Wednesday, December 31, 2008


I spend a lot of my life on airplanes. After a while it becomes second nature and like most of the jets I travel on, I'm on auto-pilot.

Packing takes 10 minutes. I know what part of the parkade is closest to which airline, where not to buy coffee, the security or customs line that moves quickest.

I also know some travel dates, like those around Christmas, can be fraught with unexpected complications and delays. Eventually even those are partitioned into "been there, done that, not really anything special" categories.

So this Christmas I decided to complicate the travel experience for a change and take the cat with me.


Okay, technically, the decision wasn't mine. The usual pet care suspects suddenly had their own plans for the holidays. They were also flying off to places tropical or to visit family. The neighbors were all hosting crowds of in-laws, having babies or finally getting the kids a new puppy; environments less than conducive to cat sitting -- especially if the cat in question is as temperamental and demanding as the one I own.

In the end, I even called a couple of those pet motel outfits and cringed at both the prices and the "we know this is really your child and we'll treat her that way" attitude. Much as I thought it would be fun to see their reaction to checking in the feline version of Keith Moon, I passed on them too.

Frankly, this is the pussy from hell. She hates me and doesn't make any bones about letting everybody know. I get bitched at for everything from breakfast being ten minutes late to not providing sunshine in her favorite window. She plots new ways of getting at me, like some cranky drill sergeant just waiting to spot a weakness.

Whoever coined the adage that "cats were once worshipped as Gods and have never forgotten it" definitely had this animal in mind. It's her world, I just live here.

Putting her in the car for her annual trip to the Vet is a cue for biting, scratching and a massive  nuclear Armageddon spit-fit. She howls all the way there and back and long ago convinced the Vet to don body armor for the examination.

He was the first to tell me I was nuts to take her along. Pretty much everybody else said the same.

"Jim, she'll be uncontrollable. It'll be humiliating. You're crazy!"

But crazy's a certification I earned a long time ago, so I went ahead and called the nice people at Westjet.

They were my only choice because Air Canada doesn't fly animals anymore. Given the dismal Air Canada record this Christmas, it would appear they've given up on the concept of getting people where they're going as well.

For those unfamiliar with either airline, the best comparison comes from Comedian Mike McDonald, who says there are only two kinds of truckstop waitresses, the bubbly farmer's daughter and the junkie Goth. Respectively, that's Westjet and Air Canada.

To my surprise, the Westjet ticket agent got all excited about booking a "kitty ticket" as he called it and was a wealth of information on traveling with an animal. And when I told him she might be difficult, his response was simply, "Well, we all have bad days, don't we?"

I prepared myself for the worst flight of my life and a particularly trying day.

And the bad day started pretty much as I expected. Screaming as she went in the kennel, howl-fest in the car. Thrashing around as we walked into the terminal. And then...

Dead silence. And then...

Purring for the ticket agent. Snuggling with the security screeners. A happy chirp for the stewardess and the lady in the next seat.

"Why your cat is good as gold!" Uh-huh and I've got the love-bites and passion scratches to prove it.

But suddenly an animal who can't stand anybody (especially me) is everybody's friend. And I'm dealing with something I had been completely unprepared for...


All the other traveling pets are purse dogs. Their owners could easily be mistaken for Paris, Lindsay or Brittany. They and their animals are fashionable, glittering and bejeweled. They catch the attention of everybody in the airport lounge as they go through the pre-boarding parade of those with kennels.

And then there's this dumpy, middle-aged man with a cat...

All the looks I'm getting say just one thing -- "My God, this guy is SERIOUSLY PATHETIC".

I glanced into the kennel. The cat looked at me with a glint of pure malice and the hint of a smile.

Gotcha again, Cowboy! Next time, cough up the cash for a kitty spa. And make it one where they don't skimp on the catnip!

Tuesday, December 23, 2008


Every Prairie primary school I attended pretty much shut down on the first of December. Christmas holidays never officially started until a couple of days before Christmas. But while a few of the teachers went through the motions of teaching history or math, most of the rest and all of us kids were otherwise pre-occupied with one thing -- The Christmas Concert.

In the towns where I lived the bible story/nativity stuff was left to the church Christmas pageant. In the pre-political correctness era, I believe this was more a copyright issue than a creative choice.

Our Christmas concerts were all about carols, dancing candy canes and Santa Claus. Although I remember Batman and Robin making an appearance on one occasion.

These things were never scripted. and if they were, it was by somebody with an advanced case of ADD or who would one day end up in charge of programming at MTV.

Most of my early grade teachers would simply let us know it was concert time and ask what we wanted to do. That was the cue for some 7 year old "Friend of Dorothy" to explode with sketch ideas that ranged anywhere from Santa's elves finding a way to turn on Rudolph's nose to the workhouse production number from "Oliver!".

Each grade was required to deliver one Christmas themed scene and a carol. Usually the scenes came first using sets we'd painted and props we'd created, and then we all scrambled into our sweater vests and bow ties to troop out one class at a time for our song.

The oldest grades had a preset routine to avoid anybody blurting out something rude or revealing Santa's real identity. So the girls would get into red or white leotards and a candy cane outfit while us boys would fetch the Styrofoam tin soldier suits stored under the gym bleachers for the rest of the year for a stirring rendition of "The Little Drummer Boy" (complete with drums) which signalled the beginning of the musical portion of the program.

