Tuesday, October 30, 2007
"Above all else: go out with a sense of humor. It is needed armor. Joy in one's heart and some laughter on one's lips is a sign that the person down deep has a pretty good grasp of life." ~Hugh Sidey
Sunday, October 28, 2007
Apparently a number of Writers Guild of Canada members got form letters from Cable Honcho Jim Shaw this week in response to their having sent form letters to the CRTC (distributed by the Writers Guild last month) which took Shaw to task for his recent attacks on the Canadian Television Fund.
This was followed by the WGC sending the entire membership an email letter suggesting Mr. Shaw's letter was an attempt to "bully" those opposed to him and appending yet another form letter they could forward to the authorities.
Simultaneously, DMC launched another salvo in opposition to Mr. Shaw, in the process calling me out because of my past support for the Shaw offensive.
Now -- getting called out by DMC is not a matter to be taken lightly. I put it on a level with being that hapless sheepherder who suddenly has to go up against Jack Palance in "Shane".
Pick it up! Pick up the gun!
Sheep herder picks up the gun. Jack blows a hole in him, turns to the townsfolk...
You saw him! He had a gun!
Trust me. DMC and Jack Palance are not dissimilar. Imposing guys. Tend to dress in black. Seldom back from a fight and awful good at shooting from the hip.
So there's the gun...
There's the Guild folk looking on to see what I'll do...
Maybe it's time to reveal I'm really a wolf in Sheep herder's clothing...
I want to make it clear that I didn't get a letter from Jim Shaw this week. Or last. Or anytime since I wrote so intelligently, passionately and glowingly in his support.
No cards. No flowers. No invitations to skip to the head of the "Rocket Fund" queue. And he didn't offer a cable discount, perhaps because I don't live within his monopoly jurisdiction, but that's beside the point.
I mean -- thanks a lot, Jimbo! I nominate myself for Pariah status on your behalf and what do I get in return? Zip! Nada! Nothing!
You Rich guys are all alike...
And Mr. Shaw -- one other thing -- you're still right to be going after the CTF and anybody else who doesn't want them to be accountable for their decisions.
You know what really bugs me about all this? Just how God-damned Chickenshit the Guild I helped found and so many of its members seem to be.
Ohmigawd! The big bad cable guy is after me! He's mean and angry and he knows where I live! Somebody save me!
Hey! The guy wrote you a fucken letter! You don't like it? Write him back!
Or phone him up! You can even do that toll free: 1-888-472-2222. I don't know for certain, but I'll bet he's in the office from about 9:00 a.m. onwards.
Tell his Assistant that he contacted you, so you're just returning. He wanted to talk about the CTF and you have much to tell him.
Honestly people, if you feel you're being pushed around -- PUSH BACK!
Stop asking me to carry your torch and pitchfork!
I mean, is there some reason why you can't speak (and maybe think) for yourself?
You're supposed to be Writers for Christ's sake! Why do you even need somebody else to compose a letter for you?
Aren't you good enough to write what you feel on your own? Are you so out of touch with your own industry that you wouldn't know what to say?
Are you maybe this out of touch because you don't actually live here and are distracted by more immediate local concerns like California wildfires and couldn't care less whether the Guild passes your form letter off as a vote of support from a real Canadian writer?
Or are you like so many members of the WGC, anxious not to rock any boat that might one day ferry you a meager development deal via some CTF funding envelope?
I understand strength in numbers and union solidarity and all that -- but why is this attack on Jim Shaw coming from union management down and not from the membership up?
Who's running the WGC -- writers -- or the same kind of cloistered bureaucratic thinking that appears to be running the CTF and almost every arts funding outfit in this country?
"Don't ask questions! We know what's best for you! Trust us! We have the best interests of you artist types at heart!"
And since the inception of the Fund, the average income of Canadian writers and the number of work opportunities for those telling Canadian stories has gone in which direction...?
If there really is accountability and open public reporting and no cozy or even casual deals between CTF board members and network reps or anybody else who benefits from the Fund's largess, then what's wrong with having a look at that?
And what's wrong with examining the process to see if it can be improved?
Why is my Guild asking me to sign and send a form letter which states, "The CTF needs to be left alone to do its job and not spend significant resources defending itself from attacks in the media."
I mean -- if there was no reason to look into the CTF -- why has the CRTC already decided to do just that? And why do the loudest voices opposed seem to belong to those who have been the major beneficiaries of the Fund?
Sure, some fine TV programs have come about because of CTF funding. But their costs and budgets make up a miniscule percentage of the funds allotted.
