Tuesday, May 19, 2009

YOU CAN’T HANDLE THE TRUTH!

clubby

The image above is taken from the published minutes of the in-camera sessions of the CRTC’s license renewal hearings last week. The entire document is available here.

Don’t rush to grab it in the hope it will finally give you some much needed insight into what’s really going on in Canadian television. Because those blacked out lines are repeated on virtually every one on the report’s 251 pages.

One wonders why anybody bothered to create, publish and distribute so pointless a document. But then, that doesn’t matter. It’s not their money. It’s just another example of how your tax dollars get spent so others can continue to play by themselves in the Canadian broadcasting sandbox.

It’s further proof that – you can’t handle the truth.

Of course, it was printed because CRTC Chair Konrad von Finckenstein is running a more open and accessible Commission.

Yet, even in the midst of a discussion on the apparent “very survival of television as we know it” that will impact all of us personally, not to mention the billions we’ve already invested in and may need to further feed the broadcast system, we’re not allowed to know what the people in charge are doing or even if they have the first clue about what they’re doing in the first place.

Doesn’t matter. They’re in. You’re not. Membership is open to current members only.

More than anything else, what the document makes abundantly clear is the close and clubby nature of the regulator/broadcaster relationship. Like all secret cabals, they have information that can only be known to a few within their ranks and jokes the rest of us shouldn’t be allowed to hear.

After all, if they revealed how the system really works – why, somebody else might be able to do it better.

In another country, this kind of document would be about water boarding. And although that might feel appropriate to those of us who’ve endured the torture of trying to get a show on the air at a Canadian broadcaster, it has no place in the public forum of a supposed democracy, let alone for a meeting between a regulator mandated as a public watchdog and broadcasters dependent on the public purse.

They have the secret meetings. You pay the dues.

help save

CTV has been running a very public campaign asking people to write their MP asking Parliament to toss local TV a life preserver. How about sending your federal representative this CRTC document, appended by a personalized “WTF?”

Maybe you can also let your MP know that BellGlobeMedia Inc., of which CTV is a partner, earned a 9.7 % operating profit in 2008 to the tune of $214 Million, a year in which the CRTC itself also found that their local news operations “showed a healthy overall profit”.

You might want to additionally inform them of what Commissioner Leonard Katz reveals in his opening question to CTV’s Ivan Fecan on Page 2 after referring to a CTV document which reads:

“Despite robust economic cycles in the postwar era, the ‘A’ channels have consistently lost money for almost 20 years. CTV GM states that as a group these stations were never profitable under CHUM ownership when they routinely lost between $12 million and $17 million annually.”

Katz asks the obvious question: “So if that is the case and it has been 20 years since the ‘A’ Channels have made money, if at all. 20 years ago there weren’t 400 stations out there. There wasn’t the economy we have today. If they haven’t made money, can someone deduce that maybe these stations are not viable in these cities no matter what you do?”

Good question.

Unfortunately a bunch of black lines hide the answers.

secrecy_500

But Canadians are growing more aware that we seem to have a lot of business types here who can’t maintain their pre-eminence or privileged lifestyles without a government handout. 

Whether you’re a broadcaster, a car manufacturer or a Billionaire shopping a hockey team you don’t even own to whichever municipality will pony up an arena you won’t have to pay for, those with apparent money and power keep asking us to forego much needed roads, bridges and hospitals so they can trade real live hockey players or hire their wives to produce dancing shows.

Some in government are referring to this process as “picking winners from losers”, but it’s really “picking losers from losers”. A form of capitalist triage in which the contracts of elite bankers are honored while those of guys on assembly lines are not.

It’s an emergency ward system where incompetent management has its life support plugged into your savings account instead of being turned off and where the Salvation Army is literally trotted out to pluck at your local station heartstrings so the son of a Prime Minister who pocketed envelopes stuffed with cash in ritzy hotel rooms can tell you what Paris Hilton said to some Porn star in the toilet of a Hollywood booze can.

Like Colonel Jessup in Aaron Sorkin’s “A Few Good Men”, it seems Konrad von Finckenstein believes he stands on a wall defending us from God knows what and would rather we were relieved he was up there, just said “Thank you” and went on our way.

