Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Where Are The Canadian TV Talk Shows?

So there I was the other day lunching with two of the most powerful Canadian TV producers in the business.
And as usual these days the talk started with an assessment of the departure of Jon Stewart whose presence late nights redefined the American talk TV landscape.
Here are snippets of what was said:
Me: "I can never understand why Canadian TV has no late night talk shows at all.
"A few years back at the CTV Upfronts Jon Stewart appeared on the screen live from his New York headquarters and began ribbing his hosts about the lack of Canadian shows on their primarily imported schedules! Boy did those executives visibly wince!"
Producer 1: "The only successful Canadian talk show when I was at CBC was Peter Gzowski. And he was continually trounced by the critics. But you know the longer he was on the better he got. Finally near the end he said what-the-hell and came out as battered and rumpled as he'd always been on radio. And that really worked.
Later Comedy had Mike Bullard and the budget was so low he didn't have a cordless mike so he couldn't walk into the audience."
Producer 2:"You see that's why it has always been cheaper to import shows than make our own. And after midnight there are no Canadian content regulations anyway."
Me:"But the fall TV lineups of CTV, Rogers, Shaw have no Canadian scripted shows at all. The claim is Canadian shows would get mowed down in the early on in the new season."
Producer 1: "I can't sell any series that is openly Canadian. Nobody wants it. Canadian TV movies have disappeared. CBC started a series on the Fathers of Confederation and it sank like a stone. It was cancelled after one episode."
Producer 2: "I watch Saving Hope and love it. It's made here with Canadian talent but it might be situated in any America city. I liked Rookie Blue, too, hardly 'must see TV' but still very professional."
Me: "CBC told me the only buyer for its TV movie on Don Cherry was Finnish TV--the fact is the rest of the world does not find us fascinating."
Producer 1: "Canadian TV is disappearing. The more channels we have the less Canadian TV there is."
Producer 2: "Jon Stewart's freedom to really go after politicians would not be allowed up here. Look at all Chretien and Harper did and TV criticism on CTV and CBC news was very muted."
Me: "But isn't American politics more exciting?"
Producer 1: "The love affair of Americans for all things American is very apparent on these shows. How often does Anderson Cooper cover something in Canada? Almost never."
Me; "Who's picking up the check?"
Producer 1: "I can. My new series is going into production --filmed here, of course, but set in the U.S."

Sunday, July 12, 2015

I Remember Dick Van Patten


 So there I was in the dentist's chair when my favorite dentist stopped buzz sawing for a minute to whisper these words:
"What was Dick Van Patten really like?"
The question is not as far fetched as one might suppose.
I found how genial the round faced actor was with several set visits to Eight Is Enough over the years (it ran 1977-81)
And there were sequels and TV movies to keep the public attention.
In addition at the 50th anniversary of ABC in 1999 I was appropriately assigned to the Eight Is Enough table where Van Patten greeted me as a long lost friend.
Van Patten died a few weeks ago, aged 86, of complications from diabetes.
That night at his table was rather bizarre: all the kids and their spouses had gathered along with Van Patten and his lovely wife.
But few had worked as actors since the show went off.
Grant Goodeve had been on an afternoon soap for awhile he told me.
Willie Aames later managed a co-starring gig in Charles At Charge.
"We got typecast," explained Lani O'Grady who sat next to me --brother Don Grady toiled on My Three Sons.
She later became a TV agent like her mom but died of a drug overdose alone in her trailer in 2001.

Most of the evening I spent chatting up Van Patten.
"My TV credits go way back," he laughed. "So far back I was the teenager Nels on I Remember Mama which ran live every Friday night on CBS (1949-1957).
"I remember one time  Judson Laire who played papa forgot he was included in the last scene and walked off the set.It was live remember so Peggy Wood as mama said her lines to an open door and a stagehand responded on the other side as papa."
I reminded Van Patten when we had first met on the set in 1977 ABC had low expectations for the show.
"Oh, it wasn't at all realistic. We were presenting an idealized view of what a modern family should look like."
Biggest hurdle happened after the first season when Diana Hyland who played mom Joan Bradford died unexpectedly.
"I went off the deep end for a bit," he said. "We all did. Then the show went back into production and eventually Betty Buckley came on board as my second wife."
Buckley has since soared into a dynamite Broadway performer in such hits as Sunset Boulevard.
Van Patten told me he remainmed interested in all the bright young performers who portrayed his kids.
Later when Adam Rich (he was the youngest kid Nicholas) got into trouble with the law he went to live with Van Patten for a bit.
"Hey, I'm his second dad""laughed Van Patten who had three sons of his own.
When I told him I'd interviewed son James Van Patten on the set of his series Three For The Road Van Patten cracked :"I hope he was polite!:"
Van Patten, of course, had a huge career outside of Eight Is Enough but said being so identified as Tom Bradford"is OK with me."

