Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Border Holds Despite U.S. Invasion

CBC has to be quietly pleased with last night's numbers for The Border: 560,000 total viewers across Canada. (Overnight estimated based on average minute audience, BBM Canada/Nielsen data.) That's down slightly from last season's average but better than many predicted up against first run episodes of U.S. hits on a very competitive Monday night.
Consider what else was on at 9 p.m. in Canada last night: Heroes on Global (1,214,000), Two and a Half Men on A (809,000) and the biggie, Dancing with the Stars, on CTV (1,605,000 averaged over the two hour timeslot). All popular imports with loyal core audiences.
Still, The Border emerges as an viable option Mondays at 9, the place to get your drama fix (unless you are watching Prison Break at 9 on Buffalo's Fox affiliate in Toronto).
Especially, apparently, for older viewers. Most of the Border audience last night, 368,000 viewers, were 50-plus. Only 173,000 fell into the desired 18-49-year-old demo. The show could get younger.
It also lost some of the Dragons' Den audience, with 697,000 viewers tuned to CBC at 8.
Still, everything on CBC falls off after Jeopardy! at 7:30, by far the network's highest rated Monday show with 1,022,000 viewers.

Send in the Clowns

Both the Rick Mercer Report and This Hour Has 22 Minutes return tonight--and not a moment too soon.
These elections play straight into the hands of both shows, although more for 22 Minutes (8:30, CBC) than Mercer (8 p.m.). At least according to Rick Mercer himself, who I chatted with at last week's CBC season launch. While he'll take aim at Harper, Dion, Layton and whatshername, his real focus is in traveling around, trying stuff--like his stint with the Canadian special Olympians in Beijing. In dives Mercer, into the pool. He snaps on a pair of goggles that make him as blind as the other competitors. Wall, meet Mercer, Mercer, meet wall. Right on the beak. Ouch!
Aside from the bloody nose, Mercer says it was the most incredible experience he's had as the show zips into a seventh season.
This Hour Has 22 Minutes, on the other hand, is all about the political Olympics. Newest cast member Geri Hall has been doing her job, grabbing headlines recently by getting cuffed at a Stephen Harper rally. Tonight we'll finally get to see that bit, as well as Hall stalking Stephane Dion on the campaign trail. There's also a bit featuring actual Green Party leader Elizabeth May as well as deadpan young Nathan gooning the president of CBC.
You'll want to catch This Hour Has 22 Minutes right off the top tonight, too, for an opening gag you never expected to hear on CBC again.

Letterman's Tribute to Paul Newman

Paul Newman once said he drank a case of beer a day. "Count me in," said David Letterman last night in a heartfelt tribute to the Academy Award-winning actor, race car driver and humanitarian.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Big Test Tonight for The Border

How safe is The Border? We'll find out tonight as The Border returns for a second season tonight at 9 p.m. on CBC. The Toronto-based series gained a strong foothold last winter when it was one of four scripted shows to join the CBC schedule opposite private network schedules weakened by the writers strike. It consistently pulled in the 600,000 to 700,000 range in terms of total viewers. That's going to be tougher to accomplish this fall on a very competitive night, with new episodes of Heroes, Prison Break, Two and a Half Men and Dancing with the Stars on the other channels.
I profiled James McGowan, who plays The Border's team leader Mike Kessler, in a CP article last week. You can read it here. The Montreal-native (above, with cast newcomer Grace Park) is proving to be a real find, a leading man who seemed to come from nowhere when this series premiered last January.
McGowan and several other Border cast members were at the CBC mini-launch last week, a clever little studio gathering set up as a taping of George Stroumboulopoulpos's The Hour. The launch was a reminder that all of CBC's big guns are back this week, including Rick Mercer Report and This Hour Has 22 Minutes (tomorrow), Little Mosque and Sophie (Wednesday) and Air Farce Live (Friday).
Strombo gabbed with Rick Mercer, Peter Mansbridge and Natalie Dormer from The Tudors (also back tomorrow). Mercer, who was in China recently shooting segments with Canada's special Olympics team, was in fine form. Asked about Green Party leader Elizabeth May joining in on the federal leaders debate this week, he cracked: "she's gonna be the vinegar who brightens up the vegetables."
Gorgeous Sophie star Natalie Brown (in a dress and second hand shoes she picked up 45 minutes before the CBC launch), dapper Carlo Rota and several Little Mosque mates and several Air Farcers, including Penelope Corrin (who will unveil her Sarah Pallin imitation on Friday's debut) also mingled at the afternoon event. The whole thing was kicked off in style by network programming boss Kirstine Layfield, who looked pretty hot in her knee-high boots.
The boots were no accident. Layfield needs The Border to have legs this season. It should get a boost from the return of Dragons' Den tonight at 8 p.m. The third season of this Apprentice-like reality series features a new dragon--W. Brett Wilson, the Saskatchewan-native and Calgary resident behind the energy industry's leading investment bank. Among the people pitching to him and the other dragons this season are a father and son casket making team and an Ontario kid who thinks he has the next Segway.
Speaking of segway, a Dragons' Den goodie bag was provided on the way out of the CBC fest, filled with kooky inventions being pitched this season, including a large plastic Mickey Mouse hand on a hooked handle called the "Back Buddie." It's for applying lotion in hard to reach spots, or, I guess, for patting yourself on the back. Imagine it being handed out at a CBC launch.

Californication, Take Two

Have to admit I was afraid to even watch season two of Californication (which returned last night and will be repeated this week on The Movie Network/Movie Central and Showtime). Not that I didn't like season one--I loved it. I just worried that executive producer/creator Tom Kapinos put such a bow on it with that beautiful beginning, middle and end first season that I didn't want to spoil it by unwrapping it again.
When we last saw Hank Moody (David Duchovny) he was speeding off in his one headlight Porsche, his beaming daughter Becca (Madeline Martin) beside him and her radiant mother, runaway bride Karen (Natascha McElhone) hopping into the backseat. It reminded me at the time of the ending of The Graduate, a frenzied getaway with a freeze frame on the happy family that seemed too perfect and yet just perfect at the same time.
Indeed, when we catch back up with Moody and Company, things quickly go off the rails, not just for the characters, but for the series. Before long, there is an incredibly contrived sexual screw up that leads to more heartache.
The series also seems driven to become the filthiest, dirtiest show ever in cable, especially in the shenanigans between Moody's book agent Charlie (Evan Handler) and his horny little mate, Marcy (Pamela Adlon, also the voice of young Bobby in King Of The Hill). The booze, drugs and sex gets so out of hand (as does the language) you'll swear you are watching some wittier-than-usual celebrity sex tape on YouPorn.
This, of course, ramps up comparisons to Duchovny's at home predicament. As reported everywhere, the 48-year-old actor booked himself into a sexual addiction clinic this summer. If anything, despite his extended mid-life crisis, Hank Moody is more in control of his sexual urges than just about any other adult in the series. He just happens to be in the wrong city, thus deep in Californication.
There are, however, several reason to keep watching this season. One is the addition of Canadian Callum Keith Rennie as a sex, drugs and rock 'n' roller who hooks up with Moody in prison (don't ask) and later asks him to pen his autobiography.
The other good news is that Paula Marshall, who made an eye-opening sex cameo in season one (she and Hank get drunk, get it on and then both vomit), returns. Finally, there's, as Rennie's character states, the best damn dinner party ever by episodes four, where a bomb is dropped that should keep me hooked the rest of the season.
Californication remains as flawed and fascinating as its main character. The other reason to watch is Martin, an exceptional young actress who Duchovny praised as a "savant" when I spoke with him this July at press tour. Daddy's little girl Becca gets a mini-Hank for a boyfriend this season, which is sweet and dangerous at the same time. They bear watching, and, I'm relieved to say, so does season two of this series.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Network TV Today: Chicks Rule

