Monday, February 09, 2009

POL(L)ING THE BACK CHANNELS


Last week, I posted my reaction to a Writers Guild of Canada proposal to place a small levy on ISP profits to fund web initiatives supporting Canadian broadcast content.

That started a lot of discussion, which is always a good thing.

But it also led to a surge in something a lot of veteran (as if anybody's a veteran in this world) bloggers see virtually anytime we bring up one of the pressing issues in the Canadian Film and TV industries.

That's the back-channel buzz wherein we're flooded by either comments we're requested not to publish or private emails.

These are mostly from people who are in development deals, working on network shows or otherwise currently entangled with various broadcasters. In some cases, it's people who hope to be in those positions.

They'll reveal their opinions privately, often passionately. Some even send us the ammunition to go after somebody exemplifying a case we've made. But they all share a fear of saying anything publicly that may upset/offend/whatever any broadcast executive or member of the CRTC.

The producer quoted by John Doyle a couple of weeks ago in his article on Michel Arpin is another example -- people terrified some organized conspiracy exists in the industry that will "get" them for speaking out critically or even simply suggesting an alternative way of thinking.

The reaction last Spring when WGC Executive Director Maureen Parker made her incredibly lucid "It doesn't have to be this hard" comment to the Commission was enormous. Yet, for every response I heard saying "Good for her" there must have been 50 worried it meant the CRTC would never look kindly on the Guild again or worse -- do something to punish us.

What this always says to me is that no matter what shape the industry is in here, it's always perceived as precarious and in danger of completely disappearing. No matter what successes anyone achieves, we remain locked into a "Square One" mind-set, with everybody feeling they have to start over from the beginning with each new project.

In some ways, that's a predictably Canadian trait, living next to noisy, daredevil neighbors who don't seem to know the meaning of caution, always surprised that winters actually end and most of us survive, amazed that we even get our mail.

It might also have something to do with the fact that we tend to look at our arts and entertainments not as single pieces of individual creativity but more as some ongoing mass cultural Great Leap Forward. I mean, have you ever noticed how many of those CBC Arts interviews are only all about determining where somebody "fits" in the cultural landscape instead of whether or not their song's got a good beat and you can dance to it?

We take ourselves way too damned seriously and then wonder why everybody in our lives is happily watching "CSI:Miami" and "Dancing With The Stars".

Anyway -- some of that back channel traffic got me thinking the WGC proposal needed revisiting and since back channels can also be aquatic, I'll try and stick to the boat metaphors.

First, the continually nice people at the WGC got in touch to let me know I was somewhat "at sea" in describing their initiative. Trust me, they really do seek to inspire the best in everybody, believing both the Captains of our Industry and deluded non-believers like me can still be led to the promised land.

Like I said, they're my Guild and I'll go to the wall for them. I am, however, more like the Danny DeVito character in "Hoffa", ever hopeful but also putting more trust in a sawed off baseball bat and that little somethin' tucked in my waistband.

So here's the Guild's description of what they envision in their own words, so we're all clear:

"the proposal actually jives with one of your suggestions: that the money go to 'creating new and original Canadian content designed specifically for the web'. The fund we propose wouldn’t be handed over to the broadcasters, and it wouldn’t go to traditional broadcast programming – it would be for independently produced original made-for-the-web content in support of broadcast.

It connects to the traditional Canadian broadcasting system because it’s the CRTC and their jurisdiction is the Canadian broadcasting system. We are proposing an opt-in system so that new players can become part of the system and get access to funded programs. We are also proposing that the funded programming, while it has to sit on a Canadian broadcasters’ site, can be original – i.e. not related to broadcast programming. So we’re stretching the limits of the broadcast system as much as we can.

So, yes, it’s new media content that is generally speaking in support of traditional broadcasting. But it’s also about accessibility, visibility – more available content and more easily accessed. It is about acknowledging the change in the ways consumers engage with broadcasting content, and building our audiences by connecting with them in those ways."


Okay, I get all that, but I'm still feeling we're tying ourselves to the sinking ship that is Canadian broadcasting.

Today's papers are full of news that profits are down 90% for these guys and they've already conducted some back-channel discussions of their own with the CRTC, who will be "bailing out" their listing craft in a short time.

So, once again, the arm of the Government established to protect the interests of the Canadian Public when it comes to what fills the public airwaves appears to be doing anything but that.

There's no doubt the CRTC will make it easier for broadcasters to ignore rules they're already regularly ignoring, if only in the short term, to ensure their survival. If that includes cutting back on Canadian dramatic content, are we still going to help them fund their online presence? And where exactly does that get us? They'll still own the content. They'll still have the hammer.

And in that world, they'll welcome outsiders to their websites and have no say in what gets appended to them?

