Thursday, December 29, 2011

Breath of fresh airwaves at CHCH

The resurgence of CHCH


Breath of fresh airwaves

On the verge of extinction two years
ago, Hamilton's CHCH staked its
future on news. It was a good move.

By Eric Kohanik

The Jackson/Hunter Street home of Hamilton TV station CHCH seem a lot happier and more upbeat these days.

“It’s nice to be at a place now that is expanding and growing and hiring, rather than one that is imploding,” confides Brian Wood, a veteran on-air personality. “I’m very pleased to see it like that — and to be still a part of it.”

“There’s a big difference now,” echoes camera/microwave operator Nick Garbutt, another senior staff member. “It’s almost like the old days. Being independent again, decisions get made right away, here rather than at ‘corporate.’ Because this is ‘corporate’ now.”

It’s been a little more than two years since a small, relatively unknown Toronto-based media company named Channel Zero Inc. breathed new life into CHCH, bringing the beleaguered station back from the brink of broadcast extinction.

According to figures obtained from CHCH, the station has 141 full-time jobs on its payroll now, roughly a 20-per-cent increase from the 117 full-timers in 2009.

Today, CHCH is healthy again, insists Cal Millar, Channel Zero’s president and chief operating officer.

“We’re really thrilled with how it’s going,” Millar explained during a recent telephone interview from his Toronto office. “The progress, over two years, has been fairly steady. It’s going well in terms of viewership.It’s going well in terms of the kind of programming we’re doing. It’s going well in terms of the team in Hamilton. It’s going well in terms of the new shows we’ve launched. It even went well in the digital transition, the million-dollar-plus investment we made in new transmitters across the province.”

Numbers from BBM, Canada’s ratings service, bear that out. CHCH’s 6 p.m. newscast often pulls in anywhere from 100,000 to 140,000 viewers per night in the Toronto-Hamilton extended market. Both the 6 p.m. and11 p.m. newscasts regularly beat out those from CBC, CP24 and Citytv. In fact, CHCH’s newscasts usually rank third, behind CTV and Global, and sometimes even outperform Global enough to land in second place.

And although the balance of CHCH’s schedule may not be breaking ratings records, the shows are managing to hold their own.

“We’re sustainable at this point,” says Millar. “Nobody’s getting rich over night, but we’re making money.”

The story of CHCH-TV has been one of tremendous ups and downs. “Lucky Channel 11” signed on the air in1954 as a CBC affiliate before becoming English Canada’s first independent station in 1961.

Building its fortunes and audience with a lot of local programming, the channel grew in popularity during the1960s and 1970s. In 1982, it expanded its horizons further, becoming a superstation distributed across Canada via satellite.

During the past two decades, increased competition and changes in ownership and on-air IDs — TV 11, ONtv, CH, E!, CHCH News — were accompanied by a steady stream of budget cuts and staff reductions that eventually gutted the station.

CHCH was on the verge of being shut down in 2009 when Channel Zero acquired it, along with Montreal’s CJNT-TV, from the bankrupt broadcasting division of what was then the Canwest media empire.The total cash price of the deal: $12 — which included an $11 price tag for CHCH.

“We had to pick a number for allocation purposes,” Millar recalls with a chuckle. “We thought it was so cool to buy Channel 11 for $11.”

In reality, the investment was substantially more. The deal saw Channel Zero assume the assets and, more significant, the considerable fiscal liabilities of both stations.

Sept. 1, 2009 the revamped CHCH was launched, with a new “Your Superstation” moniker and a new on-air look inspired by a logo from the past.

The relaunch also banked on a schedule heavily weighted with local news.

For the CHCH news team, it was an exhilarating vote of confidence.

“As you can imagine, there was a lot of excitement,” CHCH executive producer John McKenna said during an interview inside the station’s newsroom. “We were all thinking we were going to lose our jobs. Then, these guys came in and, suddenly, we were not an afterthought. We were the centre of their universe. Suddenly,we were important again.”

CHCH filled evening and weekend schedules with another throwback: classic movies that served as “comfort food” for viewers.

Last season, CHCH expanded its lineup to include such American programs as Chuck, Supernatural, 60Minutes, 48 Hours Mystery, 20/20 and Jimmy Kimmel Live. This fall, the American content grew some more with two new drama series — Hart Of Dixie and The Secret Circle — along with The Insider, a nightly entertainment-news show.

