BIG LESSONS come in SMALL PACK­AGES

Canada’s Smartest Per­son Ju­nior is help­ing cre­ator Rob Co­hen make the adult ver­sion of CBC se­ries bet­ter

Toronto Star - - ENTERTAINMENT - TONY WONG TELE­VI­SION CRITIC

Rob Co­hen was al­ways in­trigued by the the­ory of in­tel­li­gence. What makes some­one smart?

“I was watch­ing all th­ese game shows that tend to use trivia. But that kind of pure book smarts doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily rep­re­sent the smartest per­son in the room,” says the Toronto tele­vi­sion pro­ducer.

So he set out to write a doc­u­men­tary that ended up be­com­ing a game show: CBC’s Canada’s Smartest Per­son.

The show is based on Har­vard pro­fes­sor Howard Gard­ner’s con­cept of mul­ti­ple in­tel­li­gences: the idea that there are a range of abil­i­ties that make some­one smart, such as hav­ing math­e­mat­i­cal, visual and mu­si­cal skills.

“We are all smart in dif­fer­ent ways, so I thought it would be the coolest the­ory to ap­ply to a com­pe­ti­tion,” says Co­hen.

The first show aired as a spe­cial in 2012 and for three sea­sons from 2014 to 2016.

This year, Co­hen has tweaked the for­mula with a much younger cast in Canada’s Smartest Per­son

Ju­nior, which de­buts Wed­nes­day at 8 p.m. on CBC. Apart from the fresh-faced con­tes­tants, there is a new elim­i­na­tion for­mat where the con­tes­tants face off against each other over six episodes, in­stead of dif­fer­ent con­tes­tants ev­ery week. Twelve kids, aged 9 to 12 from across Canada, take part in the com­pe­ti­tion.

That en­ergy, along with new host Paul Sun-Hyung

Lee (Apa from Kim’s Con­ve­nience) seems to have given the show a new charge.

“He’s Canada’s dad, he’s Apa, and the kids re­act so well to him,” says Co­hen.

“The great thing is that not only are the kids gen­uinely knock-your-socks-off smart, but they are nice to­ward each other even though they all want to win. They have a lot to teach the adults.”

Adding chil­dren to the for­mula re­sults in a more emo­tion­ally charged show. Kids take it per­son­ally when they lose.

They are also re­mark­ably kind and en­cour­ag­ing to each other, even right down to the fi­nals. They can also be kind of cocky. “It’s OK, I’ve got big­ger dreams, I want to be prime min­is­ter,” says the first con­tes­tant to be elim­i­nated in the pre­mière.

The ju­nior ver­sion of the show may well have an im­pact on the for­mat of the orig­i­nal show as well, says Co­hen.

“We al­ways look at the end of ev­ery sea­son how we can make the show bet­ter and we see how the elim­i­na­tion for­mat is re­ally click­ing so it re­ally opens up the pos­si­bil­i­ties mov­ing for­ward. I think it re­ally works.”

In a cul­tural mar­ket where Cana­dian se­ries based on Amer­i­can fran­chises like The Amaz­ing Race Canada and Big Brother Canada dominate air­waves, Co­hen’s show is an anom­aly: An orig­i­nal lo­cal con­tent show be­ing sold in­ter­na­tion­ally. This year, the show de­buted in Fin­land. Other coun­tries have in­cluded Turkey and Ar­gentina and there are 12 other ter­ri­to­ries with deals yet to be an­nounced.

“We can and should be mak­ing Cana­dian for­mats,” says Co­hen. “I think we are good at mak­ing some of the best TV in the world, but we’re not great about pro­mot­ing it or talk­ing about it.”

Risk-averse Cana­dian broad­cast­ers in many cases would rather take a proven prod­uct and place a Cana­dian spin on it. De­vel­op­ing a con­cept from the ground up is much harder.

“It’s the same old cul­tural co­nun­drum. Be­ing be­side the U.S. mar­ket you are in­un­dated with their shows, and the more con­ser­va­tive choice is to use the big net­work for­mats than risk some­thing new,” says Co­hen.

“But we are los­ing out on a huge mar­ket where we can make some in­ter­na­tional noise.”

It’s cru­cial that Cana­di­ans de­velop an ex­port mar­ket for in­tel­lec­tual prop­erty where we get to tell our own sto­ries in­stead of im­port­ing oth­ers. It’s also im­por­tant for the balance of trade. That’s why es­tab­lish­ing any kind of beach­head is im­por­tant.

An­other Cana­dian re­al­ity show for­mat that has had in­ter­na­tional suc­cess is Big Coat Me­dia’s Love It or List It, which has been fran­chised in more than a dozen coun­tries.

Trans­lat­ing a con­cept can have its own is­sues. When Co­hen sold the rights to Canada’s Smartest Per­son to Turkey’s pub­lic broad­caster, cer­tain themes and chal­lenges didn’t fit with the cul­ture.

One chal­lenge, about so­cial in­tel­li­gence, in­cluded sell­ing an idea or prod­uct like you would if you were a TV pitch per­son or on an in­fomer­cial.

“That com­pletely didn’t make sense to them. They were telling us to go to the mar­ket in Is­tan­bul to see how ven­dors pitch, it’s ab­so­lutely not like some slick, re­hearsed per­son on TV.”

Other ideas have been adapted from li­censees. One chal­lenge, called Cross Walk, was adapted from a con­cept de­vel­oped in the Turk­ish pro­gram about cross­ing the street in Turk­ish traf­fic while iden­ti­fy­ing vi­su­als.

“When you’re in a stu­dio in Is­tan­bul, and you’re see­ing a car­bon copy of what you’ve worked on from the de­sign­ers and creative team, it’s al­most sur­real,” says Co­hen. “Here is some­thing you de­vel­oped in Canada that’s hav­ing an im­pact across the globe.”

“We al­ways look at the end of ev­ery sea­son how we can make the show bet­ter.” ROB CO­HEN

CBC

Host Paul Sun-Hyung Lee of Kim’s Con­ve­nience with the cast of Canada’s Smartest Per­son Ju­nior.

MARK O’NEILL CBC

Rob Co­hen is the cre­ator of Canada’s Smartest Per­son and Canada’s Smartest Per­son Ju­nior.

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