Wednesday, October 03, 2012

The Scroungers

garner escape

Although Steve McQueen achieved icon status with his role as “The Cooler King” in “The Great Escape”, my favorite character in that film was James Garner as Hendley, “The Scrounger” .

Hendley could get you anything you wanted. Didn’t matter that he was just another lowly dogface in a heavily guarded Nazi POW camp, you wanted something, he found it for you.

State of the art forgery tools, cameras and dark room chemicals, classified documents. Didn’t matter. You wanted it, Hendley made sure you got it.

There’s something irresistible about somebody who can deliver whatever you want whenever you want it. It’s like having your own private Las Vegas.

We apparently have a lot of people like Hendley in Canada these days. All of them either work in broadcasting or at regulating it.

For starters, we have a network delivering “Everything Entertainment”.

 E! Ent Televisn LOGO Sheet [Converted]

While most people may define music, movies, sitcoms and dramas as entertainment, the E! network doesn’t actually have any of those.

It features talk shows, red carpet shows, shows where people stalk celebrities and even get makeovers to look like them. But it doesn’t have anything that’s technically what it claims to have in abundance.

In reality, E! is a repository of the kind of cheap, copycat and knock-off time-filler that allows broadcast conglomerates like its owner, Bell Media, to achieve their Canadian content quotas without actually making much of it.

So, of course, the other conglomerates all want one too.

A few months ago, Rogers filed an application to the CRTC for its version of E! to be called “The Entertainment Desk”.

Like E! and like Hendley, the new network would scrounge around the fringes of actual entertainment for cheap programming that could be passed off as the real thing when the regulators came calling.

Given the current state of Canadian television, it should have been a slam dunk. Only it wasn’t. After reviewing the application and holding hearings, the country’s regulator, the CRTC, shrugged and said, “Sorry, we already got one!”

What? We already got one?

Yep. Here it is in crisp, bureaucratic B&W, direct from the CRTC decision center (er, that would be centre in Gatineau, wouldn’t it?).


10. In light of all of the above, the Commission finds that the proposed Category B service would compete directly with E!. Accordingly, the Commission denies the application by Rogers Broadcasting Limited for a broadcasting licence to operate the national, English-language niche specialty Category B service The Entertainment Desk.

Secretary General

Now, there won’t be many tears shed in the actual entertainment industry over the loss of “The Entertainment Desk”, since its product would have been shared across as many channels and platforms as possible reducing the shelf space for what we do.

But here’s the first interesting thing about this. The CRTC just said it doesn’t want one media conglomerate competing with what another media conglomerate is already doing –- even though that’s exactly what these guys do.

And it’s doubly odd, because they have never had a problem with sports networks spawning ad infinitum or pay movie channels or networks morphing to copy some other conglomerate’s lifestyle network success.

As recently as last month, Bell Media sweetened its application to take over Astral by offering a new French language News network in direct competition to both TVA and Radio-Canada.

Nobody on the commission stuck up a hand to say, “Wait, we already got two of those!”

So –- is Bell getting some kind of preferential treatment here, where its clone networks are given a pass while anybody cloning them is stopped in their tracks?

Well, of course not.

Because that’s not how a fair-minded arm of the Federal government works. I mean, look how they’ve protected the other players in the industry –- the artists, the independent producers, the audience…

Um. Yeah. Not so much, huh?

Which brings me to the second interesting thing about this week’s decision. Something I’m hoping is all a matter of disconnected coincidence…

This is Tom Pentefountas, Vice-Chair of the CRTC, out enjoying himself on a night on the town.

We all assume CRTC Commissioners work hard and deserve some down time. Problem is, in an incident little reported by the media, Vice-Chair Tom spent a night last winter enjoying the hospitality of Bell Media in its private Box in Montreal’s Bell Centre (do these guys own everything?) to watch a Montreal Canadiens game.

And yes, Bell also owns the team. Although that night they were humiliated by the Canucks, who play in an arena named after Rogers. No corporate noses were put out of joint, I’m sure.

Now everybody involved says there was nothing untoward about the evening and that “no business” was discussed.

And that’s undoubtedly true.

You see, I’ve been a guest in a private box for major hockey and baseball games. And I always knew I wasn’t there just because the guys who owned the box liked me. They either wanted something or wanted me onside for the next time they wanted something.

We didn’t have to talk about it. The understanding was implicit. Enjoy the game. Enjoy the food. Appreciate the cleavage of the young lady refilling your glass. We’ll talk in the morning.

Like the guards who traded for the chocolate and cigarettes from Hendley’s Red Cross packages, I knew something would be extracted in return. And if I didn’t want to play along there’d be no more chocolate and cigarettes –- or games in private boxes.

I’ve had a special liking for Pentefountas since he joined the CRTC. He was a breath of fresh air, often getting to the heart of a discussion and not given to silently accepting the kind of obsequious Bullshit that is spread around the hearing room.

He didn’t buy into the broadcaster’s “whining”. And from the beginning, he seemed far more objective than many of his co-commissioners and far less influenced by anyone’s practiced self interest.

But during the Astral hearings I was struck by a lengthy discussion he engaged in regarding the possibility that Bell would shutter a local Montreal sports radio station. He was clearly a listener and a fan, familiar with the station’s on-air personnel.

He was also clearly a Habs fan. I could forgive him that. But it made me wonder if it might color his decision on the issue.

Maybe it was something somebody far smarter than me at Bell Media had noticed long before that Montreal game night.

I’m not saying that Pentefountas has become Bell’s Hendley on the Commission. Maybe its only Bell’s enormous size and the massive impact of an Astral takeover that causes others to suddenly treat them differently than what we’ve been used to.

But there’s enough here to give you pause. The optics, as they say, are not good.

It’s something the Commission needs to address – publically.

In “The Great Escape”, Hendley was ultimately captured and returned to the camp in which he’d done his scrounging. I’m sure the guards he’d traded with and betrayed weren’t as friendly toward him for the rest of his stay.

And that’s something else the CRTC might need to address if they want to retain anyone’s respect.

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