Thursday, June 28, 2007
I have friends and acquaintances within the ranks of the profession and look on what they do as part of the same theatrical tradition that includes everything from traveling minstrels to the freak show and the circus.
I never met Chris Benoit, knew nothing of his personal life and have no insight into what led to the murders of his wife and son or his subsequent suicide. That said, part of me doubts that the "Roid Rage" scenario promulgated in the media will turn out to be the catalyst for what occurred.
The impression I got from my exposure to Chris and those around him is that this event was far removed from the man and what he tried to make of his life. I can only hope that wherever he and his victims are now, they're in a better place.
I look at death a lot differently from most people.
I was very sick as a child, almost died a couple of times and somehow the concept that death was close and might happen to me at any moment led to an acceptance of it for what it is -- the end of one thing and the start of something different.
I've never been afraid of dying and I'm not a religious person, yet I have absolutely no doubt that something lies beyond the experience we call "Life".
The summer I turned 13, my mom and her sister got pregnant. Both gave birth to sons. My little brother was named Scott. My cousin's name was Doug. From their first moments, they were inseparable pals; two, hell on wheels, indefatigable kids who wore out their mothers, fathers and anybody else placed in their path.
My aunt's family lived on a farm and we lived in the city. But whether the scene of family get-togethers was urban or rural, they were all marked by the twin terrors doing something that threatened their well-being and traumatized their mothers.
At the age of 10, Doug contracted leukemia and died. It took a long time for Scott to recover from the loss of his best friend.
Seventeen years later, Scott had an accident and was hospitalized in a coma. From the beginning, the prognosis was bleak. But the doctors and nurses still fought hard to save his life.
After a marathon surgical session, they sent us home to get some much needed sleep, assuring us there would be no news before morning.
My wife at the time and I lived in a three storey house in downtown Toronto, one of those old Edwardian structures that dominate the inner city. Our bedroom was on the top floor and at 3:00 a.m., my wife woke me. She heard noises and thought somebody was trying to break into the house.
I got up and pulled on a pair of jeans, hearing something too. It sounded like a couple of kids laughing and horsing around.
I opened the balcony doors and stepped out. The sound was clear now. Kids laughing, whooping and screaming. But it wasn't coming from the street. It was coming from the roof.
Now I was really confused. There was no way to get to the roof unless you put a ladder on the balcony and our only ladder was in the basement. But somebody was definitely up there, running around and making a lot of noise. As I tried to figure out who the hell it was and how to get to them, the phone rang.
It was the hospital.
The moment I picked up the phone, the laughter and the noise stopped.
The rest of that day is both a blur and indelibly burned into my memory. My brother was declared brain dead. Organ donation had to be arranged, family contacted and a funeral put in motion.
My aunt arrived to be at my mom's side in a reversal of the roles they had taken years earlier. Two sisters who had both lost their last children in tragic circumstances.
They sat together at the funeral and the wake that followed. By then, those kids on the roof had been forgotten. There were too many other things to deal with.
I noticed my mom's glass was empty and got her and my aunt a refill. As I approached, I heard them talking about their lost boys on one of the visits to the farm.
It was the time they had gone looking for Scott and Doug and found them running around on the roof of the barn, having the time of their lives, absolutely oblivious to the danger they were courting.
They were dragged down and severely punished, but that didn't stop them from giggling through everything, totally amped by how much fun they'd had.
I had never heard this piece of family history. But in that moment, I knew that the two pals had been reunited; that their friendship had bridged whatever separates this life from the next, and their first moment back together had been spent reliving the high point of their previous existence.
I don't pretend to know what happens when all this is over. I just know that there's something and somewhere that we go.
I hope someone dear to Chris Benoit, his wife and his child was there to help their transitions and that they've all found some peace and understanding.
And I hope the rest of us don't demonize a man who, for all his wealth and fame, was only a poor dumb wrestler and overwhelmed by something the rest of us can't fully comprehend and with luck will never have to experience.
Life's tough. Nobody's as bad as their worst moment. It's all for a purpose. And there really is something more.
Sunday, June 24, 2007
Inside the cavernous meeting halls, attendance was slim for the early morning panels and lectures, as attendees opted to breakfast in the comfort of their hotels before venturing to the icy banks of the Mississippi. Television luminaries from franchise showrunners to network heads found handfuls instead of hoards awaiting the insights and information they had come to deliver.
All except one.
Fred Rogers took the stage at the final breakfast meeting, accepting a Lifetime Achievement Award to a standing ovation from several thousand television execs who had either grown up or watched their children grow up in his neighborhood.
Wearing his trademark sweater and sneakers, the man who once said, "I went into television because I hated it so." was as gentle and ego-less as he had been for more than 30 years in the public eye.
But "Mr. Rogers" didn't want to talk about making television for children or share anecdotes from his career that morning. He wanted to talk about the people in that room -- and what was wrong with us.
Arriving at New Orleans airport, he'd noticed the squadrons of private planes parked on every spare patch of runway. He'd seen the long lines of limos outside and had toured the lavish sales displays of the world's networks and studios. He wondered what any of it had to do with making good television.
As the hushed room hung on his every word, he read a poem. I don't know whether it was something he'd penned some time before or on the spur of the moment. But it was about kids defining themselves and their status by their toys, instead of sharing the best that was inside them. It concluded with a wonderful line..."Remember your toys aren't you -- your toys are beside you."
Two events of the last couple of weeks got me thinking about that speech. The first was the sale and subsequent dismembering of the CHUM/CITY empire. The second is the ongoing hockey soap opera as Canadian Billionaire Jim Balsillie attempts to buy and move the Nashville Predators to Hamilton.
It's far too early to know for certain how either of these events will finally play themselves out. But in both cases, they feel like the triumph of money, power and ego over something that was special and good and more important to the future.
