Monday, April 18, 2011

For The Record


My Cowboy grandpa used to always tell me that whenever I got angry, the smartest thing to do was count to ten, providing a moment to cool down before deciding what happened next.

Well, I've been counting all weekend, so I'm about as mellowed on what you're about to read as I can be.

And that's not saying much.

Last Friday, I printed a portion of CRTC "in-camera" testimony from Bell Media which detailed just how much disdain and lack of commitment that broadcast conglomerate has toward the production of Canadian programming.

A couple of days later, SHAW Communications had their chance at a private chat with the Commission.

Now, the public and the other industry stakeholders have always been told that a certain amount of private discussion is necessary in these matters.

Companies are required to divulge detailed financial information during these "in-camera" sessions. And we all understand that such data shouldn't be made readily available to their competitors.

What we didn't know is that these cozy encounters also included what can only be characterized as character assassination.

If what you read on this blog last Friday made you angry, prepare yourself for some of the most unprofessional executive behavior you've ever encountered.

I'll be back following the transcript to list my responses. Feel free to add your own in the comment thread. Or better yet, take the opportunity to create a few of your own out in the real world. Although some would suggest such creativity and courage is beyond you…

Herewith, what SHAW Communications chose to put on the record with the CRTC and (as the photo reference above indicates) also felt was worthy of full disclosure:

1485  THE CHAIRPERSON: Just one question. You mentioned before, and I think it's a very good point, that with the benefit monies from two major mergers on the market and the PNI there may be more money than the industry can absorb. Assume that's correct. What is the negative implication of that?

1487  MS SHIPTON: I mean, I will just say that, on the drama front, we are incredibly strained in this country finding talent.

1488  I mean the competitive environment in terms of just the writers if you get more than four or five big drama series up and running, those writers rooms have at least seven to eight writers per room. It is brutal. "Doyle" is stealing from "Endgame" which is stealing from "Rookie Blue" which is now stealing from "Flashpoint". I mean we have got big shows underway.

1489  So as we go to spend more and more, you know I know we have got to bring up the younger guys, bring up the younger guys, ---------------------------------------------------.

1490  The Writers Guild may kill me on that but they know that we are always trying to find more and more writers. It's writers.

1491  THE CHAIRPERSON: So your cost of production goes up.

1495  MS SHIPTON: Actually, the quality of production goes down --

1496  MS WILLIAMS: It is the quality.

1497  MS SHIPTON: -- is what happens and that -- sense becomes harder and harder and harder to move the dial on because you end up hiring people into writing rooms to direct episodes and all the rest of it that actually don't have the experience to be pulling it off. And so it's the quality that goes down. That's our concern there.


1499  MS SHIPTON: But I will say since the benefits have come into the system I would say the talent base has grown. There is absolutely no question. And it is because of the amount of volume that we are doing.

1500  COMMISSIONER PENTEFOUNTAS: Yeah, that's the idea.

1501  MS SHIPTON: So don't take it the wrong way. It's just really still hard. It has definitely grown.

1503  COMMISSIONER PENTEFOUNTAS: I thought Hawco ("Republic of Doyle") was writing all his material.

1504  MS SHIPTON: Well, no, he actually has five writers in his room.

1505  THE CHAIRPERSON: Okay. I think that's all. Let's finish this in camera now and go back on the record.

And there you have it. Just a short exchange. But one with sweeping impact and ramifications.

Anecdotal information, perhaps even shaded somewhat to make the speakers' points. Nothing whatsoever offered as proof of its truth. And none apparently required or requested by the Commissioners present. Therefore, in the world of regulatory policy, it becomes accepted fact.

How much has been said in previous "in-camera" exchanges which has never been revealed so the statements can be clarified or refuted?

Unfortunately, we'll never know that. Although we've had hints of what's been going on.

A couple of years ago, Commission Chair Konrad von Finckenstein wished the creative community could hear what he'd heard from one executive because it would make them realize how wrong their positions were.

