figures BBM NMR).
Mind you, this week's Sophie did not benefit from an original Little Mosque on the Prairie lead-in, as that series is already in reruns. Little Mosque was way down to 449,000 viewers this week, half its season average.
Both shows may need an immunity idol to survive Survivor's shift to Wednesday night. The long-running Global reality series sucked up 1,546,000 viewers on its new night this week--evidently many of them Sophie fans.
The bad news for Sophie is it happens again next week as CBS continues to juggle Survivor to accommodate its coverage of the March Madness college basketball playoffs. Sophie's season finale is scheduled for April 2.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Global Keeps Its Guard Up

Global announced today that it is renewing three of its rookie shows: The Guard, 'Da Kink In My Hair and the summer series The Best Years. Hey, the more Canadian shows the better, jobs are jobs and this news keeps people working in Vancouver and Toronto. But Global's release suggests that these renewals are "based on solid statistics of the first seasons." Perhaps, but in the case of 'Da Kink at least, earning brownie points before the CRTC had to be a factor.
If you base the success threshold on the recently announced CBC renewals, The Guard certainly earned its berth. The coast guard drama did bow to over 800,000 viewers, although it dipped under the half million mark nationally toward the end of its run, averaging 587,000 throughout the season in total households.
Global claims it emerged as the No. 1 new Canadian "original" among 18-49-year-olds across Canada. Not exactly. CBC's The Week The Women Went averaged 358,000 per week 18-49. The Guard pulled 313,000 a week among the same age group (all figures BBM NMR).
In a drama to drama comparison, The Guard easily beat CBC's The Border, 313,000 to 239,000.
The numbers were not as solid, however, for 'Da Kink In My Hair, which never caught on nationally. Last January 27 it pulled 251,000 across Canada. jPod and MVP got canceled for averaging better than that.
To read Global's press release, however, you'd think 'Da Kink was 'da Bomb. Global says it "resonated strongly with urban audiences, showing particularly strong numbers in the Toronto market." They claim it was the No. 1 new Canadian comedy in Toronto among 18-49-year olds, topping Sophie and jPod and even beating Corner Gas in T.O. in January.
While beating Sophie and jPod in Toronto is like saying "Leafs Beat Girls Basketball Team," the Gas claim demands a closer look. The surprise is that it could be true.
Fact is, Corner Gas rarely gets the love in Toronto. Take last January, for example. The Saskatchewan-based sitcom drew 1,265,000 across Canada to rank No. 14 nationally the week of Jan. 21-27, but failed the same week to crack the Toronto Top-30. It also missed the cut in T.O. the week before and the week after. Week in and week out, Gas runs out of gas at the Toronto border.
Still, across Canada, Gas consistently earns five times the audience of "Da Kink. I think if Global offered to trade shows, CTV would says thanks but no thanks.
Give Global their due. 'Da Kink reached a niche audience in a niche market. May it play for years. But a Corner Gas-level Canadian success story it ain't.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Obama Talks The Talk

This week's podcast with CHML's Scott Thompson gets into the best reality show on television right now--the U.S. presidential primary elections. Listen to our conversation here.
The jumping off point this week is the pivotal speech Barack Obama made in Philadelphia yesterday. Obama addressed race the way John F. Kennedy dealt with his Catholicism in 1960, tackling it head on, inviting discussion and conversation and that thing that elections are supposed to be about, dialogue. It is a tactic not seen in presidential races or on TV for that matter in a long, long time. Will the smart strategy work? Will it have any resonance? Hard to say, but anything that challenges Jon Stewart to get serious, as he did last night on The Daily Show, has power.

Beatle Bust on Bloated Idol

Have to admit I don't watch American Idol all that much (okay, at all), so sitting through two hours of it last night was quite a revelation. As in, when did this show become such a bore?
'Waste of my life," was my daughter's reaction. Then again, she's a Beatle's fan.
Bad enough that the contestants, featured on this handy fridge magnet thingy Fox sent a few weeks ago (yes, those are a few magnets from Puppets Who Kill horning in on the action) ruined a bunch of perfectly good Beatle songs. Honestly, after all the hype about how great the singing was on this edition, could you not have picked 11 people off the street to do as good a job as they did last night? One doofus with two first names, Michael Johns, booted A Day In The Life so badly I now know how many holes it takes to fill the Kodak Theater.
To be fair to these kids, they all had to cram their Beatle song into a 90 second performance. For Johns, that meant sacrificing the two long, crescending chords from A Day In The Life, which pretty much wrecks the song.
Another girl, Kristy Lee Cook, admitted she had never heard her song, the Lennon classic You've Got To Hide Your Love Away, and then went out and proved it. Throughout the painfully drawn out night, contestant after contestant failed to find a connection with arguably the most famous songbook in the history of popular music.
The one lad, David Archuleta, who looks about 12, did a nice job with a bad song, The Long And Winding Road. Still, nobody really nailed it last night.
Thought it might have something to do with the fact that these kids are so young until I realized that George Harrison was younger than all but one of them (Archuleta, who is 17) when he and the rest of the Fab Four first performed on The Ed Sullivan Show 44 years ago last month. The oldest Beatle at that time was Ringo, who was still months away from turning 24.
Given that the show dragged on for two hours, why not let these kids take three or four minutes to sing these songs properly? The show seemed bloated and unfocused, lurching from bio to song to commercials and back again with numbing regularity.
Not helping was the fact that the judges looked bored out of their minds. Not just Simon Cowell, who did his best last night to stir things up with his usual blunt criticism. Paula Abdul seemed downright sleepy half way through the show, way off her usual flirty energy.
The judges seemed embarrassed, as well they should, about their blatant product placement duties, especially when shilling for Coca-cola. Ryan Seacrest, on the other hand, seemed to spring to life whenever he had to hold up a cell phone or throw to a sponsor. If he could wear corporate logos all over his clothes ands forehead, he would.
Tonight, former Idol finalist Kellie Pickler returns; hopefully she'll get more than 90 seconds to sing a song. It all gets stretched out again tonight at 9 (in a mercifully shorter one hour edition). Hopefully all 11 remaining finalists will be eliminated.

