Wednesday, December 31, 2008

2008: Please Turn Out The Lights



Turner Classic Movie's beautiful little year ender brings a tough year to a close with style and grace. If there was a better channel in 2008, I'd like to know about it. The recent salute to Disney's live action films, The Age of Believing, was such a terrific Christmas present, worth it if just for Dick Van Dyke's hilarious story about the monkey who co-starred with him in the otherwise unmemorable Robin Crusoe, U.S.C. (Van Dyke visited the chimp later at the L.A. zoo. "Dick--they've got me in here with these monkeys! Get me outta here" he seemed to say to his former co-star.)
TMC had another outstanding original earlier in 2008 with Role Model: Gene Wilder. This casual, intimate conversation between Wilder and Alec Baldwin--who should do this sort of thing on a monthly basis--was one of the programming high points for me in 2008.
A lot has been written about what a wretched year it has been, especially for network television. It could be argued that the box, already in decline, never recovered from the writers strike. Financially, it was a brutal year for networks on both sides of the border, and the full impact will speed the transition from old media to new. Here's one compelling perspective, looking at how the shift of Jay Leno to 10 p.m. on NBC next year is but the canary in the network TV gold mine.
But there was some good news. CBC had a bounce back year, with a few new shows finding a footing, especially The Border. The Geminis were canceled, or shown on a night and network where no one could find it, so that was a plus. Canadian Idol was silenced, may it "rest" in peace. See--2008 wasn't so bad after all!
Even better news is that 2009 will start with some new shows that should give viewers plenty of reasons to get back in front of the set. The Showtime drama The United States of Tara delivers on all the promise of its cast and creative team. Toni Collette is mesmerizing as the title character, in all her multi-personality dementia. Diablo Cody (Juno) pens several episodes, and Steven Spielberg produces. Don't miss a minute of the first four episodes, which premiere Jan. 19 at 8 p.m. on The Movie Network/Movie Central.
The pilot for the new Fox drama, Lie To Me, was also a winner. Tim Roth stars as an expert of facial expressions who can tell if someone is lying, which makes him both invaluable and a pain in the ass. It launches Jan. 21 on Fox and Global.
The new CBC dramedy Being Erica is also full of promise. Erin Karpluk (Godiva's) stars as a 30something granted the chance to go back in time to fix her past mistakes. Always welcome Michael Riley (This Is Wonderland) powers this one past the Back To The Future premise. It begins Jan. 5.
Those are three reasons to hold on to your set. More to come. Happy New Year!

Glenn Esterly -30-

2008 was a tough year for TV critics. Many were re-assigned or lost their jobs altogether, caught in the squeeze of higher newsprint costs, lower advertising revenues and the apparent generational shift away from daily newspapers.
Roger Ebert suggested in an article a month ago that film critics--also dropping like, well, canaries--were the "canaries in the mind shaft," the first to go and a sign of the imploding newspaper business. TV and film critics are birds of a feather and both are on the endangered species list.
Not to suggest that critics are alone in this career crisis. The demoralizing media site "Paper Cuts" calculates that there have been 15,586+ jobs lost at American newspapers in 2008. Everybody says things are better here, but if you count up the Sun Media, Canwest and TorStar reductions in 2008, the Canadian total must approach the usual 10 % of the U.S. staff reductions. Some terrific TV critics have also passed away in 2008. Starweek's Eirik Knutzen was saluted in an earlier post here. The great CBS and New York Magazine voice John Leonard was also silenced, as was press tour legend Jerry Krupnick.
A friend wrote yesterday to let me know of another passing: Glenn Esterly (above and below; photos courtesy John Keyes). That name might mean something if you subscribed to TV Guide Canada in the '80s and '90s. Esterly was a frequent contributor. A native of Minnesota, he died last month in Los Angeles. He was 66.
Here is an obit posted at thefrontpageonline. Read it if you knew Glenn, although it is a damn sad read. Another tribute, from colleague Ari L. Noonan, appears here. Glenn would have appreciated this passage:
A Middle Westerner by birth, which makes one solid statement about his values and personality package, he broke into journalism by reporting for a wire service, in the Dakotas, I believe. That is like constructing a newspaperman out of cement. For pure solidity, Glenn is unsurpassed.
Noonan nails Glenn's sparse writing style here:
He wrote as if he were double-parked. A journalism teacher could formulate a semester’s syllabus around Glenn’s writings. I must have hoarded all of the florid writing and colorful adjectives on the planet because I don’t remember that he ever used an adverb or an adjective, much less a dangling participle. No one had to use a broom or shovel after Glenn had written. His pieces were tidy, and, best of all, accurate and proportionate.
As TV Guide Canada's voice in L.A., Glenn wrote some terrific profiles of Hollywood celebrities. One feature on Robert Pastorelli (Murphy Brown's live-in house painter Eldon) was a real hair raiser. Esterly got him to confess a crazy out-of-body near death experience that I wish I could link to here.
Glenn had that soft-spoken way that allowed for confessions. He had a halting way of speaking, almost as if he was editing in his head the same way he did at a keyboard.
Glenn used to live in Hollywood, not far from Griffith Park. He had a bulletin board in his office I'll never forget, one that should be in the main foyer of every journalism school in North America. On it was pinned dozens of rejection letters, from some pretty impressive publications: Playboy, Esquire, The New Yorker. He could have papered his walls with the stories he did sell, but he chose to remember the ones that got away. This business was all about if at first you don't succeed, try, try again, and Esterly was humble enough to remind himself of that every single day.
He was also somebody who won and lost a fortune at the track and in the stock market. He sometimes seemed a little shell-shocked, like he had survived a world of pain. What ever he was carrying around, it seemed to give him tremendous insight and empathy when he interviewed celebrities and when he told their stories. Glenn always dug a little deeper, tried to get under their skin.
All these encounters are so short, we only get a snapshot of people and then we try to process their lives in a thousand words. Glenn didn't waste any, and left you richer for the experience. I think he sometimes wrote things about people that they didn't even know about themselves.
UPDATE: Glenn's friend and former boss John Keyes, a former TV Guide Canada editor who kindly provided the photos, takes strong objection to the Ari Noonan posting linked to here. Keyes' point is that Esterly was no hermit, and was in fact warm and sociable among friends. That's the Glenn I remember, and John knew him much better than I ever did, so point taken and posted.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

End of the Year Clearance

The end of the year brings a chance to do a little house cleaning. Here are a few stories I've written recently that I haven't had a chance to post about at TV Feeds My Family.
One big TV event I've written about several times, including Saturday's Starweek cover story, was tomorrow night's New Year's Eve Air Farce finale. You can read my Canadian Press column, posted at CBC.ca and the Canoe/Jam site, here. Don't miss the one hour special, Wednesday night at 8 p.m., it is both sweet and funny as hell, a great finale to a cherished series.
This is a bit dated but my CP rant about some favorite holiday specials, which are not repeated--but should be--appears here. The week before that, I ran down a list of reality shows coming in the new year at CBC and other Canadian networks, including a reality show salute to Terry Fox. Catch those details here.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Talkin' TV With Mark and Donna

Get the ploughs out for the drive home, Hamilton: I'm booked today with my pals Mark Hebscher and Donna Skelly on 'CH's Live @ 5:30. The topic is all those new mid-season shows comin' atcha in January, including Fox favorites 24 (returning Jan. 11) and American Idol (Jan. 13) and new Fox/Global dramas Lie To Me (Jan. 21) and Dollhouse (Feb. 13). Global also has another edition of Project Runway Canada starting Jan. 27. CBC also has the new fantasy/comedy Being Erica and the Dallas does Calgary clone Wild Roses (both Jan. 5). Another edition of Hell's Kitchen returns Jan. 29 to Fox.
CTV is going to start showing Steven Bochco's new U.S. cable legal drama Raising The Bar (Jan. 9), featuring Canadian Gloria Reuben. They're also stealing The Mentalist away from sister station A (starting Jan. 4), because it has broken out in the States as the fall's one new hit. Flashpoint also returns for a second season Jan. 9.
Global has the new Candid Camera/Just For Laughs Gags-like series Howie Do It, hosted by Howie Mandel (Jan. 5).
The first ever single dad Bachelor comes to ABC/City-TV Jan. 5. Instead of roses, he hands out soothers! Try the veal! Season Two of the FX drama Damages, starring Glenn Close, comes to Showcase Jan. 18. William Hurt and Marcia Gay Harden are part of the new sinister season.
Even PBS has mid-season fever, with Kevin Kline starring in a Great Performances production of Cyrano de Bergerac (Jan. 7). And the second season of the HBO winner Flight of the Conchords bows on HBO Canada Jan. 18.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Dragon O'Leary Leaps Into Shark Tank