Does gender play a role in how someone programs a TV network? It's a question I put to the network programmings heads on both sides of the border in a story that appears in today's Toronto Star. You can jump to the full story here, or, hell, better yet, buy a newspaper.
The hook is that the programming bosses at all three national Canadian networks are women: Susanne Boyce, president, creative, content and channels, CTV, Barbara Williams, executive vice president, content, Canwest Broadcasting and Kirstine Layfield, executive director network programming, CBC.
Williams (right), in particular, seemed wary of the story (probably because the last time I spoke to her in person, I was taking pictures of her shoes). "Honestly Bill, I think it’s a bit of a silly question," she told me this week, "because I think people are people and we’re all a collection of a lot of things." She wondered why I was still asking the gender question in 2008.
"Tell that to Hillary Clinton,"said Boyce (left, with Sandra Oh at last year's Crystal Awards), when I mentioned that some of her colleagues though the topic was a bit last century.
CBS's Nancy Tellem--who has risen even higher in the corporate programming ranks as Nina Tassler's boss--remembers what it was like when ABC named Jamie Tarses the first female head of programming among the U.S. networks in 1996. "It became a huge thing, there was all this controversy as to whether it was exploitive or whatever," said Tellem. "Once she got it, the idea of me becoming [a programmer] was kind of a non-issue, and I really think now, at least here, the person who is promoted to that position, gender is truly irrelevant."
Two of the executives I spoke with were cut from the Star story for space: Peter Ligouri, chairman, Fox Entertainment, felt it probably is an advantage, in some ways, to be a female programming chief. "More women watch TV than men," he said. "I sit there and I start out watching TV I like and what I hope my wife will enjoy. And, frankly, I’m not going to stand here and say my wife does not have influence over my programming—she absolutely does. She has an influence on all my decisions! But I think you inevitably program what you like."
Benjamin Silverman, co-chairman of NBC Entertainment and NBC Universal Television Studio, thinks picking shows is more about nuance than gender. "You have to understand your whole country in the case of the CBC or NBC. I don’t think gender plays any great advantage. I think just being intuitive does."
Let's give the last word to CBS CEO Les Moonves (right), who has handed off most of his programming chores but still tinkers with casting decisions on his network's schedules. Moonves feels everybody has a masculine side and a feminine side. "When I look at [The New Adventures of Old Christine] or [Tassler] looks at Christine, we come from different perspectives because we’re different people but we both like it."
ABC entertainment president Stephen McPherson says in today's Star piece that, if you didn't know him and had to guess who was picking ABC's shows, you'd think it was a 35-year-old woman. Moonves says that's B.S. "I really think Stephen MacPherson genuinely likes Desperate Housewives himself. It’s a great show."

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Paul Newman 1925-2008

Paul Newman, who died Friday after a long battle with cancer (read the well-prepared Associated Press obit here), was one of those iconic film stars who rarely bothered with television.
One memorable cameo came during the very first Late Show with David Letterman in 1993. New to CBS and the Ed Sullivan Theatre, Letterman playfully conjured up the spirit of Sullivan, who appears (via a film clip) and introduces Newman in the studio audience. Newman stands up, acknowledges the crowd and says, "Where the hell are the singing cats?" He checks his tickets and leaves the theatre. For some reason the embedding code is disabled, but you can jump to a fuzzy YouTube clip of the moment here.
Letterman shares a love of auto racing with Newman and it is clear he was in awe of the Oscar-winner. What's not to love? The dude was one of the coolest cats ever. Here is a much later clip of Newman on Letterman, with the film star explaining why his long marriage to Joanne Woodward succeeded:



Newman also plays a role in the most memorable moment in the celebrity version of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, even though he was never a participant. Norm Macdonald was playing for Newman's "Hole in the Wall Gang" charity, which provides camp experiences for kids in need. See Macdonald bag the half million in this clip before, out of lifelines, he gives Regis Philbin fits with the final answer:



You can tell gambling man Macdonald was pissed at passing on the mill, but you can also see the great respect he had for Newman. Who didn't have great respect for Newman?
I encountered him just once and that was via satellite. It was a TCA press conference in January of 2005 to promote the HBO production Empire Falls. Newman was a producer and also acted in that Emmy-winner, and was at his playfully crusty best at the press session. Asked if he ever looked at any of his own films, he said, "I avoid them like the plague."
You can read the full story here, then run out and buy some Newman's Own salad dressing and toss a salute to a great man.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Good Grief! The Simpsons Return for Season 20

Al Jean, the long-time executive producer and showrunner on The Simpsons (with Homer and Matt Groening, left), took conference calls with critics this week. He was proudly promoting the fact that the animated evergreen returns for a 20th season this Sunday at 8 p.m. on Fox and Global. Jean says the five principle voice cast members are signed for another four years (at a reported $500,000 per episode. Each!). One episode, timed to the U.S. election, will find Homer accidentally voting over and over again for Sen. John McCain in a slap at Bush's stolen 2000 election. Plus one of the three stories in this year's Halloween "Treehouse of Horror" treat will be a goof on The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, although they had to change the "Great" Pumpkin to the "Grand" Pumpkin to avoid a lawsuit.
More Simpsons tales take up much of this week's TV talk with CHML Talk Radio's Scott Thompson. There's also some blather about new shows and ratings and Canadian content;
you can listen in here.
Speaking of radio, thanks to 680News' Rudy Blair for helping to get the word out on Sherri Woodstock. Six bands, including Classic Albums Live, are performing Sunday, Oct. 5, in a celebration of the short, fabulous life of former Sun club and concert reporter Sherri Wood. Blair got me on the blower to chat up the show; the segment will run on his entertainment reports throughout the day tomorrow (Saturday). Tickets to the event, priced at just $20 plus the usual service fees, can be purchased here at TicketPro.ca.
Speaking of Sherri, The Toronto Sun is currently reprinting some of her best columns through until next Monday. Check out today's Wood winner here. Read right through to the last line in her interview with Sex And The City girl Kim Cattrall, it is to laff.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Timely Tips for Torch Time

Fire up the Tiki torch and pass the Doritos. Survivor Gabon: Earth’s Last Eden—the first Survivor shot in high definition--begins tonight at 8 p.m. on Global and CBS. The two-hour premiere returns the franchise to Africa for the first time in seven years. The original Survivor: Africa is remembered as one of the most challenging and torturous ever and insiders say this edition is no walk in the jungle, either.
Eighteen contestants have been selected to compete for the million-dollar top prize. But what does it take to become a Survivor champion? I put that question to three competitors from Survivor Micronesia: Fans vs. Favorites—James Clement, Oscar “Ozzie” Lusth and winner Parvati Shallow—who were in Toronto last June at Global's fall upfront. Here are there Top-5 Survivor tips:
TIP NO. 1: Form alliances early. “Immediately,” says Shallow. “You should have a solid alliance that you can trust in the beginning.” Clement agrees, saying that you’ve got to hope that the alliance you make early on “is solid enough at least for the first stages of the game. You’ve got to understand that the first stage is really important to get past. Once you get past it, things start to mellow out a little bit.”
One warning from Shallow, however: “Don’t trust your alliance.”
TIP NO. 2: Play to your strength. Says Shallow: “If you are really strong in challenges, be the challenge dominator. If you have good social skills and make friends easily, use that and work people. You kind of have to be who you are and work with the skill set that you have.”
Maybe, says Lusth, although in his experience, winning challenges alone won’t win you the million. “Challenges don’t work,” he says. “Practice your talking. The talkers win.”
TIP NO. 3: Practice starting fires and building shelters. Shallow says her dad helped her learn the basics. “You should probably practice using a machete,” she suggests. Lusth says to read one of the Survivor books that are out there. Clement says knowing how to build a shelter is important but Shallow says it is overrated. “What ever you build is going to get rained on and leak.”
TIP NO. 4: Get on an All-Star edition of the series. Lusth, who also survived Cook Islands, says the fans vs. favorites game in Micronesia was a far more pleasant experience. “It was like a vacation, we were chillin’,” he says. “We had a cave, we had food, we had girls…it was a whole different thing.”
TIP No. 5: Finally, some very practical advice from Shallow: “Get a good solid bathing suit,” she says. “You want one that is indestructible.”

