Thursday, September 29, 2016

I Remember Agnes Nixon

Agnes Nixon, one of the most powerful women in American TV, has just died, aged 93.
There will bow be a moment for you to ask "Who was Agnes Nixon?"
She was so big it took me months to negotiate an exclusive interview with her when I was in Manhattan in 1974 for a week devoted to visiting the daily soaps.
Let's see I started on the set of the CBS soap Love Of Life which came on at 11:30 on CBS every morning.
I remember interviewing the Canadian actress Tudi Wiggins who had a big part and she introduced me to the unknown actor then making his TV debut --Christopher Reeve.
I visited the sets of Another World, The Guiding Light, Search For Tomorrow. 0n Another World they were testing a new actor --Julia Roberts' brother Eric.
And then came an afternoon tea with Mrs. Nixon in her fancy all white suite at the Carlyle hotel.
Nixon had written As The World Turns for years and she honed all the skills and then helped restructure Another World for NBC.
"My father got me an interview with Irna Phillips in 1951 --Irna created the first soap operas in Chicago for radio --The Brighter Day and The Guiding Light. I had sent her some samples and she simply looked up and said 'Why not come and work with me?' And a few weeks later I was the key writer on Search For Tomorrow."
Nixon told me the world of radio soaps was vastly different from the TV offspring.
"Oh, there was a huge dosage of morality back then. The star of The Brighter Day was a Protestant pastor. We wrote in broad strokes. There were bad girls and good girls. The women heroines stayed at home."
Once she moved to her own soaps --One Life To Live  and All My Children--Nixon injected huge doses of reality. I introduced black characters over the objection of the network. I dramatized AIDS at a time when it wasn't even talked about on the newscasts. I dramatized teen prostitution and the dilemma of a wife who discovered she was a lesbian."
Nixon helped Phillips launch As The World Turns on CBS in 1956,
"It was the first half hour show and later the first to go to tape. The Guiding Light was still 15 minutes and live. I'll tell you Another World's heroine one day was supposed to be taking a cake out of the oven and the buzzer wouldn't stop and she had never actually used the oven and started sobbing on camera."
On another Another World episode in 1063 while still a live show --CBS interrupted with Walter Crpkite telling audiences President Kennedy had been assassinated. The actors kept on for several more scenes unaware the show was no longer running."
In 1968 Nixon was asked by ABC to create One Life To Live and she asked her husband Robert to form a production company and syndicate it to other countries.
"Canadian networks get into a bidding war to get our shows I'm proud to report."
When her husband died in 1996 Nixon took over the writing of All My Children which she said was her therapy. In her den she showed me she had the story line she had blocked out for the next year.
"Now all I have to do is write it!"she laughed.
In 1970 Nixon created All My Children "and I hired Susan Lucci as the vixen" --the daily soap ran until 2011.
I last talked to her about 10 years ago and she was saddened by the decline of the popularity of soaps and predicted a swift decline for most of them.
"I guess women these days are too busy to suffer every afternoon," she joked.
 "There are so many networks out there these days that the huge audiences of the past have simply disappeared."

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Undercover In ISIS: Great "Canadian" TV