Don't we have a right to know why the lucrative development deals that were killed were killed?
Do we, as the folks funding the Fund through our cable levies, not have the right to ask why the creators of failed shows keep getting new deals, why the same executives keep green-lighting the same production companies and never through their joint "expertise" create a show that makes it to air, let alone becomes a hit?
Is there no public right to see why shows that are successful somehow never seem to return a profit to either their investment partners or the Fund?
Wouldn't our industry be better if all that was a little more out in the open?
No wonder Jim Shaw questions your commitment to the cause. He knows you don't really have any commitment. And so do all those people who got your form letter.
Any idiot can sign a petition demanding a cleaner environment or an end to hostilities in Darfur. The people Politicians listen to are the ones who actually pick up the tools and do something.
Okay, DMC. Your turn.
First, I have to compliment you on having the courage to say what you think and what you feel. That's a rare trait above the 49th. I may disagree with you on some stuff, but you sure as hell have the strength of your convictions and you're a thing of beauty expressing them. If this country had ten more writers with half your guts and a third of your passion, we'd have an industry that could challenge the world.
But you gotta kick off the cutting edge blinkers, Pal. You gotta stop looking at the business through the prism of Queen Street West, the Film Centre and what they like to hear down at the CBC. Trust me, none of those folks will be there when you really need them or when it counts. Because none of them care about the one constituency that truly matters -- the audience.
I know that you do care about the guys on the other side of the tube. I can see it in your work and in your passionate advocacy of "Trailer Park Boys", "Corner Gas" and a host of shows I suspect you personally can't stand.
Hard as it may be to accept, you and Jim Shaw are fighting for the same cause. Yeah, you're doing it for art and he's doing it for money. But it's the same cause -- the right of the audience to have access to a variety of programming they actually want to watch.
I can't believe you printed what the man had to say in his form letter response, but clearly didn't read the sentiment...
"Neither I nor my colleagues at Shaw Communications want to determine what Canadian programs are to be funded by the CTF. We do not want to control decisions on content. We believe television should entertain us, inform us, inspire us, and make us all think – as Canadians. We support the development of original Canadian programming and we want to ensure that money is well spent to produce programming that matters.
That means the CTF should be an active participant in supporting shows that people actually watch. They should be as great as this country; they should tell our stories and they should be aimed at commercial success."
I'm walking away now, DMC. I'm leaving your gun in the dirt and taking a pass on this showdown. My fight isn't with you any more than yours is with Jim Shaw.
Let the rich guy have his day. Use his love of money to help our cause. I honestly believe we'll all be better off if he gets what he wants.
Thursday, October 18, 2007
A couple of years back, I saw a similar interview that featured Dakota Fanning sitting between Steven Spielberg and Tom Cruise as they publicized “War of the Worlds”, both men reacting with resigned humility as she referred them as “Geniuses”.
Guys, for crying out loud! The kid’s eleven!!!
There are a lot of very bright and capable people in show business, few of whom, I think, feel they’re particularly gifted. And you’d figure the average audience member who has sat through a lot of ordinary television or Spielberg’s “War of the Worlds” wouldn’t be encouraged to tune in again just because somebody involved is considered to be a genius.
But they do. And the scary thing is – nobody buys into the concept more than the media and the critics.
I tend to think it’s the desire among those fraternities not to be late for the next big thing. None of them want to be the last guy on the Sudoku bandwagon and I believe they receive some sort of professional bonus points for being the first with something.
It’s not unlike the way you just had to be impressed by the first kid in Kindergarten who actually ate a bug or later felt sorry for that geek in the lunchroom who was still trying, years after the fad, to get the sides of his Rubik’s cube to match.
The quest for the new, the ground-breaking, the “edgy” next thing is the critic’s job – and also their Achilles heel.
Nobody knew that better than Andre Bernard Bergé.
Bergé was a French Post-Existentialist writer obsessed with American cinema. He longed to write tawdry detective movies and taut thrillers in a post-war culture obsessed with Buňel, Goddard and Truffaut. Unable to find producers for his screenwriting, Bergé crafted a play entitled “The Theatre of the Film Noir” which became a critical sensation when it opened in Paris in the late 1950’s.
Unfortunately, Bergé did not live to enjoy his newfound fame. The morning after his theatrical triumph, he was crushed by a Citroën, while peddling his bicycle home from retrieving his morning baguette.
The only other thing you need to know about Bergé is that he didn’t actually exist.
