Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Say Farewell To ER!

Hard to believe but it was way back in Sept. 1994 that ER premiered on NBC.  It was another TV world back then.  The Big Three U.S. networks dominated our viewing patterns unlike these days when cable TV drama is the big thing.
I remember watching the original ER pilot in a darkened NBC screening room and trooping off to the set in Burbank to meet the largely unknown cast: George Clooney, Noah Wyle, Anthony Edwards, William H. Macy, Vanessa Marquez.
 Some only lasted the first season while Clooney who'd bumped around on TV for years suddenly emerged as a big star.
I remember liking the polished pilot and being amazed by the huge standing sets. Production was out at Warner Bros. but nobody could say if this one was going to be a hit.
Why not? Well, CBS  also had a new medical drama Chicago Hope coming on smack dab against ER: Thursdays at 10. And neither NBC nor CBS was going to blink.
A bucket of money was a stake. Thursdays is the most watched night of the week. Whoever won the ratings war that night could rake in big bucks from national advertisers.
NBC already dominated the night with Mad About You, Wings, Seinfeld, Frasier and the departing L.A. Law. The peacock proud network needed a red hot new entry and got it big with ER. With a huge ratings lead-in ER managed to retain and even extend the audience of Seinfeld and Frasier.
The year before CBS had tried but failed to dislodge those pesky NBC sitcoms with In The Heat Of the Night, Connie Chung and Angel Falls (remember that stinker?). 
In 1994 CBS brought in fresh troops in the form of Due South (at 8) and Chicago Hope (at 10) but pnce again NBC emerged the big winner.
Within weeks CBS moved Chicago Hope which went to Mondays at 10 and survived six more seasons.
ER was the slightly better show. It had impeccable credentials: Michael Crichton was the creator, John wells the producer. I remember one critical comment: "Iy oozes adrenaline". And it rapidly became a showcase for flashy guest star appearances. Twenty Emmy nominations went to visiting actors although only two won Emmys: Sally Field and Ray Liotta.
And NBC owned Thursday nights and raked in big bucks off its hits for the next decade. When some of its sitcoms fizzled along came Friends, Scrubs and Will & Grace but ER seemed ready to go forever.
But no series lasts, cancellation stalks even the biggest shows. Recent seasons were pretty lame. The storylines were sputtering to a close. I can't tell you the last time I watched a full episode. And NBC no longer owns Thursday nights.
In fact come September NBC will substitute the new Jay Leno show for all its week night dramas at 10 p.m. American network TV is changing. And not for the better.
So  come celebrate Thursday at 10 with ER's last ever episode. Noah Wyle will be there and there are rumors he'll get to end the drama just as his character once started it. Which would be fitting, don't you think?

Monday, March 30, 2009

A Canadian Cliffhanger

A TV cliffhanger at the end of March? Only on CBC which closes down its drama and comedy series extra early to make way for lots of hockey finals.
This one is on Tuesday night on CBC's Wild Roses, a Calgary-based melodrama which may or may not be back next season. 
So far ratings have averaged a very disappointing 475,000 a week. In the CBC scheme of things that usually means a second season pickup but CBC is short of cash and may cancel its peripheral shows because of budget shortfalls.
I like Wild Roses although it has Dallas written all over it. And far from being an original take on the Calgary oil industry it bears some resemblance to the 1983 CBC melodrama Vandenberg which starred Michael and Susan Hogan and Jennifer Dale.
 In 1983 CBC couldn't afford to actually shoot in Calgary so the city scenes were recreated on Toronto's  bustling Yonge Street.
For  prime time TV soap opera to succeed it must be done with a certain relish. Think Dallas's Larry Hagman gleefully chewing up the scenery. Think Joan Collins emoting beautifully in her latest glad rags on Dynasty.
Wild Roses is still in the early stages --it has yet to find its own tempo. Steve Byers from Falcon Beach is nicely cast as the good guy, rich scion Will McGregor battling his evil but rich father David McGregor (charismatic Gary Hudson). 
The McGregors are the wealthy ones and Will has a delightfully bitchy sis, Rebecca, overplayed wonderfully by Amy Lalonde. But he's in with the poor Henrys down the valley headed by impoverished matriarch Maggie (Kim Huffman). 
Of course she has sexy daughters played by Sarah Power and Michelle Harrison and an adopted aboriginal daughter Charlotte (Clare Stone). Think of Dallas crossed with McLeod's Daughters and you've got the story line.
Wild Heats may remind you of another Alberta themed meller Heartland made by the same Calgary production company Seven24. Technical credits are fine and the cliffhanger was expertly directed by Sudz Sutherland.
Hour drama series are a real challenge for CBC. For one thing the public broadcaster lacks the key time slot of 10 p.m. when the really adult U.S. dramas take fire (The National is on at 10).
Production costs start at $1.2 million per hour which is very expensive compared with an hour of reality TV or a Canadian documentary.
But Wild Hearts kept me guessing until its finale. Let's just say the first season ends with a bang and leave it at that.
One problem: if this one doesn't get its pick up will CBC provide some sort of dramatic resolution in the form of a TV movie? Or will CBC leave us forever guessing about the climactic events?