I just knew I had to get a preview copy of the new Canadian made TV documentary Undercover In ISIS when I spotted the filmmaker's name: Martin Himel.
I remember him way back in 1983 when I was TV critic at the Toronto Star and he was CTV's man in the Middle East.
I remember meeting him at one CTV news launch in those days when CTV was fully competitive with CBC and the big American TV networks.
And I so watched Undercover In ISIS in one sitting totally amazed at this must-see production.
You can see for yourself Sunday September 25 at 8 p.m. on Documentary Channel.
This one plays like a Hollywood spy flick but it's all true.
The effect is like watching an entire season of Tinker, Tailer, Soldier Spy at one sitting.
TV is often and truthfully accused of trivializing the big events of our world and nowhere is this better illustrated in the  ongoing TV network coverage of ISIS.
I'll wager most of us who get our news from TV are completely ignorant about what ISIS is and how it operates.
If you're feeling this in the same way I am then Undercover In ISIS comes as a huge revelation.
I'm sick of the network coverages of the latest bombing. massacres and atrocities.
And I simply want to reset my lack of knowledge.
Filmed between March 2015 through June 2016 the approach is simplicity itself.
First Himel hires two young people who are will go undercover as ISIS recruiters and entice sympathizers to share their experiences with them.
It sounds dangerous and it is and it's inconceivable that nothing could happen. I have to be very careful here in not giving away too much of the story.
We first meet the two operatives "Theo" and "Sarah" and as the true story envelopes what really surprises me is how ISIS operatives truly understand the modern means of communications and how they can quickly bond with sympathizers.
This for me truly explains how ISIS can operate over such wide fields. In the old days of cumbersome long distance telephoning and perhaps FAX ISIS would never have been able to spread its network  of supporters across many continents.
"Theo" gets a meeting with a terrorist cell in Belgium on the pretense he wants to join up as a fighter --remember this is six months before actual attacks in Belgium.
And "Sara"begins a long distance conversation with a Swedish recruiter turned ISIS supporter and her son-in-law, also Swedish via Facebook. Twitter and eventually into such encrypted audio apps as Skype and Wickr.
She is soon asked to join the Swedish boy in Syria to become his second wife and gets detailed instructions how to hide her intentions from Swedish authorities and go to Turkey ostensibly on a vacation and slip over the Turkish border and into ISIS territory.
Almost 300 Swedes havce become ISIS supporters which is surely a shocker.
And then comes the kicker as Himel locates the original ISIS recruiter who has slipped out of Syria and returned to Sweden. Using a hidden camera we get to see the small apartment where she hides out and her defiant rejection of the terrorist label.
Getting inside the heads of these ISIS activists is a fascinating but scary journey. So much of their daily lives remain mundane but the fanaticism once turned on is dangerous for those opposing them.
Himel has sticked this all together with meticulous care.
Undercover In Isis was made by Vigilance Productions and is shining example that in the documentary field Canadian TV still leads the way.
MY RATING: ****.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Migrant Dreams: What Canadian TV Is All About

The new Canadian TV season really kicks off Wednesday night  at 9 with the TVOntario premiere of Min Sook Lee's brilliant and deeply disturbing documentary Migrant Dreams.
It also debuts Thursday on Got that?
This is what Canadian TV is really all about at its best --the film challenges our basic conceptions about the kind of nation we live in.
And it shows the dark underbelly of racism that permits the exploitation of migrant works in such a way that robs them of their basic dignity.
I was completely ignorant of this scandal ---the only migrant workers I ever met way back in the 1960s toiled in the apple orchards of Simcoe for a month or so during the harvest and then went back to Mexico.
These days migrants work all year long in the huge greenhouses of Leamington where the labor is backbreaking, the pay minimal and the changes of getting ripped off by unscrupulous employees are abundant.
I knew as soon as I spotted the name of the director Min Sook Lee that I had to watch this one.
She's a mesmerist all right --her look at gay and lesbian Toronto police in the documentary Badge Of Pride was outstanding and she earlier documented the plight of migrant workers in the documentary El Contrato.
"At first nobody wanted to be on camera," she tells me on the phone. "Their situation is so precarious they feared retaliation by their employers. I had to gain their trust and that took time."
The system set up by the Liberal governments and vastly extended by the Harper government is at its core fundamentally corrupt --it demeans the workers and allows them to be ripped off at so many levels.
"I got these workers to talk about their plight because they were near breaking point," she says. "They had very little to lose by then. The fear of deportation was ever nearer. "
I was staggered by the statistic there are a half million workers now in Canada under the Temporary Foreign Workers Program.
"The program has been expanded as so-called normal immigration has been slowed down," explains Lee.
Exploitation? Twenty-six laborers are seen living stacked up in a converted garage.
At another location the cockroaches slither all over the bleak kitchenette.
One valiant mother who is on a four-year permit talks plaintively to her children back in Indonesia --she needs money to get them into schools but is being ripped off by unscrupulous employment services.
One individual known here only as "The Recruiter" scams the system by demanding paybacks every month for services not even provided.
The workers shop in bulk stores for the soiled food no ordinary Canadian would want.
We listen in to a Leamington radio talk show where local callers demean the workers in racially offensive terms.
"Their humanity comes under question," lee says. "And that's so wrong."
Lee is such a persuasive interviewer she does get some of these frightened people to come on camera and talk about their fears for the future.
It turns out they have the same dreams as all of us --to see their kids get ahead and have that brighter future denied to them.
And a wedding of a transgender couple turns into a celebration of life that is both poignant and deeply emotional.
Migrant Dreams plays like a living nightmare. I had no idea greenhouse food production is now a billion dollar industry in Canada. Employers ruthlessly manipulate the system--seizing passports, imposing curfews, adding a housing tax even when housing is not provided.
But there is a glimmer of hope. Some workers are fighting back determined to seize their basic human rights.
"Yes, I was honored they trusted me," Lee says. "Some cases are going to court. All they really want is the chance to succeed as immigrants, that's all."
MY RATING: ****.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Peter Mansbridge: Hail And Farewell

