Sunday, January 31, 2010

Short, O'Hara Make Dramatic TV Turns

There was a time when Martin Short (above right) and Catherine O'Hara used to mock comedians in dramatic roles. They'd appear on those old SCTV "Days of the Week" episodes and take the mickey out of melodrama.
It is a measure of just how talented these actors are that they can slip into some intensely dramatic roles now without provoking laughter. Short, after all, used to twirl and dance, don'tcha know, as completely mental Ed Grimley. Tonight, he makes his debut as a no-nonsense lawyer on the third season premiere of Damages (Showcase, 10 p.m.).
Short isn't the only veteran comedian getting a little dramatic face time this season on the award-winning FX series. Lily Tomlin (right) also stars as the matriarch of a wealthy family who seeks Short's legal protection after being accused of Bernie Madoff-level financial fraud.
The two were at press tour via satellite a few weeks ago in Pasadena, Calif., along with live and in person cast regulars Glenn Close, Rose Byrne and Tate Donovan, as well as the producers. You can read my Canadian Press account of that encounter here.
Comedians doing drama used to be an oddity on television. Now and then, Milton Berle or Alan King would try to bust out in a movie-of-the-week or series guest role. Sometimes it came off about as well as Bobby Bittman doing Shakespeare on SCTV.
Short says he sees himself as a character actor, which makes sense since he's played so many characters. Close remarked that she's always believed that comedy is way harder than drama anyway so why shouldn't these comedy stars be excellent at both.
Certainly O'Hara shines in both arenas. In HBO's Temple Grandin (premiering Sat., Feb. 6 at 8 p.m. on HBO and HBO Canada), which is based on a true story, she plays a farm woman who helps raise an autistic student who grows up to be a leader in the field of animal husbandry (played with astonishing precision by Clare Danes, above). O'Hara is never less than fully authentic in the role, shedding completely any notion that this was the same woman who once blew up real good as Brooke Shields.
That ability to slip effortlessly into characters has been a hallmark of all those great SCTV players. Other veteran Canadian comedians, including Mary Walsh and Cathy Jones, are coming up later this season in dramatic roles on the Republic of Doyle. Lighthearted Doyle (which bumped up over 700,000 viewers in its fourth outing Wednesday in the ratings) does not have the same dramatic intensity as Damages, but, still, when Shaun Majumder turned up on the premiere as a prison misfit, he had to make you forget very quickly about sweaty Raj Binder. Speaking of which, in and out of 22 Minutes this season, Majumder will be back for the season's final four episodes.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Spectacular Set Doomed Dollhouse

Tonight, Dollhouse gets folded up and put away for keeps. The series finale airs tonight at 8 p.m. on Fox and Global.
Seems only yesterday creator Joss Whedon was taking critics on a tour of the gigantic set for this series. There were two TCA treks out to the Dollhouse sound stage on the Fox lot. The set was truly stunning, a fully realized, hotel-like structure featuring giant slabs of teak and glass, with a cascading waterfall over rocks at the centre. Fully stocked fitness rooms, a sexy, co-ed shower area and cosy built-into-the-floor beds like in "Help" all made you want to move in tomorrow.
And that's why I knew this show was doomed. Whenever an executive producer starts raving about set design, scenery or lighting, you know the series has almost no chance.
I remember Mike Bullard's oddball executive producer (Bullard referred to him as Enron because "he hadn't produced anything yet") enthusing about how he had secured Madonna's lighting guy for the Global launch of that talk show. If only he had booked Madonna, I thought at the time.
Whedon snuck into the Fox press tour party earlier this month and told critics he would now throw his efforts behind a new batch of Dr. Horrible webisodes. This was news to the guy who played Dr. Horrible, Neil Patrick Harris, who met with critics a few days later during a How I Met You Mother set visit. "Scheduling becomes the tricky issue," said Harris, sought after for every second award show these days. "I hope it happens soon. I hope they cast me." His HIMYM hiatus is coming up in April, too soon, he figures, for a Dr. Horrible turn-a-round. Maybe next year.
If it does happen, look for a lot of teak and glass on the set.

Kimmel Sheds No Tears for "Robot" Jay


Jay Leno's long, national nightmare is far from over. Loving every moment of it is Jimmy Kimmel. ABC's midnight man is the jester, on the sidelines, making the most out of the whole NBC mess. Thursday night, he pounced on Leno`s Oprah appearance, featuring clips from the popular daytime talk show of Leno looking all hurt and victim-y in soft focus while R.E.M.'s "Everybody Hurts" was added under the dialogue. The bit ends with a pull quote from Leno in big white-on-black letters: "TV is not fair." Lethal.
Kimmel is effortlessly sarcastic. He mentioned off the top that most celebs in a jam go on Oprah if they've had "sex with their father or married Bobby Brown or something. Jay Leno went on because they gave him the Tonight Show back so, please, keep him in your prayers."
Kimmel revealed that Leno called him the day after he did his killer Leno imitation (where he did his entire show with a silver wig, big chin and lisp). Leno called to say the impression was funny. "I'm almost positive that was a lie but I take his word for it," Kimmel told his audience. Good sport Leno called back an hour later to ask if Jimmy would come on his show for a "10 @ 10" segment.
Kimmel says he wasn't trying to "sandbag" Leno in that bit, but rather he hoped to engage him in a dialogue about the whole Leno/Conan thing. Instead, Leno stuck to his "10 @ 10" questions, said Kimmel, "like a robot"--which is what other comics call Leno when they really want to hurt him.
Then Kimmel really stuck it to Leno. "You know, at one time, he was a comedian," he said as an aside. That one had to make even Letterman wince.
Leno might have been lulled into thinking Kimmel had his back after the two stood together two seasons ago during the writers' strike, appearing on each other's L.A.-based shows on the same day. Kimmel, clearly, does not have Leno's back. He's a dangerous guy live, a bit like those weasel dudes on Survivor who make alliances but bail on them as it gets down to the crunch. Kimmel's from Vegas, he knows how to play these high stakes games and he plays for keeps.
The good news for viewers is he knows how to go for the funny bone as well as the jugular. "By the way, watch out, Oprah," he said Thursday night, "don't think he won't take your show next."

