07.09.12

Why Canadians Aren’t Laughing at Latest Version of ‘The Newsroom’

Almost 20 years before the HBO series of the same name, Ken Finkleman caricatured the self-absorption of TV news anchors. What did he understand that Aaron Sorkin doesn’t?

 “We can do better,” says idealistic executive producer MacKenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer) in the pilot of Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom, in a clear and succinct thesis of one person’s quest to improve American broadcast journalism.

But in the ears of a Canadian viewer, it rings inadvertently with another, less-noble connotation: our Newsroom can do better than your Newsroom.

Sixteen years before Sorkin premiered his HBO series about the fictional Atlantis Cable News show News Night, headed by the nonpartisan “Jay Leno of news anchors” Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels), Canada launched its own Newsroom. Ken Finkleman’s Canadian series of the same name revolved around the very type of newsroom that MacKenzie is fighting against, one that turns news into a show.

“I was interested in the complex hypocrisy that was the nature of the mainstream news,” Finkleman told The Daily Beast in a phone interview. “CNN looked as crazy to us then as Fox News looks to us now.”

As if to drive their antithetical missions home, the two Newsrooms have virtually opposing styles. While Sorkin’s show is a slickly directed, highly scripted one-hour drama with polished performances, Finkleman’s Newsroom was a half-hour mockumentary series in which he starred—leaning heavily on improvisation from the cast—and directed with a documentary-style single camera. Initially a 13-episode single season airing on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in 1996, it eventually continued for two more seasons (shuttering in 2005) and revolved around a fictional public-broadcasting news program, City Hour, helmed by ratings-obsessed executive producer George Findlay (Finkleman). The station went unnamed, though CBC served as the set and is believed to be the inspiration, despite co-executive producer Jan Peter Meyboom  and the creator’s suggestions to the contrary.

A Los Angeles scriptwriter at the time—he wrote Who’s That Girl, Grease 2 and Airplane 2, among others—Finkleman was inspired to write The Newsroom by “the absolutely brilliant” Larry Sanders Show. While Will McAvoy could be construed as a mouthpiece for Sorkin’s ego, Finkleman has often called George his “unedited id.” If he’s not trying to save his own ass from budget cuts, overcompensating on political correctness, or trying to “punch up” a live suicide, George is searching for the perfect bran muffin and avoiding his mother’s phone calls.

Video screenshot

Watch a trailer for 'The Newsroom.'

“We don’t want to paint ourselves into a factual corner,” he says at one point, opting for year-old tape of one village in Africa to illustrate a news story about another.

George’s staff—including ignorant, pompadoured anchor Jim Walcott (Seinfeld’s Peter Keleghan) and producer Karen Mitchell (Second City alum Karen Hines), who often appears to be the voice of reason—try to keep the show afloat and George happy with a heavy dose of cynicism and perpetual eye rolls.

Finkleman opted to call his new show The Newsroom as it was a title that didn’t “draw attention to itself.” But attention he got. Chuck Thompson, head of media relations at CBC, says The Newsroom averaged 731,000 viewers and peaked at 1 million, with many Canadians, such as Maclean’s TV critic Jaime Weinman, dubbing it “the greatest show Canada has ever produced.” In the States, starting in 1998, it ran on 200 PBS stations and, according to Finkleman, it “reran forever,” and the Los Angeles Times called it the "funniest, freshest, most original sitcom to air here this season." Variety blogger Jon Weisman recently wrote that the show was “a cult favorite in these parts for its sharp humor and storytelling.” At the end of it all, Finkleman had a spread in Vanity Fair (according to Meyboom) and won an international Emmy in 2005.

Despite all of this, Aaron Sorkin “was unaware of the Canadian show,” HBO said in a statement to The Daily Beast on behalf of their company and the U.S. Newsroom creator. In December, the network confirmed Sorkin’s show had changed its working title from More As This Story Develops to The Newsroom.

“HBO was always interested in using The Newsroom as the title for this series,” the statement reads. “After we did our title search, we approached Ken Finkleman and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and they graciously agreed to allow us to use this title for our series.”

“You can’t change it—it is so thoroughly in place. There’s an American aristocracy, there’s no democracy; it’s all controlled by money.”

But MediaBistro’s TV Newser blog reported last year that HBO filed to trademark The Newsroom with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office on Nov. 29. Finkleman expressed disbelief at the filing, considering it happened “way before” HBO’s lawyer called him “four or five months ago.”

“I said, ‘My show is finished, I’m not going to do it again. If you guys want to do a show called The Newsroom, in terms of creative people being supportive of each other, absolutely go ahead and use that name. Because if the shoe was on the other foot and I called you, I would want you to give it up as well,’” Finkleman says.

When asked if he gave his blessing for HBO to use their title, Meyboom, who co-owns the rights to Seasons 2 and 3 of The Newsroom with Finkleman (CBC owns Season 1), told the Beast via phone: “I don’t want to comment about that.”

Finkleman admits that he has “scant knowledge”  of Sorkin’s Newsroom, having only watched a four-minute trailer of the series, which, despite robust premiere ratings (2.1 million Americans tuned in, according to Nielsen) and a second season already on the way, has dropped in viewership (to 1.7 million) and has been panned by both U.S. and Canadian critics, largely for its “sermonizing diatribes,” as a Los Angeles Times critic put it. Finkelman separates HBO’s Newsroom from his own using Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek’s theory about the American myth, which posits that illusion enables reality. The U.S. reality is that money rules, says Finkleman, adding that Sorkin’s series tries to conform to the illusion by using characters with vertiginous moral fiber.

“Aaron Sorkin is actually trying to live at both levels, within the illusion and within the reality and thinking he can reconcile both,” Finkleman tells the Beast. “Will McAvoy says, ‘If we can just change this and this within the reality, we can make things closer to what the great American myth is.’ But it’s all bullshit. You can’t change it—it is so thoroughly in place. There’s an American aristocracy, there’s no democracy; it’s all controlled by money.”

Rather than undertaking the Herculean task of straddling both reality and illusion, Finkleman’s Newsroom took what he refers to as the “low road.”

“I ignored the reality—the myth was the reality,” he says.  “When you see [the characters in The Newsroom] trying to exist within the myth like it is reality, then you see all the confusion and the lies they have to tell to keep it working because it’s an illusion—everyone’s lying to somehow support the myth.”