Looking back on 10th anniversary of 'Canadian Idol'
Carly Rae Jepsen poses for photographs on the red carpet during the 2013 Juno Awards in Regina on Sunday, April 21, 2013. (Liam Richards / THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Nick Patch, The Canadian Press
Published Wednesday, June 12, 2013 2:57PM EDT
Last Updated Wednesday, June 12, 2013 3:51PM EDT
TORONTO -- It was a decade ago this week that "Canadian Idol" debuted, and it was also something of a premiere for host Ben Mulroney.
Then only 27 and better-known to Canadians as the son of a former prime minister rather than a ubiquitous fixture of entertainment news coverage, Mulroney recalls watching the show's taped premiere at a friend's place with 10 or so others. Afterward, they hopped in a taxi and headed off to a midtown Toronto sports bar, and they were dropped off a small hike away.
"We had to walk about a block, and a car full of girls drove by and honked. And then two seconds later, a car full of guys drove by and heckled me," Mulroney recalled with a smile during a recent interview in Toronto.
"And I thought: 'OK. This is the new dynamic."'
It wasn't only Mulroney's life that changed, of course. Over its six-year run, "Canadian Idol" was fiercely criticized as a glorification of crass commercialism over artistry, as an uncreative (and un-Canadian) carbon copy of a hit international reality franchise and, eventually, as an ineffective star maker capable only of creating fleeting flashes rather than sustained heat.
It was also a rare non-sporting event to capture the interest of Canadians from coast to coast, it provided the influential blueprint for the many, many Canuck-focused reality show adaptations that would follow and it kick-started the careers of such eventual chart champions as Carly Rae Jepsen and Hedley's Jacob Hoggard.
While the debate has faded since the show was indefinitely "suspended" due to the chilly economic climate of 2008, those involved with its launch remember just how divisive "Canadian Idol" was at the beginning.
"It was not a foregone conclusion it was going to be successful," recalled Mulroney. "If you look at the jaded, cynical members of the press ... they were convinced this was not a Canadian thing to do. 'We don't do stuff like this.... We don't celebrate the way that the Americans do.'
"And yet we proved them wrong. But we had to fight very hard against that sentiment."
Back in spring 2003, "American Idol" was flying high. Following the surprise-smash initial run of episodes in 2002, the show had just wrapped its must-see second-season -- which climaxed with the seemingly meaningful showdown between the supposedly stardom-destined pair of Ruben Studdard and Clay Aiken -- while inaugural "Idol" Kelly Clarkson was perched atop the charts with her double-platinum debut "Thankful." The show was so hot that even Justin Guarini appeared briefly marketable, with his debut solo record days from release when "Canadian Idol" launched.
The "Idol" format had already proved popular in various iterations around the world, but given the star-making turn from acidly acerbic British judge Simon Cowell on "American Idol," it was obvious early on to executive producer John Brunton and his team at Insight Productions that assembling the judges would be crucial.
They settled on a four-person panel -- mimicking the format of the original British "Pop Idol," rather than the three-pronged panel on the U.S. version -- with three of those judges in familiar roles: husky-voiced belter Sass Jordan was the sympathetic, confidence-boosting artist on the panel (like an Earthbound Paula Abdul); promoter and manager Farley Flex was the forthright if generally positive industry insider -- a la Randy Jackson; and entertainment lawyer Zack Werner was the Cowell-like outspoken bad boy, armed with a poison-tipped tongue and irreverent attitude toward the proceedings.
Jake Gold, the fourth judge who was best-known for steering the career of the Tragically Hip among others, was blissfully free of any archetype.
"It was fairly obvious that having the U.S. show as a background for what we were doing, that there was a female singer, there was an African American (or) African Canadian man -- who's actually in our case from Trinidad -- and there was a mean guy," Gold recalled in a recent interview. "Fortunately for me, there wasn't me on that show.... So I got to be myself. I didn't really have to live up to any predetermined character."
Brunton says there actually wasn't an effort to exactly duplicate the characters comprising the U.S. judging panel -- particularly in the case of Cowell, who he says "had a certain character we didn't think you could replicate."
"Zack wasn't Simon," Brunton said. "Simon had a certain savoir faire.... But Zack was a bad boy. No doubt about it."
And Werner, for his part, saw the similarity even before he was cast.
"When I saw the first season of 'American Idol' ... from my perspective and from those around me in the business's perspective, they would have said that (Cowell) was doing me in the first place," said the affably declamatory Werner recently in Toronto.
"There was never any direction to be mean.... They could have just as easily shown me hugging, kissing, loving, being incredibly kind and gentle to a wide variety of people, but they made choices as to what plays."
