We’re seven episodes into the 30-episode first season of Only in Montreal, the weekly local lifestyle series that airs on City TV. That’s about a quarter of the way through, so it’s time for a review.
When it was first announced in April, I was surprised. This show wasn’t part of Rogers’s promise to the CRTC when it purchased CJNT from Channel Zero. Unlike its daily morning show and weekly sports show, this wasn’t part of the licence obligations, and it wasn’t necessary to meet a local programming quota.
As it turns out, the CRTC is a big part of the reason why this series was ordered, because of two recent decisions that set quotas on Rogers Media.
Boring regulatory stuff
Like its competitors CTV (Bell), Global (Shaw) and TVA (Quebecor), City is regulated as a group belonging to Rogers Media. This allows the conventional television stations and related specialty channels to share revenues and expenses. If the company wants to buy an drama series, for example, it can air it on conventional TV and specialty channels without having to figure out how to split the expense between the two services’ budgets (at least from a regulatory perspective).
When City’s licence was last renewed in 2011, it proposed that it use part of its required expenses for Canadian programming to boost the amount of local programming it airs on its stations. As a result, the CRTC imposed this condition of licence on the entire City TV network:
Rogers Media will be required to spend an additional 2.5% of its gross revenues on new incremental local programming in each of the first and second years of the licence term and 2% in the final year. A minimum of 80% of these expenditures must be made on programming produced outside of Toronto. The Commission will use the 2010-2011 broadcast year as the baseline for determining the incremental nature of these local expenditures. While the revenues of Rogers Media’s specialty services will be included in the calculation of the total local programming obligations, these local obligations will be borne entirely by its conventional television stations.
In other words, Rogers had to spend 2.5% of its gross revenues for City in 2011-12 on new local programming in addition to what it had in 2010-11. It had to do the same in 2012-13 and again with 2% of gross revenues in 2013-14.
In addition, 80% of that new local programming has to be outside of Toronto (the only station where City produces a local newscast). And 75% of that programming has to be done by independent producers.
When City acquired CJNT in 2012, that condition of licence was imposed on that station as well, making it part of the group.
The second requirement comes from that acquisition. The Quebec English-language Production Council asked that Rogers be forced to spend a certain amount of its national Canadian programming expenditures on English-language programs produced in Quebec. While the CRTC didn’t impose a condition of licence here, Rogers did say that it already spent 3% of its national Canadian programming budget on productions in Quebec, and that they would agree to maintaining this. The CRTC noted Rogers’s commitment to devote at least 3% of City TV’s expenditures on English-language programs produced by independent production companies in Quebec. “The Commission expects Rogers to abide by its commitment,” the decision notes.
Note that this commitment says nothing about local programming. It only requires that some programs be produced in Quebec.
But when you put these two together — a requirement to spend money on new local programming outside Toronto, and a commitment to spend money on independent English-language productions in Quebec — the reasoning behind Only in Montreal makes a lot more sense.
Anyway, enough CRTC nerddom. I’ve watched the episodes, so here’s my review.
Rogers ordered 30 episodes of the half-hour series. We should know soon whether it’s renewed for a second season.
The show, which airs at 7pm Saturdays and then repeats at 11:30pm Saturdays and at noon on Sundays, is made up of three segments, about six minutes each, from its three hosts: Dimitrios Koussioulas, Tamy Emma Pepin and Matt Silver. Each of them goes out into the city and talks to someone doing something interesting. Each episode starts with the three of them saying “Only in Montreal does…”, accentuating the fact that these segments are about what makes Montreal unique.
The show is filmed well in advance of airing. In fact, the first season finished shooting in July, shortly after the first episode aired, and we still have almost half a year of episodes left to go. (Episode 4, which aired Aug. 3, was shot during a snowstorm in April.)
This gives more time for editing, but also means that the show is not timely at all. There’s no announcements of upcoming events, and no news. The segments are timeless profiles, which also means that this show can probably repeat for a while without changes, something that no doubt makes Rogers happy.
There was one case so far in which current events affected a story. Episode 5, which aired Aug. 10, featured a light-hearted segment from Koussioulas on breakfast vs. brunch. The breakfast part was shot at Cosmo’s in N.D.G., and talks about the restaurant and its history, including its founder Tony Koulakis. Unfortunately for the show, Koulakis was killed in June, between the time the episode was shot and when it aired. The segment didn’t change, but a slide dedicating the episode to Koulakis was added on at the end.
Simple math: 30 episodes times three segments each episode means the crew had to find 90 stories to talk about, and film them all in a matter of a few months.
