Wednesday, February 3, 2016

The State Of Canadian TV, Part II

So there I was at my favorite Greek restaurant on Danforth Avenue with three of my favorite people involved in Canadian TV: a veteran publicist, a veteran actress and a well known producer.
Here are highlights of our lunch time conversation.
ME: Who wants to start as we dissect the current state of Canadian TV?
ACTRESS: Well, the plunge in our dollar is great news for people like me. I'm hearing of a dozen projects from the U.S. coming across the border in the spring and summer. You remember that year in the Eighties when we had wall-to-wall American TV movies and miniseries shooting everywhere?
ME: I do! The Star had a photographer line up all the talent at the staircase of the Sutton Place hotel and I think we had over 40 name American actors hugging each other.
PRODUCER: In actual Canadian productions the future is very dire indeed. Look, I admire those CTV drama series Saving Hope and Motive both of which are disguised a bit so they can be sold to the U.S. But stories that are unabashedly Canadian? Forget it. Americans aren't interested which leaves European buyers and they usually only pay a pittance for Canadian shows.
PUBLICIST: For me the times are very difficult. Whoever would have forecast the complete melt down of TV Guide Canada, once the biggest magazine in the nation? Then Southam discontinued TV Times. And Toronto Star's Starweek is produced out of Florida.I have troubles selling any stories on Canadian series I can tell you.
PRODUCER: Every year the three major Canadian networks venture to Hollywood to buy up each and every U.S. fall series. They pay a pittance in terms of actual cost of production. What they also get is all the attendant publicity from such U.S. mags as Entertainment Weekly and all the on air publicity on all the U.S. morning shows. We have few TV talk shows in Canada to publicize local series.
PUBLICIST: Both Global and Bell have their own versions of daily entertainment shows but one rarely sees a rival network getting any publicity. That's why I was pleasantly surprised the other day to see CTV's Ben Mulroney interviewing cast members of the returning CBC series X Company. That almost never happens!
ACTRESS: I submit to you we do have bona fide Canadian stars the Canadian public like and admire: Sonja Smits, Art Hindle, Wendy Crewson, Gordon Pinsent, Nick Campbell, Paul Gross, Michael Riley. My husband asked for a boxed set of This Is Wonderland a few Christmases back and I was shocked to learn only the first season was out on DVD.
ME: Series never on DVD include ENG, Beachcombers, Paradise Falls. A farmer in Wisconsin once wrote to me he'd recorded Power Play when it played on UPN in the States and made up his own boxed set which he sold for awhile on the Internet --he said he's sold over 250 boxed sets.
ACTRESS: The winner of the Gemini awards for best series acting would invariably go to talent who looked a bit lost up there because their series had already been cancelled.
ME: How many local stations do you think wull follow CHCH into declaring bankruptcy?
PRODUCER: Maybne 30 stations are teetering. Local news commitments don't make money any more. Teenagers in my family just don't watch regular TV stations. They transfer everything to their devices and watch later. When CHCH went under it was the tip of ann iceberg.
PUBLICIST: For me the lack of publicity on currently running shows is just awful. CTV and CBC regularly dump their young publicists and hire even younger ones who are under six month contracts and have no contacts they can alert about new shows.
ME: And yet I'm still watching Murdoch Mysteries, X Company, Nature Of Things. I still mourn Elwy Yost who got a new generation interested in old movies. He was irreplaceable. When Lloyd Robertson retired as CTV news anchor I wondered if Lisa LaFlamme would make it and she has! And I'm wondering how long CBC's Peter Mansbridge can hang on. When I started writing my TV column for The Spectator in 1970 CBC's anchor shared a studio with The Friendly Giant.
ACTRESS: A pal of mine was doing scholarly research in the CBC archives --she viewed dozens of classics that can't be shown today because the copyright has run out. So Canadian TV has few Canadian reruns --there's no collective sense of history. Instead we watch American reruns. I'm told The Beachcombers can never be reissued because nobody is sure who owns the rights anymore.
PRODUCER: Maybe the new Trudeau government will take pity on us. After all newspapers are quickly disappearing. And so is Canadian TV. Setting up a funding system would help and perhaps turning newspapers and local stations into non-profits might go a long way. We can dream can't we?

