Monday, September 21, 2009

We Don’t Do Period

It seems we’ll be back into the never ending Canadian TV Regulation Wars in the coming weeks, with the CRTC now announcing two (“Count ‘em, two!”) sets of Fall hearings on the state of the industry. How often do these guys need to make the same decision, anyway? Is it a Best of Five series? Seven?

However, I have to say the field has become more interesting with the arrival of a new player, the Harper Government, who seems to be giving the Commission’s leash a yank in an attempt to get them to remember they’re supposed to be a consumer watchdog rather than broadcaster lap hound. Details from Grant Robertson, the busiest journalist in Canadian Show business – or maybe just the only guy at the Globe & Mail who couldn’t score any TIFF passes.


As always, the just concluded Toronto International Film Festival was less about movies than the parties. That forces even guys like me to hang up the “quiet loner” mantle and slip into something elegant. Or as elegant as necessary to hang with barely working Canadian writers, actors and filmmakers.

I usually explain my non-attendance at industry events with the “Because they don’t let me bring a shotgun!” excuse. But lately, I’m thinking the real danger of packing heat would be wrestling it from the grip of so many in a mood to cram the barrel in their own mouths.

For what seems to be happening in our country is that we’re building a creative community with nowhere to create.

It’s all well and good that several levels of government used TIFF to announce $7 Million in new funding for the Canadian Film Centre and $10 Million more to complete a permanent Festival complex. But you gotta wonder if there will be any production for those CFC kids to work on once they graduate and if the grand Festival theatres will have Canadian films in a sufficient number to raise their own screen content above the 2% level our cinematic output accounts for in the rest of the country.

Shouldn’t we have our own industry before we spend so much public money on training and exhibition?  Especially when those trained and the places where our films are exhibited will both have to depend heavily on the kindness of foreigners to survive.

But then, that’s always been one of the places where our National Psyche misfires. We crave acceptance at all cost, wanting to be internationally regarded as the wonderfully extra-special people we all know we are. And somehow artists approved by association with the Ivy League cache of their Alma Mater or inviting people to watch movies in a jewel box setting is supposed to accomplish that.

The fact that others not burdened by such a lack of self-esteem pay more attention to the content on screen isn’t a concept those so blinkered will ever be able to get their heads around.

But let’s get back to those struggling to make an industry here.


Somebody twittered the warning “It’s become ‘Lord of the Flies’ in here.” from one party I attended, perfectly capturing (as talented writers are wont to do) the rudderless chaos of so much creative energy unable to find normal release and degenerating into something else. 

You hear many excuses for the reduced markets for Canadian work. The need of some local buyers to have guaranteed financing or foreign sales before they’ll commit to development, for example, or the desire for the concept to copy a current American model or success.

One of our nets won’t consider any drama submissions that aren’t budgeted in the $2 Mil/episode range, which must mark the first time any network anywhere hasn’t been all over a producer to “make it cheaper”.

It’s also a business model that flies in the face of every recent Canadian TV success from “Corner Gas” to “Trailer Park Boys” to “Being Erica” while making the break even point for investors almost impossible to reach in the current economy. And given our private networks public pleas of poverty it makes even less sense.

However, one of the most prescient clues to what the real problem is came from a writer friend who’s trying to sell a Period piece. 

Canadian nets are notoriously loathe to shoot anything where the actors can’t be dressed off the rack. Shortly after “Mad Men” debuted, a local development exec let me know they were in the market for a period drama. I offered a couple of ideas, to which she responded, “We weren’t thinking of going back that far.”

In other words, they really wanted something from the 60’s, like “Mad Men”. If you signed with a US network first. And had foreign sales.

mad men

One of these network geniuses had listened to my friend’s pitch and worried aloud about becoming known for doing Period.

Shouldn’t the concern have been, “How can this idea make us money? How can the stories we do here resonate with a modern audience? How can this series make us the place where viewers know they can find something different?”

But network executives apparently don’t think that way. Canadian ones in particular seem to eschew the opportunity to break new ground in favor of re-tooling or simply replicating what can be found pretty much anywhere else.

Perhaps that’s a safe choice when it comes to personal job-security. But when iTunes is your company’s only option at securing future profits, you’d think you wouldn’t want a little more than your version of “So You Think You Can Dance” competing with somebody else’s copy.

When you’re stuck in a falling box, your only salvation is beginning to think outside it.

But, in the same way they don’t embrace the story potential, visual freedom and imagination sparking ability of Science Fiction, Canadian TV Execs are loathe to program much that’s set in the past, preferring to till a narrow segment of human history (the Present) as it is seen through the eyes of endless incarnations of cops, doctors, lawyers and young singles.

I started wondering why they’re so afraid of a tapestry of human experience so diverse you could program a different era and/or culture (as well as all it had/has to offer) in every available prime time slot for decades without repeating yourself. And unfortunately, I think I found the answer.


I’ve written about how stupid our audience is being made before, much of that process the result of an education system too lazy or too disinterested in our kids to even teach them how to read.

And while the Nation’s movers and shakers were craning their necks to see if Megan Fox was as hot in person as she was in “Transformers 2”, the Canadian Council on Learning published a study showing that 48% of Canadian adults operate at a literacy level below the minimum required to cope in a knowledge based economy.