Being inside those suits was like being zipped into a well used hockey bag, but it was worth it cause you got to be in the wings for the candy canes' Rockettes routine.

Back when I was 12, there was nothing hotter than watching the cutest girl in class high-kick in a leotard, strategically placed holly and all.

Once we'd suitably butchered the little Drummer Boy, it was everybody else's turn to massacre a Christmas classic and class after class would troop on stage for their carol. Because nobody talked to each other, this meant a couple or three versions of "Jingle Bells" (sometimes in a row) and and at least one kick at Elvis' "Blue Christmas".

And there was always some deluded musicologist on the staff who thought his or her Grade Four Class could handle a chunk of Handel's "Messiah" or a medieval Chorale. They were the ones leaving in tears before Santa appeared at the finale, tossing out bags of candy while our moms searched for our coats and all the dads went to warm up the car for the ride home.

In memory of those confused and chaotic Christmas concerts, I'm posting a couple of my favorite carols. Feel free to add your own in the comment section and I'll update to include them here -- creating our own "Who the hell knows what's coming next " prairie Christmas concert.

Multiple versions of "Jingle Bells" and Santa themed sketches are more than welcome.

And have yourself a very Merry Christmas!

Courtesy Will Dixon of the Buck Owens Memorial Middle School on the extreme Southwest side of Regina:

Monday, December 22, 2008


When I was a kid, we were taught that Canada had the world's largest supply of fresh water. We had something like 3 million lakes and endless rivers clear enough to drink from even if your mom didn't think it was a good idea.

And while Wikipedia now insists the "Most Fresh Water" resides in Brazil with Russia, China and Canada close behind, it's hard to find a tourist poster for the country that doesn't still feature pristine lakes, glacial streams or Niagara Falls.

We've got water everywhere. But for thousands of us, there's not a drop fit to drink.

I was born on the Siksika Reservation just east of Calgary. And before anybody starts thinking that hiring me makes them eligible for one of those Aboriginal incentives our governments are so fond of -- sorry, they just had the closest hospital when I was ready to make my debut.

But I grew up with a lot of "Indian" kids (the acceptable descriptive back then) and soon became aware that the way they lived was different from the way the rest of us did. The housing on the reserve wasn't as good as it was in the nearby towns. The people were poorer and they seemed to have more problems. And while we got our water from a tap and had indoor toilets, they relied on a communal well and outhouses.

A lot has changed for Canada's Aboriginal peoples over the last 50 years. But in a land still rich in fresh water, thousands living on reservations don't have access to it.

We've all heard the stories of Northern outposts relying on water supplies tainted by raw sewage. Every time one of those makes the newspapers, there's a national outcry. And then it fades. And then nothing happens.

Right now as you're pouring yourself a tall glass of water there are thousands of Canadian children without access to drinking water unless it comes in an imported bottle and forced to visit community centers if they want a bath or a shower.

And the only difference between you and them is that you live wherever you live and they live on a reservation.

This has been going on for years in some places. The continuous "boil-water" advisories, the recurring epidemics, the endless indignity of fetching the day's drinking water and carrying it home in a pail.

All of this could have been solved long ago. Some say $15 Million could solve it permanently. $15 Million! 1/1000th of the money we're spending for the Vancouver Olympics. 1/100th of what was granted this week to our failing automakers.

Money in both cases granted immediately without the need for the reams of feasibility studies and environmental assessments that seem necessary anytime a little is needed by our less fortunate citizens.

Good to know there'll be no thirsty athletes in 2010 and you'll still be able to get a cold Evian or Valverde at the Chrysler dealership when you drop in for a test drive. That Mohawk kid trying to get through his school day -- well, he'll have to wait.

I think we all know the problem here is a political one. And there isn't a political party in Canada who is blameless. They've all held power in one place or another where the lack of drinkable water on reservations has been a concern.

But in the Canadian tradition of political parties, they reward their supporters with consulting contracts and ministry reports that carve away the money regularly set aside for these projects. It's much easier to study an issue than simply solve it and that's how most of those in government service make their salaries.

Gosh, if the problem were solved how would they justify their jobs or their hefty consulting fees?

$15 Million. Less than the budget of "Passchendaele". Fewer public dollars than get spent each year on Film festivals and script development.

During the Christmas season, it's usually pretty easy to run into all stripes of politicians from local officials to your MP, a cabinet Minister or somebody from an opposition party who'd like to have those jobs. They're hosting parties, attending levees and, this year in particular, looking for your support for or against a coalition.

When one of these guys buttonholes you, or you manage to get his or her attention, could you change the subject and ask them one question?

Isn't it time every kid in this country could turn on a tap and get a glass of water?

Because you can't be a rich nation when so many among us live this poorly. You can't be a nation that wants to be great or thought of highly and still treats its children this way. And there's no such thing as National Pride when this kind of shame and disgrace keeps hanging around.

This Christmas season, please add this issue to whatever you're talking to your representatives about. And don't let them just smile, mumble something compassionate and walk away. Demand a commitment. This needs to be dealt with now.

