Sunday, January 31, 2010

Lazy Sunday # 104: Who Dat?

Perhaps nothing better exemplifies how out of touch Corporate America and network television executives can get than the selection of entertainment for next week’s Super Bowl XLIV in Miami.

Of course, nobody could’ve predicted that a team vying for the NFL championship would hail from one of the USA’s music capitols, New Orleans.

And, yeah, I know every city has its own musical style. There are the other real famous ones like Detroit and Nashville. But Chicago and Memphis are right up there too. And New York, LA and Austin don’t have anything to apologize for. Heck, I’m sure there are supporters of the other competing team who could rhyme off a list of famous bands and great music that sprang from Indianapolis.

But instead of appealing to an audience already stoked with local fervor, even if they don’t live in New Orleans --- the people who program the Super Bowl Half Time Show this year chose to feature “The Who”, a band who’s first “Final Farewell” concert I witnessed in Toronto in 1982 (more than a quarter century ago).

Have “The Who” reunited, recorded, toured and retired since then. Yes, many times.

Have they had a big hit since 1982? Um. Not really.

Have they been a major influence on music since 1982? What? Are you kidding?

Okay. Are their old hits the theme songs of the three most popular shows broadcast by this year’s Super Bowl network, CBS?  Er…

C’mon, that’s not why they’re playing --- is it?

Of course it is.

If you’re in Las Vegas for the game, take the Sports Book Props option that “Who Are You?”, “Baba O’Reilly” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again” will be part of the halftime set.

And oddly enough, the people giving CBS millions of dollars to have their ads sandwiched on either side of The Who’s performance are just happy to be at the Super Bowl with their private jets and celebrity boxes and apparently don’t mind that their brand is being associated with…

pete sex

That’s the warning that a Florida child advocacy group sent to 1500 homes near the stadium where next Sunday’s game will be played.  A local wag in Miami suggested that kids not only be warned to beware of an aging rock star offering them candy and the chance to see some puppies, but not to be tempted by a suggestion they pick up a case of Bud Light or a new set of Bridgestone Tires either.

Okay, technically, Pete Townshend has never been convicted of physically harming a child. And he was only on that Kiddie Porn site to do research and only used his credit card to get, I don’t know, “better” research. And he didn’t call the police to tell them what he’d found because he thought it would get him in trouble.


Perhaps appreciative of his good intentions, police in Britain ultimately didn’t charge Pete, but he did have to provide his fingerprints and a DNA sample and was placed on the sex offender registry for five years.

Some say Pete got off said registry when his sentence expired last year. But others say he’s still there because of a short story about underage sex he published on his website in 2006 that was removed after it outraged European child advocate groups.

There was also the little matter of an “anti-Pedophile” comment he posted on his blog which compared kiddie porn to “a free line of cocaine at a decadent cocktail party: only the strong willed or terminally uncurious can resist."

“Only the strong willed and terminally uncurious can resist”? Oh, Pete… I know that “The Heart wants what it wants” as Woody Allen once said in somewhat similar circumstances. But couldn’t you have just left the spotlight in 1982 and maybe gone off to hang with Gary Glitter?

Because if you had, you might have made room on the Super Bowl stage for a bunch of talented musicians who have flooded New Orleans with songs to celebrate their beloved hometown football team.

The war cry of Saints fans is “Who dat?” which was born in 1983, when Saints players teamed up with Aaron Neville to record a version of “When The Saints Go Marchin’ In” that included the soon to be famous “Who dat say dey gonna beat dem Saints?” The original song and a decade later update can be found here.

And in that New Orleans Jazz tradition of taking something old and breathing fresh life into it, local artists Prof. X-Man, BigShott Da Black Rhino, Big Rec, & Kuniqua have released another take on “Who Dat?”

But you won’t see or hear them at the Super Bowl.

And unless they each come up with the $2400 estimated to be the average price of a Super Bowl ticket this year they, like you, will be watching the game on TV and subjected to the dinosaur thinking of CBS and the two still-barely-sucking-oxygen members of a band that should’ve lived up to their first hit anthem and died before they got old.

Here’s “Heart of the City”. Savor the passion and the energy. Hope it soon has a place on television. And Enjoy your Sunday.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Lazy Sunday # 103: Slaughter Nick for President!

If anybody ever tries to tell you that Canadian TV isn’t all that special, ask if they’ve ever heard of Nick Slaughter.


Nick was a fictional gumshoe from the classic Dashiell Hammett mold. Unshaven and hard-drinking, he was saddled with a “down these mean streets walks a man who is not himself mean” morality and a dark sense of humor.

Nick was played by one of Canada’s finest actors, Rob Stewart, the lead character in a 1990’s TV series titled “Tropical Heat” in some markets and “Sweating Bullets” in others.

The series ran three seasons from 1991 – 1994, shooting first in Mexico then Israel and finally South Africa, taking advantage of whichever co-production deal offered its producers the best bang for their buck.

But the creative team was entirely Canadian and for all of the exotic locations and sun-drenched beauties, the writing, directing and acting all displayed a decidedly Canadian take on the “blue-skies” private eye genre.

I had the good fortune of writing five episodes of those three seasons and was later able to hire Rob to star in “Broken Lullaby” a CBS TV movie we shot in Hungary in 1994. 

The Bosnian Conflict was at its height at the time and on Saturday mornings we could visit flea markets selling Russian AK-47’s and land mines that had been turned back at the border. And sometimes at night you could see the flashes of distant artillery and rocket fire on the horizon.

Little did Rob know that while Canadian jets were raining devastation on Serbia, he was giving the innocent in that war hope for a better future. 

For it seems that the UN trade embargo imposed on the country had gone into effect just after tapes of “Tropical Heat” made it over the border, becoming the only escapist entertainment available during the civil war that tore the former Yugoslavia apart.

