That was CBC's 2008-09 season preview yesterday, held in the echo-y atrium of the Toronto bunker. What is left of the Toronto newspaper press mingled with CBC staffers as the executives and talent mingled for a 20-minutes presentation.
The 10-storey space was draped in white curtains with giant banners hung from balconies depicting the usual suspects: Rick Mercer, Don Cherry, Peter Mansbridge. A dull clip reel was spun for the assembled, with scenes from The Tudors and This Hour Has 22 Minutes mixed in with shots of Gavin Crawford twirling near a highway cloverleaf to promote How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?
CBC boss Richard Stursberg took the podium first, despite the fact that the place was a sniper's paradise. I think he said something about the season just concluded being the network's biggest year ever, but I couldn't really hear it--the sound system was crap. Kittenish programming mistress Kirstine Layfield (above) then stood on the riser to show off her fabulous pins and red shoes.
Between the two of them, not one new show announcement. That's a first for a network upfront.
Hey, if you claim to be on a roll, and CBC did get a couple of new shows sampled this past winter thanks to the U.S. writers strike, keep it going with some news. Instead, silver trays of tarts were passed around to the crowd, and even those looked left over from last year. Your tax dollars at work.
Layfield gave a shout out to CBC talent standing closer to the stage. Good to see David Suzuki again, and Hana Gartner, and Wendy Mesley, but where was the new?
Was it that CBC will be showing Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune this fall? What is this--1983?
Alex Trebek was in the house, and I had a nice chat with him after the presentation. The Sudbury-native looks hale and hearty despite a recent health scare and is planning to take his kids on a road tour of Eastern Canada this summer.
Jeopardy! is still a huge draw in the country, cracking the Canadian Top-30 many weeks of the year on CTV. It could wind up as CBC's top-rated series next season, which is great if you covet viewers 55+. Trouble is, there's got to be a reason CTV is shedding them beyond the fact the series both skew old.
Which brings us back to the problem with yesterday's CBC bash. What's needed in television, besides a lot of money and luck, is a killer instinct. This is a rough, competitive business. When Global gave Mike Bullard a late night TV showcase after a six year run at CTV, CTV murdered him by programming red hot The Daily Show opposite him and starting it a full five minutes earlier. Bullard's show was dead before it opened.
After an upbeat winter where new shows like The Week The Women Went, Heartland, The Border and Sophie found traction, if not spectacular ratings, the CBC needed to hit 'em with the left. Instead, they are once again sitting out the fall, coasting on same old until January and leaving already announced new offerings like The Wild Roses and The Session on the bench until 2009.
That is a missed opportunity. The U.S. networks are still reeling from the effects of the 100-day writers' strike. Fewer pilots were made resulting in way fewer new U.S. offerings this fall--translating into fewer new imports on CTV and Global. Aside from two, maybe three of those U.S. rookies, including the new Joss Whedon/J.J. Abrams shows, there is very little buzz about the fall.
If the CBC has something cool and new in development they weren't teasing anybody with it yesterday. Instead their schedule on paper is a photocopy of the one the year before, with 25-year-old game show Jeopardy! at 7:30 the only significant addition.
CBC will own the 7-8 p.m. hour next season--among seniors. Coronation Street is a consistent draw which had no carry over last season, so Jeopardy! will keep the grandparents glued (as will Wheel of Fortune, another CTV pick up, which will air on CBC at 5:30.). That might also give CBC's 8 o'clock shows a boost and there is some strength there with Dragon's Den, Mercer and Little Mosque.
CBC also wisely has ordered more episodes of favorite shows next season, with Little Mosque up to 20. The show has been back in production for a few months and Carlo Rota told me the new scripts are a better blend of the funny from last year and the cultural tweaks from the rookie season.
Yesterday's press interview sessions, comfortably set up in cozy little stalls by the Glenn Gould theatre, were friendly and efficient, nicely run all around. I spoke there with Amber Marshall of Heartland. Her Calgary-based horsey series restored some of that family vibe CBC used to own on Sundays. She's saddling up for 18 new episodes next season. The girl is way into horses and explained the difference between a quarter horse and a Nickelback.
Found Sophie's Natalie Brown (left) to be as cute and winning in person as she is on her series. The girl is self deprecating and unassuming, tossing credit for Sophie to costars. She readily agreed to pose for a digi snap and didn't care which one I chose to use, secure in the knowledge that it is impossible to take a bad photograph of Natalie Brown.
Chatted up a few cast members of The Border, who start back to work tomorrow in Toronto. Graham Abbey and producer Peter Raymont invited me down to the set. James McGowan said he was also a TV Feeds My Family fan. The show, I was told, was going to heat up in season two, have a darker edge, stay ripped from the headlines. The Border is a good show and easy to root for and will need to kick ass when it returns this October against the full strength of the U.S. lineup.
The comedians were all in the house, but they seemed a bit orphaned this year. Don Ferguson, joined by Farcers Craig Lauzon and Alan Park, was well into his summer beard already. Cathy Jones and Crawford were representing 22 Minutes. Ron James, who has another New Year's Eve special on the schedule (Manitoba Bound), was talking up his hosting duties at this summer's Just For Laughs closing gala.
Still, there was a sense that the current CBC brass saw its sketch comedy stars on posters hanging from the rafters, like relics of past glories, much as the Maple Leafs see their Stanley Cup days. Nobody said it, but you could smell it. Comedians are like dogs, they hear it first.
The question hanging over the room was who gets the Air Farce Live slot once that series packs it in after 16 seasons on New Year's eve. The answer seems to be Marketplace, with Dr. Who penciled in from 9-10 next fall on the official CBC schedule. Canada, go laugh someplace else.
There were rumbles in the room that scripts have been ordered and shows have been developed for that slot but CBC kept it all locked in the vault yesterday. It is a strange strategy--even if you really have nothing to announce, the rule is make something up, created some buzz at any cost, throw the press a bone. Instead we got tarts.