Friday, January 25, 2008

THE WINNING SKID


Six major prime time series have debuted in Canada since the New Year. Over at the CBC, that's "The Border", "MVP", "JPod" and "Sophie". Global launched "The Guard" this week, just before "The Murdoch Mysteries" bolted from the CITY-TV stable.

To the surprise and delight of many, all three networks pulled out more stops than they've previously been known to in getting the word out. The word being, "Hey, there's GREAT NEW SHOWS and WE got 'em!" It was incredibly charming and businesslike.

As a rule, I don't review and try not to form opinions until a series has had a chance to work out its kinks. Kinda broke that resolution with a recent post on "The Border" but, so far, I haven't seen any reason to recant.

However, I do have an observation I'd like to share about all of the new arrivals and it's this...

There isn't a "Mad Men", a "Dexter" or a "Breaking Bad" in the bunch. There's no pretender to "The Wire", no series remotely trying to challenge the creative skill of "Jekyll" or anyone even attempting to re-imagine a genre in the manner that "Battlestar Galactica" did.

Now, that's odd, because the creatives of this country (and the audience) have been inspired and invigorated by all of those shows. Their episodes are endlessly dissected, their elements examined and their potential directions spec'd. Chatrooms are aflame with debate and conjecture. High School kids, barely literate, churn out fan fiction in homage at a rate and abundance that would give Stephen King and JK Rowling pause.

Most of these programs quickly found a significant audience and critical acclaim, those little things that networks enjoy and their shareholders prosper from.

These are the series that clearly excite the creative "us" and the hungry "them". They're where "we" want to start in raising the stakes and exactly what "they" need to see to go "All In" in committing their viewing hours.

But for some reason, our Canadian nets have ignored the overwhelming creative drift toward changing the paradigms and trotted out a selection of knock-offs of shows everybody's seen and done before -- in some cases, long before -- and like those eager kids who put on a show in somebody's barn over the summer, they seem quite proud of themselves for doing little more than not forgetting their lines or bumping into the furniture.

"See we made a TV show that looks like a TV show." is fine and dandy but there's supposed to be more to this business than just keeping your pencil inside the borders of the template you're tracing.

Let's be honest. "The Border" does what cop shows have always done and stopping now and then to declaim our sovereignty just isn't anybody's idea of compelling. "MVP" feels like its made by people who've never actually had sex and wouldn't titillate eighth graders. "Jpod" is vacant and "Sophie" isn't very funny.

Those footsteps you hear is somebody coming to repossess my Cancon pom-poms, so I might as well keep going.

"The Guard" is a perfectly acceptable version of "Sea Hunt" (1958) even though it copies Kevin Costner's 2006 Coast Guard film "The Guardian" almost shot for shot at times. Okay, maybe there's only so many ways to shoot a guy alone in the ocean, but think one up! It's kind of a rule.

And "Murdoch Mysteries" (sigh) I assume the pitch was "Murder She Wrote" meets "Road to Avonlea" but did it also have to meet "slow" and "ponderous"?

Look, I know shooting on the water is hard and maintaining a period sensibility is hard and comedy is really hard. But that's the job! The audience doesn't care how cold or budget strapped or bereft of a gag you were when it was time to roll the cameras. They want something to excite them, move them and strike them as funny. They've seen it all, have it on DVD and it's packed into their PVRs or available online. You have to give them something they've never experienced before.

Once they've bought into your premise and like that cranky but benign old Dr. House and the way David Caruso takes off his sunglasses, you can settle back and just keep repeating what worked in the past. But that's not Season One!

Season One is when you grab them by the throat and the imagination and insist they pay attention. Because if you don't -- they won't.

And it appears they already haven't.

The initial ratings for these series are not good numbers, spin or add 'em up any way you want.

Set the arbitrary "IT'S A HIT" bar at a million if that's your safety zone. But not one of these shows even got an "A" on that self-imposed scale. And there were no episodes of "24" to compete with. Viewers weren't coming home eager to find out what any Ghosts were whispering or which Housewife was most desperate because the American nets have no new dramas or comedies. We had a clear road and a full tank of gas, kids. Nothing was in the way. We could've hit Two Million easy.

But we didn't.

And all of us who work in this industry, whether we'll say it out loud or not know why. Those innovative scripts exist in Canada. There are producers who want to tackle challenging concepts and arenas. We have world class directors and actors, more often than not only recognized as world class after they work somewhere else.

But nobody in network development asks for that stuff or those people. Oh, they'll say they want them. But if they're presented, they're quietly shunted aside or watered down to get to "what our audience wants" although the programming supervised by many of these people indicates they don't have the first clue who that audience is.