Broke the story today in the Toronto Star that Dragon's Den judge Kevin O'Leary has been hired by Mark Burnett to be part of the upcoming ABC version of the series, Shark Tank. The pilot shoots in L.A. Jan. 6-9. You can read the entire Star piece here.
Hand picked by savvy showrunner Burnett, O'Leary is quickly becoming Canada's busiest TV billionaire. He says the creative world of television helps him work "the left side of my brain." O'Leary says he doesn't know anything about speculation that Shark Tank executive producer Mark Burnett plans to have an actual shark tank on the set of the series, which features wannabe moguls pitching their big business ideas to proven entrepreneurs like O'Leary. The Montreal native didn't get where he is today through wild speculation. "They'll probably modify it a bit," he says of ABC's version of the series, which is based on versions of Dragon's Den airing in the U.K. and Canada.
Besides Dragon's Den and the upcoming Shark Tank, O'Leary is a co-host on the Business News Network (BNN). Don't go looking for him on Dancing With the Stars, though, the guy knows his niche and he's sticking to it. "I don't do anything other than investor's television," he says. Now if I can just get him to help monetize TV Feeds My Family...

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Farce Farewell a Family Affair

Neither rain nor snow nor sleet nor ice could stop me from attending the final ever taping of Air Farce last night in snowy Toronto. Thanks to my neighbors Doug and Roberta, and their trusty, driveway-clearing snow blower and four wheel drive jeep, we made it down to the CBC broadcast centre, where everyone else made the same commitment--the bleachers were packed.
And why not. This was the last dance, the final taping of a show that began on radio 35 years ago to the day, as Roger Abbott told the crowd before the taping.
The seven member troupe went out in style, offering a fast, funny show that will air as an hour-long special Dec. 31 at 8 p.m. on CBC. There were several guest stars, including Hockey Night in Canada host Ron MacLean, who got to fire the chicken cannon at his favorite target (you know who).
MacLean, himself one of the true gentlemen in Canadian television, paid a very heartfelt tribute to the Air Farce, despite the fact that he was covered in guck from stuffing sour grapes, mud, molasses and other junk into the Chicken Cannon. MacLean had been in Montreal the night before covering a game and had tried all the airlines and train routes to get back in time for the taping; somehow he succeeded. He said his parents were more thrilled about him being on Air Farce than they ever were about him being on Hockey Night in Canada (and the way Grapes picks on him, no wonder).
Before the show began, as the cast stood on stage, CBC executive vice president Richard Stursberg read off a list of Farce accomplishments (over 600 radio shows, 332 TV shows, a high water mark of 2.3 million viewers, a 16-year TV average of over a million viewers a week) and then presented a plaque re-dedicating Sound Stage 42 as the Air Farce theatre. It was a nice gesture, but as one of the younger cast members cracked to me later, a better tribute might have been "hey, we made a mistake..."
The show itself has several high points. There is one, final, doughnut shop sketch, with the familiar, iconic meeting place about to go out of business. A special guest arrives to throw all those sugar hoarding hoseheads out, and I'm going to spoil it here so stop reading after the jump if you don't want to know.

Yes, of course, it's Dave Broadfoot, there when Farce began 35 years ago, now 83 and still going on and on about Kicking Horse Pass. Abbott took a minute to give Broadfoot a final salute after the sketch, and the comedy legend seized it as ever. They were both taking a bow for someone they missed, deceased Farcer John Morgan, whose name was invoked all night and who is glimpsed in some of the clips from the past packaged into the show. His son was in the house and took a bow for his father.
The bleachers were packed with friends and family. Newcomers, like my neighbors, marveled at the one take pace of the shoot. I could tell that the cast members were actually savoring this last show, taking a few extra seconds here and there. Nobody was in a rush to have it end.
Craig Lauzon broke the ice in the first sketch by crawling through a window as Stephen Harper and half losing his wig. "People think it is kept in a refrigerator anyway," cracked Abbott, who must read John Doyle at the Globe.
The two guys who provide the music between sketches, Dave Matheson (formerly with Moxy Fruvous) and Maury Lafoy of the Ground Crew, treated the crowd to all the old favorites, including the "I've Been Everywhere" song, Canadian version, and "Jesus' Brother Bob." I always thought they should have been part of the televised show, but I guess that's because I was raised on The Smothers Brothers. Attending an Air Farce taping was always such a special treat for me because it was the closest thing I could find to a real, network variety show. The Farce had a personal connection to their studio audience as well as to people who tuned in at home on television. That's what made them special and that's what Canadian TV has lost. Abbott thanked the CBC and was grateful to the network for programming three current affairs sketch series on the air at the same time for all these years. Nobody else ever did that, as Abbott pointed out, but then Canadians are obsessed with and terrific at news and comedy. Why not three current affairs sketch shows if they continue to pull strong numbers for the CBC, which they all still do. Comedy is a big part of CBC's past and present and should be of its future. You have to walk past portraits of Wayne & Shuster, John Candy and the rest of the SCTV cast, The Kids in the Hall, Red Green, Lorne & Hartt, The Frantics, The Royal Canadian Air Farce and many others to get to the Air Farce theatre. The current team of CBC programmers should take that walk more often, and take it in.
Speaking of soapbox, one of the most touching tributes after the show was a gift presented to Luba Goy from new kids Caig Lauzon and Alan Park. The had Goy's riser--the small wooden box the diminutive comedienne often stood on in sketches opposite Don Ferguson or whoever--painted it gold and had her name inscribed. Nice touch, gentlemen.
Goy certainly went down swinging. When a gigantic cake from Dufflet's bakery was wheeled on stage for all to enjoy, Goy grabbed the knife and started with the Lorainne Bobbit jokes. George Anthony, who has seen a lot of changes at The Toronto Sun and at CBC over the years, has seen a lot of cakes on this sound stage, too. The Farce always celebrated, the Third year, the fourth year, whatever, said Anthony. The stage hands, the musicians, Gord Holtham, Rick Olsen and the rest of the writers, the costumers, publicist David McCaughna, larconic stage director Pat "Stand by to laugh" McDonald, veteran director Perry Rosemond--as you stood in line with them for cake, you could tell that they all loved what they do, loved each other and that they would all miss all of this very much.

And loved their audience. After the show, Park ventured into the bleachers and handed his final show binder to a couple. He wanted to leave a little souviner something for some real fans and he found them--my neighbors Doug and Roberta.

Some Air Farce VHS tapes were also distributed. "What are these things, books?" even Park asked. Still, the cast signed them and anything else thrust in front of them.
Will there be more Farce? An annual New Year's Eve special seems like a no brainer, especially when this one draws another million-plus audience when it airs a week from Wednesday. More than one cast member voiced their frustration at missing out on goofing on politics every week just as Canadian's political leaders turned into the Three, Four and Five Stooges. "What a terrible time to stop doing this!" said Lauzon after the show. He'll miss being robotic Harper. Park, too, has emerged as quite a political impressionist. His Obama is better than Fred Armisen's on SNL, and his Dion is scary good. (The Dion skit on the New Year's Eve closer is a scream, it drew cheers from last night's crowd even though we only saw it off the monitor.) Last night he even got to glue on those crazy Michael Ignatieff eyebrows.
I guess it will be up to Roger and Don, who, as MacLean said, are two of the nicest people you could ever meet in or out of the business. Maybe after a break they'll have an itch to get back, maybe they'll take their act elsewhere. As Abbott said to me at the after party, maybe CTV's Canadian Idol has the best word for it after all. "Rested," said Abbott. "I wish I'd thought of that."

