Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Canadian TV Content Died A Long Time Ago

Who is the CRTC fooling with its latest regulatory hearings?
Canadian content has been in peril for the past two decades and the CRTC has only hastened its demise.
The CRTC is currently is currently holding Ottawa hearings to determine a number of key issues but basically it amounts to whistling past the graveyard of Canadian TV.
Consider the latest statistics.
Canadian content is supposed to be 50 per cent during prime but when have you ever seen half that amount?
And still the CRTC will make no move.
On Global TV 16 of the network's 18 hours of prime time are simulcast American imports.
Where are the quality Canadian dramas, sitcoms, even current affairs shows? Nowhere.
Some will appear later in the season I'm told but never at the 50 per cent mark.
One of the loopiesrt CRCT regulations says an hour of Canadian content shall count at 90 minutes!
Over at Rogers Media which programs Citytv stations there'll be wall to wall NHL hockey Saturday and Sunday nights which counts as Canadian content.
City felt so emboldened that it has cancelled its sole Canadian scripted sitcom --Seed --which failed to find a permanent U.S. home.
I remember in 1985 there were 11 quality domestic scripted TV series on the Canadian networks as well as a host of locally made scripted TV movies.
Somehow the CRTC was persuaded by the networks to drop its quota on scripted dramas.
The next season only two were left. The CRTC was directly responsible for this artistic catastrophe.
CRTC is now saying in the new Ottawa hearings it wants to kill off the bundles whereby the three big TV providers --Bell, Shaw and Rogers --offer their wares to Canadian customers.
It's strange but I've yet to meet many people who ever watch the Outdoor Life Network (OLN) which seems to consist of variants on Pawn stars and Storage Hunters.
Nobody these days talks to me about the american Import which has such treasures as Hoarders and used to run Dog the Bounty Hunter.
When I took a straw poll at a recent block party in my neighborhood BBC Canada got many votes and so did the various sports webs.
But nobody seemed aware there was a Documentary Channel since it is so high up the cable dial.
Attempts to control streaming on home computers is too little too late.
The teen nerd who is my neighbor has devised a gimmick that gives him a false American address --hence he has access to such services as Hulu which are restricted to most Canadian viewers.
Trtying to impose a Canadian content regulation on Netflix won't work at this stage. Besides such American imports as FX Canada and Opra Winfrey's OWN network have such low content requirements (usually 15 per cemt of content) that they merely purchase reruns to fill their requirements.
We're getting near the moment when customers will be dropping their dependence on cable TV altogether and opt for computer services only/
One "millenial" I know has done just that --no conventional Canadian TV for her only Netflix and whatever she can get on her computer.
The CRTC is moving in its usually lumbering fashion but the train has left the station.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