Uh-huh.

Has anybody considered the fact that virtually all of these troubled broadcasters are part of corporate congloms that include ISPs and they were already in a position to use their converged platforms to help each other out?

If there's one thing I've learned about real life shiny-shoe'd Capitalists, it's that all that really matters to them is making money. Believe me, these guys knew TV was going tits up long before any of us did. And the regulatory mess that is the CRTC doesn't work for them either, beyond using the fools and corporate tools who sit on the Commission to buy the time they need to move their TV investment exposure off the books.

Consider for just one moment that the ISPs we want $80 Million a year from are all owned and operated by the same mobile telecoms that have been taking $7-8 each month from Canadian subscribers for "service fees" they falsely claim the CRTC forces them to charge and are bitterly contesting a massive class action suit that will force them to give that money back.

In addition to the Billions that will soon cost them, they're feeling the current economic pinch too, with lucrative business traffic falling off.

These are also the same companies that won't spend $10 Million to upgrade their 911 systems so ambulances don't go to the wrong addresses and lost kids don't freeze to death begging for help as their cellphone batteries die.

And those guys are going to quickly and happily hand over $80 Million to a few folks who want to write mobisodes?

A lot of the back channel traffic I got listed things those people felt the Guild hasn't been doing for its members while it pursues policy -- like getting them paid in a timely manner, settling grievances or retrieving royalties. In fact, I got a financial statement from the Guild this week with a card enclosed to pass to my agent seeking his help in doing exactly those things.

I realize those back-channel messages are the usual belly-aching from people who aren't looking at "The Big Picture", but it makes me wonder if the Guild is designing policy with our REAL future in mind.

One of the best emails I got last week sympathized with my anti-broadcaster argument, but cautioned that none of us really know where we're going yet.

As the writer succinctly put it: "blowing up the boat sounds too terrifying because the resulting new boat hasn't taken shape enough in everyone's mind to justify blowing up the old boat".

I get accused of just wanting to blow things up a lot. Some of that's justified, I'm sure. But I never feel I'm walking around tossing sticks of dynamite at random. I just know that when there's a bad guy wrecking the neighborhood you don't simply cross the street whenever you see him coming. You take him out. That's the only action that will put you in a position to figure out how you're going to fix the neighborhood and make sure it stays fixed.

And in this case, continuing to repair the leaky boat, doesn't get the new one built.


Pretend for a moment that we lived on a beautiful South Seas Island and made our living from fishing. We don't have a lot of Palm trees on our island, but there are enough to build a couple of boats every year which are enough to keep our island happy and prosperous.

Up to now, we've used those trees (our funding) to build a TV boat that's worked pretty well for us. But now the boat is getting old and starting to leak, so some of those trees we could use to build a new boat keep getting cut down to repair the leaky one.

Some of the really smart guys on the island have designed a new boat called the Internet that can do all the things the TV boat can do and more. It'll catch us way more fish and make us much more happy and prosperous.

But we never have enough trees to build it because we keep having to fix the one that doesn't work.

Unless we blow up the old boat, we'll never build the new one.

And unless we turn our backs on an industry that has never kept its promises to us and forge our own path, scary as that might be, we'll be left stranded once that TV boat sinks, having thrown away our chance of launching a new craft for years to come.

I know some may still be hesitant, wondering how people will ever sort through the chaos of the Internet to find what they've created, or how they'll know its Canadian made when they do. Well, that boat has already been built.

Even Canadian broadcasters can use it -- and without dinging anybody for any more money. You can find it HERE.

3 comments:

wcdixon said...

Great post as always Jim Jim...but now interested in your reaction to the CRTC's hearings intentions brief released on Friday. They mixed up their pitches a little bit, no?

JA Goneaux said...

Maybe its just the pedant in me, but I have a problem with the word "broadcast" describing something that is anything BUT broad. The internet can certainly offer a broadcast, but most of the time, its the narrowest of narrowcasts.

And don't get me started on the R and T in CRTC...as the signal that delivers the internet to me is neither radio nor television, what the hell?

Sean said...

As soon as you disconnect the producers from the consumers rather than actually allowing the consumers to judge for themselves what they want, then the end result is crap. You get producers that don't work hard and you get the people with real talent drowned out and stifled by the bureaucracy, in favour of the producers who have the most lobbyists.

For instance, you might disconnect their free exchanges by collecting a mandatory levy and hand it over to the producers.

Or, for instance, you might create a vast bureaucracy called the CRTC that tells the producers and the consumers what will and will not happen.

Regardless, in the end, you will have something that looks like the Canadian television and movie industry, something that nobody wants to watch.

Naturally, the existing producers will lobby to retain such a system.