To give you an idea of what stories the series talks about, here are the ones it’s aired so far:
- A sampling of food trucks during First Fridays at Olympic Stadium
- Trying out vintage sunglasses with retailer Corey Shapiro
- Interviews with Montreal roller derby athletes
- Shopping for a tuxedo with Mr. Sign, Dave Arnold
- Trying on jeans with Leroy Richardson at Jeans Jeans Jeans
- Going restaurant-hopping during a Canadiens game with food blogger Na’eem Adam
- Building a cigar-box guitar with Lenny P. Robert of Daddy Mojo Guitars
- Shopping at the St-Michel flea market with musician Kid Koala
- Shape-note singing at the Dépanneur Café
- Delivering fresh shrimp to restaurants
- Participating in a local Instagram photography challenge
- Checking out the rotating beacon on top of Place Ville-Marie
- Asking customers at Chez Vito whether ham or lamb is better for Easter dinner
- Learning about the history of iconic Montreal street names with historian Farid Rener
- Having breakfast and brunch with members of the Koulakis family
- Visiting Jean-Talon market and learning about its history from author (and Gazette writer) Susan Semenak
- Going to an arts and crafts fair with Mitz Takahashi (and learning about hipsters)
- Eating at Schwartz’s with Gazette columnist and author Bill Brownstein
- Beer tasting with Charles Bierbrier
- Making espresso at three local shops
- Sabring a champagne bottle with Hatim Chahid of La Champagnerie
For most segments, the idea is pretty simple: Find someone interesting, talk to them and then do something with them. It’s more like a six-minute documentary about a mini adventure than it is a long-form story told by a journalist. And that format works. Rather than be told facts over some B-roll, we’re shown the hosts doing an activity that is both entertaining and enriching.
A lot of these stories have been told before. We’ve heard about food trucks and Schwartz’s to death. CTV did a segment visiting the Place Ville-Marie beacon. But even for stories that have been done before, Only in Montreal looks at it in a different way. It’s more personal, more entertaining, less dry. It’s not necessarily better than a news report, but it is different.
And there’s some stuff that you learn here that you wouldn’t elsewhere. I didn’t know before watching Pepin’s segment that streets like St-Denis and Ste-Catherine are not named after actual saints.
There’s still a lot more of these segments to come, but so far they’ve been entertaining enough that I’m not too worried about them running dry.
The stories were generated by having the hosts each team up with a producer. They’re credited as “story researchers/coordinators”, but Bailey explained that they did everything from scout locations to holding boom microphones. The three are Ashley Duong, who worked with Pepin, Joanna Fox, who worked with Silver, and Sarah Hoida, who worked with Koussioulas.
Scott Bailey of Whalley-Abbey Media, one of the executive producers of Only in Montreal, told me they auditioned about 12 candidates for the jobs of the three hosts of this show, after talking to, meeting or looking at more than 40. The result is three people who are not too familiar to Montreal TV viewers.
Bailey and his team chose well. All three hosts are entertaining, personable and very comfortable in front of the camera. They carry their stories well.
Tamy Emma Pepin has had various jobs in the Montreal media sphere. She started on a cycling show on TQS, after lying about her knowledge of the cycling scene. She was a social media ambassador for Tourism Montreal, which got her name out. She worked at Vox, Videotron’s community channel, doing an Internet column for Le Lab. “I guess the Quebecor people took notice,” she said, and she started contributing to the Journal de Montréal and TVA’s Salut Bonjour. Then she worked for a year as an editor at HuffPost Quebec. “After a year I felt I was missing the creativity part of my career,” she said.
She’s already on her next project, travelling to the U.K. for a series that’s being produced for Urbania magazine and the Évasion channel, where it will air in 2014.
After years of producers telling her to “f— off”, as she puts it, she enjoys that now people are coming to her with offers.
Pepin has an infectious laugh, and uses it a lot. “I have these bursts of laughter at the most inappropriate moments,” she tells me.
Bailey describes Pepin’s strengths well. Besides her varied experience and her social media skills, “she has this natural warmth that when she lights up it really lights up a screen and you want to spend time with her,” he said.
Matt Silver is a showman. He has a way of speaking to the camera that makes it unbelievable that this is his first real television job. He was part of the sketch comedy group Kidnapper Films, but most Montrealers are probably unfamiliar with him. Bailey knew him though: Bailey was Silver’s TA at Concordia.
His experience behind the camera worked in his favour here. “You knew coming in that Matt would be able to do the off-camera stuff as well as the on-camera stuff,” Bailey said. “He would have realistic expectations about what he could accomplish with his resources.”
Silver is naturally funny, and has a good vision of what he wants to do here.
“One of the things that Canadians haven’t totally figured out what to do is tell ourselves about our cities,” he said. “Even if you’re the most cynical person in the world, you couldn’t help realizing that this is a show created by people who are really in love with the city of Montreal. I’ve never seen anything like that in my life as a television viewer in Montreal.”
Dimitrios Koussioulas was an art dealer for five years, and then decided he didn’t like the scene and left it. A year ago, he started Parc Avenue Tonight, a super-low-budget Mile End talk show that was posted to YouTube. That was enough to get him a one-hour special on CBC and this show (both of whom premiered on the same day at the same time). In a matter of months, he went from being a complete unknown to being a big figure on the local TV scene.
