Saturday, February 24, 2007

Are You Smarter Than A 5th Grader? - Feb. 24, 2007

Premiering Tuesday; Fox, Global


Reality Check

Quiz shows tend to come and go on TV. But does the boog tube actually have room for something called Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?

By Eric Kohanik

When it comes to reality TV, most people would agree that Mark Burnett has been a master of that domain.

The British-born executive producer has given TV viewers such successful reality franchises as Eco-Challenge, Survivor, The Apprentice and Rock Star. Last summer, he turned his attention to the Internet and came up with a hit game show there, too, called Gold Rush.

Of course, Burnett has also given viewers a few bombs, including The Casino, The Restaurant and The Contender. To be fair, The Contender really only bombed on network television. American cable viewers have continued to see new seasons of the reality-boxing show on ESPN.

Burnett has a couple of new irons in the reality fire for the summer. On the Lot will pit aspiring filmmakers against one another in a competition to win a Hollywood studio contract.

Also on Burnett’s production slate for the summer is the recently announced Pirate Master: The Adventure Begins, which will feature contestants living on a pirate ship and competing for a million-dollar bounty. Think of it as a cross between Survivor and Pirates of the Caribbean.

Both On the Lot and Pirate Master have already been scooped up in Canada by CTV – which, oddly enough, seems determined to unseat Global as the primary Canadian home for American reality-TV crap.

But I digress. Right now, the focus is on Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader? It’s a quiz show that seems to want to prove, once and for all, that your average American adult is actually dumber than your average fifth-grade American kid. Well, duh!

The show, which has been picked up by Global, has recruited longtime blue-collar comedian Jeff Foxworthy as its host. Presumably, Foxworthy is smarter than a fifth-grader – although we’re not really sure of that.

If all else fails here, though, Foxworthy can always launch into his trademark jokes: “You might be a redneck if…you’re not smarter than a fifth-grader.” Yuk. Yuk. Yuk.

As we’ve seen on Survivor and his other shows, though, Burnett is a master carnival barker, populating his reality creations with colourful competitors who provide plenty of entertainment value – not to mention the occasional bit of freak-show appeal.

Fox is doing its part for the carnival here, too. The network is scheduling three preview episodes of Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader? this week, in the slots following American Idol on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. The series then takes over the timeslot previously occupied by The O.C. on Fox’s Thursday-night schedule.

Quiz shows have really been a part of television ever since the medium was born. And they tend to experience a resurgence everyonce in a while.

This isn’t a typical quiz show, of course. But if anyone can make it work, it’s Burnett.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

The Jane Show - Feb. 17, 2007

Thursdays; Global


See Jane Run

Canadian TV shows need good timeslots. Some networks get that notion, while others just pretend they care about protecting Canadian culture.

By Eric Kohanik

Canadian TV shows often still have a lousy reputation with Canadian TV audiences.

You could probably blame the CRTC, the regulatory body more formally known as the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission.

You could probably also blame television welfare funds set up by governments that keep telling us Canadian culture (whatever that is) needs to be protected.

Their efforts have resulted in an overwhelming number of awful Canadian series, not to mention a boatload of forgettable documentaries and other filler, most of which attract audiences that are probably smaller than you could fit onto a backyard skating rink.

Once in a while, though, a Canadian series manages to stick its head up out of that sea of mediocrity in order to merit a bit more attention. CTV’s Corner Gas, Showcase’s Trailer Park Boys and Global’s Falcon Beach spring to mind. So, too, does a mildly amusing little comedy called The Jane Show. The brainchild of Teresa Pavlinek and longtime collaborator Ralph Chapman, The Jane Show revolves around a “plain Jane” named Jane Black (ably played by Pavlinek). Jane is a woman who gave up her dreams of being a writer in order to get an office job at a liquor-distribution company called Spirits.

The Jane Show began its second season a couple of weeks ago. Much of the first season dwelled on Jane coming to grips with office life. This season continues her journey as she contends with the kooky co-workers who have now become her friends.

The series rolls out a clever episode this week about a reality-show winner hired by Spirits to raise the company’s profile. Jane is disgusted by this; her co-workers are thrilled. The sentiments soon reverse themselves.

The Jane Show isn’t laugh-out-loud funny, but it is cute and smart. More important is the fact that it’s getting a decent shot.

Canadian networks often do stupid things. They’re addicted to the easy money that comes from simulcasting American shows, so they often burn off Canadian fare in the summer. Last year, CTV’s preposterous summer run of Whistler – a series set in B.C.’s winter ski season – was a prime example.

At other times, networks staunchly proclaim their support of Canadian programming, but then air that programming on nights when U.S. networks have nothing worth simulcasting. CTV has banished new seasons of two Canadian shows –Robson Arms and Jeff Ltd – to Saturday nights. (The network killed off The Eleventh Hour and Cold Squad with a similar move a few seasons ago.)

At least Global has given The Jane Showa high-profile midweek berth. That’s good. If Canadian culture needs protection, it also needs good timeslots – particularly on the schedules of Canada’s private TV networks.