In 1982, theatre Impresario Garth Drabinsky decided to organize a World Theatre Festival in Toronto. Over the month of June, more than a dozen of the planet’s National Theatres, along with dozens more of the most respected companies in the theatrical firmament, would descend on Toronto to present their best work. Famous names from the textbooks of almost any Drama 100 class would also be appearing and financing was found to make sure many of Canada’s theatres could be there too.
I was working with Toronto’s Factory Theatre at the time and we were going to do a new George Walker play entitled “The Theatre of the Film Noir”, a dark comedy set in Paris just days after its liberation in WW2. We’d been work-shopping the play for over a year and it was drop dead funny and a terrific evening of theatre.
Problem was, though barely into his 30’s, Toronto’s critics were feeling George was passé. His last couple of productions had been savaged. He just wasn’t staying within the genre box that they and the media had built for him. He was supposed to be Toronto’s quirky working class playwright. Nobody thought he should be directing, attempting larger themes or doing any of those things real artists do.
Imagine the art world if Picasso had stuck to Bullfight posters.
So, it was decided that in honor of the Festival, the Factory, which only performed Canadian plays, would, instead of riding one of its stable of writers, present the lost work of a lost genius, “Theatre of the Film Noir” by Andre Bernard Bergé.
Now, in the realm of World Theatre we were really small potatoes, made smaller in our home town by the arrival of international heavies our local critics and media hungered to embrace. And attempting a hoax like this could be seen as immature and inappropriate. But then – that’s what we mostly were.
We also knew George had written a really, really good play and that if it could get decent notices in the midst of the raves that would inevitably be given the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Steppenwolfe Theatre or the Seattle Rep, well -- we had a shot at taking the Gold.
To the flurry of press releases and background material being compiled for the throngs of arriving critics and media, we added a detailed bio of our deceased theatrical genius -- with pictures. The pics were snapshots of one of the Artistic Director’s relatives, who’d been obsessed with cycling and even included a shot of Bergé’s crushed bicycle – although I think the real one had been run over by a bus in Calgary.
One of my jobs was to go around to all the libraries and insert index cards for both the translation of Bergé’s play and his limited edition biography into the stacks. These cards indicated the volumes had been borrowed and unreturned. I also persuaded the French Consul and his wife to accept free tickets for opening night, a fact we also made sure got around.
With every available theatre venue booked, we ended up in a small 100 seat space that had once been a courtroom. And on opening night we peeked through the curtains to see those seats filled with 100 critics, our guests from the Consulate standing diplomatically at the back.
Now, having a couple of critics in the audience always makes actors nervous. Having an audience of nothing but was insane. We retired to the wings, wondering just what the hell we had been thinking. But we went for it – and the show was a smash.
The reviews were absolute raves across the board. Yes, this truly was a work of “Genius”, a silenced voice of the theatre that deserved to be heard. Yada-Yada-Yada.
The entire run sold out within a couple of days and the extended weeks in a much larger space not long after. There were actually editorials praising this plucky company of locals who had shown that Canadians could hold their own in such auspicious company.
We waited until the weeklies and the magazine reviews were in and then revealed the playwright’s true identity. Needless to say, it created a second wave of press and ticket buying. Some of those we had duped took it in a good natured way. Many even understood the point we were trying to make about homegrown talent. Others falsely claimed they’d been in on the joke. A few got downright nasty.
In the end, “Theatre of the Film Noir” toured across the country and all over the world. It’s become a popular piece in more than one language and is undoubtedly still playing somewhere tonight, more than 25 years after it made its debut.
Would it have been a hit without the foreign artiste who had ostensibly created it? I’d like to think so, but knowing Canada, I wouldn’t bet on it.
More than once, I’ve heard the marketing for the original production referred to as “pure genius”. But as one of the conspirators, I can assure you there wasn’t a genius in the bunch. It was simply a theatre company, a talented writer, a gang of actors and technicians who all had the courage to challenge the status quo, find the weak point of the system and exploit it.
Genius gets you nowhere in this business. Creativity can take you places you never imagined possible.
Tuesday, October 16, 2007
"I don't believe what's on the front page." he said, "Why would I buy what's in the entertainment section?"
We've just been through an election in Ontario. One that should have caught the attention of voters. But it didn't.
The current government has been up to its eyes in broken promises to the parents of autistic children, outright lies on taxation, failed strategies on aboriginal issues and corruption.
Less than a month before the campaign, it was learned $32 Million had been handed out to "minority" charities with political ties to the ruling party. In one case, a cricket club seeking $150,000 was awarded $1 million, no strings attached.