“Tropical Heat” became so popular it ended up running on all four Serbian TV networks for several years, eventually becoming a symbol of opposition politics, particularly among the country’s urban youth.

The show’s idyllic tropical setting and content imbued with a Canadian sense of justice, fair play and self-deprecating humor had turned it into a national cultural phenomenon.

Soon after the war, with the country roiling against election fraud perpetrated by President Slobodan Milosevic in 1996, a movement was ignited to establish Nick Slaughter as a symbolic revolutionary hero. During the student protests that followed, Graffiti began appearing in Belgrade that read "Slotera Nika, za predsednika" ("Nick Slaughter for President") and meaning “Anybody but Milosevic”.

Meanwhile, a local punk band  by the name of “Atheist Rap” had a hit record with "Slaughteru Nietzsche" with its chorus of "Nick Slaughter, Serbia hails you".

Local bars renamed themselves "Tropical Heat" and mothers were encouraged to name their sons “Nick Slaughter”.

The result of all this – the only peaceful overthrow of a dictatorship in the 20th Century. Carrying banners emblazoned with the logo of a mostly forgotten Canadian TV series, the people of Serbia drove Milosevic from power without firing a single shot.

Oddly enough, or maybe not odd at all when you consider how little publicity Canadian television gets, nobody associated with “Tropical Heat” knew anything about all this. And they wouldn’t for ten more years.

That all changed in 2008 when somebody talked Rob Stewart into going on “Facebook”. He posted his profile and woke up the next morning to discover he had 17,000 friend requests from Serbia.

After learning the reason for his immense popularity in a country he’d never set foot in, Stewart, filmmaker Marc Vespi and Vespi’s sister Liza, decided to travel to Belgrade and make a documentary on what transpired.

What followed was one of the most astonishing experiences of Rob’s life. Grown men dissolved in tears on meeting him, politicians thanked him for saving their country and thousands turned up to see him join “Atheist Rap” onstage to sing their hit song about a character he’d first brought to life.

All of that will be available for other Canadians to see in a soon to be released documentary entitled “Slaughter Nick for President”…


It would be…

If the people I’ve been railing about all week who run Canadian television had any interest in scheduling it.

So far nobody has stepped up to broadcast or distribute this remarkable story.


Well, it might just be that those people don’t want Canadians knowing the kind of effect our television has had on the rest of the world. Because then Canadians might start taking an interest in it. And then somebody’d have to make more of it.

And we can’t have that – can we?

On the other hand, it might be that those executives live in the same world as John L. Sullivan, the fictional Hollywood director in Preston Sturges’ “Sullivan’s Travels”.

In that story, Sullivan detests the popular entertainment that has made him a huge success, feeling it's beneath him and wanting to explore the plight of the downtrodden in a film called “O Brother, Where Art Thou”. But by the end of the story he has learned the power and importance of escapist entertainment.

A power exemplified by a Canadian TV series known as “Tropical Heat”.

Here’s a taste of an absolutely original Canadian documentary. Savor what Canadian drama can do.

And Enjoy Your Sunday.

As an added treat --- here’s a clip from one of those original “Tropical Heat” episodes I wrote, starring one of my own childhood cowboy heroes Clint “Cheyenne” Walker.

Friday, January 22, 2010



“There’s three things that separates a man from all the other animals. One, he’s got thumbs. Two, he knows there’s a future. And three, he can lie like a sonovabitch!”

That’s a line from a play called “Pumpkin” that Paul Quarrington wrote sometime in the late 1970’s.

It was about a bunch of guys from Timmins or North Bay or Sudbury who had come to Toronto to see a Leafs game, a game in which the home team’s Ian Turnbull had scored five points.

According to the NHL record book, that would make it the night of February 2, 1977 when Turnbull racked up the most points ever for a defenseman in a 9-1 thrashing of the Detroit Red Wings. It’s a record that still stands.

The boys have been celebrating in the closed club car of a CN passenger train as it carries them home through the Northern night, back to crummy jobs and uncertain futures that have been momentarily erased by the historic moment they’ve just witnessed. Drinking the only alcohol they can find, somebody’s homemade bottle of fermented pumpkin, they pass the hours telling each other lies.

I don’t know if the play has ever been produced. I don’t know if it’s even been published. What I do know is that, like the river of work that flowed out of Paul over the next 30 years of his life, it was rich with reality, layered with endless imagination and just a whole lot of fun to wallow in.

I got to spend a week with “Pumpkin” when it was workshopped by the Factory Theatre not too long after the date on the calendar it marked. We’d gone through about a dozen new plays during the theatre’s season as the Artistic Director tried to winnow submissions down to those that would make up the coming season and it was just the next one on the pile.

Workshopping plays was a great gig for an actor, because even if you were doing a show that night, Actors Equity required that you get a second pay check.

But you also got to work with the writer in helping his baby learn to walk. There were no performance deadlines or expectations. You could try things dozens of different ways to figure out what clicked and what didn’t. The writer got to hear his words spoken by real people and could revise them overnight or on the fly. And maybe most important for everybody ---  you got to be part of creating something new.

Paul was about my age, an easy going and unassuming guy who’d written a book he was trying to get published and was into music. He said he’d never written a play before and wasn’t sure if what he’d done was how you did it. And even though the concept of Canadian plays was little more than a half dozen years old at the time and we didn’t really know much more than he did, he said he felt humble to be chosen to work with such “veterans”.

I remember glancing up at him as we “veterans” struggled through the first cold table reading. We didn’t know where the thing was going, hadn’t yet got a handle on the tone or the tempo. I’m sure we made it sound far more confusing and formless than it was. But when I looked at Paul, he was beaming from ear to ear. I don’t think I’d ever seen a man look happier.

Later as we wrestled with a scene that just didn’t work, I registered his expression again. It was as if he was in physical pain.