Friday, March 27, 2009

CBC Got It All Wrong

CBC got it all wrong in massive job cuts announced the other day. To balance the shortfall of over $170 million, CBC is cutting about 800 jobs mostly in the programming sector (although 70 corporate types will get the boot).
The Corps's bloated middle management which includes 553 jobs will see bonuses cut.
If you ever venture into the CBC's massive (and half empty) studios on Front St. W. in Toronto you'll spot acres of these paper pushers. A few years back CBC decided to turn everyone into well paid middle managers in order to shove it to the various unions. That way when the next strike was called middle managers could continue working. In fact it was CBC that locked out its unions in the last strike several years back.
The result is a typically bloated federal bureaucracy. CBC's sole reason for existence is programming but so much quality fare has been cut in recent years there was little public response to the latest announcement of jobs cut.
Come clean! How much CBC programming do you watch these days? In its early years CBC's signal was the only one around. These days it must compete in a TV world of hundreds of boutique channels.
But CBC chose to kill off high end specials from ballet to opera to Stratford productions. Viewers of these quality shows have drifted off to PBS or such cable channels as Bravo! They no longer care if CBC lives or dies.
Now CBC is going to slash episodes of its few remaining "hits" including Little Mosque On The Prairie, the Border, This Hour Has 22 Minutes. Royal Canadian Air Farce is already cancelled because it appealed to a older audience. The awful afternoon talk show with Steven And Chris has been put out of its misery. The simply dreadful sitcom Sophie has mercifully been put to death.
Staff on the fifth estate and Marketplace will be reduced. There'll be less sports coverage (ice skating has pooped in numbers in recent years.
CBC's own criteria for "hit" status was always the same: 1 million for a series, 1.5 million for a TV movie or miniseries. By that standard Rick Mercer is about the only bona fide hit still on CBC-TV.
Here's how I would have made the cuts. I believe the wrong people are being dumped.
There are two gigantic newsrooms at Front St., one for TV, one for radio. Merge them, I say, and cut those numbers by half. How much news do you get from CBC Radio these days? I rest my case.
Also, I'd cut by half the middle managers and cut deep into the Communications Department where there are hundreds of paper pushers.
Remember that old noon time standard Luncheon Date (with Elwood Glover)? I'd bring it back, staff it with young, hungry talent, and have a successful daily talk show back on CBC for the first time in decades. And all for the daily cost of $1.99 or so (OK ---with inflation $2.99).
I'd dump all those tiresome reality things, take that production money to make a few definitive TV movies and miniseries every season, the kind that used to have secretaries chattering around the water cooler the next morning.
In short I'd make CBC relevant once more and with that relevancy would come increased advertising revenues.
I first said all this when CBC cancelled This Land to save money. And I was still saying it when CBC cancelled Intelligence.
For CBC it's been death by a thousand cuts. 
The death rattle of a once proud network continues.



Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Some Good News From CBC!

