Thursday, May 24, 2018

CBC-TV Is Fighting Back

Let's see --the first CBC-TV fall preview I attended (as the summer student at The Globe And Mail) was in 1970 when the public network was riding high.
In those dear dead days there was a 10 channel TV universe and that was it.
Thirty-five print TV critics from across Canada flew in for several days of interviews with such CBC stars as Juliette, Friendly Giant and Knowlton Nash  and CBC redesigned its cavernous studio up Yonge Street (the home of Front Page Challenge) for a gala party that drew thousands of advertisers and hangers on.
That was then. This is now.
This year's CBC TV launch was a muted affair held at 192 Spadina Avenue in very close quarters.
But the message was rather upbeat.
Like all Canadian TV networks CBC is watching the slow dripping away of its core audience to other platforms.
But be aware --CBC remains the last great repositiory of Canadian TV culture.
And the publicly funded network has decided to fight back.
The network still has some huge hits :Murdoch Mysteries and Heartland have been around forever and still draw strong ratings.
And there are other, newer hits: Schitt's Creek, the re-versioned Anne Of Green Gables, Kim's Convenience.
The last time I checked the fine new mystery series Frankie Drake was only drawing 560,000 viewers weekly on CBC TV.
Back in 1970 I was told CBC-TV's definition of a hit was a million for a series and 1.5 million for a miniseries or special.
Those numbers are rarely reached today as Canadians increasingly turn to different platforms.
Still, CBC has several new series which look promising.
I enjoyed chatting up veteran producer Bernie Zuckerman charged with the revival of Street Legal which will star Jennifer Dale. Zuckerman said the order is for eight episodes "which is the standard these days" but other Street veterans may make a guest appearance or two.
Cavendish, a new comedy series ,will benefit from its creators Mark Little and Andrew Bush and will be filmed on location and in Halifax studios.
Coroner with its order for eight hours has great potential considering Morwyn Brebner's last series was Saving Hope---Adrienne Mitchell will be  lead director (she made Bomb Girls).
Northern Rescue will be shot in Parry Sound with David Cormican as creator and Bradley Walsh as executive producer and I also met Billy Baldwin who has enthusiastically signed up as lead.
And I should also mention the new series Diggstown with Floyd Kane and Amos Adetuyi as executive producer.
Now I get my say about how to "fix"  some of CBC-TV's ailments.
I'd start by abolishing commercials during prime time.
I know the cost would be horrendous but well worth it as the competition these days is with commercial free services such as Netflix.
Many former CBC fans have defected to PBS which still provides arts programming which CBC has mostly ditched.
I have a solution: bring back a Seventies series called RearView Mirror which took gems from the CBC archives--ballets starring Rudolf Nureyev and Veronica Tennant, superb dramas like the 1960 Macbeth starring Sean Connery and Zoe Caldwell.
When RearView Mirror first ran during another CBC budget crunch the ratings were sky high.
And I also feel CBC's National needs an instant face lift.
Ratings have plunged with four anchors --the snappy patter over at CNN is attracting record numbers of Canadian viewers.
Another proposal: bring back a few historical TV movies every season.
Zuckerman who produced some of the best TV movies ever made by CBC says there's the argument the cost is too heavy for a two hour TV movie
But I think CBC needs a few of these --Zuckerman's version of the Road to Confederation remains a must see.
But with its close adherence to all things Canadian I feel CBC still has a better chance at long term survival than rivals CTV or Global TV.

