Tuesday, February 03, 2009

DON'T PAY THE FERRYMAN


"There were voices in the night
(Don't do it!)
Voices out of sight
(Don't do it!)
Too many men have failed before!"


The Writers Guild of Canada and I have a weird relationship. Don't get me wrong, I am proud to be a member of their fraternity. I helped found the Guild, issued the contracts that allowed dozens of writers to enter its ranks and put in a half decade or more as an elected rep. Hell, I even own one of those Crystal Cubes they hand out for service above and beyond.

But every now and then...

Well, let's just say, I'm sure the fine folks over there wish I'd just shut up, dry up and blow away. And I'm afraid this might be another one of those moments.

Before I go on, I want the record to note that I am a staunch supporter of organized labor. I come from a long line of union members, men and women who worked on railroads, built ships, constructed tall buildings and fought fires. My father helped establish a lonely rural credit union after the local bank, which had foreclosed on a few farms, mysteriously burned to the ground -- along with all of its nearby sister branches.

"Power to the People" made manifest, it would seem.

Even when I'm wearing my producer hat, I sympathize with the positions of the industry's Guilds and Unions. Because I've also been in the meetings where you learn what the powers-that-be would try to get away with if they had the chance. Trust me, those people you pay dues to are all that's standing between you and one ugly, massive cluster-fucking!

Where the Writers Guild and I part company is that they seem to harbor a belief that there is Good in everyone, even studio heads and network executives; and that given the chance those people will see the error of their ways, do the right thing and otherwise prove that they truly believe in the transformative power of Canadian drama.

You poor babies....

"Whatever you do...
Don't pay the ferryman!
Don't even fix a price!
Don't pay the ferryman
Until he gets you to the other side."


A couple of weeks ago, the Guild got in touch and asked if I would help them spread the word on a new initiative they're proposing to enrich the Internet with more Canadian content. I enthusiastically agreed and immediately invited hundreds of people to visit the Facebook group they were launching entitled "Make the ISP's Pay to Play".

And then I started to think about what this campaign might really accomplish for Canadian writers -- and I got a little concerned.

Y'see, I think the WGC has its heart in the right place here and they got behind their new idea with all the best of intentions. I'm just not so sure their "partners" in this endeavor share those intentions.

All over the Internet and especially from content providers (ie: studios and networks) in the USA, there is an understanding that you build and enhance the audience of your traditionally delivered dramatic and comedy programming by offering it online as well.

And you don't just stream your show. You add interactive material to attract people who might not have seen the TV version as well as add additional enhancements to further entangle those who are already watching.

Some sites let you get inside information on the characters, chat with the cast, receive updates on what's coming from the writers. Some gift you with snippets of upcoming episodes, backstage photos or plot lines. Some invent games so you can inhabit the places and dramatic situations on the show.

Some even offer ways to try out your own creative chops from mashing up videos and music to helping the fictional characters solve some of the issues they're dealing with in their dramatic reality.

Unfortunately, most Canadian nets are at the shallow end of this creative pool, streaming some of their shows if they must and that's about it.

Knowing this lack of action will only lead to smaller audiences and less connection between those audiences and Canadian content, the WGC has proposed creating a fund to support the creation of original online content connected with traditional platforms.

The fund would take 1.57% of the profits from major ISP's (somewhere around $80 Million a year) and hand that to the broadcasters to shape their online presence. It'll amount to about $1/month per ISP subscriber. From the Guild's point of view that's a small price to pay even if the ISP's decide to pass it on to you because, well, "quality, scripted Canadian programming gives voices to our values, our unique qualities..." and "...helps define who we are as a society."

And as we all know Canada's broadcasters have always been at the forefront when it comes to delivering "quality, scripted Canadian programming", not to mention giving voice to our values and helping define who we are as a society.

Have you WGC people lost your frikkin' minds!!??!!

For starters, maybe somebody can tell me the difference between the Broadcasters seeking $1/month per subscriber for "Carriage Fees" (something the WGC petitioned against and the CRTC just turned down) and taking the same amount of money from virtually the same people to create websites for TV shows those folks are already not watching -- and in many cases, chose to escape from online in the hope of finding something more creative and/or rewarding to fill their leisure time.