Saturday, December 20, 2008


We're gonna do things a little different this Sunday. Video first and then Jim's little sermon.

And I can't exactly show the video either. That's because it's not in an embeddable format in the only place I can find it.

It's also a commercial as well as technically NSFW and in the spirit of the season, we're trying to stay "family-friendly" as well as fiercely independent here at the Legion.

So go here first and then come right back.

Okay, now I don't care who you are -- that's funny right there. (To coin a phrase)

And don't you just wish some theatre company near you had the cojones to run it?

But theatre folk are generally a conservative lot, imbued with a feeling that they need to respect and protect the rituals and the traditions of their art.

I love the theatre. It's where I got my artistic start and where I have been both enormously inspired and spent evenings the memory of which will entertain me for the rest of my life.

There is simply no experience like being swept into a story which is taking place right before your eyes -- involving real living breathing people just like you!

But all over the world, the theatre is dying. Theatre companies are closing up shop or reducing their seasons, unable (or perhaps a little unwilling) to compete with new media that's more accessible, more affordable and where you don't have to turn up on time and relatively open to participate in a group experience.

Have any of you noticed how so many of our great recent leaps in communication (instant messaging, social networks or blogging) actually succeed in isolating us even further from each other? Oh, the information and the opinions are shared -- but the physical aspect of interacting is slipping away.

Going to the theatre is also hard work. You're required to suspend disbelief on a number of levels; accept that a canvas drop is Elsinore, that there really are 76 trombones leading the big parade and somebody named Godot is actually waiting in the wings. Films and TV fill in the blanks and deliver all the trimmings, theatre expects you to bring something of yourself to the party.

And lately that includes a lot of your money.

When I was starting out, tickets to movies used to cost more than tickets to most plays. I saw great stars like Lawrence Olivier and great plays like the debut run of "Equus" for less than a buck and a half. Well into the 1980's most theatres in Toronto still priced their shows just under the going rate at Famous Players or Cineplex and many still have a "Pay-What-You-Can" matinée to serve those who can't afford a seat at prices that have skyrocketed.

But the costs of producing live shows keep rising and have to be amortized over a constantly shrinking audience base. Tickets for Broadway shows and their touring companies regularly reach triple digits, and locally produced shows aren't far behind.

This Christmas, I decided I'd try to inspire people to do a little something extra in honor of the season. The first was in the post below, and the final one will follow tomorrow. Just little things you might do to make life a little better for somebody else at a time when the rest of the world seems to be going steadily South.

Today, I'd like to ask you to buy one ticket to see a play. Just one ticket -- at whatever price level you can comfortably afford. Because the simple economics are -- if everybody living within a few miles of a theatre bought one ticket, that theatre would be sold out every single night of the year.

And then theatre wouldn't be dying and some of the great performances and great ideas that have inspired generations would be around to inspire one or two more.

The news these days would have you believe that massive forces and unimaginable amounts of money are necessary to turn things around. It can make anything you want to do seem insignificant and impotent. But, in truth, it's the little things that make the biggest difference.

And making a difference for all the people who work in the theatre is as simple as buying one ticket.

Think about it. And enjoy your Sunday.

Friday, December 19, 2008


Last Spring, a freeway near me was renamed "The Highway of Heroes". It was a special designation recognizing a 100 mile ribbon of asphalt running from Trenton, Ontario to downtown Toronto. This is the route taken when Canadian soldiers who have made the ultimate sacrifice in Afghanistan are returned home.

Military protocol requires the bodies of our fallen be flown to CFB Trenton, where their families have been gathered to receive them. Then a procession of hearses and limousines ferries them on a solemn two hour trip to a morgue in Toronto where their autopsies are performed.

As of today, 103 Canadian soldiers have made this final journey of repatriation and that alone would seem reason enough to rename a road.

But that's not the whole story. Because right from the return of our first casualty something very special has happened along this stretch of road.

While our politicians debate whether or not we should be in Afghanistan, a debate that ramps up in the media with each new casualty, ordinary Canadians are doing something else. They are coming in ones and twos, carrying flags and homemade banners and waiting, sometimes for hours, to show their respect as the fallen pass.

This grassroots show of affection and respect has grown to the point where thousands now line every mile of the route, a truly overwhelming sight to witness.

This week I was in traffic going the other way when our last three fallen soldiers were returned. I'd passed several of the overflowing bridges and overpasses, so I knew what lay ahead, but it hadn't prepared me for the moment when the procession arrived.

Traffic ahead slowed, then came to a stop. As the leading police cars passed on the other side of the median, two elderly gentlemen got out of the car in front of me. They walked to the shoulder, came to attention and saluted as the hearses passed. The Semi behind me laid on his air horn, sounding a long, forlorn salute of his own.

Inside one of the limousines, a woman placed her hand on the window acknowledging one of the banners or maybe the high school kids standing in the bed of somebody's pick-up with their hands over their hearts.

It only took a minute for the vehicles to pass. One of the old guys wiped away a tear as they returned to the car. The other gave me one of those waves old guys give you when they've disrupted the flow of things. And then the traffic started moving again.