Letterman Roasts No-Show McCain

Sen. John McCain ditched David Letterman last night and Dave was not pleased. Check it out below:



Hilarious that "gotcha" live shot of McCain, not racing back to Washington to fix the economy (his excuse to Letterman), but getting powdered in front of Katie Couric on the set of The CBS Evening News. "It's like we caught him getting a manicure or something," Letterman said.
The host joked that "the road to the White House runs right through me," which is kinda true this TMZ election, where endorsements from Oprah are game changers and TV appearances on talk shows are gold. (Hell, McCain announced he was running for president on Dave's show.)
"This is not the way a hero behaves," said Letterman. "Somebody is putting something in his Metamucil."

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

You Must Remember This: To Watch PBS Tonight

[CORRECTION: This series ended Thursday night and will not conclude tonight, Friday, as I originally reported.] Tonight brings a real treat for movie buffs: You Must Remember This: The Warner Bros. Story. The five hour documentary premieres tonight at 9 p.m. on American Masters and continues tomorrow and Friday (check local listings; PBS affiliates are notorious renegades).
Warners was the home of Bette Davis and James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart and Bugs Bunny right through to Clint Eastwood (who narrates) and the big budget Superman and Batman movies.

Paying homage to the 85-year history is Richard Schickel, the long time Time magazine film critic, who is the writer, director and producer of the series. Also involved is documentary filmmaker Gregory Orr, step-grandson of film mogul Jack Warner.

A hefty reminder to get the word out on this series arrived today via courier: a lavishly illustrated and enormous companion book, co-authored by Schickel and George Perry. Like the documentary, it covers the entire 85-year story of the studio, from its first big star--a German shepherd named Rin-Tin-Tin--to Dirty Harry to Harry Potter.

Jon Voight was on the press tour panel last July in Los Angeles promoting the series and told a long but funny story about working with Burt Reynolds on the set of Deliverance. You can jump to my earlier report on that here.

I've seen two hours of the documentary and it was enough to hook me on seeing the rest of the series. if you love Casablanca or East of Eden or Yankee Doodle Dandy or The Searchers or All The President's Men, check out the studio behind those pictures.

Thank You, Mr. President

What if Barack Obama could knock on the door of former West Wing president Josiah Bartlet for a little electioneering advice? Could he maybe help him to see that "elitist" tag McCain has thrust on the younger senator is both misleading and actually a compliment?
Maureen Dowd--who used to date Sorkin (nice to see she still has him in her speed dial)--has a vintage bit of Sorkin sermonizing today in the New York Times. Here's how it starts:


OBAMA I didn’t expect you to answer the door yourself.
BARTLET I didn’t expect you to be getting beat by John McCain and a LancĂ´me rep who thinks “The Flintstones” was based on a true story, so let’s call it even.

Go to the full article here. Like Sorkin, you'll feel much better afterwards.

NSI Budget Cuts are Less Than Kind

Had a nice chat this morning with Marvin Kaye, the creator and executive producer of the upcoming comedy Less Than Kind (premiering Oct. 13 on City-TV). The interview was for an upcoming Starweek cover story.

A journeyman actor before becoming a writer, Kaye has hit the lottery jackpot in Canada and he knows it. His first TV series pitch, based mainly on his own zany family experiences growing up in Winnipeg, not only got picked up (the only new scripted Canadian-produced fall series launch, at least until CTV's The Listener, a co-production with NBC, gets a start date), but it stars the great Maury Chaykin, who plays a broadly-based version of Kaye's own driver instructor dad. It's also being supervised by one of Kaye's comedy heroes, Mark McKinney (Kids in the Hall, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip). To top it all off, it is being well paired with Curb Your Enthusiasm on City's schedule.

Kaye was quick to credit the National Screen Institute's "Totally Television" mentoring program, an initiative to assist new screenwriters and producers, for helping to make Less Than Kind happen. His show, along with Global's Da Kink in My Hair and several others, got a vital boost from the NSI.
So, yeah, the NCI is one of the funding agencies hit by prime minister Stephen Harper's recent cuts to culture agencies.
"They're cutting the administration costs, which is, of course, the bread and butter of the program," says Kaye. "Without that program--which really introduced us to the networks and to our executive producers (at Breakthrough Films)--we'd be in really terrible shape."
Talk about less than kind. Hey, isn't this show creating jobs in Winnipeg?

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

While Layton Rants, Canadians Watch CSI Miami

Last night was the first official night of the 2008-09 TV season. Canadian and American Networks decimated by strikes and declining ratings were reloaded and ready. But would viewers come back?
The answer so far: yes and no. Both Global and NBC needed a show that had sat on the shelf for nine months--Heroes--to rescue their ratings. The results were mixed. In the U.S., battered NBC ran with three straight hours of Heroes programming, including an hour-long "recap" episode, which bombed. The two-hour third season premiere was down sharply year-to-year (9.89 million viewers vs. 16.97), finishing third in its timeslot pretty much throughout the night (although mainly second in the demo).
In Canada, Heroes did better, drawing over 1.3 million viewers. That's pretty good, especially when you factor in demo wins against stiff CTV competition in Toronto, Vancouver and Calgary) but still down year-to-year (19% in the first hour, as CTV points out in their press release).
The big winner last night in Canada was the seventh season return of CSI Miami. The forensic cop series roared back with 2.8 million CTV viewers, smoking Heroes in total households nationally at the 10 p.m. hour (although, as Global's release declares, Heroes still beats CSI Miami in the demo in Toronto, Vancouver and Calgary. There must be a LOT of 50+ viewers watching CSI Miami).
Curiously, CSI Miami didn't even win the night in the U.S., where it drew a total of 16.87 million viewers. ABC's Dancing with the Stars was the big winner there, drawing 21.12 million over the two hour season premiere. In Canada on CTV, Dancing drew 1.74 million, trouncing, in the first hour, Global's Prison Break (947,000 viewers). Prison Break is really on the run in the States, where Fox counted just 5.94 million viewers, ranking fourth in households and demos.
Probably a mistake to generalize after one night, but it seems the aging shows are slowing down faster in the States than they are in Canada.
The hardiest show of the night may be Two and a Half Men, which drew 14.93 million on CBS (where it tied for No. 1 in the demo with Dancing) and nearly another million in Canada on CTV's "A" channel. That's the killer one-two for Global: CTV and A grab 2.74 million viewers at 9 p.m., sucking all but the core fans away from Heroes.
A very competitive night got the usual very competitive headlines from the rival Canadian networks. CTV ran with "#1 and #2 With a Bullet – CTV Wins Night 1 of 2008-09 Television Season," while Global boasted, "SUPERPOWERFUL NIGHT ON GLOBAL ‘HEROES’ WINS ACROSS ALL MAJOR MARKETS." Advantage Global for going all caps. Cool the way everybody wins like that.
As the private nets rolled out the heavy guns, CBC was flattened. They didn't put up much of a fight. A repeat of The Englishman's Boy (which features an incredible performance by Nicholas Campbell) drew an estimated 6,000 18-49-year-old viewers in Toronto, 3,000 in Vancouver and 3,000 in Calgary. Might as well have run a picture of white flag.
This on a day when NDP leader Jack Layton declares in Quebec that he wants to see more Canadian-produced shows in primetime on Canadian networks, and prime minister Stephen Harper dismisses Canadian film and TV producers as "government subsidized whiners." Harper may sound like a "conservatueur,' as he is dismissed by those opposed to over $45 million in Tory culture cuts, but he knows polls, and the Nielsen poll shows Canadian voters are overwhelmingly plunked in front of CSI Miami. Harper knows Canadians vote not with their hearts, but with their ass.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Emmy Awards Hit New Low