I Remember Joan Rivers

I'm trying to recall the year I was assigned by The Toronto Star to profile great stand up comedienne Joan Rivers.
Rivers was in town promoting her jewelry on the Home Shopping Network --a task she would later abandon when she became hot again on TV's Fashion Police.
And one of her best buds, Brian Linehan, was still around because we talked about his great ordeal in coping with the recent suicide of his partner.
So I'm guessing the time was somewhere in 2002, in the summer and at Toronto's Four Seasons hotel.
Linehan had given me a lot of background information on Rivers but I still was surprised how nice and open she was to me.
And there was the almost complete lack one line liner zingers --Rivers instead emerged as bright and articulate --and very well read.
She kept glancing at a pile of new books she had just bought from Yorkville's Book Cellar and predicted she'd be through reading them by the time she left Toronto after a wild weekend of appearances promoting her baubles and beads.
From time to time she'd wave at her "toyboy" who actually was a sedate gentleman with snow white hair who looked way over 80. He dozed in a recliner only occasionally listening into our conversation.
First up Rivers calmly and precisely talked about husband Edgar's suicide in 1989 and said she'd never seen his depression coming.
"That's what I told Brian who was naturally distraught. There are no symptoms unless one is earnestly searching for them."
Around this time, Rivers, then 69, was what she frankly called a "downswing in my career. When I pass all the obits will describe me as a Borscht belt stand-up."
These days younger viewers know Rivers best of all for her stint as host of Fashion Police (produced by daughter Melissa) --Rivers' one liners were not spontaneous but written for her by her talented team of writers.
Rivers would have them typed on index cards and be madly flipping the cards during each hour special.
A young kid who once wrote a humor column for the Sunday Star subsequently moved to L.A. to become a top comedy writer for Bob Hope and Joan Rivers.
"Joan was smarter and sassier than Bob and she'd take a line I'd written, tweak it and boy was it funny."
She was born on June 8, 1933, in Brooklyn, the younger daughter of Russian Jewish parents. She graduated with honors from Barnard College in 1954 and she worked as a tour guide at Rockefeller Center.
Her first time on stage? "I was a lesbian in the play Driftwood and I had a crush on an unknown actress named Barbra Streisand. I often wonder what happened to her."
I told her I'd recently watched her first TV appearance on You Tube --it was on the daily show Girl Talk  in 1965 --"oh yes and I told Virginia Graham I was constantly being mistaken for Woody Allen."
Johnny Carson took a shine to her and made her his permanent fill in guest host. Then Rivers did something that caused Carson to angrily hang up on her and never talk to her again.
"In 1986 Fox asked me to anchor my own talk show against Johnny. When I rang him up he was very angry thinking I had double crossed him and cut me off.  I've never been on the Tonight Show since."
The ban was only lifted recently by Jimmy Fallon.
The show was cancelled in 1987 and husband Edgar killed himself  three months later.
In 1989 she tried daytime with The Joan Rivers Show which lasted five years "but I couldn't stand it. Because it was on daytime I was given a book of all the taboo subjects I could not mention."
Joan Rivers, movie director? It happened in 1973 when Rivers directed Billy Crystal in the successful comedy Rabbitt Test.
"I was bored. So many takes. There were no other women directors around.  So I never made another."
A failed TV project was a remake of the classic play The Man Who Came To dinner with Rivers cast in the Sheridan Whiteside role but as a gabby female TV talk show host.
"We got into pre-production and then figured it no longer worked. These days they would air lift the injured star out of the small town and to an emergency hospital."
In 2000 Rivers virtually initiated the "Red Carpet" interviews first for E! and later for TV Guide.
When I met her she said she was making millions a year from her Joan Rivers Fashion Collection.
In 2009 she won Celebrity Apprentice donating all her winnings to charity.
I guess I last talked to Rivers on the phone when pal Brian Linehan died of lymphoma in 2004. She was distraught but said "It was his time."
But as Katie Courioc told her bluntly last season on TV Joan Rivers simply could not retire.
She was front and center on the reality series Joan & Melissa: Joan Knows Best?  The brilliant 2010 documentary Joan Rivers: A Piece Of Work showed her as a dedicated workaholic who was working as hard as when she was an unknown in the Fifties.
Rivers was always opren about her multiple facial procedures which I felt were excessive. Was she really an addict to plastic surgery, I asked her?
"Hell, yes, I'm just itching to get these drooping eye lids re-done!"
I thought of that conversation when I learned Joan Rivers had died after complications from seemingly routine throat surgery done by a New York city clinic.
I know I'll miss her and I'm glad she got back on top near the end.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Tackle My Reno Jump starts New HGTV Fall Schedule

