Monday, February 18, 2008


As they did a couple of weeks ago at the CTF hearings, Canada's broadcasters use every television festival, industry convention and government hearing to avow their commitment to providing Canadians with the very best television possible.

According to their oft repeated mantras, they're continually out there beating the bushes for great shows and learning what their audience really, really wants. They'll go on ad nauseum about the back breaking process they endure trolling foreign markets or US network previews to find quality product; and wax poetic on the tenacious dedication of their own crack development teams.

"Nobody tries to produce a bad show."

"Our success depends on giving our viewers what they want."

And if the regulators would only let them have a little more free money and a somewhat longer leash -- oh, well, then -- what wonders they could achieve.

Unfortunately, actions speak louder than words and the actions of our broadcasters in just this past week, as their words to the CRTC were still echoing around that hermetically sealed Gatineau hearing room, indicate how they really operate.

Let's start with CTV and "Dexter".

For those unfamiliar with Miami's most famous fictional serial killer, "Dexter" is a Showtime series about a charming homicidal monster. It's intelligent, challenging and utterly original -- all those things "Good" television is supposed to be.

Yeah, there's blood and people speak like actual adults from time to time. But personally, I find the blood on "Dexter" more rooted in the drama and easier to handle than the gore on "Nip/Tuck" or "CSI", two other CTV series. And pretty much any language used on the show is more than familiar to Canadian audiences after six uncut seasons of "The Sopranos".

But, despite its critical acclaim, CTV didn't pick up "Dexter" for Canadian audiences after season one -- or season two. Nor did they, upon learning CBS was bringing "Dexter" aboard to shore up its WGA Strike damaged slate, decide the time might be right to run the unexpurgated 55 minute episodes. A decision that could have been seen as an attempt to provide quality programming to an audience left without a lovable homicidal maniac since Tony Soprano's untimely blackout.

Only CTV didn't do that. Instead they simulcast the CBS 47 minute cleaned up and cut down version.


Well, it might be that they thought the CBS cut was better. Sometimes "Less" really is "More". But the truth is, CTV needs to shore up its own numbers right now and simulcasting with CBS is the easiest way to do that.

You see, when a US series is simulcast in Canada, the foreign network feed is replaced by one rebroadcast from Canada. Somebody throws a switch and the American version, with all its commercials, news bumpers and scrolling Tornado warnings, becomes whatever is on offer in Canada. It's the reason you don't see all the Superbowl Commercials or might be led to believe an actual Canadian Tire or Pizza Pizza blimp is gliding over a NASCAR track.

In return for protecting us from buying adjustable beds or realizing that cordless drills down there cost a fraction of what they do here, our broadcasters get to lay claim to the viewers who were watching the station they've taken hostage.

That means that when Global says 2 million people were watching "House", they mean that 600,000 were watching on a cable or satellite channel attributed to Global and 1.4 million were staying on FOX to be in line for the immediate Brittany updates at 11:00 instead of having to endure something about transfer payments on "Global National" before they get to the really important stuff.

Now, as we all learned during the recent CTF hearings, "Audience reach" (ratings) are one of the "Metrics" (Measurements) used to determine "Envelopes" (free taxpayer money). Meaning that even if the viewers watching "House" had fallen asleep on top of the remote so nobody could change the channel from FOX, they help increase the amount of money that flows into Global/CanWest coffers.

As I've said, one of the high points of the hearings for me was watching the CanWest Reps present an earnest argument for their overall ratings to be a "Metric" in determining the size of their envelope and the Commissioners dutifully exploring just what that might mean. Next day somebody from the CTF stated, "Uh -- like -- we already do that, eh?" indicating that nobody on either side of the hearing table had even the first clue on the matter.

Do we need much more evidence that the CRTC is staffed by buffoons who don't know Jack about the industry they're regulating? Actually, I'll give you some in a minute. But first I want to introduce you to another Canadian broadcaster dedicated to quality.