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Jaw dropping: Leno on Oprah

Conan O'Brien asked us not to be cynical. Jay Leno is really putting that to the test.
Leno's performance on Thursday's Oprah was all about rehabilitation. Leno got hammered over the Tonight Show do-over, the worst public pounding of his professional career. A lot of the negative press he didn't deserve. Thy guy did have The Tonight Show yanked out of his hands despite beating all comers over 16 seasons. NBC's five year plan to establish a smooth and peaceful transfer of power was, in retrospect, a dumb idea. It wasn't Leno's idea. He would have been happy hosting The Tonight Show forever.
What undoubtedly stung Leno the most was the level of pure vitriol NBC's screw up in late night unleashed. Old nemesis David Letterman purged nearly 18 years of bitterness in two weeks of blistering attacks. As he admitted on air, he could barely conceal his glee. Jay "Big Jaw" Leno had stolen O'Brien's dream job and whined his way back to Tonight. People felt Leno stole back the job both Letterman and O'Brien coveted. Karma, Letterman undoubtedly concluded, was finally catching up with Teflon Jay.
At least Leno could see Letterman coming. They were as linked as Ali and Frazier, two old fighters who made each other rich and survived long enough for one last clash in the ring.
The bad news for Leno was this fight quickly turned into Foreman vs. Five. From across town, old writers' strike ally Jimmy Kimmel delivered the biggest sandbag in the history of late night, square on Leno's chin. Kimmel took Leno apart like he was Lego. The former Man Show host did not have the years of suppressed rage Letterman seemed to be tapping into. He just saw an opening to rip a guy and went for it.
Leno might have seen both men coming--they are his rivals and late night can be a bare knuckle game. Another sketch or joke or two on Saturday Night Live or The Daily Show would have been easy for a battle-tested club comedian like Leno to sluff off. Hecklers he could always handle.
But when Hollywood seemed to turn on him, that had to hurt. Leno had turned Tonight into a Hollywood lounge, coddling big name guests and making everyone from Arnold Schwarzenegger to Tom Cruise to Jennifer Aniston feel comfy and cozy. Unlike Letterman--where big stars never knew how they'd be treated--Leno built a safe zone for celebrities.
Yet few stood up for him as sympathy in Hollywood seemed to all tilt toward Conan. One by one, stars appearing before critics on the January press tour declared allegiance to Team Coco. Rosie O'Donnell basically blasted Leno for not retiring. Sarah Silverman (Kimmel's on-again, off-again squeeze) was sweeter about it, but suggested Leno should finally keep his word to his wife Mavis and take her out to dinner.
The notable exception at press tour was Leno's first guest on his 10 p.m. show, Jerry Seinfeld. At press tour to promote his new NBC realty seres The Marriage Ref, Seinfeld told critics Leno was just playing by the rules. "I don’t think anyone is preventing people from watching Conan, "Seinfeld told critics. "Once they give you the cameras, it’s on you. So I can’t blame NBC for having to move things around. I mean, Conan has a chance to, you know, destroy everybody. Go ahead. You are out there."
Which was the point Leno kept coming back to on Thursday's Oprah--that O'Brien's Tonight numbers were way down and if he had not lost viewers, Leno would not be asked to step back into Tonight.
The part Leno omitted is that O'Brien never had the strong lead-in Leno enjoyed at 11:35, mainly because Leno (and, ultimately, NBC) had damaged all those affiliate newscasts with his own poor showing at 10. The Tonight numbers comparison is just not an even playing field.
However, when you are as competitive as Leno is, any math will do. He also knows his history, and knew where to go to fix this mess: The Oprah Winfrey Show.
Over the past 24 years, Winfrey has rehabilitated everyone from Whitney Houston to Sarah Palin to Michael Jackson. Winfrey and Leno had been friendly for years, an alliance made tighter, no doubt, by a mutual mistrust of Letterman (who, recent outreach to Winfrey aside, used to mock her show almost nightly through stage hands Pat Farmer and Kenny Sheehan's hilarious "Pat and Kenny Read Oprah Transcripts" bit).
Letterman, then, must have been astounded to see Winfrey unfold Leno like a map. (It is a shame his show is in repeats this week.) Here she was, sitting on Jay's turf, on the bib of the Jay Leno stage. Yet Winfrey completely took over and asked a series of simple, direct questions.
Did he call or try to reach out to Conan? No. Not the right time (yet he called the head of the NBC affiliate board to apologise). "I think it's unfair, but TV is not fair," said Leno.
Leno the street fighter emerged after Winfrey repeated O'Brien's reason for turning down NBC's 12:05 offer was because he would not participate in the destruction of the Tonight Show franchise.
"Well, if you look at where Conan's Tonight Show ratings were," Leno said, pausing long enough to drive home his point, "it was already destructive to the franchise… This was the first time in the 60-year history of The Tonight Show that The Tonight Show would have lost money."
The gloves were off. Leno was through playing nice with O'Brien. The two men had maintained a cordial facade throughout the awkward hand over but that was then. Leno, not used to being cast as the bad guy, was going to get his message out that O'Brien was a flop. "I hope Conan gets a job somewhere," he added.
The ugly side of Jay seemed to unsettle even Oprah. She brought up the zinger Leno tagged Letterman with, the crack about the only way you can get Dave to ignore you is to marry him. Winfrey told Leno it was beneath him. Asks Leno, "Did you laugh?"
In other words, big deal, rationalizes Jay, I make one crack about Letterman's extramarital affairs.
Not true: Leno hit his old rival in his weak spot a day or two earlier. "Even Dave Letterman taking shots at me," he told bandleader Kevin Eubanks. "Which is a surprise. Usually he's just taking shots at interns." Leno knows the power of two good jokes, that they travel everywhere.
Letterman dismissed it as "vintage Jay." Winfrey seemed to think it was a misstep. "So you thought one cheap shot deserves another?" she asked. "Yeah, it's OK," Leno replied. To Leno the club warrior, it is more than OK, it is a matter of survival. Letterman was vicious in his attacks. Leno had to fight back.
Winfrey still wasn't buying it. "Do you feel you're being unfairly portrayed by the media?" she follows. Says Leno, "Yeah, I think so."
Leno also got nowhere with his suggestion to Winfrey that he was clinging to NBC's Tonight offer to keep 170 staffers employed. This was in response to her asking if he might be being selfish by re-taking Tonight from O'Brien. Winfrey seemed to be lobbing her old pal a softball here, but Leno bobbled it. Shows get cancelled all the time and his staff collected cheques for 17 years. He could take them all to another network. They could go work for his successor.
Besides, Winfrey has announced she is quitting her show in a year and clearly feels she's contributed enough to her staff over the past quarter century.
A shocker was the results from a poll conducted on Oprah.com. It found that 96% of Winfrey's audience was on Conan's side in this "mess." It even shook Winfrey, who admitted as much on the air. Was there something about all of this that she wasn't getting?
That's when Leno made the mistake of asking Winfrey if all of this had changed her opinion of him. Winfrey the broadcaster and friend gave a masterful non-answer, deflecting the question into a safety zone. But audiences and Leno had their answer, and if you lose Winfrey, as LBJ once observed about Walter Cronkite, you lose middle America. And if Leno has lost middle America, the climb back up to the top of Tonight is going to take more than one or two juicy damage control opportunities.
Leno's Oprah visit might actually had done more harm than good. In the words of Entertainment Weekly columnist Ken Tucker, it was "a fascinating diplay of self-pity and hubris." Oprah said at the end of the show that she had offered O'Brien the same opportunity but the answer back was not at this time. Smart move.

This Week's Podcast: Bloody Spartacus Rant

This week's CHML podcast finds me still spitting blood over Spartacus: Blood and Sand. The graphic comic book adventure (airing Fridays in Canada on TMN/Movie Central and Mondays on Starz in the U.S.) stars John Hannah and Lucy Lawless (right) and buckets and buckets of blood. CHML's Scott Thompson seems amused at the cheeky salute to Kirk Douglas on the set. (It involves a modesty sack worn by male cast members over their members.) Douglas starred as the Roma slave Spartacus in the 1960 feature film directed by StanleyKubrick.
There's also some talk of the cat fight between guest judge Katy Perry and Karla Whatshername on American Idol Tuesday night. Like to see that in the Spartacus arena. Scott also thinks Jay Leno is coasting through these last few 10 p.m. NBC shows. Me thinks he's been coasting since September. You can listen in here.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

I Will Not Stand Up for this Bloody Spartacus

Covering television on a deadline sometimes leads to pain, suffering and emotional distress. Case in point: Spartacus: Blood and Sand.
The sword and sandal epic just premiered and airs Monday at 9 on The Movie Channel/Movie Central in Canada. It originates Fridays at 10 p.m. on the cable channel Starz in the U.S.
I had to file a Starweek cover story on Spartacus before I headed down to Pasadena for the press tour earlier this month and went back to the Starz press tour session last July/August for quotes from the cast and producers. Andy Whitfield (above), who plays Spartacus, wasn't at that session (the series had already begun filming in New Zealand) but co-stars Lucy Lawless and John Hannah, along with executive producer Bob Tapert (Lawless' real life husband dating back to their Xena days) and Sam Raimi were all on the panel.
Clips were shown and the session was fun and lively with plenty of talk about the steamy, boundary-pushing content. The fact that the cast called the jock strap the male actors wore in the sex scenes to hide their junk the "Kirk Douglas" made it into my Starweek piece. The knickers nickname was a cheeky tribute to Douglas, who played Spartacus in Stanley Kubrick's 1960 feature about the Roman slave-turned-rebellious hero.
The point was made that this series was much more serious, less cartoon-y than Xena. Comparisons to The Sopranos were made.
Last week, I filed another Spartacus story for The Canadian Press, this one fresh from the January press tour. That's where the cast (this time including Whitfield), gathered once again before critics to promote the series. There was much talk there about the green screen process used to create the Roman Empire-era backgrounds, and there was more promotional titillation about the sex scenes.
At this point, I had seen snippets of the show but, honestly, was really filing blind. Sometimes on a deadline you go with a great interview and a clip and move on to the next assignment. After all the sex talk, however, I thought I better see for myself what all the fuss was about and finally popped in a screener over the weekend.
I could not believe what I saw. The series is over-the-top violent, makes a Junior hockey game look like a tea party. Blades and lances slice and pierce and blood jets in slow motion all over the screen. When some dude gets cut in the arena, its like 15 people are standing behind him with full pails of blood, just waiting to heave them skyward. No human body contains that much red fluid. The producers slow it all down, so that every red splatter dances in the air. What is really shocking and disturbing is not so much the violence in of itself but that the new technology has been used to render it beyond gratuitous.
So I apologise to each and every reader who may have been swayed by anything I wrote about this show to the point that they decided to check it out for themselves. What Hannah and Lawless are doing in this deal is beyond me. It is violence porn, plain and simple.
Having said that, clearly there is an appetite for this brand of programming. Spartacus: Blood and Bloodier drew an overnight, estimated 3.3 million viewers in its Starz debut, earning the No. 1 spot in all of cable among males 18-49. I have no idea how many people checked it out on TMN/MC in Canada.
Starz did spin the numbers to their advantage. That 3.3 million comes after you add the Friday debut hour with a second screening at 11 p.m., plus the DVR same day numbers, plus an encore on their sister station Encore, plus three additional weekend airings. So six Starz/Encore airings plus DVR numbers. It all adds up to a record debut for the premium pay channel.
That would seem to indicate that the video game generation is pre-programmed into this slice and dice Spartacus. With its virtual backgrounds and heightened imagery, it pretty much plays like an "M" for mature video game. Starz has already renewed the series for a second bloody season.
To me it is all an exercise in desensitization. Won't viewers just go through the five stages of rejection--initial shock, numbness, derisive laughter, restlessness, boredom? Let me just stand now and say I am not Spartacus. You comments are welcome.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

"Can Idol hit right notes without Simon?"