An hour or so later, some talking head on CBC radio was going on about how the latest deaths meant we were paying too great a price for the mission. It made me wonder if anybody in the media ever considers that the immediate moment of grief might not be the best time to suggest a family's sacrifice has been in vain.

I've never had to go into combat and I'm not sure what it would take to make me willing to risk my own life or take someone else's in the name of a cause or a commitment made by my country. But I look at Afghan women executed for seeking rights Canadian women don't think twice about. I see little girls disfigured with acid because they just want to go to school. And I see cultural treasures destroyed because they represent the "wrong" religion -- and I figure having fewer of the guys perpetrating those crimes around is probably a good thing.

I also think that we should be doing a little more to let our men and women in uniform know we care about them than simply paying our respects on their final journey home.

If you'd like to send a Season's Greeting to one of our men or women in Afghanistan, you can do so by going here.

And if you'd like to do more, say make a donation to comfort those who've been wounded in battle, assist a military family or help out the people of Afghanistan who have been ravaged by this war, you can do any (or all) of those things by visiting this site.

However you may feel about their mission, these people are half a world away from their families at Christmas and each and every one of them is tackling a problem that requires a heroic personal sacrifice.

Let's show them that we care.

Thursday, December 18, 2008


According to people who study such things, times of great social upheaval give rise to the creation of super-heroes. When we are overwhelmed by world events and personal circumstances we seek escape and look for someone with special powers who might better grapple with what we're facing.

What I start to look for when I see the world going to hell in the proverbial hand basket is what wrong turns we made that got us here and how those who were in charge, apparently working with better personal and inside intelligence than the rest of us own, might have avoided trouble in the first place.

And that invariably leads to one of two conclusions. Either George Carlin was right and "selfish, ignorant leaders are chosen by selfish, ignorant people" OR the people who presume to know what's right for us are posing as super heroes and need to be unmasked.

The photo above was taken at the CRTC hearings last April as CTV head honcho Ivan Fecan and Leonard Asper, Canwest Global's fearless leader, set aside their partisan differences to be among the first of Canada's corporate citizens to seek a government bailout of their media conglomerates.

Both had recently been stretched financially thin by purchasing most of their competitors and appeared as a united front seeking "carriage fees" -- a few bucks annually from each of their viewers to pay for services they had been licensed to provide and historically delivered at no charge.

Last month, the CRTC turned down their request and the above photo ran again in several newspapers when both men axed a significant portion of their network staffs to reduce costs.

I seldom read the online comments to articles posted by the Toronto Star but this time the first response caught my eye. It simply stated: "The man has diamond cuff links".

A lot has been made of the heads of GM, Ford and Chrysler taking private jets to their own bailout hearings or the CEO of Lehman Brothers, who convinced longtime staff to accept severance buyouts and then bankrupted the company so he wouldn't have to pay them.

CTV employees who attended the "Town Hall Meeting" where the layoffs were announced have described how Fecan was asked by a fellow exec whether the company's apparently dire financial situation meant that bonuses would not be paid this year. He was assured bonus packages would arrive as scheduled.

"You hundred or more guys in the back take a hike! Anybody in a suit -- order an extra case of Beaujolais Nouveau."

As governments wrestle with bailouts in the auto industry, there is a growing concern about how the money should be spent. If it goes to save the jobs of auto workers, it's basically welfare that doesn't address the woes of the industry. And if it goes to the companies, it rewards mismanagement.

Many feel relief should only be offered if those in charge are fired for the excesses and incompetence that got them where they are.

The auto industry's real problems might have been brought into painfully sharp focus by a credit crunch. But surely, the only reliable solution to the current crisis is making certain that outmoded business models and decades of myopic vision aren't allowed to continue.

Which brings me back to those two guys in that picture. For during their individual reigns, neither has managed to either design a corporate model for broadcasting in this country that seems able to keep their companies viable or generate product which grew their domestic audience.

Ivan Fecan arrived in Canada in 1987 to take over the management of television programming at the CBC. He'd been considered a local "Wunderkind", who'd impressed NBC program legend Brandon Tartikov so much, Tartikov not only hired him as a VP of Programming at NBC but offered him lodging in his guest house. Presumably that meant he was returning after having been thoroughly schooled at the great man's feet.

I may have been the first producer Fecan encountered here in Canada. That year, I was producing the Genie Awards for the Academy of Canadian Cinema for CBC broadcast and Ivan asked if he could attend our final production meeting -- a concept I found refreshingly responsible of a new network executive.

He arrived on time with two assistants in tow, said some nice things about how much he was looking forward to be back working in Canada and settled in to listen.

Production meetings can be long and tedious but he seemed quite engaged, nodding approvingly at some things and laughing in all the right places.

A common element in Awards shows is something called a "Bumper" -- the moment before a commercial when you get a heads up on what's coming next. We'd designed our bumpers to familiarize the audience with some of the lesser known nominees. They would be shown looking up from their mix boards, design tables or scripts announcing the upcoming award.

I began talking about the status of the bumpers and Ivan touched my arm, "Excuse me, what's a bumper?".

That surprised me a little. This was a guy who supposedly had a background in variety programming. He had taken credit for designing the news format of CITY-TV and had ridden his participation in "SCTV" into a top American network office.