Two years ago, a consortium consisting of CTV and Rogers Communications was awarded broadcast rights to the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver and the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. They promised to deliver finer coverage of these athletic events than anyone in Canada has ever done before. An obvious dig at the losers at the CBC since everybody knew the only broadcaster here who's ever done the Olympics was them.

They also promised to bring a vibrant new broadcast style to the games, doing things that would make them exciting to the partners' core 18-49 demographic. And to do that, they promptly hired the CBC's Olympic anchor Brian Williams, who'll be 64 when the torch arrives in Vancouver -- and a year later brought over the Executive Director of CBC Sports, Nancy Lee, to produce the show for them.

So much for being the new guys with fresh ideas.

Next Sunday, the consortium, through Rogers Sportsnet, has its first opportunity to show what they can do. The next leg of the World Cup of Skiing takes place in Whistler on that day and it's a chance at a dry run on the very slopes where the Olympic Downhill and Slalom races will be held. It's also a world stage to preview any new broadcast technologies and innovative approaches to sports reporting.

But instead, Sportsnet will only have one reporter on site and call the races -- off a monitor -- in Toronto.

Uh, Guys, that's not innovative. That's how sports were broadcast in the 1930's.

Before becoming an actor, US president Ronald Reagan was a radio sportscaster in Iowa. Because live feeds of baseball games were either technically impossible or unaffordable, Reagan regularly "broadcast" Chicago Cubs baseball games from play-by-play copy relayed via telegraph from the ballpark.

During one game between the Cubs and their arch rival the St. Louis Cardinals, that was tied 0-0 in the 9th inning, the telegraph went dead. Reagan vamped, calling foul ball after foul ball until his operator reconnected, learning the batter (now approaching a foul ball record) had popped out on the first pitch.

I sure hope nothing like that happens to Sportsnet. God knows what the guy in Toronto with only his monitor to go by will do. And it makes you wonder where that lone reporter at Whistler is going to be. Will he be in a position to cover every skiier who goes down or off course? If there's rain or fog, will he know who's leaving the starting gate and when? Will he be fluent in enough languages to interview competitors and coaches from Germany, Italy, Norway, Sweden, Japan -- you know, the countries where World Cup skiers come from?

It's not like those eventualities won't arise, since even somebody with only a passing interest in World Cup Skiing knows they regularly do.

But Sportsnet obviously doesn't care and according to reports has already royally pissed off the International Ski organizations it'll need to work with in 2010.

Nice going guys -- way to save a buck!

But as we've said before -- all Canadian broadcasters care about is not spending money. Even when they have marvelous programming of great social import, they don't get behind it.

In the Comments section here, you'll find the director of "Mayerthorpe", the made for TV movie on the murder of four RCMP Officers, reveal that the first ads for the film appeared seven days before its broadcast -- and never anywhere but where they were vitually free of charge -- on CTV.

Two days before the broadcast of "Mayerthorpe", CTV was using it as an example to the CRTC of their deep commitment to Canadian stories and promising how much more programming just like it they would do -- if they only had a little more Free Money from Canadian Taxpayers.

Our broadcasters, so ingrained at having finished programming literally handed to them, seem to follow the "If You Build It They Will Come" philosophy; failing to realize that's the case when you have the only baseball diamond in an Iowa cornfield featuring legendary players who are dead -- but it's not necessarily what works in a country with 662 different channels to choose from.

No wonder Jim Shaw is pissed! No wonder I am! His customers and "my" audience are being treated like shit while simultaneously being force fed with it. And nobody from Prime Minister Stephen Harper on down gives a damn!

Did I ask if you needed more evidence that the CRTC is staffed by buffoons? Well here it is -- from a morning Press Release....

"The Conservative government has appointed a former party candidate to the CRTC - the country's broadcast regulator.

Marc Patrone was a declared candidate for the Conservatives in May 2005. But he returned to his job as a legislative journalist before an election was called.