If only CBC  would return to its core values then the embattled public TV network has a future.
The proof comes with a  sparkling new CBC-TV special Leonard Cohen: Live In London. 
The title says all: the graceful, ageless Cohen walks out on stage at London's 02 Arena, mumbles a few introductory words, then sings for the next hour.And that's it --no fancy production numbers, special effects, guest stars. It's all Cohen with a small band and a few back up female singers.
All the Cohen standards get trotted out for this adoring audience: Suzanne, Hallelujah, I'm Your Man, First We Take Manhattan. Nifty camerawork gets us up close and personal: Cohen isn't wearing stage makeup and every wrinkle and wattle on his face is visible.
And that's about it, as classy a piece of TV as you'll see anywhere. And surprise it's on CBC which has been testing viewer loyalties in recent yearswith a steady stream of mediocre reality shows, poor sitcoms and an aversion to the mandate that once defined public broadcasting.
Shows like Leonard Cohen should be on CBC every week. But culture somehow became a bad word for the present bunch of CBC programmers who shunted aside Opening Night for low brow reality outings.
This is the kind of musical special CBC would regularly show on Sunday night collectively titled Super Special. Remember? If such fare were part of CBC there'd be loud cries these days at the federal government's refusal to help the embattled web during current budget short falls. Instead the viewing public seems mostly indifferent to CBC's fate.
In recent months CBC has been busy dumping such hits as Blue Jay baseball and Royal Canadian Air Farce and there are threats American fare may once more be spotlighted on CBC prime time in the fall.
Leonard Cohen harks back to better days when showcasing Canadian stars was what CBC was all about.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Remembering Natasha Richardson

The strange death of Natasha Richardson has transfixed the media. the  daughter of Vanessa Redgrave and granddaughter of Sir Michael Redgrave was on a skiing vacation at Mont Tremblant when she injured her head in a fall and initially refused treatment. By the time she was admitted to hospital it was too late and she died at 45 with many brilliant years of acting still before her.
When I met her onboard a Liberty ship in Lake Ontario in 2002 she was trying TV movies and miniseries. She'd moved to New York to partially escape the glare of publicity --after all she was a Redgrave. 
But in some ways it slowed down her career. American movie directors didn't quite know how to use her and contemporary Emma Thompson edged ahead for the few important roles in British films.  I found Richardson to be a gifted actress, completely immersed in her character of Ruth Guber for the miniseries Haven
. She was gracious and witty and obviously was acting less to spend more time with husband Liam Neeson and their two young sons.
Her death caught all of us off guard. On Broadway she shone in revivals of A Streetcar Named desire and Cabaret. I was delighted to find her so warm and likable and I'm missing her already.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Season Farewell For Little Mosque