But I explained. He whispered to an assistant, who wrote down "Bumper" on her legal pad accompanied by my definition.

This happened three or four more times during the meeting and could well be construed as somebody open and confident enough to ask questions about terms on which he wasn't clear.

But all of what needed to be explained fell well into the category of "Production 101' and there wasn't a department head in that meeting who wasn't wondering if this guy had been at Tartikov's place to wash the car and clean the pool -- sort of his own Kato Kaelin.

And perhaps we were wrong, because during Fecan's tenure the network created successful series like "The Kids in the Hall", "Road to Avonlea" and "North of 60" along with movies such as "The Boys of St. Vincent", "Conspiracy of Silence" and "Love and Hate" -- television anybody would be proud of.

But those shows amounted to an average of one series and one movie per year of his time in charge, or less than he would have gotten to program in a single season if he'd stayed at NBC. Why had this guy bothered to come back here? And where was this "New Wave of Innovation" we'd been led to expect?

Where was the library of new programming that could feed the soon to arrive specialty channels and burgeoning foreign market? NBC and the other American nets had made that a priority. Around the world, Syndicators were creating their own shows and even their own mini-networks outside the standard network and studio system to mine the new revenue streams.

Not so much here.

I can't tell you how many of the "great" projects that arrived during Fecan's tenure were in development prior to his arrival or how much he was involved in their creation. But I do know the Tartikov style of carpet-bombing the competition with new and innovative shows definitely wasn't part of CBC's way of doing business and very little changed.

A couple of years into Fecan's reign, I was hired over there to write a movie and met with an actual local legend, Jim Burt, to discuss practical matters like delivery. It was April and he told me they'd like to have a draft by December.

"You're giving me 8 months to write a script?", I asked in disbelief.

"Well," he answered, "We try to package everything so Ivan can read it over Christmas."

I was used to seeing LA studio and network executives lugging script loaded Airline Pilot style satchels home every weekend for immediate review.

"Your guy only reads once a year?", I asked. Jim offered a resigned shrug. It's the same shrug CBC producers will give you today when you ask how "MVP" got green-lit or what guy thought it was a good idea to renew "Sophie".

And in some ways, Fecan didn't have to develop much. Because a couple of years before he returned CBC had moved their flagship nightly newscast, "The National" from 11:00 pm to 10:00 pm, pulling their own preemptive Jeff Zucker move that eliminated the need to come up with more than 2 hours of prime-time each evening.

I don't know what finally drove Ivan Fecan over to CTV. It might have been a disastrous move of the news even earlier to 9:00 pm that cut ratings in half. Maybe it was other restrictions and limitations inherent in Public broadcasting. In any event, he was soon in charge of CTV. But the Tartikov programming style didn't surface over there either.

Indeed, if you look over the financial pages reviewing many of his annual reports, you'll find a pattern of "laying off" staff to make the bottom line look better than it would have otherwise appeared.

And while CTV has seen ratings success of late with programs like "Canadian Idol", "Corner Gas" and "Flashpoint", it has continued to follow a passive corporate path, dependent primarily on American programming and burying much of its homegrown product through lack of promotion and a lackluster online and after market presence.

CTV also continues to depend on public funding to support its new media initiatives and has no sizable library of product to monetize through the new media streams now readily available to it.

Just like his time at CBC, Fecan seems unable to step beyond a broadcast model that used to be a license to print money without investing too much sweat equity or company cash. But that business model no longer works -- and frankly hasn't for several years.

Indeed, we now see a somewhat unseemly situation at CTV where jobs and programming are cut while a series produced by Fecan's wife is immediately renewed.

And while Sandra Faire's talents as a producer and the success of her show are no doubt significant -- does it seem proper that while politicians are forbidden from hiring relatives; such restrictions aren't placed on those in the private world who are spending Public money to realize their shows?

This is a conflict of interest that wouldn't be tolerated in any American network and surely should be called into question when it involves taxpayer money.

Otherwise, one is tempted to ask if Fecan campaigned for "carriage fees" to prop up his own lack of management foresight or to top up the joint account.

Over time, Ivan Fecan's Patrician approach and shock of prematurely white hair earned him the affectionate nickname of "Jor-el", because he reminded so many of Superman's dad. And while that image may befit someone working among the elites who manage Canadian programming, Jor-el was no superhero.

He did, however, possess the ability to see trouble coming and prepare for it, something else you can't say about Ivan Fecan.

As more and more of what's going on in Canadian broadcasting gets blamed on "the economy" maybe it's time we started taking a closer look at what might be the real issues, all the while recalling the Albert Einstein quip that "you don't solve problems with the same kind of thinking that created them."

Next time -- in Pt.2 -- the other guy in that photograph. Leonard Asper, a man often referred to in Canadian showbiz circles as "The Boy Wonder".

Sunday, December 14, 2008


My apologies for the lack of activity around here last week but I've been sicker than a dog. And in my case, that analogy is particularly accurate.

Because when I get sick I act exactly like this old dog I used to own. I crawl into a dark little hole until whatever the problem is has worked its way through the system. His spot was under the porch. Mine's somewhere beneath a Duvet with the drapes drawn.

Every now and then I'll emerge lucid enough to refill my waterbowl, refresh the DVD collection or send a couple of emails. Then I disappear back into that black hole.