Mulroney, meanwhile, was a departure from U.S. host Ryan Seacrest, at least in appearance. Seacrest was a wispy, chipper fellow with the perennial sienna tan and bleach blond locks of a surfer, while the broader, square-jawed Mulroney had a slightly more imposing presence than the eager-to-please little-brother type that Seacrest represented.
Still, Mulroney was incredibly green during the show's first season, as he recalls. He was learning the demands of live broadcasts on the fly, and acing the small details was a challenge. For instance, he recalls struggling mightily to remember the oft-recited phone numbers viewers needed to call to vote. Ultimately he resorted to sticking memo notes to the camera to remind him of the necessary digits.
That said, he didn't necessarily feel as though he was in over his head.
"We didn't know what we were doing, at least initially, and we sort of figured out what our voice was," he said.
"A lot of it was trial by fire. It was really nice to be trusted by these great producers and this great network. It was uncalled for, really," he added, crediting former CTV honcho Susanne Boyce for taking a chance on him.
"I was lucky because 'Canadian Idol' had, I think, important ambitions, but the ambition wasn't to be the No. 1 show on television. So I think my skills on television were allowed to grow with the ambitions of the show. So I was the host they needed in year one, and then as the ambitions grew for year two, they needed somebody with more skills, and fortunately I had developed those.
"As the show matured, so too did I as a host."
And yet, the show was never bigger than in its blockbuster first season, which saw Kingston, Ont., waiter Ryan Malcolm triumph over small-town East Coast crooner Gary Beals.
The show premiered to 2 million viewers on June 9, 2003 -- according to numbers provided by CTV -- and on average saw 2.06 million Canadians tune in for the inaugural run.
The second season -- won by curly-topped crooner Kalan Porter -- averaged 2.04 million total viewers per broadcast, and each successive season brought diminishing returns: 1.85 million viewers on average in the third season, followed by seasons that drew 1.80 million, 1.60 million and 1.14 million total viewers on average.
It was at this point that CTV discreetly killed off the show. Technically the network said it was "suspending" the program indefinitely -- citing the all-encompassing economic collapse and the steep decline in ad revenues that came with it -- while acknowledging the intention to eventually bring it back.
That never happened, though senior vice-president of programming for Bell Media, Mike Cosentino, says some comeback ideas were bandied about -- a shorter version, or one with a more limited audition tour -- but ultimately the network decided they didn't want to "cheat" viewers with a compromised version of the show.
Yet some involved with "Canadian Idol" still have questions about the way the series ended.
"(It) was CTV sending out the worst possible message to Canadians," Werner said. "There was a whole bunch of nonsense with regard to killing this thing off. That said, they're a private enterprise, they can do whatever the hell they want."
Werner rhymes off several theories for why "Canadian Idol" was, for all intents and purposes, cancelled after six seasons, some of which have been echoed by others close to the show. He alleges that CTV was preparing to "lose a fortune" with its acquisition of the broadcasting licence for the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. He also says the network wanted to shift its focus and budget to "So You Think You Can Dance Canada."
Cosentino strongly denies either factor had any role in the network's decision to suspend "Idol."
Instead, he points to the economic atmosphere of the time -- as Brunton puts it, "the television business was going off a cliff" -- as well as the show's steadily declining ratings (a dropoff Cosentino said was particularly pronounced in large urban markets, Toronto specifically).
He also points to "viewer fatigue," a somewhat natural phenomenon when you consider that Canadians were being exposed not only to the homegrown "Idol" but also the American version. And he also acknowledges that Canada has only a certain number of markets big enough to support the audition process, so unlike in the U.S., repetition through the same cities was unavoidable.
Still, Mulroney didn't think the show was beyond redemption.
"I thought there were ways to save it," he said. "The ratings had been going down but that was I think because of 'Idol' exhaustion. And I thought that if they'd wanted to save it they could have blown up the panel. They could have gotten rid of me. They could have gotten rid of the judges. They could have made me a judge. There's a number of things that could've been done.
"But I think that meant that the writing was on the wall."
Even those who worked on the show and view its cancellation with some disappointment take solace in the fact that "Canadian Idol" never limped into decrepit old age.
As the "American Idol" franchise prepares to once again shuffle the deck on its ever-morphing rotation of judges, the principals of "Canadian Idol" look back and see only aces.
"I guess the good news is, unlike the American show ... it was the same four (judges), we lasted six seasons, which in Canadian television is still pretty good," Gold said.
"We were the No. 1 show for six years. So I guess we went out on top, for lack of a better term."