Friday, December 19, 2008

24 Days of Christmas

The following took place between the hours of 10 a.m. and 11 a.m. I went to the door and there were four boxes from Fox. One of them contained Jack Bauer.
Well, okay, a little toy, G.I. Joe version of Bauer. A "Deluxe Boxed Set Jack Bauer Action Figure," to be precise. McFarlane Toys has "captured" Bauer right down to the mussed up hair and dead-eye gun stance, although, unlike the actor who plays him, Kiefer Sutherland, there are no cigarettes tucked behind each ear (although wait until the kids at Robot Chicken get a hold of Little Jack).
The plastic "custom base" includes panels of a chain link fence and a couple of boxes. For some reason Bauer is carrying a purse. Must be deep under cover.
The first place Fox network is the most aggressive when it comes to swag and this is just their way or reminding critics that Bauer is back January 11 at 8 p.m. as 24 kicks off its seventh season. The four hour opener continues the following Monday night.
Global plans its own wacky reminder that Bauer is back. They're inviting fans of the series to camp out at Toronto's Yorkdale Mall for six consecutive days in January where they will screen all six 24-episode seasons in a row. This will set a Guinness Book record and could even win somebody 24 grand; you'll also look and smell just like Jack Bauer when this hellish marathon is finally over. Go to globaltv.com Monday for details.
Since this is the most wonderful time of the year, Fox also sent three other boxes promoting three other January shows. The one without the screener was for the return of American Idol, which kicks off season eight on Fox and CTV with a four hour launch starting Tuesday, Jan. 13 and continuing Wednesday, Jan. 14. A bright plastic gum dispenser was shipped to mark the occasion. It was half filled with while gumballs plus one large blue ball. "Like the white gumballs, there are many talented singers in the mix," goes the accompanying release, "but only one singer will stand out and be crowned the next American Idol."
Any day now I'm sure CTV will be shipping their specialty marked boxes of discontinued Canadian Idol Children's Cough Syrup to mark the fact that the series is "resting" for a year. Some Sass Jordon sleepwear might also be in order, or even a Zack Werner Bed Warmer.
Arriving with a screener was a box from Fox containing a wooden "Echo" doll from Joss Whedon's upcoming sci-fi series Dollhouse. The doll unfortunately, looks nothing like lovely Dollhouse star Eliza Dushku. It looks more like one of those dancing Reactin dolls in those back pain ads.
The premise of the series is about a collection of individuals brought together to have their personalities wiped clean. My bad--that's the premise of Canadian Idol.
Dollhouse begins Friday, Feb. 13, not the most promising start date for a new series. The enclosed DVD, according to the Fox notes, was watermarked, I guess in an effort to trace any copies from critics who might be foolish enough to offer it up on eBay. Having screened it with my teenagers, I'm thinking Fox may have overestimated its street value, and since it is almost Christmas, I'll just pass along their other note that this is not the final air version and hope for the best.
The last box contained a release and screener for the new Fox series Lie To Me, starring Stephen Harper, uh, Jack Layton, er, I mean, Tim Roth. It is about a scientist who studies facial ticks and body language and knows when someone is lying. It starts Wednesday, Jan. 21 at 9 p.m.--honest!
The screener came with a book from the guy who inspired the series, Dr. Cal Lightman, billed as "the world's leading deception expert." (He's hard at work now on that "Canadian Idol's just sleeping" CTV release.) The book is called "Lightman's Guide To Lies and Liars" and every critic got one whether we needed it or not. There was also another book called "Telling Lies," so when this show comes out and it gets rave reviews, well, I'm just saying it opens us up to suspicion, doesn't it?
Have to go now, Bauer's about to pistol whip Santa into a confession. Something about those six billion breaking and enters. Ho-Ho-No!

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Flashpoint Snipers Deflect Random Shots

U.S. network conference calls are always a bit of a crap shoot. You never know what you're going to get, and if you're a Canadian journalist, you never know if you're going to get to ask a question. I've been on a few this week, including today's chat with the stars and producers of Flashpoint, the CTV/CBS elite police squad series and the success story of the summer on both sides of the border.
On the call were four proud and happy Canadians: stars Enrico Colantoni (Sgt. Gregory Parker) and Hugh Dillon (Ed Lane) along with executive producers Anne Marie La Traverse and Bill Mustos. CBS and CTV are re-launching it into a busy mix in January.
The way these media calls work, you are invited to join, given a password and a number and then you log in by keying they "*" sign and "1" which places you in line to pose questions. CBS, which administered today's session, are equal opportunity hosts (unlike Fox, which shutout all Canucks from yesterday's Simon Cowell press call--although, to be fair, that was a packed session). I was the second journalist into the Flashpoint mix.
The first guy, somebody named Troy Rogers from Vancouver-based thedeadbolt.com, almost caused an international incident with his awkward opener:

ROGERS: Are you guys surprised at the success of the show given the Canadian element?
COLANTONI: Excuse me?
DILLON: You heard him.
COLANTONI (surprised): ...given the Canadian element???
Rogers tried to clarify by suggesting that you don't often see shows clearly set in Canadian cities on American network television. (Flashpoint occassionally flashes Queens Park or The CN Tower, giving away its Toronto locale.) Colantoni jumped back on message, saying he wasn't surprised at all, that the show deals with universal themes, that they're responsible policemen, yadda yadda yadda. Then Deadbolt guy steps in it again:

ROGERS: Does it in some kind of way feel like you're honoring some old [Canadian] shows like the ghost of Night Heat?
DILLON (laughs). No. Maybe Gunsmoke.
COLANTONI: Maybe Mannix.
Maybe Hilarious House of Frightenstein, I suggested later.
Night Heat, for anyone under 40, was a gritty little cop show that aired on CTV and briefly on CBS in the late '80s/early '90s. It starred Jeff Wincott and Scott Hylands, right, and reruns on TVTropolis or DejaView now and then. It incubated at least one major talent, actor/director Clark Johnson (The Shield, The Wire).
Colantoni, who grew up in Toronto and went to Henry Carr High School, went with the question, suggestion Flashpoint "is prettier than Night Heat. People watched Night Heat at 11 o'clock at night I think. I don't remember Night Heat. You can compare it to Due South--that was a good Canadian show that appealed to a broader audience..." At which point Dillon broke in with, "W e're going to break up into discussion groups Rico, just let me know."
So a fascinating Canadian TV history lesson for scribes in on the call south of the border. Producers La Traverse and Mustos went on to say Toronto landmarks such as the Ontario Place Cinesphere and the Toronto Stock Exchange play a part in this season's location shoots, and they hinted that something happens to Jules Callahan (Amy Jo Johnson) around the fourth episode. Johnson and her hubby just welcomed their first child Dec. 1.
Flashpoint returns with new episodes Friday, Jan. 9 at 9 p.m.

Idol Talk on the Radio

Went over that whole Canadian Idol deal again with Scott Thompson on CHML yesterday. You can listen in here. I maintain it is disingenuous for CTV to position this as the result of the slumping economy when really it is all about a slumping TV show.
For those worried about what Ben Mulroney will do now, be of good cheer. I've always said that Ben Mulroney will always have a place on Canadian TV--as long as other people have talent.
Certainly Ben's fate will be sunnier than the 600 Canadians who lost their jobs this week at the company where his father is chairman--Quebecor's Sun Media. A chilling 49 folks lost their livelihood right before Christmas at the Toronto Sun, including many former friends and colleagues. The Toronto Sun Family blog has reported on all the job losses across the chain in a remarkably comprehensive and respectful way. You can only shake your head when you read that endless list of names and think of all the families affected. How the hell do you cut six jobs at the North Bay Nugget, or 13 in St. Catharines, or 11 in Peterborough, without gutting a newspaper?

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Olympic Cash Crunch Crushes Canadian Idol

