Monday, May 30, 2011

Citytv Is On A Roll

That was a mighty impressive roll out of Citytv product that advertising buyers and a few TV critics watched Monday at Toronto's Cannon theater.
My conclusion: Backed by a mighty influx of cash from Rogers Media City and its sister stations is on a real roll as it prepares to challenge BellMedia(CTV) and Shaw Media (CanWest) for ratings supremacy.
Right up front Citytv announced a new all 24-hour news channel Citytv News that will compete CBC and CBS in Canadian news gathering.
And Citytv stations have secured a mighty impressive package of new series scheduled to debut this fall.
Citytv previewed the first episode of one of its new acquisitions, 2 Broke Girls, starring Kat Dennings and Beth Behrs written by Emmy winner Michael Patrick King (Sex And The City) and comic Whitney Cummings and it's great. There was repeated applause from the audience and the show might best be described as a sort of Laverne And Shirley for our times.
Citytv also has the latest Tim Allen sitcom Last Man Standing (co-starring Nancy Travis).
Also secured: a new single camera sitcom New Girl starring Zooey Deschannel, Revenge with Henry Czerny, Madeleine Stowe and Emily Van Camp, Terra Nova executive produced by Steven Spielberg.
Also bought: Person Of Interest starring Jim Caviezel and executive produced by J.J. Abrams (Lost). And there's the new series The Playboy Club which looks at the birth of the Playboy bunnies.
The web has also taken Private Practice from CTV and secured the sydication rights to 30 Rock. Raising Hope also comes to Citytv.
Returning American hits include Community, Parks And Recreation, Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, Fringe, How I Met Your Mother.
Rogers also announced several new domestic series including Canada's Got Talent. And the Toronto-made detective series The Murdoch Mysteries is also back.
To highlight its newfound status Rogers had as guests Rico Rodriguez from Modern Family, Canadians Cutbert and Czerny and
from 2 Broke Girls the blonde and very funny Beth Behrs.
Next up to bat Tuesday is Shaw Media's revamped CanWest network.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

CTV's hiccups Gives Me Hiccups!

The big trouble with CTV's comedy series Hiccups is simply this: It isn't Corner Gas.
And that's the reason people I've talked to are still iffy about this sophomore comedy entry.
After all it's hard not to make comparisons
Brent Butt and Nancy Robertson were both front and center on Corner Gas, turning it into a huge, unexpected ratings winner for CTV.
Butt voluntarily pulled the plug although the series could have gone on and on.
But he opted to create a new show for wife Robertson and after the usual production problems with the pilot stepped in and took over the role of Stan, the life coach, who has set up offices but has no patients as yet until the very strange authoress Millie (Robertson) wanders in one day and can't stop talking.
In Corner Gas Butt helped create a parallel universe where he was front and center but surrounded by a lovable bunch of crazies --in effect Butt was the Mary Tyler Moore character and we saw everyone else filtered through his experiences.
The dynamics are changed in hiccups because the central character, Millie, is always "on" --she talks nonstop, interacts with everyone anfd everything.
Watching her antics exhausts me because she's so unpredictable. And other viewers I've talked to say the same thing.
The closest analogy I can come up with is the old sitcom Phyllis which took a central character from The Mary Tyler Moore Show and plopped her into a whole new sitcom.
As wonderfully played by Cloris Leachman Phyllis was too too much of everything. You know what I mean? She was too funny too much of the time.
The crazies on Mary Tyler Moore came in and out of the action but here it's Millie who Butt has peversely made the star.
I would have thought that after a shaky first season Butt would have understood this problem with the central character and done some fine tuning.
Millie in the first new episode does go to Hollywood with Stan in tow and there are the usual gags. And other characters seem to be getting more front and center attention.
But so far the attempt to create a parallel comic universe out there isn't working to the extent Corner Gas worked.
Look, I have enormous respect for Robertson --I remember interviewing her once in a Toronto steak house and being impressed by her comedic gifts. She was awfully nice that day and I could understand how hard she'd worked to make CG such a success.
And Butt can usually do no wrong most of the time as far as I'm concerned.
I watched the first two new episodes and I did laugh on occasion. But I was also irked by the implausibility of the basic concept. It just doesn't work for me.
Call it the cure of the Big Success. As Mary Tyler Moore once reminded me after her huge success she made two more sitcoms which viewers didn't want to see. And Robert Young had a huge stinker after all those years on Father Knows Best before he regained his popularity with Marcus Welby.
By the way Episode 2 with Millie stopping talking seems far more successful --and soothing --and allows the other members to get out and stretch in comedy style.
And I want to mention them because they are so full of possibilities: Laurta Soltis is the publisher Joyce, David Ingram is the agent Taylor, Emily Perkins is Crystal and Paula Rivera is Anna.
Because I'm still rooting for hiccups to make it, I really am.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Oprah Passes From Daily View

