Monday, September 24, 2007

WE'RE STILL IN TIGER COUNTRY

TIGER COUNTRY:(SLANG VIETNAM ERA) A place where nothing can be trusted or depended upon....


The first rush of press/blog reactions to the recently issued CRTC report on the state of Canadian television were heady stuff for us creative types.

After years of being whipped by a perfect storm of reduced funding, fewer time slots for drama and a propaganda campaign insisting "Canadians won't watch Canadian programs"; it was heart-warming to learn that somebody inside the Commission had realized the truths we've known and lived with far too long.

In their report, lawyers Laurence Dunbar and Christian LeBlanc, in addition to proving there are still some trustworthy lawyers in the world, had the courage to confirm that the Canadian television industry is predicated on principles that ensure there will never be a real Canadian television industry.

D&L came out firmly opposed to simultaneous transmission and genre protection of specialty channels while fully in support of prime time content quotas and consumer choice in purchasing channels. And while that earns them the gratitude of creative artists, it also makes you wonder:

a) What they were smokin'?

b) Where will the poor shmuck who hired them be working next week?

and

c) Does the law firm they partner in after nobody else will touch them specialize in anything other than lost causes?


It's still unclear if the CRTC will act on any of the report's recommendations or whether it will end up mouldering amid the previous interventions, comments and Royal Commission findings that have championed many of the same things. But I'm fairly certain that's where it's headed.

I hope I'm not overdoing the cynical here, because I'm just being realistic. These things won't happen because...

They can't.

Simultaneous Transmission or Simulcasting has been standard practise as long as there have been TV networks in Canada. And although our guys trumpet their independence while rebranding the imported show with their own logos and colors and promo stylings to make them appear of local vintage; they operate as little more than "per-show" affiliates of the American Nets from which they purchase the broadcasting. Watching CTV or Global or CITY is often no different from catching the feed from the Tribune station in Toledo or Fresno, instead of the crisper version on ABCNBCCBSFOX.

Basically, we're the grindhouse circuit, taking whatever's thrown off the truck and augmenting it with stuff the geeky kid next door makes in his garage.

An additional benefit our nets accrue is the ability to coat-tail on the costly marketing campaigns necessary for launching and maintaining a hit show -- often having to do little more than slap their logos on that material as well.

But the big advantage is the CRTC rule which allows them to substitute Canadian Ads in the commercial breaks, a perk that has made them fortunes.

What the Dunbar/LeBlanc report addresses for the first time is the obvious reality that people making massive commercial profits off shows they pay less to broadcast aren't going to lessen those profits by placing Canadian programming that costs them more to acquire in these lucrative prime-time time-slots.

And on a purely bottom line, "Buy Low Sell High", that's only good business level -- who can blame them?

I'm always amazed by Canadian producers insisting how well they're doing on Saturday nights on Global or CTV or CITY opposite hockey. Because you know that coming in a consistent 2nd or 3rd or 4th in that one horse race is the equivalent of being a lounge act in Vegas, where everybody is either passing through on their way to catch the big show or concentrating on the craps table.

God, American networks don't even program Saturday nights anymore and here, that's the showcase position!


In other moves to back Canadian creatives, the report recommends content quotas in prime time and the elimination of genre protection for specialty cable. The first would see even more of those simulcast slots replaced while the second probably allows Lonestar to follow the History/CSI roadmap and bill itself as a "history" channel or alternate to the Aboriginal Network because of all the Westerns they run.

Let's get this straight. The CRTC can't offer Canadian nets financial assistance in the form of additional commercial breaks and six months later saddle them with fewer cheap shows to exploit and more competition.

It just won't happen.

So why did Dunbar and LeBlanc write this report? I don't know. They had a free summer. They're young and needed the money. They have an uncle who once won a Gemini and never worked again. Maybe all of the above.

What they missed is -- the entire concept of broadcasting as we know it is over.

We're in Tiger Country here.

Think about it. Minutes after a new episode of "Lost" airs in the Eastern time zone, it is available online to anyone anywhere else in the world. Maybe not completely legally available, but it's available. The concept that you can move the CTV simulcast to Tuesday, Friday or opposite hockey is a suicidal choice for either the show owner or the broadcaster or probably both.

And yeah, you could have five versions of Life/Slice/Whatever (given the current CBC schedule, it seems there are already two). But when that programming is about as bargain basement as it gets, will competition in the genre really spur an increased investment in the creative community?

I mean we've already got about 11 sports channels and I defy anybody to either tell them apart or define the cultural contribution of their non-game programming.


Point is -- what this report clarifies more than anything else is just how ill-conceived and protectionist Broadcasting policy has been in Canada; designed not to nurture or present a Canadian perspective to the world -- but to make sure a handful of well connected corporations pocketed a few extra bucks.

And now, when the US networks are already implementing business models that say the future is in downloading and streaming, our protected little fiefdoms have become islands that will soon have no goods to import for resale and nowhere to create their own after paving everything over so the "Etalk" celebrity limos and design show smart cars have someplace to park.

To even enter the download game, our nets need the equivalent of 2-3 original shows per night and that's simply beyond the factory design of plants that have only had to create 2 or 3 per season (at a reduced production run of 13).

I mean, we're here with the raw material if they want to gear up the line. But I'm thinking that might be a long wait.

Face it. Canadian Broadcasters are already done and their future looks even worse.

For starters...

IPTV is a technology currently sweeping Europe and debuting stateside very soon. The acronym stands for Internet Protocol Television which delivers television content and VOIP through a broadband internet connection. I tried it last month in France and it's very cool. Crack a beer. Hit the couch. Watch a show. Send an email or place a VOIP call during commercials. Check out the storm warning crawl by linking directly to the weather satellite and then order the cool boxers Jim Belushi was wearing on "According to Jim" from JC Penny.

The French version of IPTV also has 60 premium Channels not available on their standard broadcast systems -- meaning new players, new markets, new possibilities in a format that will definitely attract new viewers.

Added to this, the Telecoms who own many of our current broadcasters face the double barrelled profit threat of new competitors like Quebecor, who promise to lower rates with increased services and a lawyer from Saskatchewan named Tony Merchant, who has filed a class action suit (join here) to force repayment of Billions allegedly illegally collected from cell users by Bell, Rogers and Telus.

If their corporate owners are looking at competition reducing their income or a divestiture of major assets to repay their customers, how much money do you figure there will be for some edgy little TV show set in Moose Factory?

Nope. As this grizzled vet of the Canadian network wars hunkers Sgt. Rock style in a muddy fox hole dead center of "Tiger Country", my rain-soaked compass is telling me the true way out for Canadian artists is to stop playing this game.

Forget the interventions and the letter campaigns. Forget fighting for funding that mostly goes to somebody else. Forget searching for greener pastures in other countries and start selling your stuff directly to your audience.

Who says your show can't be the foundation of an IPTV channel, an AMAZON UNBOX download stream or an ad supported presence on JOOST, CHIME.TV, SPIRALFROG or one of the dozens of imitators already re-inventing those models?

That's a far brighter future than anything the CRTC might deign to allow -- and we all have better places to be on Saturday nights.



1 comment:

Diane Kristine said...

Putting on my cynical "what have you people done to me when I used to be so sunny and optimistic" hat, your way is the way of the future, but ... the government won't give you money for it. You'd have to actually find the money and energy to produce and market something that people really want to see. And the current system doesn't seem to have cultivated many people who want to be weaned off the welfare. We've conditioned people to fill out bureaucratic forms and whine instead of getting entrepreneurial and creative.

But I say that with love. Mostly.