Can American Idol continue to be TV's No. 1 show without the man we all love to hate, Simon Cowell? That was one of the big questions after Fox dropped this bomb during press tour: that an agreement had been reached to allow Cowell to leave Idol after this season in order to launch an American version of The X Factor on Fox in the fall of 2011.
As I report in a feature just posted at MSNBC.com, Fox entertainment president Kevin Reilly thinks other networks shouldn't get too excited about the fact that skipper Cowell is stepping off the flight deck of Fox's "Death Star."
Fox entertainment president Kevin Reilly says it would be premature for other network programmers to start “popping corks” at news of Cowell’s eventual departure. “We’re not losing Simon Cowell, we’re potentially gaining another big headache for (competitors) in the fall (with 'X-Factor'),” he said, pointing out “we did just win the fall without him.”
Cowell himself told critics the show will be just fine, comparing his departure to the retirement of a star football player. "The football team will continue to be successful," he says.
Early on in this, its ninth season, Idol shows no sign of slowing down despite the loss of judge Paula Abdul. Ellen DeGeneres makes her judging debut Feb. 9 during the Hollywood auditions. In mid-February, Idol goes head-to-head with NBC's Winter Olympic coverage (forcing CTV to bounce its No. 1 show over to A channel). Read the full story here at MSNBC.com.

Monday, January 25, 2010

"Lost" Supper Found at ABC Media Site

ABC has just posted this spectacular, "Last Supper"-like photo of the cast of Lost on their media page. (Shot by Bob D'Amico.) Wish there was some way to spread this the width of this site to do it justice but if you double click on it you'll see a bigger image at least. The sixth and final season of Lost begins with a two hour premiere Tuesday, Feb. 2 at 9 o'clock on ABC and CTV.

Canadians Give Generously to Haiti Telethons

Friday night's Canada for Haiti telethon special was a big success, both as a fundraiser and as an audience grabber. Monday's joint network release states that the special drew almost 2.4 million viewers across several networks, including CBC, CTV Global, Citytv, MuchMusic and even CP24 (according to BBM Canada overnight estimates).
Better yet, Canadians contributed generously to the cause, pledging more than 13.5 million for relief efforts in Haiti. Double that with matching money from Ottawa and we're at $27 million; add another $6.7 raised in Quebec through the concurrent French-language telethon and Canada's contribution toward Haiti relief tops $40 million.
That's very impressive given the U.S. total from their two hour Hope For Haiti Now telethon stands at $57 million and counting. Another 2.4 million Canadians watched the U.S. telethon, matching the Canadian effort's estimated audience.
The American Haiti special had a more meditative, spiritual quality--reminiscent of the post-9/11 telethon--with simple readings from A-List stars like George Clooney, Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts leading into respectful, hymn-like musical turns from everyone from Madonna (Like a Prayer) to Jennifer Hudson (Let it Be). The Canadian show had plenty of stars on stage, too--including performances by Nelly Furtado and Metric--but it seemed to be more about cramming Cheryl Hickey, George Stroumboulopoulos and Ben Mulroney onto the same platform while dozens of Canadian celebrities mingled awkwardly in the background. It kinda looked like they were all waiting for a subway at rush hour but, hey, it was effective.
The Canadian special can still be streamed on demand at CBC.ca, CTV.ca and Globaltv.com. Canadians can also continue to donate right up until Feb. 12 online at CanadaForHaiti.com or Toll-free at 1-877-51-HAITI (42484). You can also Text AID to 45678 (carrier charges may apply). The Canadian Red Cross Society, Care Canada, Free the Children, Oxfam Canada, Oxfam Quebec, Plan Canada, Save the Children Canada, UNICEF Canada and World Vision Canada are managing the funds.
UPDATE: The Canadian Haiti salute had its musical moments, too. Check out this simple, powerful performance by K'naan from Friday's special. (Thanks to commenter "Allan" for the link.)

Tour Tales with "Frostback" fave Tyler Labine

Rob Salem calls it the semi-annual "Frostbacks" story. It is a summing up of the most recent press tour by rounding up all the Canadians who were trotted out before critics. You can find my latest take on the Hollywood Canucks here today in the Toronto Star.
Was quite impressed with Tyler Labine this press tour. The burly Canuck (above left with Lie to Me's Mekhi Phifer) made the scene at the Fox press tour party to promote his upcoming mid-season replacement series Sons of Tucson. The Brampton, Ont.-native has been close to a breakout U.S. hit a few time over the years but still no cigar. Reaper was a cool little series but barely limped into a second season. Invasion was another cult fave that never really clicked.
I remember how excited Labine and fellow Canuck James Bulliard were at an ABC party in 2002 when That Was Then was launched to the press. The party was at the well-manicured Rose Bowl business centre grounds in Pasadena and ABC stars like Drew Carey and John Ritter (then on 8 Simple Rules) were working the event.
Bulliard and Labine were like kids in a candy store, stoked about sharing an LA apartment and just being in the business. The excitement was short-lived for Bulliard; That Was Then which was too similar to a WB show called Do Over that season, only lasted two episodes. (Basically, both these shows were Being Erica!)
Bulliard, a Trinity College U of T grad, pretty much quit the business after that. Labine persevered.
"That was a pretty big thing in my life," Labine says looking back at that ABC party. "That was my first American TV show. People were blowing smoke up my ass. I'd never experienced LA before."
He credits his parents with helping him keep his head on straight and things in perspective. "I started acting when I was nine," he says. "They'd always led me to believe that you're a special person or whatever but don't get a big head about what you're doing. There's nothing special about what you do."
Labine says the Canadian teen comedy Breaker High, which came before That Was Then, was his real "acting boot camp." The B.C.-based series co-starred Ryan Gosling. Each half-hour took three days to make, recalls Labine. "It was shot on the cheapest stage of all time." Just 19 at the time, Labine still didn't think acting would turn out to be a career.
Sons of Tucson finds the now 31-year-old playing surrogate dad to three rambunctious tykes. He says the kids are so carefree that they've helped remind him to "stop thinking so much" as an actor. "They've brought me back to this place," he says just as his publicist gives the twirly-finger wrap-it-up sign for the third time. Nobody was standing next to him with a watch back at that first ABC party.
For more on Canadians in Hollywood at the recent press tour, check out this feature I wrote last week for The Canadian Press. It looks specifically at Happy Town, a mystery series shot almost a year ago in Port Hope Ontario. The producers raved about the deep talent pool they found in T.O. Described as a bit Twin Peak-y, Happy Town is set to premiere in March or April.
How small a world is it down at press tour? One of the Canadians glimpsed in the Happy Town clip shown to critics was Linda Kash. Best known as the Philly Cream Cheese angel, she's a local treasure, having acted and written in Canada for years.
The very next ABC press tour session was for Being Erica, which airs in the U.S. on SOAPnet. When I told Erica co-star Michael Riley (right) I had spotted Kash in the Happy Town clip, he smiled and said, "Good. I used to be married to her."