The U.S. media treated the final show from Oprah Winfrey as a sort of beatification ceremony.
Let's make this clear: Oprah cancelled herself.
And none too soon --her ratings were slipping, her audiece was getting older. A few more shaky seasons and she'd be in the same perilous condition as afternoon soaps.
I never quite bought into the Opraj myth.
She saw herself as a sort of TV Lady Bountiful, bestowing favors on a grateful audience.
Afternoon talk shows used to star Merv Griffin or some sort of clone and be filled with faded Broadway and Hollywood stars plugging their wares.
Phil Donahue changed all that --remember he was Oprah's precursor. Sure, Phil did crazy things and many silly shows but he also upped the content. He was America's caring Liberal for most of the 1970s and 1980s until dethroned by Oprah.
She was cagier about content --expertly mixing makeovers with star confessions.
She was best at selling Oprah, in this she was one of TV's best ever plug masters.
She put herself into every story, chatted away about her adventures.
And she was human, too, as she relentlessly fought and refought her own version of the Battle of the Bulge.
Being a woman of color was a tremendous significance. Make no mistake about it she paved the way for America's first black president.
She had a book corner where she plugged books she liked --when did Merv ever do that?
She wore her conscience on her sleeve and as America lurched to the right in recent years she must have found the going tough.
Now she has her own network OWN which so far is just a bunch of badly made reality shows.
Once Oprah was scheduled to chatter with the visiting press corps in Los Angeles and she went on and on about her fabulous new diet and her slimming regimen.
But earlier at breakfast in another part of the hotel I had watched as she gnawed through a heaping platter of pancakes laced with maple syrup.
As Oprah chattered on about her newfound slimness our eyes met and she recognized me from the next breakfast table and winked several times, enjoying our own joke at her expense.
And, yes, in the ensuing months she quickly gained back all her lost pounds and then some. See, that was why she flourished, it was her vulnerability.
Like I said Oprah was at best when peddling Oprah.
And I'm sure Oprah would like to know that Wednesday's rating on CTV was just about her best ever: a startling 1.6 million Canadian devoted fans catching every sigh, every teary glance.
It was Oprah at her best, prpud, defiant, tearful, humble, you name it.
And the notion of Katie Couric trying to become the new afternoon talk queen of American TV this fall fills me with dread.
I was never that into Oprah. But strange to say already I'm missing her.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

River Monsters Is Back

Now here's some good news what with the TV season receding into reruns: River Monsters is back!
It's season three already for one of my favorite nature shows but one with a violent title and some residue of those other reality series.
This time the wonderfully named angler Jeremy Wade really does wade into it.
He's travelled for 48 hours to get to the meandering Sepik River in Papua New Guinea as he investigates some pretty horrible mauling local folk have taken at the hands of a mysterious river creature.
Despite its name each hour is chock full of fascinating details of little seen areas of the world.
We get a quick tour of the land of headhunters and cannibalism and the river tribes who are cut off from modern civilization.
There are over 700 dialects spokenamong the people but strangely one guide does speak English as he shows Wade all the mysteries of the Sepik.
The name of the episode, dramatically enough, is The Mutilator and something deep in the waters has been preying on the actual fisherman, catching them off guard as they bathe in the shallows and tearing off huge swathes of flesh --several men have been reported dead after such bloody encounters.
The incidents are recreated here with some detail --that's the Reality TV part of the program and they always come up before the next break which is one of the cliches of the genre.
But the less showy moments are the most worthwhile. First Wade fishes to find all the kinds of fish and sees that the river is weak in species.
However he does come upon one fish that looks familiar: scientists from the fisheries have introduced from the Amazon a vegetarian fish called pacu and the ones Wade catches are very tiny indeed but with huge teeth needed to crack open the nuts they devour. This could hardly be the goliath he's looking for.
Then there's a night expedition to search for crocs which have killed inhabitants along the banks before.
But his tour guide says crocs are in decline as the vast lakes of weeds disappear --something is eating all the vegetation, too.
Surprise! It's the pacu who have turned to flesh in this new environment and grown into huge critters which could indeed tear off a man's hand.
It's what Wade calls the perils of "introduction" --introducing a new species into a river system where it faces few predators . In 15 years in the Sepik the pacu are ravaging men and small crocs.
And another mystery of River Monsters could be solved.
And one final warning: pacu have been found in river systems in 19 different U.S. states so watch out!
MY RATING: *** 1/2.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