“Dimitrios was a very intriguing candidate from Day 1,” Bailey said. “Dimitrios felt like a contemporary, like new. Like a talent that would connect with people. Dimitrios stood out as someone has opinions, but at the same time is respectful of others.”
Koussioulas is the kind of guy who will say random strange things during a discussion, almost like he enjoys throwing people off-balance. But he’s also very curious. He wants information. And he’ll ask questions, sometimes without regard to appropriateness, to get it out of you.
“It’s amazing,” Koussioulas said of the show. “As a Montrealer that always talks about Montreal, and now to have access to people and stories. I did a story about MIRA. Why did I do it? Pure selfish reasons. I always loved MIRA dogs. I’m too lazy to be responsible for a dog.”
“I always had preconceived conceptions about Montreal. This show gave me an opportunity to sift them out. Getting to revisit Montreal for myself is one of the best things. Being able to be a spokesperson for Montreal is the best.”
“I like that we’re talking to people. We’re glorifying regular people.”
And, like Silver, Koussioulas is funny. “On these shows, if you take yourself too seriously you’re setting yourself up to not have the audience respect you,” Bailey said.
Each segment on Only in Montreal is introduced with a discussion between the three hosts. At first, it might seem unnecessary, but without these scenes we’d never see the three hosts together and there would be nothing to tie the segments together.
The set, which is a bedroom-sized room in the Whalley-Abbey offices, is simple, with a table, chairs and decorations on the wall. But since what’s filmed here is a short discussion with a lot of close-up shots, it doesn’t really need to be more than this.
I should note that the unseen fourth wall of this room is filled with clippings of Debbie Travis. Travis is a partner in Whalley-Abbey Media and it produces her shows (as well as those of chef Chuck Hughes).
Only in Montreal is well shot. Whalley-Abbey makes use of a pool of freelance videographers — director of photography is the official title, which is an accurate way of describing what they do — and they know what they’re doing. Seeing Alexandre Boudreault shooting a segment with Pepin, he was closer to a director than anything else. I’m not an expert in cinematography, but I know the visuals look good.
The thing that makes Only in Montreal stand out most is probably its editing. It’s really tight. It seems the shot changes every second or so. It’s not so fast as to be disorienting, but it’s not so slow as to lose your attention. It’s clear that a lot of care has been put into the editing process. That’s the advantage of having a show that doesn’t need to be turned around in a day.
Everything from the music to the visuals is designed to make the show flow and keep the story going. And while not every segment is a hit, every one does look like a mini documentary about some aspect of city life.
As Bailey and others explained, the show likes to show unscripted moments. If a host flubs a line or someone says something unplanned, they’ll go with that. It keeps the show looking natural and the hosts look a lot more authentic. (Montreal Connected could learn a bit from this style — adherence to scripts makes their hosts sound unnatural by comparison.)
Even something as simple as the video that runs with the closing credits — video taken from one of the three segments — is a lot more entertaining than you see with other shows.
For me, the worst thing about Only in Montreal is something entirely out of its producer’s control: When it airs.
7pm is a great time to show a local television show — on any day but Saturday. During the summer, few people are sitting indoors. And during the winter, everyone is tuned to RDS to watch the Canadiens. There’s nothing leading into this show, and it’s followed by a repeat of Montreal Connected. If this show has completely escaped people’s radars, this is part of the reason why.
The repeats aren’t much better. 11:30pm on Saturdays would be great if it didn’t collide with both Saturday Night Live and CTV’s late local newscast. And noon on Sundays is a TV wasteland unless you’re going after the people who watch political talk shows.
There are plenty of other, better places on City’s schedule to put this show. Surely it can forgo one of the many How I Met Your Mother or Modern Family repeats it airs between 6pm and 8pm weekdays. 7pm weekdays would be an ideal time to get people who couldn’t care less about celebrity gossip or George Stroumboulopoulos. Montreal Connected already takes this slot on Thursdays, and there are four other days of the week.
Even if the premiere stays on Saturdays, at least one of the repeats of the show should be during the week.
- The series producer of Only in Montreal is Omar Majeed. He’s a filmmaker who has done work for City TV in Toronto and happens to be married to Gazette Deputy Managing Editor Asmaa Malik.
- Pepin and Koussioulas discovered after they were hired for this show that they lived in the same building in Mile End. Silver lives a few blocks away.
- The last local lifestyle show in this city was Living Montreal, which aired on CBC until it was cancelled in 2009 due to budget cuts. CBC has promised to bring back local non-news programming, but hasn’t said yet what this will be.
- Whalley-Abbey Media is at 1303 Greene Ave. in Westmount. So at least there’s still some broadcasting happening on that street, now that TSN 690, which was across the street, has moved to Papineau.
Only in Montreal airs Saturdays at 7pm and 11:30pm, and Sundays at noon, on City Montreal. Most of its segments are posted on City’s YouTube channel. You can read my Gazette story, published just before its premiere, here.