Friday, January 22, 2010

Conan's Last Tonight: Best Exit Ever

The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien went out the same way it came in seven months ago--with class, delight and plenty of laughs.
O'Brien has been on fire the last few weeks, seizing his final shows and driving The Tonight Show to a "Must See" level NBC hasn't seen in years.
O'Brien opened his Friday finale by telling the 280 people crammed into his bleachers that "we have exactly one hour to steal every single item in this studio."
O'Brien said he was bummed that "the fun has to come to an end a decade too early." That clause in his NBC deal that says he can't host another late night show until September? "Next month, look forward to The Andy Richter Show with his sidekick, me."
About ten minutes in, a clip of highlights was shown that demonstrated just what fools these pinheads who run NBC must be. O'Brien's Tonight Show did so many cool things. They took full advantage of their Universal Studios theme park setting, shot cannons and held motorcycle stunts outside in front of the studio and even roped the host into several special effects stunts inside the sound stage. That bit where he knocked over dozens of Domino's Pizza delivery people--priceless.
After the first break, Steve Carell came out and did an "exit interview" bit where he fired O'Brien as if he was George Clooney from Up In The Air. Last week in Pasadena at the semi-annual press tour, I stood next to a colleague who is as connected as you can get to the whole late night scene. He sent O'Brien's executive producer Jeff Ross an email pitching the very same idea--only with George Clooney firing Conan.
That would have killed, but Clooney had more important things to do on this night, including marshall the troops for the Hollywood telethon in support of Haiti.
Tom Hanks, also involved in the Haiti efforts, did appear after the second segment, although his appearance was shot earlier to accommodate the telethon schedule. "In our house you will always be host of the tonight show," he told O'Brien, then asked him if he could come over to the house around 10:45 each night so he and Rita could get to bed a little earlier.
Hanks, who coined the whole "Coco" thing about O'Brien during an earlier appearance, mentioned he was shooting the Haiti event over at CBS's Television City. "Sounds like a fine network," said O'Brien.
After the next break, O'Brien introduced the first guy who called and offered support when news of the whole NBC upheaval broke--Neil Young. Old Neil played "Long May You Run," a sweet, passionate send off for O'Brien.
After another break, with the clock ticking down on his Tonight Show career, O'Brien took the opportunity to speak from the heart. He did this last May on his final Late Night, too, and was just as effective Friday night.
O'Brien took the high road, distancing himself from all the bitterness being hurled at the network. "This company has been my home for most of my adult life," he stated. "I want to thank NBC for making it all possible, I really do."
He said leaving Tonight "was the hardest thing I have ever had to do," and that--as Jack Paar famously concluded five decades earlier--"it was the best job in the world." For seven months I got to do it, he said. "I do not regret one second of anything we've done here." Take that, Dick Ebersol.
He thanked the fans for their massive outpouring of support, with people camping out all night in the rain just to get stand-by tickets into the final tapings. "You made a sad situation joyous and inspirational," he said.
He also aimed a plea directly at younger viewers: "Please don't be cynical," he said. "Nobody in life gets exactly what they thought they were going to get. But if you work really hard and you're kind, amazing things will happen."
There was time for one last surprise, a big band send off with Will Ferrell--O'Brien`s first Tonight guest--playing hippie lead in a rock jam of Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Free Bird." Max Weinberg on drums, ZZ Top guitarist Bill Gibbons on lead axe, Beck and peddal guitar whiz Robert Randolph and O'Brien himself jamming on guitar.
Pretty much a fantasy exit for O'Brien, who earned every ovation he got in what had to be an emotional roller coaster of a week.
Speaking of class, Jimmy Fallon gets props for saluting O'Brien in the cold opening to his show immediately following the Free Bird set. Fallon walked across the hall from his Rockefeller Center 6-B studio to 6-A, for 17 years O'Brien's home (and before that, home to Letterman's old NBC show). There he joined the Roots Band in an a capella salute to O'Brien. After that, he poured malt liquor onto the studio 6-A floor--until the current tenant, Dr. Oz, chased them all out.
Sweet.
UPDATE: Meanwhile, on the other channels, the nastiness continues. Saturday--the day after Conan's Tonight Show finale--marks five years to the day that late night legend Johnny Carson (left) passed away at 79. "It was five years ago today," David Letterman told his audience Friday night, "but don't worry--Jay has an alibi."

Kimmel Takes Shot at NBC's Un-Civil War


This is beyond brilliant: Jimmy Kimmel's take on the Conan/Leno war as seen through the eyes of documentary filmmaker Ken Burns. Thank you, Jeff Zucker, for this golden age of late night comedy. From Thursday night's Jimmy Kimmel Live, an ABC series that airs in the Toronto market at midnight on Sun TV.
When the dust is all settled, Kimmel could emerge as the big winner in late night. His nasty, show-long impression of a lisping Leno, that unbelievable "10 @ 10" ambush right on Leno's own turf, the nightly digs in the monologue and now this. Except for Conan himself, nobody mined more comedy gold out of this mess.

Strong CTV Slate Swarms Republic of Doyle

Wednesday is proving to be a crowded night to bust out of for the Republic of Doyle. The new CBC P.I. drama, starring Allan Hawco and Sean McGinley, left), is in tough up against a powerful night of established hits on CTV.
Republic of Doyle arrested an overnight, estimated 685,000 viewers Wednesday night, down from 715,000 the week before and 969,000 for its premiere. Ratings usually settle in by a series' fourth episode and the one next Wednesday is a beaut, with Newfoundland native Sean Doyle guest starring as a local baddie out for revenge.
Doyle dropped almost a million viewers from its strong CBC lead-in, Dragon's Den, which drew an estimated 1,645,000 viewers.
CTV's monster night began at 8 with Canada's No. 1 show, American Idol (3,191,000), then Criminal Minds opposite Doyle at 9 (2,736,000) followed by CSI: New York at 10 (2,305,000).
A Canadiens game on TSN also ate into the Doyle take with 488,000 viewers. Doyle still did better than anything on Global, which aired yet another rerun of House (592,000) followed by Kitchen Nightmares (490,000) and the premiere of the new ABC young lawyer series The Deep End (falling off the deep end with 241,000 viewers).
City has found a steady, loyal audience for the already renewed for next season Wednesday night comedies Modern Family (574,000) and Cougar Town (427,000) and saw ratings for the soon-to-depart Jay Leno Show inch up slightly to 399,000 viewers.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

This Week's Podcast: Press Tour Postscript

CHML's Scott Thompson wants to de-brief now that another press tour is in the books. Topics include, or course, those two TCA titans, Conan and Cowell. Scott also wants to know if Pee-wee's Playhouse might make a TV comeback now that a revival of Paul Reuben's play is packing them in in LA. If Scott loves the Playhouse so much, why doesn't he marry it? You can listen in here.

Conan, Leno Late Night War Gets Animated


Finally, it all makes sense thanks to this hilarious Hong Kong News animated interpretation of NBC's screw up in late night. O'Brien jumped all over this on Tuesday night's show, another outstanding hour as O'Brien continues to go out in a blaze of glory. "Hello, I'm Conan O'Brien," he began Tuesday's show, "and I'm just three days away from the biggest drinking binge in history." He added that he'd spent the day on Universal Theme Park's new ride, "the tunnel of litigation."
Computer-animated versions of David Letterman, Jimmy Kimmel and NBC Universal boss Jeff Zucker are all in on the 'toon smackdown in the nutty Hong Kong video.
Continuing the joke that he's legally prohibited from saying anything bad about NBC, O'Brien proceeded to take his shots in Spanish, with the on-screen captioning reading, "NBC is run by brainless goats who eat money and crap trouble."
He then mimed a Guy Cabalero-like network exec, petting the head of a kitty while operating his wheelchair. Priceless.
Finally, he addressed rumours that NBC will prevent O'Brien from taking signature bits like Triumph the Insult Comedy dog with him to whereever he goes next (Fox). "Isn't it great to live in a country," O'Brien observed, "where a cigar-smoking dog puppet and a bear that masturbates are considered intellectual property?"
Please NBC, drag this contract thing out as long as possible, late night has never been funnier.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

TVFMF Goes Live at Thursday's BRC Lunch

Want to get a snapshot of media today hot off the critics' press tour? The Broadcast Research Council of Canada has asked me to speak Thursday at their mid-season TV review. I'll be sharing stories of all the Conan O'Brien/Jay Leno/NBC intrigue which dominated the 10 day press tour, which concluded Monday with Hollywood set visits to How I Met Your Mother, Chuck, The Middle and Glee. There was plenty of insight from U.S. programming executives, writers, producers and even the stars during the tour on everything from PVR penetration, the push for carriage fees and just how much Fox is likely to miss Simon Cowell on American Idol. I'll also break down the fall/winter ratings with particular focus on the steroids of the sample business, Portable People Meters. The event takes place Thursday at 11:30 a.m. in the Tom Thomson room of the downtown Toronto Hilton. Tickets to the luncheon are available through Taylor Kormann at tkormann@tvb.ca.
Speaking of PPM numbers, some overnight estimates from Monday, including a leveling off of CBC comedies 18 to Life 555,000 and Little Mosque 516,000.
CTV had a massive Monday with new action hour Human Target at 8 (1,358,000) followed by two comedies they should have moved over from A ages ago, Two and a Half Men (2,029,000) and the Big Bang Theory (2,105,000), then CSI Miami at 10 (1,990,000).
The second episode of 24's eighth season continued strong on Global with 1,334,000.