I started out as the kid TV critic for The Hamilton Spectator in 1971 and jumped to the Toronto Star in 1980.
So I knew Peter Mansbridge before he actually became Peter Mansbridge.
I mean before he became a TV anchor he was a bright and aspiring TV reporter.
Let's see-- the first CBC TV anchor I interviewed was Earl Cameron.  He wasn't allowed to change a comma on the scripts which were written by others.
And he was forbidden by labor regulations from interviewing anyone at all. He was a news reader and that was that.
And I was in the audience of TV critics in 1977 at the CBC fall launch when Knowlton Nash stood up and said "I've lost my Mr. Clean."
Knowlton was referring to the defection that day of Lloyd Robertson to CTV to co-anchor with Harvey Kirck.
Lloyd --who I still talk to--died CBC anchors a huge favor. He was tired of being just a talking head and when he left the rules changed to make the anchor a true news reporter.
Peter Kent stepped in and later left for NBC before turning up again on Global TV.
And then Nash --then head of CBC news and current affairs--virtually chose himself as Kent's replacement.
And then --28 years ago--it was Mansbridge's turn --he was threatening to jump to the CBS Morning News until Nash graciously stepped aside.
That run of almost three decades will never be surpassed I'm willing to bet.
And I hail Mansbridge as a wily survivor of the CBC--the bureaucratic wranglings behind-the-scenes defeated many another CBC reporter.
Whj will replace Mansbridge?
Well, CBC did have two hot contenders a year ago but both Amanda Lang and Evcan Solomon jumped ship after controversies.
I'm hearing CTV's Kevin Newman is in the mix as is CBC veteran Ian Hanomansing.
Some of the departing notices were downright rude --The Globe And Mail's  TV writer  John Doyle was particularly nasty.
I had some notable run ins with Mansbridge.
I hated CBC's The Journal when it debuted and a phalanx of CBC vice-presidents visited star Managing Editror Ray Timson to have me fired.
He kept them waiting for an hour and then sent the message:"I don't talk to flacks."
But when I retired in 2008 Mansbridge attended my farewell and said some very nice things. Because at heart I always was a CBC supporter.
The biggest mistake in those years was the change of times --CBC TV News debuted in 1952 at 11 p.m. because that was the earliest film from Washington and Ottawa could be air freighted to the Toronto headquarters.
When CBC moved it to 10 p.m. it disrupted the TV viewing habits of millions and ratings suffered,
Also, at 10 p.m. all the big hourlong dramas on U.S. TV were on --it was far too competitive an hour for CBC News to survive.
For years Mansbridge had to share his hour with the likes of Pam Wallin and Hana Gartner who told me he was hardly a collegial co-host.
In recent years he's done it all with startling professionalism.
Ratings have shrunk as the number of TV channels expanded.
But I have to say I never ever heard Mansbridge flub a line or name.
Who will replace him?Ian Hanomansin
Mansbridge says he'll stick around for other chores as Nash remained for years afterward.
Mansbridge has survived a lot --he has been the face of The National for 28 years during some very trying times.
When I started covering CBC in 1970 there were 10 channels and no cable competitors.
So hail and farewell!

