THE BACK PAGES

December 25 2006

THE BACK PAGES

December 25 2006

A TINFOIL SUIT IN A LIGHTNING STORM

Poor besieged George Stroumboulopoulos, carrying CBC on his back

MEDIA

BY JONATHON GATEHOUSE • George Stroumboulopoulos is not the messiah. Yes, the CBC is doing its best to venerate his image, splashing his sideburns and warm, wet, beagle eyes on billboards coast to coast. But his slouchy shoulders aren’t broad enough to carry the weight of expectations. And his program, The Hour—a five-night-a-week pastiche of news, politics and pop culture—is neither the saviour nor the nadir for Canada’s public broadcaster. It’s just a TV show, dude.

“Of course I can’t save the CBC,” Stroumboulopoulos says as he sits in his darkened Toronto office, an abandoned meal of Vietnamese soup and edamame beans (even his lunch is hip) congealing on his desk. “One show does not make a network. This isn’t like NBC and Friends.” A rant—more of an avuncular outburst really, since George isn’t the angry type—is building. The whole premise that the CBC is broken is wrong. The public broadcaster just needs to do a better job standing up for itself, defending its high-quality products. And giving him, a 34-year-old former MuchMusic VJ who, by his own admission dresses like he’s 16, a chance to connect with viewers should be applauded as innovation, rather than condemned as desperate experimentation. The Hour is a gamble, an expensive, personality-driven, news-can-be-fun talk show in a late-night time slot littered with the hulks of legendary Canadian flops—Gzowski’s 90 Minutes Live, Friday Night! withRalph Benmergui, and Global’s Mike Bullard Show. But as long as everyone—the critics, public, and network brass—keep an open mind, they might just enjoy the ride, even if it sometimes gets confusing. “We know what we are, and we know what we’re not. And what we are is more important,” he says. “We’re not bullshitting people here. We’re not playing TV. The only way to feel real is to be real.” Suddenly that Nov. 9 interview with Deepak Chopra makes a lot more sense.

Donning the mantle of Canadian television’s Great White Hope is kind of like wearing a tinfoil suit in a lightning storm. You’re asking for it. CBC had been courting Stroumboulopoulos since 2000. His 2004 special, advocating that Tommy Douglas be voted “The Greatest Canadian,” drew more than one million viewers, and the father of medicare won the competition. Newsworld upped the ante, offering Stroumboulopoulos the 8 p.m. time slot formerly occupied by Avi Lewis’s Counterspin, executive producer status, a say in staffing, and the freedom to create the kind of program he wanted. The Hour debuted on the cable news channel in January 2005(The main network started rebroadcasting the show in its late-night slot this past October.) CBC-scorn addicts like John Doyle of the Globe and Mail had a field day. Stroumboulopoulos was “a kid doing a grown-up’s job,” and his jumpy, breezy show was insulting: “Fast and flippant isn’t cool. It’s condescending crap.” Adam Nayman, a TV columnist for Toronto’s Eye Weekly, dubbed it “shortattention-span theatre.” And he lambasted the network for its “cynical” hiring, drawing a comparison with a classic Simpsons episode in which executives try to update the cartoon-within-a-cartoon Itchy and Scratchy by adding “Poochie,” a jive-talking, sunglasswearing, surfing dog.

Stroumboulopoulos, who reads his own press, was stung by the reaction. He was used to being portrayed as the smart grown-up at MuchMusic, where he did news specials on elections and the crisis in Darfur. “Nothing had changed, except the network.” The critics are elitist, he says, focused too much on how he looks—spiky hair, four earrings, bedecked with bracelets, studded belt, a deathhead ring, and always, always dressed in black shirt—rather than what he’s saying. “If you think I’m dumbing the news down, well, then you don’t really get what we’re doing. Because we’re not dumbing the news down, we’re explaining it.”

The negative coverage reached a crescendo this past summer when Stroumboulopoulos took a gig with ABC hosting The One, a summer Idol-style reality series. CBC bumped Peter Mansbridge and The National back an hour to accommodate a simulcast, sending a clear message about how much they value their latest edgy acquisition. The show drew the U.S. TV equivalent of paint drying—three million viewers—and was quickly euthanized. Maybe people are feeling sorry for Stroumboulopoulos, but lately the press has been a lot kinder. The Toronto Star and the Globe undertook lengthy investigations of his passion for motorcycles this fall. And this month’s Toronto Life has a loving profile of a “rebel” in baggy pants.

