Monday, February 11, 2008

SMOTHERLAND

Windowless, airless rooms have been designed that way for a purpose.

If it's a casino, it is to cut you off so completely from the real world that you lose all track of time, better uses for your money and the immutable laws of probability. You are separated from the herd and its natural instincts, so you may be fleeced or gutted without the next crowd of suckers being able to see the process in action.

Slaughterhouses are windowless and airless for similar reasons. No right thinking person could witness what takes place there or endure the stench and ever consume another steak or pork chop.

The CRTC does its work in a similarly airless, windowless room for many of the same reasons.


For the Commissioners, it is a place where reality can be replaced by spin, where the Canadian audience is gutted and fleeced to enrich our broadcaster casino owners and the country's artists are butchered into cuts labeled "cultural" or "commercial" as a way of reducing their chances of changing a corrupt status quo.

Courtesy CPAC (where the hearing videos are still available for viewing) and a cold that left me unable to do something more productive, I watched all five days of hearings and spent the following weekend struggling not to fall into despair over the future so obviously being constructed for my industry and my country. For I firmly believe that even if we win the faux contests that were staged last week in Gatineau, we lose.

Cultural or commercial streams, board memberships, metric adjustments, who cares.

Yet they were the primary thrust of the Commissioners' concerns. As panel after panel of well meaning and decent Canadians was called forth, all I could see was the macabre machinations of a system that wasn't about to be fucked with.

I watched people like the incredibly passionate and dedicated Maureen Parker of the Writers Guild; Alan Golubov, who has wrangled the DGC as masterfully as he ran any production set; Richard Hardacre, perhaps the most eloquent president ACTRA has ever had and his truly noble right hand, Gary Neil, a man who has given his life to three generations of actors -- I watched all of these people follow the presentation script of appearing much like kids presenting their class project, while it was clear what they had to say meant little to the powers that be.

The fix was in, guys. And the real problem preventing the creation of successful Canadian programming won't be remedied.

This current round of determining the content and financing of Canadian programming was initiated by Shaw Communications with its threat to withdraw contributions to the Canadian Television Fund because it didn't feel its subscriber audience was being well served. That led to a CTF taskforce recommending that the funds available be further divided into streams determined by the cultural or commercial potential of a program.

That concept was rightly attacked by the artistic guilds as the insult to Canadian artists and clear attempt to ghettoize and marginalize them that it is. It was a concept, however, that was embraced and emboldened with rapacious zeal by representatives of the private broadcasters.

Some weren't as outlandish as Rogers, forgetting its manners its first time at the grown ups table and announcing "All Your Base Are Belong To Us" as they insisted that the world would fall apart unless they were given complete control.

Boy, corporations sure pattern themselves after their founders, don't they? I used to think anyone portraying Ted Rogers as a grasping psychopath was nuts. But after seeing the "we can run all this ourselves" approach of the new kids on the block, I can give up any notion that Ted might offer free NFL tickets here to pay Toronto taxpayers back for the great deal he got from them on the Rog Mahal.

Oddly enough, the guys who created the crisis, Shaw Communications, weren't on their side, as the Rogers, CanWest, CTV Bell Globemedia -- uh -- media had led us to expect.

In fact, those crazed Cowboys from out West were very clearly on the side of the artists. And that's where my faint hope for the future resides.

I know, I know, Jim Shaw proved himself to be the self-righteous little knob everybody with a cultural agenda, a beret (or both) said he was; by petulently refusing to turn up in person for the hearings because he wasn't going to get to present his little brief to the "A" team of the Commission.


In Cowboy terms, Mr. Shaw has officially labeled himself "All Hat and No Cattle". Nice going, Sugarfoot! You had a chance to take on the Big/Bad system and win some hearts and minds in the process and you blew it because you weren't going to get to measure dicks with Konrad.

Turn in your spurs, cowpoke! You don't have a big dick -- you just are one!

Now before you think I'm abandoning the disgraced icon I've been championing for some time around here, I'm not. I'm just demoting Jim Shaw from any respected status.

What his own "B" team had to say at the hearing remained the only submission by the rich and privileged semi-monopolies appearing that actually attempted to get to the truth of what goes on in Canadian broadcasting.