Sunday, August 21, 2016

I Remember Arthur Hiller

So there I was in the Academy Awards library in July 1980 getting material on some of the personalities I was going to interview on the annual Television Critics Association press tour.
And the man sitting beside me saw my Toronto Star notebook and tapped me on the shoulder and said "I'm a Canadian too."
It was director Arthur Hiller best known for the blockbuster Love Story.
Shot for just $2 million the weepie saved Paramount Pictures from bankruptcy and took in more than $130 million on its first release making potent movie stars out of Ryan O'Neal and Ali MacGraw.
"I know the exact amount because I took a percentage," he told me over coffee in a cafe on Wilshire Boulevard. "I got a best director nomination. I'd been in the business for a long time but Love Story made me."
Arthur Hiller was part of a small but influential group of Canadian directors who mostly worked abroad.
Others in that category include Norman Jewison, Alvin Rakoff and Daniel Petrie.
Hiller was born in Edmonton "of Jewish parents" and served with distinction as a navigator aboard the famed Halifax bombers over missions against Germany.
He then studied at the University of Toronto and got a M.A. in psychology before turning to directing on CBS Radio.
When TV came to CBC in 1952 he jumped with zest directing many hours of live drama.
"I wish I had a list of all those hours but even CBC says their lists are incomplete. Eventually NBC asked me to submit samples which I did --these were kinescopes. It was Bill Shatner who I had frequently directed who talked me up and so I jumped. I wanted to make movies and there was no Canadian movie business in those days."
Hiller directed hours on Gunsmoke, the first Addams Family TV pilot and key epiusodes of The Naked City shot on film on New York city streets.
"I did the first ever TV actng assignment of a young guy named Robert Redford and the last ever acting job of Errol Flynn who was so drunk I had to feed him lines."
In 1957 he made his first feature about wayward teens titled The Careless Years starring a very young Dean Stockwell.
"Then Disney hired me for Miracle Of The White Stallions which starred Robert Taylor the first big movie star I worked with."
His best film, he maintained was ":The Americanization Of Emily: Julie Andrews, Jim Garner and a great script from Paddy Chayefsky. Paddy liked me so much he gave me another script to direct: The Hospital."
His worst?
"I'd say Man Of La Mancha. Peter O'Toole was not always sober and was badly miscast. He hated Sophia Loren and the feeling was mutual. It was an absolute train wreck."
Hiller blamed the box office failure of Making Love on his rapid descent as a front line director.. His last big hit was Outrageous Fortune with Bette Midler asnd Shelley Long.
From 1989 to 1993 he served as head of the Directors Guild of America and subsequently was president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
A few years ago when back in L.A. I phoned him for lunch and he politely turned me down saying macular degeneration had turned him into a recluse.
"My biggest regret is I never came back to Canada and made a personal film about growing up Jewish in Alberta. I have a partial script but it can never be made now."
Arthur Hiller died on August 17 v2016.,aged 92.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

TV Chatter: The Summer Edition

Here it is a sweltering August day. I should really be home enjoying the AC but here I am up on the Danforth in a friendly Greek restaurant with three best friends: a veteran actress, a producer who is always busy and a long serving PR type.
Let's listen in to our conversation:
ME: I still can't believe CTV has cancelled one of its most recognizable brands: Canada AM. I was on the set in 1972 just weeks after it started --the first two morning anchors were Carole Taylor and Percy Saltzman and boy were they feuding.
Anyway this was Canada;s first morning TV show. It took CBC years to play catch up. And it meant Canadians no longer had to watch Today or The CBS Morning News every day as we'd done for over a decade.
ACTRESS: CTV has so few brands one wonders why the network is doing this. When I ask friends their favorite CTV show they have to search a bit because the network carries so many American imports over which they have no artistic control.
PR: City recently let Gord Martineau go. Their most recognizable face. Had he proved too expensive? Not sure. Gord had been there forever and a day.
PRODUCER: So little Canadian content gets on Canadian TV these days. One of my favorite Canadian drama series was Combat Hospital shot out in Etobicoke. A big hit here on Global but when ABC cancelled it so did Global. Without that American sale it quickly became dead meat.
ACTRESS: And yet CTV kept both The Listener and Saving Hope going after NBC cancelled both. These are two quality shows.
ME: Dial diddling I caught a rerun of that short lived Canadian series King --it was pretty good. But they never found an American sale which is all important these days. So there was only one season.
PR: Despite the drama drought these days Canadian TV has produced some recognizable stars: Nicholas Campbell, Art Hindle, Wendy Crewson, Sonja Smits, Gord Pinsent. All are accomplished actors who've worked both in the U.S. and Canada but prefer working here.
ME: I have a friend who wrote a book on Canadian TV drama and spent years in the CBC TV archives in Mississauga. She says it is chock full of great material CBC claims can't be shown these days because of copyright problems. In One column for The Star I caused a real stink by saying the problem with Canadian TV was the lack of solid rerun material. I still believe that.
ACTRESS: I was searching for a certain Canadian series and just assumed it had come out  in a boxed set. So there I was in HMV and they have a huge section on British TV but no separate section on Canadian TV. The show I wanted was ENG and it has never been out on DVD. Go Figure that out.
ME: I found a boxed set of Twitch City in a second hand book store at Danforth and Coxwell. I'd never seen that one before on DVD so I snapped it up. Great Don McKellar series.
PR: I've been told CBC expects more production once the new Liberal government ups the budget but that may be wishful thinking.
ME: At the CBC fall launch I told all the new incoming team they should revive a CBC series from the Seventies. At that time CBC had a similar budget deficiency so they opened the vaults for a culture series fronted by Veronica Tennant and showed old spectaculars like Sean Connery in a 1960 production of Macbeth opposite Zoe Caldwell, a ballet with Nureyev and Kain, old episodes of Telescope. And I thought Front Page Challenge could be revived with new panelists like Martin Short. How about all that?
ACTRESS: Well, this summer I'm almost booked solid because there's so much runaway U.S. production in town because of our lowly dollar.
PRODUCER: A friend of mine says he'll only make shows that can be pre-sold to the U.S. market-- that means making sure all Canadianisms are washed out including our accents.
ACTRESS: Talking to Americans they say the old line networks are crumbling away fast. I wonder how many Canadian speciality channels will survive when consumers have a choice.
MEL I've never met anybody who watched OLN-Outdoors Life Network.
ACTRESS: But I do! I love Dog The Bounty Hunter, it's a secret passion.
PRODUCER: Before I got to sleep I watch trash like Flip Or Flop or Love It Or List It. Then I feel soothed enough to sleep.
ME: I like watching bad old movies on TCM. They lull me to sleep.
PR: You know what bugs me these days? I can remember at CBC's fall launches 30 years ago we'd get 35 visiting TV newspaper critics coming to Toronto to tour the fall product. At the last CBC launch there were only five critics left. Networks may be crumbling but newspapers are dead meat, not a single one making any money at all.
ME: And I don't see the web making that shortage up --most of the internet sites are trash. Only a few sites are worth reading and there are mistakes everywhere.
ACTRESS: Hey, I gotta goy. Working nights on this American TV drama. Last night I said "oooot' during a take instead of "out"and I really got it from the U.S. director. we all laughed like hell but that's the state of TV in Toronto these days.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Remembrance Of TV Critics Junkets Past