Heritage Minister Josee Verner announced his appointment as a full-time member of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission. Verner said Patrone's experience "will greatly benefit the CRTC."

Before joining the Liberal supporters screaming "Hypocrisy and Patronage", take a moment to remember that most of the other boneheads on the CRTC are former bagmen and party flacks those guys appointed.

The sad truth is none of our governments have taken Broadcast regulation seriously enough to appoint people who actually care about broadcasting let alone serving the needs of Canadian audiences.

Instead they staff the Commission with people with the same commitment to quality as our broadcasters. The new guy's credentials indicate he's been a reporter for CTV and Global -- so at least he'll remember who used to sign his paychecks.

He's also a failed Country singer, so the Commission is now able to claim it has heard the creative unions and appointed "one of their own" to its ranks.

Expect a "Christmas with The Rankins" special on CTV or maybe a Hank Snow Bio-pic. Oh, wait, that's period -- it'll never get green-lit.

God, it just goes on, doesn't it?


Ken said...

Jim I can't tell you how much I wish I had expressed your sentiments (and mine) in the concise, lucid way you have. Suffice it to say you piss me off! But only in a professionally jealous kind of way. I barfed a blog on the Patrone patronage myself today, but you've so hit the crooked nail on its bent head.

I was eyewitness to one point of view which made clear just how out of touch the CRTC has been (and still is). A former commissioner, Andre Wylie spoke at a DGC annual general meeting in Ottawa a few years ago. On a panel with her was, among others Bill Mustos, late of CTV. When she said what she said, I don't think anybody in the room really processed it until the dark cloud in front of their eyes had passed. Essentially she was of the mind that Canadian success stories (at the time) could be seen in two shows which were currently airing: Train 48 and Trailer Park Boys. She sat in a room full of directors, PM's, AD's, production designers and editors, and told us that we needed to seriously scale back our expectations. How could we possibly compete with big budget, US network drama? Why not stick with what we were good at, she said. Well, with all due respect to those involved, Train 48 was a franchise that, I think, originated in Australia -about as Canadian as Ayers Rock- and Trailer Park Boys (if I have my Canadian urban myths straight) was actually conceived as a way to say 'fuck you' to the CRTC.

Well, when that dark cloud lifted I thought roof of that convention room we were in was going to get blown off. As you and I can certainly agree, prime time TV drama is the backbone of a viable industry, not to mention one of the centers of a country's sense of its cultural self. And in spite of the walls closing in on all of us, from the broadcasters and their license fees to the CRTC and its essential programming definitions, look at the successes we're having here. Corner Gas, Little Mosque, The Border, JPod, my little movie Mayerthorpe etc, etc.

These comments came from a commissioner serving while a Liberal government was in power! Well, we've had a golf pro as Premier in Ontario, why should I be surprised we're getting a failed country and western singer on the CRTC.

But I still wish I could have articulated it the way you did.

By way of apology to those involved in Train 48, I've worked on such 'essentially Canadian' drama as "The Twilight Zone" and "Stargate SG1." Hey, you gotta make a living.

Anonymous said...


DMc said...

Wow, Jim, that's a lot to think about. Hang on. Let me just check something.

Mmm. You were saying?

Anonymous said...

Of course, had CTV purchased Dexter directly from Showtime, you would be criticizing them for not spending that money on Canadian productions.

jimhenshaw said...

Thanks for missing the point, Anonymous. All my best wishes in finding your identity or just a set of testicles, so you can use the name you already have.


Cunningham said...

We've said it before, but it bears repeating:

As long as your broadcasters don't have to make an investment in programming in order to make a profit, then things are never going to get better.

underwire said...

damn mcgrath -- reading this, I had the exact same thought. Roomies? (There's a sitcom in the making).

Brandon Laraby said...

Good point, Cunningham - but my natural follow-up question to that would be:

How can we go about making something like that happen?