Saturday, June 27, 2009

Farrah Was A Fighter

Yeah, I was there the night Farrah became Farrah.
Let me explain. It was on a sweltering evening in July, 1976, and the TV critics were out in force at the swank Century Plaza hotel in Century City. We all wanted to watch the new series Charlie's Angels which originally aired as a TV movie on ABC in March and had gone through the roof ratings wise.
It was an awful piece of tripe: three gorgeous young things play detective supervised by an unseen boss named Charlie (voice courtesy of John Forsythe).
VIewers got to see Kate Jackson, Jaclyn Smith and Farrah Fawcett-Majors (as she was then) frolic in the California surf, flounce around in t-shirts and shorts or pose as masseurs or models or anything that seemed sexy.
Nobody expected this one to go anywhere. It was up against a much anticipated new CBS show Blue Knight with George Kennedy and a fine new NBC western Oregon Trail with Tim Matheson and Kurt Russell.
But when the dust cleared Charlie's Angels won and quickly became a TV phenomenon.
I found Kate Jackson as poised as ever --she'd already starred in two TV hits, The Rookies and Dark Shadows.
And there was lovely brunette Jaclyn Smith, cool, poised, the best looking of the bunch.
But that night the TV critics only wanted to meet Farrah. The Farrah frenzy had just begun.
Farrah's wily manager, Jay Bernstein, started it with that poster. You know the one that sold 12 million copies.
But at the end of the first season, egged on by Bernstein, Farrah made a big mistake. She quit the show to become a movie star and CA executive producer Aaron Spelling retaliated with an injuction preventing her from working elsewhere.
Eventually a compromise was reached: Farrah would guest on CA at least once a year and Cheryl Ladd was signed to play her look alike sister.
But the movies Farrah made (including Sunburn and Saturn 3) flopped badly. Farrah might be a star but she had yet to learn to act.
To her credit Farrah persevered. She was outstanding in an off Broadway play, Extremities. She excelled in such YV movie fare as The Burning Bed, the Beate Klarsfeld Story and Poor Little Rich Girl (as Barbara Hutton).
And after divorcing Lee Majors as Farrah Fawcett she had a long and successful relationship with Ryan O'Neal.
When I chatted with her in 1995 on the Toronto TV set of Jewel she was poised. condident and absolutely in command acting wise.
But I still missed the Texas sweetheart I first met that night in 1976.
Farrah succumbed to cancer aged 62 after years of courageous fighting, But the way the mainstream media ignored her story for Michael Jackson's passing was unfair and rather cruel.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Second Bananas Sometimes Finish First

