From Hockey Nights to Reality Bites
By JOHN DOYLE
Wednesday, July 30, 2003 - Page R2
(The Toronto Globe and Mail)
LOS ANGELES -- I gather tonight's TV in Canada is entirely dominated by coverage of the Stones-and-friends concert. Okay so let me tell you a story about another show that airs tonight -- that Paradise Hotel (Fox, 9 p.m.) thing.
It's a mistake to think that the most lurid elements of American TV are the work of nefarious American interests trying to dumb down the world.
Some of the oddest things are the work of Canadians. Some is the work of a Canadian who was steeped in the most Canadian program of all -- Hockey Night in Canada.
One day here I chatted with Arthur Smith. Before I came down to TV Hacks on Tour (TVHOT) I had no plans to meet Smith. But I received a call from his publicists.
The pitch was simple but effective. It was explained that he's a Canadian. He used to produce Hockey Night in Canada and all of CBC Sports. Now he produces Paradise Hotel, that most cringe-inducing reality show.
Arthur Smith's story tells us something, but I'm not sure what. He's proud of his Canadian background and career. Now he ensures that dumb stuff gets on the air.
Twenty-three years ago, Smith was a young actor in Toronto. He had small TV roles. He studied broadcasting at Ryerson and supported himself with acting jobs. On the set, he found himself more interested in production. Before graduating he contacted CBC Sports.
"I grew up on hockey," he says. "I figured I'd try for a job in the area I loved. I asked Denis Harvey, who was then in charge of CBC Sports, if I could meet him. He gave me five minutes."
"I went in with pages on notes about what I could do at Hockey Night in Canada. I talked and talked. As a result, before I'd even graduated from Ryerson, I had a job at CBC Sports as a junior producer. Nobody at the school believed me. And when they knew it was true, they didn't like me very much."
So, at 22 years old, Arthur Smith was producing segments of Hockey Night in Canada. Two years later, he was the senior producer for CBC coverage of the Olympics in Los Angeles. That, you could say, is where things became clear to Smith. He really liked L.A. and decided that one day he was going to work here.
In 1988 he was running CBC's coverage of the Olympics in Seoul, South Korea. That was a big assignment for him and a shattering experience for Canada. Two words explain the scenario -- Ben Johnson.
"We had a source in the Olympic village who called to say that somebody had tested positive for a banned substance. As soon as I heard it, I said, 'Ben.' I'd seen the change in him from 1984 to 1988 and I knew there was something."
Smith ran CBC's coverage of the Ben scandal. "At one point I realized that we'd been on the air for two hours straight and we've never gone to a commercial. I got on the phone to Denis Harvey and Ivan Fecan, the executives in Toronto. They said, 'Don't worry. The whole country is watching.' "
Back in Toronto, at age 28, Smith found himself running CBC Sports. "My whole approach to sports on TV was, 'It's got be entertainment.' I changed things that were traditional, but I was very proud of it. Everybody at CBC expected me to wait and then go to the American networks."
Instead, Smith hooked with Dick Clark, the ageless former DJ and media mogul in the U.S. Through a friend, Smith met Clark and they hit it off. Clark said he'd have a job for him when the time was right.
"We'd talk and he'd say he'd call me. The call never seemed to come. Then, when I'm out at the Gemini Awards, he calls. Of all the nights to be offered a job in the States, it had to be that one. It was very ironic."
His bosses at CBC shook their heads and told him it made no sense to leave and work for Dick Clark, producing entertainment shows, but this what he did. "It was a hodgepodge of everything -- awards shows, music specials, I did them all."
After leaving Clark's company and working at Universal Television, Smith got a call from the Fox network. "Fox said I could be head of production, head of news, head of sports, whatever I wanted."
Smith chose sports and set up Fox Sports Net, a new cable channel to compete with ESPN. He started with 16 million subscribers and saw the upstart channel go to 76 million subscribers.
Now, he has his own company. He produces a lot of reality shows. He did When Animals Invade, for Fox. One of his recent assignments was turning the British idea for Paradise Hotel into an American network series.
Paradise Hotel is cheesy. A group of sexy young things are put in a luxury resort and invited to pair off. The killer gimmick lets viewers apply to be on it -- from the couch at home to one of the manipulating, bed-hopping contestants.
Paradise Hotel started slowly but inched up in the ratings on Wednesday and Monday nights. Fox ordered another six weeks of episodes on the day before I met Smith. He's delighted.
"Paradise Hotel is a prime-time soap. We introduce new characters all the time. We keep it intriguing, never boring."
Smith doesn't think reality TV is going away soon. "A whole generation is growing up with these shows. They want more."
I asked Smith if Canadians were allowed to apply to be on Paradise Hotel. I thought that being a Canadian -- and you don't get any more Canadian than producing Hockey Night in Canada -- he'd want to find out and let me know. I never heard back. I guess he's too busy. I guess he's really gone L.A..