I recall being at a seminar guest addressed by the head of CBC drama when their big hits were "Beachcombers" and "Seeing Things". Somebody asked which show she most wished had been brought to the CBC first. Without hesitation she named the then current audience sensation "Twin Peaks" and was practically laughed out of the building.

Alter those titles with the present day equivalents and you'll have that conversation with a Canadian TV exec any day of the week.

Unlike most television industries, ours does not require domestic hits or foreign sales to survive or create profits. Government funding and tax breaks cover the lion's share of production and development costs and therefore the bulk of the financial risk. Our broadcasters enjoy an additional safety net of rebroadcast American hits that draw ad dollars and audience. Over at the CBC, the golden goose that is "Hockey Night in Canada" and 3 months of NHL playoffs ensure that nobody there has to wonder where their next meal is coming from.

As I've been preaching since I started this blog, because it's not their money and their future careers don't depend on it, Canadian programming is seen as little more than an unfortunate license requirement by our broadcasters.

There is no passion for the work, and passion is what creates good television.

It's interesting that what we have built is actually the perfect system for taking chances. But that's not what happens. Because that's hard work too. And Hits bring the expectation of more Hits and raise the bar, which makes the job that much harder.

So our nets stick with mediocrity because they're most comfortable at that performance level.

This week, sportscaster Steve Dankoff, in describing the ongoing lack of success that is the Toronto Maple Leafs, coined a phrase that aptly describes the current state of Canadian television -- "The Winning Skid".

Everybody knows what a losing skid is. And like any business with a poor product that isn't selling, when a team's losing skid gets bad enough, ownership is forced to make changes. The coach or manager lacking original ideas is fired. A beloved star who can't cut it anymore is traded. Once the system has been cleansed, the passion returns and the team starts winning again.

But sometimes a losing team doesn't get to the point where changes get made because it goes on a "winning skid".

As Dankoff describes the phenomenon, "Through small victories, everything moves in the wrong direction". And instead of reaching the crisis point where something changes, a take-what-you-can-get mentality develops and the downward slide continues unchecked.

Instead of building our industry, the small victories of "almost a hit" numbers and good reviews by media owned or beholden to the broadcaster or the concept of Canadian drama at any cost extend our winning skid and preclude turning this around.

The unsuccessful managers remain in charge, the uninspired players stay on the first line, the backroom buddy system continues oiling the ATM at the CTF -- while the audience thins further or wears paper bags over their heads.


Small victory by small victory we convince more and more Canadians that we're not really very good at making television. Which, in turn makes it harder to get those innovative shows made and provides more ammunition for those who would prefer that having to pay for Canadian television goes away all together.

Despite my harsh words, the problem in our industry is not with the people who work on any of the series that debuted this month. All of them have bigger dreams, higher personal expectations and a desire to be part of projects that could really make an audience sit up and take notice. They merely lack the supportive spark that could have ignited those possibilities.

That spark comes from the top and it doesn't seem to exist in our executive offices. And that has to change or the winning skid, as all skids inevitably do, will reach a point where recovery is impossible.

16 comments:

Wil Z said...

We only need to look at the rise of original drama on basic cable channels in the US. They also suffer from lower budgets, thin marketing, and smaller runs of 13 episodes, yet they manage to crank out leading-edge work. FX has the three staples of drama in their lineup: the cop show, the doctor show, and the lawyer show, but nobody can say The Shield, Nip/Tuck and Damages are typical, derivative, or boring.

Here are a couple of quotes from an interview with FX president John Landgraf on mediavillage.com:

"The risk of not taking risks is greater than the risk of failure. Concern about failure eliminates the opportunity for great success and you choose to toil in mediocrity. There's a tendency to get conservative and the contention is you shouldn't keep swinging for the fences. But if you don't you might as well pack your bags. You need to put it on the line with every new series. It's too challenging a time in this business to play for singles."

Then, this:

"Financial analysts who are risk managers and make decisions primarily on a numbers basis have taken over American business. I understand analytics but the notion you can understand the world through linear analysis simply doesn't apply to world affairs or to story telling. People respond emotionally to television. In narrative story telling you need to strike out in the wilderness and hope you hit a responsive chord and survive."

And this from the suit, the corporate guy working for Rupert Murdoch. Holy smokes, he talks like one of us. No wonder FX is leading the charge.

Imagine if just one network president in Canada talked this way and then backed it up with daring choices.

Frank "Dolly" Dillon said...

That was a great post and articulated some of what i have been thinking over the last few months in a kinder, more thoughtful, and less snarky way than i am able to manage.

