Friday, March 26, 2010

TV Attracting Big Movie Stars

Way back when I was a child TV critic I did a piece about the number of big time movie stars making the dangerous trek to television series.
The year was 1971 as Shirley MacLaine, Glenn Ford, Rock Hudson, Hank Fonda, Jimmy Stewart, Anthony Quinn among others jumped ship.
But after the ratings dust settled there was one lone survivor: Rock Hudson.
He and he alone had that special charisma that makes a TV star. Many of the others were simply too big for the small screen, their oversized personalities were not suited to TV's cozy style of presentation.
In the decades since then other big movie stars have found the same difficulty in changing media: Richard Dreyfuss couldn't make it, Whoppi Goldberg bombed in her sitcom as did Bette Midler. Charlton Heston couldn't make that jump on TV's The Colbys. Jimmy Woods lasted a season.
Now there are wire stories a whole new bunch of movie icons are coming our way.
The reason is simple: the continuing deterioration of movies made for adults. movies in 3-D like Avatar are doing booming business. But something as profound as The Last Station with Oscar nominees Helen Mirren and Christopher Plummer isn't finding much of an audience out there.
That's why an Oscar winner like Sissy Spacek is moving on to TV work. She'll hopefully appear next season in CBS's new medical series produced by John Wells (ER). She thrived on Brothers And Sisters so why attempt another movie role?
Then there's Dustin Hoffman who is going to make his first ever TV series. I caught him in his latest movie Last Chance Harvey but few other paying customers did.
Hoffman's old Midnight Cowboy co-star Jon Voight will star in Fox's Midland in a fatherly role.
He has joined the cast of HBO's racing drama Luck opposite Dennis Farina.
Wait there's more! According to the trades Forrest Whittaker will headline the CBS spin off of Criminal Minds. And Kathy Bates has starred in a law pilot Kindreds for producer David E. Kelly (Boston Legal).
Kevin Kline is up for an HBO series and others are close to signing.
None of these stars fare well in a youth obsessed movie industry. Bt they must learn to pack their bags of movie acting tricks at home because it takes a different set of acting chops to wow them on TV.
Just ask MacLaine, Ford, Quinn or any one of dozens of high powered movie names who couldn't make it on series TV.
A rare group of actors can go back and forth. James Garner is one. Mary Tyler Moore is another and right up there is Sally Field.
Then there's the question of TV stars who never made it big in movies. Examples include Vince Edwards, Richard Chamberlain, John Ritter and Henry Winkler.
But that's a whole new column.

Monday, March 22, 2010

D-Day For Canadian TV ?

It looked like D-Day for Canadian television.
And then the mighty CRTC blinked.
Monday was supposed to mark a new dawn for beleagured Canadian TV. After all conventional broadcasters stand to lose over $600 million this season --partly that's the recession but viewer numbers are crumpling.
As reported in Monday's Globe And Mail the average Canadian now spends more time on the Internet than watching television. The younger the viewer, the less conventional TV he or she watches.
The Ipsos Reid survey cannot be discounted and my own unscientific research backs it up entirely.
I can now watch many of my favorite TV shows right off my large (29 inch) Apple computer screen. I can catch such American web sites as hulu, too. On the various play on demand channels I can catch everything from Sarah's House (HGTV) to The Mentalist (CTV, CBS).
I now regularly order movies from my Apple store and they're sent directly to my computer for me to enjoy.
And down the street a couple of college chaps have disconnected from their increasingly costly cable TV service and built their own antenna on the roof where they get great signals off the air and at no extra charge.
My feeling is that Canadian network TV is in a lot of trouble. And it's getting worse with those marvelous Olympics ratings simply a red herring.
First of all there are those annoying TV ads asking all of us to support local TV.
My response: what local TV?
What local TV does CTV have outside of newscasts?CFTO used to have local interview shows, kids shows, all gone these days.
And don't get me going about all those cable channels nobody seems to watch.
I've yet to meet anybody who admits to watching the Outdoor Life Channel. Have you? What about Book TV? Or Star?
CTV and Global have been outbidding each other for the rights to U.S. shows we used to be able to watch from the Buffalo outlets.
To maintain a monopoly the Canadian networks then get the cablecasters to black out the U.S. signals and substitute their own.
This is called "simulcasting" but it really means most of the schedules of CTV and Global are made up in Manhattan.
If ABC runs Grey's Anatomy Thursdays at 9 then CTV will do the same meaning the average TV viewer has no choice when to watch it.
CTV and Global have always stinted on their Canadian content shows. This season, however, CTV seems to have some genuine new hits in Hiccups and Dan For Mayor.
But where are the Canadian TV movies that define our country's uniqueness
Global's position is very dire at the moment as it struggles to find new ownership once again.
Over at CBC the publicly funded CBC has ditched its high arts programming altogether for U.S.-style programming like the series The Border and Being Erica (both of which I enjoy).
But continuing chipping away of programming dollars by the federal government means CBC has lost its clout.
Look at the way The National has been restructured featuring Peter Mansbridge wandering around a set that looks like a disco bar.
Unless the CRTC gets networks to invest more in Canadian programming and cease pouring most of the money into U.S. series the future of Canadian TV seems very dire indeed.
So how to comprehend CRTC's Monday decision that sends CTV and Global back to the cable companies to argue about how much if anything Rogers or Shaw or other cable concerns will give them as fee for carriage.
Rogers says it will merely add anything to your cable TV bill. But cable TV is in a perilous position as many of us tune out and veer over to the Internet.
The CRTC says it will mandate expenditures for Canadian content must be 30 per cent of total programming dollars. A few years ago it was 50 per cent. This is progress?
It also calls for continuing 50 per cent Canadian content in prime time. Get out your pocket calculator and measure for yourself and you'll find many nights of the week CTV and Global have no Canadian shows outside of news and those gossip things.
That's because each hour of Canadian content counts for 90 minutes of content, a bizarre exercise in mathematics I've never been able to comprehend.
And what will happen when the trickle of viewers switching over to the Internet to watch TV shows becomes a tsunami?
TV networks think it won't happen.
But it already has to newspapers and very quickly so everybody look out.