CITY-TV launched as an independent television station in 1972. Coincidentally, on the same day Canada won the legendary hockey summit series against the USSR. From the beginning, it was different, tapping into the exploding entertainment scene in the city and soon becoming its vanguard.
In the ensuing years, CITY's original programming spawned MUCHMusic, Fashion Television, BRAVO, SPACE and other specialty channels to serve a clearly defined audience that already had a committed relationship with the home station.
CITY pioneered the Breakfast television market, the concept of constantly roving reporters and videographers, as well as a myriad of program models designed to directly connect with local viewers. Its headquarters became the cornerstone of the hip Queen Street West scene and the burgeoning Club District, those streets regularly closed to accommodate the frenzied crowds that gathered for events sponsored by the various affiliated networks.
In the early 1980's, CITY was acquired and then subjugated by the more corporately astute CHUM conglomerate. A few years ago, its founder and visionary guru, Moses Znaimer was forced out of management and a sort of hubris set in that made it ripe for acquisition.
Two summers back I had a pitch meeting at CHUM/CITY on the afternoon the network was outbid for a US dance competition show by CTV. The Execs present were apoplectic, convinced CTV had little interest in the series beyond keeping it from them.
Broadcasting, like all human endeavors, adheres to the Golden Rule: "He who has the Gold makes the Rules." And then, as now, CTV was the richest guy in the room.
CTV in corporate form (CTVglobemedia) was aware it was rolling the dice when it went before the CRTC looking to acquire CHUMCITY Inc. and hold onto the five CITY stations in major markets as part of its $1.7-billion takeover.
And many feel CTV's gamble was based on that aforementioned Golden Rule. The purchase was their prerogative as the Big Dog. In other words, when money talks, all other opinions are expected to automatically shush.
So money talked -- but the gamble failed.
The CRTC approved the acquisition, but on the condition CTV sell the CITY channels. As a result, CTV ends up with MUCH, BRAVO, SPACE etc, as well as the small market A-Channels, literally the body, while the head is severed and tossed to Rogers.
This was acknowledged as Solomon like wisdom by various friends of Canadian Broadcasting. But little old me, sitting on my couch with my remote didn't see anything good coming from it. In fact, instead of launching a much needed "fourth network" I think it spells the end of something that was very special, not to mention uniquely Canadian.
What was served by letting CTV keep the A-Channels instead of the CITY stations?
The CRTC says it couldn't approve the deal because it was "inconsistent with the Commission’s common ownership policy".
"That policy stipulates that a licensee may not operate more than one conventional television station in one language in a given market".
This made me wonder if anybody at the CRTC actually owns a TV or subscribes to the cable and satellite systems they regulate.
Because from my cushioned perch in the Toronto "Market", I can watch CTV and with one deft flick of my thumb connect to either CITY-TV or A Channel's Barrie station. So how exactly have I -- or the diversity of Canada's airwaves been "protected" by this decision?
I mean, if Ivan Fecan wants to control my thoughts, why is it harder if he has to do it from CTV and an A Channel vs CTV and a CITY Channel?
It also strikes me as kinda dumb for CTV to spend $1.7 Billion not to get everything they wanted...
Observers who attended the CRTC hearings felt CTV's aggressive and somewhat entitled assault on the clearly outmoded CRTC rules put them on the wrong side of the Commissioners and resulted in this somewhat Pyhrric victory.
CTV ends up with a bunch of specialty channels they will clearly benefit from owning. But the price may have been more than they are worth in the truncated acquisition. There's also a good chance programming will suffer until the bankers and other funds backing the sale satisfy their own Golden rules.
In addition, CTV gets a piece of downtown real estate destined to house their flagship newscasts. Perhaps "Canada AM" can replace "Breakfast Television" and the "Canadian Idol" franchise can mesh with MUCH and a likely return to that channel of MTV content. But I doubt it. Because CITY operated with a different mindset and many of those minds will move when Rogers moves.
More importantly, the integrated broadcast and production culture that made CITY/BRAVO/MUCH/ETC viable has been eliminated. Shows and employees will no longer cross pollinate. Therefore, it will cost Rogers more to make CITY style programming -- and that probably means less money for other (read "new") programming.
It seems to me, CTV should have read the ruling and said, "Well, okay, let's forget the whole thing." Perhaps what they got is better than nothing. But part of me feels they saw themselves losing face (and some new toys) if they bailed, so now they're stuck making what they've got work.
Likewise, Rogers, a company whose broadcast culture had ownership in Omni, Sportsnet and the Shopping Channel, has primarily been a community cable broadcaster. Their logical transition to the sophomore level of small market ownership with the A Channels, now must ramp up to service a more sophisticated and demanding group of markets.
You have to wonder if their Execs, for months planning one kind of schedule, were all that happy to change horses in midstream. Now they are also in the position of satisfying audiences expecting the type of programming CITY previously delivered -- much of which may no longer be available to them.
Do they have the experience and creativity to jump these hurdles and become a viable Fourth Network? We'd all better hope so, or television in this country is going to become even more one note than it already is.
At the moment, both companies are confident they can increase the value of their new assets. But they are in a business that is steadily losing customers and afflicted with a shrinking advertising base.
My big fear is that they'll beat each other up acquiring US programming that comes with a more or less quantifiable return rather than invest in programming they can actually own and fully exploit in the future.
But then Guys with money wouldn't have money if they didn't know what they were doing and success always breeds success, right?
Which brings me to Jim Balsillie, Billionaire owner of Research in Motion, creator of the Blackberry and aspiring NHL owner.
Jim (and I can call him Jim because we Jims are informal that way) bid on and backed away from purchasing the Pittsburgh Penguins a few months ago. Depending on which story you believe, either he or the NHL killed the deal over his plan to move the franchise to Hamilton.