CTV has announced it is "resting" Canadian Idol for a year. Also "resting": Van Johnson, Bettie Page and Mr. Blackwell.
Seen napping: Paul Newman. Looking a little sleepy lately: Ted Rogers.
CTV should just be honest with the fans and admit it: Canadian Idol has been canceled. Canada is karaoked out. The talent pool, as seen by last September's entirely forgettable all-male final four, has been drained. Judging by what was being said on Toronto talk radio this morning, people are done being assaulted by Ben Mulroney. Last season was always going to be it for Canadian Idol, as I argued in a Toronto Star article last June.
The series sunk to its worst season ever last summer, and the finale didn't even win its timeslot. Only 488,000 across Canada in the 18-49-year-old demo watched last September's finale, about a third of the total for the second Canadian Idol. The series was turned off a long time ago in big Canadian cities like Toronto and Montreal.
Each week's live extravaganza was an expensive show to produce, with big name guests like Mariah Carey being airlifted in and cross country auditions held every winter in at least 10 Canadian cities. The tip off that Canadian Idol was toast came about a week ago when the usual mid-season CTV release promoting all the January shows gave no mention whatsoever of the next round of Idol auditions.
CTV has a new home grown talent hunt winner in So You Think You Can Dance Canada, one that is not produced by John Brunton's Insight Productions, as is Canadian Idol, but by the wife of CTV president and CEO Ivan Fecan. The network is clearly deciding to pour money and resources behind the new show that is trending up, not the old show that is trending down.
Blaming the economy for Idol's demise is a bit like ABC saying the U.S. economic collapse took out Pushing Daisies or Dirty Sexy Money. These are just shows whose ratings went down and were canceled.
What makes this decision a little surprising is that, with the worsening economy, more people are watching TV now and are hungry for prime time escapism and distractions. CBC's ratings for their reality series Dragon's Den shot up as the stock market plummeted. So You Think You Can Dance Canada was the No. 1 new show--Canadian or American--on Canadian TV this fall.
The bad economy might even ramp back up ratings for American Idol, which returns in January. Fox has scheduled a conference call with Simon Cowell for today to heat up interest in their franchise series, which has been tweaked with a fourth judge and other innovations. This series lost a few viewers for the first time last season and CTV is probably gambling that the mother ship is getting a little pitchy, dawg. But viewers too broke to party elsewhere this winter may be back on the Idol express.
Fox, however, did not pay about $200 million for the rights to the 2010 Winter and 2012 Summer Olympic Games. CTV did. The ad market has collapsed, and suddenly paying 212% more for the B.C. Winter Games than CBC payed for 2006 in Turin seems to have more downside than a dangling gondola at Whistler.
Advertisers who might have been talked into one more round of Canadian Idol are now being wooed to invest in the 2010 Games. And if you are Ford or Chrysler or GM, you don't even know if you're going to be around for the 2010 Games.
CTV needs to suck every cent from that Olympic teat, and all those going out of business signs are killing them. So if you want to know who or what killed Canadian Idol, blame CTV's lust to seize the B.C. Olympics at any cost.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

How The Fringe Stole Christmas

You have to hand it to the Fox promotions department. Finding a way to tie in the gore and guck of Fringe with the holiday season is a cow-razy idea, but here you go:



By the way, have you seen how those 40-year-old Christmas specials are kicking ass on CBC? Last night's broadcast of Dr. Seuss' How The Grinch Stole Christmas--first broadcast in 1966--drew 1,256,000 viewers on CBC, with more than half (681,000) in the 25-54-year-old demo. Frosty The Snowman, almost as old, also pulled over a million. Both boosted The Border to its third-highest rating of the season, a solid 717,000 viewers (all figures BBM NMR overnight estimates).
CBC even scored a rare Monday night win. The public broadcaster beat both CTV and Global head-to-head from 8-10 p.m. CTV still had the top rated show of the night, CSI: Miami at 10 (1,703,000), but good ol' Grinch/Frosty easily beat Big Bang Theory (779,000), Law & Order: CI (599,000), Prison Break (778,000) and Global's final Heroes episode of 2008 (894,000).
And, oh yeah, Jeopardy? What is 1,187,000 viewers, Alex.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Survivor, Rudolph Sleigh Green Gables

Just 1,042,000 watched CTV's Anne of Green Gables: A New Beginning Sunday, a new low for Kevin Sullivan's played out Gables' franchise. Worse, just 306,000 kindred spirits in the 25-54-year-old demo tuned in, according to overnight estimates from BBM/NMR.
That placed the poorly reviewed prequel/sequel a distant third nationally behind the finale of Global's Survivor: Gabon (the night's big winner at 1,819,000 total viewers, with over a million in the demo) and CBC's Sunday night Christmas combo Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer (890,000/451,000) and The Polar Express (1,223,000/519,000). Even CBC's Sunday Night News (1,081,000/430,000) beat Anne, and even snuck past the CTV National News (1,380,000/320,000).
Sullivan's original 1985 Anne of Green Gables miniseries, starring Megan Follows, soared past the 5 million mark back in the day on CBC, ranking it as one of the most watched Canadian made TV-movies or miniseries ever.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Anne of the Windy Storyline

Tonight's Anne of Green Gables" A New Beginning could almost be called Anne of Green Gables: If I Did It.
The "I" being writer/producer/director Kevin Sullivan, who has concocted tonight's three hour "prequel/sequel" to his hallowed and Hallmark-y Green Gables trilogy.
In the extensive press notes to the TV-movie, which included a lavish, full colour, 64-page press booklet plus a novel, Sullivan says he was motivated to do more Anne by the 100th anniversary of the publishing of author Lucy Maud Montgomery's first Green Gables book. He says he drew from her personal letters as well as descriptions of Anne's beginnings found in the first book to come up with tonight's story. Perhaps, but it plays more like Sullivan was plundering Dickens by way of Knots Landing.
Sullivan, in fact, has tossed a lot of Montgomery's original orphan girl mythology. Sullivan and the Montgomery estate have had their legal differences in the past, and perhaps a story with no Montgomery elements is a prudent, not to mention cathartic, course for the filmmaker to take. Anne purists, however, are going to be pissed.
Fans of Sullivan's original Green Gables trilogy will also be asking where the heck is Megan Follows. The actress--recently seen in a episode of The Border--owned Anne, captivating a nation back in the mid-'80s when Sullivan's original adaptation drew over five million viewers on CBC.
Sullivan and Follows have reportedly had their differences and are no longer "kindred spirits"so they may both simply be done working together. That is a shame; both brought out the best in each other's work.
The story seems written almost to explain Follow's absence in the cast. The young Anne, here gamely played by Toronto native Hannah Endicott-Douglas, is even younger than Follows was nearly 25 years ago when she first donned the red pigtails. The new movie's older Anne, played here by American actress Barbara Hershey, is supposed to in her 60s, decades older than 40-year-old Follows. (Hershey herself is, surprisingly, 60.) If Sullivan had not wanted to work with Follows, he certainly found a way around her in his script.
The other big name in tonight's production is Shirley MacLaine, who, not surprisingly, steals every scene she's in as a rich matron who briefly gives Anne shelter. I got in on a press tour scrum with MacLaine last July where she was promoting her appearance in a Lifetime Channel biography of Coco Chanel. The Anne shoot came up and she said she enjoyed working on the project in Canada. “I am half Canadian," she joked at the time.“The bottom half."
MacLaine's mother, Kathlyn Corinne, was born in Nova Scotia and worked as a drama teacher. Her father, Iran Owens Beaty, moved the family to Virginia, where MacLaine was born and raised along with her brother, Warren Beatty. There's more about MacLaine and Green Gables in the Starweek cover story I wrote in Saturday's edition, which, unfortunately, I can't link to here.
Personally, if Sullivan was going to just make something up, I would rather have watched Follows play an older Anne as a feisty, Depression-era heroine than the somewhat haunted, burnt out author who gradually comes to terms with her early years in this bland new beginning. Then again, maybe Anne just doesn't age all that well. Maybe she is supposed to stay in freckles and pigtails, locked in that perfect P.E.I. prism Montgomery authored and Sullivan so artfully adapted when they both were in their 20s.
The movie airs tonight at 7 p.m. on CTV and if it draws a third of the five million who watched the first Anne that will be something. There is plenty of competition tonight with The Grinch on at 7 on CBC followed by The Polar Express as well as the series finale of Survivor at 8 on Global.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Keeping a Low Media Profile