A New Version Of Harriet The Spy

I met all sorts of familiar faces the December day I wandered onto the set of the new TV movie Harriet the Spy: Blog Wars.
Filming took place in Hamilton for exterior shots and in Toronto's west end in an unassuming TV studio I last visited to watch the filming of Ken Finkleman's last series At the Hotel (2006).
First of all there was talented Canadian director Ron Oliver whose domestic input includes The Hardy Boys (1995), Are You Afraid Of The Dark (1996), Goosebumps (1998), Amazon (1999) and Degrassi: The Next Generation (2006).
With such an impressive portfolio of hits it's no wonder the international market beckoned and it's also ironic he found himself back in Toronto for 9 Story Entertainment to fashion the Disney TV flick remake of Harriet The Spy.
He says the material grabbed him --the original movie was made in 1996 and what with cultural shifts desperately needed updating.
So here we all were on the last day of shooting and Oliver had time to make the last scenes just right.
For one thing in the original book Harriet used to confide to her diary. These days she's joined the computer generation and simply blogs away. But not like Gossip Girl, several set members hurriedly told me. I hope not --this is a TV flick for the tween set.
Oliver said something about the shoot going off so very well before setting up his next shot.
And then I was introduced to Alexandra Clarke who wrote the adaptation (along with Heather Conkie). Their challenge was to make the material more contemporary and still retain the uniqueness of the book. Or do young girls still act the same they did 40 years ago.
The idea was to gently satirize our culture, poke fun at it and celebrate teens' ability to survive in a society demanding so much of them.
In this version Harriet is a compulsive observer who ceaselessly blogs about the people and things she sees.And why shouldn't she? Her well meaning father Roger Welsch is a successful movie producer who is equally curious. However, he is so busy he has never had the opportunity to really get to know his daughter.
"He's just been careless as far as his daughter is concerned," says actor Doug Murray. "The scene you're watching shows him continually on the run and not able to give his daughter the attention she needs. That doesn't make him a bad dad, does it? He has a movie project he's desperately needed. So he runs after that."
And the scene I was watching has been done for its pure comedy visuals. It worked for me. Even Oliver laughed at the antics.
I also spied a familiar face as Harriet's mother, actress Shauna MacDonald--I first interviewed her for the 2000 CBC-TV series Those Arms Of Mine.
I remember we talked about her degree in Russian and how her CBC turn had survived the departure of the lead actor (replaced by Alex Carter) to become one of those shows that deserved a second chance.
Since then she's toiled in everything from Trailer Park Boys to Paradise Falls to more recent work on Republic Of Doyle and Being Erica.
I asked her about her look as Violetta Welsch, that particularly coiled hairstyle and the clothes that seemed so Park avenue but circa 1960.
"Women still dress this way. Women like Violetta,I mean. Her standing in the community means everything to her. The suit is ssential. But in the process she misses opportunities as a mother. Harriet needs her."
Down the corridor awaits the star of the movie the gorgeous and sweet Jennifer Stone. Born in Arlington, Texas, 1993 --she may look 16 but her mental age is more like 30. After all she's been acting since age 6. She'd much rather talk about taking time to go to university, she feels it would make her both a better person and a better actress.
Dealing with Toronto has been a blast. She's noticed speech differences and may yet wind up dropping in an "eh" into her conversation. But traveling to Hamilton was a novel experience to say the least.
Most of the time she's just been plain busy with her first movie lead. That's a big burden for any teenager to handle but crew members say she is unfailingly polite and eager to learn.
"I think young people will like the movie," she says. "It's not too heavy and we are all trying to have fun in between the work. I would like for there to be a sequel but right now I'm just interested in finishing the scenes and trying to explore this city."
And with that remark she was back at work after a hurried lunch.
And now it's time to check the results.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Remembering Peter Graves

