Sunday, January 31, 2016

Lazy Sunday #413: The Interview You Won't See on CBC

We're in an age of media decline. Earlier this week, I posted my thoughts about what's gone wrong with Canadian newspapers. But local TV in Canada is also losing viewers at an alarming rate.

This week the CRTC was told that fully half of our local stations could be gone within the next four years.

Local stations have seen their revenues decline by 25% since 2010 or around the last time the major nets were able to wring some local subsidies out of the cable providers and the public purse.

Since then, cord-cutting has become even more prevalent and a substantial portion of Millennials have never bothered to tether themselves to a cable at all.

More and more of us are getting our news online as well. 

But news and information is not the only reason people tune in to a local TV station. They're looking for a reflection of the community in which they live, maybe even a take on National and International affairs that comes from a perspective that reflects who they are themselves.

And you don't see much of that anymore.

As a kid, I remember our local weatherman, who also hosted a morning kids show doing the weather in a madras shirt and shorts during the summer months and standing outside in a parka in the winter.

News desks were trucked to the rotunda of the Legislature or chute side of the rodeo where the entire newscast would go out with gawkers standing around watching.

These days it's all green screen sets and silk suits. Everybody's got the latest effects packages and slickly edited video. It's your local news but it looks the same no matter where you live.

Yeah, there might be some forced jocularity among the hosts and regular commentators. But little if any of that reflects the interactions you have on a daily basis with your friends and neighbors. And overall the mood is stiff and formal. We're on TV. We have to behave.

And mostly we have to behave in the way the people on the big city newscasts behave.

Nobody's going to get offended or challenged or be at risk of seeing anything spontaneously "local".

Wouldn't it be wonderful if we could begin to see ourselves as we are? Isn't there a chance doing that might make more of us tune in to see what was going on?

I spent a year on Australia's Gold Coast. Basically it's vacation central for the country. A place where you'll encounter real Australians relaxed and just being who they are.

And every now and then, those people end up on the local news. On both sides of the news desk.

Now, you'll need a bit of a language lesson to follow what follows, so here are the basics...

A stubbies and singlets party is basically drinking with scantily clad women.

A Servo is a place where you get gas or maybe a bowl of noodles after hours.

Pluggers are a pair of thongs.

A bit suss translates as "a little suspicious".

And Mootdanger means, er... okay it's a combination of Crazy and another "C" word although I'm not sure which one comes first in this instance. 

All I'm saying is -- if Canadian newscasters allowed a few more of their interviews to be as open and honest and unabashedly reflective of the local character as this, they might have a bigger audience.

Enjoy Your Sunday.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

JFK, Fish & The Wrap They Came In

Perhaps enough time has passed to admit that I once dabbled in journalism. Yes, that was me writing bad jokes and a fake advice column for the Campbell High School "Tattler" under a long forgotten pseudonym.

But even by then I'd been in the newspaper business for some time, having delivered the Regina Leader Post since somewhere around the age of 12.

Back in the day, we Whitmore Park newsies would gather on a snowy corner by the Safeway to await the big metal truck that would dump hot off the press bundles we'd transfer into our own canvas bags for delivery while the pimply-faced and barely older than us circulation overlord who drove the truck barked about complaints we'd gotten or a new circulation drive.

We also got books of Rider tickets to sell door to door that would earn us an end zone ticket for each one we completed. 

Or there'd be admissions to the fairground for Summer's "Buffalo Days" where we could snag a free ducket to the Grandstand show featuring "The Gaylords" or "The Harmonicats" as well as the famous "Dancing Waters" -- direct from Las Vegas.

Newspapers were pretty much a staple back then. You got radio news for five minutes on the hour or 15 minutes on TV at six and eleven, which didn't allow for a lot of depth. So pretty much every house in the neighborhood got the paper every night. Making the regular circulation drives a bit of a joke.

And delivering newspapers taught me a lot. 

I learned that despite all the information, classifieds, movie times and grocery special flyers we tucked inside the front door or mailbox, nobody really wanted to pay for it. I had to come around at least twice for the dollar a week people shelled out for all that plus the big Saturday edition with a full section of color funnies.

And people who worked for the government were even worse. They never felt the need to pay until they got paid at the end of the month.

But I also discovered while collecting one Friday night that the hottest cheerleader we had was sitting at home because all the guys at school were too intimidated to ask her out. Luckily, I had taken in enough cash for bus tickets, popcorn and a movie, so we bailed for a fun night on the paper's dime. 

It felt a little bit like eloping and taught me that nothing is ever truly out of reach.

I had to borrow money from my dad the next morning to pay my bill at the paper. But I became an appreciated "chip off the old block" when he learned the reason why.

The biggest lesson I learned as a paperboy, however, came the day President Kennedy was assassinated. We were in the same time zone as Dallas, so by the time events had sorted themselves out, the truck was late getting to the Safeway.

