Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Why Would TV Guide Lie?

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I won't waste a lot of time discussing the content of CBC's new series "Men With Brooms". It's just another comedy that's not funny, not really about curling and not much of anything you haven't seen done far better by dozens of sitcoms CBC executives insufferably insist are beneath them.

I can't imagine how galling it must be to all those media talking heads and commentators who spent the Summer chastising the Alberta Culture Minister for suggesting we make "shit" to now acknowledge that our national broadcaster is a primary purveyor of the product.

There are a couple of milestones achieved with the series which should be mentioned however. After decades of whining about Canadian made shows disguising their locales to appear American, "Men With Brooms" might be the first where one Canadian region pretends to be a different part of the country.

Although filmed in Manitoba, "Brooms" is ostensibly set someplace else. I have no idea why, although on some level it probably qualifies the show for twice as many provincial tax incentives.

There's also a running gag in the pilot where one of the leads is flummoxed at meeting a female accountant, as if that's totally foreign to his experience and might strike the audience equally as odd.

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I don't know how to tell the showrunners this, but women accountants have been commonplace far longer than anyone in the cast has been alive, so the bit comes off as one of those forced beats indicating the writers were out of fresh ideas pretty early on.

Episode Two apparently features jokes about the "Mousetrap" board game. Given how long it's been since any of us have seen anybody drop their personal gaming device to play a board game, I'm assuming this is a bit someone in the writing room has been carrying around in their back pocket since grade school.

Note to writers: There comes a time when some of that stuff in your Moleskine is past its "Best Before" date.

Ultimately, the only purpose the woman accountant bit perhaps serves is to exhibit that the only job some women still can't do is develop quality television series for the CBC.

No, what I'd really like to use this time and space to discuss is the way "Men With Brooms" was introduced to Canadian viewers. Or not introduced, as some might contend, but slyly snuck past them.

For reasons still to be explained, or strategically ignored, reviews for "Men With Brooms" were scarce on the day of the series' debut, the traditional moment when TV critics recommend what to watch that evening -- TV audiences being notoriously averse to planning their tube time in advance.

According to the TV Guide website, CBC recently switched PR firms and review screeners were lost in the transition. Which begs a few questions:

1. Given the eleventy billion people apparently essential to the continued survival of the CBC and with only two new shows debuting this fall "Brooms" and "Debbie Does Drumheller" or whatever they're calling their new reality show starring that Brit who got famous telling you how to paint your nursery -- why does the CBC have to outsource its PR?

2. If the PR firm was at fault, why was a show spokesman claiming the show was still in Post days before broadcast and therefore screeners couldn't go out?

3. And with so many reasons for screeners to be unavailable, how come Bill Brioux and Brad Oswald had copies that allowed them both to post negative reviews on the release date? In fact, according to this morning's TV Feeds My Family, Brioux had received the first two episodes.

"Oh, what a tangled web we weave…"

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I thought the online version of TV Guide showed some pluck by not allowing not having seen a show deter their critics from providing mini-reviews and awarding the series between one and four stars anyway.

I'm not sure exactly how you can critique a show you haven't seen and I believe there are car magazines which have gone bankrupt after readers discovered no independent observer was actually testing the vehicles. But the fine folks at TV Guide soldiered on regardless.

Maybe those who write seriously about television can stop wondering why nobody pays TV critics much mind anymore.

And the rest of us should pray that once TV Guide goes under none of these staffers find jobs at "Consumer Reports".

On the other hand, it could be that the folks at TV Guide are just being honest with themselves, knowing that given the CBC track record with sitcoms hardly anybody else is going to watch either, especially when their options include "House", "Dancing With The Stars" and "Monday Night Football" not to mention hockey and real curling beginning next week.

Movie studios have historically made no secret of the fact that they don't screen films for critics that they know will get killed in the hope of drawing in enough suckers on the first weekend to offset some of the losses.

CBC seems to have decided to follow that marketing approach with "Brooms" while adding an interesting new wrinkle by rewriting the project's provenance.

As we all know from being inundated by press reports (courtesy the PR firm CBC just fired or just hired) "Men With Brooms" is the red-headed step child of the 2002 film "Men With Brooms" which introduced the small-town-not-really-about-curling concept, co-written by and starring Paul Gross who now co-produces and occasionally appears as his original character.

Mr. Gross would seem to be winding down his involvement in order to spend more time readying the TV version of his most recent box-office failure "Gunless" for Canadian TV. That project likely won't appear until its shortcomings have been as carefully erased as those which once stuck to "Men With Brooms".

In his mini-review of the series he hasn't actually seen, TV Guide critic "Greg" awards "Men With Brooms" 4 Stars largely because it was such a "massive hit" in theatres.

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Even the esteemed Globe and Mail critic, John Doyle, an avowed stickler for accuracy, refers to the series springing from the loins of the "popular" film.

Unfortunately, neither of those perceptions are true.

Despite one of the largest marketing campaigns ever launched for a Canadian film, "Men With Brooms" died at the box office. It never even came close to making its money back.

The night I saw it, the curtain rose in a theatre occupied by me and a young Asian couple who had more interest in each other than the movie. After ten minutes, they left to find somewhere even more private and I sat through my own personal screening.