I found it odd that this didn't get a lot of press. Now, government corruption isn't exactly a unique story in Canada. In fact, it's almost a way of life here, with every one of our political parties mired in one or two super juicy scandals. But we just went through a fairly spectacular financial impropriety that brought down the Federal government, so you would have thought somebody would run with it.
But nobody did and the prevailing wisdom was that the various media didn't want to "offend" the ethnic minorities that made up the bulk of the cash recipients.
I'm not exactly sure how anyone can place any blame on a struggling cricket club for not passing on a windfall donation. In the immortal words of Marlon Brando, when offered $3 Million for 10 minutes work as Superman's dad, "If somebody's dumb enough to pay me that much, I'm not dumb enough to say no."
But it got me wondering when journalists became timid and concerned that their reporting might upset the readers. It made me realize that we're not getting the kind of journalism we deserve because newspapers, radio and television can no longer risk alienating any among their dwindling audience.
And maybe that's exactly why their audience is dwindling.
The crusading reporter used to be a mainstay of drama. From "Citizen Kane" and "The Harder They Fall" through a thousand film noirs to "All the President's Men", we were taught that the pen was mightier than the sword.
I'll never forget the look on CIA chief Cliff Robertson's face in "Three Days of the Condor" when Robert Redford told him he was taking his story to the New York Times, or that of any number of villians faced with the same prospect in "Serpico".
Nowadays, the Times is better known for firing reporters who've made stuff up than actually going for the social or political jugular. And worldwide, news media are being exposed as being either in bed or embedded with their subjects and less than accurate in their reporting.
Last summer, there was a political frisson as Russia laid claim to the North Pole with newspapers worldwide printing color photos of Russian subs encroaching under the polar ice cap. It took a 13 year old Finnish kid to point out the photos distributed by Reuters didn't come via military sources but were actually from a scene in "Titanic".
So were there actually Russian subs lurking under the Great White North or was everybody just taking Vladimir Putin's word for it because it sold newspapers?
A month later, Yahoo and others published the following photograph of an Iraqi woman bemoaning the "shoot first" tendencies of American soldiers in Iraq by holding up two bullets which had hit her house -- shells the photos clearly reveal, had never been fired.
Photos are now emerging that suggest this same woman has been the subject of AP photos of Palestinian suffering in the Gaza strip. I realize that in wars, truth is the first casualty. Now, it appears you can make a modeling career out of it.
Or you can pretend you're practicing hard-hitting Journalism, when you're not. Last Sunday, "60 Minutes", brought into life by the Watergate scandal and long the flagship of crusading journalists, advertised an in depth interview with Erik Prince, CEO of Blackwater, the ultra-right-wing Security Contractor suspected of causing untold misery in Iraq while simultaneously bilking American taxpayers for Billions.
I'd recently seen the magnificent Robert Greenwald documentary "Iraq for Sale: The War Profiteers" a blistering expose of the truth behind Blackwater, Halliburton, Titan and CACI, the major private contractors involved in the Iraq war. And I'd been following the lawsuit filed by the families of deceased Blackwater employees.
With the Iraqi government both seeking compensation from Blackwater and trying to boot them from the country, it seemed CBS and "60 Minutes" had scored a journalistic coup in landing the Prince interview.
Instead, the story that aired barely touched the sensitive issues and consisted primarily of reporter Lara Logan stumbling over her words to ask such hardball questions as "You said the loss of innocent life is a tragedy. Do you regret it, do you wish it never happened?" and in reference to the American people "...they want to know from you, from Blackwater, that you wish innocent people didn’t have to die as a result of anything that you’re involved in."
Well, who's going to disagree with any of that?
Ed Bradley would not have been proud and it appears that even such staunch defenders of the responsibilities of the Fifth Estate as "60 Minutes" have realized they can't afford to speak truth to power if it alienates even one of their viewers.
A few years ago, I bought a story that had appeared on "60 Minutes" for an MOW. It was a tough piece that terrified the network lawyers. But because "60 Minutes" had the courage to run it, they acquiesced. In the process, I became friends with the reporter who had initially broken the story. At the time, he was researching a piece about multiple suicides which had allegedly occurred inside Ontario casinos.
He was having difficulty getting official substantiation or interviews. Having done a lot of police stuff, I knew that, in Ontario, Homicide detectives are required to attend at the scene of all suicides to determine if the death was indeed self-inflicted. I encouraged him to find a couple of nearby Homicide cops, buy them lunch and have a chat. He did and felt he'd firmly confirmed his facts.
But the story was spiked. Maybe it still had holes in it. Maybe it was determined to be not all that newsworthy. And maybe it was killed because it upset somebody important. I know the reporter believed his editor was influenced by the potential loss of ad dollars. He moved on to another newspaper.
