Sunday, September 27, 2015

Lazy Sunday # 395: Sick of Television

There used to be this silver lining to getting a cold. Not only did you get to snuggle under covers for a day with a nice cup of tea or bowl of chicken soup. But you could turn on the tube and bask in the glow of whatever was on.

I can’t remember the last time I actually sat down to watch a block of network programming let alone what was broadcast in the morning or afternoon.

TV for me has become streamed movies, live sports and content without commercials. And I’m not alone.

The 2015-2016 Primetime season is barely a week old and already in trouble with some shows down as much as 17% from last season, while few new ones have made an impact.

But I decided to struggle through the day and see if there was anything I was missing.

And I wasn’t.

Same old beleaguered doctors, detectives with special powers, comic book heroes and comically mismatched roommates.

Reality shows that are clones of other reality shows with few if any redeeming values. Talent competitions mostly populated by people who aren’t.

It didn’t take me long to realize that the good moments of almost everything had already been clipped and uploaded to Youtube, where I could get the same content with a far smaller investment of time and no intrusion by  commercials repeated ad nauseum (which is I assume where that phrase comes from).

By the time I got to the CBC trying to pass off a listless Montreal-Toronto pre-season tilt as “another chapter in the league’s most storied rivalry”, I realized there was a reason the network is selling off most of its real estate…

Television might not be over, but we’ve definitely reached the twilight of the brick and mortar version.

When any idiot can deliver a cooking, travel, real estate or talent show without ever entering a studio or edit suite, just what are those buildings really for?

And when the quality of a web series shot in somebody’s garage generates as much cultural impact as most of the broadcast schedule, who needs to house an army of gate-keepers and development execs?

Moreover, I realized that the formats of networks have become a parody of themselves. When you can’t tell the difference between a clip from the Onion and one from a flagship morning show, it really is time for the industry to move on.

Enjoy Your Sunday.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Lazy Sunday #394: The Battle of Britain

The Battle of Britain, one of the defining battles of World War Two took place 75 years ago, from July until October 1940, and is officially commemorated by Canadians today.

More than 100 of our airmen took part in the fight to defeat Hitler’s attempt to wipe out the Allied air forces and gain control of the last free skies in Europe.

My father served in the RCAF during WWII, but didn’t make it overseas until the Battle of Britain was over. But some of his friends and friends he made later in life took part.

I met one of them when he was well into his 90’s. Still clear-eyed and vibrant –- and still humble about what he and a handful of others had accomplished.

We sat in a pub over pints of British ale and he told me his stories. The dog fights. The days of multiple kills. The loss of many companions.

In the end, he said, it didn’t feel like a battle had been won, so much as breathing room gained to carry on the fight.

When I asked about the lighter moments, he glanced at his glass and smiled. “They used to put saltpeter in our beer back then,” he said. “And you know, I think it’s starting to work”.

There’s a trait I’ve noticed in people who’ve done truly great things. They don’t think what they did was really a big deal. It was just a task that needed to be accomplished.

I also don’t think any of them feel a need to be appreciated. The satisfaction of a job well done was reward enough.

The so few owed so much by so many are even fewer now and deserve our acknowledgement and respect. But I think we also mark these moments to remind ourselves that someday we too may be called to do something selfless and courageous and important to preserving our way of life.

As always, there will be few who step up to take on the task at hand. And as always, the rest of us will know this forever sets them apart, if only by exemplifying a rare but enduring trait of the human spirit –- the willingness to place others above self.

Enjoy Your Sunday.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Lazy Sunday # 393: Greasers

I admit it. I was once a Greaser.

Halfa handful of Brylcreem every morning. Comb jutting from the back pocket of my pegged jeans. Tight T-shirt and polished to a sheen pointy shoes that would come in handy if you had to put the boots to a guy. Grade Eight in Regina could get rough.

A year later, the Beatles arrived and I evolved. But a lot of guys around me didn’t. They’d made a commitment.

It mighta been to hot rods or hogs.  Could be they felt the need to emulate Brando or the King, the guys who’d given them their image in the first place.

Some just didn’t want to move on from Do-Wop and the Rock ‘n Roll that had been their soundtrack in the 50’s. And who could blame them. That stuff still cooks today.