Mercer Tops CBC Winter Numbers

Numbers are in for how the CBC shows have fared over the first ten weeks of 2008 and the Rick Mercer Report stands at the top of the list, both in total households and in the 25-54-year-old demographic, CBC's targeted demo.
Between Jan. 7 through March 16, the Rick Mercer Report (which featured Anne Murray last night) averaged 889,000 total viewers, followed by Little Mosque on the Prairie at a 835,000 a week average. The Week The Women Went, CBC's just concluded new reality series, scored 754,000 on average. That was followed by Air Farce Live, still a player after 15 seasons with 657,000 weekly viewers across Canada. (All numbers are BBM/NMR estimates based on average minute audience.)
Of note is that the Friday repeat of Mercer came in at fifth on the list, just nudging past This Hour Has 22 Minutes (648,000) but also beating out all those CBC rookies, including The Border (621,000), Heartland (572,000) and Sophie (541,000). Just Four Laughs hung in with 434,000 total viewers per week.
Well back were two shows given the axe, jPod (300,000) and MVP (289,000).
MVP also skidded into the boards in the 25-54 demo, averaging just 138,000 viewers. The producers were claiming that the show should have been saved because it was drawing younger viewers to the network. Not really, and besides, half of nothing is still nothing.
Heartland, too, scored poorly in the demo count, sinking even lower than MVP with 110,000 weekly viewers 25-54. That may be because the Sunday family hour series scores better among tweens and teens.
Here is the complete 25-54 list from the first ten weeks of 2008:
1 RICK MERCER REPORT, 378,000
2 WEEK WOMEN WENT, 358,000
3 LITTLE MOSQUE, 337,000
4 RICK MERCER Friday repeat, 288,000
5 THIS HOUR HAS 22 MINUTES, 282,000
6 AIR FARCE LIVE, 254,000
7 THE BORDER, 239,000
8 SOPHIE, 196,000
9 JUST FOR LAUGHS, 189,000
10 JPOD, 171,000
11 MVP, 138,000
12 HEARTLAND, 110,000
The Border, for those still keeping score, drew 595,000 viewers this Monday, a bit below average. That CBC special with comedian Ron James pulled 677,000 the same night. Both were up against the premiere of another season of Dancing With the Stars on CTV, which danced off with 1,898,000 viewers. Compare Canadian to Canadian, though, and CBC looks good against CTV's Degrassi, down to 314,000 viewers, and bad compared to Corner Gas, which scored 1,134,000 out of that strong Dancing lead in.
Other recent numbers: jPod drew 232,000 last Friday on a night both Air Farce and the Rick Mercer repeat both topped 700,000. Still, jPod did better than a couple of Canadian shows thrown away on the weekend by the private networks. CTV's Whistler scored 214,000 on Saturday, where Global's Painkiller Jane managed a painfully low 109,000.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Beatle Idol: Just Give Me Money

Have to say I was always kind of glad American Idol had been a Beatle free zone. As a life long Beatle fan, it did my heart good that there was somebody out there saying no to Fox's crazy popular karaoke party.
Alas, as George Harrison once said, all things must pass. Idol finalists got to warble John Lennon and Paul McCartney favorites for the first time ever last week. Tonight, the 11 remaining competitors get to tackle the Fab Four one more time.
It was inevitable this would happen. Boomer Idol has been about twentysomethings singing 40-year-old songs for five years. They've burned through every Beach Boy and Motown standard they could get. Songs were just constructed better back then was executive producer Nigel Lythgoe's response to the perpetual, "Why all the oldies?" question. "We're a TV audience, not a record buying audience," he maintained.
Still, Lythgoe and the others knew the Holy Grail has always been that sacred Beatle catalogue.
Lythgoe was pretty frank about the Beatle boycott in the past, suggesting that he'd heard that Paul McCartney hated the show and didn't want his songbook tarnished. "Some writers will say we don't want anybody who sucks singing our songs," he admitted.
Sir Paul's opinion did not matter, however--the ex-Beatle hasn't held the rights to those old songs for decades. All the Idol producers ever had to do to get their Beatle fix was pony up. But they didn't want to set the precedent for paying one artist more than anther, sticking to a "favored nations" stance that paid everybody the same. "What makes The Beatles bigger songwriters than Carole King?" Lythgoe stated in 2005. "You'll always be chasing your tail when somebody wants more money."
Still, Idol, where ratings had slumped for the first time this year, had to eventually move past KC and the Sunshine Band. Lythgoe told Ryan Seacrest on the Idol host's radio talk show in February that the deal finally went through because the finalists are better singers this year. Lythgoe said that the right's holders, "see that it's real talent, and hear it. Everyone's so good this season, that they're saying, 'Yeah, go ahead. Sing the songs.'"
Plus, well, there were rumors that Michael Jackson--who still owns a piece of the Beatle catalogue, although nobody knows how much anymore--had to sell his Neverland ranch, and, well, All You Need Is Cash.
McCartney, of course, has other matters on his mind these days, including the $48 million divorce settlement just reached with his ex-wife Heather Mills. Think about that--that is more than what it would have cost McCartney to buy back his Beatle songbook 20 years ago. Instead, Michael Jackson snapped up the rights, then had to relinquish at least half of that investment to Sony/ATV Music Publishing when he spent and diddled his way out of his fortune.
The Idol producers were finally able to reach a deal with Sony/ATV--leaving McCartney helpless to stop the music. If he had only invested his money in his own music instead of Mills--well, he's still doing just fine, thanks.
Last week, some of the Idol finalists worked Beatle magic, while others did not pass the audition. Carly Smithson (singing "Come Together"). Brooke White ("Let It Be"), David Cook ("Eleanor Rigby") and Chikezie ("She's a Woman") drew praise from the judges, with Simon Cowell applauding Smithson in particular for finally choosing the right song.
Booting his Beatle test was pole dancer David Hernandez, who got tossed last week after messing up "I Saw Her Standing There."
Last week's Beatle Idol drew a shade under 30 million, a jump in viewership this season and a testament to the staying power of both Idol and The Beatles.
Then again, The Beatles seem more popular today than ever. It was interesting to see the reaction of Beatle contemporaries to Julie Taymor's Across The Universe when it opened last September. The Toronto Star's Peter Howell hated it, ranting that it seemed like it was made by, and aimed at, people who never got the Beatles the first go 'round.
Well, exactly. My teens couldn't wait to see the movie and loved the way the songs were interpreted for the millennium generation. I thought it was cool how oldies like I Wanna Hold Your Hand were given a brave new same sex spin. You Never Give Me Your Money and Dear Prudence were other Across The Universe highlights.
I'll tune in tonight to see if any of the surviving Idol contestants can dare to try and make a Beatle standard their own to the extent that Across The Universe did. Somebody please sing Baby You're A Rich Man and dedicate it to Simon Cowell.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Oh Say Can You C-10