CBS: More Of the Same

CBS's big problem is its ratings dominance.
A whole bunch of CBS series are now categorized as old and can only go down in the ratings.
But CBS has decided to order only six new series as compared with ABC's order of 13 and NBC's 12 new shows.
Big news is the move of The Good Wife to Sunday nights at 9 to take on ABC's Sunday night restructuring.
The aging CSI moves from Thursdays after a decade to Wednesdays to make room for the new Person Of Interest.
Biggest risk is plopping The Good Wife on Sundays at 9 --CBS sources are betting Desperate Housewives has had its day.
Putting Rules Of Engagement on Saturdays where reruns have dominated for years is risky.
New shows include Person Of Interest with Lost's Michael Emerson.
Unforgettable is all about a female detective who can remember everything --meaning she doesn't have to take notes.
A Gifted Man is described as a "spiritual doctor project" and co-stars Patrick Wilson and Jennifer Ehle.
CBS debuts only two new sitcoms: Kate Denning's 2 Broke Girls about twentysomething females, and How To Be A Gentleman starring Kevin Dillon.
A rookie cop drama The 2-2 will debut mid-season.
CBS had intended to develop a four-pack comedy lineup on Thursdays but the failure of Shit My Dad Says destroyed all that.
Age is eating away at the CSI franchises --none is a ratings powerhouse any longer.
CBS new shows including Hawaii 5-0 and Blue Bloods did OK but neither became an outstanding hit.
CBS remains the network for those over 50 which means it lags in advertising revenue.
And somewhere down the road those CBS franchises will have to be replaced.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

ABC Has Too Many New Fall Shows

Back when I started covering TV in the early 1970s the ABC fall schedule was always treated as a joke.
Too many new shows, scoffed the critics.
Viewers didn't want to sample so many unknown new series and so some deserving newcomers quickly fell by the wayside.
But here is ABC trying to pull off the impossible with 13 new series.
I still most won't work out. ABC already knows that.
NBC which trail;s badly in the polls by contrast "only" has 12 new etries.
Already critics are saying that the 2011-12 season could be one of those great transitional eras.
Think of it: ABC's biggest hits include Grey's Anatomy and Desperate Housewives both of which are old shows.
In fact both DH and GA were introduced in the same 2004-05 season meaning ABC is hoping something similar will happen this time.
As an ABC source said maybe there won't be 13 new hits but the web would surely like to come away with 2-3 shows in the "must see" category.
On Monday stability reigns with Dancing and Castle.
On Tuesdays Dancing With The Stars will continue to pump up Body Of Proof's ratings so that in time it may become a hit of its own.
But Tuesdays at 8 it's Tim Allen's come back try with Last Man Standing and another "masculine comedy" Man Up at 8:30.
Allen is up against NCIS and it's been argued this will be a fight for the same audience.
Cougar Town isn't coming back until December and the new Wednesday lineup includes The Middle plus the new Suburgatory at 8:30, Modern Family and Happy endings and the new hour Revenge at 10.
Thursdays Charlie's Angels leads into Grey's Anatomy which leads into its sister show Private Practice.
Extreme Makeover: Home Edition starts up Fridays at 8 followed by Shark Tank at 9 and 20/20 at 10.
Saturday Night College Football takes up the whole night starting at 8.
On Sundays America's Funniest Home Videos at 7 leads into the new entry Once Upon A Time at 8 and Desperate Housewives at 9 and the new Pan Am at 10.
Thirteen new shows. A lot of failures. But if two or more become hits ABC should be satisfied.
And waiting in the wings are such new shows as Ashley Judd in Missing, The River, Shonda Rhimes' Scandal and another new sitcom Work It.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Fox: Steady And Safe

Fox has announced a fall schedule with few surprises.
What's powering the fourth U.S. Network these days are the performance-related hours from Idol to So You Think You Can Dance to the latest X Factor.
In fact X Factor will anchor the schedule on Wednesdays and Thursdays until Idol begins again in midseason.
The new dinosaur drama Terra Nova starts Mondays at 8 meaning House moves to 9 p.m.
Zooey Deschannel's new series New Girl and Raising Hope are the biggies on Tuesdays.
Jamie Pressley's new sitcom I Hate My Teenage Daughter runs Wednesdays at 9:30 .
On Thursdays it's Bones at 9 after the new series X Factor's results show..
On Sundays Fox has a new animated series set to go in the fall titled Allen Gregory. Another animated effort, Napoleon Dynamite, runs in midseason.
On Fridays it's Kitchen Nightmares at 8 and Fringe at 9.
Saturdays sees Cops at 8 and reruns at 9.
Sundays has The Cleveland Show at 7:30, The Simpsons at 8, Allen Gregory at 8:30, Family Guy at 9, and American Dad at 9:30.
The thing is Fox dominates in the all important 18-49 age group and has for the past eight seasons.
Such Fox duds this year as Lone Star and Running Wilde tanked early on but that didn't dent the Fox brand with younger viewers.
With Simon Cowell at the head of X Factor expect another huge reality hit.
The only big risk this year is Terra Nova which is a hugely expensive series.
And midseason comes the new J.J. Abrams entry Alcatraz.
Even if the new stuff fails Fox could remain well ahead in the demographics.
Got all that?