It certainly isn't a revelation that all forms of traditional media go easy on those of their own particular political persuasions or their heavy advertisers. But as the internet grows and the availability of information expands, more people see through that kind of bias and begin to seek their information elsewhere.
Is it any wonder that millions more people have seen "Loose Change" or "Zeitgeist: The Movie" than read the official 9/11 report.
As newspaper readership declines, radio stagnates and television news plummets in the ratings, it would seem to be a time for real journalists to show courage, demand that their venues be scrupulous about delivering information, no matter who it offends or impacts; and deliver it in a manner that serves the needs of their overall audience rather than kowtowing to private corporate interests or special interest groups.
Maybe the internet and bloggers are less reliable than traditional media. But in the circle of blogs I regularly surf, I find a desire to tell the truth that I don't see much in traditional media anymore. There's also a passion among these people I don't sense in those actually earning a living from the same process.
That crusading spirit is out there. It just doesn't reside in journalists anymore.
Tuesday, October 09, 2007
I can't remember the last time I read a book. I used to read at least one or two every week, sometimes more. But once you get into the habit of writing six hours a day and producing, where your every minute is dominated with reading scripts and budgets and notes and memos; the thought of curling up with a good book isn't atop your list of favorite recreations.
Back when I did read, one of my favorite authors was Joseph Conrad ("Heart of Darkness", "Lord Jim", "Nostromo"). Conrad was an interesting guy, didn't learn English until he was 20, spent half his life as a merchant seaman and still created a writing style and body of work that would influence virtually every major writer of the 20th Century and especially Ernest Hemingway, Graham Greene, William Burroughs and Jerzy Kosinski.
The first time I was asked to lecture on screenwriting, I went looking for an explanation of the craft and found it in Conrad's description of what he did -- "My job is to make you see."
That wasn't how I saw what I did when I started writing. My first scripts were purely mercenary and primarily ego driven. I was an actor repeatedly cast in roles where I was either going off to war or losing my virginity (sometimes both). I wanted to do something different, to stretch, to show off my talents (either real or imagined).
I had the good fortune of doing plays with some of the most talented writers in Canadian and American theatre. I also had the cutie pie looks that kept me busy on an endless stream of television and film material written by complete hacks.
During theatre rehearsals, I experienced the rewriting and polishing process as the playwrights sweated out the daily agony of hammering their work into performance shape. And on film sets, I had the down time to look at the day's pages and think, "Fuck, I can do better than this!"
And so I used the experience of the former combined with the ease of the latter to forward my own career by writing a couple of films to exhibit what I felt I did best.
Joseph Conrad felt he truly became a writer while serving as the captain of a Congo steamboat, the Roi des Belges. His experiences and the insight he gleaned into human nature evolved into "Heart of Darkness", his most acclaimed novel.
I think I became a writer by riding around in a police car.
When I was hired to write the pilot for "Top Cops", I knew very little about police work and I didn't like cops that much. The few I'd met had hassled me for having long hair, searched me for drugs, wrote tickets for speeds I wasn't traveling or pulled guns on me on lonely country roads.
I looked on cops as a necessary evil, bigoted or societally blinkered, power drunk and prone to throwing their weight around or outright bullying.
But I liked the show concept, the money was great and I had an offer to do something better before the summer was over. Luckily, I knew enough about drama to get the show on the air and vamped my way through a few more episodes learning what made the network happy -- and how much I didn't know about the world of cops.
Then one hot July night, I was driving home at 3:00 in the morning and pulled alongside a Toronto police cruiser at a stop light. My windows were open and so were those of the cop car. I glanced over at the two young constables. One nodded back as the other ignored me, listening to a call crackling over their radio. An instant later, their toplights and siren kicked on and they rocketed away.
I sat at the light, suddenly realizing that I didn't have a clue what those guys might be feeling at this moment. I could write that scene. Cruiser at night. Toplights. Siren. Destination unknown.
But I couldn't put myself in the shoes of the characters. And that meant I couldn't put the audience there either.
"My job is to make you see".
The Executive Producer of "Top Cops", Sonny Grosso, was a former NY Cop made famous when one of his cases was turned into a film entitled "The French Connection". Sonny made a couple of calls and a day later, I was in New York, scheduled to spend a weekend riding along with cops patroling the most crime ridden precinct in Harlem.
Sonny always believed you jumped in at the deep end.
I turned up at the precinct dressed, as instructed, in jeans, T-shirt, sneakers and baseball cap. The Black desk Sergeant took one look at my Toronto Blue Jays cap and sneered, "You tryin' to get shot?"
