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!