Learned a lot last night at the annual Media Profile holiday party in Toronto. The semi-formal bash, held this year at The Brant House on King Street, was packed with many of the usual suspects. I got talking to a couple of CBC producers who told me some astounding stuff that I have to sit on today, which sucks.
What I did learn that can be shared I pretty much threw over to The Canadian Press today. Much of that had to do with a spate of reality shows coming in 2009 to CBC, including some info about this idea to recreate the Terry Fox run half way across Canada. The reality/documentary series, with 12 runners to be selected and followed in a series of daily marathons, is set to hit the starting line in April. There's also news and dates on returning CBC reality series The Week The Women Went and The Next Great Prime Minister. Read my full CP report here.
If things seemed a little less festive at this year's Media Profile event, despite the ever tasty mini burgers and gloriously free bar, the gloom hanging over the industry as a whole was mainly to blame. There are fears inside and outside the CBC of further cutbacks and layoffs. Some speculated that only the Conservative's economic statement screw up has kept a rumoured $200 million CBC budget clawback from becoming a reality--for now.
Did run into CBC programming boss Kirstine Layfield, smashing as always, this time in a long, sparkily silver dress. Congratulated her on a strong fall, one I didn't think her network would earn. Hey, Mr. TV Feeds My Family has been wrong before.
Heading into fall with not a single new show seemed a missed opportunity given the soft September launch on all the private networks, understocked with U.S. wares due to the lingering effects of the writers strike. I thought this was a missed opportunity, but what happened was that CBC broke out anyway, with established shows such as the Rick Mercer Report soaring to near million-a-week numbers and topping the million mark several weeks in a row. Dragon's Den leapt 54% this season, and Air Farce soared on Friday nights with a huge lift over last season. Sure, Little Mosque and Sophie have gone in the dumper, but, overall, CBC is up. Thank you Jeopardy.
NBC's little caper to move Leno to 10 p.m. and ditch all their dramas was a hot topic in the room. How will that play out in Canada? CTV/A now airs several NBC 10 p.m. shows, including the two Law & Orders currently at 10 and ER (which ends its 16-year run in May anyway). They will have holes to fill next September when and if NBC makes this radical move, although CTV--even after sharing shows with A--always has plenty on the shelf.
As does Global which has the awkward problem this coming Monday of owning five shows it could simulcast and only one timeslot to fill.
As tempting at it might be to follow NBC down this austerity path, the consensus in the room last night was that neither CTV or Global would likely commit to NBC's Jaywalking stunt. Rogers, on the other hand, anxious to put their own stamp on their newly acquired City-TV brand, just might give Leno at 10 a shot in Canada. Stay tuned.

Tarnishing The Golden Globes

I probably shouldn't be using phrases like "crooks," "weasels" and "less legitimate than the Gemini Awards" to describe The Golden Globes, but that's what I've been doing this afternoon in a series of syndicated CBC radio interviews. I'm scheduled to be on with Matt Galloway at CBC Toronto's Here and Now at 4:50.
TV critics in particular are a little defensive about the members of the Hollywood Foreign press who make up (and when I say make up, I mean invent) the list of nominees each year for the Golden Globes, which are scheduled to take place this year on Jan. 11 (barring--wait for it--a strike by the Screen Actor's Guild. Keep in mind that the Golden Globes was one of those shows scuttled last January when the writers walked out. D-oh!).
TCA members, hate it and curse the Hollywood foreign press when the semi-annual network press tour is referred to as a junket. Newspapers and media outlets pay to fly reporters down to press tour and put them up at hotels. Junkets are for the dodgey weasels who run the Golden Globes.
'Course, now that newspapers and media outlets are all in receivership and nobody has any money left to do anything, the Golden Globe hustlers seem well ahead of the trade-credibility-for-cash curve.
Still, these foreign press folks who are based and living in Hollywood have earned a dubious reputation over the years for pandering to films, TV shows and talent that openly hustle for attention. Too bad, because when beautiful people like Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt actually earn nominations for good work in good films (Changeling and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, respectively), the suspicion is that they are on the list just to trick them into showing up on the red carpet.
That being said, nominations today for so many smaller budget, independent films (such as Slumdog Millionaire) is a sign that the GG's may be striving for some degree of respect and legitimacy.
Other nominations seem pretty obvious. Heath Ledger as the Joker in The Dark Knight is well deserved and a no brainer. He was bloody good in that movie long before he came to a tragic end. But noms for smaller films like Slumdog and The Reader suggest The GG's are getting with the film fest program.
The TV side held no surprises today, with the usual suspects getting Golden Globe attention, including 30 Rock's Tina Fey and AMC's breakout hit, Mad Men. The kind of year this has been for television, it is a wonder they didn't just sit this one out.
For a full list of GG nominations, go here.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The Pros and Cons of NBC's 10 p.m. Leno Leap

There is so much fallout still falling out over NBC's surprise announcement this week that Jay Leno is moving to 10 p.m. that is is hard to know where to start. It's good news for ABC's Nightline, which is beating Leno and David Letterman and now won't be ditched to make room for Jay. It is bad news for the production community, which now have five fewer network hours a week to pitch TV drama.
Directly affected are all those other TV talk show hosts currently preparing shows on NBC. I spoke with Conan O'Brien a month or so ago in an interview strictly embargoed for my upcoming book on late night. Suffice to say O'Brien will be recharged and ready when he steps on stage of the new studio NBC has built him in Burbank when his Tonight Show debuts June 1.
Here is what O'Brien had to say about the Leno announcement on Late Night Tuesday:

I've had many people calling me today saying, "What is all this? "What's happening?" Jay Leno is going to be going in at 10:00 on NBC. I wanted to make something very clear here on the show this evening. I've known about this for a while. I've talked a lot about this with Jay. I am thrilled. I am absolutely thrilled that Jay is staying at NBC. He has been my lead-in on this program for 16 seasons. He is a fantastic lead-in. He is a huge part of my success. I am indebted to Jay Leno. And I love the idea that that relationship is going to continue. He is going to be my lead-in continuing, I hope, for a long, long time. So congratulations to Jay Leno. This is a happy ending. It's very nice. We're thrilled for him and we're thrilled for everybody at the Tonight Show. Also I've talked it over with my producer and that means I can keep doing my Jay Leno impression.
Jimmy Fallon, who takes over O'Brien's 12:35 a.m. Late Night timeslot March 2, is already prepping his new talk show. You can catch his nightly, five minute webisodes at http://www.latenightwithjimmyfallon.com/ (although they seem to be geoblocked in Canada). Take a TV Barn end-around that geoblock here to check out Monday's vlog, where he introduces his hip hop house band The Roots:
Nice to see the nod to former 30 Rock Studio 6-B occupants Milton Berle, Jack Paar and Johnny Carson. Fallon has his work cut out for him, but the webisode idea is good place to get up to speed without finding your feet on air. Certainly O'Brien would have welcomed this chance to "open out of town" when he started in late night back in 1992.
More about all the changes in late night and the Great Jay Leno at 10 PM NBC caper in this week's Talk Radio podcast with CHML's Scott Thompson. You can listen in here. (And, yes, the link works now.)
As I say to Scott, when you take a closer look at NBC's current ratings at 10 p.m., this whole deal starts to make a lot of sense. Both Lipstick Jungle (3.44 million viewers last Friday) and My Own Worst Enemy (3.4 million last Monday) are shut down shows just burning off episodes. Aging ER is toast after the May series finale anyway. The two Law & Order shows still at 10 have a loyal fan base (both were in the U.S. Top-20 last week, with the original scoring 11.31 million and SVU--which won its timeslot again last night, pulling 10.33) which will likely follow them to 9 next season. Leno will book all the Tom Cruises, George Clooneys and Angelina Jolies he can get and will likely do better than what NBC averages for the week now--at a fraction of the cost. Veteran late night observer Aaron Barnhart over at TV Barn argues that this is a win-win deal for NBC here.
Not everybody agrees, however. West coast "crankypants" critic Tim Goodman says NBC has just mortgaged their future, handed 10 p.m. to the competition (particularly cable) and screwed O'Brien, devaluing The Tonight Show by allowing Leno to scoop the best guests and giving aging boomers one less reason to stay up until 11:35 (or even set their PVRs). Says Goodman, "Leno might have hurt Conan's ratings head-to-head, but here he takes away all the best guests, maintains a higher profile, diminishes the importance of The Tonight Show and continues to make more money and prove he's a more valued commodity to the NBC brass. Yikes." Read the rest of his typically persuasive take here.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Merry Betamaxmas

Looking for an xcellent xmas time killer? Check out Betamaxmas, a crazy little YuleTube Internet creation. Go there and you'll see an old TV screen crammed full of '70s and '80s Christmas TV nostalgia.
You'll see clips from a 1987 Julie Andrews holiday special (oops--they called them "Christmas specials" back then) with guests Placidio Domingo and John Denver. There are also clips from Christmas episodes of Designing Women, Perfect Strangers, Facts of Life and Eight is Enough. There's even a glimpse of that Very Brady Christmas reunion special, the one where they replaced Cindy with another actress (nicely goofed on in a memorable Simpsons episode).
There are dozens of toy ads and station identification plugs, too. The set comes complete with rabbit ears (you can adjust them and improve the picture!) and an old Diff'rent Strokes TV Guide cover (click on it to see a list of all the video clips that pop up on the TV screen). Check it out here and thanks to Scott Campbell at Family Channel for pointing me to it.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Leno Big Winner in Peacock Power Play