Sunday, May 15, 2011

NBC's Fall Schedule

NBC is the first of the U.S. networks to announce a full schedule with the addition of three new dramas and three new comedies.
The Peacock-proud web definitely has a rebuilding chore ahead after last year's fiasco that saw the gigantic flop of Jay Leno's prime time talk show and the abrupt departure of Conan O'Brien when Leno returned to late nights.
But NBC is saving two biggies --the Steven Spielberg musical show Smash and the drama Voice until midseason.
Biggest news is that 30 Rock is being withheld Thursdays at 8:30 p.m.
On Mondays The Sing-Off gets expanded to two hours followed at 10by the new drama entry The Playboy Club.
Tuesdays is the same: The Biggest Loser at 8 and Parenthood at 10.
A new Wednesday comedy block starts at 8 with Christina Applegate in Up All Night, Hank Azaria at 8:30 in Free Agents and Harry's Law at 9. At 10 it's Law&Order: SVU.
On Thuirsday the lineup is: Community (8), Parks And Recreation (8:30), The Office (9), Whitney (9:30) and the remake of Prime Suspect at 10.
Chuck shifts to Fridays at 8 for its last season --it has been picked up for only 13 new episodes. Grimm is at 10 followed by Dateline NBC.
Saturdays are repeats and Sundays has NFL Football at 7 and at 8:15.
Got all that?

Friday, May 13, 2011

The New TV Season Unfolds

This is what I know for now about the new TV season:
1. Wonder Woman Is Toast! The projected new version of Wonder Woman from David E. Kelly has been summarily rejected. Or so say my NBC contacts.
This remake had been hyped over many months. The star was 27-year old Adrianne Palicki from Friday Night Lights. And she seemed to don Lynda Carter's old duds.
And Liz Hurley had even been signed to play Wonder Woman's nemesis Veronica Cole.
And Then came the pilot screenings and the underwhelming reaction from audiences.
NBC's fall schedule comes out next week. And I'm saying it will be without Wonder Woman.
2. Person Of Interest: My CBS sources say the Tiffany of the networks has definitely picked up the J.J. Abrams pilot Persons Of Interest.
Michael Emerson from Lost plays the billionaire waging a personal war on crime who hires a former CIA agent (Jim Caviezel) to help him.
The buzz on this one has been excellent. Taraji P. Henson (Boston Legal) is a detective helping the two guys.
3. Two Broke Girls: Another pick up by CBS is Two Broke Girls starring Kat Dennings (Thor) and Beth Behrs as best buds trying to get by in the very expensive city of New York.
And CBS is saying it took the CBS Sarah Michelle Gellar pilot Ringer and has sent it to The CW where it may yet emerge as a fall series
4. Couric's Last Stand: As we bid welcome to the new season it's time to say farewell to Katie Couric whose stewardship of the CBS Evening News didn't turn out so well.
After almost five seasons as CBS anchor she'd ditching evenings and will probably host an Oprah-like afternoon chatter outing that may well be syndicated to CBS stations.
Scott Pelley takes over on June 6.
5. Ratings, ratings: Who says weak ratings automatically mean a pink slip?
NBC has picked up the series Chuck for a fifth season. And there's a "but". It will be a pick up for only 13 more episodes and then the series will definitely be over. At NBC but maybe it can be shopped elsewhere?
6. And ABC: ABC has cancelled Brothers And Sisters which was expected. Also gone are V, No Ordinary Family (which I really liked), Detroit 1-8-7 and Off the Map. ABC also chucked Mr. Sushine and star Matthew Perry is going back into rehabilitation. And ABC has picked up the third ever version of Charlie's Angels. Sure, everyone remembers the first with Farrah Fawcett but am I the only one who remembers the short-lived second version?
There. That's all I know. For now.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Whatever Happened To The Big TV Networks?