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Canadian TV Needs X Company

I sat down to watch the first new episode of X Company on CBC-TV Wednesday night.
And it reminded me once again how Canadian stories are disappearing on Canadian TV with alacrity.
A teacher friend of mine was telling me the other day her students were not quite sure what countries Canada was fighting during World War II.
And asked to name the first five prime ministers of Canada?
Nobody could do it.
And why be surprised?
Canadian channels have become vast wastelands of conventional American imported fare that the networks can buy for cheap prices.
It's far more difficult to manufacture a genuine home grown show.
Rogers had a dandy in Mjrdoch Mysteries but dumped the popular series because it was too pricey.
CTV has some "Canadian" shows I like watching including Motive and Saving Hope but they take place in a world where the word "Canada" is never mentioned --so they can be sold to U.S. outlets.
That's why I was so excited by the return of X Company.
Look, it's not cutting edge TV but it is well made on all fronts.
And it tells a truly Canadian story --Canadian exploits behind the Nazi lines in war torn France.
Yes, there are some cliches but they're our cliches.
The co-creators Mark Ellis and Stephanie Morgenstern deserve accolades for the fast pace and attention to character detail.
And why should I be surprised? they fabricated Flashpoint which ran for six successful seasons on CTV --and also was a prime time favorite on CBS.
The story they chose for their next series is very true indeed --there really was a Camp X on the north shore of Lake Ontario which trained Allied spies and opened just after Pearl Harbor had been attacked by Japan on December 7, 1941.
The lead instructor was the legendary Sir William Stephenson whose exploits inspired the book and TV miniseries A Man Called Intrepid.
The first season was shot in Budapest standing in for France --the Hungarian capital survived almost intact whereas other European capitals were savagely bombed.
The first new hour examined the savage results of Canadian agents being captured and interrogated by the Nazis.
I couldn't stop watching and I feel X Company comes along just at the right time --a reminder Canadian history is filled with such exciting stories.
MY RATING:***1/2.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Hold Your Fire Is Finally on CBC-TV's Firsthand

It's a coincidence, of course, but CBC-TV's new and compelling documentary on alcoholism Thursday night at 8 gets  followed by an equally compelling new documentary on Toronto police procedures titled Hold Your Fire (at 9 p.m.)
Because both hours are from Bountiful Films.
In the case of Hold Your Fire the wait has been well worth it.
Hold Your Fire was originally scheduled for October 22 at 9 p.m. on CBC-TV's Firsthand.
The stark and uncompromising look at the police shooting of Sammy Yatim is must-see TV.
But the trial of a Toronto police office was still ongoing in October and ever cautious CBC chose to pull it.
I'm assured that with the jury now sequestered the air date Thursday at 9 p.m. is firm and won't be changed again.
I can understand and I applaud CBC's caution.
Because Hold Your Fire deals with the larger issue of whether or not urban Canadian police forces are trained and equipped to handle the large number of mentally ill people wandering urban mean streets these days.
One thing is certain: social services are currently in turmoil.
There have even been reports in recent days Toronto city council wants to slightly reduce the actual number of police officers.
I know when I was burgled several years ago by a mentally ill street person the cop in charge (a veteran female) said she wasn't able to quickly respond to all the night time calls for help because of underfunding.
One veteran cop I know familiar with the Yatim case that all current procedures were met --it obviously was not sufficient in this case. The actual footage is very frightening.
Other cases involve talented Vancouver animator Paul Boyd as conjured up by distraught father David  Extremely gifted Paul gradually drifted in and out of reality and we see the way police coped was totally wrong.And we have video of Michael MacIsaac of Ajax and how the police seemed determined to gun him down.
Slinger has a wide ranging report about how other police forces from Rialto, California to Leicester, England, are trying to find a safer way for both sides and she has examples of how that is working.
What this entails is a restructuring of police training which is time consuming and expensive given the strains on the current police budget.
And there's the example of one 911 responder who deals only with mental cases as she tries to talk down a disturbed person and avert a shooting incident by either side.
Slinger's first class documentary should really be repeated after the current jury decision because past recommendations about better police training have systematically been ignored.