But for the next week, he was tireless in trying new things, polishing moments or making us understand what he’d been after in the writing. His good humor was bottomless. And while a workshop can be Hell for a writer and I’d seen others frustrated and bereft of ideas on what should be done, he never once backed away from attacking the material again and again.

On the final day, we did a full “performance”. Paul had a great laugh that echoed around the theatre as we made our way through the play. But it wasn’t the laughter of a writer enjoying his own creation. It was an honest appreciation of what had been brought to his work by others.

In the end, there was something about “Pumpkin” that Paul still wasn’t happy with and he wanted to hold it back and work on it a while longer. I don’t know if he ever did.

home game

Because not long afterward, Paul began to get noticed. He wrote a novel called “Home Game” that is one of the best books about baseball ever written.

whale music

And he wrote “Whale Music” which Penthouse magazine called “The best book about Rock and Roll ever written.”

king leary

And he wrote “King Leary”, which anybody will tell you is the best book about hockey ever written.

He went on to write a lot of other great books and some great movies and some great television and a lot of great songs. He won all kinds of awards and prizes and got incredibly famous. But he stayed that easy-going guy with a wonderful smile and a big laugh and endless enthusiasm.

A year ago, just prior to being diagnosed with terminal Lung Cancer, Paul wrote “The Ravine” which he described as semi-autobiographical. "It's about a writer who squanders his talents in television, drinks too much, screws around and ruins his marriage. The reason it's 'semi-autobiographical' is the guy's name is 'Phil.'"

Paul Quarrington died yesterday. But that quote from “Pumpkin” perfectly sums up his life for me.

Right to the end, he used his thumbs and the rest of his digits to write not one but two different screen versions of “The Ravine”.

Even though the doctors said he had no future, he knew he had audiences waiting and recorded and toured with his band.

And in suggesting he had “squandered his talents” he continued to lie like a sonovabitch.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

The Shining CITY Falls


The “Save Local TV” campaign took another hit on Tuesday as Rogers Communications, the cable giant that had assured the CRTC that there was no need to give any of their cable money to assist local programming, especially to the stations they themselves owned, gutted the local programming of their own stations due to “new economic realities”.

Six percent of the people who had a job at a CITY-TV stations across the country, delivering local news and information on Tuesday morning, didn’t have them by the time their evening newscasts rolled around. Many of those cut loose were a significant part of the Public face of the stations.

This morning, I went searching for insight into the affair by people who had worked at CITY-TV when it really was the smartest, hippest and most creative television station in the country. Make that --- on the planet.

It’s almost impossible to catalogue how many new things one small local station brought to the TV party or how inspired and privileged and just plain thankful you felt to be part of their audience.

You can find a sampling of the best of those stories here.

But among the list of hits the all-knowing Emperor Google returned during my search was a post I put up on this site 30 months ago.

Now, that kind of thing wakes you up. Because aside from the 3-4 cents a week I bank from all the ads the Emperor runs around here, getting mentioned in searches is about the only reward you earn for giving people something to read on the inner tubes.

I also don’t spend much time re-reading stuff I’ve written (even when rewriting it according to some). But I gave this one a couple of minutes and I was frankly stunned by how intelligent, insightful and prescient it was.

Literally everything that has transpired in the recent sad collapse and destruction of the Canadian television industry was right there in black and white (or white and green to be more precise).

And then I started to ask myself how I’d known all this.

How was I able to accurately map and discover the cause of the decline of an entire group of media empires at the moment when they were strongest and most healthy and while every large fee collecting media consultant, every Bay (or Wall) Street analyst plus every lawyer and accountant doing their due diligence on the deals was confident they were on the threshold of a brave new world – and about to make more money than they all could ever imagine, let alone spend?

I think at a certain level that answer is simple. I work here and I pay attention.

On another level, it’s more complicated. An industry that once had its own personality and character, where you could tell whether you were watching CITY-TV or CBC and knew somebody actually wanted to entertain or enlighten you instead of just hang onto your purchasing power through the next commercial break.

That was a world where bean counters didn’t have more value than those who made the beans and where the regulators weren’t pretentiously thoughtless and able to think beyond where the next lobbyist was taking them for breakfast.

The people who run Canadian networks, those who really make the decisions, apparently don’t have the first clue. Because otherwise what I wrote about CITY-TV two and a half years ago wouldn’t have come true.

And it’s unfortunately clear that unless the people running our networks are soon replaced, there won’t be a need for regulators or “Save Local TV” campaigns.

Global, we’re already having trouble finding your pulse. Time to get your affairs in order.

CTV, you’ve got a year and a half if you’re lucky. Is anybody over there even starting to consider where you’re going to get a third of your programming once NBC disappears after next season?

CBC, don’t sit there sipping your Soy Latte and acting all smug. You’ve got two years tops and all that’s keeping you around that long are contract commitments it’ll be cheaper to run out than pay out.

You’ve all screwed the proverbial Westchester Kennel Show winning pooch in the hope it will keep you going until a business that isn’t even there anymore miraculously turns around.

Rogers, you should be ashamed of yourselves for what you’ve done to a brand that once actually meant something. Why couldn’t you just have kept wrecking a baseball team that was also pretty good before you got your paws on it?

And it didn’t have to happen. You all could have changed your ways. All you had to do was read what I wrote in the sweet summer of 2007.

You can find it here. Maybe it’s still not too late.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The Unbearable Whiteness of Being on Canadian TV

Although I’m edging to the slide side of the demographic, I’m still a middle aged white guy.

And when, as a producer, I put a project into development with a Canadian television network, especially a project that will require Public money to be realized, I have to sign an agreement which includes an acknowledgement that I will “reflect the diversity of contemporary Canadian society” and that I am also “aware of the need to increase opportunities for all those who may have been traditionally under represented in the Canadian television industry”.

And good on the funding agencies for requiring this kind of commitment!