Katz’s almost desperate plea -- “I was just hoping we could find somewhere in the past when it was profitable and I can sort of say let’s take a look at what made it work at that point in time and can we re-create that…” is answered with lines of redacted comment that give you the clear feeling that responding to logical questions like that wasn’t on the agreed agenda.

In a later section of the minutes, the discussion turns to what the networks spend on the American programming that is the apparent source of all/most/whatever sounds best of the Canadian networks’ profits.

big money

And here the Commissioners are informed that despite spending hundreds of millions each year in Hollywood, our networks don’t actually know what the programming they bought will cost them until the American networks broadcasting those shows tally up the number of times they themselves showed them.

As CanWest’s Barbara Williams puts it, “You are trying to establish a budget and stay in control of that budget, when you are really, completely dependent on the US network’s scheduling”.

Gee, is she saying that American networks already direct and control the budgets and scheduling of the same broadcasters that the CRTC doesn’t allow them to have ownership in up here?

In the same category of discussion, CTV’s Ivan Fecan agrees with Von Finckenstein that he bought the ‘A’ Channels as a way of using up all the lower value shows he’s forced to purchase from American studios in order to get his hands on one of their hits.

So, the Americans control not only budgeting and scheduling but CONTENT as well? And still we have autonomous Canadian networks?

I’m sorry, but I’m just not buying that CTV and CanWest are on the same buyer level as some poor schmuck who owns eight drive-ins in Arkansas and has to allow himself to be ass-raped in one of the back rooms of Lowe’s Santa Monica during AFM, forced to buy three zombie flicks filmed in a weekend and a remake of “Drums Along the Mohawk” just so he can get that cheerleader movie where some really hot chicks take their tops off.

I mean maybe Fecan’s argument explains why “According to Jim” is still on the air. But are you really telling me that Canwest sits at a table with a couple of hundred mil in front of them and are told that if they want “House” they also need to buy a season of “Flipper: The Next generation” and a couple of Deanna Durbin movies???

“Lenny, Bubee, she’s from your home town! Tell ‘em it’s Cancon!”

dee 2

Throughout the process, CTV and Global reiterate that the current television business model is broken, yet they apparently don’t take the first obvious step in fixing it. If the American studios and networks are in the same desperate straights (as our nets insist they are), how come they can’t pry a better deal out of them?

But No. Our nets continue to allow themselves to be led to the Hollywood casting couch.

While other businesses are demanding and getting cost certainty, they continue to be dictated to by their American suppliers. Nor do they insist on identical terms when they sell Cancon to a US network. Whatever terms the US partner wants are agreed to – except on script notes and casting and all of that other stuff on the Canadian produced shows, of course.

Of course.

And despite all this, CanWest’s Barbara Williams assures the Commission that they can use their “Leverage” with the studios to mitigate costs.

How?

Where?

What becomes clear is that Canadian nets still fail to see that the way around their problems is the same strategy most European nations have used to end-run the Hollywood studio insistence on owning it all -- to produce programming they can own and sell.

But I’ve been beating that drum since I started writing this blog and it seems CTV and Global would rather swallow lye than make a couple of dollars from their own labor.

It makes you wonder if their development people aren’t really working as hard as they claim, maybe aren’t good enough to come up with a hit more than once every few seasons – or if part of those purchase packages is a non-compete clause that says you get “House” as long as you don’t make a potentially competing medical show or can distribute “CSI” only as long as your own cop shows don’t spend a lot of time wrestling with forensics.

At any rate, my favorite moment in this whole sorry affair occurs on pages 144-145, wherein the Commission Chair offers the following:

in camera 3

Unfortunately, “…what Ms. Williams just explained to me” has been redacted. So I, my fellow artists and the Arts Guilds the Commission Chair speaks of have no way of understanding her argument.

Or perhaps – of REFUTING it…

But then, we don’t matter to this Commission any more than the public does. And that’s made crystal clear over and over during CRTC hearings.

Writers Guild of Canada Executive Director Maureen Parker can explain a half century of Broadcaster “betrayal” of her membership and MP Cheryl Gallant can detail how her constituents in Pembroke were consistently lied to by CanWest. But those submissions are not explored while this document illustrates that the Commission feels enormously educated by whatever the broadcasters have to say.

Perhaps, in the final analysis, Konrad von Finckenstein and the CRTC are the ones who can’t really handle the truth…

 

in camera

10 comments:

deborah Nathan said...

I would laugh, if it weren't all so painfully sad.