I was having lunch with the creator of Little Mosque On the Prairie creator Zarqa Narwaz the day after Glenn Beck had tried to pick a fight with her on his MSNBC talk show (he's since defected to Fox TV).
Let's see, it was December, 2006, and the sprightly CBC sitcom had yet to go on the air but was already making waves. Beck mumbled something about Michael Landon (star of Little House On The Prairie) rolling in his grave but try as he could Beck couldn't really attack Nawaz.
On the TV link from Toronto she remained poised and confident, beautifully made up, soft spoken, humorous. What was there not to like? Beck soon went on to more combustible subjects and that's the whole point.
Monday night at 8 on CBC the third season of the gently mocking sitcom comes to an end.Some critics have always felt the story lines were not stronger, harder hitting. I beg to disagree. The theme is about bonding --with the community, family, neighbors. Everybody gets their turn at bat to be funny. The tine is quirky, at its heart this is a very traditional sitcom (except it has no laugh track).
 Ratings the first season were over 1 million a week, partly because the lead in was Rick Mercer. These days the show must duke it out against tough U.S. competition and ratings have dropped precipitously. But not enough for CBC to cancel --such ratings hits as Royal Canadian Air Farce have already bitten the dust.
Watch the season finale and tell me what you think. I find the show holding up fairly well but in need of some  choice perk-me-ups. Thise could be in the form of new characters. Some change is positive but too much tinkering with the format could damage the series' creative center.
The final half hour is titled Can I Get A Witness? and once again the competing philosophies of strict fundamentalists versus reformers within the Muslim faith are comically drawn --the liberal Rayyan (Sitara Hewitt) is finally getting married.
But she wants to pick the dress and finally goes into town to get exactly what she wants without consulting her suitor JJ (Stephen Lobo from Godiva's). Her procrastination worries her Muslim parents (Carlo Rota and Sheila McCarthy). Other members of the cast getting into trouble include Mayor Popowicz (Debra McGrath) who is gin guzzling at the festivities and Zaib Shaikh as Amaar, the hunky Iman, not quite sure just how traditional the ceremony should be conducted.
In short the standard ingredients of LMOTP. The friendly face of Canadian Muslims is on display as per usual. Says the Iman to her honor:"There isn't a drop of alcohol in the place."Just as she takes another swig. And groom JJ argues with his dewey bride-to-be about protocol before letting drop the assurance "On the other hand you do look astounding."
Everything is funny enough, fast paced enough. But --positive changes must be made in the fourth season to prevent a condition known as midseries droop. Creator Nawaz should be making these changes from a position of power and not out of desperation.
I've always favored a crossover with that other merry Saskatchewan sitcom, CTV's Corner Gas which has run out of gas and is going to Rerunland. But a few CG characters still could wander in and out for an episode or two. After all two of the writers,  Paul Mather and Rob Sheridan originally toiled on CG.
Far more frustrating to this constant CBC observer has been the failure of the Corp to develop additional sitcoms even half as lively as Little Mosque. Competition these days is so brutal there are no safe havens for new  Canadian TV comedies to blossom. Instead a promising show like Becoming Erica has been fighting for a second season pick up ever since it debuted.


Friday, March 13, 2009

Death Days At CBC

These are days of terror at CBC's downtown Toronto headquarters. 
The Grim Reaper is moving through the building and many employees expect their shows to be next up on the list marked "cancelled".
The axeman has scuttled the downright awful CBC afternoon series Steve And Chris. Ratings were in the basement and there were few advertisers.
So what does CBC have to do to make a successful daily talk show? The last successful one was Elwood Glover's Luncheon Date. 
But there also was the daily public affairs entry Take 30 which served as a launching pad for Adrienne Clarkson (Moses Znaimer was one of the producers).
ABC is showing how these days with The View. Why can't CBC try something upscale for a change. CBC used to have Midday which was deemed the "Baby Journal".
But Steve And Chris was a bad retread of HGTV series and it simply didn't work.
My insiders say a lot of CBC shows are on the block now that the Corp must make up an anticipated $65 million dip in advertising revenues.
 Like The Nature Of Things. Like the fifth estate. Both continue to fare well ratings wise but so did Royal Canadian Air Farce and it got the boot because its viewers were a bit older.
I've been predicting CBC's death by a thousand cuts for years. And now it's happening right before our eyes.
May I be so bold as to propose a solution: stop axing the creative talent and go after middle management which has grown like weeds in the past decades. There are floors of these paper pushers as befits every federal bureaucracy. But what do they contribute in terms of programming?
For years CBC has been waging war against its unions by turning every other employee into a manager. The Department of Communications is bloated with these managers. And yet to save dollars CBC fired its dedicated cadre of PR types, the ones who publicized the shows.
With no talk shows to promote its own product, CBC has seen ratings tumble. You figure it all out.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Cool It Jimmy!