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Welcome To Discovery's Shark Week

 I always thought I knew quite a lot about sharks.
But it turns out after watching the first two hour long episodes of the new BBC miniseries Shark I obviously was very ill informed indeed.
To coincide with the 40th anniversary of the movie Jaws this sumptuously produced three part BBC documentary series opens up whole new worlds.
This is must see TV and in a dreary summer of never ending reruns you can catch Episode 1 and 2 Thursday July 9 starting at 8 p.m. on Discovery.one of the highlights of Shark Week.
In the first episode you'll meet the "tasselled wobbegongg" which camouflages itself in the coral reef to the extent it seems to be another pierce of coral.
It can even produce an enticing piece of "bait" that looks like a small fish --when other fish come too close it gulps them down.
Then there's the lonely Greenland shark living deep in the murky depth beneath the ice pack --it can live up to 200 years and subsists on dead polar bears and seals but is almost totally blind because of a parasite which eats out its eyes.
Then we move to Australia to meet the epaulette shark which when it finds itself high and dry on a beach calmly uses its fins as legs and walks back into the water.
Or what about the mako, a species of shark so fast it can swim with ease at 46 miles per hour to catch its prey.
Or there's the black tip who gather in great packs to round up a shoals of 10 million anchovie only to collectively gobble down their victims in one gigantic underwater massacre.
It was around then that I experienced a fright attack far more terrifying than watching the mechanical star of the movie Jaws.
The production took two solid years of filming --to photograph the elusive Greenland shark required drilling through eight feet of ice in temperatures of -20 C with the divers limited to 40 minutes in the freezing water or their oxygen supply might freeze.
Yes, there is quite a lot about the great white, the superstar of the shark world.
But here he must cede center stage to a wide variety of his kinsmen who are simply elusively wonderful.
There's the red-grilled frilled shark lurking in the shadows and looking like a cobra in  contrast to the goblin shark with its built-in sonar and an extendable mouth crammed with hundreds of teeth.
Strangest of all are the hammerheads with their eyes at the tips of their broad snouts --these ones existed even before the dinosaurs.
Discovery has 22 hours of shark programming over the week.
Starting Sunday Jul 5 at 7 p.m. Daily Planety with co-hosts Ziya Tong and Dr. Dan Riskin will have dozens of shark stories. The clip that was sent me about how sharks poop is not recommended for viewers who have not yet had their dinner.
MY RATING: ****.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

I Remember Patrick Macnee

"Excuse me, old chap, mind if I sit beside you?"
Did I mind!
The speaker was the great British actor Patrick Macnee--yes, that's right John Steed of TV's Avengers.
And the occasion was a lavish 1989 NBC dinner for the premiere of the TV version of Around The World In 80 Days.
Macnee died June 26, aged 93, at his home in Rancho Mirage, California.
Stars Pierce Brosnan, Peter Ustinov, Sir John Mills, Simon Ward and others were in attendance at the grand ballroom of the Universal Hilton hotel (in Los Angeles).
Macnee whisked in late and took the vacant seat next to me and we chatted for hours about his illustrious career.
Turns out I'd only just caught him in Toronto on the stage with a remount of Sleuth opposite Geraint Wyn Davies--it ran to packed housesat the Century playhouse for months.
"We cleaned up on that one," Macnee chuckled. "I mean a two character play and not an empty seat. We all made plenty off of it."
But Macnee had an even closer connection with Canada.
Turns out he was part of a "Britpack" of distinguished British talents (including director David Greene and Barry Morse) called on to set up CBC TV drama way back in 1952 serving as producer on some live TV productions but also as star actor.
"Did a Hamlet there I was particularly proud of. The studio was an old Pierce Arrow car showroom, you could hear traffic on the street. All live. Very terrifying. But it worked, it really worked."
But, of course, that was way before The Avengers which ran on British TV from 1961 to 1969.
Macnee's depiction of debonair Steed made him a household word.
"They offered me the part and I said no way. I'd seen real killing in World War II and so I refused to carry a gun at all.
"They swooned when I said 'Why don't I instead carry an umbrella?' That and my bowler hat made TV audiences sit up."
But Macnee said what made the trendy spy show an instant hit was "Girl power, first Honor Blackman, then Diana Rigg. But when Linda Thorson took over it was, well, uncomfortable."
A revival in the Seventies was "Ill conceived. Didn't work. Look, I love Joanna Lumley but the times were out of joint. Why did I do it then? Money, dear chap, money.'"
Macnee contended that treating the women as vigorous and physical beings "marked a blow for equality --they could fight their way out of danger as well as I could."
Born in London in 1922, Macnee attended Eton College and the Webber Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art before long service in the Royal Navy during World War II.
A childhood classmate was Christoper Lee "who was scary even back then."
"I did all sorts of iddly diddly small roles before Steed made me a star at the age of 39.
"I left my first wife and two small children to work in Canada where I learned the rudiments of acting.
"I wasn't the nicest of persons back then. I'm nicer now.
"I had to wait for stardom which is why I appreciate it so much."
Films include a bit in Laurence Olivier's Hamlet (1948), the 1951 version of A Christmas Carol and Roger Moore's last outing as James Bond A View To A Kill(1985) and This Is Spinal Tap.
When I asked Macnee why his Steed was so popular he quickly said "He was a gentleman but not posh. He was never a sexist-- unlike James Bond. I simply think people trusted him."
That description might also sum up Macnee's characteristics. "Except I took U.S. citizenship in 1959, old boy. I could never stand that British climate don't you know? I may dress in Saviole Row but acting on Love Boat and Hart To Hart pay the bills."