For it makes no sense that at this point in the 21st century anyone should have their employment or creative opportunities reduced because of their race, gender, age, sexual orientation or a physical disability.

And what better way of affirming our intention of reflecting who we are, what we value and the kind of nation we’re becoming than in the stories we tell ourselves and the world.

If the project being developed is still at the concept stage, this commitment encourages writers and producers to explore the many options available to tell our stories in a way few other countries can. And if the project already has a script fairly locked into launch mode, it encourages diversity in casting and cultural innovation with regard to future story arenas if the contemplated production is a series.

To see this process in action, you need to look no further than the recently launched new season of drama and comedy on the CBC…

The Republic of Doyle


18 to Life

18 to Life

Death Comes to Town




Gee, still a lotta white faces there…huh?


Now don’t go getting the wrong idea…

Maybe those shows aren’t really a fair reflection of all the network offerings…

Y’see the CBC has two separate and distinct seasons. And the other one from last Fall featured…



Battle of the Blades


Dragon’s Den


Being Erica


This Hour Has 22 Minutes

22 minutes



I’m pretty sure there’s an aboriginal face deep in the background of that “Heartland” picture.

And anybody who knows anything about those retired hockey players on “Battle of the Blades” knows that Tie Domi is a Muslim.

And there’s a very talented black actress who turns up semi-regularly on “Being Erica”.

She’s, uh…

Just…apparently…not…featured in any of the publicity.

Okay, but wait. Let’s not go jumping to any conclusions…

Because CBC has a couple of venerable series that are in their third and fourth seasons respectively…

The Border


Now there’s a show that features about as much white liberal guilt as you can cram into an hour of television. They also found an actress from a visible minority to replace one of a different visible minority when the original one departed the show. And I know for a fact that they have a very good black actor in the regular cast.

He’s, uh…

Just…apparently…not…featured in any of the publicity.

But ignore all that because how could anybody forget…

Little Mosque on the Prairie


The comedy that brought the Canadian Muslim experience to television ---  even if it still isn’t funny after four seasons --- and half the cast remains Caucasian.

All right.

Take a deep breath.

Interesting, isn’t it?

Probably not the sort of thing you’ve taken note of before. But something that a performer “of color”, a writer working hard to create three dimensional characters that don’t come from their personal cultural core or a producer who has signed the affirmation quoted above are all acutely aware.

So what’s going on here?

Is there a subtle form of Racism at work within the Government supported Canadian Broadcasting Corporation?

Are the funding agencies merely paying lip service to their rules? Y’know, one of those government initiatives where it’s implied that everybody gets to play in the sandbox while only a select few actually get the opportunity to build a castle?

Maybe it’s neither of those things.

I mean, there may not be many non-white faces. But you can count the number of Gay characters on one thumb and I don’t see anybody with anything more serious than a lack of comic timing as a disability.

Maybe the executives at the CBC and the six different funding agencies listed in “The Republic of Doyle” end credits were just happy that the show imported an Irish actor in his 50’s, so they could check off the “No Age Discrimination” box on their “under represented” checklist.

Maybe Newfoundlanders as a whole are still considered an “under represented” group, that long list of CODCO and CODCO Alumni shows notwithstanding.

Maybe the confusing brand of “womanizing” lead character Jake Doyle exhibits will soon be explained when we discover he’s Gay --- simultaneously ticking off another of those many “under represented” categories.

Perhaps the whole picture is just skewed by the oddly concocted Provincial tax credit rules that not only boot production out of diversely populated places like Vancouver and Toronto, but also kick them just beyond their nearby suburbs of Burnaby and Brampton where people who look like me are the “visible minority”.


I think the real reason the complexion of Canadian television is as pale as it is comes down to something else.

night heat 2

Because I’m that slide-side middle aged guy, I can vividly recall the late 1980’s, when American studios came here to do such series as “Night Heat” and “Adderly”.

The cast make-up of those series didn’t look much different from the current CBC offerings, and their content usually included one or two “Chinatown” or “Ghetto” episodes a season, meaning the employment opportunities for visible minority talent --- uh --- haven’t really improved in 25 years.

Back then we used to say that our American cultural masters had come here because we were, “Mostly Cheaper. Mostly Spoke English. And most important --- Mostly White!”

It was what American studios thought their audience wanted. And once they hid our quaint multi-hued money and red mailboxes, it was virtually impossible to tell you weren’t really in Kansas.

And maybe that mentality still holds true…

Only this time, it would seem that the executives making that read of the audience are Canadian.

Over the last decade, there has been a slowly growing movement to transition home grown Canadian television from what it has often been to being “more popular” meaning like American shows are popular.

At the same time, there has been a desire to offset the cost of production by pre-selling to an American network and even having them come aboard in the development stages so some of that “popular” stuff rubs off.

So far, that has resulted in one legitimate success story --- “Flashpoint”.


I know, I know, more white people --- and these ones look like they mean business.

The possibility that such success could spread encouraged others to pattern their show models after American series. “Flashpoint” was immediately followed by “The Listener”, a series that coat-tailed the American “detective with special powers” genre, featured lots of white people and pretty much failed both artistically and financially.

Then came “The Bridge”, a derivative police procedural (with mostly white people) which still hasn’t landed an American broadcast slot months after completing filming of its initial season – a malaise now also afflicting “Flashpoint” and other Canadian series that took the “Appeal to the American market first” approach.

And while CBC didn’t have to play the same game, it became clear a couple of seasons ago that they had begun to do just that.

You need look no further than two series which failed to find any kind of audience here.



Wild Roses


The former was a retread of the British series “Footballer’s Wives” and also tried to channel “Desperate Housewives”, while the latter was a Canadian version of “Dallas”.

Both refused to acknowledge their obvious lineage in their marketing campaigns and neither found purchase with audiences far more familiar with the actual reality of their story arenas of Puck Bunnies and Calgary than the people making them.