Black holes are tough to escape. Never happens to most things, Constellations, solar systems, big-ass planets. Somehow I always resurface. Although one look at a desk covered with last week's undone tasks and next week's looming agenda makes me want to disappear back into that black hole.

Maybe that's why we survive these things and planets don't. They don't have all the pressing responsibilities and sense of accountability we do.

Anyway back soon. Much as the Canadian TV powers-that-be were looking forward to putting my doctor on top of their Christmas card lists, not gonna happen this year.

And here's a little story about a black hole. Enjoy your Sunday.

Sunday, December 07, 2008


There are some things embedded in any culture that speak volumes about the places they come from.

Once you've experienced Mexico's "Day of the Dead" or stood amid the smoke from pyres along the Ganges, you look at your own mortality much differently.

Brits may cringe at "Coronation Street" and Aussies grimace at the suggestion they "put another shrimp on the barbie", but the flavor of "The Rover's Return" still resides in every modern pub and nothing augments a cold bevvie better than a sizzling Crystal Bay prawn.

In Canada, we're in love with hockey. Barely a parent escapes the 5:00 a.m. ritual of tying skates on our sons and daughters so they can be imbued with the thrill of speeding down the ice, scoring a goal and going into the boards with your elbows up.

When others question the game's on-ice fighting, cheap shots and trash talk, we silently question their masculinity and their reliability in times of trouble. In fact, many of us believe the easy-going nature of Canadians is directly related to our understanding that scores are best settled on the ice.

Hockey arenas are the centers of our communities and this time of year they are where we go to drop off bags of groceries and toys for the needy. But even some of that is connected to the game -- especially on Teddy Bear Night.

Virtually every small town, semi-pro and minor league team hosts one of these during our Christmas season. The concept is simple...

Bring a stuffed animal to the arena.

Set it in your lap.

Watch the game.

And when the home team scores its first goal you hurl your bear onto the ice. As Rink Announcers are fond of saying, "It's Panda-monium".

Play is suspended and the bears are collected and donated to charities. Teams like the Calgary Hitmen annually truck up to 30,000 off the ice. Given the capacity of their arena, this means quite a few fans are sneaking in extra bears.

The whole process is stupid but fun -- sort of the way most of us actually play hockey.

Enjoy your Sunday -- and don't forget to duck.

Friday, December 05, 2008


They didn't have "time outs" when I was a kid. You just got spanked/yelled at/grounded/whatever and life went on.

We've been through a pretty rancorous week in this country. Not quite Brother on Brother stuff, but friendships have been strained, trust fractured and feelings definitely hurt. And much as I'm no fan of the Monarchy, I'm kinda glad the Queen had a local BFF who sorted through all the arguments and hate mail yesterday and said, "Okay, let's everybody take a minute to calm down."

I believe her instructions could be expanded to read, "Catch up on your Christmas shopping. Send those cards and letters. Sit down with the family and pass around a little turkey. Drink too much and eat too much and maybe -- just maybe -- some of that 'Peace on Earth, Good Will to Men' thing might sink in as you realize just what a special country you live in."

No matter where you stand on the issues, I don't think anything is accomplished by attending rallies and marches and continuing to stir the pot. Sometimes you just need to let things simmer for a bit so the true nature of what you're cooking can be determined.

"Hey, maybe all we need is a little less betrayal of principles!"

Most of all, I really hope the Main Stream Media stops banging the regional drum. Honest to God, have you ever seen so many people reach for the played out old tapes so quick? I'm becoming convinced the MSM think Quebec is some hot exotic dancer who'll walk out of the VIP room the minute the country runs out of $20 bills, while the West is one big oil-rich doofus Jethro Clampett.

So, why don't we use this time-out wisely. Skip the rallies and do your Christmas shopping. Buy that Grit or Tory you apparently despise a tall cold one and talk to him likes he's that best friend who's about to screw up a pretty good marriage.

And if you'd rather just heckle or kick my ass, I'm center stage for one of those "Drinks with..." sessions INK CANADA hosts around the country tomorrow night.

Fynn's of Temple Bar
489 King Street West
Toronto, Ontario M5V 1K4

Saturday, December 6th. 5pm to 9pm.

I'm mostly there to impart whatever the Ink Interns need from me. But I'm sure we'll end up talking about television, culture and a whole lot of things far more interesting than who gets to call themselves a "Right-Honorable".

And just to be certain you youthful Weisenheimers turn up, I want to make it clear that Karen Walton referred to me as "legendary" in her invitation for a reason.

She said she wouldn't talk about it. But she has. So "It's On!"

For those who can't turn up. Here's a little something to get your laugh track rolling again. If you don't know the "Super Mario Brothers" click through for the rest of their oeuvre. They're a guaranteed smile on the downest of days and this time they're doing Cancon with a message for all of us from our political leaders.


I better go get the cape dry-cleaned.

Thursday, December 04, 2008


If you need any further evidence that our lives are run by trolls, just watch any newscast out of Ottawa this week. My God people! Maybe the Prime Minister we've got is an ill-tempered, ideological bore and not the best guy to be running this country. But these other guys....

Gilles Duceppe -- a man who hates Canada!