Emmy sank to a brutal new low last night. No, not just in the execution of hosting duties, although the painfully awkward opener featuring the five reality show hosts vamping without a TelePrompTer was so half-assed and boring, it sent the Emmy Awards down to its lowest-ratings ever.
An estimated 12.2 million tuned in to the three hour broadcast last night on ABC, down 12% from last year's previous low mark of 13 million.
Jeremy Piven, the Entourage star who early in the evening picked up his third supporting actor statue, summed up the feeling of most viewers by saying, "For the love of God, what if I just kept talking for 12 minutes? What would happen? That was the opening."
He said it even better later backstage, as captured by The Hollywood Reporter's James Hibberd: ""I thought we were being punk'd," he said. "I was confused. [In the room] it was like in The Producers when they do 'Springtime for Hitler.' There's a, 'What was actually happening right now?'"
As Piven pointed out, the 60th Annual Emmy Awards was supposed to be a celebration of entertaining television, from Lucille Ball on." Instead, "this was a celebration of nothingness so it was confusing."
Funnier was Jimmy Kimmel's presentation of the reality show hosting Emmy later--making the five finalists wait on stage throughout the commercial break for the result--but by then the dreary show was almost over. Let Piven host next year.

Maher, HBO Come To Canada

A day after HBO cleaned up at the 60th Annual Emmy Awards, we learn that HBO is finally coming to Canada.
Astral and Corus announced today that HBO Canada--a joint, wholly-owned venture between the two Canadian broadcasters--will launch Oct. 30. The new service will be offered at no additional charge to customers who already subscribe to Astral's The Movie Network in the east and Corus' Movie Central in the west. In other words, the cable deathstar these two services always feared is in because they now own it. If you can't beat 'em, own 'em.
The good news for Canadians is that we will finally get to watch Real Time With Bill Maher without resorting to an illegal satellite dish or some end-around Internet streaming (too bad this gift of wit and satire comes just days before the U.S. election). Other HBO goodies held off our screens until now include Def Comedy Jam and Chris Rock: Kill the Messenger; both will appear in simulcast with the U.S. service on HBO Canada.
And that's about it; everything else you pretty much wanted to see--including big Grammy winners John Adams--has already been cherry picked and available for years on TMN and Movie Central. This is one tamed and defanged tiger crossing the border in a kennel.
What does this mean if you already subscribe to TMN? You can still watch new episodes of Entourage and True Blood, simulcast with the U.S. HBO, on TMN, until their current season runs run out. After that, they can be found in Canada on HBO Canada, and no longer on TMN.
Same with HBO shows that haven't returned yet. When Big Love returns for a third season in January, the new episodes will be found in simulcast only on HBO Canada.
Meanwhile, Showtime hits Dexter and Californication remain in Canada on TMN and Movie Central.
If you are currently a TMN subscriber, you get HBO for free. If you aren't and you want to get HBO, you gotta subscribe to the whole TMN package. Gotcha.
If TMN and Movie Central were looking for a carrot to attract new customers, that's one scrawny, well-chewed carrot. But, hey, we'll take Bill Maher any way we can get him.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Putting On The Ritz

This is brilliant. Spotted over at Denis McGrath's Dead Things ON Sticks. Too funny.



This Hour Has 22 Minutes returns Sept. 30 at 8:30 p.m., and, yeah, as McGrath suggests and as this timely, razor-sharp clip demonstrates, CBC should have ponied up to move Mercer, This Hour and Air Farce back sooner to goof on the two big elections. NBC hustled Saturday Night Live back earlier than usual, with new episodes running straight through to the U.S. election. 22 Minutes sniper Mark Critch and company should be taking aim now, not with two weeks left in the campaign.
UPDATE: This Hour Has 22 Minutes executive producer/writer Mark Farrell--who also points out his show will get THREE cracks, not two, at the candidates before the general election--emailed a few details about the timely Gerry Ritz sketch. As soon as news broke Thursday morning that the Agriculture Minister had made a couple of tasteless cracks about the listeriosis health crisis, Farrell assembled his writers who cranked out a beaut on the spot. Critch was pulled out of a hammock and the bit was shot that afternoon. Farrell uploaded it straight to YouTube Friday morning, figuring this boob Ritz would be sacked within hours. (He wasn't--after apologizing, he's STILL Harper's Minister of Agriculture.)
Farrell is pumped about the new season, especially after 22 Minutes comedienne Geri Hall was handcuffed and hauled away after swooning over the PM on the election trail. "We like when we approach the PM and get put into handcuffs," says Farrell. "We think that shows most viewers out there that we are not too cosy with the power elite." Maybe, but I find the cuffs burn and leave marks after a while. Check out the return of This Hour Has 22 Minutes Tuesday, Sept. 30 at 8:30 p.m.

Sherri Woodstock: 16 Days And Counting

Just two weeks and two days until Sherri Woodstock, the concert to celebrate the life of Sun Media writer Sherri Wood. It all takes place Sunday, Oct. 5 at the Opera House in Toronto, with doors open at 4:30 p.m.
Among the performers: Classic Albums Live (performing a best of set of Led Zeppelin standards), Five Blank Pages, The Little Millionaires, Dani Strong, Franky Moonlight and The Overtones. There will also be a cool little video tribute to Sherri, the Sun sweetheart who passed away last March a week before her 29th birthday.
Tickets are $20 each plus $3.50 in handling charges. You can order them here at TicketPro.
A new Sherri Woodstock blog has been created to help promote the event, you can jump straight to it here. This site will feature news and information about the concert as well as bios, photos and videos of the bands taking part.
Other news is available here at the Sherri Woodstock Facebook site.
Here's what you need to know NOW: Don't wait until the last minute to buy your tickets. Get them at least a week before the event. Seating is limited, with the venue holding around 750 people. Many tickets are already sold.
As Sherri used to say, "don't be outta town Brown." Get in on the party of the year.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Global's House Party Draws 2.8 Million

House delivered just what the doctor ordered for Fox and Global--a big ratings boost.
The fifth season premiere was a particular hit in Canada, as House drew 2.8 million viewers Tuesday night on Global according to BBM/Nielsen overnight estimates. Of those, 1.6 million were in the all-important 18-49-year-old range.
Another 14.41 million tuned in to House in the U.S. on Fox, boosting the Hugh Laurie drama to No. 1 on the night (but down from last season's average). Better news for Fox was the strong boost from House for week two of Fringe, which saw ratings grow by 62% week-to-week in the demo according to Mediaweek's Programming Insider Marc Berman. In total, Fringe drew 13.36 million viewers across America.
That translated to strong--but proportionally lower--numbers for CTV's "A" channel in Canada, where Fringe scored 819,000 viewers, edging week three of Global's 90210 (790,000) in total households. Beating them both in the timeslot in Canada was CTV's aging (along with its audience) Without a Trace (875,000), raising the question: How long before Fringe flips from A to CTV?
Meanwhile, 90210 held steady in the states, matching its 3.33 million viewers from the week before. It went up 19% in week three in Canada, thanks to that mighty House lead-in, edging Fringe in the 18-49 head count, but just by an estimated one thousand viewers.
In the P.R. war of words between CTV and Global, both put the best spin on their afternoon headlines. "‘A’-Mazing: Fringe Bests 90210, Sets New Benchmark for ‘A’" crowed CTV, while the rival private broadcaster boasted, "Global Wins The Night Nationally And In All Key Markets" and "90210 Wins Time Period in Key A18-49 & A18-34 Demos Nationally." Proving once again that if you reach and spin, you can touch the ceiling.
As for Fringe, there was a nice pace to episode two. Anna Torv is growing on me as the fearless and determined FBI agent, as is Joshua Jackson. Was fun to see the designers try to match sets now that production has switched from Toronto to New York. Lost from the pilot, among other things, were all those fun angular walls behind Blair Brown from the new addition to the Royal Ontario Museum. Gained, however, were glimpses of the Empire State Building out the more conventionally shaped windows.
Important to note that Fringe went up substantially in week two in the U.S. while 90210 went way down. Besides better writing, I'm guessing one of the things viewers like about Fringe is fewer commercial interruptions (50 minutes of show per hour compared to the usual 43, 44 minutes). The endless clutter in Canada has become distracting and off-putting, enough to turn you off television. Hearing "Fringe will be back in 90 seconds" at a station break was nostalgic, a leap back to the days before "closed captioning was brought to you by some lame-ass Idol wanabee." Network TV is losing audience share and hats off to Fox for trying to present more content and less interruption for viewers who have plenty other options.
The return of House was one of the topics for discussion this week on CHML Talk Radio with Scott Thompson. We also bantered about comedy hottie Tina Fey channeling Sarah Palin on SNL and last night's Toronto theatre screening of the third season premiere of Heroes, airing over two hours this Monday on Global. You can listen in here.