In the most recent season launches, the CBC fully embraced the derivative pattern of their content by claiming that “The Republic of Doyle” was “Rockford on the Rock” – an assertion false enough to give Jim Rockford and friends grounds to sue for misrepresentation.

They also openly celebrated getting into bed with ABC in developing “18 to Life” casually ignoring the fact that ABC had slipped away before the marriage could be consummated.

And unless the Comedy Gods grant more smiles than they did in the opening episode of “Death Comes to Town”, that series might be revealed as a jaundiced attempt to garner an American sale on the decades old rep of the once funnier “Kids in the Hall”.

In my estimation, the current snowflake invasion on Canadian television can be laid at the feet of TV executives who don’t know what makes a show popular beyond making it look like a show that was popular in some bygone era.

And the reality of those funding agency rules is that these agencies try very hard not to make programming choices for the submitting networks.

CBC just prioritizes their choices and somehow, this season, there’s only been enough money to pay for the white ones at the top of their list. Those being the shows they think they have a better chance of also selling South of the border.

But the really strange part of that thinking is how much it ignores what American audiences are really watching and what their own studios are preparing for them. 

Would any Canadian network have green-lit a series about a prohibition era bootlegger (“Boardwalk Empire”) or gladiators (“Spartacus: Blood and Sand”) or World War II (“The Pacific”)? Would any of them have taken a chance on “Sons of Anarchy” or “Dexter” or “Big Love”?

Not a fair comparison, those titles being cable offerings?

How about  “Lost”, “Heroes”, “24”, even “The Good Wife” or “Human Target”?

Or would they have pointed to the funding agency rules they’re already ignoring and claimed they couldn’t do series that don’t have a clearly Canadian setting or that negatively reflect on a specific demographic?

In my own opinion, they’re already doing that. Because the Canada I see on CBC is not the one I experience when I walk out my front door. And copying somebody else’s style is not the way you create a definable one of your own.

Meanwhile, even with inflated People Meter numbers to help them along, little of CBC’s product garners anywhere near a million viewers. And nobody is mentioning that some of those new shows have lost half of even that diminished audience before the final credits scroll.

So much for winning any popularity contests.

Meanwhile, nobody covering television seems to have put together that, given the 2-3% of the Canadian population that elusive million viewer threshold represents, there’s a chance hardly anybody who has seen an episode is even coming back the following week. At those anaemic audience levels, the CBC could run an entire season of a series and still not have their show seen by half of the country.

Or – close to the percentage of the population that won’t see anybody who looks anything like them should they bother to tune in anyway.

And in the “More Bad News” to come department, the one show the CBC had which did garner big numbers won’t be coming back.


While I’ve never understood how a far from authentic take on the life of Henry VIII got to be classified as Canadian content, “The Tudors” has reached the end of its run. As the producers put it, “We just ran out of wives”.

But, should CBC find a way to replicate this deal, they might get back to big numbers with the consortium’s next offering, “The Borgias”, starring Jeremy Irons.

Yeah, “The Borgias”.

More white people.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Lazy Sunday # 102: No Limits Baby!

I’m not sure what keeps drawing me back to the Red Bull “No Limits” stunts held each New Year’s Eve.

Perhaps it’s the sheer joy that bleeds (sometimes literally) through these events. Perhaps it’s the imagination and the theatricality.

You know, all those things that you hope with be present in the January “Second Season” of Canadian television, but sadly, somehow never materialize.

According to psychologists, tomorrow is “Blue Monday”, the date in the calendar meticulously calibrated as the moment when we’ve officially reached the depths of Winter and just want something, anything, to rekindle our inner flame and give us a reason to go on.

I believe you can find that spark in a stunt driver named Travis Pastrada and a flying Subaru.

Yeah, he could’ve died. Yeah, it could have all gone horribly wrong and filled the media and blogosphere with yet another excuse to decry the devolution of our culture.

But it didn’t. And it proves that the only way you can truly inspire an audience is by taking real chances and putting everything you are on the line.

Banish the Winter Blues.

Believe that a car can fly.

And Enjoy your Sunday.

For past Red Bull events profiled at The Legion, please visit here and here.

Monday, January 11, 2010

You Gotta Love The Simulcast

arizona game

One of the primary benefits Canadian broadcasters have wrung from the CRTC is the right to simultaneous substitution. That’s the ability to simulcast their US purchased programming at the same time as the US network.

In the process, their signal replaces the American channel, allowing their commercials to play on the foreign platforms visible here as well as counting the people who left their TV on Fox to watch “House” to be counted as Canadian network viewers.

By the way, I have a small question about the new people sensing meters that have jacked the ratings this season --- do they count people who have fallen asleep in front of the tube? It seems they would – and are those the kind of eyeballs that advertisers covet?

Anyway, rejoining the simulcast…

A couple of things happened in America yesterday that exhibited just how much this system doesn’t really work for the Canadian viewing public.

The first was a football game, the 4:00 pm NFL Wildcard game between Green Bay and Arizona which ran on the FOX network and was simulcast in Canada by CTV.

Football games traditionally run three hours, so the game would have been over long before FOX’s much ballyhooed 8:00 pm 20th Anniversary episode of “The Simpsons” which was followed by a Morgan Spurlock documentary on the history of the series. Both of these shows were to be simulcast in Canada on Global.

Now, I watch most of my TV these days via an HD antenna, so I watched the football game on FOX direct from Buffalo – in better HD than the CTV simulcast I compared it to a couple of times (but that’s another story).

The more interesting narrative is that the Green Bay/Arizona tilt turned into the highest scoring post-season game in NFL history, with all the additional highlights, scoring replays and post-score commercial breaks that entails. What’s more, it ended regulation time in a 45-45 tie and went into an extended overtime.