Monday, January 18, 2010

TV Critics Take Big Adventure with Pee-wee

PASADENA, Calif.—The word of the day was “fun” as a posse of press tour critics got out of Dodge for a little side trip down to Pee-wee land.
A live, theatrical run of The Pee-wee Herman Show is currently running at Club Nokia, part of the downtown LA Live entertainment complex right next to the Staples Center.
Paul Reubens, a.k.a. Pee-wee Herman, was there in living grey and white, complete with little red bow tie and rouge. The original Miss Yvonne (Lynne-Marie Stewart) was there, too, as was Jambi (John Paragon, who helped pen this update of Reuben's original Groundlings Pee-wee production). Lawrence Fishburne can no longer squeeze into his Cowboy Curtis duds, so former Mad-TV dude Phil LaMarr got roped into it. Reba, the original mail lady (played by future Law & Order regular S. Epatha Merkerson) was replaced with mailman Mike (John Moody).
That crazy Formica counter top-patterned set got a well deserved ovation from fans of the TV series (including many, like the fellow at left, who arrived in costume complete with Pee-wee doll). It was all there—the talking window, Chairy, Globey, Magic Screen, Conky the robot (now the Conky 3000), the talking fish, the singing daisies, the zig-zag vinyl door. Randy and Pterry dangled down from the rafters.
Well, okay, it wasn't all there. Missing from the 90-minute show were the wonderful animated miniatures that added so much to the series. No ant farm, no food parties in the fridge. The dinosaur family must have moves out of the floorboards.
Cowntess the cow was also absent, as was that big-headed door-to-door salesman who used to make Pee-wee nuts.
The King of Cartoons (once played by late Blacula legend William Marshall but now by Lance Roberts) did show up and share a clip from the Uh Iwerks’ early ‘30s oddity “Balloonland.” One of those hilarious Cornet Films on hygiene and manners was also projected onto a large, descending screen.
I sat way up in the balcony next to Toronto Star scribe Rob Salem. From there is was very much like watching it all on a big flat screen TV, which worked.
This being LA there were stars in the audience. How I Met Your Mother's Neil Patrick Harris was at Saturday's show and agreed with Salem later that more new material would have been welcome. A new Sham Wow puppet, for example, soaked up the laughs. There was also a new Captain Kangaroo-like Dancing Bear-lke character Pee-wee didn't really warm up to because, well, he doesn't really dig new characters.
Still, Pee-wee's Playhouse was such a wonderfully subversive surprise when it somehow snuck onto CBS's Saturday morning lineup in the mid-80s. To see it again, live, is to rediscover what it was that was so charming and simple about the series in the first place--that childhood was a pretty darn cool place to be, and that you can find your way back there if you just close your eyes and say, "Mecca lecca hi, mecca hiney ho..."
The Pee-wee Herman Show is at Club Nokia until Feb. 7. For tickets call 1-800-745-3000 or go to Ticketmaster.

Golden Globes Keep Critics Typing

PASADENA, Calif.—Critics gathered in a meeting room at the press tour hotel Sunday night to live blog the Golden Globes awards (hosted by Ricky Gervais, right). While all awards shows bore me to tears, it is fun to sit in with other journalists who are stuck filing on all this nonsense just for all the snarky comments. Overheard Sunday night: grey beard William Hurt looks like a homeless man, Cher`s face has settled into a nice Avatar-like naturalness. Can I get Chloe Sevigny's dress/fitted sheet collection in a 280 thread count?
Loved Tom Hanks opening line about rain on the red carpet. NBC was going to have it rain at 10 p.m., he quipped, but tried to move it back to 11:35. Funny.
Read Nikke Finke's bitchy live GG blog here at Deadline Hollywood Daily. Andrew Ryan, who was liveblogging in the critics room for the Globe and Mail, has his wry take here.
The Award show was a hit on CTV according to BBM Canada overnight estimates, drawing an average audience of just under three million Canadians. The eighth season premiere of 24 drew 1,373,000 on Global opposite the Globes.
The cast of Glee should still be plenty gleeful when critics arrive on their set Monday as part of an intense swing through several studio tours. Glee won the Golden Globe for Best Musical or Comedy series. The large, ensemble cast could be heard whooping it up all through Martin Scorsese's special award acceptance speech Sunday night. Haven't any of them seen Goodfellas?

Saturday, January 16, 2010

"Come on. Tell the people you love Ali."

PASADENA, Calif.--Press tours have many moments, some ridiculous, some sweet, some profound. For me, the defining moment of this tour--despite all the Conan and Cowell nonsense--will be Friday's session with boxing legends Smokin' Joe Frazier and Larry Holmes.
The two former heavyweight champions were in the house to promote Facing Ali, a documentary by Derik Murray, a Vancouver-based filmmaker who produced both Making the Cut for CBC and Legends of Hockey for TSN. It is a look back at the career of The Greatest, Muhammad Ali, told by ten of the men who faced him in the ring, including former Canadian heavyweight champion George Chuvalo.
Over the years, I've had the privilege to interview many of my idols, and many more who were not, but were fascinating just the same. Meeting Ali 16 years ago in Florida at the 1994 TV Hall of Fame dinner remains my biggest thrill ever. To shake the hand of The Champ, to tell him what he meant to me and then to have him perform a magic trick right in front of my eyes--unforgettable.
That's a story for another day. Friday, Frazier and Holmes sat and talked about Ali. There was love, bitterness, sorrow, hate, admiration, jealousy, pity--every emotion or sentiment you could possibly imagine, all rolling in waves off the stage of the Langham ballroom.
Charismatic Ali was beloved throughout the world when these men climbed into the ring with him. Yet he had a cruel streak, taunting both men mercilessly. "He wasn't the nicest guy in the world," said Holmes.
Ali would call Frazier a gorilla, and, as Holmes reminded us Friday, "you guys liked it. You guys thought it was funny. We didn't think it was funny at the time."
Still, Holmes appreciated the fact that Ali played an important part in his life. "Without him, boxing probably wouldn't have been alive because he had the mouth. He can talk, and he made people like him. He made people that didn't like him, he made them like him."
Except maybe Joe Frazier. At one point, Holmes tried to get Frazier to say he loved Ali. The exchange was poignant, theatrical, intimate, meaningful. It was real.

LARRY HOLMES: After I beat Muhammad Ali, you know, I'm the only one to ever really stop him, and I probably could have done it a little earlier if I really put the pressure on him. But when I beat Ali, I went to his room, and my memories is, "Hey, Ali, man, you're always going to be the greatest in my book, and I love you." And he says to me, "Why you beat me up, then?"

(Laughter.)

And that's what I got, man. When I left out of that room, because he was still making jokes with an ice pack on and everything, "Why you beat me up, then, if you love me?" If you beat me up -- you don't love me if you beat me up, you know. Ali was great, and I loved Ali then. I love him now, and Joe Frazier might say he don't like Ali, but Joe loves Ali too.

JOE FRAZIER: Love seeing him falling down.

(Laughter.)

LARRY HOLMES: You love Ali. Come on. Tell the people you love Ali.

JOE FRAZIER: Of course I love him, I mean, because, number one, we were the guys that start off that big purse. I went to the president --

LARRY HOLMES: Not because he gave you $20 million. It wasn't the money, Joe, was it?

JOE FRAZIER: Yeah, but I love everybody, and let's say number one. I've done a lot for him. He didn't -- I don't think he likes me.

LARRY HOLMES: Ali loves you, too, because you gave him $20 million too.

JOE FRAZIER: No. He don't love me. He called me ugly, and I was just trying --

LARRY HOLMES: You wanted Ali to tell you you was pretty?

JOE FRAZIER: Why not?

(Laughter.)

LARRY HOLMES: He's a man. A man is supposed to call a man ugly. If you called me pretty man, I would say, "Joe." [Gesturing with a limp wrist.]

JOE FRAZIER: Please don't.
After the press conference, HBO officials discretely ushered the two fighters and producer Murray off stage to make room for the next session. The were led into a "green room" behind the stage area, and I scrambled out of my chair in the ballroom and ran around to try and at least shake the hand of one of these champs.
Frazier seemed to age 20 years in the trip from the stage to the green room. He walked slowly, with the aide of a cane, and took his seat in his wheelchair. On his head was a giant black stetson. He brandished the cane in his hand on the way out and did not stop to talk to reporters.
Holmes, on the other hand, was accommodating and friendly. Spotting my name tag, and hearing I was from Toronto, he immediately mentioned the infamous Maple Leaf Gardens fight fiasco "Forman vs. Five" (where then fearsome boxing champ George Foreman took on five fighters in a row). "I was on the under card that night," said Holmes.
Holmes fight with Ali came in 1980, came when Ali was already sicker than anybody knew. Misdiagnosed with a thyroid condition, he was on a drug that allowed him to enter the ring looking trim and healthy but which really seemed to zap him of any pep. Ali was 38, and simply was no longer "The Greatest."
At what point in the fight, I asked, did Holmes know he could take him? "When I signed the contract," said Holmes.
Facing Ali premieres Feb. 15 at 9 p.m. on Spike TV.