"Of course I know I'm lucky," chortled Ed McMahon over the telephone during our last chat.
He was on the line from his L.A. home to promote a "one man" show at Toronto's Music Hall theater.
That must have been more than two years ago but McMahon sounded as chipper as ever.
He claimed he'd licked prostate cancer and was raring to get back into the swim of things. but he was also in his early '80s and old pal Johnny Carson was dead.
So McMahon packaged an evening of clips from the old Tonight Show and took it on the road to U.S. cities plus Toronto.
"I don't have to work but I must work, get that?" he chattered. He meant he was financially well heeled but had to get out and be active. It was simply his nature.
I reminded him the first time we met was out at Burbank sometime in the early 1980s.
I spent the day in the Tonight Show production offices following around director Freddie de Cordova.
I sometimes spotted Johnny Carson in the background and he had been told of my presence. But he never came near me. Assistants whispered he was too shy --or maybe he was just too busy.
McMahon stopped to chat a bit then excused himself for makeup and hair. I remember him stating he was perfectly content with his second banana status.
When Carson was vacationing McMahon refused to take over. It was a different job and required skills he did not possess, he said.
But he never was Carson's stooge. Joan Rivers remembered when she had her famous fracaswith Carson and was banished from the show it was McMahon who came over to her house for a pleasant chat.
He wasn't going to be bossed around by Carson, not then, not ever.
And we chattered again a few years later when I was out at the Disney studios and he was promoting a TV movie appearance he'd done for Disney.
With McMahon what you saw was what you got.
"People don't tune in NBC at 11:30, to see what I'm up to" he said. "They want to find out what Carson's going to say about the day's events."
His big break came in 1957 when he was signed by Carson as the announcer of the new daytime game show Who Do you trust. And when Carson jumped to the Tonight Show in 1962 McMahon obligingly followed him.
We heard him first every night: "Heeeeeeeeere's Johnny!".
His job was to laugh at all of Carson's jokes and serve as the butt of one liners. Carson would needle him endlessly about his alleged alcoholism and his rotund appearance.
In the early years when the show came from New York McMahon also doubled as host of daytime's Concentration game show.
He appeared in such movies as The Incident (1967) and Fun With Dick And Jane (1977). He was co-host of the annual Jerry Lewis telethon.
But most of all he sold anything and everything.
McMahon was TV's top huckster. In recent years he was peddling electric wheelchairs for Pride Mobility. Before that it was pots and pans on the Home Shopping Network.
And the surprise is he loved it, rarely turned down a gig and claimed his house was filled with all the stuff he'd peddled over the decades. In fact one of his last appearances came last year on Larry King as his L.A. home was about to be taken for back taxes --Donald Trump came to the rescue.
His death at 86 the other day was from bone cancer and pneumonia.
But he always said he never got over the death of best pal Johnny Carson.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Do you Remember Walter Ctonkite?

The other day I was trying to explain to a bunch of young journalism students how powerful Walter Cronkite was in the 1860s and 1970s.
They barely knew the name which is OK. TV news reporting is an ephemerial occupation and Conkite has been gone from his CBS post as chief anchor for 27 uears , a lifetime in TV terms.
Cronkite's name came up because of persistent reports from CBS that at 92 he is severely ill. The network has been preparing tributes to run at his death, always an ominous sign.
How could I explain to these kids that day in November, 1963, when I was writing a Grtade 12 Latin exam at Riverdale Collegiate and heard the buzz: President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated in Dallas, Texas.
I rushed home and turned on CBS's Buffalo affiliate, Channel 4 and sat for hours watching the live coverage.
Remember that was a time before satellite transmission. Cronkite had to piece the story for us without any of the requisite visuals. He was reduced to reading copy ripped off the AP news wire.
But I well remember the moment when with his voice breaking he announced the death of the young president.
There were those indelible images later on: the widow stepping out of the plane in Washington with the blood staining her pink suit, the little boy saluting his father's casket--but it was Cronkite's voice we heard all through those days.
The fact is I instinctively turned to CBS in those days. I'd probably turn on CNN oday rather than CBS or CBC.
So strong was Cronkite's presence that his 6:30 p.m. CBS newcast from Buffalo attracted up to 100,000 Toronto viewers every night.
We watched "Uncle Walter" through the conventions. We sat upright the night he said that the war in Viet Nam was not winnable. And I'm not taking anything away from ABC's Howard K. Smith or NBC's David Brinley by saying Cronkite was always the man.
The decision to retire at 65 proved to be the wrong one: the CBS suits maneuvered him out of a proposed role as an on air elder statesman. They cancelled his Science TV series. When we saw Cronkite it was as host of the Kennedy Center Honours or at the Vienna Philharmonic.
But after 8/11 Cronkite was the one David Letterman had to have on to explain it all.
And Cronkite's mutterings on CNN's Larry King produced rich samples of his wit and wisdom.
Cronkite flourished in TV's 10-channel universe. These days network newscasts are losing viewers and there's nobody around with thar aura of experience that steadied our nerves during so many political crises.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

An Earlier Nightline?

