Thursday, November 28, 2013

CBC In Crisis: Then and Now

In 1970 I started covering TV as the critic for The Globe And Mail replacing an ailing Blaik Kirby.
I sat next to Kirby during my two summers at Canada's "Grey Lady" and enjoyed his wit --he was given the job because he despised the medium and openly boasted he watched less TV than the ordinary Canadian.
In September 1971 I jumped ship to become the kid TV critic for The Hamilton Spectator a middling paper of 140,000 circulation but one which had always had TV coverage.
The TV universe in 1971 was vastly different than it is today.
At first I had only to cover seven stations : Buffalo's Channel 4 (WBEN), 7 (WKBW) and 2 (WGR) as well as PBS's Channel 17.
In the "Golden Horseshoe" one could get these canadian stations: CBLT (Channel 5), CTV's CFTO (Channel 9) and Hamilton feisty independent CHCH-TV.
TVOntario was just about to burst on the horizon as was Toronto's CITY-TV, Channel 79 --when it came on the signal was too weak to hit Hamilton and some people in my apartment building would venture to a Burlington motel on a Friday night to catch the station's raunchy adult movies.
The job just was different in those days.
For one thing there were no cassettes so to preview an upcoming special I'd have to drive into Toronto and watch it unspool in a screening room --CBC has a block of these tiny theaters in its Bay street offices.
In fact there was no CBC headquarters in those days.
The network had grown all over the place.
Up Yonge Street was the studio where Front Page Challenge was taped --also important dramas like the black and white version of Macbeth starring a young Scots named Sean Connery.
It was made by CBC's schools department because Ontario's Grade 13 students were taking Macbeth that year.
Down on Jarvis Street CBC Radio occupied the Victorian premises of an old girls' school. A Victorian house beside it, dunned "The Kremlin" was the headquarters for local station CBLT.
I met this year's Nobel prize winner there, Alice Munro whose book of stories had been made into a CBC-TV movie titled Lives Of Girls And Women.
But when producer Ross McLean tried to get the live feed from the next building into the screening room there was a flash of light and then no signal at all.
The charming Alice Munro simply shrugged her shoulders and got into her car for the drive back to London.
Beside there was a five story TV complex that housed  several studios including the one shared by Friendly Giant and The National News.
A smaller studio built on the side later was the place where Adrienne Clarkson and Paul Soles hosted the daily afternoon show Take 30 --when visiting I always could hear the traffic out on Jarvis.
I remember one interview with singer Juliette when she said alarm bells sounded when one episode of her Saturday night music show failed to reach the necessary 3 million viewers.
Wait a minute? Three million!
By 1970 competition had whittled that number way down.
CBC's 1970 dictionary definition of a hit was 1 million for a series and 2 million for a TV special or movie.
Let's flash forward 43 years and once again CBC is in crisis.
From 1970 and the definition of TV as a "Tube of Plenty" we're into a universe of hundreds of networks, stations, specialty channels.
CBC's National now gets an average 400,000 viewers a night at 10 p.m. against CTV news's 1.2 million at 11.
In 1970 CBC produced its own operas, ballets, music specials --all have gone the way of such sparkling kids' series as Friendly Giant and Mr. Dressup.
TV movies? One or two a year at best compared to the weekly dosage back then.
And the other day as I visited CBC --this time in a huge white elephant of a plant on Front Street West I once again wondered about the long term fate of the visibly declining public corporation.
I got off at the wrong floor and wandered through long, narrow corridors --when I peered through the doors all I could see was abandoned space for all the shows already shuttered.
On the top floor there are these gigantic but empty studios used for making musicals and comedy spectaculars.
One is named after legendary director Norman Campbell who I'd frequently interview in the old days.
Last time we met (he died in ) he was sitting along in a bleak CBC office telling me he'd never been able to work in the studio named after him "because it would be too expensive."
All the new cable weblets which have sprung up were supposed to pick up the slack.
Instead Canadians are watching more American TV than ever befpre.
When my predecessor at The Toronto Star, Jack Miller, sat down in 1975 with the BBM ratings books fhe estimated the average Torontonian watched less than 10 % Canadian shows during prime time over an average week.
Jack's revelations resulted in questions in parliament.
Today that figure must be lower than 5 % --it's just that nobody cares anymore.
Every year CBC's budgets gets whittled down a little bit more --I've termed it death by a thousand cuts.
With Rogers gobbling up hockey CBC will be deprived of a desperately needed $200 million in revenues.
NHL Hockey provides Rogers with a huge block of Canadian content meaning it no longer has to legally produce much in the way of Canadian dramas and comedy. Rogers already dumped Murdoch Mysteries as too costly (CBC picked it up).
Remember one hour of "Cancom" counts as 90 minutes --there's a special bonus given to the networks to do what they should have been doing all along.
CTV knew that decades ago when it would run world ice skating championships with Johnny Esaw night after night --the network was stockpiling buckets of "Cancom" enabling it to ditch most Canadian shows for the next few months.
Right now it's CBC that has been placed in peril by the sell out of NHL hockey which has been on CBC since TV started in 1952.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Canadian TV Now Controlled By the Very Few