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Smart TV: Rise Of The Machines

"I wasn't so sure this series could ever be made," chuckles executive producer Carlo Massarella who helped create the gigantic Rise Of The Machines.
Part One of this seven part hour series revs up on Discovery Monday June 22 at 7 p.m.
That's right --while other networks go to sleep for the summer with reruns Discovery is premiering one of its most ambitious and I should say costly sTV shows of the year.
"We wanted to show how trulyt gigantic machines are changing the way mega projects around the world are being created and designed," he says on the phone from London, England.
"I mean it's one thing to envisage one hour but it's quite another to have crews ready to film these enormous projects.
"And we didn't want viewers to simply become overwhelmed by it all so we very carefully place the emphasis in each hour on the human factor --the veterans who have seen and done it all and calmly react to crisis after crisis."
The result is frequently enthralling television.
In the first episode "Mega Lift Ship" we see a 50,000 newly designed ship the Dockwise My Treasure which is longer than two football fields and packs the combined power of 80 Hummers.
The assignment of the talented crew: to deliver a 13,000 ton oil rig from Singapore where it has been carefully constructed to the ultimate destination  half way around the world in the Gulf of Mexico.
And all along there's a TV crew documenting every twist and turn --the first challenge involves getting the massive ship through traffic congested Singapore harbor and it's like threading a gigantic needle --one mishap and the multimillion dollar enterprise would collapse.
"We all had to take out additional insurance," jokes  Massarella.
If the ship actually sank so would the series I'm guessing.
What makes the voyage extra exciting for viewers is the marvelous CVGI animation that deconstructs the innards of the ship --showing how it can be actually lowered in the water to take on the steel giant and how the huge ocean waves can be countered without sinking the ship.
"It was a scary voyage for all concerned," B reports. "Nothing had to be added --those waves are huge, there were times of peril, see how we lasted."
The second week (June 29) there's a look at "Mega Truck" taller than a two-story building--the Liebherr T284 has the pulling power of a freight train.
The third week (July 13) it's "Super Train", the Italo AGV which speeds along at 300 km/hr and is 200 meters long.
The fourth week salutes the "Super Airship", the Aeros Dragon Dream and its first test flight--it can transport cargo around the world at a fraction of the normal cost of airfreight.
The fifth episode "Mega Digger" is about  the Komatsu OC8000 is twelve meters tall and weighs more than two jumbo jets.
The sixth episode I also got to preview-- --"Mega Lift Helicopter" --Canada's Erickson Air Crane sports 11 meter blades and can lift loads of over nine tons.
This episode snaps and crackles with tension --one false move by the trained pilot and the gigantic transmission tower would fall to earth.
And yet these guys must carefully place 120 of them across 120 kilometers in only eight days.
All of this is done by profiling the guys who are used to such challenges --they must also deal with unpredictable wind storms and they realize the margin for any error is very tiny indeed.
Massarella says "Obviously the scope means many networks have to be involved from the beginning., The shooting all must be laid out before we start because time is so precious.
"It's an unique series. We focus on the human factor, that personalizes these extraordinary feats.
"It's a co-production between London's Windfall Films and Montreal's Handel Productions. Really, that's the only way to go.
And he praises the superb CGI effects which let us see inside the ship's complicated shell or peer into the helicopter's motor to view all the components. "That's from Montreal's Digital Dimensions and is tops."
Despite several hairy moments Massarella says the film crew is up for more episodes for a second season. "I'm already making a list of subjects."
MY RATING: ****.