This is either brilliant or the end of network television as we know it: Nikki Finke and several others are reporting that, in an effort to keep Jay Leno at their network after he hands over The Tonight Show to Conan O'Brien, NBC will offer the talk show host his own Monday to Friday prime time showcase at 10 p.m..
The idea, apparently, sprang from NBC Universal chairman Jeff Zucker. The brilliant part: NBC Universal is in a tailspin, with the fall launch a total washout. The plunge in ad revenue has already led to a 5% layoff in the network's workforce.
Leno at 10 will cost way less than a slate of pricey dramas, keep the lights on for the affiliate newscasts at 11 and keep Leno away from rivals.
There has already been speculation that networks will have to program fewer hours next season just to survive. Fox and CBC, for example, already only program ten hours of prime time entertainment fare Monday to Friday (CBC has the National News at 10 p.m.). That's five weekday hours less than CBS, CTV, ABC, Global--you get the idea. With costs as high as $3- to $5-million per hour of network drama, and decreasing ad revenues, it is go small, or go home.
Enter Leno, scheduled to hand off The Tonight Show to Conan O'Brien next June 1. Back in July, at the last TCA press tour, it looked like there was no way in hell that Leno stays at NBC. (Even after Leno, disguised in a bald cap and fake goatee, crashed the NBC executive sessions as a fake reporter.) Network officials at the time, including NBC co-chairman Ben Silverman, said they would try anything to keep Leno at the network but nobody thought it was possible at the time. Then again, nobody saw the meltdown in the television business coming quite this fast, either.
While no one can officially be talking to him (that would be tampering), there have been all kinds of whispers that ABC would ditch Nightline to showcase him at 11:35 as early as January, 2010 (which is when he would be free of his NBC contract). Fox and Sony are seen as other suitors for Leno, No. 1 in late night for over a dozen years and showing no signs of wearing out his welcome with middle America.
NBC gambled that Leno would be out of gas by 2009 when they made that five year deal to makeover their late night schedule. Leno, pushing 60. O'Brien, 45. It did seem like a no-brainer at the time--except Leno's ratings never wavered.
Will this all work? Finke--who hates Zucker--raises some doubts:

...it could all go into the crapper if Leno's 11:30 PM audience fails to follow him. Or if Jay doesn't attract more eyeballs than his most recent average of 4.8 million viewers tantamount to a mere pittance for primetime. Or if Leno's show cuts into Conan's viewers which cuts into new Late Night host Jimmy Fallon's audience because there's 3 similar programs in a row (and 3 1/2 if you count Carson Daly's abysmal half-hour). Suddenly, there's talk show format fatigue.
Still, here's why it makes sense and how it could work, according to late night expert Bill Carter at The New York Times (read his full account here):

Though Mr. Leno will command an enormous salary, likely more than $30 million a year, the cost of his show will be a fraction of what a network pays for dramas at 10 p.m. Those average about $3 million an episode. That adds up to $15 million a week to fill the 10 p.m. hour. Mr. Leno’s show is expected to cost less than $2 million a week.
In addition, NBC will get many more weeks of original programming. Network dramas typically make 22 to 24 episodes a year. Under this deal, the executives involved in the discussions said, Mr. Leno will perform 46 weeks a year.
That differential in cost will likely be sufficient for NBC to absorb any decrease in ratings from its current slate of dramas. Mr. Leno has averaged about 4.8 million viewers for his show this year, with a rating of 1.3 in the important category of viewers between the ages of 18 and 49 that most advertisers favor.
Carter also points out that there have been no new hits on any U.S. network at 10 p.m. in four years.
It all sounds like one of those "Stupid Headline" bits Leno does, but if it is true, there could be many more late night shakeups in the coming weeks. And what about Canada? Will cash strapped Global swing a deal with NBC to turn their 10 p.m. schedule over to Leno?
The whole deal is expected to become official tomorrow (Tuesday) at a press conference in Los Angeles. Will Leno or Kimmel dare goof on it tonight (Letterman is off this week)? Stay tuned.

Air Farce Soars in Final Friday Flight

Air Farce: Final Flight signed off as a series Friday night with a season high 913,000 viewers, which will rank it as CBC's third-highest rated series this fall.
Air Farce (featuring Roger Abbott, right, as CBC news anchor Peter Mansbridge) finishes with a strong 770,000 per week viewer average (all figures total 2+ audience, Nielsen/BBM overnights). Unlike almost everything else on TV these days, that is up from last season. Only Hockey Night in Canada (1,331,000 season-to-date average) and the Rick Mercer Report (959,000) averaged more viewers in the 10 weeks leading up to the Christmas break, with Dragon's Den (which airs its second last episode of the season tonight) expected to come in as the public network's fourth highest-rated show (it is currently averaging 765,000).
Dead last among CBC show averages for the fall? Sophie, of course. It's paltry 325,000 season average is behind even Doc Zone (373,000).
The Farce's third place finish among all CBC offerings is not too shabby for a 16-year-old series being grounded after one last New Year's Eve special. The plan after that? You'd think CBC would want to keep the "Open For Laughs" sign up on Fridays, and there was some discussion at one point of slotting a new series featuring comedian Ron James into the Farce slot, but word on the street now has the consumer reports series Marketplace in Fridays at 8 starting in January. And we all know how funny the marketplace has been this year!
Other numbers of note from Friday: the repeat of the Rick Mercer Report following Farce drew a typically strong 769,000, Dr. Who claimed 469,000 and The Hour managed 122,000 at 11 p.m. Highest rated of all shows in prime time on Friday was CTV's Ghost Whisperer, which scared up 1,250,000 at 8 opposite Air Farce.
In early prime, Jeopardy! was down slightly to 713,000. That's less than CTV's Dr. Phil at 5 (752,000) but more than Oprah drew at 4 (599,000). Global's aging soap The Young and the Restless, which is anything but (the same actors who were on there in the '70s are still lurching around) drew 704,000 viewers at 4:30, not far off what Numb3rs pulled at 10 p.m. (774,000).
On the low end of the spectrum, CBC's daytime duo Steven and Chris managed just 60,000 viewers at 2 p.m.--less than half the audience opposite a rerun of forgettable CTV CanCon Sue Thomas, FBI (131,000).
In other numbers news, CTV drew 1,616,000 for Sunday's finale of So You Think You Can Dance Canada, which saw Quebecer Nico Archambault dance off with the $100,000 top prize. CTV says the performance episodes of SYTYCDC averaged 1.4 million viewers this fall, ranking it as the No. 1 new series in Canada (domestic or imported) as well as the No. 1 Canadian series--ahead of even the season average for Hockey Night in Canada.

Beverly Garland: Queen of the Bs

If you are a fan of B-movies from the '50s, or '60s TV shows like My Three Sons, you had to be a fan of Beverly Garland. The blond-haired actress passed away Friday at 82. Read her obit in the L.A. Times here.
Garland was one of those throaty, no-nonsense babes who kicked ass in Roger Corman films and dozens of '50s TV series. Not Of This Earth and It Conquered The World are two of her better known titles. She was a TV police woman years before Angie Dickinson, headlining the syndicated series Decoy in 1957-59. Besides playing wife to Bing Crosby (the mid-'60s Bing Crosby Show) and Fred MacMurray (My Three Sons), she latter appeared as a mom in dozens of TV shows, including Scarecrow and Mrs. King and as Teri Hatcher's mom in Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman. Even more recently, she appeared on 7th Heaven and Port Charles.
Her male co-stars, especially the men's men, speak of her in hushed tones. Mannix star Mike Connors is quoted in the Times piece as saying not only was Garland "a terrific actress, she was one of those special gals who was fun to work with."
In her later years, she was more famous as an L.A. Inn keeper. She married real estate developer Fillmore Crank in 1960, and among their joint efforts was The Beverly Garland Holiday Inn in North Hollywood. For years this was the home base for the Hollywood Collectors and Celebrities Show, a semi-annual nostalgia fest where dozens of former TV and film stars gather to meet and greet with autograph seekers. (The next show is in February in Burbank, CA.) Guest who checked into the hotel saw dozens of her film stills on a wall in the lobby. When you checked into your room and turned on the TV, there she was to guide you through the amenities.
I last saw Garland when I sat next to her and former NBC promotional legend Gene Walsh at the 2006 Television Critics Association Awards in Beverly Hills. She still had that sass and snap.
The first time I met her was ten years earlier on a visit to one of the Hollywood collectors shows, where she was both hostess and part of the assembled talent. Dawn Wells (Mary Ann) from Gilligan's Island, Frank Bank (Lumpy Rutherford) and Ken Osmond (Eddie Haskell) from Leave it to Beaver and the surviving cast members of F-Troop were all in the house, as was the guy who played the robot from Lost in Space.
Garland (photographed above at that show by my friend, the late, great Gene Trindl) spoke about her three year stint on My Three Sons, where she was brought in to play widower Steve Douglas' (MacMurray) second wife. It was a softer role than her usual rough-and-tumble B-movie parts. "I went on an audition with about 500 other girls to get the part," she said. "Bought myself a pretty little cotton dress that was very sweet."
The dress worked although Garland hardly ever saw MacMurray, who, along with another film star, Family Affair's Brian Keith, had one of the sweetest deal in television. He only worked three months of the year, "so the rest of us had to shoot our scenes around him," she said. "He was doubled by this tall woman, Katie Barrett. So when Fred asked me to marry him on the show, I said yes to Katie Barrett."