Heroes Make Big Screen Splash in Toronto

Save the cheerleader, save the world, pass the popcorn. Global held an advance screening of the third season premiere of Heroes last night on the big screen at the Varsity Cinemas in downtown Toronto. The joint was packed with radio and newspaper contest winners, all anxious to see a series knocked off the air for nine-and-a-half months due to last winter's writers strike. In all, only 11 episodes aired last season, half the usual amount for a network drama.
The two hour premiere, which airs Monday night at 8 on Global and NBC, kicks off a year of "villains." Creator Tim Kring, who promised Volume Three would be "the best season ever" in a short promo clip shown before the feature, explained how "every hero could be a villain" this season. That cutie blond cheerleader (Hayden Panettiere)? Flash forward into a nasty future and she's a raven-haired assassin. Damn I hate when that happens.
Brought my son Daniel--a devoted Heroes fan--along for the screening. He declared it a solid, if not spectacular opener, although he seemed annoyed at how some of the bad guys had somehow crawled back into the series after having their brains squished in previous episodes.
Not having seen much of Season Two myself, I was reminded of all the humour Kring and Company squeeze into this action series, especially in the scenes featuring Masi Oka (Hiro) and James Kyson Lee (Hiro's buddy Ando). Hiro's now a corporate big shot, thanks to his daddy Mr. Sulu (George Takai). Those three provide great comic relief to Heroes' darker moments, and by the look of things, there are plenty of darker moments to come.
The other thing I noticed watching two episodes of Heroes back-to-back on a big screen is how damn short this thing is. Suck all the commercials, promos and main titles out and you can pack two hours of Heroes into one hour of real time. It's like having Hiro blink through the commercial time for you! Now that's heroic!

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

The Doctor Is In

One of the most anticipated season premieres airs tonight: House (Fox/Global, 8 p.m.). I've seen the first two episodes and they are typical of the series, which has a high standard of excellence and rarely offers a clunker.
Dr. House's relationship with his one and only friend, Dr. James Wilson (Robert Sean Leonard), is the B-story through much of these two episodes. Wilson, still broken hearted after the tragic death of his girlfriend Amber in last season's two-part finale, seems done with House. At the end of tonight's "Dying Changes Everything," he packs his bags and checks out of Princeton-Plainsboro Teaching Hospital. The split seems irreparable but how long can this Sherlock function without his Watson?
House has quietly become the most-watched scripted series on television in the U.S. (it was edged last season in Canada by Grey's Anatomy). Star Hugh Laurie was rewarded with a new contract that pays him William Petersen/Kiefer Sutherland money (a reported $400,000 per episode) and also locks him up for another three seasons.
With big money comes high expectations. Look for House to continue to deliver. Creator and showrunner David Shore, by his own admission the "second most famous writer from London, Ontario" (he counts Oscar-winner Paul Haggis as No. 1), seems determined to keep pushing the series into surprising and challenging corners. Last season's mini-makeover--where House's diagnostic team was disbanded and a reality show-like lottery was used to find their replacements--was a blueprint for fourth season shakeups, even during what became a strike-shortened season.
The other good news is that Shore and Laurie both seem determined to keep House mean and nasty, like a real, live M.D. When we first see him again tonight, he is playing video games on a patient's monitor, using the old dude's feeble hand as a cup holder.
He's a complete dick toward Wilson, mocking his bereavement and calling him an idiot. When Wilson says he needs a change of scenery, House tells him to buy a house plant. Wilson finally has enough after one last insult. "I'd need a flow chart," he says, "to explain all the ways that was ridiculously insensitive."
Many viewers, I'm sure, keep coming back for the medical who dunnits, to see how House pulls another last-minute, life saving diagnosis out of his ass. After all, you wouldn't keep watching just to see all that pain and misery build up behind those pale blue eyes, unless you were also looking for clues to a disease we all share--the human condition.

Monday, September 15, 2008

SNL Opener: Fey Attempt at Humor

I dunno, wasn't all that excited by the Saturday Night Live opener, were you? Expected more after all the Sarah Palin/Tina Fey hype. Was good to see Fey and Amy Poehler together again, but that Olympic dude Michael Phelps should stick to the pool.
The advance publicity certainly paid off in the ratings, however, as SNL scored a 64% increase over last year's season debut, making No. 34 the highest-rated SNL opener since 2001.
If you missed the opening sketch, here it is [UPDATE--or at least what is left of it at YouTube, a Fox News clip mashed with some anti-Obama shots]:

Friday, September 12, 2008

KITT-napping in T.O.--Global's Got it--Then Loses It as Joyrider Drives Off With Knight Rider Car

Paging David Hasselhoff: Believe it or not, there is footage posted on YouTube of somebody taking the suped-up Shelby Mustang KITT car from the new series Knight Rider for a joy ride in front of the Royal York hotel this afternoon. Check out the vis:



What the hell??? As you can see, while the super cool black Shelby Mustang is left idling after being off-loaded in front of Toronto's Union Station, in full view of a small crowd, somebody seems to hop into the driver's seat and take off up the street. There's already a posting about this up at BlogTO.
If this is true, SOME DUDE JUST MADE OFF WITH A HALF-MILLION DOLLAR CAR. That's how tricked out these TV 'stangs are. Global may have to give back all that 90210 money they took in last week!
According to the Global publicity department, yes, they did bring KITT to Toronto (or at least a tricked out facsimile of the vehicle used in the series). Yes, somebody did hop in and drive off. The KITT-napping took place around 12:15 today. Fans had lined up to get photos taken with the 'stang, but saw their photo-op drive up the street.
Police are hoping from some word from the car itself, which can talk.
By sheer coincidence, Knight Rider, starring Justin Bruening, is set to debut next Wednesday at 8 on E! and NBC.