Shaw's major points to the Commission were these:

1. Private Broadcasters use CTF money to subsidize their Cancon obligations.

That point was also made by the Producers Association, CFTPA, and others. To wit, while broadcasters in most countries (USA, UK, Australia) typically pay license fees amounting to 70-80% of program cost, Canadian broadcasters pay 30%; using their CTF production envelopes to replace the money they used to invest in programming. And even though that practice was specifically forbidden when the CTF was created, nobody stops them.

One documentary maker described getting the bulk of funding for a Canadian film on the Yangtze River from foreign broadcasters inspired by its commercial potential when no Canadian broadcaster would take the risk on such a nebulous "cultural" offering.

Indeed, it was pointed out in several submissions that our broadcasters now even expect Producers to fully finance the online and new media elements the private broadcasters incorporate into their own corporate websites. These pikers simply don't spend their own money on anything related to either their core business or their future.

Shaw point #2. By being allowed to spend CTF money instead of their own on Canadian content, the private broadcasters free up more money to purchase foreign programming thereby further denying prime-time shelf space to Canadian shows.

That's a reality that the nets themselves trumpet at every opportunity.

No less an establishment authority than "Variety" has commented on the unseemly and ridiculous bidding wars that Canadian networks get into in order to purchase American shows, even the universally acknowledged as mediocre ones.

As the guys from Shaw so perfectly put the argument -- "You repeatedly hear that CTV has a better US line-up than Global. They never talk about Canadian shows being part of a competitive slate."

The Shaw people also drove home the reality that such activity drains our capacity to build viable businesses, something every Canadian producer will confirm is absolutely true. Unless they've got a development deal on the bubble with a broadcaster -- then they'll shut up if they know what's good for them.

3. The CRTC should require Canadian Broadcasters to make Canadian programming their Number One priority in Prime Time.

Not something anybody interested in the Canadian business can argue with -- except the broadcasters. Despite repeatedly being told by many, with evidence backed up by a Decima poll conducted by the DGC, that 10/10 Canadian shows resonate most strongly with Canadians and get the highest ratings, broadcasters have not budged from a formula that sees only 7% of Prime Time slots held by Canadian shows.

Why? Because the CRTC doesn't make 'em. And why doesn't the CRTC? Because the Broadcasters tell the Commissioners what's good for them -- and their political masters. All the obsequious, "By your leave, Commissioner..." and "If the Commission would grant me another moment..." drivel you heard all week was just so much misdirection.

The CRTC will only do what's best for the broadcasters. Always have. Always will.

Shaw point (no matter how pointless it may seem by now) #4. "We need more opportunities for creative people in Canada to be creative."

More than anything else the Shaw people had to say, this told me that they were after the same goal that Canadian artists have been seeking for as long as I've been one. Despite what you may have assumed or read elsewhere, it is not Shaw Communications which wants the industry to move to creating more 8/10 or 6/10 shows. It's CTV, Global and Rogers. Although it might also be a scare tactic cooked up by the CTF taskforce to make us feel relieved and grateful when they fall back to the status quo.

And why would our broadcasters want to bring back Billy Ray Cyrus and churn out more episodes of an under-performing series like "Doc", copy an abject failure like "Zoe Busiak" or launch yet another "Best Years" that can't even survive a single season?

For the same reason they want two funding streams that will increase their percentage of the free money pie -- somebody else will pay the freight to get that US actor who stars in an 8/10 show. Somebody else will have paid for the development of that non-WGC script. Somebody else will have under-written the on-set experience for that non-DGC director.

In short, somebody else will cover more of the costs so it doesn't come out of the Canadian broadcaster's pocket.

And even if Canadian product sells better in foreign markets than semi-Canadian, they'd rather sell that. Because admitting to the changing reality would mean they would have no choice but to spend more of their own money on Canadian content that Canadians like Shaw subscribers want to watch.

And that's not going to happen as long as Broadcasters run the CRTC.

As the Shaw delegation made clear, we are perpetuating a system that perpetuates failure, that does not create a return on investment, where the production experts are lawyers and bankers and in which programming is seen as an unacceptable cost instead of an opportunity.