But CHCH has kept “comfort movies” as its evening/weekend centrepiece. It expanded local programming with this fall’s launch of Morning Live First Edition, a 90-minute show that hits the air weekdays at 4 a.m.

The new show means CHCH now airs 84 hours of local programming each week, a milestone the station trumpets as more hours than any other local television station in North America. Although ratings for Morning Live First Edition are still minuscule — about 1,000 viewers each day — Millar is willing to be patient. After all, he says, CHCH’s resurrection has really been a simple process.

“My analogy for a long time was that CHCH was like a tiara that somebody had painted with green paint,”Millar quips. “People thought it was just a plastic throwaway for years.

“All we did was kind of peel the paint off and go, ‘Wow! A nice gem!’

“There is no reason CHCH can’t be the juggernaut it has been in the past.”

The station’s overall reach certainly has that potential. As well as satellite distribution across Canada, CHCH has transmitters that beam its now-digital signal directly over the air into such markets as Ottawa, Windsor, London, Barrie-Orillia and Kitchener-Waterloo.

“We are in four million homes across Ontario and 7.5 million homes across Canada.

“But we also haven’t forgotten our roots. It’s a Hamilton station. It’s relevant from the Humber River to the Niagara River. If you want to call that the Golden Horseshoe, go ahead. But it’s centred on Hamilton.”

(First published in The Hamilton Spectator - November 5, 2011.)

Monday, June 27, 2011

With Body of Proof, Dana Delany takes on a role that's close to her heart


ONLINE: (U.S.) (Canada)

Proof positive

With Body of Proof,
Dana Delany
takes on a role that's
close to her heart

By Eric Kohanik

Dana Delany has rarely been typecast.

"I don't like to repeat myself," she says. That's why some fans remember her as a brave army nurse on the 1980s hit China Beach and others recall her as the scantily clad dominatrix she played in the '90s big-screen comedy Exit to Eden.

Most recently though, TV buffs knew her as a cold and conniving resident of the fictional Wisteria Lane.

"I had the best year," says the 55-year-old, contemplating her final days playing Katherine Mayfair on Desperate Housewives. "I went to the loony bin, and I became a lesbian!"

Now, with the melodrama behind her, the New York native is giving life to a decidedly more grounded character in Body of Proof. It's a part, she says, that is close to her heart.

Of all the roles you've played, who does Body of Proof medical examiner Megan Hunt resemble the most?

I'd say she is going back to my China Beach days. This character feels very close to me.

Why is that?

It's funny, I've always been more drawn to doctors than lawyers in terms of my acting. I think in another life I was a doctor. My grandfather was a doctor. I do love the medical stuff. For this, I went and saw an autopsy. I encourage everyone to see an autopsy. It's fantastic. It will make you really want to take care of your body and have even more awe for what we've all been given.

So, how do you take care of your body?

I do yoga. That's it. Yoga.

Megan is in a car crash in the pilot episode of the show. I gather that the scene struck a bit close to home?

Yeah, I was hit by a bus two weeks before we started filming. I broke two fingers and my car was totalled, exactly like the accident in the pilot. I was in Santa Monica, 8:30 in the morning. I was making a left-hand turn and I was hit by a bus. It hit my passenger side. I'm lucky to be alive. And the irony is, when I got out of the car, the bus driver said to me, "I know who you are. Can I have your autograph?"

Megan works a lot and doesn't have much of a life outside of her job. Have you ever been at that point in your real life where you realize that you're working too hard?

Well, I love to act, so it doesn't feel like work to me. You know, you get that family feeling on a series. Still, there are long hours involved with a TV commitment.

What's the secret to coping?

The key is good food. You gotta have the fuel. I learned that. And sleep.

Do you miss your Desperate Housewives colleagues?

I had a ball on the show. I had a great three years. And, yeah, I miss my friends there. It really became a family, but I'm always up for the next adventure. When ABC came to me with this opportunity, it was kind of an offer I couldn't refuse. And [Housewives executive producer] Marc Cherry was great. He said, "I don't want to get in the way of you having a lead in a show, so I wish you well and you're always welcome back." I feel very blessed.