On Canadian TV the fall season starts early.
This week HGTV which is one of the success stories of Shaw Media unveils its new lineup.
At first I thought I'd never even heard of Tackle My Reno starring former CFL star Sebastian Clovis.
But it was announced in the fall lineup as Reno Rookies --the name change is for the better I think.
Clovis grew up in Scarborough, attended Neil McNeil High School and later Saint Mary's University and was a CFL star before retiring to become a reno specialist.
On Global's morning show he said that when he was 15 his parents had a contractor renovate their kitchen with the proviso he give their teenager a summer job.
And from that he learned the building trade from the ground up.
Now there are some HGTV series I like and watch and others I avoid.
Property Envy does nothing for me --I can't relate to the million dollar estates which all seem to be eyesores.
I stopped watching Property Virgins when amiable host Sandra Rinomato decamped.
Her subsequent series Buy Herself was a distinct disappointment and got cancelled after one season.
I wish Mike Holmes would expand his search somewhat and stop his fixation on mold.
Million Dollar LIstings has lot its luster for me although I'll still occasionally visit House Hunters despite its venerable age.
Which brings me to Tackle My Reno starring Clovis, 34, who has an amiable TV personality.
He's picked wisely on the first two half hours which debut Tuesday August 26 at 10 p.m. as a one hour block of programming.
For one thing he makes gentle fun with the rank amateurs who seemingly can't even hammer a nail straight.
Then he shows how a pro would do it.
The first episode looks at a husband who can never finish his basement renovation because he lacks the skills.
Clovis is pretty good at guiding him along and explaining all the processes and stirring things up with the fed-up wife --even the neighborhood children get in on this one.
And I felt the average viewer could relate to the narrative more than a million dollar listing.
The second half hour is even better as Kristine who is heavily pregnant wants a functioning kitchen before she gives birth. Husband Sam is obviously crazy about her but he just does not know how to re-jig the cramped space and provide the finishes in time.
Clovis gets Sam working and provides valuable backup as he provides a running commentary about each crucial decision he has to make along the way.
I'm not the only one who has noticed the crucial difference in HGTV's Canadian made shows and the American imports where selling real estate and closing the deal is the end all.
Canadian handyman offer life lessons in each episode and I know i'll be watching more episodes of Tackle My Reno.
'MY RATING: ***1/2.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Grasslands: A Canadian TV Event

Only a few years ago a new Canadian TV special as important as Grasslands would have enjoyed pride of place on CBC-TV.
But the public network is in free fall and the other "Canadian" networks are busy right now rerunning American programs.
That's why Grasslands debuts Saturday August 23 at 10 p.m. on Oasis HD --the second showing will come up on Citytv stations in the fall.
This is an important reflection on the state of Canadian conservation--it was shot over several years in all kinds of climactic conditions.
The photography is gorgeous but it's the important riff on how we are falling back in efforts to preserve and protect endangered species that should grab you.
"I thought I knew the area since I'd spent much of my life there," Ian Toews, the director and camera man, told me on the phone. "But I kept learning until filming stopped.
"We started shooting in the winter of 2011. I could have gone on forever, well almost. Every time I came back to the project there was another challenge."
Toews wanted to look at the disappearing prairie landscape through the eyes of people who knew it best:
"I felt the way it was going the shrinking prairie would soon become a harsh statistic --and be gone from memory."
He looks at the challenges through the experiences of a number of people passionate about keeping it going: a Blackfoot who is also an academic, a rancher, an American in Montana, even a sound recorder.
Ironically this is the last Saskatchewan documentary Toews will make --the provincial Tory government cancelled its tax subsidies for the arts and Toews and his Regina-based 291 Film Company relocated to Victoria, B.C.
"They give subsidies and help to farmers, the oil interests, the potash industry but not to the arts," he says. "That's sending quite a message."
It was because of the tax credits that CTV's hugely successful  series Corner Gas flourished and helped produce a growing tourist boom in the province.
And it's not as if Grasslands was made with a huge crew --its luxuriant photography was filmed on an Arri Alexa camera, the state of the art 4k camera --the crew was usually just two or three members including Toews who did the photography himself.
"When you're out there it's prudent to only have a few people around or the animals would notice and leave," he laughs.
"But being in a blinder for days in wintry conditions isn't a whole great experience."
The theme of the hour is the relationship of everything to everything else and how it's been this way since the Ice Age re-carved the landscape.
The grasslands need the bison munching away to keep the grasses short. The owls need the old burrows originally made by gophers. Fires can actually be beneficial since they do not touch the root systyem which can quickly reproduce after a conflagration.
Plopping down electric poles gives predators such as owls and hawks unfair advantages --they can perch on the poles and easily pick off their prey.
Winters are especially hard on the larger animals --there are shots of one deer herd as the narrator notices how thin they've become, perfect targets for the coyotes to pick off. Yet mice and voles live under the snow and ice only to re-emerge in spring.
And, yes, there is sadness as we watch the mating habits of the sage grouse and learn their numbers have so declined there are less than 100 left.
The great grasslands harbor as much carbon as huge forests --when disturbed that carbon escapes under the relentless exploitation of oil and gas companies.
A rancher takes us to an abandoned shack with two rooms -- no hydro or running water and says people do not want to live like that these days.
What will happen next? That's what Grasslands is all about.
The fact there's still a place for a uniquely Canadian true story like Grasslands makes me believe Canadian TV still has a future.
And I'm wondering if you'll be as affected by this TV event as I was?
MY RATING: ****.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Don't Drive Here: Must See TV