Remember folks you read it here second! I'm referring to the disclosure in The New York Times by Bill Carter that NABC is seriously considering moving Nightline to 10 p,m. if its crop of new late prime dramas fail to make it.
The story really got started when NBC decided to abandon its 10 p.m. slot to a new Jay Leno talk show weeknights at 10 instead of its expensive slate of drama series that were failing anyway.
So if NBC can do it why not ABC?
ABC has an ambitious slate of new shows ready to roll in the fall weeknights at 10 including Eastwick and The Forgotten.
But if these tank why not try Nightline? It would be as cheap to make as the new Leno outing. And it would go directly against CNN's semipopular Anderson Cooper newscast.
The Times also points out the traditional 6:30 newscast is shrinking in ratings with an aging population.
Every time I watch Katie Couric I note the number of ads for Viagra-type drugs. The time could come when a 10 p.m. newcast might attract more viewers.
Don't forget ABC has already has success with 10 p.m. current affairs shows like 20/20 and Primetime Live. So news at 10 for ABC could be a possibility ABC although not this season with expensive filmed dramas already ordered up.
And can I add there's already a 10 p.m. national network newscast. It's on CBC and Peter Mansbridge nightly struggles against those popular 10 p.m. procedurals imported by rival CTV.
Some CBC veterans have been huffing for years CBC's National would get more viewers at 11 up against CTV's LLoyd Robertson.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Conan Roars Back

Don't count Conan O'Brien out. Not yet anyway.
The carrot top saw his Tonight Show post steady ratings decline for the first week after he took over hosting duties.
But on Wednesday night he reversed that trend and showed some growth for the first time.
Many veteran observers including yours truly wondered if Leno's more mature audience would stick with Conan's collegiate humor.
But NBC sources are now saying Conan has bottomed out and may now be positioned for solid audience growth.
Certainly we won't know the outcome until September when Leno debuts his new prime time talk-variety outing weeknights on NBC at 19 p.m. How many viewers will watch Leno at 10 only to decide they've had it with talk and bypass Conan at 11:35?
On Wednesday night Letterman was hardly in top form proffering a seven minute apology to Alaska's governor Sarah Palin who bristled at remarks made about her teenaged daughter. Letterman's guests that night included Kathy Griffin and Stupid Human Tricks.
Conan retorted with Dane Cook, hardly a top of the line guest.
But in the all important adults 18-49 Conan recorded a huge jump and that boost spilled over into Jimmy Fallon at 12:35.
NBC's press releaser said "This is beyond our wildest expectations."
But the battle is only starting to warm up. In September comes the fierce ratings battle. This is summertime, remember, and ratings don't really count.

CBC's Best Ever Series?

Now it's time to saute what may be CBC's best ever TV series. I'm talking about the award winning The Nature Of Things fast approaching its 50th TV season.
Why CBC's current management choses to bury this fine show on the least watched night of the week and in a summer berth beats me.
After all there are any number of poor reality shows and inane situation comedies CBC could shunt aside to make way for the best and the brightest.
And nothing better personifies the spirit of public television than David Suzuki the long time host who is one of Canadian TV's reigning super stars.
A long time ago when CBC had the funding and the spirit necessary to make world class shows the Corp actually had two similar but competing series in This Land and The Nature Of Things.
It was the genius of executive producer Jim Murray to see that only one could survive in the long haul.
He told me he wanted to personalize TBOT by making host Suzuki front and center in all episodes, Canadian viewers trusted the man and after Suzuki's weekly introduction Murray bet me they'd stick around week after week.
Well, the wonderful This Land was the one to go. And with Suzuki as anchor TNOT keeps rolling along.
Tonight there's an entire hour on lawns. It's part social history, part ecological study.
To understand the importance of lawns in North American history we're shown George Washington's lawn and how he imported European experts to produce it.
We're also taken to Levittown on Long Island to see how important lawns were to returning American soldiers after World War II: lawns became an integral part of the American dream.
The desire for the perfect lawn also spawned DDT and other deadly pesticides which brought cancer and related illnesses to the suburbs.
And we visit a grass farm where all the forms of lawn grass are grown as sod to be sold to customers intent on buying a new suburban home.
It's an excellent, exciting hour filled with science lessons plus a bit of contemporary history --we even learn how the modern lawn mower was invented. And all wrapped up with Suzuki's commentary.
In short it's an hour of quality public TV, the kind of program CBC must have on its schedule every night of the week if it wants to survive in today's crowded TV universe.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Something Very Different