Now he's bidding $50 million more than the Nashville Predators are worth with the same plan in mind. The conventional wisdom is that his offer vastly increases both the paper value of all current NHL franchises as well as what can be charged bidders for expansion teams. Therefore, Jim's made all the other owners a ton of money just by turning up with his wallet, so how can they say "No" to him?
His first move after over-bidding for the franchise was to tell Commissioner Gary Bettman he wasn't moving the team and his next was to sign an arena deal in Hamilton and start selling season tickets.
This puts him in conflict with the League's bylaws, the Commissioner, the Fans of Nashville as well as the two current franchises (Toronto and Buffalo) whose local jurisdiction intersects the city of Hamilton. In layman's terms, this means Jim can't move there without infringing on their existing fan bases, television penetration and God Given right to print money without interruption.
According to what passes for wisdom on Sports radio stations, this may all sound duplicitous and dumb when Jim doesn't even own the team yet. But he's "a real smart businessman who doesn't make mistakes", and "has pockets deep enough to win this fight".
In other words, he's the richest guy, so he should get to make the rules.
Well, for starters, Jim's a really smart businessman who paid $450 Million to another software firm a couple of years back for patent violations in the design of the Blackberry. He dragged that suit out, because he was the big dog, when he probably had the option to settle earlier and for much less. Only when a federal court in the US began considering a ban on Blackberry service did Jim cave -- and then the patent holder turned the screws a little more to maximize his own profit.
Somehow, all that doesn't strike me as the mark of a smart businessman.
I heard a friend of Jim's interviewed this week, relating a story that was also quite telling. By all accounts, Jim's a real nice guy (his name's Jim, how can he not be) but after losing a $20 bet on a golf game, he apparently was almost beside himself. The friend told him to relax, it was only $20. Jim's heated response, "No! It's not!"
Rich guys. Money buys deference. But it doesn't make you something you're not.
And if you look at the big picture, selling a team to Jim and moving it to Hamilton could be one of the worst things that could happen to the NHL.
Maybe hockey isn't thriving in Nashville, but it's doing better than it was 10 years ago. New fans are constantly finding the game. They may not provide the immediate gratification an owner would find in Hamilton, Winnipeg, Halifax or anywhere else in Canada. But to grow, a sport needs to cultivate new fans, not just keep preaching to the same choir.
The NHL is hoping to expand to Houston, Kansas City and Las Vegas, where producer Jerry Bruckheimer wants to place a team. None of those are hockey hotbeds. But they are large and viable markets that can further expand the fan base and make a major American television deal for the NHL more likely.
One has to wonder how much that TV deal is jeopardized if the Nashville market is lost by Jim moving the team. And one also has to wonder if expansion to the cities mentioned makes sense at the current $190 Million price tag, but much less sense if the price cranks up (because of Jim's overbid) to $220 or $240 Million.
More kids are playing hockey every year in the US. This year the top picks in the Junior draft were all Americans. These kids are going to need new places to play or all that hard work, training and growth of a fan base will have been for naught.
But the Canadian fan who just wants a local rooting interest doesn't care about those things. Hell, as a frustrated Leafs fan, I wish Jim would move the Predators to Toronto. It's been a long time since we had a real NHL team in this city!
But here's what money talking in this instance could mean...
Atlanta sees Hamilton do well in the hockey mad Golden Horseshoe and moves to Niagara Falls. Tampa decides to set up shop in Mississauga; both places offering access to larger markets than Winnipeg or Quebec City.
Given the rule changes Jim would have to force to make his move, neither he nor the league would be able to prevent these eventualities. And suddenly, Jim's team isn't making money either -- and what the nets are paying for TV rights becomes as fragmented as the local market.
If you want an example of where this already exists, look at Australian Rules Football, an incredibly wild and exciting game that was born in Melbourne. Today, Melbourne is home to 9 of the AFL's 17 teams. That's right. Half the league is in one city. And while Melbourne has more than enough crazed fans to fill its stadiums, when half the games are only of rabid interest in one location, there's no money in National broadcasts. So the game has never grown as it should have.
Adding another team in the Ontario TV market can only further fragment already declining audience numbers for the Leafs and the Sabres. God knows what it'll do to Ottawa, who have been the poor cousins for 12 years in a local market already splintered by Montreal and Toronto.
So if Jim gets what his money says he should have, he may actually hurt the financial base of two Canadian teams that are currently making money and a team in Buffalo that's on the bubble.
I can't believe I actually agree with Gary Bettman on something! I might be required to turn in my passport.
The problem with our world is that it's all about money, numbers and market share. Too many good things wither because people with money can't see an immediate return.
Which brings me back to Fred Rogers...
Through the 1950's, Mr. Rogers wasn't very successful with his concept of using television to "nurture" those who watched it. Then in 1963, he moved to Toronto, where he had been contracted by the CBC for a 15 minute children's program entitled "MisteRogers" (sic) in which he made his on camera debut.
The show was a hit with kids, but 3 years later, the CBC decided it knew better and that its money was better spent elsewhere, canceling the show. Fred moved back to Pittsburgh, launching the identical concept as "Mister Rogers Neighborhood". Four decades of children later, his sweater and sneakers reside in a place of honor in the Smithsonian Institute along with the trolley, Eiffel tower, tree and castle that were created by CBC Designers.
The Guys with the Gold will always make the Rules. But money is short-sighted and rarely gives worthwhile endeavors a chance. What endures and makes a difference in life does not come from the toys. It comes from people who care about more than that.
"Remember. Your toys are not you. They are beside you."
Friday, June 22, 2007
Coincidentally, the first day of summer is also my first day out of the deep freeze. Literally. For the last two months, I've been locked in ice cold arenas and windowless edit suites filming and finishing a show on figure skating.