When I started out 40 years ago as the very green (and very young) TV critic for The Spectator everything was so easy.
I had exactly 10 stations to cover --citytv had yet to come on the air and Global TV wasn't around at all.
In those dear, dead days we all lived in a three-station universe as far as American TV was concerned: CBS, NBC and ABC.
Canadian TV consisted of CBC, CHCH, CTV and TVOntario and that was it.
And every May the head of CBC programming --in those days it was Thom Benson --would fly to L.A. to laze by the pool of the Beverly Wilshire hotel as American producers paid court by peddling their September wares.
The shows Thom didn't want went to CTV's Muirray Chercover who'd pick through the allotment and then send the remainders off to CHCH's Sam Hebscher.
Prices? CBC paid a whopping $2,5000 a week for Mary Tyler Moore's show. Thom passed altogether on Laugh-In in 1968 but when it zoomed in the ratings he bought it away from CTV in the next May series sale. And predictably Murray publicly raged but could do nothing.
And today?
Well, everything has changed in the space of one year.
The company ctvglobemedia is no more, the good, gray Globe being re-bought by the Thomson family and a new media company emerging: Bellmedia.
And Shaw has bought off Can West and Global TV to form the new Shaw Media.
And Rogers bought citytv stations.
So the big players in the private sector have all changed. And CBC no longer buys prime time U.S. series (opting for Wheel Of Fortune, Jeopardy and Ghost Whisperer reruns).
And the American networks continue to recede in popularity every season.
I remember once in the late 1980s almost 40 American TV pilots were made in Toronto alone.
Now the Big Five make few pilots at all, settling for presentations.
Parts of their empires have crumbled away: no more TV movies (too expensive), afternoon soaps getting cancelled right and left.
My spies tell me CBS is high on a new medico series directed by Jonathan Demme and a cop series from Robert De Niro is well regarded. Minnie Driver's show Hail Mary may not make it and Sarah Michelle Gellar's proposed series Ditto is also iffy.
Best pilot of all time was made by CBS a few years back, titled Crazy, starring Lara Flynn Boyle, and was about a psycho ward where the doctors were the real weird ones. CBS said it was too good for weekly TV and passed.
NBC sources say a musical Smash from Steven Spielberg is on the list. But Spielberg's TV credentials are weak: his series Amazing Stories got smashed by CVBS's Murder She Wrote. Harry's Law is still to be picked up and Wonder Woman may not make it.
My ABC source says yet another reboot of Charlie's Angels is coming (groan) as well as something called Good Christian Bitches (but surely with a name change).
The CW: Rachel Bilson in Heart Of Dixie seems strongly favored and Sweet Circle will be a Vampire Diary kind of thing only about witches. Smallville is ending and I simply can't imagine One Tree Hill will get another pick up.
FOX: Ethan Hawke's show Exit Strategy is one of the big hopes, I'm told, and there have been some early pick ups ahead of the New York upfront meetings: The New Girls with Zooey Deschanel, a Bones spinoff called Finder and Jaime Pressly in I Hate M Teenage Daughter.In past seasons CTV was so flush with money it would buy up shows and never put them on the air just to keep Global away from them. One example: Desperate Housewives was bought by CTV and shown Sunday afternoons at 4 until it became a big hit. A series shot across the street from the Toronto star, Kevin Hill, was bought by CTV and never actually shown up here.
But times are tight for everyone. One Global programmer complained to me he was given a dollar figure for each show by his bosses and told he couldn't go beyond that --the result was CTV emerged with most of the hits. Only dark horse candidates like 24 were left for Global.
It's not at all like the old days. But the 10-station TV universe has splintered.
These days most of us hang out on cable anyway no matter what the old line networks do.
And the big question I'm fending wherever I go is: "When is Mad Men coming back?" And that won't be until the New Year.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Sex Scandals In Religion Is Must-See TV