At another point, those assembled laughed uproariously at some remark made about said creatives. In both cases, what was said had been redacted from the official record.

One wonders how many rulings based on unsubstantiated commentary have contributed to the continued decline of Canadian programming and the decimation of a once thriving industry?

The reason you can't do much drama in this country is there aren't any writers.

And apparently the ones who are hanging around just aren't up to the task.



Those of us who actually write (and produce) within the Canadian television industry know there are volumes going unspoken here.

You could have the entire staff of SHAW's "The Listener" endlessly rewriting the show bible (at which they've had much practice) and not get even close to the reams of additional information not being relayed to the Commission for consideration.

That's because those of us who write and produce Canadian television never get the chance to speak "off the record" to the CRTC (and barely much chance to do so in recorded segments) so the experiences we've had with the people the Commission consistently chooses to take direction from are never heard.

But I'm pretty sure if the Commission invited writers and directors and actors and their Guild and Union representatives into an environment where they felt free to offer their own experience of how the system works, they might get a very, very different picture of how television gets made in this country.

And I have a feeling all of those industry creatives would be cautious and professional enough to not offer what they know without a substantial amount of tangible evidence to back it up.

Some of them might turn up with memos and emails and script notes from CBS or NBC or others indicating that CTV and Global are perhaps not as in charge of the creative direction or even the production decisions on their series as some apparently believe.

Is it still Cancon created by a Canadian network when the creative decisions are not being made by Canadians or even made in this country?

Some might appear carrying forensic audits of the films and series they've done, or trial transcript indicating some Canadian productions keep multiple sets of books so it will appear their endeavors are less than successful.

Some might ask the Commission to make sense of distribution reports indicating productions 70% financed by the Canadian taxpayer and sold in hundreds of foreign markets year after year are still far short of making a penny in profit.

One or two might offer glowing corporate annual reports bragging about the success of and world-wide appetite for Canadian programming the Commission has been repeatedly told are complete and utter failures at making money or finding an audience.


Perhaps the CRTC would hear from the Canadian writers running massively successful American series broadcasters like SHAW buy for simulcast.

These writers might enlighten those who regulate the industry on what REALLY drove them to leave the country in the first place and why SHAW couldn't woo them back if they were offered complete creative control of whatever programming they wanted to do, the right to pick their own timeslot and as much Cocaine and as many A-list Porn Stars as they could handle.

They would certainly hear from the dozens of experienced Canadian writers (some with scores, even hundreds of hours of produced work done in that money spinning American Prime Time programming) -- writers who have never been asked to showrun or even staff a SHAW series.

They would hear from just as many experienced writers placed on those shows but only with what they might contribute limited or curtailed so they can't significantly improve the quality of what's being produced.

They would also hear from Canadian writers who've been told SHAW would love to do their show -- but only if they find an American or foreign partner first -- and maybe a few LA based writers or directors or stars.

But before we even get to a hearing, there are some things those further up the SHAW corporate ladder than those speaking to the CRTC on their behalf may wish to seriously consider.

At one point in her testimony, Ms. Shipton states, "…you know I know we have got to bring up the younger guys, bring up the younger guys".

Is that the reason why "older" and eminently more experienced writers are not being hired?

Is there a policy of "Agism" operating at SHAW?

Or does the way that sentence is structured indicate some larger, perhaps even CRTC or CMF sanctioned "Agist" agenda?

"I know we have got to…"…?

hiring writers

I'm sure that SHAW and the CRTC are both aware that members of the Writers Guild of America over the age of 40 recently won a $90 Million class action regarding network and studio discrimination against older writers. They may be aware that a 2nd suit of $70 Million is concluding in the over-the-hill gang's favor and other similar class actions are in process.

And none of those successful court actions included evidence where a highly placed network executive openly admitted that younger writers were being brought in whether or not they could do the job and in place of older, experienced writers who could.

Nor was there a quotation clearly admitting that the younger writers were being hired even though they couldn't do the job.