Idol Ain't What It Used To Be

Was Wednesday Canadian Idol's swan song? If so, it went out on a sour note.
Take a look at how far this show has slipped in the last five years. A comparison of the five last finale numbers, from 2004 to 2008, shows a 50% drop from in households and a two-thirds drop in 18-49s.
A great deal of that drop came this summer. There was erosion in both households and demos year-to-year before, but the 2008 finale--which featured Mariah Carey--was down nearly a million viewers from 2007. It was--by far--the lowest rated Canadian Idol finale ever.
A lot of that fallout probably can be attributed to a sub-par season, talent-wise. Canadian Idol started the season much stronger, then tailed off dramatically as the it wound down to the final eight, six, and then four all-male contestants, slipping below the million viewers mark on some occasions. The finale--usually a big winner for CTV--actually slipped below the series average for the season. By the time this thing was done, it seems, few cared who had won. Canada seems karaoked out.
It didn't help that the kids from Toronto and Quebec did not hang in until the very end, but the Ontario contestants actually stuck around longer than usual. At the finish, only 488,700 viewers across Canada, aged 18-49, watched the finale.
Here are those last five Canadian Idol finale numbers (in households and in 18-49-year-olds):
  1. Sept. 16, 2004...... 2785.2....... 1376.3
  2. Sept. 14, 2005...... 2683.2....... 1060.7
  3. Sept. 17, 2006...... 2517.7........ 1044.1
  4. Sept. 11, 2007....... 2317.3........ 918.7
  5. Sept. 10, 2008...... 1376.8........ 488.7
Again, Wednesday's two-hour finale didn't even win its timeslot.
The news didn't really get any better for CTV when the weekly BBM Nielsen numbers came out today. They show Global in the Top 2 spots nationally for the week of Sept. 1-7, with Bones (1,663,000) and the debut of 90210 (1,358,000 and No. 1 in Vancouver) as Canada's most-watched shows. (Global's joy at those 90210 numbers was short-lived, however: the rookie series took a big dip in Week Two.)
There was better news for CTV last night: So You Think You Can Dance Canada launched to 1.25 million viewers, winning its timeslot and edging out Global's Big Brother (1.1 million). Beating both to win the night was CTV's strong and steady Flashpoint, at 1.29 million viewers.
Overall, CTV had 16 shows in the Canadian Top 30 last week with Global landing 11 and CBC three. Usually dominant CTV--which did little tinkering to its schedule this fall--is banking on its aging lineup of forensic cop shows and housewive dramas to come back strong, although Global gets a big boost when House returns next week, too.
Over at CBC, Test The Nation did very well last week, scoring in the Top 10 in Toronto with 258,000 viewers, 912,000 across the nation. The return of Global's Prison Break broke big in Toronto, too, landing as that city's No. 1 show last week.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Flash: Bones Beats Finale of Canadian Idol

The host kept hollering that it was the "biggest finale ever" but the numbers are in and guess what--it was the smallest.
The two hour Canadian Idol finale didn't even win its timeslot. It drew 1,377,000 viewers across Canada last night, a drop of one million viewers year-to-year. Despite headliners such as Mariah Carey, the finale did not even match the numbers from Monday's performance episode.
In total households, the Idol finale finished 23% behind a new episode of Bones on Global, which drew 1.5 million viewers. Bones also bested Idol nationally where it counts, among 18-49-year-olds. In Toronto, it was no contest, with Bones beating Idol by 64% among 18-49s (all figures BBM Nielsen Media Research overnight estimates).
CTV's usually brassy P.R. department tried to put a good spin on things with a release boasting that Idol's final minutes--when it was announced that Theo Tams was the winner--drew 1.8 million viewers. Even that number would have been an off week just two seasons ago.
Part of the decline can be blamed on an overall slump in network TV viewing. Still, Idol does not lose to Bones two years ago. There really wasn't anything else on last night. The franchise is in steep decline, and questions have to be raised as to the viability of once invincible American Idol.

Hurricane Craig Lashes Out at Election Coverage

Damn this endless flood of September deadlines. Filed a story for CP today ranting about the current sorry state of elections and political manipulation on television. After I pressed send, I went upstairs, made lunch, and caught up with what I had PVR'd the night before, Wednesday night's episode of The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson.
The bloody Scott said it better and said it with passion. Craig Ferguson was good and angry last night, teeing off on what passes these days for U.S. election coverage. Check it out below:



Ferguson's main point (he had several of them) was that coverage of this U.S. presidential election is going all to hell. "This is a very important election but you would not know it by the way it was being covered," he said. The petty fascination with Sen. Barack Obama's "lipstick on a pig" comment seemed to be the last straw for the Scottish-born host, who became an American citizen earlier this year. "The way this election is being covered, it's like it is TMZ or something," he said. "It's like they're covering Paris and Nicole."
As Ferguson would say, "I KNOW!" The host of CBS's Late Late Show went on to say the all-news networks were embarrassing themselves with their rigid biases. No wonder kids were turning to Jon Stewart to get the real goods on politics. "If Walter Cronkite could see these brain dead morons yapping about flag pins and hair styles he'd turn over in his grave," said Ferguson, "which is weird, because Cronkite's alive and well and he lives in Martha's Vinyard."
Cronkite, 91, is indeed alive and well and even blogs occasionally on The Huffington Post.
Ferguson, who, like his boss, David Letterman, dares to walk that tightrope between deadly serious and outright hilarious, also chastised younger voters for not getting out and exercising their democratic duty.
"If you can't get your hands out of your Cheetos," Ferguson ranted, "don't blame me when [American Idol loser] Sanjaya gets elected."
He also mocked the whole "Rock the Vote" push to get kids to the polls, pointing out that "Puff Diddily" ran that last campaign and then apparently didn't even bother to vote himself. "He probably forgot what name he was registered under," said Ferguson.
The pre-taped outburst aired last night immediately following a visit by candidate Obama to Letterman's show. It made for a smart and memorable one-two punch, the kind of critical political discourse many viewers find wanting these days.
Ferguson, who hosted this year's White House correspondent's dinner, has not been afraid to ditch the jokes and speak his mind in the past, but becoming a U.S. citizen has clearly emboldened him to address issues and enter debates he might have once sat out. Last night's performance was dazzling, a two-fisted tug to the head and the heart.
"Listen, I'm an American," he said, reminding viewers at home and in the studio that there are soldiers representing the U.S. fighting and dying in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. "If you don't vote, you're a moron."
His one hope? That "the American people are smarter than the media that are meant to be serving them at this time." Amen to that, and that goes double for the Canadian electorate.

Final Idol Musings

This will come as a shock to no one, but if I didn't have to cover Canadian Idol this week for The Toronto Star, I probably wouldn't have watched last night's two hour finale. At this point, I pretty much have to be paid to do it. No disrespect to the participants or the producers or the fans. Everybody works damn hard to put on a fine show. It's just not my scene and I've seen it too many times before.
Still, in other years, I have sat out the season only to be wowed at the finale. Not this year.
Theo Tams, from Lethbridge, Alta., was the winner. He and runner-up Mitch McDonald seemed like nice chaps on the phone this weekend, good luck to them both. But have to say I was not impressed with the talent level on stage last night. The 10 Idol finalists were an uneven bunch, and not just because they were mainly men.
Coming at this as someone who is not a fan, not down at the Bassett Theatre every week, I just found this group of finalists to be utterly forgettable. I honestly thought I'd be pleasantly surprised by somebody, that they would exceed my expectations. I'm sure they're all nice kids, that they love their hometowns, that any parent would be proud of any one of them. I just couldn't get too excited about their singing or their stage presence, and the producers must have felt the same way. The 10 finalists had very limited exposure last night, off stage for an hour between the opening rock medley and another ensemble song around the 9:22 mark.
It makes you wonder if, after six cross-country talent search sessions, that the pool for this show hasn't already been drained.
The judges, too, were largely sidelined last night, retired to these big, goofy-looking red chairs. They looked like they were waiting to be picked up at the LaZboy warehouse centre.
That is the pattern at these Idol finales--showcase the special guest headliners--but it did seem as if the regular Idol kids were marginalized more than usual last night. Announcing the winner at the last minute was almost like an after thought, like paying the babysitter.
Part of the problem, I guess, is that we've seen this six times now, 13 if you count all the American Idol finales. You know the thing lasts two hours, that we'll go via satellite to the kids' hometowns, that somebody's Grade Five music teacher will be pulled in front of a microphone. We also knows that there will be a zillion promos for whatever CTV is hyping next, that network news stars will get a little face time. (Funny CTV could not lure some big names from the neighboring Toronto film fest into the mix.)
You can read more about the Idol finale in my report for The Star here.
Idol chatter also takes up much of this week's radio chit chat with CHML's Scott Thompson, recorded before Tams victory was announced. Listen in here. There's also some blather about that Alaskan hockey mom and all the electioneering turning up on talk shows south of the border. Is Palin tailor made for The View or what?