What this meant is that by the time we got to Arizona running a fumble in for the winning touchdown, we were well into the 8 o’clock hour in the Eastern time zone --- and FOX was still playing football instead of “The Simpsons”.

Seeing no need to watch post-game analysis, I did a spin to see what else was on, landing on CTV. They too had bailed from sportscaster talking heads (no doubt to the chagrin of many ardent football fans) and were joining "programming already in progress".

In the Eastern Time Zone, that meant they were switching to the CBS simulcast feed of "Cold Case". No local news. No Cancon scheduled in the remaining “Prime Time” hours as the CRTC also mandates.

Simultaneous Substitution trumps whatever else happens on Canadian TV. If there is ever a national disaster, pray it does not happen during “CSI: Miami”.

However, more important to the viewing public, CTV joined the CBS police procedural far enough into what was “already in progress” that you didn't know who was dead let alone what clues had been revealed so far.

No hook.

No underlying theme the story might explore.

No introduction of characters or emotional drive on which to base your investment in the episode.

In other words, no point in watching.

Did CTV care that most people couldn’t have followed or enjoyed the episode?

Apparently not. They needed to be back on schedule in order to simulcast ABC’s “Desperate Housewives” at nine.

Over at Global, the dilemma must have been worse. I wasn’t watching, so I don’t know how they tap-danced until Fox finally began it’s simulcast of “The Simpsons”.

But that didn’t stop them from making the evening even more of a waste for their Canadian audience.

I skipped the episode and Spurlock’s documentary to walk the dog and make dinner.

According to a friend in the States I heard from this morning, the doc was a wonderful piece of television. According to another friend watching in Canada, Global dropped it part way in.


Well, they had to get back on schedule for their 9:00 pm simulcast of “Brothers and Sisters”.

It didn’t matter how enthralled you were by the show. Global just didn’t have room for it anymore.

So, local viewer who we’ve begged to help Save Local TV --- Fuck you!

Somebody tell me again who the CRTC regulates, really?

On to the second thing that happened in America yesterday…


And this might have Canadian broadcast executives tearing their own hair more than Jay Leno.

In an effort to head off a rebellion from their affiliates, NBC has cancelled the 10:00 pm “Jay Leno Show” hoping to move the former Tonight Show host back to late night and an 11:30 slot.

If that happens, it will push Conan O’Brien’s version of “The Tonight Show” back to midnight and Jimmy Fallon even further into the wee hours of ever dwindling rating numbers.

Now, this is all still being worked out. But where does it leave the Canadian networks that, once again, simulcast these shows?

Jay Leno currently simulcasts at 10 pm on CITY. If Leno moves later, does CITY move their own late news to keep his show on their network? And what fills the remaining late night half hour between 11:30 and their next programming block at midnight?

And perhaps more importantly, what fills the earlier Prime Time hour, five nights a week?

First guess would be whatever NBC puts in that spot.

But will a cash stingy Rogers spring for or maybe even be in a position to bid for so much Peacock programming?

Meanwhile, Conan simulcasts at 11:30 on "A" Channel. Does Conan now also get pushed later by CTV’s second team so it starts halfway through Letterman? And what does "A" tap dance with for a half hour between their late news and the new start time?

Because we’re already been told “A” can’t afford to do more local news.

And what else fits between your late newscast and the marquee show you’ve hyped your audience to want to watch?

Does the Leno decision at NBC become what forces somebody’s hand to actually produce a little local TV?

How weird would that be…

Just another dilemma created for both networks and audiences because of the Simultaneous Substitution rule.

Isn’t it time we just had an industry of our own…?

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Lazy Sunday # 101: The New Magazine

news stand

I’ve always been a big fan of magazines. When I was a kid, “Life” and “Popular Mechanics” came to the house, introducing me to people and things that never came anywhere near my small town.

I learned about short stories and cartoons from the “Saturday Evening Post” that was always on my grandmother’s kitchen table. I cribbed jokes I could tell in polite company from the stacks of “Readers Digest” at the doctor’s office.

And what red blooded Canadian male of a certain age can ever forget that stapled insert slowly slipping open on a clandestinely acquired copy of “Playboy”…

“Esquire” introduced me to a life long admiration of a kid named Cassius Clay who became “The Greatest”, while the hockey photos in “Sports Illustrated” showed me dimensions of another “Great One” that you couldn’t glean from televised games.

“National Geographic” helped me understand the peoples of the world and “Maclean's” my country’s place among them.

For me, magazines have always been an opportunity to enter a different world or new experience, the opportunity to get to know somebody I’ll never meet, test drive a car I’ll never be able to afford or visit a world hot spot I actually don’t want to go anywhere near.

No magazine will ever give you a definitive understanding of any topic. That’s not their job. Magazines open doors, make suggestions, give you the entry level to get into a conversation with somebody who knows the subject. They’re designed to be eclectic, transitory and more fun than a newspaper.

When I worked in LA, I found few greater pleasures at the end of a long day than walking through a warm night to a 24 hour sidewalk news stand and erasing the narrow focus of what had been my day amid the vast array of other interests, diversions and points of view that its wall of magazines had to offer.

It’s a world that probably won’t be with us much longer – at least in its present form.

Much of the Buzz coming from this week’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas was about tablet computers. Devices that look like your current laptop screen will perform many of the functions you need from a computer but at the tap of a stylus or pen.

One manufacturer displayed a model containing the entire curriculum of a high school senior year, including textbooks, video lectures and the ability to email essays and homework.  We’ve almost seen the last of kids lugging heavy pack-packs to school. If they actually have to turn up in a classroom anymore, they’ll make their way like the students of PLato and Socrates did, with nothing more than a slate under their arms.

Those tablet computers will also be the way most people get magazines in the near future. No more scanning an overpriced rack in an airport or picking through the meagre offerings at an out of the way resort. Whatever you want to read will simply be zapped to your tablet or Kindle or whatever other device suits your lifestyle.