That's quite a provocative title for a new series--Sex Scandals In Religion --but it certainly is unlike any of the sleazy Reality TV offerings around these days.
In fact the series probably wouldn't have made it to Vision TV except for a change in management.
This Canadian made series doesn't even focus on the sex scandals inside the Catholic Church.
Instead, the first episode is a thoughtful and well researched look at how the ongoing Islamic Revolution in Iran has turned against the people to use rape as a way of stifling dissidents.
Robin Benger wrote and directed this report which uses the testimony of two victims, a man and a woman, to recount some pretty horrific tales of the way gangs of fundamentalists are hitting back at dissent.
The editing and camerawork are seamless and this up to the standards of 60 Minutes in its use of witnesses and critics of the regime. Yes, there are some dramatizations which I usually do not like but here are suited to the material and definitely needed.
Giving us the overall perspective is American reporter Scott Petersonof the Christan Science Monitor who has his own archive of incidents as well as photographic records of the escalating sexual violence which at first seems extremely bizarre given the usual prudish sexual standards of the ayatollas who rule Iran.
the episode's title In The Name Of The Ayatollah says it all.
The late time period may indeed seem odd but the evidence put before viewers is shocking and very adult --it runs at 10:30 but that means not everyone will remember to watch it so late.
Next week's episode, The Wall Of Silence, looks at cases of sexual misconduct by New York rabbis with trusting school children the targets.
The focus here is largely on Williamsburg in Brooklyn where one young man tries to fight off the phantoms of incidents where he was molested by his rabbi at school. His decision to come forward was viciously attacked by the religious community but in a rare display of courage he continues his fight for justice.
Therapists and religious scholars talk about being attacked when they tried to help and try to explain why a community would feel so besieged by these accusations which almost certainly are true.
This episode is completely different than the first and yet it disturbed me more because it took place in a seemingly free and open society.
Episode 2 runs next Monday, May 16, again at 10:30 p.m.
Sex Scandals In Religion was made by Cogent/Bender Productions for Vision TV. Peter Kavanaugh is the editorial director and Christopher Sumpton and Robin Benger are the producers.
I was left wanting even more information, the effect of a truly well made production.
MY RATING: ****.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Nerve Center Is Must-See TV

You say you've only got time to watch one program on TV this weekend?
Make it Nerve Center which debuts Sunday night at 8 with back-to-back hour episodes.
First up there's a fast-paced hourlong visit to Grand Central Station --it's a day in the life account about the 3,000 employees and the huge problems in keeping the commuter trains moving.
Then an hour later comes an even more terrific episode --a peek behind the scenes at famous Cirque du Soleil's O production which is performed nightly in Las Vegas.
The Grand Central footage is exciting because it is startling real. No rehearsals. Nothing made up --the cure of most reality shows..
It starts during the early morning rush (at 8:49 a.m.) during the peak that sees one train stuck because of a collapsed bridge --angry riders will have to be mollified and buses despatched as quickly as possible.
We see how security police protect the million daily passengers --since 9/11 the terminal staff have been extra jitterty.
And we watched the well oiled precision when one train is stalled because of an injured passenger --getting her to a waiting ambulance takes only six minutes because it's an almost daily occurrence.
There's the "information lady" handling 1,000 queries an hour. And the team of air conditioning experts who hustle to repair a leaking valve. When the electrical track shorts the experts know one false move and somebody could die. And there are the teams in the boiler room who never see daylight they're so far underground.
This one has been expertly shot like a reality TV outing but without any of the phoniness. The tension here is genuine and thus that more exciting.
In the second hour "Cirque du Soleil: O, Las Vegas" we go behind the scenes at one of the most intricate of live spectaculars.
And not only behind the scenes we see the underwater heroics performed nightly by frogmen to assure the performers are quickly taken care of if their dives are mistimed.
It means seeing how the 85 performers rehearse all afternoon on aerial tricks that could turn deadly with one false move to watching a new girl inherit center stage and be able to perform an amazing plunge with just one afternoon of training.
And we see how all the talents mesh into one seamless act from the army of electricians to the choreographer who has to know when to step back and simply let the performer accomplish the magic. Breathtaking is the only word I can think of to summon up the excitement of this group profile.
Nerve Center is back May 29 with a look at how the Panama canal was completed and a look at the world's busiest airport: Atlanta National Airport.
Nerve Center, made by Exploration Production Inc (EPI), is the best thing on TV this week, I'm sure of it.
MY RATING: ****.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Remembering Jackie Cooper