Remember all that kerfuffle about Bill C-10? Way back a week or so ago?
Gawd, Canadian political scandals are so dull. If only somebody at Heritage Canada was trying to take away tax credits from thousand-dollars-an-hour hookers, instead of TV and film producers.
That's why I'm illustrating this post with the Friday cover of the New York Post, picked up while in Syracuse over the weekend. Maybe some Canadian producer will try to turn this naughty scandal into a TV-movie, only to have the tax credits yanked. If only that was all Spitzer had yanked.
Anyway, if you missed these two articles linked below, they kinda give you the ying and the yang of the whole sordid C-10 scene. Film critic Brian D. Johnson and columnist Andrew Coyne are cubicle mates over at Macleans. Both sit on opposite sides of the Bill C-10 debate. Coyne got off a sarcastic swipe at the Canadian arts community here ("Man the barricades! Film tax credits are taking fire!"). Johnson responded by sticking up for his arty pals here ("Culture, condescension and Bill C-10: a response to Andrew Coyne"). It's not quite the virtual street fight that occurs in the comments section here, but, hey, at least both these guys have the guts to use their names.
By the way, that "Keep your censoring hands off of Canadian film and TV! No to Bill C-10!" Facebook site? Closing in on 35,000 members.

Spitzer Take

Those folks at The Colbert Report know an editing opportunity when they see one. Here, caught on YouTube (the clip on the Comedy Central Colbert Report site is geoblocked, dammit), is a subtle bit of mischief from last week's re-broadcast of their February interview with former New York Governor/whore monger Eliot Spitzer.



Spitzer has been a Godsend to late night talk show hosts who, between the strike and steadily declining ratings, have had a tough year. Maybe that's why these jokes seem more aggressive than usual:
"More details are starting to come out about the $5,000 prostitute. Her name's Ashley Alexandra Dupre. She's a 22-year-old aspiring musician. I believe she is classically trained on the flute." --Jay Leno
"Last night, what a horrible audience. It's not so much that they were horrible. They were just quiet. My God, it was like dinner at the Spitzers." --David Letterman
"I guess you heard the big news. Governor Eliot Spitzer, governor of New York, resigned today. He left his resignation on the night table with a $300 tip." --David Letterman
"So, you have this triangle, the governor, his wife and this hooker. Or, as they're calling themselves, You, Me and Dupre." --Jay Leno
"What the Spitzers are saying now is they need some time alone. Eliot and his wife need some time alone now. And I thought this was very nice, Senator Larry Craig from Idaho, when he heard this, he offered his vacation restroom on the lake." --David Letterman
"She did an interview, in an interview the call girl linked to Spitzer said that she doesn't want to be thought of as a monster. Does not want to be thought of as a monster, she said unless of course somebody has $4,000 and is into role playing." --Conan O'Brien
"Lieutenant Governor David Paterson will be sworn in as his replacement. Paterson says his top priority is fiscal responsibility. He wants to cut back on government spending. Especially on whores." --Jimmy Kimmel
"Republican presidential candidate John McCain is in the news. John McCain says he's trying to find a vice presidential running mate. Not only that, McCain is also trying to find his reading glasses and his car keys. ... He's an older gentleman. That's the idea there. You'll be hearing more of those in the next nine months, because that's our take. Until he gets a whore." --Conan O'Brien
"Today he held another press conference he said he needed to leave to begin the difficult process of healing. Not emotionally -- his wife hit him in the face with a George Foreman Grill." --Jimmy Kimmel
"The New York Times today found Spitzer's hooker. She went by the name of Kristen, but her real name is Ashley Alexandra Dupre. I think this is from her MySpace page [on screen: picture of Dupre]. If I were him, at the press conference I would have held up her picture and said, 'Look, what are you supposed to do?'" --Jimmy Kimmel
"You know, I'm a half-full kind of guy. I always try to put a positive spin on stuff. Sure, it's a horrible story. On the other hand, you look at it this way, he was supporting New York's number one industry." --David Letterman
"This is the guy who vowed to clean up New York. But to be fair, he did bring prostitution to its knees one girl at a time." --Jay Leno

Sunday, March 16, 2008

They Had Faces Back Then

An "almost" lost film from 1925 was one of the hits of the 28th annual Cinefest film festival, just concluding today in Syracuse, N.Y.
The Lady, starring Norma Talmadge, was one of nine films presented yesterday in 35mm at the Palace Theatre, a newly restored neighborhood movie house. The Palace still operates as a regular theatre; There Will Be Blood screened there last night. It may have shown The Lady back in the day, as its doors first opened in 1924, the year before the film premiered.

Among the cool artifacts in the lobby of The Palace were a number of large, colourful movie posters, including this amazing, hand painted circus motif for a children's matinee, a real blast from a bygone era. Another original out near the front doors was for the 1962 epic The Three Stooges in Orbit.
While it is a wonder the theatre survived into the next century, it is a miracle that The Lady made it to 2008. Giant watery splotches, the result of extensive nitrate loss, were visible on screen for much of one reel (each 35mm reel of film lasts about 10 minutes); another reel had decomposed so badly it could not be restored. Fortunately, the lost reel does not really take anything away from the story; I didn't even know it was missing until later when I read the program notes. Kudos to the folks who do the painstaking restoration work at Eastman House for rescuing these gems.