It was the summer of 1971 and I was in L.A. for my first full season of new TV interviews. A delightful CBS publicist, Betty Lamb, tlooked at this shy 24-year-old TV critic from The Hamilton Spectator and said "I think we'll start you with two gentlemen of the business."
So on my first TV tour I spent the first day interviewing old buddies Mike Connors and in the afternoon Peter Graves on the set of Mission: Impossible.
Both were delightful, unassuming gentlemen, real TV stars and proud of it but never wanting to step oputsode theior comfort zones.
Peter Graves who just died at 83 was one of the nicest TV stars I ever met.
He'd started out in small movie roles in Stalag 17 and Night Of The Hunter. Then came a string of wonderfully bad sci fi thrillers, one of which Killers From Space, was directed by Billy Wilder's brother W. Lee Wilder. And there was one from the master, Roger Corman.
True TV stardom came with the kids series Fury co-starring Bobby Diamond which ran on NBC 1955 through 1961.
Then came Graves' biggest challenge-- Mission:Impossible which ran on CBS from 1966 through 1973. A sequel series shot in Australia ran on ABC from 1988 through 1990.
The show shot on the Paramount backlot and I arrived after lunch. Graves could have waved me off but he wasn't at all like that. I remember they were shooting a bit where they had to open a mummy's tomb and when they first tried during rehearsal who should walk out but Ann B. Davis.
That's because The Brady Bunch shot right next door. Davis got her laugh and left and we went back to talking. We talked so long Graves was late for the next set up.
After Mission: Impossible wascancelled Graves spoofed his own image in the comedy smash Airplane. Then he immediately went to work on The Winds Of War playing one of his most serious roles.
Later still he supplied the voice on many episodes of the Biography series.
I still remember our encounter because Graves, austere but throughly professional, proved to be one of the few TV actors who lived up to his billing.

It's Bear Week!

Grrrrr! It's Bear Week on Animal Planet. What more could you want to keep the kids entertained and educated during March break?.
First up is I'm Alive which is my least favorite among the four hour programs I sampled.
The program looks at survivors of wild animal attacks and says the statistics report 100,000 people worldwide mauled and killed each year.
Tonight's episode looks at a two-year-old toddler who got snatched by a bear but quick action by his mom saved him.
Anticipating the attack makes for a tension-filled hour. I admit I was trembling as that moment approached. Since there were no cameras there during the actual incident the whiole episode has been dramatically recreated in excruciatingly slow tempo. I just wanted this one to be over (Sunday, March 14 at 9 p.m. on ANIMAL PLANET).
But hold on! I really liked the second hour so much better. Titled Strangers Among Bears it salutes Charlie Vandergaw who has been living among bears every summer at his Alaskan retreat. Of course they come to see Charlie --he feeds them doggie biscuits and plays with them.
Things get sticky when British photographer John Terry arrives to photograph this experiment in cohabitation. The Alaskan government frowns on such experiments, fearing that it destroys the bear's fear of humans and encourages them to wander into towns in search of garbage. But the sight of Charlie and his faves romping in the sun is magical, I loved it (Monday March 15 at 8 p.m. on ANIMAL PLANET).
Then there's Bears: Spys In The Woods with the soothing narration of David Attenborough. This one utilizes "spy" cameras distributed through various woods to show the mmultiple aspects of bears in their habitats. It took 800 hours before the cameras finally picked up a giant panda bear in China showing how the animal would eat only bamboo shoots. Then there are cameras of brown bears gamboling in Alaska and the sow teaching her cubs to catch salmon. Filled with insights and delightful scenes (Friday March 19 at 8 p.m. on ANIMAL PLANET).
The best one I saw comes last ": The Bear Whisperer. This one salutes Steve Searles of Mammoth Lake in northern California. He used to shoot bears but now tries to save them. During summer months he'll answer 20 distress calls a week from home owners concerned bears are getting to close to their children. He's so good at his job the town now has him working for the police force.
We see his methods --he recognizes every bear and is patient with young ones who have simply wandered off trail and want to get away in one piece. Others get threatening shots of buckshot but none has ever been put down, a sharp contrast to the way other towns treat wandering bears. This one runs two hours and is packed with exciting adventures (Saturday March 20 at 8 p.m. on ANIMAL PLANET).

