Wednesday, June 10, 2009



snakes on a plane

The term “Snakes On A Plane” might describe:

a) A really bad movie

b) Canadian Television Executives flying off to buy shows in LA

c) A good example of a high concept pitch

From their first moment in a screenwriting class, writers are confronted with the concept of “High Concept”. And while it can technically be described as a show premise encapsulated in one sentence, that’s not the whole story.

A High Concept piece needs to take the expected and twist it to the unexpected.  There needs to be something about the story that immediately tweaks the interest of those hearing it. Something that makes it imperative that they find out either “What happens” or “how it happens”.

By its very nature, a High Concept forces the writer to get to the essence of his story, provides clarity so the broadcaster knows what they’re selling and tells the audience “Ah, but you’ve never seen this before”.

Much of current Canadian television, however, is predicated on familiarity. There are clones of formats that have succeeded in other markets. There are copy cat reality, cooking, interview and magazine shows. And mostly there are dramas replicating the tried and true formulae of Prime Time seasons past.

A decade after police procedurals began to dominate the American landscape, Canadian networks decided to make them.

“The Border”, “Flashpoint”, “Murdoch Mysteries” are all capable and watchable and derivative. Shows that allow you flop back on the couch and say “That was okay” – not sit up straight, imagination aflame, gasping, “Wow, that was awesome! Let’s have some more of that!”

Is “The Listener” as enjoyably inconsequential as “Ghost Whisperer” or “Medium”? Of course it is.

Will  “Sanctuary” have people so freaked out they rush home to make sure they programmed their DVRs for the next episode? Not likely.

Is “Junk Raiders” going to be the series that revolutionizes Reality programming? Uh – probably not.

They’re all nice. They’re all respectable. They’re all inoffensive.

Interestingly, three words often used to describe Canadians.

Those would be the same Canadians who don’t or won’t turn out in great numbers to watch any of those shows.

And for all the hoopla about cash strapped US networks now hungering for our series, I’ll be very surprised if any of the artists involved in any of the ones being trucked South see a lot of royalty or residual money.

And now that the SAG contract has been ratified, watch for the push back.

But from the Canadian network point of view, they are providing their viewers with what “they say they want”, the audience making those requests silently, simply by turning up in significant enough numbers to watch one offering or another.

When asked or allowed to voice their opinions on what they’re watching, the audience reveals that this familiarity approach has also bred contempt.

“There’s nothing worth watching.”

“It’s all the same.”

“Canadian TV is crap.”

The network response is usually to point to the numbers and mutter, “They don’t really know what they want.”

In an interesting twist, that’s the same line you often get from writers fresh from a network pitch. Most likely a pitch that included show ideas copy-catting some currently popular concept.

God, we’re so far down this road, we even make a show where judges critique people’s similarity to somebody famous! I mean, how utterly pointless does the task of filming cheap and not considering an audience in order to meet Cancon requirements have to get?


You see, in the process of delivering familiarity and replicating it, a creative fog develops where nobody really knows who’s trying to provide what to whom. And when those familiar shows begin to spread to specialty channels owned by the same networks, other delivery platforms and anywhere else they can think of to squeeze another buck out of them, that fog gets so thick the audience doesn’t so much fragment as it just gets lost.

Can anybody really tell me the difference between the shows you see on CTV and the ones on Global or ‘A’ Channel or Rogers? If there wasn’t a logo in the bottom corner, would you know if the show you’re watching could also be on History Channel, Showcase or TVtropolis?

If CanWest disappears and you can only watch “House” on Fox would you even be aware that a company employing many of your neighbors was no longer there?

Will any programming you feel is worth your time and attention have disappeared with them?


And the sadder answer is that aside for one or two hours of unique and different programming in any given week, any Canadian channels dropping off our dials wouldn’t be missed by the vast majority of the country.

The biggest change we can make that might save Canadian television is to start making television Canadians can’t find anywhere else and make it so compelling and different that it can’t help but be noticed.

And that means that as creators of those shows, we have to stop buying into the familiarity trap and start thinking “High Concept”.

It also means our broadcasters have to stop continuing to follow the broadcast model they claim is broken.

It may sound like I’m about to counter part of my own argument here – but I’ve always found it odd that CBC would never create anything as lowbrow as “Coronation Street” but considers it a mainstay of their schedule.