The film is a tearjerker from start to finish, with Talmadge chewing up the screen as a woman who gets knocked up by a "feckless nobleman" who squanders his fortune, sneaks off with a new babe and dies. Talmadge is reduced to singing at a seedy bar to keep a roof over her head. When the baby arrives, loverboy's nasty dad arrives to claim the tike. Mom bundles the babe off to a minister and his wife to raise him as a "gentleman." Years later, mom and son are reunited when her soldier boy nearly dies in her arms. By then every tear had been wrung out of this weeper, but Talmadge emerged with her rep as one of the silent screen's most effective leading ladies intact.

That is the appeal of Cinefest. Every year, a star or personality you could only otherwise encounter in books comes vividly to life. I never "got" Will Rogers until I saw him featured in several Cinefest offerings a few years ago. He was more than folksy charm, he was conviction on celluloid, a really remarkable performer and incredibly charismatic. Others over the years--Louise Brooks, Conrad Veight, Gloria Swanson, Ronald Coleman, Collen Moore, the Barrymores and many others--can be discovered at Cinefest, one of the few places where you can fully appreciate the full meaning of Swanson's immortal line from 1950s Sunset Boulevard, "I am big...it's the pictures that got small."

Having said that, four or five hours in a row of rare films can test any film buff, especially when they start at 8:30 a.m. on a Saturday morning. Some rare Vitaphone shorts, primitive talkies from the mid-to late-'20s, were of interest only to those still searching for clues as to why vaudeville died. One of the comedians featured in a 1929 effort, Lou Holtz (not the football coach), would be eaten alive by hecklers today. Some very early colour home movies from the George Eastman House archives were of note mainly for many shots of Thomas Edison in colour out having a smoke in Eastman's glorious back yard. After 30 or 40 puffs, however, you wanted to go smash some light bulbs. Pretty sure I dozed off during A Philistine in Bohemia (1920), but woke up in time for The Stolen Voice (1915), a remarkably crisp little pot boiler about an opera stud who gets his voice "stolen" through hypnosis by a jealous dude named "Dr. Luigi." Mama mia!

Pianists Philip Carli, Gabriel Thibaudeau and Makia Matsumura took turns accompanying the silents. All are incredible, providing note perfect reads during chases, love scenes and slapstick, often to films they have never seen before.
Today's TV showrunners, especially Gilmore Girls' creator Amy Sherman Palladino, who coughed up the horrible new comedy The Return of Jezebel Jane last Friday night, should be required to attend Cinefest each March just to rediscover how much storytelling can be accomplished without the endless blather of rat-tat-tat dialogue. In the right hands, silents are golden.
Cinefest 29 runs Thursday through Sunday, March 19-22, 2009. For more information, contact the Syracuse Cinefile Society at http://www.picking.com/.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

The Boys of Syracuse

Heading down the road today to Syracuse, N.Y., for the annual gathering of 16mm film geeks known as Cinefest. The four-day film festival, in its 28th season, doesn't have the glamour of the swanky film fests held each year in Toronto or Cannes. Instead of Brad Pitt or Angelina Jolie, for example, the biggest name at Cinefest is Leonard Maltin, film historian and long time Entertainment Tonight correspondent. But at least he's met Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie!
There are no limos, just a few rusty yellow school buses, which pull up at 7 a.m. Saturday in front of the charming and newly vacuumed Holiday Inn in Liverpool, N.Y. They arrive like the brutal snow storm that hits this region every May to take hard core film buffs to a charming neighborhood movie theatre optimistically called "The Palace." There and at the hotel, films no one outside of this group has ever heard of, including "You're A Sweetheart" (1937) with Alice Faye, and "Too Many Blondes" (1941), with Rudy Vallee, are hauled out of the vaults, threaded through a Bell & Howell or Kodak Pageant and projected onto screens.
For the silents, three piano players, including Montreal's Gabriel Thibaudeau, provide live musical accompaniments.
If you're wondering why a TV critic who should be screening the latest reality offering from Fox chooses instead to watch filmed entertainment from the first half of the last century, well, maybe because it beats the hell out of watching the latest reality offering from Fox.
One note for people more interested in current fare: Sunday's debut of the HBO miniseries John Adams on The Movie Network/Movie Central is worthy of some future Cinefest screening. Based on the Pulitzer prize-winning biography by historian David McCullough, the series stars Paul Giamatti (Sideways) as America's second president, a forgotten leader who really embodied many of the principles of the founding fathers. The opening hour deals mainly with a tense courtroom drama as Adams courageously takes up the case of British soldiers who allegedly fired upon the good citizens of Boston. An angry mob of future tea-dumpers are out for blood; Adams sticks to the law and stares them down. He upholds the principle of free trials, innocent until proven guilty and, eventually, freedom, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It is a film every American heading toward the polls in an election year should see, but don't tune in because it might be "good for you." Even if you have no interest in historical drama (and this one is so painstakingly accurate you can almost smell the gunpowder and candle wax) John Adams is utterly compelling thanks to Giamatti, who gives another great under the skin performance. Laura Linney (who play's Adam's loyal wife and valued advisor), Sarah Poley and Stephan Dillane (as Thomas Jefferson) also star. Tom Hanks is among the executive producers. Starts Sunday at 9 p.m. on TMN (8 p.m. in Western Canada on MC).
For something COMPLETELY different--the flip side, in fact, of the American dream--check out the first of two even more bracing than usual episodes of Aaron McGruder's The Boondocks, airing Sunday in Canada on Teletoon (10:30 p.m.) after being pulled off The Cartoon Network in the States.
McGruder likes putting the boots to The Man but these two animated episodes go way over the top with a flat out hit on the BET network. Watch, be afraid, shake you head at all those taboo cuss words, but let it sink in--didn't John Adams fight for Huey to have the right to speak his mind in America? Read more about it here in my Brioux On The Box column this week for The Canadian Press.
One other note. my Vancouver-base colleague Alex Strachan was kind enough to call and chat about my book, Truth and Rumors: The Reality Behind TV's Most Famous Myths. You can read his feature about it today in the Nanaimo Daily News. If you're looking to pick up a copy of the book (not that I'm using this blog as a thinly disguised marketing ploy or anything), Amazon.com carries it, but they seem to be down to their last copy. Try over a Barnes & Noble, which--rumour has it--has a pretty good members discount available at the moment.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