Reports: O'Brien NBC Exit a Done Deal

PASADENA, Calif.--Several sources are reporting that an exit deal between Conan O'Brien and NBC has been hammered out and will be announced Saturday.
Bill Carter of the New York Times, who usually has this stuff first, lays it all out here. Basically O'Brien gets at least $30 million to be okay with having The Tonight Show yanked away from him earlier than his NBC contract allowed. O'Brien also gets NBC's blessing to go work elsewhere as early as September.
Jay Leno gets The Tonight Show, which stays at 11:35. Jimmy Fallon stays put.
O'Brien is scheduled to do one more week of shows before a hiatus leading into the Olympics. It is now felt next Friday's show, as agreed upon in the deal, will be O'Brien's last five Tonight shows.
The deal comes in the nick of time as things get ugly in late night. The piling on from other late night talk show hosts has finally brought out the scrapper in Leno. "Even David Letterman's taking shots at me," said Leno on Friday's show. "What a surprise. usually he just takes shots at interns."
Leno has been hammered all week by Letterman, who keeps calling him Jay "Big Jaw" Leno. Jimmy Kimmel savaged Leno Thursday night as a hostile "10 at 10" guest. When Leno asked Kimmel about the best prank he ever pulled, Kimmel blurted, "I told a guy that 'five years from now, I'm going to give you my show.' And then when the five years came, I gave it to him. And then I took it back almost instantly. I think he works at Fox or something now."

Friday, January 15, 2010

Border No More Secure After Final Draw

The third season finale of CBC's The Border did 506,000 Thursday night. That won't be enough to stem speculation that the show is a toss up to return for a fourth season.
As it has been all season since being switched to Thursday nights, the homeland security series, starring James McGowan (above) as major Mike Kessler, was up against some stiff competition. CTV's Grey's Anatomy, which airs opposite The Border at 9 p.m., was No. 1 for the night with 2,267,000 viewers (according to BBM Canada overnight estimates). CTV's The Mentalist was right behind with 2,139,000. Next came CTV's always potent local supper hour newscast (1,804,000) and a new episode of Bones on Global (1,729,000). CTV`s CSI at 8 p.m. (1,670,000) rounded out the Canadian Top-5.
Helping to knock The Border down to 25th for the night was a Leafs game on TSN, which drew 1, 066,000. A Nature of Things lead in (485,000) didn't help, nor did Private Practice (807,000), airing opposite on A channel. City at 9 went with back-to-back 30 Rock (417,000 and 405,000).
The Border was up slightly over last week's 479,000 and at one point in October got as low as 410,000 viewers, slipping below the MPLIB level (More People Live In Brampton). It really was sent on a suicide mission this fall and winter and hopefully will be judged accordingly when CBC programmers announce their 2010-11 schedule in June.
The good news for the CBC Thursday night was the relatively high score for The National, with 729,000 catching the news at 10 in the wake of the disaster in Haiti.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Rosie to Leno and Zucker: Shame on You

PASADENA, Calif.—Rosie O’Donnell put herself squarely in the Team Conan camp Thursday, ripping Jay Leno for—as she sees it--forcing his way back into NBC’s Tonight Show timeslot.
“I think he’s forgotten his roots, who he is and what stand-up comedy is about,” she told critics following this afternoon's HBO press tour session.
Earlier, O’Donnell lashed out at Leno, suggesting the car buff “flattened" Conan O'Brien's tires before handing over the keys to The Tonight Show.
“Graciousness has never been his No. 1 quality,” she said of Leno, urging the 59-year-old comedian to “let go and grab whatever the next rung is.”
O’Donnell praised O’Brien as “a fantastic talent. Seventeen years he gave to that network. They really did a disservice to him and shame on Jeff Zucker and really shame on Jay Leno.”
NBC Universal chairman Zucker is rumoured to be pulling strings behind the scenes in closing a deal that will see Leno re-take NBC’s 11:35 timeslot once the Winter Olympic Games are finished. Zucker was the chief NBC programmer when a deal was struck in 2004 to have O’Brien replaces Leno five years later as host of The Tonight Show.
So what happened to that plan, O’Donnell wanted to know. “Five years ago, he was told he was no longer going to be the host." Even fabled New York Jets quarterback Joe Namath," she pointed out, was eventually told "you’re not going to be the quarterback any more.”
Asked if she would want to follow O’Brien on Fox if the late night talk show host winds up there, the always outspoken O’Donnell said, “That’s like asking would I like to vacation in Haiti,” she said. “Now wouldn’t be the time.”
On a lighter note, O’Donnell was asked if she’d like to appear on the breakout Fox series Glee. She had a recurring role on executive producer Ryan Murphy’s previous series, Nip/Tuck.
“In a heartbeat,” says O’Donnell, who even has a scenario all planned out. “I would like to have a competitive cheerleader team against Jane Lynch (Glee villain Sue Sylvester). “And maybe she and I fall in love and have a torrid affair…I don’t know.”
O’Donnell was at press tour to promote A Family is a Family: A Rosie O’Donnell Celebration, set to premiere Jan. 31 on HBO.

Idol, Doyle Dip; CTV Crime Dramas Kill

American Idol dropped a million viewers in Canada in one night, clocking in at 2,080,000 Wednesday on CTV. The half hour time shift away from the Fox simulcast doesn't appear to the be the culprit; Buffalo Fox affiliate WUTV at 8 drew just 16,000 overnight, estimated viewers, according to BBM Canada, compared to CFTO's 382,000 Toronto take.
Idol in fact, was CTV's lowest-rated prime time series Wednesday night. Beating it was CSI: New York at 10 (2,472,000) and Criminal Minds at 9 (2,347,000).
CBC stayed in the game with another strong Dragon's Den outing (1,718,000). Republic of Doyle slipped to 715,000 in its second episode. Jeopardy! lost nothing opposite Idol with 1,090,000 viewers.
Global did specialty numbers with a rerun of House (716,000), Kitchen Nightmares (519,000) and Melrose Place (146,000).
City had a consistent night with Modern Family (580,000), Cougar Town (631,000) and The Jay Leno Show (438,000).
TSN's Calgary/Pittsburgh hockey game scored 524,000 viewers.

TCA Monkey Business Comes to a Boil

PASADEMA, Calif.--Critics went ape this morning at the Discovery Network sessions at press tour.
Hot off yesterday's heady PBS sessions, the first day of cable brought the usual collection of freak shows and reality junk. Two dudes who pick up rocks in the dessert were promoted as Meteor Men. An urban farming show called The Fabulous Beekman Boys was dismissed by one critic as "Gay Green Acres."
Two shows from Investigation Discovery and Animal Planet provoked much stronger outrage.
Prison Wives was about people who marry known killers serving life sentences in the slammer. A few of these prison partners sat on stage, including one sheepish-looking former airline pilot. Fatal Attractions (a title that could have applied to either series) was about nut jobs who keep deadly cats, snakes and other man-gobbling critters.
One woman admitted her two chimps used to have their own bedrooms in her house, wore clothes and drove around in toy Hummers. Her chimps are half-brothers to Travis, the killer monkey who attacked a friend of an owner. You might have seen Travis profiled on Oprah.
One woman on the panel spoke lovingly about her big panther kitty, who was put to death after he used her as a chew toy. "He may have ripped off half my scalp but I love him," she said.
The critic from Philly, Jonathan Storm, had heard enough. Did you say you have new shows featuring little people and pit bulls? he asked the network prez. "Does this mean you'll also do giants and chihuahuas?" Basically he wanted to know if Discovery had any limit when it came to exploiting people and animals for ratings, or, as Stormy put it, from making shows about "crazy people who take dangerous animals into their homes."
For an instant, the crazy people on stage looked like whipped dogs. Then they perked up. This is a nice hotel.