You can find the film's official box-office record here or depicted below.


Yet, from the get-go CBC press releases have played up how hilarious and ingrained in our national psyche and spirit of fun is this movie that not even 2% of the country actually saw and many of those didn't like.

40% of the reviews still posted on Rotten Tomatoes were less than kind. To my knowledge, nobody has ever held a midnight screening or taken the film on a tour of college campuses where audiences arrive dressed as curlers calling out such immortal lines as "How do you forget 400 pounds of defecating menace?"

Yet this (apparently extemporaneous) quote was offered by one of the new "Men With Brooms" actors: "You're taking something that people have loved and have a personal connection with and it's becoming something different, so there is a responsibility there."

Now obviously, the CBC might not get many people excited and could even have some doubting their competence if they announced their only new comedy of the fall was based on a flop. But what's telling about the project is that it doesn't appear that anyone looked at what didn't work in the original and decided to make sure those mistakes weren't repeated.

Instead, it seems the plan was to simply ignore the past, get Paul Gross on board and go full steam ahead.


Because that's how the insular, inbred, ignore the reality of the audience and the marketplace mentality of Canadian television most often operates.

After innocently twittering my inability to find any reviews of the show on Monday, I received the following response from somebody connected with the Canadian Media Fund…

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And there you have it. The inner cabal who decides what gets made in this country leaping to the defense of one of the "chosen" -- even though he barely appears in the pilot beyond a narration resonating as written to pretend the failed jokes were intentionally unfunny.

Actually my favorite moment of narration arrived 18 minutes in as Gross mispronounces "Spiel" as "Schpiel" something you'd think a writer/producer surrounded by others immersed in the game might have caught.

You also wonder if srk_to is aware the phrase "to be reckoned" is used by accountants (even female ones) to describe reconciling income and expenses. That's a concept apparently foreign to government funders who, despite never recovering the taxpayer investment in 2002's "Men With Brooms", decided it was a great idea to throw more millions at the 2010 version -- which probably has even less chance of returning a profit.

There are days some of us wish the Canadian Taxpayer Federation would stop sniping at political chipmunks and take aim at this lumbering wildebeest of government ineptness.

Drilling down through srk_to's Tweets I also found a link to this amazing press release from Telefilm Canada which begins by claiming that every dollar invested by Telefilm results in $16 of foreign sales of Canadian programming and by the end has proven that single dollar has evolved $333 in economic activity.

Confusing arithmetic for Creatives who've never seen a dime in royalties from all these money spinning Canadian programs and even more concerning for film crews sitting idle because Canadian networks somehow still have no money to fund homegrown shows.

Thank God Parliament has come to its senses and revived the long-form census so we can continue to have these kind of statistics!

In the end, all this spinning and revising achieves nothing beyond proving that a gift of fiction can thrive outside the confines of a writers room. Unfortunately, if it had been kept there and encouraged to flourish, "Men With Brooms" might be a much better show and maybe even convince some of those who paid for it that there is Canadian TV worth watching.


John McFetridge said...

In their song "Raino" the great Canadian band Chiliwack sing, "If there ain't no audience, there ain't no show."

Maybe they should have gotten into the TV biz.

Anonymous said...

Well Jim, I actually have a Moleskin from way back in my Sheridan College days (85 to 87), and wouldn't you know it: there on my list of potential plots for my blockbuster movie script is a story about curling...replete with more small town chic, anecdotes and characters (hey, write what you know) than you could get from the Screenwriter's Cliche Factory with a deep discount card.

I HAVE to get going on some of these ideas. Especially the one about a 3D virtual world of avatars and space marines...

Anonymous said...

Since you think it's important for a Canadian film to make its money back, and we shouldn't be funding movies that won't make their money back, what about the Quebec film industry? Quebeckers love their homegrown cinema and go to it in droves, but even then their movies lose money because their population consists of only 7.8 million people. So should we completely forget about supporting French-Canadian films because they can never make their money back?

jimhenshaw said...

A couple of points "Anonymous"...

I've never been opposed to subsidizing programming that has either a small market or whose audience otherwise doesn't have access to it.

But I fail to see the benefit of continually supporting industry players who consistently fail. They not only consume the resources that could be allotted to those who might do better, but over time they convince the audience that what they desire isn't available from Canadian sources.

John McFetridge said...

They not only consume the resources that could be allotted to those who might do better...

This is a good point. If publicly funded institutions like the CBC and Telefilm aren't using measurable criteria like box office receipts and ratings, then they should at least make the process they do use to choose which projects get funded a lot more transparent.

When Telefilm makes public the projects it has funded why don't they also make public information about the ones they didn't choose to fund with our money?

The CBC could get a reality show out of "development" and show us every project that gets submitted. Okay, it might be better as a web-based show or they could put it on Bold ;)

Anonymous said...

After decades of whining about Canadian made shows disguising their locales to appear American, "Men With Brooms" might be the first where one Canadian region pretends to be a different part of the country.

It's not the first. Off the top of my head, I can think of a couple recents:

Blood Ties (Vancouver for Toronto), Little Mosque(ON for SK).

There are probably more, but you're right, it is peculiar, and probably has something to do with tax incentives.