I have done the development dance with these people so many times and fallen for the "we want something outside of the box" line every single time that i know down deep that i am the stupid one when they pass on the material in favour of yet another cop/lawyer/doctor/light-hearted PI thing that we have all seen over and over again.

I know people on all of these shows and i know they are really talented and they are making things that are well crafted but i know that they are all tv-savey enough that given a chance they could make something innovative without turning it into an atom egoyan wank fest.

You are right -- we have a perfect situation here to take chances on material but, despite what the networks say, when push comes to shove they are not really putting their money where their mouth is (and then to make matters worse they go out and buy second run american stuff that is edgy -- dexter,mad men etc -- while not taking a chance to see if there is anyone in this country who could do it).

I am not saying i am by any means the person who could pull that off but i know there are enough "david chase" type writers in this country who could if given the opportunity. Instead they are being ignored or humoured until they are finally told that what they have spent the last few months working on "will not connect with our audience".

The new shows are fine for what they are, some are better than others, but the formula is just so cynical -- get a half recongnizable american star, get a familiar concept (there's lines in the border "you Canadian's are so.... you American's always think..." that could have been pulled right out of a Bordertown script - and that was a half hour piece of shit family drama. And I'm not dissing "the border" -- it is easily the best of the bunch) and crow about ratings that davinci's inquest and cold squad drew during the height of american network tv's popularity.

that said, i really don't wish failure on any of those folks working on the current tv lineup and I do hope that guys like DMc are able to keep their enthusiasm and desire to make this country's TV really shine. It's just a fuck of a hard fight sometimes...

jutratest said...

"See we made a TV show that looks like a TV show." and so proud of it!

And all wanking each other about it until it's canceled.

Loved Hot for Words by the way.

Diane Kristine said...

You're my hero, Jim. Sometimes I feel like I'm stuck in The Emperor's New Clothes.

Artemus said...

> There isn't a "Mad Men", a "Dexter" or a "Breaking Bad" in the bunch.

> Now, that's odd


It's not 'odd'. There's a simple reason for that: the CBC is NOT interested in doing those kinds of shows, it is NOT INTERESTED in pushing the boundaries of television. PERIOD.

The CBC is only interested in working with the same people and giving budgets to friends. That's all. it's like a gang or a mafia. You're not part of the family, you're out.

You have a great idea for a new drama? you go and propose it to the CBC and you will be turned down 100% guaranteed.

let's say you created the revanped Battlestar galactica. Here's a typical session at the CBC:

1. you'll get refused because they haven't worked with you in the past
2. You'll be turned down because "We don't do Science-Fiction"
3. You'll be rejected because "isn't that an old show from the 70's?"
4. You'll be turned away because "but it's not a kid show. sci-fi is for kids".

and so on... 1 million and 1 excuses NOT do to it and not a single programming director with reasons to say YES.

That's the CBC in a nutshell.

Last time CBC execs were in Montreal to listen to pitches for original shows, we asked the head of variety (Fred Nicolaidis) what he was looking for. His answer? "nothing.. I just came along. I'm not interested in doing anything".

They said they wanted to work with independent producers, to create new shows.. and that they had put money aside just for independents.

And 2 hours later, the head of drama told everyone that no dramatic series would be given to independents, and that these would be only be given to large production houses.

At the end of the day, it didn't matter if you had innovative, creative or mind boggling ideas to push the boundaries of TV and make a hit show: if you had a great idea, it better be a documentary otherwise the chances of getting it on the air would be nil.

Want to know how low the CBC can get? Just check the submission release form here:
http://www.cbc.ca/independentproducers/SubmissionReleaseForm.pdf

Particularly item #5 (here's the gist of it:
You send them a proposal and the CBC may in the future develop materials identical to your proposal. And the CBC can use this material and you have no rights and no recourse against the CBC.

And you think it's "odd" that there aren't any new ground breaking shows proposed to the CBC???

Jutratest said...

I must add that Durham County was ground breaking and awesome. We need more of that.

Cunningham said...

I thought it was a Cancon jockstrap, not pom poms....

My bad.

Carry on.

Anonymous said...

Articulate, sober and even handed post. I don't think I'd be able to make the same observations without resorting to a black screed about how very bad is the writing on "The Border" (it is just a continuous stream of the most tired cliches in the business). I think, in the end, it all boils down to money, in that the Canadian broadcasters have so little to risk that they just won't. They can't see that the stakes are so low that it doesn't matter, that they might as well take a chance on something new because the potential for success for the same old thing is so limited. As for the execs claiming the new CBC season is a hit ... those execs have to do that.

Dave said...

thanks for the post.

elan said...

Hi. Very interesting post.