(First published in Hello! Canada weekly magazine - April 4, 2011.)

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Revenge of the nerds revisited - The Big Bang Theory - originally published Nov. 16, 2007

The Big Bang Theory has come a long way from its early days as a largely underappreciated comedy show.
Originally a Monday night entry, the series is now a cornerstone of Thursday nights on CBS in the U.S. and CTV in Canada.
It wasn't always that way, though.
Back in 2007, when this column originally appeared, the series was adorning the schedule of CTV's minor-league cousin, A-Channel. The network pulled rank since then and has made the series part of its lineup.
Smart move.
Which is why it seems fitting now to take a look back at this column from November 2007.


ONLINE: (U.S.) (Canada)



Revenge of the nerds

The Big Bang Theory is really smart in all the
right places. That's why it should appeal to
the geek that lurks within all of us.

By Eric Kohanik

There was this one particular scene back in the Halloween episode of The Big Bang Theory that made me laugh out loud.

Actually, there are a lot of scenes in the show that tend to do that.

If you haven’t seen The Big Bang Theory yet, you should give it a shot. The series revolves around two nerdy geniuses named Sheldon (Jim Parsons) and Leonard (Johnny Galecki), who live across the hall from a hot babe named Penny (Kaley Cuoco).

Much of the comedy revolves around how these super-intelligent guys are anything but smart when it comes to basic social skills and human interaction. Sheldon doesn’t really see this as a problem or dysfunction, but Leonard does. He struggles to smarten himself up socially. He is spurred on, in part, by a crush he has on Penny.

In the Halloween episode, Sheldon and Leonard – along with their equally geeky pals, Howard (Simon Helberg) and Rajesh (Kunal Nayyar) – are set to attend a costume party thrown by Penny. After the four guys first meet up wearing the same comic-book-hero costume (The Flash), they regroup wearing a variety of outfits, with Sheldon dressed up as “the Doppler effect.”

Maybe it’s because I was a math and science nerd in high school, but the subtle brilliance of that bit made me laugh. (It would take too long to explain the Doppler effect, so look it up in a dictionary.)

The Big Bang Theory is full of such subtle brilliance, from its title right on down to the names of the two lead characters – a salute to the late Sheldon Leonard, the pioneering TV producer who gave us The Andy Griffith Show and The Dick Van Dyke Show.

Hand the credit for this brilliance to executive producers Chuck Lorre (who is also the creative force behind Two and a Half Men) and Bill Prady. They have delivered a show that is smart and silly in all the right places.

The Big Bang Theory isn’t exactly a big hit. The show averages only 8.9 million viewers a week, putting it in 45th place in the Nielsen ratings in the United States. In Canada, meanwhile, the series plods along on CTV’s second-string team of A-Channel stations.

The show deserves better marks than that. Galecki and Parsons have developed solid and polished comic timing, with Helberg and Nayyar backing them up ably as needed. As for Cuoco, her comedic exuberance always lights up the screen as a nice counterbalance to the dweeb factor on the show.

The Big Bang Theory has surprised me. Initially, I figured this might be one of those shows that was “too smart for the room.”

Fortunately, though, CBS gave the series an early pickup for a full season. Maybe that’s evidence that network TV executives are smarter than we thought.

Or maybe they simply recognized early on that there really is a bit of geek lurking within all of us.

(Originally published in TVtimes - Nov. 16, 2007.)

Monday, January 31, 2011

A Day in the Life of Jon Stewart and The Daily Show - first published Oct. 23, 1999

The Daily Show with Jon Stewart has been a regular TV fixture for centuries. Well, actually, only since January 1999. But Stewart has been such a steadfast TV presence since then that it prompted us to take a stroll down memory lane for this feature story, first published in October 1999.
Stewart has been pummelling Conan O'Brien in the latenight TV ratings lately. And because this all still seems so relevant, we take time here and now to revisit a day spent on the Daily Show set in New York City way back during Stewart's first year on the show.



Headline hunter

Jon Stewart leads the charge
of the night brigade
on The Daily Show

By Eric Kohanik

NEW YORK -- It's 1:30 p.m. on a rainy Monday and, tucked inside the West 154th Street building that houses the studio and offices of The Daily Show, comedian Jon Stewart is munching away on a large order of McDonald's fries before tearing into his Quarter Pounder with cheese.