But that doesn’t mean that the pleasure you get when you peel back the glossy cover of your favorite magazine will go away. In fact, scientists, editors and graphic designers are already compiling models for magazines that will be just as good as the ones you now have to recycle.

Scan the magazine stand of the future and – enjoy your Sunday.

Mag+ from Bonnier on Vimeo.

As a final note, “Maclean’s”, the best mainstream magazine our country has to offer, will soon be available in digital format and you can get sign up for a free one year subscription here.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

The Dogs In The Manger

manger dog

Over Christmas, somebody told me Aesop’s fable about “The Dog in the Manger”.

It seems that one day a dog went to sleep in a manger. Come suppertime, he was woken by the cattle, who were hungry. But the dog kept the cows from eating the hay he’d been sleeping on, leading one of the cows to moo the moral of the story:

“Some begrudge others what they aren't using themselves”.

The same sentiment is attributed to Jesus in Thomas Verse 102: “Woe to the Pharisees! For they are like a dog sleeping in the manger of the cattle; for he neither eats, nor does he let the cattle eat”.

Remind you of anybody --- like maybe the Canadian broadcasting system and its CRTC enablers?

For years now,the production of drama, comedy and documentaries in this country has continued to shrink as we create less of each and our networks increase their spending on foreign (primarily American) content. For those of us who work in the industry, that has often felt like our own little cross to bear.

Our shows don’t get picked up for broadcast but there’s still lots of stuff from Hollywood to keep everybody else entertained.

We’ve tried to mount a number of assaults on this problem, even getting the broadcast regulator (the aforementioned CRTC) to schedule hearings on the state of the industry and where it needs to be improved. But for three years now, any progress has been submarined by a broadcaster agenda that requires their needs be taken care of first.

And the CRTC has always acceded to those demands, figuring (I assume) that if there isn’t a healthy broadcaster, whatever the rest of us do isn’t going to matter much.

Oddly, however, that’s led to our broadcasters needs becoming ever more dire. Despite being granted additional commercial time, genre protections, simultaneous substitution, a larger share of public funding to create online presences for their shows and the shows themselves; they recently needed special funding to continue providing local news and even money for airfare and hotels so writers with shows they liked could pitch them in LA in the hope of landing a production partner who’d cover most of the cost.

At the latest round of hearings, the ones where it became imperative to “Save Local TV” we were suddenly made aware of two more things the broadcasters needed --- more time to transition into the digital spectrum (including relief from having to provide HD signals to all parts of the country) as well as a blackout on any transmission of programming to which they had acquired the local rights by anyone else.

In follow up discussions on where the money could come from to save local TV, pay for digital transition, provide enhanced online streaming of their offerings and halt viewing of any programming they had purchased rights to in any other format, the broadcasters made it clear that the cash wasn’t coming from them and no matter how hungry the public might be to get television in HD or via a computer, mobile phone or from another source, their interests had to be protected first.

At that point, it became clear that the cross Canadians working in the business have had to bear would now be shared by everybody else in the country.

And in the last few days, it has become even clearer that this country is in danger of becoming a technological backwater for no other reason than to keep those dogs in the manger happy.

This week at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, products and technologies have debuted which have taken the public imagination by storm.


For starters, ESPN and Discovery announced a joint initiative to launch 3D television services within the next year. In fact, ESPN will debut with the opening game of the FIFA World Cup on June 11, 2010 along with 25 other World Cup Matches, the Summer X Games and a full slate of College sports.

Discovery will be offering a full schedule of Sony and IMAX 3D product as well as creating 3D programming of its own.

None of this will be available in Canada.

In fact, parts of the country won’t even see the World Cup in HD unless somebody steps up to provide our broadcasters with enough money to upgrade the system.

And then there’s the CableCard.


The CableCard is an PCMCIA card which allows consumers to view and record digital television channels on PVRs, laptops, home computers and even televisions without the use of a cable company’s set top box.

While our CRTC has increasingly found ways to make sure that Canadians can only access TV signals through a cable or satellite provider, the American FCC long ago mandated that cable companies allow other devices to access their programming.

You still have to pay a monthly fee for the service. But you pay for what you want to watch, not a bundle of five or six channels you don’t want in order to access the one that you do.

Only problem is --- the CableCard won’t be available in Canada.

The same thing is true for Mobile DTV.


Mobile DTV is a system (including an already available iPhone app) which allows you to watch HD television broadcasts on a mobile phone or any other wi-fi enabled device.

Again, not available in Canada and not likely to arrive for some time.

Last month, the Federal Cabinet had to step in and overrule a CRTC decision that prevented an upstart mobile phone provider from setting up shop and challenging the Bell/Rogers/Telus triumvirate that owns and controls the mobile market in Canada --- and has used the CRTC version of consumer protection to impose some of the highest mobile phone rates and smallest menu of services on the planet.

And while it remains to be seen if the additional competition will reduce those prices and increase the service options, it was clear that the current providers were hampering the country’s productivity and its ability to compete with nations less parochial in their approach to what their populations want and need.

The dogs in the Canadian broadcast manger are no longer simply stifling the artists of this country, they are impairing our ability to enjoy the freedom and creative options these new technologies offer as well as the opportunity for Canadians to create, develop and compete in these new worlds.

What good is saving local TV if it costs us the future?

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Perogie Fury


At least a half dozen of my Facebook friends got in touch last night with invitations to join one of the groups being formed to protest the recent prorogation of Parliament, “Get government back to work”, “save democracy” etc. Some appended little missives reminding me that Prime Minister Harper was a very dangerous man who frightened them deeply.

A lot of my fellow artists often remind me of those stalkers who truly believe some Hollywood star is secretly in love with them.

Somehow, politicians who have never tossed them any greater support than a distant come hither look and the opportunity to apply for a grant become their only hope for true happiness.