You write: "Those innovative scripts exist in Canada." So, what projects are you talking about? Who wrote them? Are any of them set up with specific production companies and, if so, which ones?

Thanks!

elan said...

I thought INTELLIGENCE was very much what you're talking about - a show that was ambitious with its genre and encouraged the audience to rise to the challenge. It was smart, thoughtful, sometimes dazzling, admittedly sometimes rather dense, but never uninteresting. I have no idea what its budget was, but it never seemed to be straining it and the majority of the performances were top-notch.

Nobody watched it.

What were its usual ratings? 250,000? I know it's in development in the States as a remake - I'll watch that if it happens. But very few people watched it here.

I know CBC took some knocks for not promoting it. I live in Toronto, so I saw promos all over the place, but I'm sure that didn't translate across the country.

But following on the audience reaction to the equally ambitious, equally low-rated DA VINCI'S CITY HALL versus the audience-reaction, at least initially, to the hooky-premised, teeth-gratingly cheeseball, generally unambitious (aside from questions of representation) LITTLE MOSQUE...

I mean, you're right, it feels the winning skid. Low numbers for ambitious versus bigger numbers for unambitious shouldn't mean pursue more unambitious material. Except when you're playing with other people's money, it's easy to see how minor reward pays off bigger than major failure.

What were the actual numbers like on SLINGS & ARROWS? On DURHAM COUNTY?

My question being (and, hell, there's no reason why you should know the answer) - when we make innovative shows, does anyone watch? How do we justify stretching the boundaries to development execs when they can pull up ratings numbers to argue those shows don't draw?

Any insight you might have would be much appreciated...

-Elan.

Brandon Laraby said...

"It's interesting that what we have built is actually the perfect system for taking chances. But that's not what happens. Because that's hard work too. And Hits bring the expectation of more Hits and raise the bar, which makes the job that much harder."

Excellent post! But it immediately makes me wonder:

"What can I do to help change this?" - as a writer, as a viewer.

I'm fighting so hard to get into this industry because I have stories I WANT to tell (and I'm positive I'm not the only one) so what do I do? How do we go about getting these people to take chances?

And if we can't get them to, how do we do it ourselves?

Cheers!
Brandon

rick mcginnis said...

Very nice column. I agree with you, which is why I wrote this:

http://www.metronews.ca/column.aspx?id=104804

rick mcginnis said...

Nice column, and I agree with you totally, which is why I wrote this:

http://www.metronews.ca/column.aspx?id=104804

Riddley Walker said...

“there's supposed to be more to this business than just keeping your pencil inside the borders of the template you're tracing.”

Abso-fucking-lutely.

egerszo said...

I must say you make some valid points in your entry. Before I go further, I would like address the fact that you're pointing out a certain lack of originality, or rather, creativity in Canadian drama, at least as far as these six offers are concerned. To challenge that, at least two of the six programs show to a certain extent "originality in context" as I like to call it. jPod is, in fact, anything but traditional television drama/comedy. It is not, to the least extent, vacant. It is a major transformation of the public broadcaster's way of doing business and I believe that it shows a relative open-mindedness that is not usual for the Ceeb. MVP, although more in the conventional side, is also fresh in context, although I agree with you in that it is not fresh in content.

The truth is that it is, indeed, challenging to produce good quality local television that people will watch. It is also true, however, that no locally produced drama can, at this point in history, appeal to two million people. Apart from the local and foreign "spillover" promotion of American shows, these are also designed for larger audiences by nature. They usually are relatively universal in themes and subject matter, never mind the influential TV-watching practices and visual dynamics they push on every single human being in the world. The dilemma facing Canadian TV drama lies within the question of whether to attempt to escape this U.S. model by "stepping outside of the box" or to amortize the costly productions.

Last year, by chance, I came across what I consider to be one of the neatest programs I have ever seen on TV. It was a Canadian show that nearly no-one had ever even heard about. (It is likely that many of your readers never heard of it. Say, it was "Slings and Arrows.") This is where it gets tricky. The U.S. examples you refer to, such as "Mad Men" and "Dexter," although smart and tightly written shows, they do not escape the box. Major themes are universal and, in general terms, they are designed to be "watchable" everywhere. Is Canada's role as far as fictional TV production is concerned to provide this kind of entertainment? If you believe it is, then, it is obviously and cruelly failing. But, what if that is not what it should be? What if creatives are still in need of finding their own voice and followers? Finding the Canadian originality aspect is what prevents the 3-million viership for homegrown fiction from even be thought about at this point in history. Stepping outside of the box is not about creating a local version of "The Wire," no matter how smart "The Wire" may be.

As many others commenting here, I see and feel the frustration of local storytellers myself...