You can bet a Public just itchin' to gain control of what's in their overstocked and under-delivering cable packages is going to line up to throw money at that idea!

By positing that the ISPs are now "broadcasting" and therefore subject to the broadcast act and thus responsible for financing television production instead of those who initiate it, the WGC is also finally agreeing to support the lie that broadcasters don't have any money to put into Canadian content, freeing them to acquire even more assets they can't manage.

Even those who argue this is just an extension of the Juno concept that one in three tunes played on Canadian radio must be Canadian should give their heads a shake.

There's a big difference between material flowing through the Internet and what's broadcast from your local rock radio venue. Are we going to end up with some kind of software that regulates what Canadians access, forcing them to stream an episode of "Sophie" if they've already watched "Skins" from England and the Hulu version of "Two and a Half Men"?

Why do we always keep asking for more "Arts funding" to be taken from the public and handed to those who run that process so badly? Who's side are we on here, that of the audience or of those who would control our talents for their own benefit?

The broadcasters followed up their loss of carriage fees with a massive fit of pique that saw them fire hundreds of staffers and begin lobbying to reduce the already pitiable amount of Canadian programming they do at the moment.

These people are as committed to defining who we are as a society as I am to getting it on with each and every one of the Pittsburgh Steelers!

At every single CRTC meeting at which the WGC has appeared, we've heard the broadcasters refer to their drama requirements as "onerous". They have fought promoting Canadian artists every step of the way, continually reducing the number of dramas they produce and continuously seeking ways to meet their license requirements in any way BUT creating quality scripts or giving voice to our values.

Maybe there's a belief at the WGC that handing the broadcasters $80 Million will save a couple of jobs in their already sparsely populated writing rooms, maybe encourage them to hire a couple more freelancers or at the least salvage some work opportunities for newcomers who might get thrown the bone of knocking out a couple of "Mobisodes".

"In the rolling mist,
Then he gets on board,
Now there'll be no turning back.
Beware that hooded old man at the rudder!"



Don't you think that if anybody at a broadcast network or the CRTC cared in the least about Canadian drama, they'd have looked up from their spreadsheets and Harlequin Romance novels and done something by now?

WGC Guys, please -- when did we have to start pimping ourselves out to these people? When have they ever lived up to their commitments to either us or the Commission? Why do we insist on keeping they and their deteriorating quality of life alive instead of sending them to their reward and hooking up with somebody new and exciting?

You know how they say those who don't remember history are doomed to repeat it? Well, let me tell you a story from my youth...


Back when I was a kid in Southern Saskatchewan, you needed to catch a ferry if you wanted to cross most of the rivers. So, every 20 miles or so, there was a road down to the water, where a barge that could hold four vehicles or about 40 head of cattle would pick you up and chug you along a tether rope for the 15 minute trip to the opposite bank.

This was the way doctors got to patients and ranchers got a herd of beef to market. It was the route taken by trucks carrying grain or bringing over the mail, the newspapers and the Mad magazines I read for free at the Rexall drugstore. The guy showing movies took the ferry from where he showed his double feature on Friday night to where he showed it on Saturday night.

In summer, the ferryman would let you know it had hailed up in Eston or some fella'd been struck by lightning down in Maple Creek. His passengers gave him the baseball scores to pass along or mentioned what farmer's daughter had run off with which hired hand.

In winter, the ferryman plowed a path over the ice and bored holes every few feet to make sure it was thick enough so the bus carrying the Swift Current Broncos could get to their game with the Saskatoon Blades.

The ferryman was our conduit to the outside world and our link to news and entertainment. Everybody gladly paid him for his services.

And then they built a bridge.

And then the ferryman had to earn a living doing something else.

Canadian television used to do all the things the ferryman of my youth did. It's carried the news, provided access to entertainment, helped a number of Canadian artists earn a living.

But a few years ago, somebody built a bridge. They call it the Internet and it carries far more than the ferry ever can. And since the bridge went in, our television networks have done nothing but bitch about how hard it is to make a living, instead of realizing that their world has changed and they need to change with it.

Giving them $80 Million to change might hold off the inevitable for a year or two at best.