Monday, May 14, 2018

I Remember Margot Kidder

The last time I sat down to interview Margot Kidder it was on the Toronto set of  the TV series Amazon in 2000.
We'd met up before all over the place but after a tumultuous private life she said she was glad to get back to Canada and just settle down.
"Maybe I should never have left my true north strong and free," she joked.
"But then you'd never have become such a big star!" I interjected.
"Well, stardom for me was never cracked out to be that much anyway," she laughed nervously. "Because I was far, far away and now I'm back home and it means everything to me."
And now Margot Kidder is dead --she passed away in her sleep at her Montana home at the relatively young age of 69.
"I've done a lot," she told me that day. "And some of it I regret and some of it makes me pretty proud."
It seems rather ghoulish but she fearlessly forecast the headline in her New York Times obituary would read "Superman's Girl Friend Is Dead."
"Or something like that."
I told her I definitely remembered her first acting gig --it was on the CBC dramatic hit Wojeck and it was 1968 and young Margot had just turned 20.
"The very next year I co-starred on two more CBC_TV series Corwin and McQueen and then  I was on Adventures In Rainbow Country in 1970  and only then did I hit Hollywood. There just wasn't enough work here to keep a young actress going. And I wasn't the only one who left. The wonderful blonde actress Sharon Acker also left around that time."
At first Margot did the standard guest starring on such TV series as Mod Squad, The Manipulators,, "And then I had my first lead on the Jim Garner western series Nichols and he was wonderful and I learned so much from him because he was a minimalist."
Although Nichols only lasted the 1971-72 series and then Kidder found herself suddenly hot.
"I lost all momentum because I couldn't get out of TV shows. I did them all: Baretta, Barnaby Jones, Switch."
And I interrupted: "But I interviewed you in Toronto again on Black Christmas in 1974 --Olivia Hussey and Keir Dullea and Art Hindle were all on set that day and it was a big hit."
"It actually got me in to audition for Superman and I adored Chris Reeve from the first moment I saw him. And there was Superman II which was an even bigger hit and in 1983 there was Superman III. In 1987 there was Superman IV which I don't think we should have done but audiences disagreed.
Then I had to ask the big question: did she take too many drugs?
"We all did," she answered softly. "We all did."
There was one day on the set of the western Little Teasure (1985) when I was so out of control that Burt Lancaster socked me in the jaw."
She was beginning to recognize she was bipolar.
"Had been like that since a kid. I had ups and downs and finally I really crashed."
In 1996 she started writing her autobiography and "it all spilled out."
She began fantasizing  her first husband was going to kill her so she faked her death and was found wandering in the bushes by a neighbor.
"Recognizing what I was began the healing process. I had to accept full responsibility for everything."
On Amazon she had an insignificant part but she played it very well especially when the show's bug wrangler said she had to pretend to be asleep on the jungle floor as a line of tarantulas walked over her bared stomach.
"I'll continue acting," she vowed and she did but often in tiny parts. I liked her on the Vancouver made series Robson Arms (2005) and I met with her again on the set of Chicks With Sticks (2004) but by 2014 she was down to one appearance a year.
When she passed the TV networks were full of stories about Lois Lane but it's sad to think  both Reeve and Kidder are now gone as is the World Trade Center.

Thursday, May 3, 2018

I Answer My Emails

I used to get letters from readers when I wrote the TV column for The Hamilton Spectator and later The Toronto Star.
Now I get emails and nobody out there seems to read newspapers anymore let alone watch network TV.
Here's a sampling of recent emails enquiries.
+ "Whatever happened to game shows? I used to watch them every morning. Now there are all these similar women themed series?" Mrs. D.F., Ancaster.
ME: I still watch game shows on the Game Show Network. The vintage ones are a hoot. The other night I was watching The Match Game from the 1970s and one of the panelists was the great Ethel Merman and she was having a blast as was I.
+ "I'm deeply disappointed with the new and unimproved CBC National news. What's your estimate?" L.M. R. Ottawa.
ME: Having up to four anchors just doesn't work. the telecasts from Humboldt were very fine, however. Other nights there's a feeling of ennui and ratings are way, way down. Why not a CNN style newscast with bickering panelists you might ask. But CBC doesn't like that kind of partisan wrangling even if it drives ratings.
+ "Why has there never been a hit Canadian TV soap opera?" P.B, Oshawa.
ME: Why there have been enough tries. There was Riverdale on CBC which ran for two years but it should have been every weeknight hammocked right behind Coronation Street and it would have succeeded. There have been weekly attempts like CTV's Montreal based Mount Royal.  And CBC tried with a clone of Dallas set in Calgary but trouble was it had to be filmed in Toronto because of costs. There was a daily soap that ran on Global and was syndicated in the U.S titled High Hopes. And it deserved a better fate than cancellation after two seasons.
+ "There must be TV shows out there in reruns that you have become addicted to, right?" H.B., Halifax.
ME: I never watched CSI but now that it runs nightly on E! I have become an addict. Don't forget that it counts as Canadian content since the Toronto-based Alliance Atlantis manufactured it.  The stories are often over the top but production values make it seem so expensive. Another one I never watched is Bones which strangely reruns  these days on GUSTO.
+"And your biggest beef about  Canadian TV?" E.J., Pickering.
ME: How hard it is to watch some of the great Canadian TV shows of the past.  Like CBC's The Beachcombers which remains locked up in the CBC vaults in Mississauga. I'd love for CBC to revive Front Page Challenge which I think could be a big hit all over again. And CTV should seriously consider reviving Headline Hunters. But I also have a friend who years for the boxed set of Police Surgeon (shot in T.O. so go figure. Another friend wanted to buy a DVD copy of  the TV flick Getting Married in Buffalo Jump starring Wendy Crewson and finally bagged a DVD copy --from an American distributor.
There --that's all the emails I care to answer today.