But we still made fun and by the 70’s the Greaser had become a reliable comedy stock character in the culture. Like “The Fonz” and the cast of “Grease”, eternally believing they were still cool while the rest of us knew otherwise.

A lot of cover bands came along to replicate the Rock of the 50’s while making fun of it as well. Perhaps the most famous being “Sha-Na-Na”.

I don’t know if they were a record company manufactured boy band or somebody’s concept for re-inventing nostalgia, but I hated “Sha-Na-Na”.

To me, they almost sneered their way through every classic oldie they performed. Intimating that they weren’t really serious about what they were doing and also found it fun to ridicule the musicians from whose work they made a living parodying.

That didn’t stop them from being enormously successful, of course. They had Gold records and a hit TV variety series that ran for 5 years.

Then –- sometime in the 80’s while touring a play in England, somebody turned me on to a British version of Sha-Na-Na also named after a Do-Wop nonsense lyric. A sweet glam rock octet called “Showaddywaddy”.

“Showaddywaddy” was a revelation. An accomplished group of English rockers who not only performed the Oldies with the passion and respect they deserved, but wrote new music in the same genre.

Unfortunately, “Showaddywaddy” never really made it across the pond. And more’s the pity. They were probably better than most of the American groups that had inspired them.

I offer two of their UK hits for your consideration. A Classic Do-Wop tune and one of their originals. If this is your first exposure to the band, there’s a large selection of their hits on Youtube.

And if you’re just an old Greaser like me, I know what follows will help you –- Enjoy Your Sunday…

Sunday, September 06, 2015

Lazy Sunday # 392: The Prison Of Belief

Beautiful Summer day in the 1970’s. I’m this cutie pie actor guy tripping down Yonge Street in Toronto. New to the big city and without a care in the world.

Guy steps out of a doorway and offers me a free book. No kidding? Yeah, buddy. It’s a great book. will solve all your problems and turn you into a superhero. Okay, thanks.

But he stopped me from leaving. Friendly and engaging. Would I like to see how it works? Okay, I got nothing pressing.

A few minutes later I’m sitting in a room holding two soup cans with the labels torn off and being asked about my deepest fears.

Maybe it’s the small town Prairie boy in me. But I started sensing I was in the company of one of those “city-slickers” some of the relatives had warned me about.

I passed on the free test assessment and the free lecture to follow. Read about two chapters of the book and binned it.

Maybe a year later, I had a girlfriend who had a best friend who was pretty high up in “the church”. She gave me a free copy of the same book, insisting that my growing success could be put into hyper-drive.

A little while later, girlfriend and I were over and her buddy called to sympathize. She knew her “Church” could help. When I assured her I’d probably survive, I got hit with some of the most vile, manipulative behavior I’ve ever encountered.

It was a kind of pressure designed to buckle somebody truly in emotional distress. Struck me as not the sort of people I wanted to have anything further to do with.

Over the years since, being in the show business, I’ve met dozens of artists and celebs who were acolytes of “the church”. A few tried to recruit me. Most haven’t bothered. And I haven’t bothered challenging them.

Maybe that was the wrong decision…

A few months ago, HBO debuted their stunningly powerful documentary on the Church entitled “Going Clear”. For some reason it held off the Canadian broadcast. Tonight that changes.

Or it changes right now if you go to the bottom of this post.

“Going Clear” will leave you both numb and angry. But it is entirely worth viewing.

But you won’t walk away feeling good about what the institution has perpetrated on both its detractors and its believers.

So, before you get to those emotions, make sure you –- Enjoy Your Sunday.

For those who want to watch “Going Clear” on HBO, here’s a taste.

For those without HBO, the film is already on Youtube. You can find it here.

Thursday, September 03, 2015

Behold The New Flesh

It’s been a difficult Summer in Hollywood.

Now, the lead up to any new season is always fraught with uncertainty and concern. But there seems to be far more of it this time around.

For although the traditional Fall launch of programs has been diminished by a now year round debut of new programming, the major networks have still been preparing to drop 20 new series onto the airwaves over the next two months.