This isn't the way Canadian TV was supposed to evolve.
I should know --during the 1970s as the kid TV critic from The Hamilton Spectator I was obliged to sit through hundreds of CRTC meetings about the future of Canadian TV.
Even then the failure of the private networks and stations to come up with adequate Canadian content. was the big talking point.
CTV for example in those days had such "Canadian" series as Stars On Ice, Half The George Kirby Comedy Hour, Definition and Police Surgeon.
CHCH countered with Ein Prosit, Pierre Berton interviews and The Hilarious House Of Frightenstein.
Not good enough railed powerful CRTC president Pierre Juneau (later head of CBC).
He worried too much power was being placed in the hands of a few broadcasters and that American cheap programming was driving away quality Canadian TV fare.
When cable came along Juneau wanted a diverse landscape. For example the CRTC originally licensed the W network because it promised to be based in Winnipeg.
Similarly CBC Newsworld promised to use Calgary as the hub for all its production.
But these days while the number of cable networks has grown the number of owners has shrunk.
These days the big players are perfectly few: Shaw Media which gobbled the old Global network; Bell Media who owns the old CTV chain; and Rogers which has most of the old CHUMCity stations.
Rogers Media's capture for $5.2 billion of rights to most NHL hockey games is a stunning game changer.
Veteran TV scribe Bill Brioux has the best take on his .com TVFeedsMyFamily --he notices the old Hockey Night In Canada jingle is now owned by CTV but its sister cable weblet TSN will have few occasions to run the song in the futre.
CBC gets the rights to four more years of Saturday Night hockey but in a form where the production and the profit is controlled by Rogers.
That's a whole lot of change and makes me fearful Rogers may make future cuts in its Canadian content shows. to pay all for this.
Remember Rogers already dumped Murdoch Mysteries as too expensive and currently has very little scripted Canadian drama at all --it's simply cheaper to import inane Canadian fare.
In this latest round of acquisitions it's you the customer who might suffer the most --the options are dwindling to just a few players at best.