It's that time of the year. You can either watch reruns or reruns.
But take some time and you'll spot new shows on TV that offer something completely different. One of these is the Saskatchewan-made documentary  miniseries In Justice.
Now this one is completely unusual. It looks at legal cases in a new light. Obviously made for a nickel and a dime, it doesn't dramatize events (too costly) but presents them as a series of striking drawings. First up there's the strange case of a jailed man who became the only inmate ever to be killed by somebody outside the reformatory walls.
In another a perennial alcoholic is revived and goes on a rampage of killing three innocent people six months later.
Rich in irony, scrupulously researched, the half hours fairly whizz by. Made by Regina's Dacian Productions, it lets us see Canadian perspectives from another part of the country besides Toronto. 
The first one was directed by Jarrett Rusnak, written by Karin Martel, showing how ingenuity can compensate for a low budget. Rusnak also produced the series. The premiere is on Monday June 8 at 6:30 and Thursdays at 10:30 on documentary.

O Brothers!

The latest Disney confection, the Jonas Brothers, show they've really made it. They're getting a puppy dog rock series all of their own on the Disney Channel in the U.S. and Canada's Family Channel.
Titled simply Jonas, the half hour sitcom is not recommended for anybody over 17. Those little girls between 13 and 16 will lap it up just as they've been compulsively watching Hannah Montana for the past few years.
The rest of us may wonder what the shouting is all about. Starring are the bubblegum sensations Kevin, Joe and Nick, 16, 17 and 19 respectively.  They're darkly handsome, clean cut, nice to their elders, in short the kind of teens you'd want hanging out with your kids.
Here they play fictional versions of themselves as teens stuck in a high school to die for. At home they have concerned parents (who are also taller) and inhabit what looks like a renovated fire hall. Their shared bedroom is the entire second floor complete with poles to slide down and a wide variety of expensive musical instruments and games of all kinds.
Remember this is their first collective outing as actors. They're very inexperienced but in a delightfully gauche kind of way. The eldest, Nick, reads his lines with the voice of a bunny rabbit.
The youngest. Kevin, has a voice that hasn't changed as yet but when he's strummin' a ditty --which he also wrote--he suddenly seems so very mature. Joe has been described as the Beyonce of the squakily clean troup, all dark smoldering eyes, and hair in his eyes.
This one has been crafily tuned out by Disney who certainly know their audience. It's about girls mooning after them but that's as far as it gets. No smoking, of course. No horsing around with the girlies you undersatand. No smutty language or anything that's off color. They lads don't seem to be sporting their chastity rings but maybe that's because they'd be called names at high school.
In the first episode Kevin writes a song for a girl he likes and she takes it as her own. In the second episode the guys inadvertently destroy mom's home movies of them as kids so they re-enact all the goofy scenes as semi-adults and everybody has a good cry.
How many teen hunks have I encountered over the years? Starting with Bobby Sherman I can list David and Shaun Cassidy, Johnny Depp, John Travolta, Leif Garrett, John Stanos. I could go on and on.
Some of them disappeared in the blink of an eye, Others survived by learning the craft of acting, something the Jonas trio have yet to master.
In the meantime there's this pleasant and inoffensive sitcom. It could have been better --The Monkees had a similar show that was jam packed with crazy comedy and goofy situations, remember?
But the Disney people invented this formula and the Jonas sensations are stuck with it.The first two episodes run bacto back on Family OnDemand beginning Tuesday, June 9 and the series sports the first two episodes Friday June 12 at 6 p.m. Got all that?