The scariest TV I've watched this year?
It's the series Don't Drive Here which returns for Season 2 on Discovery  Monday August 18 at 10 p.m.
I sat down to watch the first new episode after a frustrating day commuting around Toronto and getting stuck nearly everywhere.
Then I watched Don't Drive Here and I felt , well, safe.
Host-creator Andrew Younghusband literally outs his life on the line in the first hour which shows us the hazards of being a driver in Nairobi, Kenya.
"I felt scared a whole lot," he explains. Several times he seems to be close to serious injury.
"And yet it's the kind of situation where the people there accept it and go about their business."
The statistics are startling: 10,000 deaths a year from traffic accidents, most of these  could be preventable.

It's simply something about the culture of the place and the gritty determination of the city inhabitants  to survive.
One thing I instantly noticed: there are few female drivers in Nairobi which Younghusband chalks up to cultural differences. "Look at the crowds of pedestrians everywhere and there are plenty of women. But you are correct: there are few women drivers."
Younghusband isn't just the host, he's an active participant in all forms of transportation in the over crowded city.
He starts by showing how virtually everybody jaywalks --between speeding trucks, around buses in motion or delivery boys on bikes.
"It's beyond scary," he says. "But it's the only way for many people to get around."
And he tries every form of transportation before he's done. One turn on a bicycle has him matched against a one legged cyclist courier who lost a leg when he was just a kid.
Yet, he seems to have no ill will, he just accepts his condition and gets on with it --and he's the fastest cyclist around.
As I watched this consistently exciting hour I kept wondering about the camera crew who must record every exploit of Younghusband.
"They were in even more danger than I was," he laughs nervously. "We have two  cameramen, a producer who also films, a sound guy and a researcher and a fixer who sets scenes up. They focus on what I'm doing which makes them extremely vulnerable."
As crazy as it looks there wasn't a set up shot in the whole hour.
"It's so exciting out there we have no reason to create more excitement. It's all happening as you watch."
In other episodes Younghusband ventures to Sao Paulo, Brazil, "where the delivery boys have 10 fatalities a week.
"In Rome they allow kids of 14 to drive, now that is frightening."
In Ho Chi Minh City there are bikes fitted up for up to six riders".
In Bolivia's La Plaz  a new cable car system is the largest in the world.
Says Younghusband :"I thought we might run out of cities after about 18 hours. I think we can easily hit 36 hours because every city is different. It's a subject that fascinates everyone. We all think we live in a city with bad transportation --then look at this series !
"I've had some mighty close calls. I just get caught up in the situations. We have insurance but I don't want to know anything about that. I've taken a lot of risks, an awful lot."
MY RATING: ***1/2.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