Monday, November 25, 2013

A Canadian Crossover

So there I was the other day watching the very first episode of The Lucy-Desi comedy Hour, the hour long sequel to CBS's much loved I Love Lucy show.
And I caught what seemed to be one of TV's first crossovers in the episode titled Lucy Takes A Cruise
 To Havana.
There was Lucy as Lucy and Ann Sothern as her TV character Susie McNamara--the date was 1957.
When Lucy repaid the favor a year later Ann Sothern had switched to a new character and a new series --in 1959 she was no Katy O'Connor and it was The Ann Sothern Show,
All of this is a long winded way of explaining that "crossovers" have been a TV staple for decades.
Except on Canadian TV.
I once tried to interest Yvan Fecan in one when he was programming czar at CBC.
I suggested Fecan's show Street Legal be crossed with CTV's ENG to perk up ratings.
But it was pointed out to me that crossovers only work on the same network --and usually it has to be the same production studio as well.
So I'm ready to welcome that great Canadian TV rarity --a crossover as Allan Hawco of Republic Of Doyle makes an extra special guest appearance on CBC-TV Monday night  at 9 on Murdoch Mysteries.
Both shows run on CBC, both are huge Canadian hits but the question is does Hawco have to time travel to be present as Jake Doyle.
Not exactly.
He plays Jake's great-great-grandfather and the episode is even titled "Republic of Murdoch" and Hawco has been saying he'd be crazy to have passed it up.
The well written script is by Peter Mitchell and Paul Aitken and begins in Toronto where Yannick Bisson's Murdoch discover a dead man with an ancient map.
The clues lead to Newfoundland which at the turn of the century was a British dominion of its own and Jacob Diyle becomes a prime murder suspect.
And Yannick Bisson returns the favor by playing his character's great-great grandson in an episode of Republic Of Doyle to run in January.
Which means the bachelor detective of 1900 must marry at some time in the future --are we talking here about a lavish TV wedding --another sure fire ratings getter.
At one time crossovers were all the rage on U.S. prime time TV.
I can remember covering the epic TV  meeting between Angela Lansbury's Jessica Fletcher (Murder She Wrote) and  Tom Sellecks's Thomas Magnum from Magnum, P.I.
In another crossover I wrote about the TV story began on Marcus Welby and ended on  Owen Marshall. Both shows were made by Universal for ABC.
Buddy Ebsen once told me the only episode of his long running series Barnaby Jones not in syndication was a crossover --again with Murder She Wrote (I think).
Nobody could figure who owned those two episodes so they've been deliberately with held.
In recent years NBC's Crossing Jordan did several crossovers.
And when the spin off CSI: NY came into being there was the inevitable crossover with CSI:Miami.
Other Canadian crossovers may be harder to arrange.
Did CBC's Friendly Giant ever do a guest turn on Mr. Dressup --their studios were close by.
Or could CTV's Lisa LaFlamme suddenly turn up one day beside CBC's Peter Mansbridge as they arm wrestle for the anchor chair?
Rick Mercer is spoofing Murdoch on the actual set Tuesday at 9 on CBC --does that count as well ?

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Meet The Sloths Is Soothing TV

Watching Meet The Sloths is just about the slowest and most soothing TV experience I've ever had.
The eight part series from the U.K.  has its Canadian premiere Saturday November 23 at 8 p.m. on Animal Planet.
All the "action" takes place at Costa Rica's Sloth Sanctuary where a hardy band of slothaholics tend to the needs of over 150 sloths.
They've been placed here after suffering accidents in the wild and without human care and attention they'd surely perish.
The half hour episodes are filled with insights about slothdom. I always thought the furry critters cute and lazy.
Turns out they're cute and the perpetual slumber comes from the amount of energy needed to digest their primary sources of food which are chock full of toxins --one test shows it takes a whopping 31 days for an adult sloth to digest one of his meals.
Besides the sloths the program also salutes the remarkable women who tend to the needs of the dozing sloths: British sloth expert Becky, Claire the manager of the compound and owner Judy.
Judy set up the sanctuary 20 years ago and has since saved hundreds of sloths from the jaws of death.
Sloths are found in the rain forests of Central and Southern america --they can grow to about two feet long and their life span can actually reach 40 years.
We get to meet the senior citizen of the compound Buttercup who is a stately matron of 20 years.
But we also go out on a rescue mission where a baby abandoned by its mother is clinging to life in a tall tree.
We learn about the various infections that can  threaten the life of young sloths.
But the theory all soths are slow is challenged in a race between two sloths for food --the winner travels three meters in less than a minute.
'The sloth is perfectly adapted to life in the highest branches of the rain forest. Placed on the ground and it is  subject to various predators.
Living their lives upside down makes for all kinds of problems discussed in varying shades of details here.
There's even a menage a trois sloth style in episode two.
But just watch the varying efforts to save the life of little Jesse and try not shedding a tear or two.
The half hours are a perfect length for younger viewer I'm thinking.
So give Meet The Sloths a chance and don't be too slow about it or you'll miss the series.
MY RATING: ***1/2.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

