Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Train Wreck

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Two years ago, I helped get a new reality/lifestyle show off the ground, producing and directing the first episodes and mapping out what would transpire over the first season. It was a complex and ambitious series so we began interviewing for an additional producer position.

One of the applicants had a lengthy resume in that style of programming and said she'd just come off a "train wreck" series. In my naiveté or maybe pre-conditioned to believe reality television actually had something to do with reality, I assumed she meant some Discovery/History/Whatever series about famous train derailments.

When she said another show she'd done was also a "train wreck" series, I began to wonder if a programming niche for disaster aficionados or railroad buffs had escaped my notice. Then she said she was up for another one.

That's when I learned "Train Wreck" was reality-speak for a series where you watch other human beings screw up, fail and fall apart.

These days "That's (apparently) Entertainment".

Being a guy who's doesn't understand the societal benefits of short selling the stock market, government run casinos or getting somebody to sign up for a sub-prime mortgage, I've never fully embraced the attraction of watching people fail -- or perhaps worse -- seeing them humiliated for my enjoyment.

In other times, I wouldn't have been the guy lining up for tickets to bear-baiting, Christians getting fed to lions or William Wallace being drawn and quartered.

Call me old fashioned but in my world good television still includes being amazed, uplifted or cathartically reborn.  Watching somebody get numbingly drunk before being coerced into a sex act as giggling housemates enjoy the soap opera, not so much.

But such "mirroring of our society" is all the rage in some circles, justified as socially important or necessary to understand by those selling it. And it makes money, so it's embraced by many broadcast networks.

Last weekend's Gemini Awards may not have depicted the Canadian Television Industry finally hitting bottom, but you could see that the down button on the elevator was firmly depressed.

The "Best Series" was one that is Canadian only by some definition cooked up by chartered accountants. Much of the nominated and winning talent either doesn't carry a Canadian passport or only uses one to come home for free medical check-ups. Some categories were filled out with talent that hasn't even been seen on a Canadian TV screen since the last virtually unwatched Gemini ceremony.

There were worthy locals honored to be sure, including some already cancelled shows and one brave soul who communicated the trophy's growing insignificance by leaving it in a gutter for the first passerby.

We're an entertainment empire in decline, a fact maybe better illustrated by the other big Canadian television story from last weekend, the unmasking of "Lake Shore".

For those who were busy watching all eleven repeats of "Lost Girl" on Showcase in the hope of pumping the ratings so it might eventually equal any single hour's numbers for an episode of "Heartland", "Lake Shore" is a Canadian series that hasn't filmed a single episode or been picked up by a broadcaster, but has garnered more press than that managed by all of the Gemini nominees' publicists put together.

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"Lake Shore" is the low IQ brain child of producers Maryam Rahimi and George Tsioutsioulas, apparent students of the broadcaster approved Canadian school of American television mimeography. 

Hoping to cash in on the success of MTV's "Jersey Shore" they decided to replicate its "Guido-Guidette" premise in a Toronto locale, plumbing the depths of Canada's far more diverse multicultural communities to prove us as equally capable of showcasing idiots.

Somehow "Guido" and "Guidette" are considered terms of disparagement by Italian Americans offended by "Jersey Shore" and harmless endearment by MTV PR flacks.

I'm not really sure who's telling the truth there as I once helped a friend of mine shoot a documentary on the machismo of Italian males, which included two nights in a Woodbridge, Ontario watering hole as a stream of swaggering morons parked their Camaros long enough to enlighten us on what made them "so fuggin' hot". By an almost equal count half wanted to make sure we didn't go calling them "Guidos" while the other half wore the badge proudly.

Such are the sociological questions Rahimi and Tsioutsioulas (pictured below being interviewed on CTV's "Canada AM") seemed to suggest would be addressed as their cast of "discoveries" from eight different ethnic backgrounds mixed and mingled in the world-class clubs and hot tubs of Toronto.

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Unfortunately, in their hustler zeal to find a buyer for their series they released a Youtube trailer which included a few examples of homophobia and one young lovely professing her hatred for all ethnicities -- although -- she harbored a special hated -- for Jews.