I was pleasantly surprised to read on the wires then other day that the Television Critics Association convention is once again in full swing in Los Angeles.
I thought it might have been ditched by now because TV critics are a threatened species rapidly facing extinction.
When I joined TCA in 1971 over a hundred TV critics from American newspapers would meet in Los Angeles twice a year.
And there I was the cocky kid critic from the Hamilton Spectator --the only Canadian representative allowed on by the networks.
How did I do it?
I simply phoned the Buffalo affiliates of NBC (WGR-TV0, CBS (WBEN-TV) and ABC (WKBW-TVC) and got them to sign the appropriate documents stating Hamilton was part of their TV market.
In those days the networks paid the way for most of these American scribes including representatives from the ultra fancy New York Times and Boston Globe.
On the last day of the nine-day hoopla the network PR types went around giving out wads of greenbacks to departing critics to help them get home in one piece.
Some critics brought their wives who went out on sopping sprees to Bulloch's and Saks in the afternoons with all expenses paid by the webs.
One critic had lavish wine and cheese parties in his hotel suite every night and signed the chits to the networks.
When I asked one press rep she said "Oh, it's OK. That way we keep the receipts and if he ever dares write something unfortunate over the next year we simply phone him up and remind him of our largesse."
When I landed in LAX the first time an NBC press guy was waiting to whisk me to Julie London's home in Thousand Oaks for a catered lunch.
My bags were sent by taxi to the Century Plaza hotel and every night there were lavish star studded parties in the Grand Ballroom.
Evita was playing across the street at the Shubert theater and networks bought up rows of expensive seats for nights out entertainment.
Each network had three days to strut their wares --screenings of all new series were held in the Grand Ballroom. Doors were locked shut and lunches served but nobody was allowed to leave least they leak news to the competition.
Days would start with news conferences and then we'd all get personalized schedules that plopped us on TV sets all over town.
I remember in 1972 I started out one day on the set of Mission: Impossible, lunched on the set of The Brady Bunch and that afternoon was driven out to the L.A. Aquarium to interview Mike Connors of Mannix.
One day I had lunch with Loretta Swit of M*A*S*H, then visited The Waltons set and had dinner with Bill Macy on the Maude set.
And none of these three series was even on the air --as yet.
Where were all the other networks?
Cable networks did not exist in 1971 and PBS would hold furtive press conferences during the lunch breaks--that's how I met and interviewed Anthony Hopkins who was playing Kean on PBS's Masterpiece Theatre.
There were no computers back then so critics filed their typed copy in the press suite --these went out via FAX.
I once saw an NBC PR type reading one critic's the copy in advance and blacking out text she considered offensive to NBC.
When I asked her about it she huffed "I'm paying for all this. Of course I have that right."
All this was mercilessly reported by Gary Deeb of The Chicago Tribune in his piece for Variety titled "TV's Hack Pack" which was responsible for TV critics seizing the convention and insisting everyone pay his own way.
These days with only a few TV critics still around the ranks are swelled with scribes from the .com universe.
At one recent TCA press conference Sting asked a youngster who he represented and he said "".
And I just bet these days "" has a high circulation than The New Yorkb Times.