Unless SHAW Communications has several million dollars it simply wants to flush away, they had better come up with some concrete proof that they are indeed hiring writers over 40. And they had better also be ready to explain why the "experience" these writers clearly bring to the table isn't being put to use.

Moreover, these remarks would indicate that the Showrunner training program that CanWest initiated a couple of years ago, and SHAW has continued, just isn't working. Otherwise, they'd have plenty of good writers, wouldn't they?

Or are these less than capable writers only being hired to justify what's been invested in those programs to gain CRTC favor?

Since SHAW scores all kinds of bonus points with both the CRTC and CMF through sponsoring initiatives such as this, shouldn't both of those bodies be investigating why they're not churning out the requisite requirement of talent?

Is it because they programs are supervised by people who've never actually "run" a show or don't have a great deal of showrunning experience? Is the program designed to teach showrunning or to initiate candidates only into what is expected of them by one particular network? Does the applicant selection process need to be tweaked? Does who is deemed to have "graduated" need to be more accurately codified?

Or was the program all for show, craftily designed to fail so that SHAW might be granted the right to bring in the US writers and Showrunners their series co-producers would really rather they hire -- even though they can't begin to afford them and won't find them any more talented than those who are homegrown?

Moreover, what's going on at the Canadian Film Centre and Ryerson and York and all those other schools across the country which get funding and assistance and sometimes entire state of the art studios built by SHAW?

It would seem that SHAW believes they're falling down on the training of writers as well. How come nobody is addressing that -- especially since SHAW receives many tangible corporate benefits for its commitment to educating the next generation of Canadian talent?

Are there "This isn't good enough" memos from SHAW on record at these institutions? Or are all of these educational initiatives just for show as well?

Clearly, Ms. Shipton doesn't think the recent graduates are up to snuff and she's the one in charge of production, so she should know. Right?

Finally, her math would indicate that there are perhaps only 40 of the Writers Guild of Canada's 2000 members (scores of whom are already based in and/or working in the American system) who are good enough to work on a Canadian TV show.

Her accounting also eliminates hundreds who have internationally recognized awards of merit for their scripts and accomplishments. It specifically excludes the dozens currently writing for American or British or Australian or South African studios and networks.

And it ignores the fact that SHAW will purchase many of those Canadian written programs for simulcast and/or Cancon points if it suits their corporate needs.

In other words, the writers and the talent are there. The ability of SHAW or its development and programming staff to find, nurture and execute their work somehow is not.


Another thing my Cowboy Grandpa taught me was to steer clear of people who said one thing to you in person and another when they figured you weren't listening.

If I were a Canadian writer, I'd be informing SHAW CEO Brad Shaw that you won't be pitching any new shows to any of the networks his company owns and will be taking them to the competition instead.

You can reach Brad at 403-781-4944.

And if I were a Canadian writer who subscribes to SHAW Cable, uses a SHAW internet connection or has a SHAW telephone, I'd be calling to ask just how badly they want to keep your business -- and what time Brad will be personally calling to apologize for what his company had to say about you and offer some kind of meaningful reparations.

Those of you who are members of the Writers Guild of Canada will know they are already more pissed than you are and both SHAW and the CRTC are hearing about it. Call or email to let them know you're behind any action they deem necessary. Offer to help out in any way you can.

They, more than anyone else, know that this malicious, unsupportable and unwarranted attack on Canadian writers has another purpose and will not be allowed to stand.

And somebody saying "Sorry" isn't going to be good enough.

As one of my writer colleagues has aptly put it. "We're not talentless. But we've been spineless".

Spineless makes you an easy target. So grow one. And fast.

The moment it matches your talent is the moment you'll know you've counted to ten and are ready to respond.

If Canadian television is going to survive, it is time for those who have for years sown the wind "in-camera" to reap a very public whirlwind and begin dealing with both us and the CRTC with the honesty we all deserve.


Rusty James said...

Using American Writers on a 'Canadian' Series is like paying for Maple and getting Corn Syrup.