ACTRA Missing Intelligence

This week's podcast with CHML's Scott Thompson (listen here) gets into the fallout from the CBC pickups and rejections, including the all-too-predictable, knee-jerk joke-of-the-week: ACTRA calling on the government to step in and make CBC uncancel jPod, MVP and Intelligence. Read their boneheaded release here and notice how they can't even get the name of one of these three one word title shows right.
Sure, jobs are at stake, but does the government step in and make people buy more Dodge Magnums when the Chrysler plant in Brampton, Ont., discontinues the line due to poor sales? No it does not. You can't legislate taste and force people to buy cars just like you can't force them to watch tv shows just to save jobs. This is Canada at its most ridiculous and embarrassing, the Welfare State run amok. No broadcaster, even a public one, has a mandate or a duty to air shows that, for whatever reason, fail to find a sustainable audience. Only ACTRA could take Intelligence and make it sound so bloody illogical.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Lies, Damn Lies and Television

Should Robert Irvine be sacked as the Food Network's Dinner Impossible chef?
That's this week's poll question at TV Feeds My Family. The story has been stewing for weeks, ever since The St. Petersburg Times blew the lid off his overcooked resume. Check out "TV chef spiced up past exploits," by Ben Montgomery, here.
Among other things, Irvine was caught lying about his connections with Britain's Royal family (he claimed, among other things, he was pals with Prince Charles), cooking for four U.S. presidents in the White House as well as celebrities such as Donald Trump and several prime ministers. There were many other examples of Irvine's unchecked self-aggrandisement. He spun them all for me when I interviewed him last year in an outdoor cafe in Toronto's Distillery district. (The story ran in TVTimes magazine.) He didn't go so far (as he did with others) to brag about a phony Knighthood. But Irvine wanted you to know he was Mr. Connected, Mr. Accomplished, as dashing and James Bond-ish in real life as he is portrayed on Dinner: Impossible.
Frankly, I didn't care about his alleged exploits with the Windsors--I was more interested at the time in getting tips on marinating chicken. Irvine offered a few pointers. The kids are ever grateful.
At one point during our conversation his cell phone rang. It was a direct call from the White House, the publicist later mentioned. It may have been from a white house, but it was not the one on 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
He talked about his two South Florida restaurants, Ooze and Schmooze, as if they were thriving eateries with long waiting lists. Neither has ever opened, as Montgomery's article reveals.
The story speaks to how people (and reporters who should know better) will believe anything in an era when truth has been reduced to a minor detail. Half the time, you expect to be conned. We live in a world of manufactured reality, especially in television. Even beyond television, Irvine's tale should be a slap in the face to anyone who has ever fudged on a resume or cheated on an exam--transgressions that are becoming more and more routine and, in some cases, even encouraged in a society obsessed with bottom line success.
The frustrating thing is, Irvine is the real deal on his show. He didn't have to lie to do his super chef act, he just had to lie to get it.
A seasoned Navy cook, he and his two assistants are thrown into "impossible" situations--like feeding 200 guests gathered on a remote island with limited resources for a wedding THAT DAY--and he pulls most of them off with panache. There is great drama on his show, and many happy endings.
Isn't Irvine's performance even more compelling now that we know he's really The Great Imposter? Is he any more of a poser than reality show headliners Hulk Hogan, Gene Simmons or Bret Michaels? Isn't lying all the rage, the way to get ahead on shows like Survivor and American Idol?
Maybe, maybe not. When I mentioned my willingness to forgive Irvine to a friend, she said she'd pass. She used to love his show and thought he was hot, but the dude lost all his sexy appeal because of three little words: he's a liar.
What do you think? Should Irvine get a second chance? Vote early vote often.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Survey Says: Yes to Bill C-10 Powers

A flurry of last minute voting pushed the "Yes" side ahead in the latest TV Feeds My Family poll, which asked, "Should the Heritage Minister have the power to withhold tax credits from Canadian TV and film productions based on what they determine is content 'contrary to public policy?" Fifty-four percent said yes, the government should have this power. The "No" side had been ahead by as much as 80% the first few days the poll was up, but the last 24 hours saw a big "Yes" rally. A total of 280 people took part in the vote, well up from previous polls at this site.
The results suggest Canadians are split on this issue, or that a lot of people who are well organized and used to lobbying have access to computers. In any event, thanks everyone for getting involved. The question was framed in a way to try and reduce what has become an emotional issue to its root effect. I'm sure the government is currently conducting its own poll on this issue; hopefully, those findings will be a little more scientific.
The contentious Bill C-10 issue continues to make headlines, including this article today in The Toronto Star, suggesting that the amendment to the tax bill is designed to fix a problem that has never presented itself.
That surprising little Facebook site, "Keep your censoring hands off of Canadian film and TV! No to Bill C-10!," continues to raise awareness, draw Canadians into the debate and urge involvement. Membership at 8:30 p.m. E.S.T. is at 31,450 and counting.
For those still struggling to get a handle on the issue, check out this clip from The Hour, posted on YouTube. You'll still struggle, but you will laugh.