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

9021-Oh-Oh

Take last week's 90210 audience and divide it in half. That's how many Canadians tuned in for Week Two of this series, which stars young Canadian Shenae Grimes.
For a show with so much buzz, that is a huge drop week to week. In raw numbers, the series went from 1.3 million viewers to 664,000.
What happened? To be fair, Global did not run the show in simulcast this week, bouncing it to 9 p.m. in order to simulcast NBC's Big Brother (943,000 Global viewers). But a CW simulcast isn't such a big deal anyway (it's not like even Americans are watching that network). As of next week, Global will have House as their 90210 lead-in. If Dr. House can't save 90210, nobody can.
What likely happened, and this is bad news for Global and The CW, is that many of the people who sampled 90210 in Week One just weren't turned on by what they saw.
The feedback I got from chatting with writers at Denis McGrath's "Writer Mafia" party at The Paddock the other night was that the 90210 pilot was a bit of a bore. A rival network head told a fellow critic that Global bought "a poster, not a series." Perhaps, although a lack of substance hasn't always stopped other shows from succeeding.
My theory, and I've said it here before: you can't turn around a Canadian network with a CW show. CTV learned the same lesson last year with Gossip Girl.
It was bad news for 90210 in the U.S., too, although the drop wasn't nearly as dramatic. Tuesday's episode finished last in its timeslot with 3.3 million viewers, a 28% drop week-to-week. The series debuted in the States to nearly 5 million viewers. Writes Marc Berman at Mediweek's Programming Insider, "Considering most new shows drop in the vicinity of 10 to 15 percent in the overnights in week two, this is very disappointing."
Last night was also the premiere of Fringe on Fox, and it did okay if not spectacular. Around nine million Americans tuned in, placing it second in the timeslot behind NBC's America's Got Talent.
It did even better in Canada--1.54 million views according to the practically giddy CTV release. "Fringe drains the pool on 90210 and empties the house on Big Brother," crows CTV. Fringe encores Saturday at 8 p.m. on A.

Canadian Idol Sings Into the Sunset

Do you have Canadian Idol fever? A sixth karaoke champ from the Canadian wilderness is being crowned tonight. The two-hour finale begins at 8 p.m. on CTV.
Once Canada's hottest show, Idol seems a bit off the radar this September. Gone are the full page ads CTV used to buy up in all the Toronto dailies. Instead, there's a half page ad for Bones on Global in today's Toronto Star, complete with the world's stinkiest cut line: "Who blew up the outhouse?"
CTV quickly hustled out a release yesterday crowing about how Monday's Idol performance finale beat up on an earlier edition of Bones. Monday's Idol scored close to 1.5 million viewers across Canada, enough to win the night but more than 25% off last year's second last show.
The truth is the mainstream press gave up on Canadian Idol a few years ago, especially in the major markets, where Idol has been less successful in the ratings for years. The Toronto Star bumped my Idol finale set up piece, scheduled to run Monday in time for the performance finale, to today's paper. The reason? It was squeezed out by all their TIFF coverage. Hard to get any TV action when that circus is in town, but it wouldn't have been bumped in 2005.
Had a fun time on the phone this weekend with Idol judge Jake Gold, who tried to talk me into coming down to the John Bassett Theatre for tonight's finale. The Star has asked me to overnight the finale, so I'm not sure that's going to work. From what I've always heard (including from Gold), nobody--not even cynical press hounds--has ever come away disappointed from a live Idol taping.
Tonight's should be fun, with Mariah Carey and Jully Black performing. Gold has lost none of his enthusiasm for the show and hopes it will be back for a seventh season in 2009. He says that when he is judging a performance, he always keeps a close eye on the monitor under his desk to see what Canadians at home see when they watch the show. He'll also watch every single show later that night at home. His concern is that you can get fooled if you just base impressions on what you see live. The camera just loves some singers more than others.
"To use a sports analogy, if I was a professional athlete, I’d watch the tape," says Gold.
Alberta's Theo Tams (left) faces off against Nova Scotia's Mitch McDonald (below) in tonight's final. Both are clean cut Canadian lads, very self effacing and polite on the phone, the kind of young men any mom would be proud of. There were no rock star, Diva-ish behaviour, no trash talk. Sweet, but a little colourless, a bit like an election between two Stephane Dions. There has to be a good guy and a bad guy in any showdown, and Canadian Idol seems to lack the heavy this season.
When I suggested that there was a lot of pressure on these two dudes, aged 22 and 23, Gold said that's the nature of the deal. "Lookit, how old is Michael Phelps?" said Gold (the Olympic swim champ is 23, same age as Tams). Most of the young men and women competing in the U.S. Open tennis championships were younger than the two Idol finalists, he pointed out.
Asked if the singers were getting any easier to judge after six season, Gold came to a full stop. "Nobody's asked that before," he said.
What he has noticed is that he finds himself having to allow for individual voices to do their own thing, which has forced him to not judge solely based on technical ability. "There was a point in the Top 10 where I was going, 'What am I going to say to this guy?'" he says, referring to Alberta backhoe operator Earl Stevenson, who eventually placed fourth. "He was so unique in his own style. It would be like saying to Neil Young, 'You know, that note was off.'"
Who ever wins, both finalists seem to be taking all the hoopla in stride. Despite all the hype, not every Canadian Idol winner goes on to become a successful recording star (which is true also for American Idol winners); most Canadians could not name even last year's winner. (Brian Melo.)
McDonald, who is a carpenter, says he can always go back to his day job. "I’d be happy just hammering nails five days a week and singing tunes Friday and Saturday nights the rest of my life," he says. How Canadian is that.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

How Mainstream is Fringe?

That's the question tonight as the new J.J. Abrams drama, Fringe, premieres at 8 p.m. on Fox and A Channel (and, for tonight only, CTV).
While the sci-fi drama, starring Auzzie newcomer Anna Torv and Canadian Joshua Jackson (Dawson's Creek), is one of the most anticipated new shows of the season, the reviews so far from critics have been mixed. As Kansas City Star critic Aaron Barnhart writes in his review posted on TV Barn, "this show has great potential, but we've seen Abrams waste that potential in the past, most notably on his old ABC series Alias."
Tonight's 95-minute pilot, which was shot in Toronto (production has subsequently shifted to New York, where there are tax incentives a-plenty) has two speeds--slow and fast. I found myself snoozing through the slow parts and very into the action sequences, which include a cool car chase along Lakeshore Boulevard under the Gardiner Expressway (like a high speed chase could actually happen there).
My 15-year-old son, on the other hand, is completely hooked and anxious to see future episodes. A Heroes fan, he's been dying to get his action hour fix ever since that show was knocked off the air due to the writers strike (it finally returns Sept. 22).
One good thing--tonight's presentation, and all season long on Fox, Fringe will have far fewer commercials and network promos than is seen on regular hour-long dramas. Fox is experimenting to try and discourage viewers from PVRing shows and fast forwarding through the ad breaks. With Fringe, you'll get around 50 minutes of programming, instead of the usual 44 minutes per hour. (For more on the daring ad strategy, which will also be tested on Joss Whedon's upcoming drama, Dollhouse, read this piece in TV Decoder).
To do this, Fox has been charging--and getting--a 40% premium per spot. Advertisers, they reason, will pony up to be in a less cluttered environment. That will work as long as people tune in to see the show. They should tonight: expect the paranormal series to open big.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Three Critics, One Web Site, No Waiting

My buddy David Bianculli has somehow tricked me into contributing to his excellent full service magazine site TV Worth Watching. Follow this link to the TV Worth Watching's Fall Season Preview, where two former TCA presidents--Bianculli, a former critic with the New York Daily News, Diane Werts, formerly with New York Newsday--and yours truly weigh in with mini-reviews of all the new shows that are just starting to tumble into living rooms.
Bianculli's plan is to create a Huffington Post of TV scribes, a one stop shop for television fans. Some day, he says, it might even help feed my family. Werts and Bianculli are a great read, and know more about the medium than Marconi. Plus they're both old enough to get that reference. Check us out, just hurry back here afterwards, okay?