People on the streets, dressed in shorts and tank tops, would give me funny looks as I shambled past swathed in ski wear, either still thawing out from a long day on the ice or girding myself to face another one.
DOUBLE TOE LOOP
I wandered into a Tim Horton's one evening for a coffee warm up, interrupting all the people complaining about heat waves and smog alerts by stamping the last of the Zamboni slush off my boots. Then I asked the girl behind the counter if I could have some Timbits for my Penguins.
TRIPLE CAMEL TOE
In addition to being the creative behind the piece, I also directed and handled 2nd camera. AND - I completed my first almost solo edit on Final Cut Pro! Nearly made it clear from take off to landing, but had to call for help when it came to authoring. Some part of rendering, composing and encoding still eludes me. It seems like the machine's doing the same thing three times, but I guess it's not.
Anyway, the story here is not that I have evolved into Jim the All-In-One filmmaker. It's that I've fallen in love with Figure Skating.
I know -- me -- macho Cowboy, so-straight-he-has-trouble-getting-around-corners, wouldn't know a sequin from a rhinestone... But there you have it.
I used to think hockey players defined tough. That was revised somewhat when I attended my first Aussie Rules Football game and saw what goes on when the TV cameras and referees are following the ball at the other end of the field! Sweet Mother of God!!! How does anyone survive that sport, let alone with enough still intact to have children???
But I now know that TOUGH is a 15 year old girl, weighing less than her gym bag, who keeps doing triple jumps at 6:00 AM until the clean landings outnumber the face plants; then comes back after school and repeats the process.
I learned that DETERMINATION might be defined by a forward making $5 Million per as he leads his team to the Stanley Cup, but it is more clearly written on the face of a sixteen year old boy who knows he'll be in Whistler in 2010 and isn't settling for silver because his lifts are half a centimeter off true.
And I learned that true DEDICATION resides not in network executives and CRTC Commissioners, but in underpaid coaches who watch the same routine for hours, detect the most infinitesimal flaw and communicate it with a few words that conjure perfection.
As I sat through the long hours of filming, I distracted myself from the possibility that my ass was not merely numb, but had finally completely frozen off -- by comparing what figure skaters go through to what we do in showbiz.
Because what I watched on the Olympic practice rink was light years removed from what I'd always been bored by or found laughable on television.
Skaters spend the same years learning their skills and honing their craft as we do. They have the same cerebral and aesthetic breakthroughs, finally discerning how something works, technically or emotionally. They learn how to tell a story, connect with the audience and elicit the desired reactions from them.
At the end of their creative process, which includes a greater physical component than anything we do (Teamsters and Grips included) they've got as neat a little parable to relate as the films we make.
Then along comes somebody from the network, deciding the work needs to be glitzed up so it'll be noticed in the broadcast clutter, given some flash and pizzazz to overcome the average 90 second attention span, encumbered with a voice-over to explain what they might've missed and gilded with an emotional sidebar to either "connect" with the average viewers -- or ensure a mention on TMZ.com.
In our case, what was unique and special ends up looking like everything else on TV -- and in theirs, they're dripping in sequins with somebody describing a granny who's dying of cancer.
They, like us, spend a lot of time wishing these people could find real jobs so they don't have to get between the artist and the audience.
If you've never had the experience, try to see a skating show live. And I don't mean "The Ice Capades" or "Disney on Ice". Find a competitive skate, where it's just you the music, the lights and skaters. I have no doubt you'll find yourself as transported and inspired as I've been over the last few weeks.
I can't post any of our footage yet, but I will soon. Meantime, I'm including a video of three time world champion Russian Skater, Irina Slutskaya.
Forgive me for choosing a piece where she's dancing to Country music (sung in Russian to add to the weirdness) but hey, it's my Blog. Point is, I tried to find a clip without much network clutter so you can concentrate on what she's doing.
I hope you'll delight in the sheer physicality and Joy of her work. Even if skating isn't your thing, catch the series of spins about 2 minutes in and you'll realize that sometimes great art defies even the laws of physics.
Sunday, June 10, 2007
Friday Night Baseball - Sportsnet - 247,000 Viewers
Soccer - CBC - 99,000
Nascar Dover 200 - TSN - 94,000
NBA Playoffs - TSN - 85,000
CBC's coverage of the Stanley Cup final averaged 2.5 million viewers, an 18-per-cent dip from last year.
At the February 28th NHL Trade Deadline -- when big name players change hands and teams make it clear they are either making a run for the Cup or throwing in the towel, Canada's sportscasting fraternity pulls out all the stops to chase every rumor. Election style coverage rules the day. This year Sportsnet even deployed a bevy of hot babes to deliver bulletins. The result...
TSN - 150,000
Sportsnet - 52,000
The Score - 9,000 (ouch)
And for those keeping track, these numbers were down 40% from the previous year.
Below the border, where 2.5 million fewer people were watching television overall, the picture is not much rosier. Hockey may be a poor yardstick, with NBC recording its lowest Prime Time ratings (in any category) for the Stanley Cup Final -- a final that was down 28% from the previous season. But the anecdotal Hockey evidence is worth considering...
In Tampa, NBC's affiliate canceled Game 3 for a charity telethon. And in an earlier round featuring Atlanta and the NY Rangers, Atlanta recorded only 8800 local viewers for the final game -- less than the number of season ticket holders in that city.
But numbers for other Sports in the US are down too. Basketball is off by as much as 17%. Weekend audiences hover around the million mark for Golf. NASCAR, currently the most popular sports event on network television, seldom tops 6,000,000 viewers and quite regularly matches the fan totals of Wrestling's Friday Night Smackdown.
In this environment "Studio 60" would be a runaway smash!