Wouldn't the membership of the WGC (not to mention the Canadian public) be better served if that money went to creating new and original Canadian content designed specifically for the web? Something tells me all those people at Bell and Rogers and Shaw and Telus might actually get excited by content that would sell their online services and mobile enhancements. Hell, they might come up with far more than $80 Million if it also helped them sell more bandwidth and download capacity.

In Greek Mythology, the ferryman Charon demanded payment to take dead souls across the River Styx. Those who did not pay were doomed to remain as ghosts on the shores of the living.

Through their fear campaign of threatening to close local stations and reduce programming, our TV ferryman have gotten some among us to believe that by saving them we prevent ourselves from becoming ghosts.

But ask yourself one question. When have they ever taken us to the other side -- and why should we believe them this time?

Sorry, WGC, I'm taking the bridge.

"And then the ferryman said there is trouble ahead,
So you must pay me now.
(Don't do it!)
You must pay me now.
(Don't do it!)
And still that voice came from beyond, whatever you do..."


10 comments:

deborah Nathan said...

I think I posted something over on ink about all this. I had been researching web content and surfed the areas owned by NBC and CBS. They not only stream their regular programming but have original programming there in six minute segments. Ten segments or sixty minutes makes one full episode. Some of the web series are less professional looking than others. I haven't read how well they are doing, but they are aimed at the under 25 crowd. Series set in dorm rooms, or apartments.

But there are some with real production value. Sam Raimi has a few and they are great. Of course, his production values come with a cost that is the equivalent of US broadcast television. As did the much talked about "Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along". But the real point is to drive viewers to these sites which are not yet profitable to the networks but will become profitable soon.

Of course, you have to own the material to realize the profit and the problem in Canada is that the broadcasters make so little it would be impossible to realize a profit from the internet. And just as in the case of broadcast television, I don't see them putting up money to create series for the web. Not without their feet being held to the fire.

Jim, the more things change the more they stay the same.

Gorillamydreamz said...

Sadly, i have to agree with you here. I am grateful and proud of all the Guild does for me. But there are several areas in which I feel underserved and unprotected. This is one of them.

As a kid's writer I don't have many of the protections and provisions the Guild goes to the mat to keep in contracts for adult drama and comedy writers. Yet in this area, kids writers tend to have more experience in being asked for web content than their peers.

The Canadian Kidnets are much further ahead in terms of online content. But I hold few, if any, rights over that aspect of my work.

I think taking an adversarial approach into a negotiating room is a bad way to make gains. You need to find the common ground. But it is also foolish to assume the other side is there for your benefit.

JA Goneaux said...

Brilliant analogy, Jim. I'll be posting a link and "seeding" the comboxes of the sites I visit to give you credit for it. Mainly because I'll be using it very, very often...

DMc said...

What is the "common ground" here?

I mean I get what common ground is in with kids stuff and ECE...but what is the common ground. Jim's whole post is all about how there is no common ground. To talk about "working out what's good for everybody" is so naive as to be ludicrous. Did you pay attention to the AMPTP stance during the last WGA negotiations? Did there seem to be "common ground" to that approach?

And Jim, I say the same thing to you as I always say when you take this take. It is not enough to say, "blow it up."

How do I pay a mortgage, or rent, or keep myself in adult diapers and cocaine until the five, six, seven year time until the new system emerges?

There's nothing to say here that the broadcasters get a big pile of free money.

The point is that ISP's are now part of the system. Broadcasters, no...but the system. And as a result of being part of that system, the principle is you give something back to the system. Right now they don't. Not a thing. If the Broadcasters get to argue that they have to pay for the pitiful content they pay for, but now their competition is big cable cos/telcos who don't have to kick anything back into the system, then what really is the justification for that?

I get it. I do. You hate the broadcasters more than the BDU's. You think Jim Shaw is a maverick. That's great.

But once again, here is a wonderfully worded manifesto about how things deserve to be blown up.

WHAT IS YOUR ALTERNATE PLAN?

WHERE DOES THE MONEY COME FROM?

If we're going to kill the king, then who takes his place and how do we maneuver in that environment?

The system is sick and crooked and bullshit, but I don't hear solutions here, and I don't feel like complaining.