CBC-TV's Winter Schedule: A Winner

CBCTV unveiled its 2014 winter schedule at a low keyed party deep within the bowels of the Corp's flagship building on Toronto's Front Street West.
The network should certainly emerge as the ratings winner during the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics.
Returning hit, Mr. D starring Gerry Dee include Ron James and the third season of Arctic Air.
There'll be a new prime time satire The Best Laid Plans, a cooking competition called Recipe To Riches and something called Four Rooms starring collectibles authorities.
CBC will also be broadcasting in partnership with the NHL the seven-part series NHL Revealed: A Season Like No Other to premiere Thursday January 23.
The six-part  political satire The Best Laid Plans premieres Sunday January 5 and stars Kenneth Welsh and Jonas Chernick.
I had a chance to chat up the reinvigorated stars of Arctic Air Adam Beach and Pascale Hutton.
I told them just a few weeks ago I'd met for the first time the real life stars of Ice Pilots --Arctic Air is the fictionalized saga of the originals.
"Highly fictionalized," joked Beach. "We're still filming but the conditions are getting tougher by the day. Those guys are doing the real thing right through those winter blizzards."
Hutton told me her character Krista will return  after months abroad and determined to try to forget the overseas romance with Tag Cummins (Niall Matter).
"She'll be trying to assume more responsibilities with the airline, it's her turn to shine. I think stories will be more personal this year --we did perhaps too many adventure tales last season. Now it's time to focus on the characters."
One casting note: series hunk Adam DiMarco who shines in Rogers TV commercials is out as Kirby Nystoruk.
Beach says "I fought to keep him, he's that good but his character didn't fit into the story any more."
Beach also told me "The warmer the country the more receptive the viewers there are to Arctic Air. We get fan mail from many countries where snow is never seen. And even some fans turn up at the set because they want to see where it's all put together."
I also had a reunion of sorts with Yannick Bisson whose show Murdoch Mysteries is now in its record breaking seventh season.
And it's now on three different Canadian networks: reruns still turn up on Citytv as well as FX Canada and new episodes continue on CBC.
Bisson agrees with me his interpretation is far different from the first Murdoch, played in several TV movies as brooding and defiantly Catholic (in a Protestant city) by Peter Outerbridge.
When Bisson took over and the concept turned into a TV series he adopted a far lighter tone turning the detective into a sort of Victorian matinee idol.
"We give viewers a little comedy, the mystery for sure, a historical turn of the Victorian era. It's a little bit of several genres."
I've been interviewing Bisson since I first noticed him aged 15 in the TV movie Hockey Night with Megan Follows. Unlike some of his contemporaries he always knew where he was going in terms of his career and he has blossomed into a certifiable TV leading man.
I also chatted up Carlo Rota (Little Mosque On The Prairie) of the new series Recipe For Riches, a reality competition pitting amateur cooks against each other with weekly winners finally competing for a $250,000 prize from President's Choice.
In February come the Sochi games a sure fire bet for CBC ratings supremacy with more than 1,500 broadcast hours in Fench and English.
Clearly it's a winter season for CBC to shine.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Ford Nation: Sitcom Or Farce?

Perhaps this is what Mayor Rob Ford has wanted all along.
I mean his own TV Show.
Granted the only venue open was on little watched SUN TV which is way. way up my cable dial --Channel 163 to be exact.
But there Monday night at 8 was new TV star chubby Rob interfacing with his far more belligerent brother Doug.
Hence the title of their mew weekly TV outing Ford Nation --don't forget they just got bumped off  Newstalk 1010.
And it occurred to me that this is what Ford Nation has been all along --a sitcom.
But I heard no canned laughter.
The lines were very familiar to one who has watched this unfolding farce.
The Fords looked a bit intimidated under those hot klieg lights but Hizzoner sweats a lot anyway.
The big moment came when people on the street asked timid questions.
There was a fair amount of "actuality" involving all the key moments so far.
And various SUN TV anchor had their say --they continually gripped about how conservatives are he;d to a higher standard than liberals which I'm convinced is not exactly true.
The hourlong shows will  be taped Sundays and run Mondays at 8 p.m. At least the Fords get choice  prime time.
I'm sure SUN TV's ratings shot up 1,000 per cent with this coup.
How can the Ford circus eep us watching week after week unless there are  continuing major revelations?
By the way Hizzoner looked natty in a blue suit and studio makeup made him seem less sweaty than usual.
Biggest coup came with the stats saying Ford is currently getting a 44 percent approval rating.
That's higher than Harper, higher than Obama and triple what the U.S. Congress gets.
But if Ford for all his gaucheries gets his own series why not old CTV pros Pam Wallin and Mike Duffy.
I mean those two really know how to stage themselves for the cameras.
Oh, I forget, they're liberals and thus not deemed suitable candidates for a SUN TV gig.
Look, I have to watch Ford Nation. It's part of my job.
But what about ordinary viewers?
How soon will they tire and switch back to a real sitcom?