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Alan Ball Goes for the Jugular with True Blood

My 18-year-old daughter loves the new vampire drama True Blood, but I'm glad I didn't watch the first two episodes with her. It's just not a daddy/daughter experience. The HBO series, from writer/director Alan Ball, premieres tonight at 9 p.m. on The Movie Network and at 8 p.m. on Movie Central.
The series has many of the writing and acting nuances from Ball's award-winning drama Six Feet Under, but ramps up the blood and sex way beyond anything that every took place in the vicinity of Fisher and Sons.
Ball told TV critics in July that he amplified the sensuality found in the original Sookie Stackhouse series of novels. I'm sure HBO didn't object.
I guess it helps ramp up the creep factor, and that's cool, but this dark, sometimes overly allegorical drama is not going to be everybody's cup of plasma.
Winnipeg-native Anna Paquin plays the Louisiana waitress who has this annoying habit of reading other people's minds. One day, somebody walks into her bar who won't let her into his head. It is a brooding stranger (English actor Stephen Moyer) who just happens to be a 173-year-old bloodsucker.

Put away that wolfbane and silver bullet. This dude is more Laguna Hills than Lugossi. It is the near future and the Japanese have perfected a synthetic blood beverage which lets vampires get their daily fix from a bottle instead of from somebody's neck. Their work did not go in vein!

Check out the HBO trailer below.

Not everybody likes it. One critic called it "90210 with fangs." But in a fall where there are fewer network premieres, this series is getting plenty of exposure. The HBO marketing folks have gone so far as to have mock trucks driven around Los Angeles with the "Tru Blood" beverage label over every panel. I cabbed in from LAX behind one during last July's press tour.
Viewers not put off by all the kinkiness of the pilot may stay for Paquin's performance. She's the reason to watch here, combining innocence and wonder with repressed horniness and a tremor or two of thrill-seeking adventurism. The girl is all set to go off, and if she doesn't get beaten to death, she should take this series into some cool and kinky corners.
I've written more about Paquin and True Blood in this week's column for The Canadian Press; you can sink your teeth into the entire article here. No, fang you.

Cheech & Chong: Still Smokin'

Meant to post this earlier, but The Toronto Star ran my story on Cheech & Chong Saturday. You can read it here.
Had a wonderful chat with both gentlemen on the phone this past week. Chong took the call as the duo were rehearsing for Saturday night's shows at Toronto's Massey Hall, their favorite venue. Cheech was very warm and friendly on the phone, and both were pretty frank about how their egos got in the way of their act, leading to a two decade cooling off period.
I was never a hard core Cheech & Chong fan (never got that high back in the day, believe it or not) but you gotta love any comedy team, especially one that endured breakups and drug busts and still can smile for the camera the way these two dudes can all those bitter years later.
Chong told me they were "just doing what The Beatles wished they had done" by getting back together, which is proof drugs can make you delusional. This is more like if The Beatles got back together to get stoned, which they probably did. Or if Martin & Lewis got back together again. Or if Bullock and Brioux got back together...maybe I am high.
Cheech & Chong's "Light Up America/Canada" tour's only other scheduled Canadian stop is in Vancouver, where it all begain for them as a team. Look for them there Dec. 5.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Middle of the Night Memories of Fred Allen

Frequent readers of this blog (you know who you both are) already know my nerdy little secret. The one show this bleary-eyed TV critic PVR's every night and watches the next day isn't Hole In The Wall or America's Got Cramps or whatever the hell else they're sticking us with this fall. It is a panel show from the '50s--What's My Line.
GSN offers it at 3 a.m., where black and white can still be seen overnight. It's easy enough to find, it's the one show on at that hour that is not an infomercial.

What's My Line was considered the classiest of the panel shows, predating even the long-running Canadian effort, Front Page Challenge, and lasting 17 seasons, from 1950 to 1967. Last night, GSN re-ran one of the saddest, most moving episodes of the entire series. The episode originally ran on Sunday, March 18, 1956. This was--believe it or not--even before I was born.
It was also the day after Fred Allen, the brilliant radio wit and beloved What's My Line panelist, died. The end came shortly after midnight, on St. Patrick's Day, as Allen had gone for a walk. He dropped dead of a heart attack on the streets of Manhattan. He was 61.
Allen was a major star in vaudeville and especially in radio but never really caught on in television, a medium he frequently derided. Marshall McLuhan might have deduced that Allen was too "hot" for the "cool" medium. His humor ran both hi and low brow, both literate and absurd, but the highs were pretty cynical and sharp for their day. You had to actually listen to Allen's barbs, which worked better on radio than on television.
His brilliant, spirited radio segment, Allen's Alley, introduced listeners to a street full of eccentric characters, including his wife, Portland Hoffa, blustery Senator Claghorn (the model from the Warner Bros. cartoon character Foghorn Leghorn) and several ethnic stereotypes of the day such as gossipy Mrs. Nussbaum. Check out this link to the OTR.Network Library where there are dozens of vintage Allen radio broadcasts to choose from.
Go straight to No. 57, the "King for a Day" sketch featuring Jack Benny. Even if you were not a regular Alley listener you knew Allen from his famous "feud" with Benny. The two comedians milked the bogus battle every chance they had, providing a model for every phony feud to come.
While scripted humor was Allen's forte, he had a sizzling and always ready wit. He came up with my favorite line about TV ever: "Imitation is the sincerest form of television."
He also blurted this still true classic:

Television is a triumph of equipment over people, and the minds that control it are so small that you could put them in the navel of a flea and still have enough room beside them for a network vice president's heart.

What is extraordinary about the What's My Line broadcast is that Allen's fellow panelists--Arlene Francis, Steve Allen (sitting in for Fred), Dorothy Killgallen and Bennett Cerf--along with moderator John Charles Daly, decided to carry on and do a regular show despite their obvious grief. That's how much they respected Allen: he was show business to them, and dammit, the show must go on. Check out this YouTube clip of Daly's opening remarks, followed by the panel's closing tributes to Allen:




The rest of the show held more than its share of '50s surprises. The very first guest was Montreal Canadiens' legend Jacques Plante, who wasn't even a mystery guest (the segment where the panel was blindfolded), that's just how obscure hockey (and Canada) was to these well-heeled New Yorkers. His occupation, of course, was goaltender. Plante didn't object to the panel mis-pronouncing his name (Plant"--Daly later congratulated him on his VEEzna trophy win) but he did mention he recorded seven shutouts that season, allowing only one goal in 25 other games--extraordinary totals. The Canadiens were in the first year of a five year Stanley Cup-winning run.
The next guest signed in as Mrs. Julius Lederer. Turned out to be a very young Ann Landers, the advice to the lovelorn columnist--as she was identified on the show. She gave her 50 bucks to the Heart fund in Allen's name.
The mystery guest that night was Cid Charisse, who was thanked by Daly for coming in even after she questioned if it would still be appropriate.
As I've mentioned here before, there's an extraordinary air of civility and dignity on these scratchy old black and white broadcasts, almost unimaginable in today's tacky Moment of Truth era. Allen's other oft-quoted (and usually mis-attributed) quip, that "Television is a medium because anything well done is rare," seems more true today than it was in 1956.

If you are curious to read more about Allen and What's My Line, Steve Beverly over at the mothballed site tvgameshows.net has a 10-part history that will satisfy even the nerdiest insomniac.