Although the offending trailer was immediately pulled from Youtube (ostensibly for violating a CBC radio copyright) and the show's website went immediately dark, a shorter clip with the same remarks remained online.

Now the more worldly among you might shake your head, mutter "What a dimwit!" and move on. Others might be outraged.

And the latter had the opportunity to be outraged further when the Toronto Star published interviews from those who auditioned for the series wherein they described being "encouraged to make anti-Semitic comments" by the producers.

All part of the "be outrageous" tactics required to get a show on the air these days?

Just a bunch of naive kids eager for their 15 minutes of fame?

Maybe.

Or maybe it's where the gradual decline of intelligence and ethical behavior among Canadian broadcast executives has led us.

Somewhere in LA, there are Canadian writers rolling around on the floor laughing right now because I implied Canadian broadcast executives had any ethics in the first place. But I firmly believe they once did and that some still do or struggle to embrace them in their darkest moments or while being pressured to best the competition by any means necessary.

But for the most part you won't find much ethical behavior in the ranks of those who program so-called "Reality" shows.

The first thing you realize when you play in this arena is that nobody calls it "reality programming". It's "Lifestyle". That's mostly because there's no CMF money for reality shows.

But if you can make the audience think it's real while proving to the funders that you're actually selling a makeover show or a kitchen competition or documentary on driving habits you'll get the federal bucks.

Either government bureaucrats don't watch the shows they're financing or they've got paper to cover their asses saying it's about something else.

The show I worked on fit into the Lifestyle category of "Real Estate Porn" meaning it was designed for people who get hot in the presence of a copy of "Architectural Digest" and shouldn't venture into a Vintage Hardware store un-chaperoned.

To tell our stories, we employed actors as some of the credited experts or real life contacts of the central characters of the piece. You would have perceived them as real people and that was the intention. Only real "real" people wouldn't have articulated as well or gotten us wrapped before getting into overtime.

That's something that happens frequently in this genre. Check out the film/video category of Craigslist any given week and you'll find all kinds of Lifestyle shows trolling for non-union performers to augment their "casts".

A lot of these people are very talented, they just haven't broken in yet. And many move from reality show to reality show without ever getting tagged as being other than who the show producers and networks claim they are.

The program I was doing centered on construction and on one job site I was approached by a day laborer asking us not to show him on camera. That's a common request. Sometimes a guy's ducking child support and doesn't want his wife knowing he's working. Sometimes they just want their privacy. But this guy was pretending to be somebody who did something more than haul lumber around on another reality show and he didn't want to blow his big payday.

The story lines are often as contrived. More than once the network asked us to ramp up the tension or suspense by suggesting a task had to be accomplished in an impossibly short period of time. I'd point out that the professionals involved were telling me such things just don't happen. The response was, "Jim, we're not recreating reality, we're manufacturing it." followed by "Tell them that's what they have to say if they want to be on camera."

And, y'know, if you dig sewers 40 hours a week and this is your one chance to impress the in-laws by being on TV, a lot of people do what they're told.

One afternoon, we were ensconced in a site office, coincidentally watching another makeover show to see how they did things when a building inspector walked in to sign some papers. On screen, another real life character was decrying the workmanship of his predecessor, screaming that nothing was to code and it would all have to be ripped out. The inspector looked confused, "No, that's done right." Didn't matter, the other show ripped out the shoddy work and now faced the impossible task of completing the makeover on time.

Instead of serving Canadian audiences real drama and comedy, the CRTC has allowed Canadian networks to get the same Cancon and requirements of licensing bang from a cheaper fake version that doesn't employ professional writers or actors or in many cases even pay a living wage.

Last summer, I was approached by a couple of young filmmakers who had a "Lifestyle" concept to sell but had never been in a network meeting and wanted somebody to watch their backs.

The execs we were meeting liked their show but balked at paying what it would cost to get it on the air. The arguments they made to the neophytes astonished me. They quoted weekly license fees that equaled the take-home pay of a kid working in the fast food industry and argued that most of their programming came from people just happy to "work for credits".