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Lost Girl Finally Back for Season 4

One of the big successes of Canadian TV is the quirky sci fi opus Lost Girl which has returned for Season 4.
For a Canadian drama to last that long is amazing and yet LG gets very little press coverage compared to the equally amazing Murdoch Mysteries.
Why the continual thumbs down from critics?
Because sci fi is supposed to be bullet proof where criticism is concerned --that's what I'm guessing.
Or maybe it's because its very audience wouldn't dare read a TV critic like yours truly in the first place.
I was busy fighting off the flu when LG actually returned last week.
I'm always a bit confused when I tune in a preview for this home grown effort.
What I've noticed from the get go is that LG doesn't look at all Canadian.
Meaning sets, photography and stunts are all excellent. The pacing of the first new episode was tightly edited and star Ksenia Solo looked loverly in her party girl outfit.
Well cast as Kenzi  Solo shone in the early moments as she demonstrated that she's not at all human --she did this by conjuring up fireworks from her hands --see what I mean by special special effects?
When Dyson took Kenzi home we saw her tattered clubhouse which was emblazened with tongs tossed all over the place.
I never felt any sense of danger among the particpants. Partly this is due to Solo's way with a sarcastic crack or two. In fact right off the top she quips "This is so Raiders."
Every situation was played out for chuckles not terror. Even the appearance of George Takei as a gigantic snake was , well, humorous.
I can't believe it's been more than a decade since I first interviewed Kris Holden-Reid  (Dyson) on the set of that long forgotten Canadian soap Riverdale.
I probably did the first print interview with him --today he commands presence as a reliable series lead.
If there was a real star in the first new episode it had to be Mark Ahee who is the special effects cooordinator. If not him then production designer  Ian Brooks or even cinematographer Craig Wright.
Made in Toronto by Prodigy Pictures and just as popular abroad Lost Girl shows what sells Canadian TV series product is simply this: quality.
More please!

Murder She Wrote Revival A Big Mistake

MEMO TO NBC: Stop talking about rebooting that old CBS hit Murder She Wrote, will ya?
Angela Lansbury herself says the decision to mount a revival and call it by the same name is "a big mistake."
And you know what? Lansbury is right on.
Lansbury just got an honorary Academy Award this week.
I've interviewed her several times --both on the MSW set as well as once in Oshawa when she was making the TV mini-series Little Gloria Happy At Last.
The 88-year old legend confirms it was her stint as Jessica Fletcher that made her into a gigantic super star --this after decades in the flickers including an astonishing turn in The Manchurian Candidate and such Broadway triumphs as Mame.
Lansbury says she knows about Octavia Spencer who'll replace her and wishes her well.
But she's right --there will only be one Jessica Fletcher.
In fact NBC should have learned from its mistakes.
Right now there's NBC's dog awful reboot of Ironside that is languishing at the bottom of the ratings and destined for swift cancellation.
And then there was the 2011 remake of that sparkling British hit than ran on PBS's Masterpiece Theatre
re: it  Prime Suspect  starring iconic Helen Mirren as Jane Tennison.
The American version with Maria Bello went through multiple rewrites and was so different from the original it might have fared better with a different title.
The fact is most TV remakes bomb because the public has strong memories of the first version.
Oh, I know CBS is currently peddling a new version of Hawaii 5-0 but it has only succeeded in a half fashion and may not last much longer.
I know all about Charlie's Angels, the original one I mean which ran 1976 through 1981. I was on the set five times, once to interview the legendary Barbara Stanwyck.
well, in 2011 there predictably rolled out a TV remake starring Annie Ilonzeh, Minka Kelly and Rachael Taylor. Who? Who? Who? That was my first reaction,
Only four episodes ever ran due to negative public opinion.
My old pal Bob Wagner was scheduled to co-star as Charlie but he left early --presumably after reading a few of the rotten scripts.
Then there was 2007's re-imagining of Bionic Woman --a whole eight episodes aired before the Writers Strike rolled around and ABC used it as pretext for cancellation.
I always thought Michelle Ryan was passable as Jaime Sommers but viewers thought otherwise.
As far as remakes of classic sitcoms it just never happens.
I mean a remake of I Love Lucy without Lucy Ball? See what I mean.
I remember once sitting in the living room of producer Gail Patrick who personally produced the Perry Mason series for CBS (1957-66).
Patrick declined to have anything to do with CBS's 1973 remake because her version was still playing in reruns all over the dial.
But later on there was a successful revival --with the original cast headed by Raymond Burr and Barbara Hale --this time in TV movies which successfully preserved the zest of the original.
So that's the way to treat Murder She Wrote --as a new series of TV flicks starring, of course, Angela Lansbury.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Kevin Newman Wants To Reinvent TV News