Yet, within one of the most targeted TV demographics (Men 18-25) the decline in viewers is even steeper.
And why exactly is this important to those of us more concerned with the nuances surrounding Tony Soprano's departure and the story lines of "Grey's Anatomy" and "House"?
Because it tells us Guys have finally come around to watching "Desperate Housewives" and "Sex And The City" re-runs?
Because it indicates that the last great cornerstone of broadcasting and advertising is crumbling. The most dependable cash cow is going dry. Men are not watching sports.
Beer companies, car companies, Corporations who pitch fast food, electronics and all the other traditional guy buys are discovering that an audience once dependably parked on the couch, for whatever game somebody sweaty was playing, has left the building.
And that means a huge chunk of the $8.8 Billion paid upfront to the networks at the beginning of last season, won't be there this year, meaning fewer dramas at smaller budgets must surely follow.
I believe there are a lot of reasons men have a declining interest in professional sport. Ticket prices limiting the real game experience to fewer people. The corporatization of leagues and athletes. The endless branding and re-branding of uniforms, playing fields and stadiums.
My first sleep deprived night in Australia, I watched a Rugby game. When somebody asked who was playing, I answered "Vodaphone" and "Sony", the only names that had been visible on the players' jerseys.
But the biggest culprit are the Sports Networks themselves. Any given 24 hours of sports television usually features only one or two live events. The rest of the time is spent with endless analysis, speculation and debate combined with repeated showings of the same highlight reels and sportscasts.
At a certain point you just can't take anymore, no matter how rabid a fan you are.
Economically, Sports Networks rely on that kind of cheap programming to survive (along with tractor pulls and Poker). Because, truth be told, they lose money on the games.
The Toronto Maple Leafs recently sold some of their rights to Sportsnet for $700,000 per game. That's $200,000 more than last year, a season in which Sportsnet is said to have lost as much as $400,000 per Leaf game. Now, of course, none of these things happen in a vacuum, and the network is still making money. But with rising fees and disappearing viewers, that won't be the case much longer.
This decline in male viewership has been gradual but steady, with the prevailing wisdom being that men are more likely to be surfing the internet, watching DVDs or gaming. Not to mention that Porn is a lot more accessible than it used to be.
Since male demographics were the first to embrace TiVo and the PVR, some analysts suggest they're simply time-shifting their sports. And to some extent that may be true -- but then, the message is even more troubling. Because they're sure not pumping up the numbers on "Smith", "Drive" and other male targeted shows while they're waiting for the game to load.
And most guys only PVR a game because it affords the opportunity to skip commercials and create your own instant replays. You can't bank your favorite team's games like you can a season of "24" or "Battlestar Galactica". Well, you can, but it turns you into somebody wearing sans-a-belt pants and socks with sandals.
Spoilers for a series episode are annoying. Knowing the outcome of a game, virtually unavoidable in this day and age, makes watching even an hours-old event pointless for anyone who isn't obsessing over their Fantasy League stats.
The point is, the paucity of male viewers for non-sports programming is so accepted now that the prime-time schedule is practically awash with estrogen. New shows for the coming season include female centric series such as "Cashmere Mafia", "Lipstick Jungle" and "The Womens Murder Club". ABC, once ruled by Monday Night Football, now features "Dancing with the Stars", "Sam I Am" (about a woman recovering from a coma) and "The Bachelor" on that evening. Fox has published a mid-season slate which includes a night of "Nanny 911", "Trading Spouses: Meet Your New Mommy" and "When Women Rule The World".
In other words, not a lot of places on National networks for most guys who aren't watching sports to go. That's not to suggest that the nets are telling men they're not wanted. We're just not even expected anymore.
Every development executive I've spoken to in the last year has been primarily interested in content that's female centric or with female leads. Although, a couple have also been seeking shows featuring Lesbians -- so maybe they haven't totally given up on getting our attention...
And maybe TV can get along fine without men. At least -- until women start leaving to find out what we're up to.
Saturday, June 09, 2007
I don't know Paris Hilton. But working in this business I've had the opportunity to meet a lot of young women like her. Over the years, they've brought one truth home to me. Whatever issues they're toting around, the rest of us are carrying something a whole lot bigger and far more ugly.
Better minds than mine will examine why we're drawn to witness their destruction, where the fascination comes from and what it says about us and our society. A female friend last night equated the mass coverage with the thousand men in Iraq who cell phone recorded the public stoning of a 17 year old girl and y'know, that doesn't seem too much of a stretch.
To some extent, I think the public can be let off the hook for most of this. The ones responsible are those of us who work in the media.
A few years ago, I worked with a not-untalented actress who was moving to LA and wanted to find an agent. I gave her a list of people I thought could help her. She called a month or so later, now settled in Hollywood but not sounding too happy. An agent on my list had agreed to sign her -- but only if she gave him a blowjob first.
That agent may be discovering, on reading this, why I stopped taking his calls or hiring his clients. He and his stable were (and are) also not untalented. But life's too short to co-sign his kind of bullshit.
Actresses have always been used and abused by men in positions of power. In some ways, it kind of goes with the territory. I hope that doesn't sound too callous. What I mean is -- don't get overly teary-eyed. There are not a lot of "Damsels in Distress" here. These are big girls capable of drawing their own lines in the sand.
At least they were when it was only about power and sex.
But the paparazzi and the "all-news" networks and the celebrity sniffers of "Access Hollywood", TMZ.com and "E!Talk" have changed the landscape. The meltdowns of Lindsay Lohan and Brittney Spears under their relentless pummeling shouldn't surprise anyone.
No matter her crimes, even Paris Hilton does not deserve this soul-shredding.
This week, Ken Levine's excellent blog alerted me to the debut of Paris' new season of "The Simple Life" with this review. I honestly thought Ken was off on one of his inspired extrapolations of the facts. But he wasn't.