It's a typical order-in lunch for Stewart as he, executive producer Madeleine Smithberg (who opted for Pad Thai noodles), senior producer Ben Karlin (a deli sandwich) and a gaggle of other staff members race through pages of jokes inside Karlin's office, making selections for the night's show before the script is finalized.

Clad in well-worn blue jeans, and with a white T-shirt under his burgundy V-neck pullover, the ultra-casual Stewart looks more like the guy who was sent out to get everyone's lunches than the anchor/host of one of the hippest news satires on television. And, over the course of a daylong visit to the show's operations, you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone around with a disparaging word about Stewart.

"He's incredibly intelligent and has an opinion on things," raves supervising producer Kahane Corn. "He adds so much to the development of each joke."

Adds Smithberg: "Jon has such an incredible breadth of talent. He's a thinker. He brings out the best in everyone."

Stewart is equally generous later, in praising his co-workers. "The talent level, top to bottom," he says, running a hand through tousled, slightly-graying hair, "is the strongest of any show I've been on."

A staple on U.S.-based Comedy Central cable network for three years, The Daily Show joined Canada's primetime lineup, on The Comedy Network, just over a month ago. (It is also getting a special telecast on Ottawa's CTV affiliate, CJOH, this week.) Part talk show (each program contains a four-minute segment with a celebrity guest), The Daily Show is mostly a news parody that takes irreverent jabs at each day's headlines as well as poking fun at the trappings of news shows in general. Editorials and field reports from a team of "correspondents" ridicule people and events in the news, while a "Moment Of Zen" (a slap at CBS Sunday Morning's peaceful closings) wraps up each edition of the half-hour program.

Stewart joined The Daily Show in January, taking over from Craig Kilborn (who jumped over to host CBS's Late Late Show). Unlike his predecessor, Stewart takes an active role (he is also a co-executive producer) in honing each show. He comes into the office around 10:30 a.m. and after that, says everyone, the day flies by with lightning speed as jokes are pitched, comedy routines are worked out, and news footage is tracked down.

On this day, everything has been moved up by a half-hour so Stewart can put in a standup-comedy appearance at the re-opening of Radio City Music Hall. At 3 p.m., he is still polishing one of the day's bits on his computer. Elsewhere in the building, several teams of writers are putting finishing touches on other parts of the show. Rehearsal is scheduled for 5 o'clock. The taping session, in front of an audience of 100, is set for 6 p.m. By 7 o'clock, another edition of The Daily Show will be safely in the can, ready to be beamed out across the U.S. for that night - and off to Canada for the next day.

Inside Stewart's office, empty Coca-Cola cans are scattered about his desk; newspapers clutter the desk and floor. "I'm house-training," he quips."I'm a little embarrassed by this. As you can see, I drink a lot of Coke."

The self-deprecating comedian often has tongue planted firmly in cheek as he answers questions. Some of the chain-yanking is so subtle, it's as though he is testing to see if a reporter might take actually take the answers seriously enough to print them. It's all part of the poke-fun-at-the-media mindset of The Daily Show, and of Stewart.

Born in Trenton, N.J., Jonathan Stewart Leibowitz cut his incisive comedy teeth after college, working at comedy clubs in New York as well as in Winnipeg, Toronto and at the famed Just For Laughs Comedy Festival in Montreal. Appearances on HBO's Young Comedians Special and CBS's Late Show with David Letterman led to The Jon Stewart Show, a latenight talk show on MTV and, later, in syndication. A stint on The Larry Sanders Show had Stewart, as himself, being groomed to take over for fictitious talk-show host Larry Sanders (Garry Shandling).

Stewart points to Shandling and such other talents as Chris Rock, Norm Macdonald and Dennis Miller as comedians whom he admires. "Those are guys I can watch over and over again," he insists. Off screen, the down-to-earth Stewart prefers keeping a low profile, something he says is easier to do in New York than in Los Angeles. He keeps his daily personal life (with his girlfriend of four years, and their dog and cat) very private and would much rather be "sitting on the couch in my underwear, with a Pepsi and a doughnut, watching SportsCenter eight hours straight," than be part of the social scene that is often a part of the TV industry.