This Week's Podcast: The Conan O'Brien Tour

Here it is, Press Tour 2010, the radio version. I give CHML's Scott Thompson the scoop on all this NBC nonsense straight off the floor of Pasadena's Langham Hotel. Will Conan O'Brien finish the week as host of The Tonight Show? Will he host the show again in the Year 3000? You can listen in here.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Kids Are Allright Opposite American Idol

The Kids in the Hall managed to survive a crowded night, drawing over a million viewers for the premiere of their kooky new CBC comedy miniseries, Death Comes To Town.
The big draw Tuesday night, of course, was American Idol, pulling 3,167,000 for the ninth season premiere on CTV. That's a jump of about a million viewers year-to-year according to the CTV PR dept., another big numbers lift brought to you by BBM Canada's new Portable People Meters.
The PPM's seem to energize big event, live programming in Canada more than any other genre. American Idol returned strong in the U.S., but was only up slightly there over last season, averaging 29.78 million viewers over the two hour premiere.
The scripted winners Tuesday night in Canada were NCIS on Global (2,147,000), Law & Order: SVU on CTV (1,658,000) and The Good Wife (1,029,000).
Despite the big guns on the private networks, CBC had a very strong night, with early imports Jeopardy! (!,182,000) and Wheel of Fortune (1,126,000) joining Rick Mercer Report (1,070,000) and Kids in the Hall (1,054,000) in the million+ club. 22 Minutes was also above average for the season, clocking 785,000.
The Jay Leno Show was stronger than average again Tuesday at 442,000 on City, where The Biggest Loser (656,000) was their biggest winner.
In local late night ratings, in the Toronto area at least, Conan O'Brien did not get much of a spike despite all that publicity. Here's how they stacked up at 11:35: The Hour (CBLT, 48,000). Conan (CKVR, 24,000) and Letterman (OMNI1, 18,000).

Couple of Programming Reminders

On with Donna Skelly and Lawrence Diskin tonight on CHCH's Live@5:30. The topic? What else, the whole crazy Conan O'Brien saga and the fallout in late night television. I'm still down in Pasadena on the press tour, here another week, so doing this over the phone while they hopefully put up a photo of someone better looking. The show repeats again tonight at 11:30 (opposite, yes, that's right, Conan O'Brien's Tonight Show).
Thursday night at 9 p.m. on CBC is the season three finale of The Border (featuring Grace Park, above). I haven't had a chance to screen it but understand it is a doozy, a fictional take on the MS 13 gang operating inside Canada.
The Border doesn't get the lift some other CBC shows have been getting this season, making do with soft lead-ins like Doc Zone. Some would say it's been treated worse than an NBC affiliate after Leno.
Stuck in a killer timeslot, opposite CTV's Grey's Anatomy, Border ratings have slipped below the half million mark nationally some weeks. The Border is probably borderline for renewal, so give this well-made, well-acted Canadian series a second look Thursday night. A competitive 600,000 to 700,000 number would give CBC programming executives something to think about.

Dora The Explorer Rejects PBS Move to 12:05

PASADENA, Calif.--This press tour has been so hijacked by the Conan O'Brien/Jay Leno saga even PBS can't escape it.
Other network stars are starting to realize this is the only way to grab our attention down here. "Children of Earth," went the release this morning from embattled PBS kiddie star Dora the Explorer. "I will not take part in the destruction of the PBS children's franchise, a tradition started by my pals Bert, Ernie and Cookie Monster. I will not accept moving my series back to 12:05 a.m. No mas!"
Well, okay, Dora isn't really taking her backpack to Fox. There was a lull at the PBS executive session this morning and, after a pause, buttoned down PBS president and CEO Paula Kerger took a question from Hartford Courant critic Roger Catlin, who started kidding along these lines.
Kerger was trying to make the point that children's programming on the private networks has run amok, that too often the commercial children's shows are just Trojan horses, a way to get parents to load up on toys, books, games and other crap. Yes, there are Dora dolls, admits Kerger, but they aren't the first thing you see on the PBS site, which is focused entirely on education and learning. A new U.S. federal review of children's television programming, the first in 20 years, is due out later this year. PBS hopes their high standards will be applied elsewhere.
Kerger also said she was relieved that the U.S. federal government is not cutting back on the PBS appropriation this year and is in fact adding a few dollars, about a 9% lift. PBS gets about one dollar per U.S. citizen, roughly $300 million a year. Let's see, what does that Canadian public network get again? How much does that work out per citizen? And they had to cut back on episodes of Being Erica and The Border last year because why? Just asking.

McG Takes Aim At TCA Target Booth


PASADENA, Calif.--Is passing out handguns to critics really a good idea? With news exploding to the left and to the right, Fox set up a truck outside the press tour hotel Monday just so critics could fire off guns.
Reporters weren't the only one's taking part in the fun. McG, executive producer of the new Fox comic book action hour Human Target (pre-released this Friday at 10 p.m. on CTV), stopped by the bullet proof promo booth to fire off a few rounds. Judging by his utter glee he might have been taking aim at critics who slammed his last CW reality show, Pussycat Dolls Present: The Search for the Next Doll.
Human Target stars Mark Valley (Boston Legal) as a protector for hire who leaps off trains, planes and everything else in order to save his clients. Check out my brand new video review of the series posted over at Juan Fanzio's Toronto News 24.
As an aside, the guy running the target booth rents his rig out for shoot-em-up parties and wanted to know if this kind of thing would ever catch on in Canada. "I hear guns aren't allowed up there," he said to me. The guns used are actual Walther semi automatics, the kind of heat James Bond packs.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Fox Still King of the TCA Red Carpet

PASADENA, Calif.--ABC had nothing on its agenda for critics to do tonight--a perfect opportunity to catch up and blog about Fox's lively post TCA Day bash.
The Fox fest took place at the Villa Sorriso in Pasadena's Old Town, a great little venue with plenty of in-and-out nooks and crannies for schmoozing, noshing and digital recognisance.
Was good to catch up with Cory Monteith, the tall Glee dude from Victoria, B.C. Monteith says he spent Christmas back home with the family and, yes, a lot of kin got Glee CDs this year. Just like on the show, he's between a brunette and a blond in the photo at right, although that's House coug Lisa Edelstein on the left with Glee girl Dianna Agron on his right.
Had a great chat with Glee creator Ian Brennan at the party, who had nothing but praise for Monteith, especially how he's been able to ride the crest of all this sudden fame and take things in stride. "If he was an American, he'd be a complete asshole by now," joked Brennan, who is from just outside Chicago.
Monteith's fellow Canadian Glee cast member (a Gleekanuk?), Jessayln Gilsig (left with Fox entertainment pres Kevin Reilly), told me that incredible scene between she and Matthew Morrison--the marital meltdown that was so scary real on the show--was one of the few occasions where the cast members actually had time to rehearse. Gilsig, who looked stunning in blue, says her character may be down but she's not out and she has a strong storyline in the back nine episodes which begin airing in April.
Ubiquitous Jane Lynch (with Bones babe Emily Deschanel) was surrounded by reporters most of the night and dished with her usual high energy. She is having the time of her life as Sue Sylvester and is just thrilled to be on a series that is actually going into a second year.
Kevin McHale, the Glee clubber who is usually confined to a wheel chair, says there is no fantasy chair-less song and dance in his character's immediate future. McHale says it is surreal to hear his voice coming out of malls and radio speakers throughout the holiday season and the series CDs flooded the market.
Smoking hot Lea Michele and Jayma Mays (flanking the Fox prez) made the scene, as did Glee regulars Chris Coffer, Mark Salling and Jenna Ushkowitz. All were recently in Australia promoting the series where Coffer says he was able to chase down a few kangeroos.
Outside of the Glee club, Fox stars from Bones, House and Lie to Me (including Tim Roth) made the scene. My Brampton buddy Tyler Labine was quietly working the room, reminicing about his first press tour party to promote the ABC series That Was Then, a do-over drama which lasted two whole episodes. He stars with a bunch of tykes in the upcoming Fox midseason comedy Sons of Tuscon.
Another familiar face was J.J. Abrams, the Star Trek director who produces the Fox series Fringe. You had to get there early to crash his scrum. Family Guy's Seth Green, Alex Borestein and series creator Seth MacFarlane were also at the event, as were Sons of Anarchy stars Ron Perlman and Katey Sagal. House mates Jesse Spencer, who has cut off all that long hair, and the stunning Olivia Wilde, walked the red carpet. There was no sign of the good doctor himself, Hugh Laurie, but he has paid his dues at these things over the years.
Line of the night goes to Simpsons showrunner Al Jean, one of the nicest multi-millionaires you could ever hope to meet. Jean was asked about that unauthorized Simpsons anniversary book under a lot of trees this Christmas. He hates it, saying it is loaded with mistakes. Anyone the author failed to get on the phone comes off badly, he says. "It's like if a new, unauthorized book about The Beatles came out--written by Mark David Chapman."

Conan The Libertarian: Going...going...