Twenty new hours and half hours. Some replacing series that had run their course to be sure, but most taking the slots of other new shows which foundered during what is widely considered a disastrous 2014-2015 season.

During the recent TV Critics preview of the coming attractions, FX network’s CEO John Landgraf expressed concern that there was now “Too much good TV”, which precipitated a lot of the media to suggest we have reached “Peak TV”, meaning that there are simply too many quality shows for anyone to see them all.

And somehow that’s a bad thing?

Let’s be real. This is less about what we’re watching than where we’re watching it –- and who controls what’s being served.

You have always had to be good to get an audience. But now you have to be even better.

In Hollywood this apparently means, the network has to exert even greater corporate control over what is produced.

Therefore, the normal interference in pilots has increased exponentially. So far, four highly anticipated new series have replaced their show runners, with one operating with two separate writing rooms, the original writing team being kept around in case the new one stumbles.

In addition, ten freshman series have replaced members of their casts, sometimes multiple members, and in one case both leads, necessitating either full or partial reshoots of their pilots.

Moreover, not much beyond the first couple of episodes of anything is being shot. I guess the thinking is, there will always be time to scramble if an audience actually shows up.

Now on an economic level, and with the exorbitant cost of tinkering with a series aside, this panic is a result of the changing showbiz reality.

Viewers not only have the option now of getting their series fix from Netflix or Amazon, but they are cutting the cable cord in record numbers and advertisers are going elsewhere.

Here in Canada, a record 240,000 homes opted to do without a cable subscription in 2014, a number expected to grow significantly in 2015. Meanwhile, revenue at the national broadcaster dropped 56% in the last quarter alone.

Therefore, as much lip service has been given lately to the “singular vision” of a showrunner, that concept has been deep-sixed in favor of the kind of constant meddling that seldom produces good television.

William Goldman’s famous adage “Nobody knows anything” has now been joined by something far more threatening. “Anybody can do this”.

Back in the day, network executives would append impossible or self-serving notes with a nod to your talents and the suggested trust they still had in your abilities by saying, “Hey, if it was easy, anybody could do it”.

Deep down you sensed that anybody could do a watchable show that delivered a rewarding viewing experience ESPECIALLY if they weren’t working for people who changed their minds all the time and were shackled to quarterly earnings reports.

And now, thanks to rapidly developing technologies and a growing number of talented people who don’t fit the network profile, a lot of anybodys are making very watchable shows.

And it’s not just Netflix and Amazon who are finding them. Some just put the stuff out there all on their own.

Sara Botsford, Chris Brown and the talented crew and “not quite ready for prime time” cast initially funded themselves on Kickstarter to produce a web series entitled “Those Damn Canadians” which has now moved into its second season.

The webcast, which follows the trials of a group of creative ex-pats in LA, is just as funny as many network offerings with greater production value than most of the stuff which gets government funding in Canada.

I’m not sure how they survive while doing it and while some might consider webcasts small potatoes, each one (and there are thousands out there) takes a set of eyes away from prime time programming by providing what works for an audience rather than a network marketing plan.

Meanwhile, what once was dismissed as “fan-fiction” or “nerd porn” is challenging several well-known franchises. Again without money, without a regular time slot or distribution deal and certainly without big picture executive thinking.

In Hollywood parlance, these films are now referred to as “unauthorized projects”. And far fewer are receiving cease and desist letters from studio legal departments. That’s because of a growing awareness that rights holders can’t afford to piss off the fan base of any lucrative franchise.

Recently, LA based Axanar Productions released a half hour “Star Trek” spin-off entitled “Prelude to Axanar” subsequently raising a half million dollars to produce a feature version that probably can’t be exploited financially.

This suggests one of two possible outcomes.

The first, that “Star Trek” rights holders will strike a deal to share in the exploitation of Axanar’s product despite having no input in its creation. Or –- that the people who created this film will use it to launch an original concept of their own, again without the need of studio/network oversight.

Either way, creatives and audiences benefit, while the need for product to be micro-managed disappears.

These examples and the possibility of even greater consumer empowerment next week with the reboot of AppleTV, suggest that we’re far from Peak television and on the verge of seeing the last of the decrepit and outmoded network model for making it.