I took Craig Ferguson's advice. Up to now I haven't reviewed Jimmy Fallon because the guy needs to grow into his job. So far he's a bundle of nerves. 
So what if the monologue just doesn't work most nights? Fallon needs the experience to toss away lines with the aplomb of a Johnny Carson.
And so what if his interviewing skills need refining. All those years on Tonight and Jay Leno still can't do a half decent interview.
That said I feel Fallon will make it in NBC's late late slot. He's nice, he's personable, he's desperately easy to please. Give him time and he'll come around.
I well remember hanging out in Conan's Rockefeller Center's dressing room and it must have been about five weeks since he'd taken over. The critics were unkind to say the least. And Conan always seemed to have Suzanne Somers on as guest because few big names would give him the time of the night.
Still, I told him to hang in there. He was even more nervous than Fallon. Now look what's happening: he's replacing Leno at 11:35. and maybe in the full passage of time Fallon will be replacing him?
Fallon is not much differenn from Craig Ferguson. All late nighters must be suited and must have a desk, a couch (Fallon has two), a nice curtain, a faux panorama, and a small band. I figured sidekicks were out but Conan is actually bringing back Andy Richter when he pops up again from L.A.
So Fallon is yet another button down late night hosts. No woman has ever succeeded at the task although Joan Rivers certainly tried. And Arsenio Hall is the only black artist to give it the big try. 
But it's harder than it looks. Just ask Chevy Chase whose attempt lasted but a nanosecond.
Dick Cavett was around ABC for a bit but he was too arty for late night viewers. And Merv Griffin on CBS was just an afternoon host trying to jump to a more competitive slot. Pat Sajak went back to spinning his supper time wheel. 
A far more pertinent question is why Canadian TV has never mounted a successful late night talk show. 
I used to hang out with Peter Gzowski when CBC tried him out late nights. A huge hit on daily CBC Radio, he was plopped into a suit and sported thick pancake makeup but he never really got the swing of it. Right at the end before cancellation he started appearing as his rumpled self and was suddenly quite good (but it was too late).
Mike Bullard had a run on Comedy and CTV before Global enticed him away. It was his misfortune to start his second series the week Conan breezed into town and blew him away in the ratings. Cancellation quickly followed.
Am I the only one out there who remembers CBC's only successful foray into late night programming? I'm referring, of course, to the wonderful comedy revue series Nightcap with Billy Van.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Canadian TV Finally Scores A Hit

It's been quite some time since a Canadian made drama series became "must watch" TV. So better prepare for the stunning success of the new police series The Line.
The first hour of the 15-parter premieres Monday March 16 at 10 p.m. on The Movie Network (and at 9 p.m. on Movie Central). If you catch the first hour you won't be able to tune out, it's that terrific.
Shot entirely on location in and around Scarborough, the story sports a grittiness not seen on any U.S. cop show. 
This is it, the genuine article. The police portrayed here are stretched to the limit in their efforts to stem the flow of illegal drugs. The dialogue snaps and crackles with authenticity and the shots of seedy strip malls, decaying public housing apartments and discount stores make us believe we're watching real people.
I was lucky to spend the last night of shooting on the Scarborough set. The filming stretched into the night in a suburban home set back in a ravine. Present were the two script writers, playwright George F. Walker (This Is Wonderland) and partner Dani Romain.
I noticed how both followed their scripts most closely --they wanted the actors to say the lines as written. On many sets where I've been watching actors like to rewrite dialogue as they go but this was not permitted on The Line and rightfully so.
"It's so easy to learn the lines here," enthused Ron White who co-stars as Max, described as a morally ambiguous cop. "The dialogue has a rare rhythm. Scenes can be confrontational but it plays like actual life. It's an actor's dream to get such a part."
During a break Walker who has long been fascinated with police procedure said he wanted to move on from his often brilliant CBC series This Is Wonderland (2004-06). "CBC told us it was a 10 p.m. show and we had to run at 9 (because of The National). Just briefly there was an idea of shopping it around. Then this one came up and we wanted to look forward."
Walker says he wanted to portray the police "as they truly are, how compromises have to take place, how they are fighting within a system." 
White and Daniel Kash (as Donny) are partners trying to keep their neighborhood functioning but not having enough staff or resources to do a complete job. So they may try unconventional methods. At times Max seems unhinged while Danny is sinking into alcoholism.
It all sounds so depressing but Walker's ability to get inside his characters produces moments of black comedy that will have you laughing out loud.
The story looks at their dealings with convicted drug dealer Carlos who is simply struggling to survive. As brilliantly played by Cle Bennet, Carlos has a wife ((Sarah Manninen) and daughter who are alienated from him. He's suspected of having killed Lucie's brother in a difficult drug heist.
American imports Sharon Lawrence (NYPD Blue), Ed Asner (Lou Grant) and Linda Hamilton (Beauty And The Beast) are also featured and all give strong performances. In addition their marquee value ensures U.S. sales.
Veteran Debbie Nightingale made it for the Nightingale Company in association with Astral Media and Corus Entertainment.
I watched as veteran director Gail Harvey (Metropia) shot in controlled bursts of  activity. In outdoor scenes and inside the mall she uses available light to create a sense of reality, There isn't a glossy close-up to be seen. 
White has always been an effective actor in both features (Cowboys Don't Cry) and TV work (Plague City) but he says "I think this is something special. We all felt it was going to be superior, a real break through."
Other actors you may recognize include Wes Williams (Instant Star) and Von Flores (Earth: Final Conflict).
The Line is unlike any other TV series and that may be a problem. Some sex scenes are almost X-rated. This isn't the kind of feel-good drama where you root for the good guys. There are no good guys, only cops trying to keep it together any way they can. 
The lack of cliches and Walker's  penchant for memorable dialogue should keep viewers on the edge of their seats. A few sample zingers: "Just because you're a whore doesn't mean you can't be a bad mother." Or: "You want me to give into the dark thoughts." 
Challenging and provocative, The Line is every bit as good and maybe even better than most of those U.S. cable TV dramas critics rave so much about.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

