In a bright, newly renovated office in downtown Toronto, at a table strewn with Chinese food containers, an intense debate unfolded last week over the merits of castrating child molesters. “What really is so bad about the idea?” asked the woman among the three debaters, a tall, striking blond dressed in a sleek black bodysuit cinched at the waist with a rhinestone-encrusted leather belt. “We castrate women all the time, but we call it a hysterectomy. Let’s face it—we live in a patriarchal society. Men make the rules.” Except, it seems, within the walls of that particular office. There, it is the owner of the coffee cup bearing a smudge of bright red lipstick who clearly reigns supreme. She is Shirley Solomon, since 1989 the host of CTV’s popular daytime talk show, Shirley, which covers topics ranging from teen suicide to free trade—to castrating sexual offenders. Now Solomon, 45, is set to expand her empire. In April, Shirley will begin running on the 222 affiliate stations of New York City-based ABC TV. Said Solomon: “After signing the deal, I was in the ABC dining room in New York and there was a picture of [fellow Canadian] Peter Jennings over my table. I just smiled and thought, ‘Well, that’s two of us.’ ”
For Solomon and her second husband, Shirley executive producer Les Kottier, as well as for CTV, the deal was sweet indeed—and it marked the first time that a Canadian-produced series has been purchased by one of the Big Three American networks for a daytime schedule. Although none of the parties will disclose dollar figures, CTV vice-president Arthur Weinthal, whose network owns the show’s world distribution rights, said that ABC had paid “a very attractive price” for Shirley—a sum that industry insiders placed in the millions of dollars. For their part, ABC executives, who are scheduling the new show to run at 11 a.m. on weekdays, expressed confidence that Shirley will fare well in a lineup crowded with talk shows, including Geraldo, hosted by Geraldo Rivera, and The Oprah Winfrey Show. Said Mary Alice Dwyer-Dobbin, ABC senior vicepresident of daytime programs: “Let’s face it, there is a glut of talk shows out there. We had to feel that this one offers something distinctive—which is Shirley herself, a smart and sexy woman who clearly runs her own show.” Solomon, whose family emigrated to Canada from the former West Germany when she was 5, spent her early adulthood as a conventional wife and mother. Married to a Toronto accountant, she stayed home to look after their daughter, Stephanie, now 21. But since breaking into
TV 14 years ago, Solomon has been determined to do things her own way—even when that has involved stretching the truth or ruffling feathers. She got her first TV job, hosting a social affairs show at a Toronto cable station, only after tricking an executive into believing that she had a counteroffer from CBC TV. Four years later, she won a spot as a reporter and coanchor on the Global Television Network. That ended when Solomon erased an interview with
singer Andy Gibb that she had promised him would be off the record, but which one Global executive wanted to air anyway.
Unable to find TV work for two years (“The word was out,” she contends, “that this was a girl who is a lot of trouble”), she sold jewelry and worked as a media consultant before being hired as a talk-show host on the short-lived payTV Life Channel in 1986. With its demise that year, she began developing a pilot for her current show with Kottier, whom she married in 1979. They formed their own company, Adderley Productions Inc., for Shirley.
Speculating on the secret of Shirley’s success, which attracts about 350,000 viewers in Canada, Solomon cites its ability to blend relevance with fun. “TV people in Canada tend to think you can be either a journalist or an entertainer,” she said. “That isn’t a choice I’m willing to make.” As well, she points to her reputation as an exacting employer with her staff of 42 producers, researchers and technicians. “I don’t make any apologies for the fact that I’m demanding,” she said. “It is no coincidence that this show has been successful.”
The biggest challenge facing Solomon now will be retaining that firm grip on the program that bears her name. Although Dwyer-Dobbin says that ABC intends to take a mostly hands-off approach, she conceded that the network will be “suggesting that they use American panelists to a larger extent.” As well, ABC will require an additional 100 new shows each year, a small percentage of which will be filmed in the United States, in addition to the 140 currently produced for CTV.
Still, Solomon insists that she intends to keep Shirley a Canadian operation. “If I wanted to pack my bags and leave this country I could have,” she said. Indeed, for Solomon, the new deal means the best of both countries. Although she intends to continue living in suburban Toronto, where she spends much of her free time reading and, under outside lights late on summer nights, pruning her rose garden to the strains of Puccini, she will also make frequent trips to ABC’s New York studios. Later this month, she is scheduled to meet three of her ABC idols, Jennings, Ted Koppel and Barbara Walters, during breaks in shooting a series of Shirley advertisements for the network. In her mind’s eye, says Solomon, she is looking ahead to the first of those spots appearing during the popular current-affairs show Nightline, which she often watches after returning home late from the office. “When that happens,” she says, “I think I’ll just sit on the edge of my bed and do some deep breathing.” If she does, Solomon will no doubt catch the sweet smell of success.
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