JA Goneaux said...

My first reaction was, unfortunately, my most cliched one: Srsly?

But I mean, seriously? I've read CIA memos that were less redacted. Hell, I've severed less when processing health records for Freedom of Information requests.

If the CRTC, the CanNets and the cable and satellite giants wanted to drive more people underground to view what they want, when the want and how they want, they could not have done a better job....

Brandon Laraby said...

Ahh yes, the sweet sweet joy of being able to say whatever the hell you want behind people's backs and never be held accountable for it.

Especially when the people they're talking about are the ones doling you the cash.

I tell you [Redacted] can all [Redacted] with a [Redacted] and then maybe we [Redacted] or [Redacted] once and for all.

Anonymous said...

Great post... the consumer is left with what options? The bottom line is that cable and satellite companies are not paying to retransmit local tv signals in Canada and this is not justified under any policy. Consumers should be able to pay for local TV if they want. What is the problem with that? Cable and satellite pay retransmission fees in the US, and the world did not end. There is a great background note found at http://www.feeforcarriage.ca

Anonymous said...

This quote:

"What becomes clear is that Canadian nets still fail to see that the way around their problems is the same strategy most European nations have used to end-run the Hollywood studio insistence on owning it all -- to produce programming they can own and sell.

But I’ve been beating that drum since I started writing this blog and it seems CTV and Global would rather swallow lye than make a couple of dollars from their own labor."

The American stations have a fee for carriage. Have you ever thought that maybe adding this fee would give the Canadian Networks enough money to be able to make this come true?

Michael Dundas said...

I think the CRTC should take some of our tax dollars and aquire some leadership lessons from someone like Michael Hyatt - http://michaelhyatt.com/2009/04/leaders-never-act-in-a-vacuum.html

-mike

jimhenshaw said...

Thanks for the input from you "Anonymous" guys.

Can I ask you both a question first?

Why does having an opposing opinion make you feel you need to disguise your identities?

Is it because that's the only way you survive working at CTV or Global?

But in answer to your points:

Anon #1: I completely agree that people should be able to pay for local TV if they want. Key phrase being "If they want" which is far different from a compulsory carriage fee payment.

In the same redacted document I refer to throughout this post, Ivan Fecan asks for a "cap" on carriage fees, feeling it's unfair to ask viewers in Toronto or Vancouver to pay $6.00 a month for all their local stations while folks in rural areas would only be getting dinged for a buck or two.

Even he knows what the market will bear -- and how few people may share your positive evaluation of what his stations have to offer.

Also -- I assume that if you think people should have the right to pay for the programming they want, you also believe they should be able to pick their own cable packages.

Be careful of that "Anon #1", because you might find a couple of local newscasts aren't enough to make anyone want to pay for a channel that the rest of the time provides programming they can easily find elsewhere.

"Anon #2": You've apparently bought the argument that putting a bunch of money into the hands of Canadian broadcasters will make the Canadian content dream come true...

Can I ask, with the billions in public money (and your cable fees)that have previously been invested, why that hasn't happened yet?

And you might want to check your facts. While the broadcasters used that standard argument of pumping up local content a year ago when they asked for carriage fees, this time around, it's off the table because they now need that money "Just to survive".

In fact, you'll find that Global asked the CRTC to reduce its contributions to local programming to 10% of the current level.

Both of you feel free to come by anytime. Don't be afraid to tell us your names. I don't bite and neither do most of the readership -- whatever Peter Viner might be suggesting about us.

The Shorts Report said...

Hey Jim, great blog.

I'm hazarding a guess that we (the artist community) totally get what Ms. Williams just explained.

But without a chance to hear what that nugget of wisdom is, we can't speak to it.

Can we lobby just to hear her sage advice? Baby steps?

Anonymous said...

Hi,

It seems the covered up "transcript" has now been covered up.

The original 251 page transcript has now been reduced to 40 pages and where all that black marker used to be there is now one single word [REDACTED]

It is absolutely ludicrous that the public regulator, assigned with the safekeeping of public airwaves is allowed to hold private in camera meetings.

Absolutely shameful.

Thank you for your excellent insight.

Anonymous said...

Brilliant article.
This is the most astute observation and analysis of the Canadian television industry that I have ever read.
I thought this kind of shit only happened in countries like the former Soviet Union.
The CRTC is clearly out of control.