The Crisis Of Canadian TV

Somewhere along the way Canadian TV lost its way. Let me explain the problem: there are more available TV channels than ever before.
So explain to me why Canadians are watching fewer Canadian shows than at any time in the 55 year history of TV in Canada?
Way back in 1977 my predecessor at the Toronto Star as TV Critic, Jack Miller, caused a firestorm by carefully reading the ratings books for an entire month. He concluded the average Toronto viewer was spending less time than ever watching home grown TV, specifically Miller said it was less than 10 per cent of prime time viewing devoted to Canadian material. The rest of the time viewers spent watching American imports.
Questions were asked by Ottawa politicians. Toronto TV actors screamed bloody murder (they agreed with Miller and wanted increased funding to fight the barbarians at the gate). But nothing much happened to change the situation.
All these years later and the situation has deteriorated. The blame falls on the federal regulator, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, which licenses the stations and networks.
Over the years it allowed the private networks to slide out of their Canadian content regulations, specifically dumping most Canadian drama series for cheaply made (if worthwhile) documentaries.
Now we have reached the stage where both CTV and Global TV are hemorragging badly. And yet when you look at the schedules what are they but made-in-Manhattan schedules?
CTV and Global run most of their U.S. imports at the same time as the U.S. networks. that way they get to simulcast their shows (another CRTC invention). The incoming American signal (in Toronto it's from Buffalo stations) is deleted and the Canadian one substituted.
Huge audiences result in some cases --a CSI on CTV still gets over 3 million viewers, a figure no Canadian drama can hope to match. So Canadian shows generally get the left over time slots.
One time CTV's Yvan Fecan ran three well made Canadian hour dramas back to back on Saturday nights: Power Play, The City and Cold Squad. And nobody watched. In 1992 I counted 11 quality hour long Canadian dramas (including Wind At My Back, Due South) on the Canadian TV network schedules.
These days the pickings are slim. Current ratings hits include the half hour CTV sitcom Corner Gas (in its last season), CBC's The Border and Global's The Best Years. But after these gems, what?
The TV universe is changing and CTV and Global must return to their Canadian roots to survive. Splurging on U.S. imports just doesn't make it anymore. Many of the big ticket items like 24 and Gray's Anatomy have experienced huge ratings erosions. And that decline seems certain to accelerate with all the cable channels out there to entice viewers away from conventional TV.
By becoming more Canadian CTV and Global can avert this slide. The successes over the years of ENG, Due South, Road To Avonlea, DeGrassi  demonstrate Canadians are eager to watch shows about themselves if only given half a chance.