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

New "Canadian" TV Schedules

The fall TV schedules of the Canadian TV networks are starting to seep out.
First up there's Citytv which is being changed from a feisty, street smart independent station to a chain of stations basically concerned with importing American fare.
Hold on just a moment! I well remember when City was being set up in the early 1970s, Toronto's first independent station, a thriving UHF (originally on Channel 79) by visionaries Moses Znaimer and Phyllis Switzer.
In those days Znaimer was trying with some success to reinvent the TV universe. 
He got City's license from the CRTC by arguing people could be made to watch local programming.
The big show of the day was a two-hour block of live TV at 8 examining all local issues originally fronted by veteran reporter Ron Haggart.
Znaimer gave TV movie buyer Brian Linehan his first chance in front of the camera and movie crazy Linehan responded with City Lights, an interview show that lasted for the next 20 years.
Jeannie Bekker fronted The New Music with a hip dude who called himself J.D. Roberts (and these days as John Roberts is a greying CNN anchor).
Morty Shuman, Toronto's crusading coroner, had a great talk show. There was the local news with its slew of reporters (called videographers) wandering around Toronto streets with hand held cameras. 
Branding was big with Znaimer: SexTV, FashionTV. And there were those Baby Blue movies,too.
And now? Well, the all revamped City purchased by Rogers Communications last year nabbed NBC's new Jay Leno show weeknights at 10.
City has snatched the Neil Patrick Harris sitcom How I Met Your Mother from Global and has the new Jenna Effman comedy plus on Wednesdays  there'll be the new Ed O'Neill sitcom Modern Family and Courteney Cox in Cougar Town. The U.S. buying spree includes the hospital drama Mercy plus Trauma set in San Francisco.
Last year City abandoned its position as the prime time movie channel in Toronto. Also, I don't see the fine detective drama The Murdoch Mysteries on its fall schedule.
In short City seems intent on aping the formulas of CTV and Global: Buy as many American shows and hope for the best.
Over at CTV it's a different story --the fall schedule looks almost the same as this past year's. Playing it safe with aging CBS procedurals means CTV's audience is decidedly on the old side these days. And just for the record CTV will be simulcasting 16 hours of prime time American fare every week.
The networks has made significant U.S. purchases to run on its second string network of A Stations. New purchases include  Hank (with Kelsey Grammer), the Middle (Patricia Heaton), The Beautiful Life (Mischa Barton), Eastwick plus  the cop saga Flash Forward
In past seasons CTV would overbuy its imports and run some of the new ones on Sunday afternoons. CTV originally ran Desperate Housewives Sundays at 4 p.m. until it took off on ABC.
In fact CTV has only one new American series: The Vampire Diaries will run Thursdays at 10 (displacing Private Practice).
None of this jibes with the slightly hysterical CTV TV campaign to get viewers to write in to their local MPs to "save local TV". Gee, at first glance there's very little local content on either CTV or A fall schedules outside of local news..
New Canadian series on CTV include two starring Corner Gas refugees. First up Nancy Robertson has husband Brent Butt authoring her new sitcom called Hiccups (she's a children's book writer). Then Fred Ewanuick stars in Dan For Mayor. Neither one will come on until 2010-11.
Every Sunday night at 7 CTV will show double episodes of Degrassi: The Next Generation. A channel will rerun old Degrassi episodes weeknights. Unused episodes of Whistler run on CTV Saturday nights --the series has been off the air for a year. Flashpoint is back Fridays and the new series The Bridge is coming up.
Remember one year CTV had the guts to run three new Canadian dramas Saturday night (Power Play, the City, Cold Case). 
And at one time CTV had three hours of Canadian talk every day in Vicki Gabereau, Dini Petty, and Mike Bullard but all have been replaced by American imports.
Just one more point: CTV will not carry the next season of  the best U.S. series on TV these days, Mad Men. So it will presumably go to another Canadian Channel when it returns in August. Or we'll just have to watch it on AMC.
So the battle for local TV on CTV was really lost years ago.