The Pilot for the new season does indeed feature Paris and her sidekick Nicole Ritchie giving enemas to people at Fat Camp and assisting with their resulting bowel movements. If you're so inclined the footage is right here and you've been suitably warned.
A new low for television? Just flat off the chart tasteless? Sure. But get used to it, because those nice people at CanWest/Global will be simulcasting this and much more like it on their newly branded "E! Canada" channel.
When I watched the show, a small piece of my heart broke for Paris Hilton. I got a brief insight into what she's going through. And I have to tell you, if my only option was doing a show like this, I'd be drinking and driving too. As well as praying the first person I hit was the network executive who green-lit it to begin with.
I'm certain the new Canadian E! Channel will also provide the ongoing career/personal suicide watches of Paris and all their other "Reality"/Brat Pack/Hollywood faves. As one of my spiritual touchstones once cautioned -- "The darkest hearts cover themselves in the whitest robes" and it seems CanWest has learned well from CTV's "Etalk Daily" example.
You really can get away with almost any level of sleaze as long as you cover it with the smiling face of a Prime Minister's son and a hot Asian chic. I'm not sure Izzy Asper intended that his sons become pimps, but that seems to be where they're headed.
In closing, I have to say that I've never really believed anybody in this business gives the public what it wants. I think we often offer what we know they can be fed, or what they'll swallow. Like McDonald's, they know this stuff has little nutritional value, but it's quick and it's filling, doesn't cost much, sometimes comes with a toy, and lets them get on to something else right away -- so what the hell...
But we're the guys making it, and we know how it's made, what it really costs and perhaps, most important, what's left over when we're done.
This final clip is a monologue by Craig Ferguson. It's a few months old and has been posted in many places before. It's about what's wrong with us -- all of us -- but the media in particular.
Please take the words to heart. Paris Hilton's fate depends on it.
Friday, June 08, 2007
Since he was good at what he does and fit my life philosophy of not having any ordinary experiences unless absolutely necessary, he became my dentist.
He was always interested in what I was doing, but never recognized the titles of any of my shows -- he'd just smile and shrug. Sometimes I'd give him videos or DVDs of my output. When I asked if he'd liked them, he'd just give me the same smile and shrug.
Four or five years ago, he opened a new office in an ethnically mixed part of Toronto with his son, Dentist Jr. And it's actually that building which drives one of the theories I have about Canadian television ratings.
The lobby features a video store that isn't of the Blockbuster/Rogers world. I don't know its name although it's posted in several languages; none of them English, with the closest script being Cyrillic. Although I'm a big fan of Japanese, Chinese, Bollywood and Eastern European films, until a couple of years ago, I'd never been inside. I still need subtitles and there was nothing that indicated their offerings provided that consideration.
Then, on the night before a dental appointment, I saw a "60 Minutes" piece on Aishwarya Rai, a Bollywood star considered by many to be the most beautiful woman in the world.
I'd seen posters for her films in the window of my Dentist's video store. Now I knew her name. So the next day, I went in and asked if I could rent a copy of the film "60 Minutes" had profiled.
The young woman behind the counter explained that they didn't rent films, but I could buy a copy for $3.00.
Sounded like a good deal. I was in. Then she asked me to come back in a couple of hours because she had to burn the disk...
Okay -- not quite down with that. She seemed to sense my discomfort and assured me they weren't pirates. In order to get the new releases her customers wanted, feeding a desire to view what was currently onscreen back home, the studio in India airmailed a disk they could copy for customers.
Not knowing if she was making that up but knowing even less about South Asian copyright law, I handed over three bucks and returned a couple of hours later with newly de-scaled choppers to pick up a shiny disk additionally light-scribed with the artwork of the film.
The movie was pretty good, had that wonderful Bollywood combo of Hindi and English so you can follow what's going on even without subtitles and played perfectly. I'd driven home with sudden reservations about PAL and region codes. But there were no problems and I recalled something I'd learned in Australia, that DVD regional codes are a nice conceit for North Americans and Europeans, but most of the rest of the world just buys players with built in hacks or publishes all-region content.
How all this relates to Canadian television ratings is this...
I visit this store quite regularly now, buying current films from Bollywood, HK, China, Japan, Russia and the occasional point in between. Most of those films are still in theatres in their home countries and will never be released here.
That allowed me to see the magnificent Chinese film "Hero" a full two years before it debuted here to critical acclaim -- and a sudden studio/network awareness of color design. I've been similarly exposed to writing and shooting techniques, visual concepts and edit styles nobody in Canadian television is even thinking about, let alone putting in their programming.
Just an aside, but wait til you guys attending Banff get a peek at the new Brit series "Green Wing". You're going to realize that understanding the abilities of an editing program like Final Cut Pro is becoming just as important to your writing as whatever script software you currently use.
While I was in Australia, I also learned that much of the world is so far ahead of us in things like cellular phones, computer accessories, etc. that it's scary.
Last week, my Gaffer turned up on set with a new GPS clipped to his visor. It looked like an ordinary GPS, except it was also an HD video player with a 5 inch screen, an MP3 player and arrived from China with an 80 Gig flash card. You heard me -- 80 Gb - enough for about that many movies in HD. Price delivered -- $200.
So point one is, we're falling behind. Okay, the Fraser Institute can bore you with that insight.
Point number two is what's important -- we're falling behind our audience.
Exposure to the material from my Dentist's building's video store means I can't watch much Canadian TV drama anymore. It's just too fricken uninspired and boring. Perhaps not in concept or inspiration, but almost certainly in execution.
We have countless new or debuting shows which look and feel exactly like material we made back in the 1980's. So, if I can't get excited enough to watch this stuff, how attractive is it to people who are coming to it fresh?