How long have I been covering Kevin Newman, lately the amiable host of CTV's Question Period?
I remember covering the stink when Newman left CBC's Midday (dubbed "the baby Journal") in 1994 as he jumped to ABC News.
Turns out CBC management got their signals crossed because he really wanted to stay if given the choice.
From 1994 to 1996 he diligently hosted the graveyard shift known as World News Now on ABC.
And then came time on Good Morning America especially on weekend editions until 1997.
In those years whenever I'd chat up ABC anchor Peter Jennings the amiable Canadian would praise the efforts of Newman and predict big things were coming.
Strangest factoid I can remember from that time came when Newman referred on air to a child's "Christmas sleigh" and the producer on duty that day blew up saying "He should have called it a sled!"
Back in Canada he hosted Global News Hour first from Vancouver --that didn't treally work--and then moved with the show to Ottawa.
Then he jumped again to CTV for Question Period, W5 assignments and occasional news reading substitutions on CTV News at 11 p.m.
In other words Newman doesn't crave long stretches of doing the same thing.
And now he's been handed his most intriguing assignment --to reinvent that strange entity TV news.
Starting Monday At 9 p.m. there's a new news hour coming on CTV News Channel.
Of course it's titled Kevin Newman Live. But Newman is better at saying what it will not be rather than what it is.
"We're evolving," he says over the phone from the brand news studio which is located in downtown Toronto's City building.
Will he in any way be modeling himself on CNN's Anderson Cooper?
"Nope, too old," he jokes.
In fact Newman is only 54 to Cooper's 46. But he lacks the white hair.
And judging from the PR photos released he won't even be wearing a suit coat or tie.
"We figure that by 9 at night audiences already know the top stories of the day. Our challenge is to find a different way to interpret what has happened that day."
In fact Newman took a year off after leaving Global to specifically study the phenomena of social media and how it affects the younger generations.
I think he'd agree with me today's twentysomethings wouldn't normally be caught dead watching a traditional news cast.
When I ask if maybe Kevin Newman Live isn't coming on a few weeks too late he laughs.
"You mean mayor Ford. Well, we're using that story in our dry runs --we have been doing these for three weeks.
"You'll notice the way that story broke and how it quickly became the lead all over the place. It took on a life of its own, that's the way stories develop these days.
"But, yeah, opening the show with this story would really have gotten us noticed."
Will Newman be concentrating on the news junkies? "Them and anybody else interested in that day's news. We will have some panels like on Fridays with books.
"But there will be a lot of input from viewers and back and forward conversations."
Hmmm, seems to me CTV once had an entire cable channel dedicated to that sort of thing termed Talk TV and it bombed mightily despite the presence of such youthful chatterboxes as Ben Mulroney.
Let's hope Newman's solid professionalism can keep the talk on a much more interesting level.
The fact CTV management is ready to experiment with such a project speaks volumes about the way news networks are heading --remember Lisa LaFlamme taking over from Lloyd Robertson on CTV News at 11 has kept ratings high at 11 p.m.
And her newscast is as traditional as they come.
The studio set is up and Newman expects quick fixes in the early months.
The challenge simple stated is to get  a young audience who spend their days twittering to sit down and watch TV news in any form.
But this veteran anchor sees seen the future of TV news as  Kevin Newman Live.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Brave New TV: Stephen Hawking On The Future

