Tuesday, March 21, 2006

MTV Canada, or Dancing About Architecture

Today is the day that MTV Canada, Mach II hits the airwaves - out in the far reaches of the analog dial (channel 59). There was a wishy-washy MTV Canada a couple of years ago that was a digital music video channel operating out west but it could never really supplant MuchMusic's hegemony.

This new channel is basically just a rebranding of CTV's 24-hour talk channel, launched as TalkTV a few years ago and then left to neglect. Their flagship program was called The Chatroom which was a five-hour live broadcast of semi-hip young people trying to seem even hipper than they were; it was kind of like being trapped in a perpetual martini lounge set up during a Young Conservative or Young Liberal convention, except without the martinis. This was the show which introduced audiences to now-familiar Canadian TV personalities such as Seamus O'Regan and Ben Mulroney; I swear to God I was watching once while Mulroney was defending women getting breast implants (you know, for their self-esteem). So this epic-length daily show repeated a couple times a day and thus sopped up lots of space on their weekly programming grid, the rest of which was filled in with ancient reruns of Live it Up, Celebrity Pets and Vicki Gabereau. By late 2001, TalkTV decided to pull the plug on creating new installments of yammering and were content to just rerun old Chatrooms, making the channel 100% recycled content - and this went on for years.

The funny part is this new rebranded MTV Canada has to respect the rules of the broadcasting license granted TalkTV - it has to be a chat channel, even though the M in MTV is for music; I guess in this respect it resembles its American progenitor, which hardly shows videos anymore, and if they do it's only whatever's in the top ten of the charts. So it's Chatroom redux for us - more thick slabs of blab, with a new slate of non-boat-rocking hipsters who I guess will talk and talk and talk about what we're all listening to without playing or showing much of it - and I'm sure MuchMusic has round-the-clock watchdogs making sure MTV sticks to their mandate. Expect endless "Are you there, caller?" phoneshows where young Canadians will call in to tell the gelled-haired, Bluetooth-equipped hosts what's on their iPod. And beyond that, Laguna Beach ad infinitum.

This isn't the first time an existant specialty channel has had a frontal lobotomy or rearranged the deck chairs in the hunt for new eyeballs - take A&E for instance. This was originally the Arts & Entertainment Network. It was a classy operation, designed for older, middlebrowed Americans who liked to watch the Boston Pops on the Fourth of July along with their Miss Marple/Inspector Morse shows. Back when there were CableACE awards (in the 80's, they were the Emmys for channels you needed a converter to receive), A&E and HBO used to routinely clean up. But at some point blood was spilled in A&E's programming department and the channel's IQ plunged dramatically, focusing on nightly servings of Biography and, in the wake of the OJ murders, lurid true-crime documentaries. Things got trashier in the last couple of years. A&E wholeheartedly embraced the most boneheaded reality television ideas and soon observational programs about mulleted bounty hunters and the daughters of mafia kingpins began saturating their schedule. In January they ramped up the trashiness further with a reality series about a SWAT team in Dallas and another about roller derby queens. I had to take a liedown this week when I saw a promo for a new show called King of Cars, about the exciting world of inarticulate chop shoppers, starring a pimped-out, goateed manchild; the ad ended with the A&E logo forged into a bling medallion.

Then there's A&E's neighbour (on my remote, anyway) - known as Spike, the former Nashville Network. This was the channel that used to show Grand Ole Opry concerts, country music talk shows, reruns of The Dukes of Hazzard and fishing and hunting programs all weekend. But then came the name and format changes. TNN changed it's name first to The National Network and then The New TNN, and the cowboys were shown the door in favour of reruns of Miami Vice, MacGyver and Star Trek: The Next Generation - but all the shows were put through a digital speed-up process that shaved a second off every minute of a show so that they could free up another minute of advertising time into each programming hour, even though the process rendered most of the actual programs funny-looking and unwatchable. This went on for a little while until the network was rebranded as Spike: The First Network For Men, where the only women allowed are babes and all the ads are for videogames and purportedly aphrodisical bodysprays. Oh yeah - and the shows still look digitized and muddy-looking. Over the last Christmas holidays Spike had the Pamela Anderson show V.I.P. playing 24 hours a day for days on end; I was getting close to giving them a call and making sure everything was okay over there.

The final irony is this new Canadian MTV won't be allowed to show many (if any) music videos while at the same time the competish over at Much (which shows lots of American MTV programming as it is) are appealing to the CRTC to lower their music programming content requirements to 50% from the 65% it's at now. But at least Canadians will now have two music channels that will rank the twenty hottest hotties for them; it will be interesting if they each reach different conclusions.

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