Truth and Rumors Hit TV Guide

It's not a rumour, it's true--I used to work at TV Guide.
Worked there for over a dozen years, in fact. That's me, left, with a couple of guys I once played hockey with.
So it's good to be in TV Guide again, although it is a very different experience. My book, Truth and Rumors: The Reality Behind TV's Most Famous Myths, is featured today at TV Guide.ca. You can read the article, by Denette Wilford, here.
The story goes through my ten favorite rumours from the book, everything from those saucy Johnny Carson Tonight Show tall tales to the rumour that Blue's Clue's host Steve Burns is dead to the nonsense spread on the Internet about Captain Kangaroo (Bob Keeshan, right, with me back in the '90s) being a WWII killing machine along side Lee Marvin.
There were plenty of rumours spread during those kooky TV Guide days. The weekly was once the largest-selling magazine in the world, topping 25 million copies sold in the U.S. in the '70s and well over a million a week in Canada. A TV Guide cover could make or break a show. I remember Lenny Clark, now on his pal Denis Leary's Rescue Me, took his cover from TV Guide Canada to the bank--literally. Clark was then starring in his own blue collar comedy, a rip off of Roseanne. He used the fact that he was on a TV Guide cover as collateral at the bank to secure a loan on a house. The U.S. bank never knew it was the Canadian Guide, not the almighty American (they looked the same). Clark's comedy, of course, was canceled weeks after the cover ran. Clark laughed like hell when he told me that story a few years ago.
I started there in the '80s in what was then called the "paste up" department. Copy, typed on old IBM Selectra typewriters (gad I'm old), was re-typed by "trained professionals" (other twentysomethings) into giant typesetting machines, spat out onto a clean, coated stock and then sliced into little squares and pasted with hot wax onto boards. The final boards would be put in an envelope and tossed into the back seat of a Taxi, which would take it to a printer on Weston Road. If it was a hot day, some of the wax would melt and the copy would shift before it made it to the presses!
When I first started working there, TV Guide was a tidy little operation over on Merton Street near Yonge and Davenport. Editor Ken Larone was the only grown up there, it seems, the rest of us were kids, and when he turned his back, the place operated like a frat house.
Within a year I was photo editor and a couple of years I was down in Los Angeles as the Hollywood bureau chief. That meant I was holed up in an apartment in the Valley, trying to set up photo shoots and driving around to places like George Burns' office in Hollywood where the then 90-year-old still reported every day.
Andrew Ryan of The Globe and Mail worked for the magazine then (a buddy from University days, he was the one who suggested I get in the Guide). Bruce Dowbiggin, who went on to cover sports for CBC and author a book slamming Alan Eagleson, wrote the sports column. The great Harry Purvis visited once a week from Hamilton and kicked in some of the most memorable movie listings. ("The Chinese Professionals: The story of a good man gone Wong.") The Toronto Star's Tanya Workman and my old pal Ray Bennett, still in the game over in England for The Hollywood Reporter, all survived stints at The Guide, as did (a bit before my time) The Star's Rita Zekas.
Many, many others are still in the business or else went on to real work.
The place was owned back then by Phillipe de Gaspe Beaubien, a very regal gent with a clipped moustache who always wore vests and a gold-plated pocketwatch on his infrequent walkabouts. The one time "mayor" of Montreal's Expo '67, Beaubien bought the Canadian rights to the mag in 1977 (it dates back to 1953 in the States) and went on to make a boat load of money.
Ah, memories.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

