Monday, June 02, 2008

THE DEATH SPIRAL


There's an old Hollywood adage coined to describe the realization that your career options are heading South, "Is this the beginning of the death spiral, or is it the spiral itself?"

And as any pilot will tell you, it gets harder to pull out of spin or a dive the longer it lasts. Once you're LOCKED in, your chances of survival exponentially decrease with every second you fail to reverse the physics.

I honestly have to say that I wish my success at forecasting the death spiral of Canadian broadcasting was on a par with my egregious hockey pool picks this season. (I've been in last place throughout) But unfortunately it's not. And you don't have to look far for new evidence that a turnaround for our industry is not coming soon.

First, CBC launched a fall season with no new shows. In fact, they're programming one less hour per day of Canadian content while insisting the Corporation remains an "important cultural institution" that should be immediately funded well past the next decade.

For those who haven't been paying attention, CBC reduced their Canadian schedule by an hour a day last season with the acquisition of "Martha Stewart", eschewing any pretense of competing in the daytime design and lifestyle genres in any major way.

This season, with the additions of "Wheel of Fortune" to its pre-evening news slots and "Jeopardy" to the pre-prime slot, one more hour of shelf space for Canadian product on our National Broadcaster has been eliminated.

By scheduling fewer hours of Canadian shows that employ Canadians, I'm not sure how culturally unique CBC can claim to be. At the same time, one wonders how they hope to set themselves apart from the American competition while replicating a broadcast formula that's been a South of the Border staple for two decades.

Moldy old quiz show war horses like "Wheel of Fortune" and "Jeopardy" have been the pre-prime stalwarts of every American 5000 Kw small town station trying to hang onto the advertising account of the local Dodge dealership.

The more successful affiliates, especially the big city ones and the Superstations trying to appeal to younger viewers and the audience feeling the siren pull of the internet, are all beginning to abandon those familiar comfort food shows. And yet, in the twisted logic of CBC's world, geezers like Pat Sajak and Alex Trebek are the key to the 18-24 demographic they insist they are chasing.

And if that wasn't short-sighted enough, it appears nobody at the corp bothered to think ahead to January, where their menu of new and returning series will now debut right alongside the long awaited return of "24", the next chapters of "Lost" and all the new American series that won't be ready for Fall -- even without a SAG strike.

Those American shows, you can be assured, will arrive packing massive desperation marketing campaigns by the US nets that'll flood newsstands, bus shelters and talk shows, making those huge CTV billboards outside CBC's Front Street HQ look like an annoying afterthought.

It would seem the CBC has found a comfortable little niche for itself. A place where little can be expected or delivered.

Of course, I could be wrong, and this scheduling choice has been carefully crafted so the precipitous drop in audience numbers can be trotted up to Ottawa as new grist for the "We need more tax dollars" mill.

Feel the G forces as we spiral down...

Meanwhile, Ted Rogers, a man who seems to change his mind more often than his channel line-up, was having second thoughts this week about asking the CRTC for more money for his local stations -- that 50 cents per month per subscriber per formerly-free-to-air local channels, which Rogers, CTV, Global and CBC all argued for at the CRTC last month.

As you will recall, CTV honcho Paul Sparkes, in firing the first volley in this new money grab via the CRTC, claimed that "Local newscasts do as much to forge the Canadian Identity as any other form of story telling, because after all, they chronicle our daily lives." And the broadcasters then launched a week long beg-a-thon in Gatineau because none of your cable or satellite fees are going to support those local stations or their news.

They just go into network revenue which FUNDS those stations but -- nevermind -- the important thing is that, as usual, it appears the Commissioners felt they should acquiesce to a Broadcaster request and levy that 50 cents per local station per month per...

But in suggesting they'll lean that way, somebody at the CRTC figured it might be a good idea to at least pretend the money really was going to those local stations as requested -- and tie payment of the fees to production of local programming. So that idea was run past the Broadcasters for approval.

That led Rogers exec Phil Lind to exclaim to the National Post that there were, "disturbing signals emanating from Ottawa that the regulators are toying with the idea of taking a far more hands-on approach to local news programming."

Mr. Lind went on to suggest that monitoring and enforcement could be set up to reward the sort of news coverage preferred by the Commission.

"Will broadcasters get the full 50 cents per month fee if their news team covers City Hall, but only 25 cents if they concentrate on fires, local beauty pageants and dog-at-large stories? The mind boggles at the scope inherent in such a scheme for unfairness and interference."

Uh-huh...

Two things you can see very clearly in all that. First, when the CRTC prevents Canadians from accessing services like HBO and Showtime to protect broadcasters like the ones Mr. Lind works for, that's not "unfair" or "interference". It's merely what's required to reap huge rewards from rebroadcasting the products of those "banned" networks -- while not being required to put those profits into creating any significant amount of similar Canadian programming.

Second, it's pretty clear that the folks at Rogers would really like to have that 50 cents per local station per...per...per with no strings attached -- and perhaps not have to spend any of it on the local programming they said was suffering from under funding in the first place.

I don't believe it's too great a leap in logic to conclude that if Mr. Lind and his boss, Mr. Rogers, had their druthers, nothing they receive in cable fees would be spent on programming of any kind -- unless it's to broadcast an NFL football game they own from a stadium they also already own.

What all this means is "Brace Yourself"! We're in for another season of reduced expectations, smaller audiences and less chance that a Canadian show can find either the time slot or financing to break through.

6 comments:

wcdixon said...

Phew...I thought when I read this post title, it was going to be a recap of my career...

Cunningham said...

"There's an old Hollywood adage coined to describe the realization that your career options are heading South..."

Isn't that an "Old Canadianadage" there, Jim?

;D

Brandon Laraby said...

What really gets me is that step-by-step our Country is closing doors for anyone who wants to make a living off the entertainment industry in Canada - especially TV and Film.

It's bad enough that we can't seem to fly on TV it's worse that they're trying to take the web away from us too. I think the general idea is that we're no longer to 'create' anything, just shut up and spend our money.

Yay.

Oh, and for fun reading - take a gander: (of course this had to come from an American Site!)

http://arstechnica.com/news.ars/post/20080602-new-filings-reveal-extent-damage-of-bell-canada-throttling.html

Anonymous said...

Of course it's all about the fact that no network is required to spend any money. We have the lowest license fees in the English-speaking world. Canadian nets are required to spend only 20% towards the production of a Canadian drama. Even including the CTF monies, the total is 54%. Other non-US English-speaking nations spend between 65% and 85% for dramatic programming.

So it is easy to see the attraction of a 20% only commitment on a 6/10 American series like "Defying Gravity" or a "coproduction" British series like the Tudors. What all these shows have in common is that there are no Canadian writers.

Pack up your favorite pens and head south.

DMc said...

To be fair, Jim, I don't think the CBC seriously thinks they're going to ever capture a significant measure of the 18-24 market.

When the CBC talks "younger viewers," they mean 18-49 and 25-54.

earl's girl said...

If you're worried about CBC broadcasting, then you haven't seen the Steven and Chris show, if I thought I loved wrestling yogis (with great boobs) before, now I am totally sold. I'm planning a humungous post about it...along with my great pride in CBC as a network. My friend Marci thinks it's better than all TV put together (and she doesn't just say that about any thing.)

Can barely wait for my lapbar to be in its securely locked position (stole that from Great America, Six Flags...)