Movies on TV — separating the chaff from the wheat!

TV and movies used to go together like, well, soda jerks and Drug Stores — and it can seem as though the relationship is threatening to become just as archaic. Once upon a time every network aired big motion pictures, as well as original, made-for-TV movies. And every affiliate and rinky dink station would also have its movie shows, slotted into afternoons, or late night.

But the advent of video, then DVD, and now on-line streaming, lessened the allure of movies for TV programmers. Likewise, even original TV movies seemed to become fewer and farther between.

Movies haven’t disappeared from TV schedules, but they aren’t as ubiquitous as they were. In the United States, NBC, ABC and CBS all once had one or two nights a week set aside for movies (usually Sunday and Monday) whereas today, they still show movies, but I don’t think any of them actually have a regular movie slot. And even small stations seem to prefer talk shows and infommercials to fill up those non-peak hours.

Still, movies survive on cable and specialty stations who, like the affiliated stations of old, rely on movies to fill up some of their free hours. And, unlike those small stations, sometimes actually have enough money to commission their own original TV movies from time to time (or at least, co-finance them).

In Canada, the movie on TV still survives, though as a shadow of itself. The CBC recently advertised a summer-long “Canadian Film Festival” on Saturday…and within about three weeks was already preempting it!

All of which is too bad, because in Canada, where theatrical distribution and exhibition has always been uncertain and at times seeming as rare as a Sasquatch sighting, often TV broadcasts were seen as the main way a Canadian film was going to get before an audience. Some critics even complained that Canadian feature films often played like TV movies…because producers knew that’s where they were ultimately headed (or for a time there was a trend toward dual market motion pictures that could be edited down into a 2 hour feature for the theatres…and expanded into 4 hour mini-series extravaganza for TV).

Of the three main Canadian networks — the CBC, CTV, and Global — only the CBC still shows movies with even sporadic regularity, including commissioning original, never-before-seen TV movies. Granted, when it came to original Canadian TV movies, CTV and Global weren’t exactly churning them out like Henry Ford, so the cutting back in their movies is less significant. And, again, Canadian TV movies and mini-series do still get made by them, too — well, mainly CTV, with Global grudgingly coughing up the occasional internationally co-produced mini-series like a cat with a particularly sticky hairball.

Now, before it seems like all I’m doing is lamenting the passing of an era, let me repeat: movies on TV are still around, both made-for-TV and rebroadcast theatrical releases (even if more on cable stations than main networks) and can, in fact, still muster surprising ratings (the first of the CBC’s Don Cherry mini-series was a big ratings hit — though I think its sequel did less well). So it’s still a part of the television landscape.

And, more to the point, as I earlier alluded: in Canada it can be regarded as a rather crucial venue even for theatrical films, putting a movie out there, maybe catching a viewer who hadn’t heard of the film and wasn’t seeking it out deliberately, but was channel surfing, looking for something to watch. And Canadian made-for-TV movies — especially CBC TV movies — are a chance to see movies made by and for Canadians, set in Canada, but with usually mainstream sensibilities (not too Artsy, not too crass). Admittedly, lacking true pulp sensibilities (the CBC tending to be a bit reticent about letting its hair down and commissioning thrillers or slapstick comedies — though it used to do both). Likewise, when CTV indulges in the occasional TV movie, at least it’s often about Canada, starring Canadians, and isn’t really aimed at graduates of Film Appreciation 101.

But, as I say, even the CBC has drastically cut back its TV movie production for a network that used to unleash a dozen or more TV movies and mini-series in a season!

Anyway, theatrical filmmakers have often pushed for TV exposure (for the reasons I’ve outlined) but have often found themselves stymied what with dwindling venues for movies on TV and a tendency for programmers to prefer cheap and easy Hollywood films. The problem is also the films themselves. Often regarded as parochial Art House films that a programmer might hesitate about trying to present to their mom n’ pop audience more accustomed to Criminal Minds or Big Bang Theory reruns. And also hobbled by R-rated content making some movies an ill-fit for primetime.

Canadian TV has rather looser standards than American TV, but it really kind of depends on who’s minding the store at any given moment. I’ve seen CBC made-for-TV movies that contain more nudity and profanity than a lot of R-rated Hollywood films, or CTV has aired theatrical releases in a largely uncut form…even as, at other times, the CBC, CTV and Global will heavily censor films and bleep out even innocuous profanity. There seems no rhyme nor reason to it.

Some years back, the CBC even tried a radical programming experiment of breaking up their schedule into a family friendly prime time and then an after 10 “adult” schedule. Likewise, I think Showcase tried something similar — indeed, Showcase burst out of the gate promising a lot of risque and edgy material (including the raunchy and campy soap opera, Paradise Falls) but these days its edginess is basically reflected in a few American cable series with the occasional four letter word — dialogue that wouldn’t make the saltier characters on the CBC’s Arctic Air so much as blink!

But…I digress.

You see, I am headed somewhere with all this.

And that is to say: it is important to have a place for Canadian movies on TV — both original made-for-TV films that, otherwise, wouldn’t be made at all, and as a venue for theatrical motion pictures that never managed to get much distribution at the box office.

But — and here’s the kicker — there needs to be some quality control.

Canadian films often have a bad reputation, even among Canadians. And unfortunately, it creates a negative attitude wall that Canadian films are banging their heads against. That is — and I’ve said this before — even if someone sees a Canadian movie they like, or even a few, they still regard it as the exception to the rule of bad (or mediocre) Canadian films — yet conversely if they see more bad Hollywood films than good ones, they still regard the good Hollywood ones as the rule and the bad ones as the exception.