MVP, jPod: Picking Through the Rubble


Why did two of the January CBC start ups succeed and two others fail?
It is a very Canadian question. Six weeks from now one will ask why Fox dumped three of the four shows they are launching this month. Most prime time network shows fail--in fact, historically, only 20% succeed.
So, two out of four, 50%--that's a miracle in television.
As for the notion, put forward by one of the jPod producers, that the shows didn't get enough promotion, well, PLEASE. These shows were promoted so heavily I began to think they might be American shows on CTV.
The fact CBC decided so quickly to move on from MVP and jPod, whatever you think of the merits of those shows, indicates that CBC is finally in the network television business. How many CBC shows in the past, from Tom Stone to, yes, Intelligence, limped into a second season when it was crystal clear after four or five weeks that it would not and could not connect with enough viewers to be sustained on a broadcast network?
Clearly, quality is not much of a factor in determining hits, or Intelligence would run for a decade. (It might yet: John Doyle reported in yesterday's Globe and Mail that producer Chris Haddock--together with John Wells--is versioning the series as a pilot at Fox. Try FX or HBO). Other smart shows that should have run forever are Arrested Development and The Wire (which ends its five-year-run tonight on The Movie Network/Movie Central). Some shows are just the best shows ever--for people who don't normally watch television.
MVP was slick and sassy out of the gate--and maybe it never should have opened on a Friday--but all that sizzle provided very little heat. Canadians just weren't interested in the secret lives of hockey wives. Maybe they were just too busy this winter shoveling snow.
Denis McGrath makes several good points on this subject over at Dead Things ON Sticks, starting with a shout out to Mary Leckie, one of the executive producers on MVP. He refers to a quote from Leckie in that same Globe and Mail piece where she dusts herself off and says, "this is a tough business and I can't slam anyone. We move on."
It is a bloody tough business and Leckie is a total pro, she will move on. She's built a solid rep making TV-movies about such all-Canadian stories as the Halifax harbour explosion or the Avro Arrow. Those were both monster hits, drawing over 2 million viewers each, American idol numbers.
Odd then, that when she tried to take the ultimate Canadian theme--hockey--and turn it into an American-style soap opera--it got slammed into the boards. It is almost as if, as a publicist remarked to me a week or so after all four new CBC shows launched, that Canadians simply do not want to watch Canadian-produced shows that ape American-produced shows.
It is the classic Canadian TV conundrum--give them what they want, which is CSI, House, Desperate Housewives. But do it for a quarter the budget AFTER you go through the already complicated enough government funding padiwacks.
Or do what ultimately works best in the States--give somebody with passion and vision a shot, leave them alone, and see what they can do on a Canadian dime--like Mike Clattenburg (Trailer Park Boys), Brent Butt (Corner Gas) or the ultimate do it yourselfer, Steve Smith (The Red Green Show).
So many factors, including plain dumb luck, go into making a hit TV show. If anyone tells you they know the formula, don't make eye contact, keep your head down and slowly back out of the room.
But some conclusions can be drawn from looking at the fate of the four January start ups:
  • The Border may have benefited the most from the gap in U.S. action fare due to the writers strike. There was no new episodes of 24 at all this season. The big budget police procedurals, the CSI's, Without a Trace, NCIS, Bones--all shelved. If you wanted your cop fix, hey, what about this new show? Isn't that the CN Tower? Cool. Reviews? Promotion? Doyle wasn't a fan, but most critics recommended it, including me. If you watched CBC this winter or rode a bus, subway or streetcar, you couldn't help but be aware of it. It helped that when you did watch it, aside from the paint-by-numbers pilot, it was pretty damn good. It was also incredibly timely, seemingly ripping stories about organ harvesting and terrorism off the headlines the week they were breaking.
  • Sophie did not get great reviews, certainly not from me, but something about Natalie Brown seemed to vault this thing into the winner's list. It may be the ultimate Canadian TV series--it looks American (there's a Sex and the City vibe happening), its based on a proven hit somewhere else (Quebec, which, trust me, in TV terms is somewhere else), has been picked up by an American network (ABC Family) ands it stars a no-name star who is nevertheless is an instantly recognizable face. The thing that often distinguishes Canadian talent from Americans is that the Canucks have worked everything from Stratford to Second City to the Sponge Bob show at Canada's Wonderland just to make a living. Primarily through her luscious Bailey's spots, Brown has one of those faces that is remote control proof. She's beautiful, she arrests you with those eyes, but she also comes pre-sold, even though viewers do not know her name. In a country without a star system, the no-name star is Queen.
  • I Liked the pilot for jPod more than any of these pilots. I sat and watched it with my son, who is 15 and buried in his Nintendo den at this writing playing the game he tells me he was born to play, Super Smash Bros. Brawl. I don't expect him to emerge until March 17, when school resumes. So he was hooked at the start by the jPod promos and keen to see the series. he loved the pilot, although we both agreed it went on to long. He kept watching--and liking the series. I never watched a full episode again. It's often a bad sign when I like a series anyway. Critics burn out on same old formats that tend to click with mass audiences. I never watch CSI or Grey's Anatomy, I think I saw Friends twice. I'm bored easily, so I'm always looking for that blast of original. I love shows like Wonderfalls, Keen Eddie and Arrested Development. Like those shows, jPod may have been too different for the mass network audience. Cut it in half and cut the zany parents out of it (as fun as it was to see Alan Thicke and Sherry Miller strut so wild, it was part of another show) It could have been the highest-rated show ever, for example, on YTV. It was an original little show on the wrong network.
  • I've written about what didn't work on MVP before. The other point I'll make is this: MVP, more than any of the others, needed a star, a big name TV headliner, to bring viewers to the party. Not to take anything away from a strong and attractive cast, but in a large, sexy ensemble, even a U.S. soap needs a Heather Locklear or a Teri Hatcher to spark a few tabloids into a cover frenzy. The one area CBC really needs to work on moving forward is creating and promoting its stars. You rarely see names attached to promos for Intelligence or The Border and while it is great that the industry embraces and salutes and knows all these people, if you pulled 100 Canadians out of lines at supermarket check outs, 100 could not name any of the stars from those shows. You can't have a show called MVP and not have a most valuable player.

Friday, March 7, 2008

MVP, jPod Out, Border, Sophie In for '08-09


CBC announced it's 2008-09 schedule today and two of its January starts--MVP and jPod--were left off the list.

As expected, The Border and Sophie (starring Natalie Brown, above) are both back next season, as is the Sunday family series Heartland, which may have outperformed them all in total households. CBC is also in for a second season of the U.S. cable miniseries The Tudors.

Old favorites Air Farce Live and The Rick Mercer Report--which had its strongest season ever, averaging one million viewers weekly--are also back, as are Little Mosque on the Prairie, This Hour Has 22 Minutes, Just For Laughs and the Halifax and Winnipeg Comedy Festivals.

Reality series Dragon's Den, Test the Nation and Canada's Next Great Prime Minister will also return next season, as will the low-rated entry Triple Sensation, which is produced by a friend of the network, or is back as a result of a bet, or something.
There was no mention on the release of a pickup for the critically acclaimed but low-rated Chris Haddock series Intelligence; the presumption is that Intelligence is dead at CBC.

CBC enjoyed higher ratings overall in 2007-08. The network boasted its season-to-date share is up 7.9%, the highest rise in six years. The US writers strike, which knocked several US imports off the Canadian private network schedules, was a factor, but credit CBC with being both strategic and lucky, with the four rookies well placed for once for maximum sampling.

Both The Hour with George Stroumboulopoulos and the "fabulous" new daytime entry Steven and Chris are also inked in for 2008-09.

The word on the four January rookies comes just as MVP saw a one week surge to 386,000 viewers this past Tuesday--a 100,000 viewer lift and just behind Wednesdays lower than usual Sophie take, 389,000. Friday, jPod scored 312,000, above its season average, but not enough, apparently to stick to the CBC sked.

This week's Little Mosque on the Prairie season finale--one of the weakest episodes in a strong season--scored 881,000 viewers.

Shameless Plug Alert No. 499

Stopping by Newsworld's CBC News: Today with David Gray this afternoon to talk about a book that did not receive one thin dime in tax credits or any other kind of government funding: Truth and Rumors: The Reality Behind TV's Most Famous Myths. Order it today from Amazon.com--St. Patrick's Day is coming!
Among the rumours we'll get into around 4:45 will be a few tall 'toon tales. Did Fred and Barney really light up and smoke Winston's cigarettes in ads that ran on The Flintstones in the '60s? Let's light that one up right now:


Yabba dabba don't kids.
We'll also get into a few stories about TV stars who supposedly died right on television. As in died died, not just bombed or laid an egg. Did a longevity expert who was a guest on The Dick Cavett Show in the early '70s, for example, really keel over on air and die? How about Arnold the Pig from Green Acres. Was he really roasted by his fellow cast members at the wrap party after the very last taping? Tune in today to see one Ham talk about another.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