Jack Layton -- a man who hates the free enterprise system!

And Stéphane Dion -- a man who hates that he's such an endless fricken loser!

Yeah, Canadians are going to be better served by that combination.

Elsewhere, those supporting the Coalition keep pointing out that 62% of Canadians voted for a more "progressive" option -- including the 13% who voted to take Quebec out of Canada. Yeah, that's a real progressive agenda!

Play with numbers all you want, folks. Sure, Harper only got 37% of the popular Vote. But through 12 years in power, Jean Chretien never got above 38%. That's democracy in a multi-party system. Which is supposed to mean that YOU get a say in how your lives are governed, not have those decisions made for you by people who had a different set of goals when they campaigned for and won your vote.

I'm originally from Western Canada, though I've lived far more of my life in Ontario. But I remember clearly, as all Western Canadians do, how our needs and concerns were eternally back burnered over a greater need to keep the country united. And we understood that and (albeit grudgingly sometimes) went along with it.

We went along with it even when we sensed most Quebecers were not much different from us and didn't really want to leave, in the process enriching and empowering a governing mentality that panders to regionalism over what might be the correct course of action.

Regionalism just might be the greatest handicap this country has. In our own TV and film business, people who live and work in one province can't work in another without economically penalizing the production. What kind of apparently "Free" country doesn't allow its people to work wherever their skills are needed?

Regionalism has allowed a culture to develop in this country where one part of the country can be played against another for the benefit of those who enrich themselves and solidify their power bases on the fear they can generate in the rest of us.

And fear always leads to only one outcome -- defeat. Because this constant chaos drives us further apart and further from the kind of cultural and industrial critical masses that historically are what make things happen in the world.

Last night, driving to a meeting before the party leaders "urgent messages to the people", I heard a CBC radio reporter ask one politico whether his calling Bloc Quebecois members separatists might not offend some in Quebec.

And I thought, "Wow, here we go again!" Somehow it's wrong for Canadians to call out the people who want to destroy their country. And some of that long forgotten Western Canadian in me stirred and said, "Gee, as far as the CBC is concerned, a Canadian from Quebec has more value than pretty much everybody who lives North and West of Toronto".

Well, of course, following that line of thinking leads to madness.

But replaying the old tapes continues the Culture of Defeat that has too long burdened any effort to create something new and exciting in this country.

Perhaps -- and I'm calling on every try-to-be-fair-minded cell in my body here -- perhaps -- a coalition will better and more fully represent the views of the country. Maybe a guy who can't even get a DVD from one office to another on time and frames himself with a book entitled "Hot Air" over his shoulder will run the country more effectively.

And maybe Jack won't stage a coup within a coup like he almost did last night by demanding he also get TV time to speak for a coalition that had already been spoken for by its designated leader.

And maybe Gilles Duceppe won't demand that every Tax dollar collected goes to Quebec.

And maybe the Premier of Alberta does not have the "Plan B" he's inferred to protect his people from being pillaged.

And maybe this will only last until the Liberal party appoints Michael Ignatief their leader -- a guy who has written in favor of torture and now opposes free elections -- Gee, we can have our own Robert Mugabe!

And in all this chaos, is anybody going to deny the desires of Broadcasters they will depend on come election time or provide funding for "arts projects" which are always short term endeavors when auto workers are losing their homes?

No -- the Culture of Defeat will triumph once more, because it's more reliable and predictable than change.

Viva the Three Amigos!

Tuesday, December 02, 2008


In 1885, William R. Travers, prominent New York businessman and builder of Saratoga Race Track, was taken out for lunch by a Wall Street broker anxious to impress him and win his business. The broker took Travers to a nearby marina to show off his yacht and those of the other brokers who worked for his firm. The businessman looked down the line of beautiful craft and asked, "Where are the clients' yachts?".

The broker didn't have an answer. Travers took his investment business elsewhere.

For all of the detailed media coverage of celebrity lifestyles, star salaries and box office grosses, not many people in show business actually own yachts -- nor mansions, nor exotic vacation properties or private jets. Those remain mostly in the hands of the corporate executives who control our industry.

The same guys who never pay us what they promised to pay us in our contracts. The same guys we're always chasing for earnings that even massively successful films and TV series somehow never earn. The same guys who courier script notes via executive limo but send the cheques by mail.

In a lot of ways, these are the same kind of people who ran the now bankrupt Lehman Brothers and Bears Stearns investment banks, who supervised now defunct insurance companies and hedge funds or hold the reins of any number of once profitable industries now struggling to stay alive through massive infusions of public funds.

At the moment, we're going through a bit of a constitutional crisis here in Canada precipitated by political parties that would be unable to survive if they had to depend on their own supporters to pay for their campaign funding. Maybe that's democracy at its finest, insuring everyone has the means to run for office. Maybe it's just another way the entitled help themselves to our money.

Anyway, the more I watch this current world-wide Financial crisis, the more it feels like a familiar case of class warfare. A battle between those who feel they have a right to an exceptional lifestyle -- and -- those of us who are expected to pay (via money or blood) to support it.

There are also those who feel they are entitled to be in charge (even if they can't actually run things) and that the rest of us should stop demanding that they live up to the commitments (contractual, political or simply moral) which they made in order to be in line for the big paydays.