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Killer Special

The special Killer Whales is perfectly programmed to answer questions about the seas' most deadly killer. After the tragic death of an experienced trainer killed at Orlando's SeaWorld, this hour tells us what to expect.
The theme is a salute to the deadliest and largest killer of the oceans. But the "killer whale" or orca is actually one of the smartest mammals out there.
And in some amazing footage we see the orca ability to act as a team in hunting down and catching prey.
First up is a long segment shot off Patagonia, Argentina, where we watch a family of killer whales who visit every year just to catch sea lion pups.
To do so means fancy maneuvering in very shallow water and the ability to jerk around after the kill on the sand beaches and get back into deep water.
Be warned: this is one of the bloodiest scenes ever shown and it's all for real.
We also see killer whales hunting down their cousins dolphins who are faster and more agile. But the orcas pool their resources to try to outlast the dolphins and leave their prey too fatigued to offer much resistance.
The third segment from New Zealand is truly astonishing as the orcas attempt to feed on sting rays in shallow coves. They have managed a trick of getting the rays without receiving a deadly sting and they manage to pass this knowledge on to other orcas.
Beautifully shot and edted by Joey Allen and Kevin Bachar for Pangolin Pictures , this one should be on your "must watch" list for this week.
KILLER WHALES premieres on Thursd. March 11 at 9 p.m. on Discovery Channel.
My Rating: ***1/2.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Ratings Rage

What is it with Canadian viewers these days?
CTV says the premieres of Hiccups and Dan For Mayor each attracted over 1.9 million viewers which makes both of them more popular than Corner Gas.
And the disastrously boring Oscars on Sunday night?
CTV says 5.9 million viewers tuned in to that show which seemed to drag on forever. The cumulative total of Canadians who tuned in is 14.7 million viewers, better than most Olympics events.
In the U.S. viewership was up 14 per cent over the past year.
How will all this play out once the March sweeps rev up in erarnest, I wonder?

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Two Contrasting CBC Series

"You are always writing about Nature Of Things," writers "Constant Reader". "How come?"
Dear Constant Reader: Because it's a great series that deserves some promotion. It certainly doesn't fit in with CBC-TV's current preoccupation with being hip and trendy --just look at what they've done with The National.
But Thursday night on NOT there's the start of a four part miniseries called One Ocean that's virtually a must see for us documentaryphiles.
Ambitious! Yes, it was shot all over the globe by Merit Motion Pictures and Tactica Interactive Communications in association with CBC, National Geographic and Discovery US.
The premise is simple --we seem to know more about space exploration than we do about our oceans which keep us alive and thriving.
The first hour is an outstanding look at how the oceans formed some four billion years ago and how the first creatures evolved in water only to late climb out onto land.
We get to view remnants of ancient animals that somehow survived the four or five mass destructions of life that have so far happened on our planet.
All I can say is watch and learn and while doing so be aware it's programs like this that justify CBC's existence.
Then stay tuned to the other side of CBC, the desire to be with it.
Another new CBC miniseries, this one a six parter called Love, Hate & Propaganda, debuts. It's designed to teach the younger generation all about World War II.
The fact that teems and twentysomethings know nothing about their grandfathers' war deeply disturbs me. But I don't think this version will do anything for them.
It certainly did nothing for me.
The premise is deeply flawed, that itch to make history personally relevant in some kind of pop style. As history it's bunk, as entertainment this is superficial. Include me out.
George Stromboulopoulos is the "host" --past TV histories used Walter Cronite and Laurence Olivier.
I dutifully sat through the first episode called "The Strongmen" which mistakenly personalizes and trivalizes the conflict as a power grab by the likes of Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini and Hirohito.
I'm not saying anything in it is factually wrong but it is lopsided. Deep down it's superficial and I can't see the kids CBC so desperately wants to watch actually tuning in.
Or as Strombo says at one point "This man will become one of the biggest players in the war."
Players? Hey, dude, much, much more than that!