A Radio Rant and a Top C-10 List

Another week, another podcast. This time, CHML Talk Radio's Scott Thompson and I get into the whole Bill C-10 debate. Sorta makes you nostalgic for the writers strike, doesn't it? Make a game of it--take a drink every time the phrase "tax credit" is used. Listen up here.
Meanwhile, here, from the home office in Ottawa, are the Top C-10 changes to Canadian film and TV as a result of the Bill C-10 amendments:
No. 10: Title of the film "Young People F***ing" changed to "The Road to Penetration"
No. 9: tax credit revoked for the new, racy, reality show sequel The Week The Women Came.
No. 8: MVP now about the "secret lives of government meat inspectors."
No. 7: Corner Gas's Brent Butt forced to change name to Brent McVety
No. 6: Bell cell phone beavers replaced by muskrats
No. 5: On Trailer Park Boys, Bubbles, Ricky and Julian replaced by the Rankin Family
No. 4: No number 4, Heritage Ministry bureaucrats too busy surfing porn
No. 3: Sexy homeland security babe on The Border replaced by Red Green's Nephew Harold
No. 2: Offensive "Snake" character digitally removed from Degrassi reruns
And the No. 1 change to Canadian film and TV as a result of the Bill C-10 amendments: Peter Mansbridge forced to wear pants again on The National

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Numbers Other Than C-10

People have been so busy defending Canadian TV shows they haven't had as much time to watch. Overnight ratings estimates this week show Monday's The Border was down a buck-20 to 590,000 viewers. The Week The Women Went scored 627,000 well down from the near-million the series flirted with a couple of weeks ago. Part of that drop--as noted by a commenter to this post--can be attributed to Monday's election night coverage in Alberta, where Border and The Week were both preempted.
CTV's Degrassi was seen by 520,000, but viewership continues to drop for CTV import Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, down to 668,000 and 683,000 viewers in two airings Monday. Global did better than usual with its latest SBMNMR (Stale Blockbuster Monday Night Movie Rental), Mr. and Mrs. Smith, which nabbed 966,000 viewers.

Sunday's Part I of CBC's The Englishman's Boy lassoed 805,000, edging CTV's Cold Case (803,000) but behind Global's Big Brother (903,000). CTV's Oprah's Big Give was the big winner Sunday night with 1,717,000 viewers, with 1,010,000 sticking around for the bloody good U.S. cable pickup Dexter.


Tonight marks the season finale of Little Mosque on the Prairie (CBC, 8 p.m.). Will Rayyan (Sitara Hewitt, above) say yes to an arranged marriage? Allah knows. More CBC season finales are on the way, with The Week The Women Went signing off Monday March 10, MVP hanging up its skates (for good?) March 11. The Rick Mercer Report finishes its season March 18, as does This Hour Has 22 Minutes. The Border bows March 31, jPod April 1, Sophie April 2 and Air Farce Live closes out Season 15 with an hour-long special April 4.


Which shows will be back? CBC isn't expected to announce for another two weeks, at least.

Mercer, Others Weigh in on Bill C-10

Really trying not to write about Bill C-10 everyday but it is the issue that won't go away. Thinking of legally changing my name to Bill "C-10" Brioux--if I can get a tax credit.
I really think the favorable world view of Canada as a tolerant society--especially in the area of the arts--is what is being threatened here. If we are to take the Minister of Heritage at her word, the government should be "deeply committed to freedom of expression and will continue to support the creation of edgy, entertaining Canadian content."
Even if that content satirizes and ridicules the government. Check out Rick Mercer's blog for a typically cheeky, ponted bit of fun, supposedly from the desk of Stephen Harper. Says Mercer's pseudo-Harper: "I see the future my friends and it's starring Anne of Green Gables."
Satire is welcome at this point but Martin Knelman drills down a little deeper today in the Toronto Star. In an article entitled, "No tax guidelines, no worries, right?" Knelman, who sees this controversy as "a head-on collision of tax reform and film censorship," asks where are these mysterious guidelines that are supposed to be used to judge "material that God-fearing moralists might find offensive"? Seems the secretary to the Heritage Minister suddenly can't find them.
As mentioned here on earlier postings, lobby groups have held up Canadian film festival entries such as Young People F***ing as examples of how the arts community needs a moral correction. For a very persuasive and reasoned overview of how Bill C-10 won't really change anything--one way or the other--go here to "The Legion of Decency." Newmarket-based screenwriter Jim Henshaw argues that, despite the big bow taken by lobby groups like the "Family Coalition," the last minute tax credit amendment won't even address the astounding flow of pornography that spews forth every night and on demand on Canadian cable and satellite carriers. Where are the church leaders and government watchdogs on this issue?
"If your elected representatives really wanted to do something about 'smut'," writes Henshaw, "they'd go after Jim [Shaw] and Ted [Rogers] and somebody at Bell. But they don't. In fact, if you check the donations made to all those politicians making sure no tax money goes toward producing pornography, you'll find they've all received significant contributions from Jim and Ted and that guy at Bell -- money that comes from the very 'art' your MP says he doesn't want to support."
It's a very good point. All this contentious amendment in Bill C-10 will do it create content headaches and more paperwork for Canadian producers trying to tell stories against a tidal wave of American programming. It won't deter or in any way effect all this objectionable programming that is imported.
I once wrote in The Toronto Sun that, if you turn on The Movie Network any night past midnight, you can see hard core pornography--far exceeding anything allowed in the United States. I think the phrase I used back then was that you could see "more stiff members than on the Parliamentary channel."
Would that some of those stiff members would rise up and thrust themselves into this debate, especially Liberal senators who have the option of sending this sucker back to Parliament and making it the big fat election issue it is already fast becoming.
UPDATE: Hello--Liberal senators indeed took up the cause today. See "Senate Liberals vow to protect film industry from government bill," Joan Bryden's CP story in today's Globe and Mail.
By the way, that "Keep your censoring hands off Canadian film and TV" Facebook site? Past the 25,000 member mark this afternoon.