At the moment, we're about a month away from another entertainment industry strike. This time it's SAG, the Screen Actor's Guild. And in exactly the same way that the AMPTP (The Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers) painted the members of the Writers Guild of America as greedy and ignorant of industry realities, the Producers are now saying our Actor brethren's demands would bankrupt the system.

At the same time, news is coming out that WGA members are not being paid the new media earnings they won during the last strike. A couple of days ago, the AMPTP admitted that was true -- because doing so was "too complicated".

The next time I'm in a story meeting and somebody asks for a change, I wonder how far I'd get by saying the alterations were "too complicated".

There's a definite US and THEM thing going on here. And some of us believe the reality is the media conglomerates (and perhaps their counterparts in other industries) can't continue to function unless they are permitted to lie, cheat and steal to cover their incompetence. We're supposed to keep delivering the product they sell without interruption. Paying us fairly -- yeah, that's a little harder to figure out.

I get a palpable feeling that what those people in charge supervise in order to make their fortunes has become secondary, almost an annoyance because it takes their focus off their other priorities.

Now, I gotta back up before I go forward here:

Last summer, I had the good fortune to film a Canadian TV show in Paris and the surrounding countryside. We needed palaces like Versailles and Vieux le Vicomte, which had been built by members of the French aristocracy. I'd seen them in books and movies, but nothing prepared me for the reality of standing on the immaculate grounds of those limestone monstrosities.

And I was even less prepared for the countless great homes that surrounded them. There were hundreds, all built by the sweat and tax money of thousands for the benefit of a minuscule handful. Sometimes the hundreds of rooms and manicured acreages were intended to be enjoyed by only two or three residents.

During shooting I learned that virtually every original owner had met his end under the Guillotine of the French Revolution, victims of a people whose capacity to be overburdened or used had reached their limit.

One thing I also learned about the French Revolution is that pretty much everybody could see it coming, but the guys on top simply refused to corral their excesses or even show a modicum of understanding for the needs of the people supporting them.

If you haven't had the pleasure, there's a terrific French film entitled "Ridicule", written by Remi Waterhouse, Michel Fessler and Eric Vicaut which perfectly captures the self-absorption, skewed priorities and terrible short-sightedness of the time.

Well, those French Dukes and Marquises may be gone, but their ilk seems to still inhabit our ruling and executive classes, including those who run the entertainment media. Yes, even those who run the Canadian entertainment media.

A couple of week's ago, Canada's broadcast regulator, the CRTC, ruled against allowing our Free to Air networks collecting carriage fees. Days later, the execs of these companies began culling staff and making noises about reducing their "Broadcast obligations".

At this point, nobody is certain whether that means cutting back local news, Canadian content or any number of things the Broadcast Act requires which our broadcasters find onerous.

And since they're going to be trekking up to Gatineau with a wish list, maybe it's time for us Creative Types to be putting together a list of our own -- a list of the business practices in the industry which have severely curtailed our ability to earn a living.

I'm going to go through several of these in the weeks to come. But first up is something called "Fair Market Value".

Fair Market Value means that a studio or network sells its movies or TV series for the best prices it can get. To many people that would seem to be a given. But it's not.

In 1999, "X-Files" star David Duchovny filed suit against 20th Century Fox Film Corp., seeking $25 million he claimed the studio had cheated him in profit participation. Duchovny maintained that when Fox sold the successful series into syndication, it deliberately minimized revenues by selling to its affiliates and Fox-owned FX instead of selling to the highest bidder. Fox settled in order to sign Duchovny to the series' eighth and final season. It was reliably estimated that he was paid an 8 figure sum.

Two years ago, the writers of "M*A*S*H" received a settlement in a similar suit that amounted to tens of millions of dollars. "M*A*S*H" writer Ken Levine details the suit here.

As Media conglomeration in the US has resulted in fewer players owning more media outlets, the practice of self-dealing to lower costs and raise profits within the parent companies has become more prevalent. But the practice also eliminates payments and profit sharing to the very artists those parent companies are dependent on for their product and contractually obligated to pay.

At the moment, a bill to ensure films and TV series are sold for fair market value is near passage by the California State Legislature. And we need a similar bill here.

A few years ago, my accountant was having trouble understanding why one of our media conglomerates continually provided financial statements where the expenses and fees for distributing their product always exceeded the payments they received for use of the films.

"It costs them more to sell this stuff than anybody pays them," he said, "Who stays in that business?"

I explained that self-dealing their product to a network they owned allowed them to maximize the profits the network made from advertisers. He was still confused.

"But that's cheating you and the government. You're both profit participants." I agreed with him, acknowledged that my lawyer and I were beating our brains out trying to get answers. He still couldn't fathom what was going on. "Where's the government in all this? This is public money!"

A lot of Canadian artists are waiting for that answer. And if our Broadcasters want to approach Ottawa about adjusting their obligations to improve their bottom lines, perhaps questions needs to be asked about how their profits have been achieved in the past.

Quite simply, if our Members of Parliament feel they are entitled to $2 for each vote we cast in electing them, then maybe we're owed the same kind of consideration in our financial dealings.