Our immigrant population is huge and while I may buy one or two DVD's from this video store, I see people leaving with shopping bags full. The owner tells me it's not unusual for a South Asian family, for example, to buy 30 - 40 hours of movies, comedies and soaps every week.
Trust me, those families are not watching CTV, Global or even CITY-TV. There simply aren't that many hours in the week. If you take a look around at the satellite dishes on your average urban Canadian street, they're not all pointed in the same direction as the ones that read "Expressvu".
And it's obvious that CRTC rules about diversity are not changing these viewing habits. Those rules are giving a lot of talented people the opportunity to work. And while they may be presenting a more realistic vision of our society to the world, they are quite simply not drawing more viewers to the programs, or markedly increasing foreign sales.
Even among 2nd and 3rd generation communities, there is no desire or incentive to watch Canadian channels. Walk into any ethnic eatery, tavern or "social club" on a Saturday and there's either a live sports event from their homeland running or some kind of non-Canadian game/variety show that has everybody present in stitches.
I'm constantly struck by the fact that there is a vibrancy to these programs we neither have nor seem interested in finding.
To realize how much of a rut we've fallen into, you only had to watch NBC's coverage of the Stanley Cup. It was quite simply -- awesome -- superior on every level to the competing network that has been doing hockey for generations. The game had an immediacy, a passion and muscle to it that made it just so much damn fun to watch.
Over at the CBC, we had announcers who are household names unable to remember the names of half the players, an ill-tempered clown in a loud suit weeping over our Afghan fallen in perhaps the most inappropriate setting for such sentiments, and the standard shoulder shot interviews between periods with players draped in a logo'd towels offering sports cliches I'm convinced must be fading on their cue cards by now.
To attract audiences, we've got to start doing things different. The concept that the average Canadian wants shows that poke polite fun at politicians, deal with "issues" without getting too in-your-face about it and depend on Peter Mansbridge clones for their news, are woefully out of date.
Likewise, I must ask what audience attraction is achieved by producing TV MOW's such as a fictionalized version of the "true" story of the deaths of four RCMP officers because the actual facts have yet to be determined, or by displacing the Montreal incident in which an American kids hockey team was insulted to a more bucolic setting in New Brunswick?
You're either doing TRUE stories or you're not and equivocation to avoid offending anyone or any group doesn't have a lot to do with making a film that gets at the truths an audience wants to know or understand -- and watch.
That said, much of our network production has veered from anything that can be described as innovative fiction. A couple of years ago, I discovered a truly whacked Russian film entitled "Nightwatch". The sequel, "Daywatch" is currently in theatres. Can you imagine any Canadian network initiating anything with this kind of visual style?
The current Canadian approach to programming can barely scare up a million viewers on a good day. Even the Stanley Cup Final can't attract 10% of the population. Our maximum total audience for our hundreds of channels this season never rose above a quarter of the country.
Is nobody wondering what the other 75% are watching -- instead?
Thursday, June 07, 2007
Oh, there is no joy in Ottawa this morning -- but then, that's normal isn't it? As one Toronto Maple Leafs Fan said last night, "One thing you gotta give the Senators, it takes them longer every season to choke."
And no matter how you cut it, choke they did. Stars like Jason Spezza and Dany Heatley simply disappeared in the last round and even Captain Crusty the Clown became so oxygen deprived he couldn't tell the difference between the hallowed chalice he was chasing and Scott Neidermeyer's Cup.
I also can't describe the thrill I felt watching the CBC sign off, as player after player in a Duck's jersey saluted hometowns in Regina, Cranbrook, Almonte and Kanata, disproving the media fabrication that Ottawa was "Canada's Team". Perhaps it'll wake somebody at the Corporation or the CRTC up to the fact that just because something doesn't appear Canadian on the surface, that doesn't mean it isn't -- (and vice versa).
But there is, however, great joy this morning in the heart and home of Mark Askwith, winner of the inaugural "Infamous Writers Pool".
Almost from day one, an upstart Mad Pulp Bastard, from the state where Sport's most revered trophy now resides, had led the pool; trashing the National pride and hockey egos of some of Canada's finest hockey minds.
Bill Cunningham cast us all in the role of perennial Bridesmaids as he made his triumphant march up the aisle. But at the last moment (literally) Mr. Askwith came through to snatch the bouquet and restore our country to its rightful position of knowing more about hockey than anybody else anywhere anytime.
Yes, Mark Killed Bill somewhere in the dying moments of last night's second period.
But I must give Mr. Cunningham extra points for "Class". During the game, he, Mr. Dixon and Yours Truly were in semi-constant wireless contact. (Like the white gloved Guardians of the Cup, Will and I have been constantly at the ready to present the Pool mantle.)
And with seconds to go in the game, Mr. Cunningham was already taking the skate down Handshake Alley and communicating his congratulations to Mr. Askwith.
Cunningham, I knew Chris Chelios, I've skated with Chris Chelios and I watched him play in the Olympics -- and you, sir, are no Chris Chelios!
(Don't bother looking up what that means, Bill, it's a compliment)
Over the next couple of days, I'll be in touch with all Poolies to deliver the address where you can send Mark's victory swag. If I haven't gotten to you by Saturday, send me a nasty comment under the name of Geoffrey...
Here are the final standings. Thanks to everybody for making this so much fun. And -- Just wait til next year!!!
1 Mark Askwith 155
2 Bill Cunningham 151
3 Michael Foster 136
4 Dave Moses 135
5 Juniper 132
6 Denis McGrath 128
7 Micah Reid 115
8 Will Dixon 111
9 Larry Raskin 109
10 John Whaley 106
11 Jim Henshaw 103
12 Mark Farrell 89
Tuesday, June 05, 2007
Here's what I found...