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Attention Christmas Shoppers

It was very nice of John Doyle at the Globe and Mail to include mention of my book in the Globe's Gift Guide 2008 on the weekend. You can read Doyle's full article here.
John, of course, had great success with his own book, A Great Feast of Light, all about television and growing up in Ireland in the turbulent '60s. I've read it and it's wonderful and very affordable in paperback, which is the format I wish my book, Truth and Rumors: The Reality Behind TV's Most Famous Myths, was in by now. Truth and Rumors costs too much in hardcover (although hunt around over at Barnes & Noble.com, they have it listed for the member price of $31.96. Just don't tell my publisher that you read this here!)

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Draggin' Economy Boosts Dragon's Den

A week of high comedy in Ottawa continues to boost the fortunes of the Rick Mercer Report and This Hour Has 22 Minutes--just as a cratering Canadian economy has put an extra roar in Dragon's Den. Whoa, Stephen Harper--who knew you'd go to such lengths to boost the CBC!
Mercer pulled 1,150,000 on Tuesday, the series' third million-plus audience in a row. Viewers saw the comedian defy gravity as he bounced around a rapidly descending jet (It was sort of like watching that Skype-y Stephane Dion tape Wednesday night). It was the last new episode until the series returns in January. It's all Grinch, Rudolph and Frosty for the next three weeks on CBC--and no, we don't mean Mansbridge's "At Issue" political panel.
While it must seem like shooting fish in a pork barrel, satirizing the knuckleheads in Ottawa helped This Hour Has 22 Minutes graze the 800,000 mark in their last show of 2008. Monday's Dragon's Den soared to 1,007,000 viewers as the series nears its third season finale. With unemployment on the rise, Canadians are tuning in en mass to see how to become entrepreneurs in their next careers. Next Monday's show was supposed to be it but ratings are on such a roll CBC ordered a 12th episode, which will air Jan. 11. (Okay, but, like, Fox would have ordered 20 more.) Host Dianne Buckner says to expect some dish from the dragons as well as follow up stories from some of the budding entrepreneurs featured this season. For more on Dragon's Den, see my story filed today for The Canadian Press here.
Even Wednesday night CBC comedies Little Mosque on the Prairie (633,000) and Sophie (438,000) were on the rebound this week, boosted no doubt by the comedy stylings of Stephen Harper and his "PM's Address" as well as the follow up "Dion YouTube Blooper Reel" at 7 p.m., carried on all three networks (CTV: 1,044,000, CBC: 926,000, Global: 595,000. UPDATE: Another 338,000 caught the PM's Wednesday address on CBC Newsworld, with even more--397,000--sticking around for Dion's muddled message). It also helps that, with the November sweeps over, the U.S. networks are coasting toward Christmas, leaving CTV and Global with scheduled full of seen-it-already. It's like they've been prorogued or something.
Other Canadian ratings numbers of note so far this week: Monday's Jeopardy (1,012,000) continued that quiz evergreen's strong showing at the supper hour. Wednesday's So You Think You Can Dance Canada drew 1,439,000 as it dances down to the wire. Corner Gas pumped another steady 1,033,000. The Tudors was steady at 690,000. The Border sank to 546,000 against a stronger episode of Heroes on Global (913,000). The Fifth Estate did 447,000, with Global's rescue series The Guard struggling at 306,000.
Friday night marks the 332nd and final regular season episode of the 16 year CBC sketch staple Air Farce (featuring Craig Lauzon as Stephen Harper, right). Producers Roger Abbott and Don Ferguson both told me this week that they've had to tear up and revise several scripts as the political story lurched from the ridiculous to the sublime.
Since the series is no longer shot live, but tapes Thursday night, they lucked out when Gov. Gen. Michaelle Jean quickly pulled the plug on Parliament Thursday morning. The Farce is still with them! The final ever Farce broadcast will air on New Year's Eve, when the troupe bows out with a last blast of the chicken cannon.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

My "Dyn-O-mite" Day with Jimmy Walker

Today's radio chat with CHML's Scott Thompson is, as Jimmy Walker would say, "Dyn-O-mite." That's because Walker himself figures in a great story or two near the end of the segment, which you can listen to in it's entirety here.
But first, I worked in a preview of my interview earlier today with Air Farce legends Roger Abbott and Don Ferguson. They, along with the other five Farcers, take their final regular season bow Friday night at 8 p.m. on CBC's Air Farce: The Final Flight.
You wouldn't know it from Farce's stellar ratings this year (soaring close to the million mark most weeks as the show builds through the half hour), but maybe this is the time to get out of the goofing on politicians business--especially now that Parliament Hill has devolved ito its own political pie fight. Both Roger and Don said they had to tear up the script several times this week as the silliness ensued. The interviews are for the Dec. 27 Starweek cover story, saluting Air Farce's true final flight, that one last New Year's Eve special. Prepare the chicken cannon!
Scott also congratulated me on one year of TVFMF (or TV "eff my eff" as cheeky John Doyle at the Globe and Mail calls it). Meant to give a shout out to Scott and CHML in the last post for permitting me to throw our weekly radio talk up on this site, it has added a nice aural dimension to the mix.
Walked Scott through my day with Erik Estrada this week (already detailed below), and then moved on to yesterday's celebrity encounter from the '70s--Jimmy "J.J." Walker.
The veteran stand up comedian was in Toronto to shoot an episode of a show I'm apparently not supposed to blab about yet (so don't go here to get more details). Suffice to say it is a new Canadian show about classic television,and its coming to a digital channel with five syllable's that rhymes with "Stroumboulopoulpos."
Walker is no stranger to T.O. He's been coming up here since the '60s, working everything from the Royal York's Imperial Room to the opening of Yuk Yuks.
His big break, of course, came on the Norman Lear sitcom Good Times (1974-79). The Maude spinoff (itself spun off from All in the Family), originally starred John Amos and Esther Rolle, but it was Walker who broke out immediately as the gangly son with the chicken ranch hat and "Dyn-O-mite" catch phrase.
Both of which Lear hated, says Walker, who picked the goofy hat up in a store in his native New York. This was after he was rejected for a movie role because the casting director thought he wasn't--get this--black enough! Walker left the audition, went straight out and bought the stupidest hat he could find, went back to the audition and landed the part.
He later wore the lucky hat on his way to his audition for Good Times, but took it off when he got into the room. "Where's the hat?" asked director John Rich, a TV veteran who helmed dozens of episodes of The Dick Van Dyke Show and All in the Family before going on to co-produce MacGyver with former "Fonzie" Henry Winkler.
Rich insisted Walker wear the crazy cloth hat throughout the shooting of the pilot, even in the indoor scenes. This bugged the hell out of Lear--the most successful sitcom producer in the history of television--who was damned if he was going to surrender his socially conscious comedy to a cartoon character. Lear also hated Walker's enormously popular catch phrase, "Dyn-O-mite!" another detail seized upon by Rich, who literally coached Walker on how to sell it, putting on the hat and mugging to the cameras in rehearsal.