I was outfitted with a kevlar vest, given a quick briefing on what I was supposed to do in an emergency ("How fast can you run?") and signed a paper saying the City of New York wasn't responsible for my sorry ass.
My first night was in an NYPD cruiser. I was introduced to the two cops I'd be shadowing and informed that my first duty was to pay for coffee.
We got coffee and parked on an overpass overlooking evening rush hour traffic. This was their first assignment of each night shift, a half hour in which they could catch up on wants and warrents while remaining handy for one of the inevitable fender benders. I'd barely cracked the lid on my coffee when the radio dispatcher snapped off a nearby address along with..."Man with a gun, shots fired". Their coffees went out the window and mine went all over my vest as the cruiser took off.
My first thought was, "We're not going to this..."
But we were. And my second thought was, "I'm not ready for this..."
Then I wondered how they could be. One minute, complete calm and a casual coffee. The next, siren screaming, weapons drawn and a crime scene coming on too fast to think about what you were going to do when you got there.
By the time we covered the two blocks to the scene, we were back up to two officers who already had a man spread-eagled on the sidewalk, a Saturday night special with a duct taped handle firmly under the foot of one of the uniform cops. Two other cruisers rolled up right behind us.
The perpetrator was taken away, the other cops ribbing the arresting officers. Much of their night would be spent doing the necessary paperwork to charge and arraign their arrest. That meant more turf to cover for the remaining radio cars.
As I watched these guys goof with each other, I realized they were no different from the other tribes of which I'd been a part, sports teams, bands, theatre companies. Black guys, White guys, Asians and Hispanics, united by the uniform they wore and defined by their job.
Our next few calls were domestic disputes. A drunk husband at the first, a mentally disturbed wife behind the second and at the third, a young Black man I will always remember.
His girlfriend had just broken off their relationship and he had resisted her request to leave her apartment, certain he could change her mind. Unbeknownst to either of them, her mother had called the police. The two cops and I now stood in the apartment as it was explained that he could either leave on his own or come with us.
To the pain of his heartbreak was added the humiliation of a couple of cops giving him the bum's rush. He wavered for a long time, fighting back his hurt and embarrassment, edging toward that line where the choice would no longer be available. His girlfriend glared at her mother, angry that she hadn't left well enough alone. I could see that both officers hated having to be part of this ridiculous and unnecessary drama. But it was their job and they did it.
Four hours later, they spotted the kid in a coffee shop and went in to sit with him for a while, assure him they knew he wasn't what his girl's mom thought he was, that they'd lost girlfriends too and unfortunately, it wasn't fatal.
An hour earlier, we'd chased a crack dealer into an abandoned tenement, losing him in the rubble and the darkness and finding ourselves walking on a carpet of broken syringes and discarded needles. It was a shooting gallery. And at the height of the AIDS epidemic, we were ankle deep in detritus that was a pin prick or glass shard away from infecting all of us.
We cursed a lot, silently accepted our predicament and walked out like soldiers navigating a minefield.
An hour before that we'd found a lost kid and then assisted another of 12 as she was loaded into an ambulance in the final stages of labor. The father hovered nearby, high on something and insisting she shouldn't be allowed to come home unless she had a boy who could play for the Knicks. Scared to death, she promised her mother she would, perhaps hoping that would also make life easier for mom, who was the father's real girlfriend.
We went for lunch after that, talking about abortion laws, wondering how many Pro-Lifers would feel that way after seeing a 12 year old in labor. We talked about a lot of things in the half hour we had to down Arbie's sandwiches and Snapple. They wanted to know about making movies and TV -- not from any desire to be part of that scene, but because they'd both just read "Nobody's Fool" and thought it would make a really good movie.
They talked about other best sellers they were reading, how one of them had gotten the whole Times crossword last Sunday, how hard the Yankees sucked and how difficult it was to understand 14 year olds, especially when they were yours.
After lunch we took sandwiches to a rookie, who like all rookies was assigned to stand at a post (a street callbox) all night for his first week, learning to watch and listen and understand the ebb and flow of the neighborhood. My Ridealong cops tried to coax him into doing things that would get him into trouble, shared spooky stories on their own rookie nights on a post and otherwise made the kid feel like he was already a part of the tribe and they'd be there for him.
Our last call of the night was a rain drenched race to that post to rescue the same rookie after somebody started shooting at him.
A little after midnight, my first ridealong was over. It would take me until dawn to record all the experiences, in the process realizing I didn't know a damn thing about cops, and neither did anybody else who had been raised on a diet of TV cop shows or what was most often said about police officers in the various media.