I didn't know what to expect when I tuned into my preview copy of Stephen Hawking's Brave New World.
After all the internationally famous host is virtually paralyzed and speechless because of ALS.
And yet here he sits rather impassively using his new electronic voice which  as one British critic wrote seems to be borrowed from that old series Knight Rider.
I don't know about that but the whole experience seems very futuristic to anyone who  tunes in Friday November 15 at 8 p.m. on Discovery World.
In Hawkin's optimistic view of the future gadgets rule.
And the scientists we see here aren't the old bunch of male gray hairs but a diverse selection of young, fit, eager futurists who have already eagerly adapted to the demands of TV.
This crack team includes two youthful and photogenic Canadian presenters --Dr. Carin Bondar and Professor Chris Eliasmith.
Joining them are American import Dr. Daniel Kraft plus Professor Jim Al-Khalili and Dr. Arathi Prasad from the U.K.
Take a very close look at Dr. Bondar who I'm sure is very close to getting her own TV show.
She is pretty comfortable in the cool medium of TV science. She can simplify the complex without turning it into a cartoon.
The day when TV science was magnificently served by the likes of Dr. David Suzuki and David Attenborough is , alas, coming to a close --old age catches up with all of us, I'm afraid.
Bondar says she has yet to meet Hawking or even chat him up on Skype.
"Handel Productions does all that so far."
And understandably she's not entirely sold on the idea that science can completely resolve many of today's problems. Some futurists believe science is to blame partly at least for such phenomena as global warming.
"I guess I got contacted through my work for Scientific American," Bondar says from her Chilliwack, B.C. home..
But she also appears on Discovery's Daily Planet with some regularity.
"Every segment I did took at least a full day to shoot and prepare. I was in San Diego for one, anther was done in Pittsburgh."
"The idea is to shoot everything. Editors then guarantee it all gets put into place. Because we can't afford to return and reshoot."
She doesn't think it at at all odd for a woman to anchor difficult subjects. "I've got the goods --my PhD."
But her emphasis on content makes her anything but a TV bio-starlet.
"I'm not overly optimistic about where we're headed. The planet today is not what it once was, But maybe with our scientific capabilities we can stem this degradation. You know there's a garbage patch in the ocean the size of Texas. But how to arouse people to the problem?
"We never seem to tackle these issues until we're in a state of  crisis. People would much rather watch fluorescent frogs in the Amazon."
In the first new episode the game changing inventions are inspired by nature itself.
There are attempts to imitate the sticky traction of geckos with man made adhesive qualities --think how this might help window cleaners 30 stories up.
Or there's new gaming technology guaranteed to change the gambling industry plus a 3D printer that can generate live tissue (Hawking is most enthusiastic about this one) and also a Canadian innovation that substitutes small submarines for deep space training.
And Bondar looks at new ways of generating electricity in a completely wireless way.
Brave New World , an expensive, challenging slice of TV, is described as a "co-operative" project between Montreal based Handel Productions and UK's IWC and runs for five weeks.
MY RATING: ****.

