John Doyle

The awesome shows no one's seen yet

The Globe and Mail

Queen Elizabeth meets Katie Couric at the first Buckingham Palace garden party of the summer, May 22, 2012. (POOL/Lewis Whyld / Pool / REUTERS)

It’s “Upfront Week” for the Canadian commercial broadcasters. Wheeee! Whiz-bang shows and loadsa free drink. That’s the gist.

Upfront Week means CTV, Global and the Rogers-owned CITY-TV channels announce the U.S. shows they’ve bought, the burdensome Canadian shows they’ve agreed to produce and how great everything is. So that advertising agencies will be all, “Yeah, you’re the best and every client who needs an ad on TV will have one on your shows because you’re shows are so totally, totally great.”

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Or so it rolls in the imagination of commercial Canadian TV execs. And, with all due respect, they are not a breed expressly known for the depth and expansiveness of their imaginations.

The trick to success in Canadian TV comprises very few steps. Go to L.A. and buy shows. Look at CRTC regulations. Figure out what Canadian show can be produced and aired for the smallest expenditure. In fact, it was once put to me by a top person in the Canadian television racket that there are only two essential qualities necessary to run a commercial TV outlet here – “Buying shows from the U.S. and telling lies to the CRTC.” That was said off the record, of course.

Rogers was up first in the upfront whirl and Rogers is supposed to be different. New kid on the block. Loadsa money and tons of imagination. Since Rogers bought the CITY-TV channels it has strived to have a national footprint, combining the CITY stations with its cable channels and magazine empire to become a modern media company of heft and depth. As this paper reported online yesterday, Rogers wants to look at acquiring Hockey Night in Canada, if CBC fails to hold onto it. Hint to CBC: If you want to hold on to it, let go of the embarrassment that is Coach’s Corner. Things change. Don Cherry doesn’t. I’m just saying. And I digress.

So, what has Rogers got? Sitcoms, that’s what. And two – count ’em, two – original Canadian comedies. Plus Katie Couric.

In a strictly business sense, the sitcom strategy is smart. Dramas cost more to buy and last year, in its first real foray into big-time program buying, CITY-TV gambled on the big-noise Terra Nova, that expensively made drama with dinosaurs galore. It was not the big, big hit it promised to be.

For the 2012-13 TV season, Rogers adds nine new comedies, four new dramas, some reality stuff, the late-night show Jimmy Kimmel Live! and what it calls “the triumphant return of award-winning journalist – and fan-favourite – Katie Couric to daytime television.”

There are some interesting shows in the comedy lineup. Interesting not because Rogers picked them, but just interesting twists in the evolution of TV comedy. One is Partners, created by David Kohan and Max Mutchnick, best known as the masterminds behind Will & Grace. Partners is about the long friendship between a gay man and his straight best friend, both of whom are architects.

Two actors from Partners came to the Rogers event, Michael Urie, who plays the gay architect, and Brandon Routh, who plays Urie's significant other. They joshed, but didn’t say much. These guys barely know each other and the show. They met when they rehearsed and did the pilot. That’s all. The show is interesting because the core premise – gay guy and straight guy as best pals – is rare.

Of greater interest was Couric, who blew into Toronna to talk up her talk show, which will air weekdays at 4 p.m. starting this fall. She was introduced as “iconic” and “needing no introduction,” which simply isn’t true, hereabouts. Both of Couric’s main gigs, CBS Evening News, and The Today Show on NBC, are barely watched in Canada.

Asked the “why?” question about doing a daytime chat show, Couric quipped, “I needed a job.” But it wasn’t all pointless quips. “We should be honest about it,” she said. “There’s a hole there, since Oprah left.” She also acknowledged that her show is not the only one looking to fill the afternoon talk space left by Oprah Winfrey’s disappearance into her own OWN channel.

Survivor host Jeff Probst is launching a talk show and Ricki Lake is returning to the genre this fall. “There will be a Darwinian process,” Couric said with surprising cheer. She admitted she’s no Oprah but wanted a show with “smart, elevated conversation.” She is unsure what the elements will be.

Her show is, right now, nothing more than an idea that has been sold to many stations based on her reputation as a good interviewer. She said she saw the show as “making important stuff engaging and engaging stuff important.” She also said she’d made that up on the spot. For her big “get” interviews she’d like Amanda Knox and Kate Middleton. She’s not too keen on interviewing Snooki from Jersey Shore, but you never know. She’s not a snob.

Neither are we. The thing about the Upfront Week is that everything is great. It’s all optimism and fantasy, because the shows haven’t aired yet. It’s the most wonderful time of the year.

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