First thing next morning, I called to pass on that "better offer" that was waiting.
Over the four seasons of "Top Cops", I did several hundred ridealongs in just about every major American city. I hung with narcotics squads, gang units, homicide detectives and beat cops. In the process, I realized that the world was a whole lot bigger than it appears on television, and to be "good" on television you had to take the audience somewhere they had never been or give them an insight they'd never had.
"My job is to make you see".
Writing for television is as simple (and as complicated) as that.
Monday, October 08, 2007
But I'm told it had something to do with a bunch of our politicians positioning a Holiday about halfway between Labor Day and Christmas, while not wanting to match what "they" were doing further south.
No matter what side of the border you're on, however, the sentiments and the traditions are the same. Family and friends. Pumpkin pie and Turkey. It's a chance to express your gratitude for the good things life has given you and share some of that abundance with your neighbors.
This past year's been rough on a number of people that I care about, many of them American. And in the midst of our celebration it's good to remember that there are those with less reason to be thankful, less able to have a table heavy with the bounty of the harvest.
Hopefully, they too will soon have reason to be Thankful.
Sunday, October 07, 2007
I use the term "leaked" advisedly, because it was odd that none of the escapees, which also included CW's "Reaper" and the first two episodes of Showtime's "Dexter", were work prints, rough cuts or bore the other watermarks of material clandestinely spirited from their rightful owners.
In other words, 12 pristine, DVD quality pilots for series whose debuts impact the bottom lines of several networks in a major way, all got loose at exactly the same time.
Sounds like a marketing plan to me.
And one that was both useful and necessary for the studios and networks involved.
This is a make or break season for television as we've known it. Audiences are receding, budgets are exploding, advertisers are cautious and the usually dependable media hype has been diluted by the disappearance of TV writers and critics in many markets and an increasingly concentrated focus on Celebrity misbehavior in the television and magazine arenas.
There was a time when "Entertainment Tonight" and fan mags could be counted on to create TV stars. Now, they get more mileage by trying to destroy them.
An AOL/Time Warner poll conducted in late September found 62% of Americans holding the opinion that TV was getting worse, with a mere 7% indicating a desire to sample even one of the new offerings.
In a situation like this, an imaginative approach is essential. And since not much imagination had been evident in the announced pilots, most being takes on previous hits or well worn TV paradigms; the hype machine needed to create buzz, controversy and spin in a short period of time. And what better bunch to do that with than the less-discerning-than-journalist fan bloggers and genre geeks.
At some level, I think the Studios and Nets got what they wanted, for a number of the leaked shows were soon re-tooling ("Caveman") throwing staff overboard ("Bionic Woman") or taking out full page ads ("Pushing Daisies") to trumpet their imminent arrival.
One thing that caught my attention during this whole exercise was that anybody who took the time to assess and respond to the material would have to have been, in Hollywood terms, "A Pirate". Yet, there was Hollywood now embracing such rogues when it fit their needs.
Ever since Jean Lafayette, American desperation has begot strange bedfellows.
It'll be interesting to see if the next kid charged with illegal downloading by the MPAA will have a lawyer smart enough to ask how his client is supposed to differentiate between pirated material and that placed on P2P sites by the studios themselves.
It'll take a few more weeks to know for certain if the online buzz created by "The Great Escape" will make a difference where it counts most -- in the Ratings. But if the first week's numbers are an indication -- it wasn't much help.
On the season's debut Sunday, the highest rated prime time program was a football game. By the second week, the numbers were saying that the overall audience had declined a full 7% from the same week in 2006.
Last month, the networks handed their advertisers $150 Million in "Give Backs", representing the 8% dip in audiences they'd suffered for all of last season.
While the numbers confirm that the audience hasn't found a reason to come back to Network television, perhaps of greater concern is that, so far, none of the new series has generated any real excitement.
We're now 2 episodes into most with nary a "Desperate Housewives", "Lost", "Heroes" or even an "Ugly Betty" emerging from the pack.
This is significant for two reasons. First, if there is no breakout hit, how is anybody supposed to know what to copy for next season?
And second -- if the first wave of shows underperforms as badly as they appear to be doing, the Nets are faced with throwing a new slate of programs (deemed over the summer to be of even lesser appeal) into the breach. But few, if any, of these series have banked episodes. And with a Writers Guild of America strike imminent, failure by the reinforcements will mean we're in for a long winter of dance contests, spelling bees and bug eating.