THE NEW FIREFOX LOGO
FREE PARIS HILTON
A TRULY MOVING MESSAGE ON CRAIGSLIST
Maybe it's just me -- but do you ever get the feeling that there's far more happening on the web than anybody in Canadian TV is going to ask you to create for them?
Pushed again. Maybe they're trying to increase my anticipation....
Monday, June 04, 2007
In network speak, you're only in fourth place until numbers are spun to make the outcome far better than it first appears. "We only had 100,000 viewers but they all bought a Lexus during the last commercial break so our sponsor is EC-STATIC!!!"
In American television, success is relative. In Canadian television, it's apparently only our relatives who are still watching...
This is the first of three posts on who's not watching Canadian television and my opinion(s) as to why that's happening. I don't know the final solutions. But I do know that finding them means changing the way we think about the industry.
This week, CBC launched their Fall Season with Kirstin Layfield, Executive Director of Programming, stating that the network had its best prime-time ratings in five years.
I caught that "Good News" nugget while driving and it struck me as odd. Time was CBC had shows that attracted 2-3 Million viewers on a regular basis. "Beachcombers", "Avonlea", "The National" and "Hockey Night in Canada" to name a few.
Given audience fragmentation, those numbers don't exist much anymore. But now the CBC only has a couple of half hours that regularly break a million -- "Little Mosque" and "Mercer"; and the sports talk show the CBC news item interrupted had been bemoaning the lowest ratings in years for the NHL Playoffs.
So, if CBC's numbers were the best in five years, I couldn't imagine how bad it was over there at the lowest ebb.
Well, according to Barry Kiefl, president of Canadian Media Research Inc., the season was actually the WORST in the public broadcaster's 55-year history.
Kiefl, director of research at CBC from 1983 to 2001, (I cannot imagine how exciting that job must've been) says CBC audience share in prime time is 7.5 per cent from October through March - down slightly from the previous year's 7.6 per cent.
And according to Kiefl the CBC prime-time schedule only hung in like it did because the network aired more hockey than ever before. Indeed, literally 48 per cent of the CBC prime-time audience was generated with sports.
No other network comes anywhere close to that in North America.
Which would clearly indicate that the audience for their other programming had not grown -- at all...
Okay, so CBC spins the numbers like everybody else. Is that really a big deal?
I tend to think so. Because "everybody else" finances what they do privately, not through an annual Billion dollar cheque from the Canadian Taxpayer.
And if fewer of those taxpayers have an interest in watching what their tax dollars are buying, that would seem to indicate a shift in programming be seriously considered -- or that said tax money be spent elsewhere.
And before you get all "The CBC's our Cultural Lifeline" on me. Think about a world without the CBC but that $1 Billion still being spent on Canadian programming.
Certainly not something anybody working at or for the CBC want to see happen.
But the 2007 CBC season that's just been announced doesn't appear any different from the one which preceded it. If they weren't getting a bigger audience -- why do the same thing?
Globe & Mail columnist John Doyle, recently spoke to the Writers Guild of Canada's National Forum on the subject of one hour drama, stating that viewers are hungry for that type of television and his read of G&M readers was that they want compelling, provocative, adult drama that "they can attach themselves to."
Just an aside, but I really appreciate big-time newspaper columnists who speak like real people and end the occasional sentence with a preposition....
Anyway, Mr. Doyle went on to say that the lack of Canadian drama has less to do with the audience than the Broadcasters, who don't want to pay for it and are reluctant to acknowledge how sophisticated their audience really is.
So this would seem to indicate CBC's number spinning is an attempt to justify a concerted effort NOT to give the audience what they want, but rather what the CBC's executives would either prefer to produce -- or -- only know how to produce.
Drama's hard. Not as hard as Comedy but close. And to be fair, CBC is promising up to seven new ones in January.
But there is only one on its Fall schedule, "Heartland". I have no idea of the show's quality and I'm not certain if it will still have that name when it debuts in October, since TNT launches a series entitled "Heartland" next week which stars Treat Williams and may have already been picked up by another Canadian broadcaster.
The other announced dramas are "The Tudors" and "Torchwood", two Euro-productions the CBC invested some money in and "St. Urbain's Horsemen", a mini-series.
That's the menu, a not-at-all-Canadian Period Drama, a not-at-all-Canadian Dr. Who spinoff and a Canadian literary classic that'll play over two evenings.
Good thing there's still hockey.
The rest of the schedule is made up of returning sketch comedy, more episodes of "Little Mosque" and a lot more of the "Greatest Canadian (insert concept here)" style of reality programming. It's all programming which seems to garner numbers the corporation finds acceptable, but clearly isn't connecting with Canadians in significant numbers.
Much as I hope "Triple Sensation" lives up to its hype of finding the next great Musical star, it seems pointless when CBC doesn't appear to be interested in finding a venue to exploit that talent on its schedule and canceled the only program it still had which programmed legit musical theatre.
Given that the Canadian TV dial is loaded with options for accessing reality programming, foreign niche programming and lifestyle shows, it feels like the CBC would be best serving the audience they are mandated to serve by giving them one hour dramas that acknowledge their sophisticated tastes.
At the very least, it would set them apart from the local competition and better positioned to justify that annual government cheque by not looking (and programming) exactly like the guys who are doing it without direct Taxpayer support.
Mr. Kiefl seems to share that opinion.
"I would think CBC would want to be very careful - while the standing committee on Canadian heritage continues its review of CBC/Radio-Canada's mandate - to be as open and accountable as possible. CBC has acknowledged many times the shortage of funding it faces. If they ever wanted to plead a case for more money, they should do it when there are serious weaknesses that need to be fixed in its schedule."
Repeat after me, CBC: "Without the audience, there ain't no show"
I don't expect you to know those lyrics -- after all they're by a Canadian band.