It seems odd to see Global emerging as the one taking the leading role there.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Serialized Dramas - Feb. 10, 2007



Serial Killers

Networks have been battered by the failure of serialized shows this season. That means more conventional series will surface in the fall.

By Eric Kohanik

Television networks have a bad habit of jumping on the same bandwagon at the same time.

Back in the fall, that bandwagon was the serialized drama, a trend accelerated by such hits as 24, Lost and Prison Break. Their success spawned more than a dozen new shows this season that followed a serialized storytelling formula.

Most of this season’s serials fell by the wayside rather quickly. Basically, there were just too many of them – a fact many TV columnists pointed out at the start of the season.

“I think you were right to acknowledge the overabundance of serialized shows,” Kevin Reilly, NBC’s entertainment president, told the Television Critics Association’s winter press tour last month. NBC’s big effort in the genre, Kidnapped, was yanked fairly quickly after it premiered. “Kidnapped was a big disappointment to us,“ Reilly admits. “That was very painful.”

Most TV executives say the problem with this season’s failed serialized dramas was their tone, which followed mostly dark subjects: abductions (Kidnapped and Fox’s Vanished); bank robbery (ABC’s The Nine); murder (ABC’s Day Break); and grim stories of relationships (ABC’s Six Degrees).

Stephen McPherson, ABC’s entertainment president, says such shows were asking a lot of their audiences. “We loved the shows creatively,” he says. “I don’t look back in hindsight and say, ‘Boy, we should have done this differently.’ It may have just been timing.”

The timing did work out in some way for NBC, which found success with Heroes, a fantasy-adventure series that ended up “completely defying the logic,” Reilly says. “Highly serialized, highly complex – and it’s the breakout hit of the year!”

Having been battered by the failure of most of their serialized dramas, the networks are looking at more conventional show formats for next fall.

“As we go into development this year, we have more stuff that is procedural or closed-ended in that sense,” McPherson explains. “I think you’ll see things in that mix a little bit more.”

NBC is following a similar strategy. “We do have some serials coming back on,” Reilly says. “Nothing is highly serialized or as demanding as Heroes.”

Still, not everyone is giving up on serials.

“We are really experimenting and trying a lot of different projects,” explains Nina Tassler, entertainment president at CBS, whose big serialized effort, Jericho, is set to return to the air with a recap episode this week. “For us, the serialized form, we’re not as deep into it as, say, ABC is,” Tassler says. “We’re still in the learning curve.”

Reilly echoes the sentiment. “Sometimes, it’slightning in a bottle,” he says. “Serialization is one of the biggest hooks that we have into an audience, so we’re not running away from that.

“We are balancing it out a little more.”

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Deal Or No Deal Canada - Feb. 3, 2007

Sunday and Thursday; Global


Great expectations

There was a tidal wave of response from viewers for a Canadian version of Deal or No Deal. It just goes to show that, if you build it, they will come.

By Eric Kohanik

Howie Mandel loves to expect the unexpected.

“I’m very comfortable with discomfort,” the 51-year-old Canadian host of Deal or No Deal tells me as we sit down for an interview in his Toronto hotel suite. “I want the discomfort of not knowing what’s going to happen next. That’s exciting.”

Mandel certainly didn’t expect his show to become as popular as it has. And he certainly didn’t expect a Canadian version of it.

It was back during the first weekend of last May that The Watcher took a close look at the overwhelming success of Deal or No Deal. The premise, we noted then, was simple: 26 numbered briefcases containing cash prizes that range from one cent to a million bucks. Contestants pick one case and then, with the help of Mandel, they work through the rest, revealing the money they passed up. Tension builds. Luck – and only luck – ends up determining the outcome.

Although the American version of the show premiered in December 2005, the format actually originated in Britain almost five years ago and has since spread to more than 35 countries that have all come up with their own versions of the show.

We ended that column in May bemoaning the fact that Canada wasn’t in that crowd, thanks to the lazy tendency of our broadcasters to simply buy and air American versions of TV shows. “Maybe it’s too much or too silly to wish for,” the column sighed, “but maybe someone should gamble on a Canadian version of Deal or No Deal, too.”

We didn’t expect anyone to pay attention.

Actually, network executives claim their plan for Deal or No Deal Canada was already in the works before The Watcher came up with that suggestion. Sure. Whatever.

What’s important to note here is the wave of applications from would-be contestants that flooded Global from across Canada after it unveiled plans for the show. A similar reaction arose when the network announced a cross-country search for briefcase models.

It just goes to show that, if you build it, they will come. In droves.

They’ll probably come in droves for the telecasts, too. Global is wisely using Super Bowl Sunday as the launching pad for its run of Deal or No Deal Canada, airing the first of five planned episodes right after the National Football League championship wraps up. The four remaining instalments will air on subsequent Thursdays.

As for what you can expect, well, count on the unexpected. “That’s what’s exciting about our game,” Mandel says. “It can turn. It’s like a roller-coaster. You don’t know what’s going to happen.”

What is sure to happen, though, is that Deal or No Deal Canada will be a hit. If it is, maybe someone will gamble on doing even more episodes of the show.

That’s the least we should expect.