Canadian audiences seem to be following the same path as those parked on American couches. Hockey Night In Canada's season debut was down 41% from last year. I'm not going to blame that one entirely on a disinterested audience. The season debut was on a Thursday, a night now so dominated by programming aimed at women that it's long been "Boy's Night Out" for most of the married or attached men I know.
I'm also one of a growing number of guys who won't be watching any hockey on CBC this season.
As I endured play-by-play stalwart Bob Cole stumbling over names and losing track of what was happening on-ice, as well as three times refering to players as "that guy" -- as in "That guy misses the pass" and "Wow, that guy hit the crossbar"; I realized that the amazing hockey coverage I'd seen from ESPN and NBC during the playoffs hadn't budged the traditionalists at HNIC. Don Cherry's anti-Francophone opening line confirmed that the same-old-same-old is what's on tap over there.
So this year, I'll be watching hockey online at www.nhl.com. Their Center Ice (No Canadian Spelling Here) package costs less than the cable/satellite versions and will also help wean me off the masochistic relationship with the Toronto Maple Leafs that the CBC and I seem to have shared.
Go Penguins!!! I think...
Losing me won't pitchfork the numbers at Hockey Night, but I'm certain I'm part of the same trend that already has the National Football League scheduling more of their games on their own network and online, despite being offered a king's ransom in TV license fees for them by several US Networks.
The NFL also introduced new rules for the media this season. To protect the internet operations of their 32 teams, they informed news organizations that they can post no more than 45 seconds per day of video online on any team. That includes player interviews, news conferences and comments by coaches.
When one of the strongest brands and most reliable suppliers of a captive audience begins to shift content away from traditional televised media and also makes sure they are the "Go To" source that gives fans what they want when they want it, you know the handwriting is on the wall for broadcasting as we know it.
And when guys like me, who spend half their alloted TV time watching hockey to start with, begin to watch it online -- how much longer until we start questioning how badly we really need most of the channels we're paying for but hardly ever watch.
That's when a trickle of audience depletion turns into a flood.
Unfortunately, the people in broadcasting, though clearly under threat, don't seem to be diverging from their traditional development and scheduling paths. Despite acknowledgment that their lunch is being eaten by cable services like HBO, Showtime, AMC and even Turner, nobody in the free-to-air executive suites seems motivated to pick up the gauntlet or use the awesome strength they still have to join the battle.
At the CBC, "Little Mosque", which did well last season (though not in an earth shattering way) was simply supplied with fresh horses, but not adjusted to expand its reach. It debuted down 25% from last season's average and "Intelligence", a series which had no business (beyond dubious artistic merit) being renewed, saw its audience decline by a full 50%.
Whether the audience opinion is wary interest or outright rejection, if you're going to renew a series, you also need to give them a reason to suspect their first opinion might have been lacking and they need to give the show more attention.
That doesn't seem to be happening anymore. And did I miss a meeting or is there a resurgence of 70's style television going on in Canada? Because CBC has two offerings about to debut which clearly reflect that ambience and style.
I'm not sure how "Triple Threat" and "Heartland" will fare, but after watching the online promos, I can't see either of them threatening anything scheduled opposite, and I sure wouldn't want to be aboard the shows that follow them.
Meanwhile, a nasty scrap has broken out between CTV and Global over who programs the better selection of American series. While such dust-ups are common in most competitive markets, it caught us off-guard in Canada, where all our networks are more or less publicly subsidized and therefore expected to be courteous in polite company.
But it further exemplified just how high the stakes are this season.
No matter what the Canadian ratings are for US series, our viewing habits won't impact on their potential cancellation or demotion to an alternate time slot. Those cancellations and time shifts wreak havoc with the Canadian simulcast system, so advertisers for specific demographics need to be locked in before the cull commences.
Both Canadian Nets are also strapped for cash after a summer of corporate take-overs and with little product to market to ipods or on DVD, immediate ad cash is all that's keeping the lights on.
Job cuts might hide the bleeding for a quarter or two but after that...
To be sure, DVR numbers(once tabulated)will pretty up the picture for everyone. But I'm still not exactly sure how they know I watched "Chuck" later the same night, the following Saturday afternoon, or intend to catch up over the Christmas holidays -- let alone whether I fast forwarded through all the commercials or just the boring ones.
The spin going on in our industry isn't just Networks pretending their product mysteriously escaped online, it's in their pretending that nothing's wrong, that band-aids are enough and things can go on just like they always have.
In a way, "Cavemen" isn't just the name of the first new series that's likely to be cancelled this season. It's a description of the TV Executives occupying the boardrooms.