Friday, November 8, 2013

At Least History Television Remembers

Talking to a group of smart Grade Sixers recently I was surprised more than half did not know what countries we were fighting in World War II.
Any knowledge of the Korean Conflict? Forget it!
So I'd like to salute History Television which has two exceptional new documentaries on this weekend to help us all get up to scratch with Canada's military history.
First up there's the matchless documentary Sector Sarajevo which tells the story brilliantly of the experiences of Canadian soldiers during one critical month in the besieged Yugoslavian town and how they coped at the time and how they are faring today.
Toronto film makers Barry Stevens and David York have made one one of the best Canadian TV documentaries of the year. It touches all the bases in its examination of the unique role the Canadians played smack dab in the middle of a civil war.
The Canadian contingent was sent by the United Nations in July 1992 to deliver much needed food and medical supplies without which thousands of people would surely have starved to death.
Their existence in between two combatants is well explained. Stevens and York get eye witness accounts from both sides as well as the reminiscences of the Canadians who were fired at during their daily humanitarian operations.
Commentary from the Canadian head, major general Lewis Mackenzie quite succinctly documents how he managed to get his troops through harrowing experiences --both sides feared the Canadians were running guns to the others.
Canadian troops were restricted by "Chapter 6" which forbade them from firing unless fired upon. About the rules MacKenzie jokes "I rewrote" them --he calls his regulations "Chapter Six and-a-half" because the Canadians could not help but get involved.
Through TV newsreels we see the anguish of one bunch of civilians cowering behind trees as snipers shoot away at them and the heroic efforts of one Canadian soldier who crawls from his vehicle to rescue a woman shot in the hip.
We then hear from that woman today as well as her savior. TV doesn't get any better than this in terms of human drama
Much of the terrific texture of the story comes from BBC journalist Martin Bell who takes us through the episodes where both sides hammered at each other with the Canadian stuck in the middle.
Watching pregnant women get hid and small children gunned down did affect some soldiers. One interviewed today says when he left the military he lost his family and became homeless as he fought back from those images of violence.
I can't think of a better film to demonstrate what Remembrance Day is all about. With great skill  Stevens and York expertly stitch together the past and present in a seamless story of what war can do over decades to the survivors.
Wait! There's more!
I'm just as excited about 28 Heroes, another new Canadian documentary on History the very next night.
Once again the subject is an unknown battle that involved Canadian forces.
In this case the date is November 2, 1951, and finds our army in the Korean conflict and fighting bitterly along the 38th parallel against an incoming attack from the Communist Chinese.
Called the Jamestown front, it was formerly occupied by the Chinese who realize there are only 28 Canadians that night defending a ridge that seems vulnerable.
Two Canadian veterans Lt. Ed Mastronardi and Pte. Pete Butler give their reminiscences of the 2nd platoon. But what is astounding is  film maker Paul Kilback discovered a Chinese survivor Li Yinjun the Communist company commander who vigorously recounts the other side in great detail.
As Mastronardi says he remembers hearing the cry "Canada boy, tonight you die!"
But exactly the opposite happened. Hundreds of Chinese perished but only one Canadian soldier died.
And the key moments of the battle are brilliantly recreated using CGI techniques as well as extras for both sides.
It's as thrilling as watching any Hollywood war movie --but in this case it's all true!
You probably never heard of the battle for "Song-gok Spur" but you won't be able to turn away.
The battle summed up all the fighting qualities of the Canadian boys An ambitious production with superb special effects from Max MacDonald , here is another of TV's best of the year.
MY RATING: ****.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Pop Quiz Debuts On E!

ere has to be a reason why the new Canadian TV series called Pop Quiz is debuting this time of the season.
I'm still trying to figure that one out.
But Pop Quiz which will run weeknights at 9 on E! starting Monday Nov. 4 has been tailored as a vehicle for the evolving talents of Devon Soltendieck.

You first caught him aged only 18 on various MuchMusic outings.
Then he jumped to anchoring CP24 News  still looking like a teenager but a very self possessed one --his reading skills were immaculate. He just got "promoted" to reporter on eTalk.
My CTV insiders are hinting Soltendieck is being rapidly advanced by CTV just in case Ben Mulroney jumps to a better paid position on U.S. TV.
Soltendiecks's first starring vehicle, Pop Quiz, is very craftily assembled to take advantage of a young audience whose familiarity with modern culture is assured.
I saw Episode Nine --I'm not entirely sure in what order the episodes will run.
The studio set ressembles a forum --there are 10 contestants stationed around a gigantic circular set and they try to answer a wide variety of questions --some of them were easy, others I had no clue about the correct answer.
There are bleachers with an overly enthusiastic audience and as judge comedienne Emma Hunter cattily notices Devon's hair has been sprayed into an odd shaped cone.
He's dressed in a casual grey suit without a tie to make him seem more mod.  I'd say the tie should come back and his method needs to be toned down just a bit. But at least he gets things moving at a rapid pace.
Other than that this is a standard quiz show. I'm not sure why quizzes faded out but this one has been carefully structured to appeal to a very young audience.
There are Three Rounds called Eliminations, Connections and Definitions and some of the preselected conterstants were quite dire while others  were far more knowledgeable.
All the contestants were in the age range of under 30 I'm guessing. In the Semi-Finals there's a Face-Off followed by Finals or Winner's Circle.
Devon at 28 is already a seasoned TV performer. Let's all hope he never becomes as unctuous as Ryan Seacrest. Nut I think that is improbable.
Pop Quiz is made by Pixcom Productions and Incendo.
There is no emphasis on Canadian content leading me to conclude it can be easily exportable to the U.S.
The time of the night may be a little late for this sort of thing. I'd be more inclined to watch on a regular basis at 7 or 7:30 p.m.