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Another Homegrown Cop Show

It's hard to believe but at one time the very notion of a homegrown police series seemed , well, unCanadian.
Security issues was an American thing due to the open gun policy in the U.S.
But wasn't Canada supposed to be a mosaic and not a melting pot where guns were regulated?
Way, way back CBC had a cop show starring Jonathan Welsh and Donnelly Rhodes titled Sidestreet and it barely lasted three seasons (1975-78).
I guess CBC's Wojeck (1966-68) all about a Canadian coroner played by John Vernon was partly a police show and later there was CBC's DaVinci's Inquest made along the same lines.
And let's not forget Global's Blue Murder with Jeremy Ratchford who jumped to CBS's Cold Squad.
But recently Canadian cop shows seem all over the place. Is this creeping Americanization or what?
CTV has Flashpoint up and running. The Movie Network has The Line. Global (and ABC) will soon debut Copper.
And now comes a second CTV police procedural The Bridge.
First the title: it's a reference to the police precinct which supposedly is near the Bloor St. viaduct.
Only the viaduct is never actually named. Neither is Toronto. But it's clear from the skyline where the series located. Streetcars buzz by. People gather in Queen St. eateries.
The opening is a boldly structured two hour feast of action and human drama that gripped me for more than its first hour.
Then things began dragging along as the story had to be explained and there were too many pat coincidences. But subsequent episodes will be an hour.
Starring is Aaron Douglas(Battlestar Galactica) who has the burly build to competently play a tough but compassionate streetbeat cop. Starring as the police union head Frank Leo, Douglas is hardly a conventional lead. He has the bulk to beat up any bully. Plus he's devoted to his old man, how can he not be a likeable antihero?
His partner , Tommy Dunne, is played by Paul Popowich who has grown up since I interviewed him on the set of TV's Nancy Drew.
Other Canadian names in the sprawling cast include Frank Cassini as Bernie Kantor, Frank's mentor, Inga Cadranel as comely Jill, a detective, Theresa Joy as police constable Billy and Pna Grauer as prosecutor Abby St. James.
Michael Murphy is the gnarled chief of police Ed Wycoff and here's a surprise-- Emmy winner (Rockford Files) Stuart Margolin is Frank's father Vic --it's the same sort of father figure that Ken Howard played so winningly on Crossing Jordan.
The first episode was excitingly shot on Toronto streets by director John Fawcett (Whistler) and cinematographer Thom Best (Queer As Folk). Even the exterior of the police precinct seemed jarringly real and not a TV set.
And if the dialogue rings true that comes from veteran executive producer/writer Alan Di Fiore (DaVinci's Inquest).
One minor cavill: the effort to mask the Canadian origin which is probably due to a desire to sell the series to a U.S. network.
So many locations are used in the first two hours one wonders what parts of the city are left for future episodes? Toronto standing in for Toronto --there's a novel concept in itself.
This one will succeed if you can get into Frank Leo's mindset and understand where he's coming from, his blue collar rage. And if you understand him then you'll be eagerly waiting for his next heart-to-heart with his aged father.
The Bridge could become CTV's bridge to strong Friday night ratings over its 12 week run.
MY RATING: ***1/2.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Leno! Again!

Nine months ago we bid a fond farewell to Jay Leno as host of NBC's Tonight Show.
Then we welcomed him onboard as host of the new prime time The Jay Leno Show.
Then about a month ago we said goodbye to The Jay Leno Show.
And on Monday night we're saying welcome back to Leno as Tonight Show host.
It sure as hell is.
But NBC sources say all this hasn't impeded Leno's ability to outreach Letterman in terms of quality guests.
Monday at 11 p.m. on NBC and A Channels Jamie Foxx, Brad Paisley and Olympics star Lindsay Vonn are on tap.
On Tuesday it's Sarah Palin and Olympian Shaun White with some warbling from Adam Lamnert.
On Wednesday the cast of Jersey Shore appear plus comic Chelsea Handler,Olympic champeen Apolo Anton Ohno and a turn from Avril Lavigne.
Thursday's guests include Mattjhew McConaughey, Brett Favre and Lifehouse.
Fridays guests include Morgan Freeman, Jason Reitman, and Robin Thicke.
The second week sees such guests as Sim,on Cowell, Kristen Stewart, Ben Harper, Dana Carvey and Judd Apatow.
There had been some concern some guests might boycott Leno until Conan returned. But showbiz types always have some product to promote and exposure on Tonight is still essential to that end.