They levied recording media, people bitched about it, and it's still controversial. But you know what?

People who make things got checks.

Where are the checks in your scenario?

jimhenshaw said...

DMc,

The alternate plan is to begin by simply not throwing good money after bad and then finding a place where such money might find fertile ground in which to grow.

There is a profound need in this country for venture capital to fund web enterprises and an additional need to fund innovative creative content on the web.

Doesn't it make more sense for an organization like the WGC to look to the future and encourage ISP's to fund material people using their services would access?

I think the CRTC, the ISPs and the public could all get behind that kind of initiative. And it would also help the Guild move its jurisdiction firmly into the new media -- not only assuring that you are employed at a decent wage, but keeping you in Depends through residuals when that stage of Life arrives.

This country has dumped tons of money into a television industry that has not been either willing or able to support Canadian creative content. Giving them more money to fund initiatives they should have taken on their own 4-5 years ago won't make things better -- especially at a time when the rest of the world is beginning the move away from the current TV delivery systems.

We keep trying to prime a pump owned by people who don't care whether or not we die of thirst.

It's simply time to move on and try to find what we need somewhere else.

And sometimes -- suggesting burning down the house is the only way you get people to start thinking about where they're going to live.

DMc said...

So where do we start?
Who should the WGC be going to?

And in terms of strategy, this isn't the sum total of what the WGC's plan is, Jim. It's just the part that has to do with the upcoming CRTC hearings into the regulatory framework vis a vis ISPs and the Canadian broadcasting system.

The second venture capitalist wants to make me or you or Mark McKinney the next Funny or Die Will Ferrel, I'll walk them into the WGC office and have them talk signatory with him myself.

This is not about rewarding past bad behavior. It's about hedging bets.

Or-- let's be honest. It's about trying to encourage an industry that doesn't follow the bad old broadcast model of forcing Canadians to go to another country to take part in this industry.

Ryan said...

I don't fully get the logic behind this. Maybe the ISPs should get paid extra by the networks for providing them another way to distribute material to the viewer. That makes as much sense.

deborah Nathan said...

The question raised by DMc is what position should the WGC take - or what is the plan? Historically, Canada is a terribly cautious place when it comes to money. We didn't even pay for our own railroad - too risky. So, the only way to convince anyone of the viability of internet delivery is to show them the economic model that proves the point. And that's the current problem. I think Canada will wait until they see the US making money from this other form of entertainment and then they'll buy into it.

Remember, the cable cos and telcos and the broadcasters already resent the money they are paying for Canadian content through the CTF and license fees. And I can hardly wait to hear the arguments at the CRTC hearings about relaxing those content rules in these hard economic times.

Kinahan said...

Jim – your blog makes me worry about how well I’ve communicated some of the guild’s ideas around new media. You say,

"Wouldn't the membership of the WGC (not to mention the Canadian public) be better served if that money went to creating new and original Canadian content designed specifically for the web?"

This is precisely our proposal – the fund we propose establishing would be to support only original made-for-the-web content in support of broadcast – independent producers would make it with the support of a broadcast partner. The fund is aimed at generating new content just for the web; the access/visibility part of the argument is about getting all Canadian content, whether for web or traditional broadcast, more visibility.

Frank "Dolly" Dillon said...

I wonder if I live on a different planet than everyone or have I now reached a time in my life that I am completely out of step with the modern media consumer.

Put simply, I watch the stuff that is on TV on a TV. Sure when I started getting into UTube I watched stuff for a few weeks but then I lost interest. I also watched a few "extras" on the web but even the professional ones got kind of boring after a while and even if they were from show I liked I kind of got bored.

Even with DVD's -- after a while the "special features" stopped being special and I rarely look at them. Even the extended versions or director's cut usually just means a few extra tits and a little more gore in most cases.

I try not to be a Luddite but maybe it is inevitable when it becomes impossible to stay current unless you make it your life 24/7.

I have no idea if there is profit to be made -- I look at a lot of this stuff ONLY because it is free. If I, as a consumer had to pay for it, I would stick to what i do ninety percent of the time anyway -- surf the channels until I find something i want to watch.