I always wanted to meet Jackie Cooper because he personified so much of Hollywood history.
He was a huge box office attraction while still a very little boy in such classics as The Champ and Treasure Island.
As a teenager he was still in the game acting in such hits as White Banners and Ziegfeld Girl.
After war duty he reinvented himself in two popular TV sitcoms: The People's Choice (1955-58) and Hennessy (1959-62). .
Then he became vice-president of Columbia PIctures' TV offshoot Screen Gems.
In the 1970s he won Emmys for directing NM*A*S*H and White Shadow.
Cooper died in a nursing facility in Santa Monica Tuesday after a brief illness. He was 88.
I met him on the set of a short lived 1975 TV series he was starring on,Mobile One, one of the last shows produced by the legendary Jack Webb.
I was on the set along with other visiting TV scribes in June, 1975, before the show actually went on the air.
But both Webb and Cooper felt it was doomed before it started and they were right --the ABC series was pitted against CBS's M*A*S*H and NBC's Sanford And Son and lasted a scant 11 weeks.
What's missing from most of the wire obits was recognition about the vast amount of TV work Cooper did as director.
When I interviewed him he was just off directing 13 episodes of M*A*S*H and extremely bitter about the way he was mistreated.
But he later directed multiple episodes of Rockford Files, Baa Baa Black Sheep, Quincy, Cagney And Lacey and the pilot of Trapper John.
He wrote about his adventures as a child star in the enjoyable memoir Please Don't Shoot My Dog (1982).
And, yes, it is true Norman Taurog told him his dog would be shot unless he cried in the next scene on the set of Skippy (1931).
In his book he suspected Taurog might have been his real father.
At the 1931 Academy Awards banquet he slept right through the ceremony and missed the moment when he lost the Oscar to Lionel Barrymore.
Frequent costar Wallace Beery he hated. "Oh, everybody did. Never knew his lines. Mugged in every scene. When his brother Noah died he went out on the town dancing."
Cooper reigned supreme at MGM until shorter Mickey Rooney came along --they eventually co-starred in the Devil Is A Sissy (1936) and then MGM dropped him, because he'd grown too tall to cry anymore.
One thing Cooper did was carry a grudge: he hated being reminded of the book by Merle Miller titled Only You Dick Darling which made fun of him directing Barbara Stanwyck on the set of an unsold TV pilot. Cooper claimed many of the quotes were fabricated.
When I chatted up Cooper that day he said he was virtually through with acting.
But he had one more surprise: a movie reappearance as Perry White in four Superman movies that starred Christopher Reeve. He completely retired in 1990 after another short-lived series TV series Capital News and became a horse trainer because it was always something he'd wanted to do.
When Cooper's eldest son was signed to an MGM contract he intervened to stop it saying it was not a fit occupation for a child.
"People tell me what a wonderfully interesting life I've had," he said that day. "Granted. What I lost was a normal childhood. I've been trying to find it ever since, I guess."
Then he walked over to do his next scene, always the professional.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Catching Up With Kevin Newman

It was time to catch up with Kevin Newman when the personable TV journalist phoned the other day --from a conference in Stratford.
Newman voluntarily stepped down as anchor of Global TV's successful suppertime newscast last April and has been writing and producing documentaries ever since.
"It just felt like the right time to expand," he says. "Did I want to be solely anchor for the rest of my career? No. Was I hoping to do more writing,? Yes."
Before making the momentous decision Newman spoke with former Global anchor Peter Trueman who said leaving career changes until much later --Newman turns 52 in June --would make adjustment that much harder.
So Newman took the plunge and seems busier than ever.
I'm enjoying listening to him and former CTV anchor Tom Clark chat about Canadian politics every week on CBC Radio's The House.
And on Friday night at 10 on Global a documentary Newman produced and co-wrote, A Mother's Ordeal, indicates the direction he hopes his career will be going in the future.
"These aren't the best of times for TV documentaries with most networks having budget cut backs. But I want to tell these Canadian stories. They're important."
I reminded Newman the first time I interviewed him was on the set of CBC's Midday, known as "the Baby Journal" when it first hit the air in 1992
It blended documentaries that had already been on The Journal with the kind of serious talk of the arts and politics that has since disappeared from CBC afternoons.
Newman and CBC got their signals crossed in 1994 in a move that saw Newman head to ABC news in New York city.
"That's CBC's version," he laughs --CBC was in one of its modes of shedding bodies.
I used to watch Newman and Thalia Assuras doing the overnight news at simply weird times but soon Newman was named co-anchor of Good Morning America opposite Lisa McRee.
One ABC executive actually told me with a straight face Newman had not completely fitted in there because he used the Canadian pronunciation of "sleigh" instead of the more American "sled".
For whatever reasons Diane Sawyer eventually took over as a kind of Lady Bountiful morning news goddess and Newman in 1999 was reassigned to ABC reporting duties.
He returned to Canada in 2001 as the anchor of Global National With Kevin Newman. Initially it was all done out of Vancouver which made production cumbersome. A similar national newscast with Tony Parsons from B.C. had already run on Hamilton's CHCH for several years.
When Newman moved to Ottawa the newscast sparked up and eventually got larger ratings than CBC's National, proving there was an audience for an early evening newscast.
And Newman was an innovative anchor--in 2004 he anchored coverage of the American elections from Global's Washington D.C. bureau studio.
In 2005 and again in 2006 he copped the Gemini as best TV anchor.
When I told Newman my anecdote about having a pre-arranged lunch at 21 with CBS living legend Eric Sevareid in New York --and the eightyish anchor had to be carried to the table --he said after "only" a decade he began looking around.
"It's about the longest I've ever stayed with something. Challenging? Yes. But I had other things to try, too."
Those "other things" include the meticulously researched hour documentary A Mother's Ordeal which recounts how a Peterborough mother was wrongly arrested and charged with the savage beating and murder of her two-year-old daughter.
Focusing on Brenda Waudby and painfully documenting her battle with drugs, the investigation shows how she was railroaded into confessing to battery charges by Peterborough police.
And on the surface she might have done it. Her face has been hardened from drug use. And she did lash out at her kids. On the night of the tot's death she was out partying, leaving the baby with a teenaged baby sitter.
"It's about rushing to judgments which are wrong," Newman says. Peterborough police had little experience dealing with homicides and let notorious coroner Charles Smith wrongly set a time for death that made Waudby the only possible suspect.
In fact the baby had been battered the night of the death and also raped which the coroner ignored. But Waudby maintains she was pushed into confessing to child abuse by the police and the Children's Aid society.
The recreation of the crime and subsequent events was meticulously directed by Julian Sher. And some scenes are very tough to sit through. But you won't be able to turn away it's so well put together.
And Newman has another hour documentary on Global the very next week (Friday May 13 at 10 p.m.): Execution Under Fire about a Texas man wrongly accused of killing three young daughters in an act of arson --modern investigative techniques have discredited the conviction but the Texas governor has refused to reopen the case. More on that one later.
My conclusion: Newman has another bright new career ahead of him.
MY RATING: ****.