"I'm not a big social guy," he says. "I don't have that constitution where you go out every night and you're at beautiful parties talking to beautiful people. I get tonsillitis too easy for that."

Instead, Stewart keeps himself focused on The Daily Show. "I've got a great gig," he says. "We blast out some stuff and then I go home and do a couple of crossword puzzles, and see if there's a game on, and have some dinner, and go to bed."

Not that Stewart (who turns 37 on Nov. 28) has limited his interests -- or his talents -- to television and standup comedy. A published author (1998's Naked Pictures of Famous People), he also has a list of big-screen acting credits (Big Daddy, The Faculty, Playing By Heart). A production deal with Miramax Films will have him starring in two movies per year, as well as writing and producing several films.

That's a full slate. For now, though, Stewart is intent on just making the satire of The Daily Show sharper each day.

"What we do best is play with convention and, by playing with convention, highlight just the incredible silliness that is 'the [media] machine," Stewart says. "What I really wanted to bring to this was a sense of joy and point-of-view. It was a show that appealed to me. It was one that I thought I could be of service to. It was just going to take time before we gelled.

"And then," he adds with a wink, and with tongue firmly back in cheek, "we really tried to perfect it before sending it up to Canada."

Saturday, January 01, 2011

Patricia Heaton feels at home in The Middle


Comfort zone

Sitcom mom Patricia Heaton
feels right at home in The Middle

By Eric Kohanik

With four kids of her own, it's little surprise that Patricia Heaton is one of television's favourite moms. First, the 52-year-old actress won millions of fans - not to mention two Emmy Awards - for her performance as underappreciated mom Debra Barone on the long-running sitcom Everybody Loves Raymond. And now the petite, happily married actress is bringing her parenting insight to another maternal role as down-to-earth matriarch Frankie Heck on The Middle (ABC, Wednesdays).

Despite her Hollywood success and red carpet-ready looks, Patricia reveals that she shares the Indiana-based sitcom's wholesome Midwestern sensibilities. "Our theme is 'raising a family and lowering expectations,'" she says with a laugh. Here, Patricia opens up about keeping house on- and off-screen, and explains why she shops for clothes in the boy's department...

What is so funny about living in the Midwest?

Well, when I was growing up in Ohio, Tang and Pop-Tarts was our healthy breakfast! There's just a more no-nonsense kind of thing there. I think [it offers] a more fundamental way of living. It's about finding the joy and the fulfilment in a simpler life. And it's been a while since there's been a show for the people who are actually watching TV most of the time, which is everybody in between New York and L.A. [Laughs] We have fun with it - because we love being from there, so we are allowed to poke fun at it.

You've experienced so much career success and red-carpet glamour in Hollywood. Does that make it harder to relate to "average" moms?

I really relate to every single thing. You can see me at [the supermarket in L.A.] three times a week [doing the family's grocery shopping]. I grew up in Ohio, and since I didn't really get a regular start in this industry until later in life, I feel that those Midwestern roots are still in me.

With four kids of your own aged 11, 13, 15 and17, you must know what it's like to be a harried working mom...

I get how moms feel harassed in having to do everything and always feel inadequate. Because everything you see on TV and in magazines says you are supposed to "prepare"everything. And it's supposed to be "fresh" and "organic" and "eco-friendly." But you often just don't have time for it. You are exhausted.

So is your house as cluttered as the house on The Middle?

If you have kids, you know - the constant picking up of stuff day after day, week after week, year after year just gets to you after a while! You just can't do it all the time. And kids won't pick it up unless there's a gun to their heads.

You seem destined to work with tall leading men! You're 5'2" - yet Ray Romano of Everybody Loves Raymond is 6'2", and your co-star on The Middle, Neil Elynn, is 6'5"...

I'm used to it. People come up to me when they see me on the street and say,"Oh, you are so tiny. You are so much smaller than I thought." Everyone I've ever worked with is taller than me. I buy my sweat clothes in the boys' section of Target. It's cheaper in the boys' department - half the price! So, if you ever see somebody really short with green polyester sweatpants on and a hoodie, that's me.

(First published in Hello! Canada weekly magazine - November 15, 2010)