Ur getting fucked.

Anonymous said...

Every year the film commission in NS invites representatives from all the Canadian Networks to talk to writers/produces etc. One on one meetings are arranged and pitching ensues. The last time Ms. Shipton was here she couldn't have been less interested in listening to pitches. "Global" (or CTV) hasn't even bothered to send anyone here for the last three years. Guess there's no talent here.

Anonymous said...

Ms. Shipton's comments are more interesting when one considers that she was an Associate Producer in charge of the writing department on Street Legal.

Joe Clark said...

I want to read your content, because I am a dedicated fan, but you make that pretty hard in RSS (and anything that isn’t Instapaper or Readability).

No bold, no colours, BLOCKQUOTE only, please.

Anonymous said...

Judging from ms shiptons comments it seems like she thinks the only people who should be allowed to fail upwards are development execs

Research said...

Every time I think about these CRTC hearings I can't help but imagine the billions of dollars that licencess have taken out of the broadcasting system and the number of millionaires it has spawned who have never created a program.

Here's part of one industry rag's take on the hearing:

Group Licensing: Von Finckenstein 'disappointed" during hearing's final days
April 19, 2011
By Perry Hoffman

GATINEAU - There were some pretty big surprises as Canada’s large broadcast groups took the stand one last time during the CRTC’s group licensing proceeding in Gatineau last week.

While it should come as no shock that Bell Media maintained its position on symmetrical regulation of Canadian content spending requirements – 30% on Canadian production expenditure (CPE) and 5% programs of national interest (PNI) – Rogers Media shocked commissioners when it asked to be excluded from the group licensing regime.

For Bell, complying with the new group licensing approach is simple: all large broadcast groups should follow the same rules. But if the Commission decides to allow different rules such as a Cancon spending ramp up over the next licence term, then this should apply to all.

“If the Commission decides to rewrite its policy by adopting a ramp up schedule to reach these rates, then all large ownership groups must be treated the same,” Kevin Crull, president of Bell Media, said during the company’s final reply. “Stated simply, the policy either applies to an ownership group or it does not. If it applies, then it must apply on a consistent basis and special treatment should not be given to some ownership groups.”

Rogers took this aspect to heart, telling the Commission that it couldn’t sacrifice getting its conventional Citytv stations back to profitability just to comply with a group licensing regime that has Canadian content spending requirements that it believes are too onerous.

“While we believe it is a forward thinking policy that provides large broadcast groups with considerable flexibility and ensures stable funding to Canadian programming, the cost of entry for a group of our size and asset mix is simply too high. The benefits do not outweigh the costs,” Keith Pelley, president of Rogers Media explained. “By requiring that we adhere to a 30% group CPE, you are not only asking us to increase our spending on Canadian programming at a much higher rate than our competitors but you are also asking us to continue to incur further losses on Citytv over the licence term. We simply cannot agree to that.”

Acknowledging that its proposal may not sit well with the CRTC, the company committed to doing what it could for Cancon spending and said it would agree to a three-year licence renewal rather than five. Rogers Media noted that it would spend $146 million more on local programming over three years, a 42% increase from 2010 levels. With respect to PNI spending, the firm committed to 2.5% in years one and two of the licence and a 3% PNI spend in the third year.

CRTC chair Konrad von Finckenstein couldn’t hide his displeasure with Rogers Media’s request.

“I would be lying if I didn't say I was deeply disappointed in what you presented. I thought we had a good discussion last time in underlining your problems,” he said to open his questions. “But opting out and basically, leaving our group policy in shambles was not the solution that I had required.”...

Final written replies by the applicants are due into the Commission by May 6.

Rusty James said...

Thanks for that Research.

When Rogers bought out CITY, I had some aquaintences here in Montreal (Great talent with an indie feature) with a 6 episode season scripted, and were in the process of shooting samples - all at the request of a CITY exec.

That, of course all went to shit with CITY's purchase by Rogers - who only have their own screwed/skewed principals to blame for 'losing' money.