One gets the impression that a lot of times when programmers air a Canadian movie, it’s just for the sake of airing a Canadian movie (to satisfy a quota that, otherwise, they are woefully remiss in satisfying) and they don’t really care if it’s good, bad, or abysmal. Sometimes it’s because they just get the cheapest film they can. Sometimes — to be fair — it’s because they paid for the broadcast rights when the film was still in production and they had no way of knowing what the end result would be. Sometimes it’s because they’ve entered into a long term arrangement with a production company, basically buying a bunch of movies in bulk, sight unseen. This can also lead to a lot of repetition: rather than airing dozens of movies over a few months, a network or station will just recycle the same half-dozen films endlessly!

The result is sometimes movie slots where one night they air a perfectly okay, perfectly respectable film…and the next time it’s a low-budget film that, frankly, looks as though it was shot in the filmmaker’s back yard.

A lot of time, you don’t really get the sense the programmer themselves are really putting themselves out there for the films. They feel their job is just to get something in the time slot — not to worry overmuch about what that something is.

I was thinking about all this just skimming over some of the reviews I’ve written over the years at my site The Great Canadian Guide to the Movies & TV. Coming upon reviews of movies that, I’ll admit, even I had half forgotten…but movies I gave good or at least decent reviews to, and which I kind of regard fondly. And mainstream movies (or mainstream-ish): comedies, thrillers, or dramas but perfectly accessible dramas. But a lot of these movies I haven’t seen hide nor hair of in years, even in late night movie slots. While other movies that I regard less fondly…seem to crop up every other week. Or the decent movies do crop up…but kind of lost in the glut of otherwise mediocre films.

And bear in mind, I’m not even talking about “great” movies — I’m just talking, y’know, respectable films that if someone was channel surfing, might hold their attention for 2 hours including commercials. And I couldn’t help wondering if a programmer actually made the effort to program these films, and one after the other, week after week (as opposed to sandwiched between a lot of dire or just plain ill-conceived films) might that, over time, help boost the rep of Canadian films overall?

Again, I’m not saying because these are great films, or would be universally heralded as such, but merely that they come across as professional, perfectly respectable efforts.

Rather than a viewer regarding Canadian movies thrown on the TV schedule as the programming equivalent of a box of Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Beans that has been overstocked with earwax flavoured ones.

Now, obviously — I realize I’m partly talking fantasy. There are movies I love…that others hate. And vice versa. There are movies I regard as passable time killers…that others regard as an embarrassing waste of celluloid. And vice versa. If I were a programmer, and given the resources and carte blanche to stuff a schedule with movies I regarded as the best and the brightest (or, at least, not the worst and the darkest) people still might regard my selections as terrible and lame and far from bolstering the reputation of Canadian film…it would hold pretty much where it is.

But still, as I say, a lot of the times I can’t help thinking that even the programmers aren’t really prepared to stand behind their choices and defend them (I actually ruminated on this in this essay No One Deliberately Makes Bad Movies…Do They?read it while supplies last!). And if I’m right (and I may not be) what does that say? If these programmers are buying up these movies, putting them on the schedule, hoping we, the audience, will tune in…and in their hearts, even they figure the movies aren’t very good.

Just as book anthologies are published with the “edited by” brazenly proclaimed on the cover, letting you know who to credit — or to blame — if the stories selected are good or bad, maybe programmers need to stand up and by counted. And if they are going to schedule some dreary little mess…or some awful little schlockfest, they have to stand by it and take their lumps. Maybe movie slots should be relabelled as “So-and-so (fill in the programmer’s name) Presents” and pretty soon a programmer with a good instinct for movies would be a sign of a good time and a programmer with a bad reputation, well, as soon as their name came up the audience would know to reach for the clicker.

And let the heads start to roll!

And maybe stations and networks that do air movies should hive them off into little niches, just to allow room for the Art House and challenging flicks. Maybe X slot could be put aside for high brow, esoteric films, and Y slot could be a showcase for more mainstream, populist films. So the audience might start making a habit of at least checking the TV listings for that particular night, because they know it shows the type of films they like.

I mean it is a shame that there are all these specialty channels, offering up movie slots — and yet I’m not sure how many are Canadian movies. Let alone decent Canadian movies. (Okay, I admit — I don’t know. I’m just going by a casual glance at the TV listings from time to time).

The History Channel (Canada) is devoted to, y’know, history, and if there’s one thing Canadian filmmakers have liked to make over the years it’s historical movies. You would think the History Channel could have a movie night or two a week devoted to nothing but re-running Canadian-made historical films and/or mini-series. Instead, their big “Canadian” production is a mini-series about…The Kennedys!

Showcase, as mentioned, launched itself as the saucy, edgy, Canadian station…yet nowadays you can usually recognize the “Canadian” movies on their schedule…because they are B-movies starring American actors and set in the United States.

Space has been in existence for — how many years? Fifteen? And in all that time has it produced a single good Canadian science fiction movie? Not even great — just good? Let alone one starring or set in Canada? No, let me re-phrase that: have they even tried? I mean, there’s still a nobility in trying and failing…but how often have they even tried to mount a decent Canadian made sci-fi movie, with Canadian actors, and that’s aiming higher than being some cheesy creature feature? Heck, it was the Discovery Channel, not Space, that produced Race to Mars — which at least was professionally mounted, a “respectable” effort, featuring an all-Canadian cast (even if only one actually played a Canadian). If Space were to go off the air tomorrow — what would the programmers and executives claim as their proud legacy when it came to movies or mini-series?

Okay…I’m getting off topic a bit.

I guess my main point is simply there should be movie slots on Canadian TV — but the programmers should maybe make the effort to choose good (or decent) movies. Choices they are willing to stand behind. And not simply regard it as a job well done so long as there isn’t a test pattern blazing from the screen for two hours.

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