Lear exploded when he saw the "Dyn-O-mite" rushes and tried to run Rich off the set (he had already canned one director--Perry Rosemond, the Canadian comedy legend who still directs Air Farce episodes. Talk about six degrees of separation!). Rich stood his ground and told Lear if he wanted a hit--which was all Rich cared about--the hat and catch phrase effin' stayed. They did, and while disgruntled Rolle and Amos both bailed on the show half way through its run, it sold a lot of lunch pails and T-Shirts and lasted six "Dyn-O-mite" seasons.
Here's the kicker--Rich only worked on Good Times for two weeks, splitting after he set up the pilot.
The hat? You can see it today in the Smithsonian, next to Archie Bunker's chair and other Lear memorabilia.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

TV Feeds My Family For A Year

Today, December 2, 2008, is the one year anniversary of TV Feeds My Family. What started as a shameless attempt to flog my book Truth and Rumors: The Reality Behind TV's Most Famous Myths remains, well, a shameless attempt to flog my book (available here just in time for the holidays, shoppers. Free shipping!)
What I have also discovered in the past year has been how effective new media is in reaching a fairly specific, targeted community of readers. It is cool and surprising--not to mention humbling--to get emails and messages from various corners of the television community: network power players, showrunners, publicists and writers and even the occasional headliner and featured player--from all across Canada and deep into the U.S., and, occasionally, in Europe and beyond.
Getting instant feedback and comments from people who are simply passionate about television has also been instructive and illuminating, if sometimes alarming. Who knew, for example, so many people out there named Anonymous are not fond of the CBC? (Although that's not tracked anymore--anonymous comments have not been permitted here for several months. That's something I wrestled with, but the fun factor diminished as outside individuals were targeted and the playground name calling got a little too intense and personal--almost like a House of Commons debate!)
What I have learned is that the blog room is a different room from the one I played at a traditional media base like The Toronto Sun. There, for example, feedback seemed more limited to specifics like programming information ("When the heck is Monk or The Shield coming back?" and "Why does my cable bill keep going up?"). Web readers tend to focus less on consumer information than they do on dialogue. They speculate, reason, share, challenge and debate.
By in large it is a smart room, one that keeps you honest and on your toes. Except for a lack of hurled ash trays, it reminds me a bit of my days playing comedy clubs with Pat Bullock. You get a pretty quick idea of whether your shtick is going over.
As well as what your shtick is. As a newspaper guy, that instinct to break news dies hard. You want to be first, to scoop, and it felt good to do a few times here what the Internet does best, which is beat papers to the punch. News of Marilyn Denis's departure from CityLine, for example, appeared here first.
Blogs also provide opportunities to spill from the heart and gut as well as the head. A posting on the death of young Sun reporter and dear, departed deskmate Sherri Wood helped turned grief into action, leading to a pretty cool night of shared music and remembrance at Sherri Woodstock.
In one year, over 402 postings, this site has drawn close to 100,000 hits in all, with a one day high of 2,135 hits recorded for a story which appeared here just last week. Of those, 1,914 that day were unique readers. Modest numbers compared with old media totals, but a start, and one that is trending up.
Being linked a few times lately to the Bourque NewsWatch (where they love stories about the Rick Mercer Report) has really goosed those numbers, a lesson in the power of the larger Internet community. Referrals from Denis McGrath's Dead Things on Sticks and Diane Wild's TV, eh, as well as David Bianculli's TV Worth Watching, have also brought steady traffic and a core group of regular readers.
To all who have stumbled on to this site in the past year I say thank you. Thanks for reading, for getting involved, for voting in the various polls (a recent one drew 119 votes, which may not sound like much until you realize it's almost enough to topple the Conservatives).
Look for changes to TV Feeds My Family in the coming year. There will be more focus in the future on video reports. Look for a re-design to provide easier links to content I provide to other media outlets. Crisper links to blogcasts and radio entries. And--hopefully soon--a sponsorship banner or two. After all, it would be nice if TV Feeds My Family actually did help feed my family. (Although, in a very tangible way it has, with reports and exposure here leading directly to paying gigs at conventional media outlets.) The idea is to take full advantage of not just words but images, sounds, links and interaction--all that the Internet has to offer. I've already had one media professional suggest I change the name to "Media Feeds My Family," but I'm not ready to hurl my nifty knife and fork logo off the roof just yet.
One other thing to look for in the new year--plenty of shameless plugs about my next book. Hey--these things don't sell themselves.

Monday, December 1, 2008

My Day With Erik Estrada

Remember the late '70s, early '80s California highway patrol series CHiPs? Spent the day hanging out with TV's "Ponch," a.k.a. Erik Estrada. The actor was flown up to Toronto to guest on the new series Switch, premiering next spring on TVTropolis.
Yours truly was invited to be one of three "TV experts" joining Estrada in an informal, round table-like discussion of all things cop show; we were sort of like "Ponch's posse." The other two tube watchers today were Tim Steeves, stand up comedian and writer on the Rick Mercer Report, and Nathan Rabin of the Onion's AV Club.
Other topics coming up on Switch's breezy hit list are best TV cars, best spy shows and most memorable TV MDs. Tomorrow I'm back on the set, this time with Jimmy "Dy-No-Mite" Walker from Good Times, who is up here to take a bow as one of TV's "Best Second Bananas." Good times.
Estrada is happy to tell you that he turns 60 next March and why not? He's in great shape and does not look anywhere near his age. Compliment him on his youthful appearance and he will immediately crack himself up by straightening out his hairpiece. It is one William Shatner-worthy rug. [CORRECTION: It is not a hairpiece. Steeves straightened me out at the Tuesday taping. Estrada does that old gag where he pretends to shift his hair around by yanking at the sides of his head. Wot a cut up!]
Gregarious and good natured, he comes crammed with great Hollywood stories; some even made it to air. The one that took all day to tell (and didn't make it to the show) was a beaut. Seems young Estrada's first big TV break came in 1973, when he got a call from his agent asking if he wanted to fly to Hawaii to guest on Hawaii 5-0. This sounded better than waiting tables in Harlem, so Estrada, then 23 or so, said Hell, yes, book me, Danno, and beat it to the Pacific for a week.
He gets there, is playing a punk, and starts waving a prop gun around shooting exterior scenes. The cast and crew are outside, under the Hawaiian sun, and all of a sudden a giant truck pulls up along side the beach where they are shooting. Estrada is fairly new to the business and can't figure this out. What's with this crazy giant panel truck, jockeying back and forth with every gust of wind? Then it hits him--the truck is there to block the wind from messing Hawaii 5-0 star Jack Lord's magnificent Tsunami-like wave of piled high hair.
Estrada is mesmerized. He's never seen anything like it. He says to himself, This is star power! From that moment, he was hooked on the business.
Estrada has some hair curling stories of his own about about standing up for his percentage of CHiPs. He claims he was blacklisted for years after staring down the producers of the series over royalties and residuals. During the series run, he walked off the set and missed several episodes in a salary dispute. He was briefly replaced by former Olympian Bruce Jenner!
He doesn't have much to say about his former motorcycle cop co-star, Larry Wilcox, other than to point out that the original idea was that Estrada was to play Tonto to Wilcox's Loan Ranger. When the show took off on NBC, mainly after it was moved to the family friendly Sunday night at 8 hour, it was Estrada's face all over those Teen Magazine covers. "You can plan all you want, but the fans ultimately decide," says Estrada.
In the '90s Estrada, who is of Puerto Rican heritage, made a fortune working a Spanish language soap opera in Mexico. In more recent years, he has emerged as one of the more likable star players in reality television, taking a good natured ribbing or two over his Ponch past on shows like The Surreal Life and CBS's short-lived Armed & Famous. That was the show where he and Jack Osbourne, Trish Stratus, La Toya Jackson and others had to pass actual police physicals and training regimes to see if they could do the jobs they once played at on TV.
This worked for Estrada, who says he only ever had two dreams in life: to be a cop and to be an actor. That he got to be an actor playing a cop on TV was pretty cool, he says.
It could get even cooler: Estrada kept up his police training, especially in the drug enforcement area. Besides lecturing in schools, he now acts as a reserve police officer in Muncie Indiana, his next stop after this Toronto gig.
He's pitching a reality series to TLC based on his new patrol endeavors. If that takes off, he'll be an actor playing a police officer-turned police officer-turned actor.
The dude keeps working. He just shot the two-part finale to According to Jim where he plays a motorcycle riding Devil; Jim Belushi's Blues Brother pal Dan Aykroyd also guests. Next up is an appearance on My Name is Earl.
He's also still cashing in on his CHiPs experience. When a cop pulled him over for doing 104 miles per hour on a coastal thoroughfare near Malibu, the actor dutifully pulled out his license and identification. The young patrolman did a double take, asked him if he knew how fast he was going, told him a fine car like that deserved to be driven with more care and started walking away. "Aren't you going to give me a ticket?" asked Estrada. "No sir," said the cop. "You're the reason I became a police officer."