Sunday, April 30, 2006

Lost in Hypaspace

First of all, folks, sorry for my month-long hiatus from the old SF soapbox. It’s been one of those Dickensian periods – the best of times, the worst of times. The positive distractions have taken the form of babies – the birth of my nephew, the imminent births of a number of friends’ babies, and the announced pregnancies of many, many more friends. All of these have been accompanied by a chorus of friends insisting that it’s time for my wife and I to think about having one of our own. Career obligations mean that’ll be a couple of years off though. On the down side, a family friend has died in the prime of his life and we’ve been quite concerned for his widow and their two pre-teen kids. Throw in day-to-day work and a flurry of technical problems as I try to cobble together our wedding video here on our home computer, and you’ll understand why I’ve been a little remiss.
Anyway, I’m back.
For this installment, I’d like to bitch about problems with the navigation of Hypaspace. That’s Hype-a-space, not hyperspace – referring to an SF news/gossip show airing on Canada’s Space channel. The navigation problems I speak of don’t involve me having lost my tv remote control or suddenly forgetting what channel the station’s been assigned or problems finding the station & show’s web address. No, I mean the damn show’s gone so far off course it’s in imminent danger of being lost. Lost from what it originally was intended to do – to give news and reviews of speculative fiction in movies, tv, literature and comics. And by extension, at risk of being lost from the attention of fans.
Over the past year, Hypaspace has watered itself down and surrendered to commercialism. By watered-down I mean the content has now become dominated by movie previews, many of which do not remotely involve any elements of science fiction, fantasy, horror, magic realism, or anything else vaguely off the beaten path. How many hours of programming have been lost to trailers, interviews and gossip about movies like Mission Impossible III? Leave that to mainstream dreck like Entertainment Tonight. It’s not a question of not having enough SF-related material to talk about either – for years Hypaspace kept exclusively to the world of SF and managed to fill its half hour dutifully. This recent change smells like the Hollywood movie distributors who buy ad time for their movies are flexing their financial muscles to drive the content of the channel’s programming and the producers are caving like the house at the end of “Poltergeist”.
And speaking of sponsors running rampant with the content, what’s going on with the incessant new toy previews? Two years ago new figurines or ugly stuffed toys would have come up as an occasional feature, maybe during the toy industry conventions. Now they’re a 5 to 10 minute staple of every episode. For a show that only airs once a week, that’s a hell of a lot of air time. Really, the majority of the audience probably isn’t frothing at the mouth waiting to hear about the new line of Simpsons figurines that’s being released (don’t get me wrong, I love the Simpsons like everyone else – the Hallowe’en episodes are great tv).
Having been in the broadcast business, I can say the station’s getting greedy. The show’s always had a low production value, and with the consistent sponsorship they were pulling in, they must have been pulling in at least modest profits. Now they’re goin’ for the motherlode. You may argue that broadcast is a business like any other, and company owners like CHUM have to pursue profits where they can, but where that alienates the audience (no pun intended), the risk is losing the viewers who convince the advertisers to sign those fat cheques.
What they’ve sacrificed by slapping in the irrelevant content and freebie advertising are the interesting SF-related pieces of news and gossip, and the intelligent interviews with authors. There hasn’t been a decent installment of the “Shelf-Space” segment in months. Time was they’d keep track of the releases of all kinds of good books, by authors from around the world, but especially by Canadian writers (gotta inform the home audience about local talent while scoring Can-con brownie points with the CRTC) and run interviews, either conducted by their own staff at conventions, or gathered from other sources. The loss of regular book reviews and author interviews has seriously dumbed-down the show.
Even the comic feature has become infrequent. Granted, I haven’t collected comics since I graduated high school (not ‘cause I think they’re for kids, ‘cause they’re not, and I still buy one every now and again, it’s just other spending priorities like food and shelter have come up over the years), but it was always good to see what was new on the off chance that something was interesting enough to send me down to Golden Age Collectibles to check out the shelves. To be fair, last week they previewed the Simpsons comic’s upcoming issue with the return of Hank Scorpio, but they recycled their preview of “Batman: Year 100” that they’d cooked-up a few months ago. The producers are getting undermotivated as well as greedy in their old age.
Lastly, I’ve gotta gripe about the host. Bringing Kim Poirier in last summer was the worst mistake Space and its owners at CHUM have made – worse than selling-out on their content. The former host, Jonathan Llyr, sounded natural and conversational and gave the impression he actually knew what he was talking about. Not sure why, but he’s been relegated to a short gossip section at the end of the show. Even if he’d tired of doing the whole thing or had fallen out of favour, they should have used their reporter and stand-in host Natasha Eloi. She too looked like she knew what she was talking about. She’s been banished to the toy report and little else. Ms. Poirier, on the other hand, is hogging the spotlight but has no business being there. Granted, with her elfin beauty, it might be nice just to look at Kim, except she’s so utterly annoying in every other aspect. You can see how completely insecure this young actress is as she postures and arbitrarily tries to show the camera her best body angles and sassy smiles for no apparent reason – really, she’ll engage in a pose-off while delivering a poor read of something off a cue-card that she clearly neither knows or cares anything about! It’s as though she’s just trying to assemble a collection of shots to add to her portfolio to send off in advance of her next audition in an attempt to salvage her flagging on-screen career. And her delivery of the dialogue is over-the-top cheerleader style. This kid wouldn’t know how to use her voice if her life depended on it. I really can’t say enough bad things about her. She’s helped make the show nearly unwatchable.
So after this extensive rant, you’re probably wondering why, if Hypaspace seems to be so lost in space, I bother giving it any attention. I’ve often wondered that myself. But, in the end, I think it’s the minimal presence of Jonathan Llyr that draws me back. And no, for any of you out there who’ve watched the station since it hit the air, I’m not saying this for any fondness for his role as the inebriated alien in the “Space Bar” hosting segments for movies they’d run in the old days, ‘cause those were lame. No, it’s because Llyr’s entertaining and has the scoop on a lot of the SF news drifting around (when the producers and bogging him down with mainstream gossip that can be had elsewhere). In fact, his column on the Hypaspace portion of the Space website has become better than the show. The fact that he can come up with new material every day proves there’s enough out there to fill the show like they used to in the old days. Many’s the time these days when I skip the weekly tv show entirely and just do a quick check of the website to see what Llyr’s serving up.
A basic rule of broadcasting that CHUM has forgotten with Space and it’s show “Hypaspace” is audience and purpose. You need to focus. If you’re catering to a niche market like Space is, find out what the audience wants and who can best deliver it. By watering the show down with mainstream garbage and bringing in a host who’s clearly too young, dumb, and self-absorbed, the company’s shown it’s lost touch with its audience. In an age where plenty of programs are available on-line, and where production companies aren’t shy about getting tv shows out on DVD asap to boost their revenues, there’s little reason for an audience to pay attention to a station that’s lost interest in them.