To make it simple – half of us can’t comprehend a newspaper anymore, let alone begin to deal with a novel.

The CCL included a map with their study showing the national scope of the problem. Green and Yellow sections denote a lower proportion of adult illiterates, orange and red indicate illiteracy at levels up to 69%.

literacy map

As a Western Canadian with an admitted Conservative bias, I hope some of you notice the corollary between literacy and the Nation’s voting patterns.

Just Sayin’…

Anyway – we already can’t read. And now it appears not learning History is next.

The UK has a whole lot of History, so much that PBS wouldn’t have much programming without it and CBC wouldn’t have as many shows they can pretend are actually Canadian.

But there’s a movement afoot over there to stop teaching History because they now have so many kids in school who were born elsewhere that some in Education are asserting that those children feel left out, don’t relate to what’s being taught and therefore fail.

The fact that there are still a lot of indigenous kids who might like to know where they come from and that it might not harm the imports to get up to date on how their new home got this way seems to escape Educational Bureaucrats.

It makes you wonder how many culture clashes could be avoided if teachers were working at making everybody a little clearer on how the people they don’t fully understand came to be the way they are.

In my part of the World, where one School Board has already banned “To Kill A Mockingbird” in a misguided attempt to reduce racial sensitivities; it’s come to light that School Boards are encouraging teachers to augment their classes with a field trip to the nearest “Medieval Times” outlet for “A History Lesson Your Child Will Never Forget! @ $40 bucks a head.


I don’t know if you’ve ever been to a Medieval Times performance. It’s an extension on the Dinner Theatre concept which grew out of the “watching something while you eat” TV Dinner Concept. In this case, it’s basically “Chuck E. Cheese” with horses.

The audience is herded into an arena and treated to mock jousting while wearing paper crowns and eating with their hands, constantly being assured what they’re experiencing is an accurate portrayal of life in a Medieval Castle.

It’s not.

It’s a Vegas style concept so dependent on school shows for its corporate survival that they’ve developed a whole “educational” package to encourage school attendance. This includes a handout on dramatic acting educating the kids on arcane theatrical terms like ACTRA and AFTRA as well as such definition gems as “Background Performer: …Extra” and “Extra: …Background Performer”.

The Medieval Menu for school matinees features:

Garlic Bread

Oven-Roasted Chicken Quarter

Sweet Corn Cobette

Herb-Roasted Potato

Freshly-Baked Chocolate Chip Cookie

Bottled Spring Water

(Gluten and Dairy free options available)


Those of you with a literacy level high enough to get you this far down the page should also be able to discern how many of those products were actually available during the Middle Ages.

Passing this off as History is right up there with what passes for History on Canada’s History Channel. You might as well show “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure” in class (somehow I’m sure The History Channel already has) or simply take the kids to Vegas where they can climb the Eiffel Tower, take a Gondola through Venice and meet direct descendants of Al Capone in one very “educational” afternoon.

And while they’re there, maybe somebody can teach them how to play Poker, because it might be their only shot at earning a living after graduation.

What this laziness and lack of imagination in the education community breeds is -- well, the very same thing -- in everybody they were supposed to teach. And it’s clearly starting to affect what gets offered as television fare.

When kids can’t read and therefore have fewer options, they’ll start to see the degradation of “Bromance” or “Rock of Love” as their only chance to be somebody. They’ll believe the abusive atmosphere of “Hell’s Kitchen” is what they have to put up with in the workplace or that there’s a Millionaire “Bachelor” who’ll marry you after one night in a hot tub.

And the ratings hungry people who run television will be more than happy to oblige.

Making room for fewer dramas -- and even fewer Period pieces that might coax them to stretch their understanding of the world.

To put it simply -- Nobody is taught enough History anymore to be able to follow a Period piece without being in a constant state of confusion.

“Why doesn’t he use his cell phone? Whaddya mean they didn’t have ‘em back then?”

“Why is she taking a train if she’s in a hurry? That’ll take forever!”

“No clues! Are they nuts? Where’s the CSI guys?”

“Did that Atticus guy use the ‘N’ word? I thought we were supposed to like him!”

Having lived through the 1960’s, I’m frankly stunned by the vast number of mass media journalists who filed miles of copy prior to this season’s launch wondering at the differences between the sexes displayed in “Mad Men”. Even if these people are waaaaay younger than me, didn’t they have parents? Didn’t anybody ever tell them that things have changed a little in the last few decades? Don’t they know that iPods aren’t magic, they evolved from what preceded them?

Apparently not.

And they’re the ones who know how to read!

I’m sure there’s an argument to be made that television is a struggling medium right now and we’ll get back to more diverse programming once the “New Media” business models are perfected. But I look at how many of last night’s Emmy Awards were carted away by “Mad Men”, “Grey Gardens”, “Little Dorrit” and “House of Saddam” and I realize that producing in the Period genre might be one of those models.

Maybe the problem is bigger than teachers.

Maybe the Canadian TV mantra isn’t “We don’t do Period.” It’s --- We don’t do. Period.

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