By Frank Moher
One of the mixed pleasures of a writer’s vocation is afternoon television. With the advent of notebook computers, one can sit on the couch and do all manner of quotidian things — like writing blog posts — while CNN and NewsNet and A&E dance across the flatscreen.
Of particularly morbid interest of late is Canadian cable television — channels such as Showcase and BookTelevision and G4TechTV. Anyone who remembers the high hopes with which cable TV was launched in this country will have to concede that something has gone sadly wrong along the way.
Take Bravo!, for example. Bravo! (not to be confused with the exclamation-markless US network Bravo) is the runty heir of a much more ambitious plan for high cultural programmming in Canada, called C Channel. Launched in 1983, it had grand dreams of broadcasting live theatre, opera, etc., from across the country. It lasted six months.
Bravo! came along eight years later, with only slightly more modest plans to “offer a mix of dance, music, opera, documentary, cinema, visual art as well as discussion programs from Canada and abroad.” It was also to export its programming to the US. That idea came a-cropper, though, when Bravo! parted ways with its American parent in 2001. And Bravo! turned out to be more gloss than substance, more enthusiast than player, offering reports on Canadian culture but limiting its own creative contributions to funding short videos and broadcasting the occasional concert. Mostly from Toronto, of course; if it ever had the intention of being truly national, that’s long gone. And, like all the cable channels, it inexplicably sees running reruns of things like “Desperate Housewives” as part of its mandate. (Let’s see . . . “Desperate Housewives” has actors in it? And that makes it, um, cultural?)
But it’s by no means the least special of the specialty channels. That distinction is up for grabs at the moment. Showcase, the biggest of them, does air original dramatic programming, but of the sort that makes one think Jim Shaw might be right about Canadian TV after all. I recently watched, in appalled awe, episodes of two series: “Sweating Bullets,” a sort of throwback to ’70s cop shows (without meaning to be), and “Paradise Falls,”, which was surely pitched as “‘Peyton Place’ meets ‘The Red Green Show.'” Shudder-worthy.
Granted, Showcase also helped give us “Trailer Park Boys” and “Slings and Arrows.” But after my recent afternoons with Nick Slaughter (the name, I swear, of the hero of “Sweating Bullets”), I’m not in a forgiving mood.
But surely the lamest of the lame at the moment are BookTelevision and G4TechTV. The former once aired a number of perky chat shows, mostly produced and/or hosted by Daniel Richler. Lately, though, it has abandoned original programming, purportedly because of “a lack of viewer interest.” (Got that, viewers? It’s your fault you’re not watching.) Instead, we are offered recycled interviews with authors about their “latest” novel, which turns out to have been published in 2002. Meanwhile, G4TechTV offers reruns of a venerable computer how-to show, “Call for Help,” which aired between 2004 and 2007. Ponder that for a moment. A show telling you all about that new-fangled internet phenomenon YouTube. Next up: keeping those pesky floppy disks organized.
Like all cable channels, ours suffer from the curse of having way too much airtime to fill. But comparing their output with those of the American equivalents — HBO, Showtime, The Discovery Channel — remains an exercise in national humility. (Showcase makes the mistake of also carrying the sublime Showtime series “Weeds”; cannily, though, they don’t air it just before “Sweating Bullets.”) Yes, I know, the US channels have a much larger audience, hence more revenue to play with. But Canada’s old-school networks (CBC, CTV) stopped using that excuse some time ago, and have raised their game accordingly. Canadian cable TV may never realize the high hopes we once had for it — much of that energy has moved over to that new-fangled internet phenomenon YouTube, as well as IPTV channels such as Revision3. But, really, must it suck so hard? It’s enough to make a fella think about getting a day job.