Similarly, although they introduced a couple of generations of Canadians to “Dr. Who”, they would never stoop to creating their own Science Fiction series.

But doing their own soap or their own space opera would be “unexpected” and might find them a larger audience.

I’ve never understood why CTV continues to insist the rest of the country buy into its super straight, white bread Toronto point of view.

Are there any shows “Whiter” than the ones on CTV? Do the central casts of “Flashpoint” or “The Listener” truly reflect the 54% non-Caucasian demographics of the same city they are claiming they are introducing to American audiences?

How come “Robson Arms” didn’t reflect Vancouver’s massive Asian and South Asian communities either?

Might there be a chance that thinking outside the box a little and reaching out to those communities could find CTV an increase in audience and ad revenue?

Can anybody fathom why Global would launch an animated version of a Hoser act that was tired out more than 20 years ago? Is that a logical way to recover the High Concept cutting edges of their first seasons of “SCTV”, the show where those characters were born?

We need to work together here, people. Those of us who write have a duty to only pitch programming nobody is seeing on television right now.

I know, I know, there’s no show about growing up in a (pick your ethnicity) neighborhood in Edmonton anywhere right now. But could you find another dimension to it? I mean give that kid psychic powers!

Hell, bring the whole genre back to Haley Joe Osmond! Isn’t that where it all started anyway?

And private broadcasters. You’ve got to stop trying to pretend you’re big American networks. Cause you’re not. You’re just the guys bidding on their High Concepts. Or their version of somebody else’s. Or the ones that turned out not to be conceived in an atmosphere all that rarified but they can twist your arm into buying as well so they can survive to develop something else that might work.

You have to do something that’s “You”, that’s “Your own” that none of the other guys had the balls or the foresight or the right place in the world to put out there.

Trust me, the audience will respond. They’ll at least nibble because it’s a fly they haven’t seen in the water before. And if they don’t like it, they’ll tell you and you can either fix it or figure out how to be better next time.

Wearing the same suit to work as all the other guys is why the cute girls aren’t noticing you.

As I suggested in the two posts below. Rebuilding this industry will require all of us being bold, stepping out there to try things we’ve never tried before and not apologizing for being different.

Because we are different. We think different. We feel different. We have different stories.

Let’s do them instead of giving our audience more of the same.


Anonymous said...

I agree with your general premise, but I disagree with the knock on "Sanctuary." There isn't enough good sci-fi/fantasy material out there, and Sanctuary was of good enough quality in its first season to get me to Tivo it. I'd rather see more "pale imitations" like Sanctuary that, over time, may develop into something better because of the flexible nature of sci-fi & fantasy. Unlike a police procedural or reality show, which I think become repetitive very quickly due to the genre constraints, sci-fi & fantasy can become really strong TV. In that vein, I think about shows like "Highlander" or "Forever Knight" which took a season (or more!) to develop.

deborah Nathan said...

Laughed at loud at definitions of snakes on a plane.

IN a more serious vein, I think creators do pitch high concept projects to the networks - but the networks don't buy them. I think your point about them all being the same is one of the biggest obstacle to selling something high concept, unique. If you look at them all, they are all doing "cop" shows, procedurals. And all of them take themselves very seriously. Not even a USA Network quirky variation.

It is also interesting that they won't do sci-fi as according to ratings, Canadians absolutely love science fiction. And the small groups of new writers I have worked with over the past two years write science fiction specs.

But, we would need a seismic change I think to get the networks to produce our own sci-fi. Or any high concept show.

So, now I'll just return to my procedural...

MaryP said...

Enjoyed this three-parter.

Two shows I think are terrific current examples of what can be done: Less Than Kind on CityTV and, of course, Being Erica.

Artemus said...

Deborah Nathan wrote:

"I think creators do pitch high concept projects to the networks - but the networks don't buy them. "

You got that right.

As long as the CBC has programming directors who come from the Jurassic Park, you're not going to change anything.

Take fred Nikolaidis (a CBC exec we like to call fred Flintstone). The CBC flies him to Montreal to meet independent producers because the CBC wants to have 'new concepts' and 'fresh ideas'.

First question asked to the guy: "what sort of programs are you looking for?"

His answer: "Oh, I'm not really looking for anything. I'm not really interested in new shows".

Number of various projects presented to the guy: 17

Number of projects he retained: ZERO.

End of story.