Saturday, June 13, 2015

Canadian TV: Going South



I've been reporting for decades on the phenomenon of American telefilms and series moving north to shoot just because it's cheaper.
But how often has a Canadian series moved south?
Well, three Canadian series have gone south in recent years and nobody seems to have noticed it.
First there's the perennial favorite Property Virgins.
For the first 10 seasons and 130 episodes it was filmed in and around Toronto starring Toronto realtor Sandra Rinomato.
Then she quit to make her own series Buy Herself but that one only lasted a series.
Meanwhile Property Virgins moved south with American realtor Egypt Sherrod.
These days she's based in Atlanta --shows I've watched featured homes selling for $150,000 that would go for over 1 million in T.O.
Then there's Property Brothers with the identical twins Drew and Jonathan Scott.
The title seems to change a lot and after shooting a bit in Toronto (the show started in 2011) the venue switched to Vancouver and then Austin and now is in Vegas.

Third example is Love It Or List It which Hilary Clinton once said was among her most favorite TV shows.
This one is an always fun debate between realtor David Visentin and designer Hilary Farr who once made movies as Hilary Labow.
It has always been Toronto based and I can tell because of the outrageously high prices.
But this season LIOLI moved South.
I instantly knew because the prices seemed about 2/3 cheaper from Toronto episodes.
What made the show fascinating was David's knowledge of Toronto neighborhoods and Hilary's interaction with her contractors.
In the new American episodes the two seem at sea.
Hilary is mugging to cover up her confusion, David overacts wildly. The uniqueness of this show has been damaged.
All three series run on American cable TV giant HGTV which also lists another Toronto show Income Property in its ads as "home grown".
And HGTV U.S. has huge ratings compared to the Canadian version of HGTV (W runs LIOLI and PB up here).
I think in all three cases the Canadian version to be better.
And one more point: since all three are now shot in the U.S. can they still count as Canadian content?
I think not.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Degrassi Lives! Again!

"Are you aware of the series Degrassi?" a mom down the street asked me.
She'd just heard the joyous news Degrassi which was facing cancellation has been saved yet again-- this  by Netflicks --a decision that will made our "Canadian" commercial networks as mad as hell.
I was the first TV critic on the set of Kids Of Degrassi  which creators Linda Schuyler and Kit Hood first presented way back in 1979
I was then with The Hamilton Spectator but all the big time TV critics in Toronto simply ignored it.
"I'd never go on the set of a kids' show like that," snapped The Globe And Maik's Blail Kirby when I asked him about it.
Well, I did and I never forgot it.
The first offering consisted of a mere 24 episodes made between 1979 and 1984 -- CBC ran them in the late afternoon children's slot with TVO picking up the repeats.
I remember taking the Queen streetcar over to the Beach area to interview the very pleasant Schuyler who was both creative but also concerned about the well being of her young charges.
My favorite was "Charles Buys A Suit" where the tyke bought a new suit for his father's wedding at Moores.
Later on I met up with Schuyler in Redondo Beach where she was peddling the next series Degrassi Junior High to PBS.
She had three of the "stars" up on stage with her and mentioned one troubled youth was staying with her.
I remember blond Neil Hope was up there along with darkly handsome Pat Mastroianni.
Critics sitting with me said it obviously was Mastroianni but in reality he came from a strong family.
It was Hope who was troubled --he later disappeared for years only to be reported dead in Hamilton a few years ago
Schuyler later kept up a trust fun to get some of her charges into university.
When Degrassi High finally died in 1991 she tried an adult soap opera called LIberty Street and later mounted an hourlong soap opera called Riverdale but CBC only had the funds for 12 episodes the first year.
Degrassi: The Next Generation revved up in 2001. CBC balked because it had no money so the series ran on MTV in the U.S. and CTV up here .
After 14 seasons MTV cancelled out so in stepped Netflix and Family Channel.
Netflix also has Trailer Park Boys --more new Canadian content than you'll see on "Canadian"
Schuyler's Epitome PIctures has morphed into a very rich concern --DHX Media paid $33 million for the library a few years ago.
Now she has her own back lot in East York not the ratty old vet office on Queen Street East.
But I'm warning her --at a recent meeting weith Grade 6 students I asked their favorfite kids series.
And 2 to 1 they picked The Next Step over Degrassi.
Time moves on for all of us.