Wasted: A Must-See Nature Of Things Documentary

Wasted is a top Nature Of Things documentary that puts a face on the compelling subject of alcohol addiction.
You can catch it Thursday night at 8 on CBC-TV. Got that?
The hour begins with film maker Maureen Palmer's profile of her partner Mike Pond who was a psychotherapist helping people with addiction in Penticton, British Columbia.
And then he succumbed to alcoholism himself --living smack dab in wine country didn't help needless to say.
I'm not giving anything away by saying Palmer's approach is reasonable and compulsively viewable because Mike seems like such a well mannered kind of guy.
But this profile really acquires depth  when after being on the wagon for five years Pond starts drinking again --it just happened and despite all that he knew he could not stop it on that fateful day.
The impact on him is something awful but it also breaks Maureen's sunny resolve --she, too, appears from time to time but her steadfastness truly gets tested here.
The first time Mike had crashed it was with such a mighty thud it seemed he might die. Both of them knew another descent like the first might truly finish him off.
He'd wound up homeless on Vancouver's Mean Streets even pawning his computer to get another drink.
There followed two years of hell while he dried out in recovery hostels only to crash again.
The preferred treatment was with Alcohol Anonymous but like so many in that program Mike just couldn't make it stick.
He felt like a failure and couldn't rationalize why he kept slipping back into bad old patterns.
Maureen's film is invaluable for showing us there are effective alternatives.
Mike's road to discovery is what makes Wasted so compulsively viewable.
At Stanford University Mike meets with Dr. Rob Malenka a top scientist who studies how alcohol and drugs change the very nature of the brain's circuitry.
For example when mountain biking Mike would go up the hill with his bottle of Gatorade --and then when coming down he'd drink the second bottle of Gatorade laced with vodka.
Then it's on to Cambridge University  and Dr. Bianca Jupp and her impulsive rats and why they react as they do.
At the Medical University of South Carolina Mike gets strapped in a MRI --shown images of alcoholic drinks and non-alcoholic drinks --Mike doesn't think he is reacting much but the MRI shows differently.
Dr. Bill Miller of the University of New Mexico is very wise in arguing for different treatments for different people.
The stories of "shaming" at AA simply do not work for many of us. I was personally shocked at the high failure rate at AA which hasn't been publicized.
Right on camera Mike begins a different treatment plan. And nobody knows how long that may last --hopefully this time it will be forever.
The introduction of the personal story makes Wasted one to see.
Maureen even films herself trying to come to grips with Mike drinking again.
She has said in one interview returning to Penticton may have triggered impulses in Mike to drink again --but nobody really knows.
Wasted touches all the bases and Pond is remarkably brave allowing himself to be front and center showing both triumphs and momentary failures.
MY RATING: ****.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Global TV Sold : Here We Go Again

So there I was in the fall of 1973 wandering through the maze in Don Mills that was the headquarters of Canada's latest TV network: Global TV.
Leading the way was innovative founder and president Al Bruner who showed me the vast newsroom and the dual anchors, the two Peters he called them, Peter Truman and Peter Desbarats who were going through a dry run.
I visited the downtown studio where American comic Norm Crosby was taping episodes of his daily talk show --guest Noel Harrison was warbling away when I came in.
In Ottawa Shhh It's The News devised by Don Harron was shooting comedic scenes with Barbara Hamilton in attendance.
And also in Ottawa I'd visited with Bernie Braden who'd come home from England to front a weekly current affairs series.
The network launched with appropriate flourish in January 1974 but nobody watched.
Bruner made the mistake of premiering his new TV entity in the middle of a regular TV season with viewing patterns already established.
Advertisers had made their buys for the TV year and just were not interested.
And soon Global TV began sinking like a stone.
Bruner mortgaged his home to keep going but it was to no avail.
Soon the whole edifice crashed and there was an emergency night time CRTC hearing and a fire sale of the network and its contents and many producers lost everything.
A rebuilding program took the next decade as the network seemed to get by on reruns of Love Boat.
And now all these years later?
I feel I may be seeing the same pattern all over again.
A few days ago Corus Entertainment bought the Media division of Shaw Communications for $2.65 billion --ironically Corus was spun off from Shaw in 1999.
So, in effect, Shaw is selling part of its empire to another Shaw company.
The property includes Global TV, such specialty channels as Showcase and DejaView and the home grown versions of such international channels as Food Network, BBC Canada and HGVT.
Don't forget Shaw also announced purchase in December for $1.6 billion of Wind Mobile.
Of course in march you the TV customer can ;pick what individual cable channels you want to keep and which ones you don't want anymore.
It's a new concept called "skinny basic" in the industry.
Corus is taking 19 specialty channels from Shaw and some of these may imndeed fail.
And then there's the future of such "traditional" TV networks as Global which has a competitive national newscast but very few quality Canadian shows.
Global has had such fine Canadian drama series as Combat Hospital and Rookie Blue but when ABC cancelled both in the U.S. Global couldn't afford to continue them up here
Do traditional networks such as Global have much of a future.? I'm just not sure.
The Big Three (Global, CTV and CITY-TV) go down every season to L.A. to buy up more than $700 million in American programming for the next season including many shows that quickly fail.
By contrast the invest very little in new Canadian drama series.
Younger viewers I've been talking to say they prefer Netflix and Hulu (U.S. services) to the more traditional way of watching TV.
So the TV landscape is changing once again and many current Canadian players could simply disappear in the next few years.
Those Canadian networks heavily dependent on American shows we can watch elsewhere will be the first victims.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Myth Buster: A Possible New Series