PASADENA, Calif.--The buzz off the floor of the press tour today is that NBC is scrambling for guest hosts to fill in for Conan O'Brien on The Tonight Show. With O'Brien's turn down of a 12:05 Tonight earlier today, the gauntlet has been thrown down, the ball is in NBC's court, the answer--one way or the other--should be swift.
On the other hand, as this item is being typed, O'Brien has a show to do. The Tonight Show usually tapes from 5:30 to 6:30 PT. With all this drama, that opening monologue is the most "Must See" thing on NBC in years.
Meanwhile, Cougar Town and Scrubs executive producer Bill Lawrence (left) had O'Brien's back during and after today's ABC "Comedy Showrunners Panel." Lawrence loved O'Brien's defiant statement released today, stating in no uncertain terms that he will not host a Tonight Show shoved back to 12:05 to accommodate a new half hour comedy hosted by Jay Leno.
"I think I would have been disappointed as a fan had he walked back with his tail between his legs," said Lawrence. "He didn't deserve it."
Lawrence says O'Brien's predicament is all comedy writers are talking about today. Most are thrilled he "has the balls to walk," says Lawrence. "I think, sometimes, tough decisions lead to better things."
The show runner points out that Conan's strength--self deprecating humour--will hold the talk show host in good stead in the next few days and weeks.
The mistake, added Lawrence, was NBC "mucking it up from the beginning" by doing the infamous five year hand over deal with O'Brien and Leno and then forcing Leno into prime time. "I felt it was short sighted," said Lawrence, "a move of an entity that doesn't love television."

Jaywalking to Canada The Answer

PASADENA, Calif.--Here's the solution: Jay Leno moves to Canada.
After all the turmoil-in-late-night-headlines, The Jay Leno Show pulled 525,000 viewers Monday night on City stations in Canada, well up over the usually 350,000.
Yet in the U.S. on NBC, Leno barely budged, doing 4.8 million.
Still, even with the bump, Leno was barely Top-30 for the night according to BBM Canada overnight estimates. CTV won the night with a show they should have had on the mother network all along, Two and a Half Men. It edged Global's mighty House 2,,281,000 to 2,168,000 (although House won the night 25-54 with 1,142,000 viewers). New CTV slide-over Big Bang Theory was right behind with 2,099,000 viewers. CSI: Miami did 1,968,000. That crazy CTV Evening News drew 1,837,000 in the supper hour.
City had a strong night with The Bachelor (1,036,000). CBC rookie 18 to Life had a solid second outing with 802,000, far outpacing its Littiler Mosque (473,000).
The National News race: Global at 5:30: 1,234,000, CTV at 11: 1,175,000; CBC at 10/10:25 543,000/478,000.

TCA Press Tour 2010: ABC`s Lost Day Five

PASADENA, Calif.--When you're ABC, what are you going to do after NBC and Fox steal all the press tour thunder?
Stephen McPherson, president, ABC entertainment played it cool, bringing his macho sneer to the stage of the Langham ballroom Tuesday morning in a low watt exec session.
After all the electricity and theatrics from Fox Sunday, ABC didn't even try to dazzle critics. What an opportunity for Jimmy Kimmel to walk out before MacPherson and sign a contract to move his show to 12:05 a.m. (Wait a minute...he's there now.) No stunts, no drama, just McPherson is a dark shirt, the Robert Conrad of TV executives, daring us all to knock the battery off his shoulder.
Not helping his mood was the fact Conan O'Brien put out a statement today telling NBC 12:05 is a fantastic late night timeslot--FOR HIM TO POOP ON! With an afternoon of less than newsworthy sessions--including one at 4:15 for the ABC-owned Soap Net to panel Being Erica--the TCA banquet room is emptier than a "Jay Leno 4Ever" NBC affiliates meeting.
MacPherson especially wanted to give Lost its due, showing up to introduce the jam-packed, 9 a.m. Lost panel. He made some announcements at the exec session, including second season pick-ups for Wednesday night comedies Modern Family, The Middle and Cougar Town. He said we were getting it first and that the producers would find out about it on our blogs. Ah, at last, sweet, sweet contempt from a network executive, that humble NBC act was so disorienting.
He was more reluctant to hype The Bachelor Pad, some sort of Bachelor spin-off. He blew off one reporter by saying it all took place in a car. He seemed pissed one of us brought up Conveyor Belt of Love.
He‘s very happy with Castle, says it repeats better than any other ABC show. As for any blood in the water over Simon Cowell leaving Idol, McPherson isn‘t circling yet.
“It‘s not like he’s leaving and going back to England,” he said, although he`d probably be happy to drive him there in that big Bachelor Pad car.

Monday, January 11, 2010

TCA Press Tour 2010: Day Four Highlights

PASADENA, Calif.--Fox crams a lot of fun into press tour, so much that it is best to just run the photos with fat captions. Otherwise I'll miss the shuttle to the Fox party, taking place tonight at the Villa Sorriso in Pasadena's charming Old Town district.
The day started with a Bones breakfast. Nothing says bacon, eggs and orange juice like a forensic crime show. The Fox set dressers set the tone by placing big and little skeletons around the room. Haven't seen such a bone-thin room since the last CW party.
Talked hockey with Bones' lead David Boreanaz, 'natch. Waddaya mean Philly doesn't have a goalie, he protested, insisting Emery will be awesome once he's 100% Tell the fans in Ottawa.
Bones' Canadian showrunner Hart Hanson (surrounded by hard-working reporters, above) was in the house, as was Emily Deschanel (a girl who need not fear the hi-def camera) and John Francis Daley. The cast all have to act six years younger for the upcoming 100th episode, which is set before the storyline of the pilot, providing a hint or two about Bones' and Booths' wariness for each other. It will air in April.
A cool new series, Human Target, was showcased next. It stars Mark Valley (Boston Legal) and Chi McBride (Pushing Daisies) and is a comic book adventure series about a kick ass protector dude. Another actor, Jackie Earle Haley, plays a spy or the spy dude's pal or something. He is bald in real life but wears a shaggy wig and a big 'stache and in costume for this series reminds me of a guy who was once editor of TV Guide Canada.
Anyway, somebody thought it was a good idea to set up a portable target gallery out in the Langham Hotel and Spa parking lot. You could go out there and shoot a Walther pistol, a James Bond gun. I did it and it was OK, I hit the target more or less. Executive producer McG had a go and was very into the whole gun thing, I'll post a video on that in an upcoming post.
More fun would have been if Fox had somehow signed Conan O'Brien, and he could have gone out to the parking lot and shot up photos of Jay Leno, or Jeff Zucker, or the NBC peacock. No such luck.
Fox then had a session for a new show called Code 58. Bradley Whitford is in it but looks nothing like the sharp young political op from The West Wing thanks to a porn 'stache that makes him look a bit like Gene Hackman from the `60s. Colin Hanks co-stars and is starting to look more and more like his dad, Tom Hanks.
Brampton, Ontario's own Tyler Labine (Reaper) was up next in the Fox mid-season comedy Sons of Tucson. Labine and I bonded later at the Fox party, with him reminiscing about the giant water slide that used to be at Brampton Shopper's World. He lived in Brampton until he was 13 and then followed his family to the West Coast. This is his 48th TV show in the last six years or something. A nice guy, his cap may be crooked, but his head is screwed on right.
One of the kids from Malcolm in the Middle, Justin Berfield (left), who played Reese, is an executive producer on Sons of Tucson. This just seemed to piss off critics, who feel old enough already. The damn kid is 23! WTF?? Executive producer Todd Holland, who also directed much of Malcolm, said he noticed young Berfield was always paying attention while the other Malcolm kids were always screwing around but still.
Next up was Fox execs Reilly and Rice, who packed the room with their Simon Cowell stunt (see post below). You can tell Reilly really wants his pal Conan O'Brien at the network. He'll have to work through some affiliate clearances but it's gonna happen. O'Brien joked again Monday night about how he's been screwed around by his network ("NBC is expected to lose $200 million on the Winter Olympics next month. Is it just me or is that story hilarious?").
There was an "Animation Domination Take Away Lunch in the foyer of the Huntington ballroom, with a can of Flaming Moe soda in every bag. Why is it the cool stuff can never be taken back across the border?
John Walsh was in the house later for an "America's Most Wanted 1000th Episode Break," which was celebrated with dozens of tasty AMW cup cakes. I don't have a joke here, but feel free, that is what the comment tab is for.
The press conferences part of the Fox day ended with a jam-packed session for 24, which is back for an eighth season. The whole cast was on hand, including Kiefer Sutherland, Cherry Jones, back as the president, and newcomers Freddie Prinze Jr. and Mykelti Williamson. Prinze plays a guy who kidnaps Scooby Doo or something. The season is set in New York and they had hot dog stands with "New York Gets Jacked" flyers on them at the back of the banquet room. Mets and Yankees baseball caps with "24" instead of "NY" on the front were passed out to critics. There were plenty of Mets caps left over.
Kiefer was his usual impressive and professional self, surrounded as ever by scribes after the session. He says he got to play hockey in a celebrity charity game in Boston the day after the televised Fenway Park NHL outdoor game New Year's Day, which was very cool, he says. Among the former NHLers on the ice was former Philly goon Dave "The Hammer" Schultz. The Canadians in the scrum had a moment.