I Remember Lauren Bacall

It's funny but I almost do not count Lauren Bacall as a Golden Age movie star.
She's not in the same category as the truly Goldens I've interviewed including Barbara Stanwyck, Bette Davis, Loretta Young, Jane Wyman, Jimmy Stewart.
Many were at least a decade older and they started out in the Thirties.
No, Bacall belonged to the Forties and after and her death the other day at 89 truly rattled me.
Among the survivors only Olivia de Havilland and Kirk Douglas, both 98, and Luise Rainer who is 103  still persist.
True, Doris Day just celebrated her 92nd birthday but I count her as a Fifties survivor.
In fact until yesterday a good trick question was to name the three surviving stars of a 1950 classic.
The movie title was Young Man With A Horn and the stars were Douglas, Day and Bacall.
A few years back I wrote an appreciation of Douglas and he wrote back in vigorous prose: "To my new best friend!"
Wow! He'd survived a stroke and was still out there promoting his image.
Yet, at Douglas's AFI tribute few of the actors he'd worked with bothered to show up. Jane Wyman declined, so did Day and Mitzi Gatynor, Gena Rowlands, Lana Turner, Eleanor Parker,  Jan Sterling --all were alive at the time.
Bacall attended because she was loyal --she consistently refused to diss her contemporaries.
Bacall I only met once and peripherally.
I was in L.A. doing a profile of James Garner and he suggested I stroll down the block at Universal to gab with Bacall who was in preproduction for a guest spot on his series The Rockford Files.
Why the heck was she doing a TV series, I innocently asked.
"Because Jimmy phoned and here I am," she snapped. "I could sit around or do the best job I can in a medium I'm not too sure about."
Loyalty then was the key ingredient in the Bacall personality.
Garner later repaid the favor when he jumped into a particularly bad horror flick titled The Fan (1981) that she was starring in as a good will gesture to his old pal.
In her snappish tone Bacall was lots of fun.
Two doors down her co-star for the week Dana Wynter criticized everything about her dressing room and even asked me why I wasn't wearing a tie.
But Bacall warmed as she chatted.
When I moved to get up and leave she said "Sit down and shut up. I'm trying to give you the story of my life and you keep interrupting me."
She'd moved back to New York city decades ago, she said, and never much liked Hollywood to begin with.
I asked her if the anecdote about Marlene Dietrich claiming she'd stolen Dietrich's act was correct.
"Sort of. She was great pals with director Howard Hawks and after he showed her the first cut of To Have And Have Not the lights came up and she said 'She's playing me, right?'
"Well, I wasn't but that was Marlene's marvelous egotism for you."
Only a couple of days earlier I'd taken tea with Joan Caulfield who told me she was rushed in from Paramount to fill in after Bacall exited the 1947 film The Unsuspected. True?
"In those days Jack Warner would only let me play opposite Bogey. Then they put me in this suspense film with Claude Rains and in rehearsals he made mince meat out of me and Bogey told me to quit and run and I did both."
The subject of discussing Garner went out the window and I asked her if she understood the Marilyn Monroe myth that had grown up?
"Nope. She was a scared kid who thought becoming a big star would fix all her problems. Instead she got a whole new range of problems.
"Do you know who was the funny one on How To Marry A Millionaire? Betty Grable. Great gal, constantly had us in stitches. We waited a lot of hours for Marilyn to simply show up."
Bacall said by the Sixties Hollywood had given up on her "I was so starved for funds I even did TV game shows like Match Game and Password."
She had great hits on Broadway "but Goodbye, Charlie went to Debbie Reynolds and Ingrid Bergman snatched up Cactus Flowerr --that's after coming to my Broadway dressing room and asking me how I thought she'd fare in comedy!"
Sadly, Canadians never had a chance to see her in musical hits Applause and Woman Of The Year when she went on tour because :"The Canadian dollar sank like a stone and I wasn't going to perform for 60 per cent of the American dollar."
In recent months I heard Bacall had been depressed by the sad ending of pal James Garner, aged 86.
And now it's our turn to feel sad at her disappearance after an amazing 70 years in the spotlight.