For its part, the CBC now seems to be trying to insulate its star from the backlash. Richard Stursberg, the executive vice-president of English TV, has made one million viewers the benchmark for a successful prime-

time CBC show. But network honchos are setting the bar considerably lower for the 11 p.m. slot. “The Hour is tracking exactly where I expect it to,” says Kirstine Layfield, executive director of network programming. “We’re really happy with it. It serves a lot of purposes. The main thing is that the measure of a success on the CBC isn’t just about the ratings, it’s about how much discussion it starts. And this show has started a lot of discussion.” The average nightly audience for the program over its first two months on the main network was 110,000 viewers—a substantial improvement over the 30,000 people Zed, the previous owner of that time slot, used to deliver. The weekly numbers also show a modest upwards trend. However, The Hour’s lead-in, Peter Mansbridge, draws close to 600,000. And the averages camouflage the nights when Stroumboulopoulos’s audience has reportedly (CBC won’t provide the break-

downs) dipped as low as 50,000. Layfield boasts that The Hour has, on occasion, even beaten Jon Stewart’s Daily Show, and The Colbert Report. What she doesn’t add is that those broadcasts of the U.S. comedy shows were reruns. The combined average audience for the two shows on the Comedy Network—a specialty channel—is 158,000. When Stewart and Colbert are rebroadcast on the main CTV network at midnight—an hour later than Stroumboulopoulos—the number grows to 205,000.

Just who is watching The Hour might also prove a problem. The audience is considerably younger than for most CBC shows, but it’s not exactly youthful—the highest proportion are aged 35 to 49. Layfield says that’s part of the plan, and pooh-poohs the widely held belief that Stroumboulopoulos was supposed to appeal to the kids. “It’s not a show that we’ve ever designed or intended to be for 18-year-olds,” she says.

A decision about The Hour’s future will not be made until February or March, but Stroumboulopoulos says he has received assurances that the network will give his show “time to grow,” and notes he has a contract that extends beyond this season. But inside the CBC—never to be confused with Happyland— there is plenty of speculation. The shortfall in this year’s TV budget is reportedly $25 million, and if the network loses its NHL broadcast contract to rival CTV next year, any show more expensive to produce than community access television could be in jeopardy. Stroumboulopoulos’s high profile has also fed nasty rumours, such as the story that CBC brass took away the studio of Rick Mercer (who pulls close to a million viewers) without telling him when he was on summer vacation, and gave it to The Hour. (Mercer denies the tale, saying he’s delighted with his new digs: “I’m happy. I’m in the best studio.”)

All the sound and fury about the packaging of Stroumboulopoulos tends to obscure the fact that George the host isn’t half-bad.

He has an easy charm, can talk like the wind, and the show nicely balances the interesting and the quirky. Trail him for a day and it quickly becomes apparent that he’s exactly the same on and off the air—sometimes in too much of a hurry, but never stressed. He’s not a force as an interviewer (“You go out there with a whole bunch of planned-out questions and then you get the answers you want, rather than the answers that are in there,” he says) but he does have a knack for putting his subjects at ease and getting out of their way. Consequently, the show lives and dies by the quality of its guests—which by Canadian television standards has been awfully high. Pairings like comedian Billy Connolly and Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus, or Tony Bennett and British MP/provocateur George Galloway, have been dynamite. Jann Arden and the guy from Dragon’s Den, not so much.

But watch the way Stroumboulopoulos interacts with his studio audience and his true potential is suddenly apparent. He chats them up as they wait in line, plays a little piano to keep them entertained, answers all their questions before, during, and after the show, and poses for as many photos as they want. There are no barriers. Stroumboulopoulos claims he was a painfully shy kid (which has the ring of those stories that born-agains like to tell about how bad they were before they were saved) and honed his people skills working as a movie usher. Whatever the explanation, it’s a real talent. You get the feeling that CBC would dominate the dial if they

could only send him on a house-to-house cross-country tour.

Is he just the latest point on the CBC hipster-doofus continuum—Daniel Richler, Avi Lewis, Evan Solomon, Jian Ghomeshi—or The One? The nose ring—a feature of his first two seasons—is gone. Maybe it’s the season, but he’s worn red twice in the last week. There’s a possibility that George Stroumboulopoulos could grow up without growing old. Right now, though, he’s a little too stoked about interviewing the guy from Twisted Sister. M

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