Is CBC losing "Intelligence" but gaining "Hustle"? It seems that way on the surface at least, with the U.S. cable drama "Hustle," starring former "Man From U.N.C.L.E." Robert Vaughn, premiering Tuesday night at 9 p.m. in the former "Intelligence" timeslot.
It is the latest reach across the border by the public broadcaster, struggling to survive in an increasingly competitive and transitional marketplace just as Canada’s broadcast funding policies slip further into disarray.
Last summer, Canadian culture vultures went ballistic as a copycat U.S. talent search show, "The One," laid a big fat egg on the CBC schedule. Bad enough that an American reality show (albeit hosted by a Canadian, "The Hour"’s George Stroumboulopoulos) was invading the sanctity of the public network’s True North airways. Worse, it was bumping "The National," CBC’s now third-place newscast, back an hour. What next, Krispy Kreme sprinkles on Tim Hortons doughnuts?
Everybody breathed a sigh of relief when "The One" imploded on impact on both sides of the border. Let that be a lesson to CBC, the pundits seemed to say, seemingly unaware that TV shows flop all the time, even in America.
Wearing most of the mud was Kirstine Layfield, CBC’s programming chief, who shows no signs of backing down from adding a little U.S. spice to her schedule. In January, Layfield _ who was unavailable for comment for this article _ started airing the brilliant but cancelled Fox comedy "Arrested Development" Mondays to Fridays at 5:30 p.m. Paired with another U.S. import, "The Simpsons," it is finding a steady audience opposite Global’s strong national news hour and "Dr. Phil" on CTV.
"Hustle" has drawn an even more daunting assignment. It is up against the hottest U.S. import on Global’s prime time schedule: "House." "Intelligence," the Vancouver-based crime drama starring Ian Tracey ("Da Vinci’s Inquest"), which concluded its rookie run last week, got hammered by "House" all season. It routinely sank toward the 200,000 viewer mark, about a tenth the "House" audience. (Producers at Haddock Entertainment say CBC still has not made a decision on a second season of "Intelligence.")
Little more will be expected of "Hustle," a U.S. import which was tested last summer on CBC and which runs stateside on the movie channel AMC.
Vaughn, who played James Bond clone Napoleon Solo on "The Man From U.N.C.L.E." back in the ’60s, met with TV critics last month in Pasadena, Calif., on the annual winter press tour. He plays Albert Stroller, the lead lure or "roper" in a slick gang of London-based grifters and con artists.
A well preserved 74, Vaughn shrugged off his enduring appeal to "good whisky and no exercise." He and guest star Robert Wagner entertained critics with stories about the good old days, including their appearance together in the 1974 movie "The Towering Inferno."
"We didn’t have any scenes together," said Wagner. "I was at the top of the building trying to get it on with a young lady." Said Vaughn: "I was hanging out with Bill Holden downstairs."
Back in 1974, Vaughn and Wagner could have kicked butt for CBC. Then again, the network didn’t need their help in those days.
Today is a whole other world. The bad guys aren’t with Thrush or Spectre anymore, they’re with Shaw and Videotron. Last month, both Canadian cable companies, in defiance of the CRTC _ which currently requires medium and large cable and satellite providers to direct a fixed portion of their annual gross revenues to the Canadian Television Fund _ arbitrarily turned off the money tap, suspending roughly $6 million a month in contributions. Both object to so much CTF money flowing directly into what they see as the already heavily subsidized CBC coffers. The federal government says they will top up the fund, but what a mess. The lack of funding stability threatens the future of "Intelligence" and other CBC dramas.
"Hustle" isn’t just a show title, it is what the CBC will have to do to survive in today’s dirty business of television.