Indeed, I had to wait through five solid days of testimony to hear the word Canadian broadcasters use most often when discussing our work. But finally, on Friday afternoon, there it was, creeping quietly out of the mouth of a representative of CTV in describing Canadian programming requirements -- "onerous".

Nobody would use language like that in polite company in front of powerful regulators who control the funding agenda -- unless they knew who was really calling the shots.

In the end, that's why I believe Jim Shaw stayed away from these hearings and his company remains a pariah among all players in the broadcast industry. Shaw rocked the boat. They spoke the truth. Yes, it's the same truth that's been spoken for decades by the artistic guilds, but the Commission has made it abundantly clear they're only giving those plebes lip service.

When it comes from Shaw, it means somebody essential to the revenue stream isn't getting with the program.

And besides, why take the word of somebody who actually creates programming or has to sell it to subscribers when you can simply continue to follow orders from people who haven't had much success in developing it and have a pretty good deal going without adding any heavy lifting?

Jim Shaw, the artists unions and I know truth doesn't matter at the CRTC. Their job is to make sure public money keeps flowing into the private coffers of the Broadcasters. They might throw us a bone in the end and forget those twin streams, while still maintaining one that continues to enrich people who don't contribute their fair share to the industry.

Luckily, that still won't create a thriving, competitive industry that might threaten the status quo.

And in time, what continues to go on in these airless, windowless rooms will smother all creativity and any spark of rebellious, entrepreneurial spirit. And that's the plan.

Take some comfort in the fact that at least Billy Ray Cyrus won't have to borrow money from his kid.

5 comments:

"The Book of Don" said...

great post Jim. Loved the "beret" reference. As my wonderful kids would say ... LOL - which I think means "laughed out loud". Right ?

I was also going to say "get better soon"...but maybe you should keep watching CPAC as kind of a monitor for us all - I hear there's more Mulroney stuff on their next week. Followed by committee hearings on the Afghanistan mission.

hope we meet sometime.

Brandon Laraby said...

This whole thing has had a ring of dirt around the drain for me from the moment I started watching the proceedings.

I went into it with a sense of hope, I mean, okay, I'm not naive enough to think that there wouldn't be a bias but watching the commissioners do their work... it raised my hackles something fierce. Even at the beginning I could see this... indifference... coming from them, as if they had SO many other, better, things they could be doing.

It's bad enough to know that there are forces at work, actively trying to cut us off at the knees, but it's worse when it seems like those who're supposed to be the impartial ones already have their minds made up.

Artemus said...

"And the real problem preventing the creation of successful Canadian programming won't be remedied."

Yep. That pretty much sums up the problem we have in this country.

The CTF was established to help independent producers create original works in 4 categories: drama, documentary, children programming and variety.

The reality is this: independents can -only- get funds for documentaries and nothing else. The CBC, for example, only looks at drama projects from large production companies and rejects any dramas submitted by independent producers.

And sometimes, even in the documentary category, independents must be chaperoned by large production houses.

CTF, telefilm, sodec, tax credits, etc.. it's all a game from programming directors to funnel money to production houses run by their friends so that when they quit their job, they can go work for the people whom they help enrich themselves over the ears.


NO WONDER there is indifference: the fix was in before the hearings even began!

Anonymous said...

"The fix was in." Yes it was. All those people making reasoned arguments before the Canadian Govt. regulatory body were wasting their breath because influence peddlers had already made arrangements. The Canadian media, controlled in the main by many of the same interests fixing the proceedings, don't make much of it. The Canadian public, in blissful ignornance, smugly believing such thing never happen in their county, don't react at all. How many ways can you read the word, "corruption"?

North Bo said...

Jim
What a terrific post. Your argument and points are bang on. I think they are pretty undisputable. I'm not asking for a free ride, legislated charity in perpetuity for the Canadian TV industry. But look at the Cancon model in Canadian music. At the beginning everyone was rankled and opposed to it - industry types and much of the public. Yet it indisputably elevated and grew the Canadian Music industry in to what it is today. Not too many people are complaining about it now. Canadian TV needs the same framework for it to develop and improve. Without prescribed mandates for Canadian TV
(10/10, nothing less) in prime time, CTV and Global will always default to meeting the bare minimum of domestic requirements and loading up on American product. Always.