Tuesday, May 3, 2011

A Grand Political Show!

Who says Canadian politics is dull?
Last night's live coverage of the 2011 election had everything and then some.
There was the graciousness of Michael Ignatieff who led his Liberal party to its worst defeat since Confederation.
Ignatieff might have harped on how the government's nasty and inaccurate political ads against him over a full year had brought campaigning to a new low.
But he didn't instead becoming the John Kerry of this campaign and rising to rhetorical heights in describing how he loved Canada.
And he wasn't the only political leader whose future crashed and burned before our very eyes.
There was the Bloc leader Gilles Duceppe who looked completely stunned as his party slipped nearly into oblivion. There was great human drama.
Mr. Duceppe mentioned his 23 years in Ottawa meaning this resolute separatist is on tap to receive a hearty federalist pension for the rest of his days.
I kept dial twiddling between CTV's Old Man River Lloyd Robertson and CBC's equally sage Peter Mansbridge.
On the whole I felt CTV's team stronger, the graphics better presented and the experts better focused including Pam Wallin, now a Tory Senator, but back with Lloyd for the night.
I wonder if she was thinking that maybe, just maybe, if she had stuck it out with CTV she might be inheriting his seat instead of Lisa LaFlamme.
the way Uncle Lloyd effortlessly kept the conversation flowing was amazing. CTV will surely miss him if he ever does quit as threatened.
But one of his CTV buddies recently told me: "Lloyd's not going anywhere.
I sincerely hope not.
I liked that Lloyd sat at a desk with commentators seated beside him.
I didn't like Mansbridge's wanderlust as he roamed freely among CBC correspondents.
Also, CBC graphics didn't seem like much.
Yes, the political faces changed at the federal level.
But I missed Tom Clark who has decamped from CTV and Kevin Newman who left Global. Were they watching a home? And what network were they watching I wonder.
This political night had just about everything.
What I didn't like was the fact that polls closed all across the country at the same time: 9:30 p.m.
This meant a deluge of information that I couldn't absorb so quickly. I remember the 1972 election when the Tories won 5 of the 7 ridings in Newfoundland and that result was projected across the country for a Stanfield win. In fact the very opposite happened: a Trudeau deluge.
Big news of the night was the switch off of the Bloc in Quebec and the emergence of the NDP. That means Jack Layton will be in charge of 59 new Quebec members and some have no political training at all.
The historical analogy happened when the Social Credit party was overwhelmed by French-speaking members and eventually got torn in two pieces. Remember when Real Caouette formed his own party?
I didn't hear anybody talking about the fact Ignatieff was burdened by the face the Liberals were already in power in the three biggest provinces: B.C., Ontario and Quebec and all three regimes are vastly popular.
Who really won last night?
The Canadian system. You the people.
Here there was an election in an area larger than the U.S. and yet all the ballots got hand counted within a few hours without any hanging chads or suspicions of chicanery.
That's the way we do it. Effortlessly. It's the Canadian way.
No Tabloid TV messing around without core values.
It made for several hours of riveting TV. Reality TV, Canadian style.
But no more national elections for awhile. Please.
I don't think I can stand the excitement anytime soon.