It's simply time for CBC-TV to order a full season of Myth Or Science.
The fourth in this irregular series on The Nature Of Things comes up Thursday night at 8 on CBC.
And once again the photogenic Dr. Jennifer Gardy is in total command as she tackles all the myths we've ever heard about the weather.
Like its three predecessors this hour is jam packed with great visuals and Gardy's fantastic TV presence --she has the scientific credentials but is also aware of what she has to do on TV to keep us interested.
I remember the only time I was trapped in a tornado-like incident with family friends in a car.
We did what we were always told to do --the driver of our car got us to the nearest highway underpass where we hid out for a time while the concrete barrier seemed to strain and crackle under all that stress.
As Grady shows us here in one brilliant test that was exactly the wrong thing to do as the underpass merely channeled the force of the storm to an even higher velocity.
I'm guessing we were lucky to escape unscathed.
As with the other segments Gardy travels all over the place from Manchester to Wales to a snow bound Rockies station to show how each experiment is carried out.
So the hour is not inexpensive TV --the  great visuals are what keep us watching.
And as Grady notes we are all obsessive about the weather.
My favorite scene has a scientist in her back yard night after night listening to the local crickets chirping awayas she makes notes.
This lady wants to discover if crickets can somehow forecast weather patterns --do they chirp more on hot sweltering nights or in the fall as the first frost is about to hit?
I can't give away the ending but the concept seems somehow very funny but also poignant --the crickets are cold blooded and soon will freeze during the first blasts of winter.
Another thing I was always told when summering at the family farm was to get indoors quickly from an electrical storm because that was the safest place to be.
And I believed this until lightning hit the telephone lines, travelled in on the wire and blew out the only phone at the farm with a huge pow one night.
Gardy shows us what might happen in a modern urban home such a similar circumstance.
The concept of weighing a cloud to see how heavy or light it is is simply makes for a great set of visuals.
Another neat shot: looking at falling rain drops in a laboratory situation and discovering these drops may not be pearl shaped as I'd already thought.
Fog gets its due --I never knew anything about this.
And then there's the explanation of how planes work to avoid getting hit by lightning--I never knew anything about this.
So the hour flies by. There are no dull spots at all because of incisive editing and tight scripting.
Which is why I'm promoting Myth Buster as a future six or seven part series --CBC desperately needs some new concepts and MB's past efforts have rated very highly --Infield Fly Productions made it and Jeff Semple wrote and directed this possible pilot.
MY RATING: ****.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Great News: Schitt's Creek Is Back

So far it's been a hitless season for new Canadian series with shows toppling all over the place.
So here's some great news: Schitt's Creek is back for season two.
You can catch the shenanigans on CBC-TV Tuesday January 12 at 9 p.m. Got that?
Think back --when did CBC last have a successful sitcom you actually wanted to see?
When I asked a neighbor she said "King Of Kensington!" Which is really stretching it.
And after the Al Waxman starrer left the air (because CBC refused to provide Waxman with a decent dressing room) it was a long drought with such stinkers as Not My Department and Mosquito Lake tossed our way.
CTV, of course, did have Corner Gas but subsequent efforts including Dan For Mayor and Hiccups just didn't do it for viewers.
With Schitt's Creek it's funny and has a fine cast. What more do you want?
The co-creators are Eugene Levy and his very bright son Dan Levy and the one camera show they've created reminds me somewhat of Paradise Falls. Remember that great one?
This one has the same style as Green Acres as Eugene Levy and Catherine O'Hara brilliantly cast as billionaires who lost everything after a decade of not paying taxes.
So the government has seized their mansion and they find themselves in a rural backwater subsisting at a seedy motel.
The humor here is completely deadpan --without these two veterans from SCTV the whole thing simply would not work.
But they're not playing for laughs to an unseen audience --the lack of a laugh track is an enormous advantage here.
The first new episode is a real scream as Moira (O'Hara) discovers her grandmother's antique crocodile leather bag has gone missing --only then does she also discover son David has also gone.
 Just as funny is Annie Murphy as self absorbed daughter Alexis who is having an on/off relationship with the neighborhood vet while also running around with a hunky electrician.
And don't forget Emily Hamphsire as the motel clerk Stevie who wants to get out of town just as much as anybody else.
However did the show's creators get Chris Elliott involved?
He's perfectly cast as the town bumpkin turned mayor of the hamlet named after his father.
Nothing ever happens on Schitt's Creek but everything changes allthe time.
Dan Levy wrote the first new script but he's aided immeasurably by cagey veteran director Jerry Ciccoretti who used to direct some of the best Canadian TV movies around (before Canadian TV gave up on TV movies).
By the way I've watched three additional episodes and each one is better than the last.
And for the very first time this season I've found a Canadian  series that's must-see TV.