Whatever those politicians say must be true and following their bidding will undoubtedly lead to incalculable bliss.

What they really don’t want to confront is anything that might refract their distorted view of this infatuation back into clear focus.

Let me help.


Here’s what prorogation really means to the running of the country. This is from a guy who covers parliament for a living.

Here’s the reality of the Afghan detainee issue that everybody seems to believe Mr. Harper shuttered Parliament to duck. It comes from the CBC, so you’ll know it isn’t biased.

And here’s what the only political leader with any hope of defeating “The Great Dictator” is up to while the country is spiralling toward disaster and you’re mobilizing to defend the constitution.

Can you not see that you are being played?

It’s apparently very easy for some politicians like Ujjal Dosanjh, the Liberal defence critic and Bob Rae, Liberal leader in waiting, to accuse or imply that Canadian soldiers are committing war crimes. And how they really feel about that can be found here in the pages of the Toronto Star, another media outlet I know you trust.

It’s all very easy for the Premiers of Ontario and Quebec to go to Copenhagen and sign onto the “Canada is a corrupt Petro-State” mantra. But it hasn’t stopped either one from cashing the equalization cheques keeping their provinces afloat that come from Alberta.

They’re all politicians. Junk yard dogs. Part of their job, like Mr. Harper’s, is to spin public opinion in their favor.

But you’re supposed to be an artist. Your job is supposed to be about revealing the truth. Truth that may end up smothered in a safe coating of fiction, oil paint or musical notation – but truth all the same.

Strapping on an explosive vest to do some politician’s bidding is the job of people too ill-informed and without hope to resist. And part of your job as an artist is to provide enlightenment and ignite hope for those that breed of junkyard dog would use.

So vote how you please. Join any group you want. Stand up for what you believe. March in the cold. Whatever makes you happy.

But do your job as an artist first and try to learn what’s really going on.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

Lazy Sunday # 100: Painting With Light

We’re on the threshold of the official “Second Season” in television. The PR machine is already humming at full speed as it spews out the bios and backgrounders to let you know what’s worth seeing, what might be good for you and what may not be a total waste of your time.

This stuff usually focuses on the stars, the genius auteurs, the track record of the producing company, or the novelists whose work inspired the production. Sometimes it even mentions the screenwriter’s past credits, suggesting he or she has hit another one out of the park.

This is all part of the commerce of the television business, the enticement of “eyeballs”, the process of putting bums on couches, so somebody can sell you something or simply rake in a share of your cable subscription.

You’re assured the new show is just like a Private Eye series you loved in the 70’s, a medical drama big in the 90’s or a new take on a comedy genre that you liked a couple of seasons back.

But little of the hype gets at what you’re going to take away from the viewing experience. And almost none of it focuses on the fact that film is a collaborative art and most of what you’re experiencing is contributed by people whose names are never mentioned in promos and whose end credits either fly past at an unreadable rate or are squashed into a corner of the screen so you can be titillated with what’s coming next.

Most of the reason that television is repetitive, uninspiring or just plain bad is that the people who program it are more concerned with the perception of what they’re offering than how it will be physically perceived.

As a species we haven’t been out of the trees or away from the campfire long enough for our DNA to discern story telling by its value instead of as a visceral experience.

Studies have shown that only 10% of the information a film or TV audience absorbs comes from what it hears. When you consider that this small slice is shared by dialogue, vocal performance, sound effects and music, those juicy one-liners we slave over pale in significance.

90% of the film and TV experience enters the viewer through their eyes. Most of what they care about are the actors and the action. But how they subliminally read all that is supported by the choices made for sets and settings, costumes, even props. And all of those things are brought together through the eyes of a cinematographer.

I’ve always hated the term DOP (Director of Photography) because it sounds like some kind of administrative position. Cinematographer says artist and if you have a good one, the film or series you are making is unimaginably elevated.

Too often, Cinematographers are judged by their panoramic sunset shots and sweeping vistas. But their true art lies in the little things we wouldn’t notice unless they made us see them.

I’ve had the good fortune to work with cinematographers who could frame a shot to make an ordinary street scene transform into three dimensions, even if you weren’t shooting 3D. I’ve watched a somewhat plain actress be transitioned to classic beauty with the shift of a key light. And I’ve sat stunned in dailies as the play of light and camera movement has brought a new level to a moment I wrote but never conceived could be there.

It’s those things that an audience takes to its heart and makes them come back for more and tell their friends to do the same. Take another look at “Mad Men”, “Dexter”, “The Sopranos” or “Sons of Anarchy”, each has a visual style as important to the story as any of their more promoted qualities.

As an example of the power a cinematographer can have, I want to introduce you to a guy named Joseph August, who, in the fall of 1944 worked on what should have been a mostly forgettable John Wayne war film called “They Were Expendable”.

Now, don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing really bad about any film directed by John Ford or dealing with the issues of patriotism and sacrifice embodied in Frank Wead’s screenplay. The story revolves around a naval crew decimated and literally abandoned to die in the Pacific. It’s the kind of picture that simply wouldn’t get made today.

But what gives “They Were Expendable” its emotional power is the way Joseph August paints its scenes turning it into what director Lindsay Anderson described as “an epic poem”.

August was a Colorado cowboy who ended up working on a Santa Monica movie ranch and emigrated to film making. He never used a light meter, trusting in what he saw with his own eyes and maybe a little of the artistic instincts that resided in cowboy artists like Frederick Remington or Charles Russell.

This is the kind of attention to detail that is ignored or in some cases outright eliminated in the quest to capture television audiences; when, in reality, it is these same never mentioned film artists, perhaps likewise considered “expendable” by network “big picture” thinkers, who could most capture the eyeballs they covet.

Enjoy Joseph August’s play of light. And enjoy your Sunday.