In one case, one of those guys working for credits has been doing that for three successful seasons.

In Canadian television, there are lifestyle networks raking in enormous federal subsidies who, in any other industry, would face the wrath of other government departments for not even paying those working for them the minimum wage.

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In the 1950's, American television was rocked by what became known as the Quiz Show Scandal, when it was discovered that popular Quiz shows were feeding audience favorite contestants with the answers to questions, forcing others to take a dive and generally not delivering what the audience thought it was watching.

Paul Attanasio's brilliant script for the Robert Redford directed film about the scandal, "Quiz Show", concludes with a TV Executive of the time flummoxed by the outrage and wondering what all the fuss is about -- "We're not exactly hardened criminals here. We're -- we're in show business."

But when you make a habit of pretending what you're selling is legitimate instead of a cheap facsimile, when you don't feel you're required to pay people for honest labor the way the rest of the world does, and get caught up in your own immunity to any rules that apply to others -- how far a leap is it to think the mores of basic decency, of not embracing homophobia and anti-Semitism don't apply to you either?

And you don't have to have been around television that much to know that "Lake Shore" would not have garnered anywhere near the free publicity it got if it hadn't appeared not only viable but desirable to somebody in a cushy corner office.

If I were to take any show I'm currently selling, or have an idea on how to make a Canadian version of "Lost" or "House" or whatever enjoys current popularity, I won't get on "Canada AM" or CBC Radio or elicit color photo spreads  in print arms of broadcast conglomerates unless somebody inside those organizations is floating a trial balloon or attempting to take the public temperature before signing on the dotted line.

And that means that network people charged with finding the next big thing likely screened that 8 minute hate filled screed and thought they just might get away with it -- just might catch "Jersey Shore" lightning in a bottle and trade any harm that might be done for a richer bottom line.

Not to single out anyone here, but it's interesting to watch the entire "Canada AM" segment devoted to "Lake Shore". It comes across as a full on sell job of how exciting it's going to be. As a producer, you can't buy this kind of validation for an unsold show under any circumstances beyond it being already 99% sold.

I wonder if Seamus O'Regan might want to consider  an "It Gets Better" video for the victims of anti-Semitism.

Given what happened this weekend, it seems unlikely that "Lake Shore" will ever find a spot on the TV dial. Networks loathe to take a risk on drama become just as loathe to green-light a far cheaper reality show bound to give second thoughts to potential advertisers and with which any PR might not be good PR.

But given the "iffy" ethics of some television executives and the possibility that a little editing and some pre-release spin can make it look like this whole tempest was a giant misunderstanding and nobody ever intended to go that far -- who knows.

And then the hustlers who began dominating our industry a decade ago will have won another one and that plummeting elevator that is Canadian TV will slide past the basement level and into P1 or P2, from whence the ride back up to the light takes even longer.

A few days ago, a frustrated Canadian screenwriter posted a comment on facebook that read: "In meetings I tend to pitch to, or align myself with, the smartest person in the room. The technical term for this is "career suicide."

Sadly, for most of us pitching to Canadian networks, it's all too clear that the smartest person in the room is us -- and until that changes Canadian TV doesn't stand a chance.

5 comments:

Dwight Williams said...

And this serves as a reminder of why I don't watch these things.

Sam said...

Excellent but omg what's going to happen if the reality shows (whatever category they use for Fund money) are asked to stop faking it and become true documentaries?

JA Goneaux said...

Just thing back a bit to every "in movie" TV show "from the future", ala "RoboCop"....

I don't know whether to be scared or amused about how close "reality" is getting to what was, in most cases, a satirical look at what TV was going to look like.

Hell, "Phantom of the Paradise" was on last night, and I couldn't help but think how close it came to having fathered "American Idol".

Rusty James said...

I think we should go back to producing Maple Syrup Porn and Canuxploitation - and OMG is that woman ever fat!

Anonymous said...

"In meetings I tend to pitch to, or align myself with, the smartest person in the room. The technical term for this is "career suicide."

Oh, lord -- I should have that tattooed on my forehead.