It was dark by the time I set out on my route. But I didn't drop a single paper where the subscribers usually wanted them. Someone was waiting on the front step or in the driveway of every single house to get a hard copy of the news.

That night I learned how similar we all are and that when something matters deeply to one of us, it probably matters to a whole lot of other people as well.

Newspapers were still important when I moved to Toronto in the 1970's. The town had three dailies then, all publishing multiple editions six days a week. 

My first local job was in a 24 hour porn store disguised as a bookshop on Yonge Street and around Midnight we'd get the early edition of the Globe and Mail, most of which were snapped up in bulk by street guys who'd hawk them outside bars when they closed.

It might be hard to believe that drunks would stumble out of "The Gasworks" after a couple of hours listening to "Trooper" or "Max Webster" suddenly in need of a newspaper. But they did.

Somewhere in my archives is a copy of the first Toronto Sun, a tabloid created by the suddenly unemployed staff of the suddenly defunct Telegram. Imagine any redundant journalists taking such a chance today.

Of course, it's a different time. There are at least a half dozen 24 hour news channels on my cable feed. Most on a 20 minute repetitive loop, but still. Spin any radio dial and you'll find almost as much information programming as any genre of music.

But it's online that truly cratered traditional journalism. Even paywalls don't keep people from what they want or need to know. Blocked by a provider, people just google the topic -- or in Canada, go to the CBC, already mandated to deliver it free of charge.

A couple of days ago it was announced that two of our oldest papers, The Guelph Mercury and the Nanaimo Daily News were silencing their presses after 147 and 141 years respectively. Corus radio's Mike Stafford particularly mourned the passing of the Nanaimo paper, noting that it was always delivered between "two delicious wafers of chocolate".

But a few thousand people in both communities will now have to do something else while they wake up with their morning coffee.

The same day those newspaper closings were announced actor Abe Vigoda, best known as Detective Fish on "Barney Miller", died at the age of 94. And there was a bittersweet angle to his passing. 

For Vigoda had become a well-worn Internet meme, reported dead at least once or twice annually for the last decade, often in Twitter or Facebook posts picked up and reported by traditional media.

Each time, Vigoda had to make a hang-dog appearance to say, "No, I'm still here." and everybody had a laugh.

But whatever the mainstream reaction this time, I can guarantee nobody was waiting on their front step to find out what really happened.

Every morning while I walk the dog, I see the local delivery guy making his rounds in a beat up Toyota. But he doesn't stop at every house. He'll pull in at one place, drive a block to his next drop, then zoom over the hill, almost out of sight before the brake lights come on again. 

He got me wondering about the last time I actually paid for a newspaper. My local comes free with a coffee at Tim Horton's. And that got me wondering what not only the guy in the beat up Toyota, but all the people who work for all daily newspapers are going to do with their lives.

Because theirs is an era clearly coming to an end. Even behemoths like the NY Times and Washington Post have seen their subscription numbers drop by 40% over the last couple of years alone.

And while there are all kinds of economic, cultural and technological reasons contributing to that, if I was to point a finger at just one thing that has killed the newspaper, I'd say it was a shift from journalism to advocacy.

Oh, to be sure, newspapers have always endorsed causes or candidates. But now there's a air of insistence about it. Used to be you were presented with the facts or some columnist's opinion and left to make up your own mind. Now it's hard to escape the feeling of being belittled for not sharing their position or agreeing with the spin a particular outlet puts on any story.

And whether that spin is coming from the Left or the Right, I think people sense the denigration and naturally shy away from being made to feel uncomfortable or just plain stupid for whatever values and opinions they may hold.

As someone not as enamored of our current Prime Minister as the many journalists who fawned over him during the election campaign, I can't help but wonder how the few hundred recently laid off from Bell, Rogers, Corus and the Post chain will feel when he doesn't come as quickly to their aid. 15,000 workers a month losing their jobs in Alberta might just have to take precedence.

There was a time in Toronto when the joke went -- "The Globe is read by those in power. The Star is read by those who want to be in power. And the Sun is read by people who don't care who's in power as long as she looks good in a bikini".

But now that breezy sentiment has gone the way of the crusading journalists epitomized by pulp writers, Film Noir, "All The President's Men" and "Spotlight" who never gave up the struggle to reveal the truth.

And as the truth has taken a backseat to advocacy, a lot of avid news junkies have moved from multiple sources to a couple to one to -- not really bothering anymore.

We still need to be know what's going on in the world. What we don't need is a lecture on how we ought to feel about it.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Lazy Sunday # 412: Ol' 55

I'll admit to feeling a chill when I heard that Glen Frey had passed. For reasons subjective to all of us, we append a soundtrack to our lives. Sometimes it's just background, putting a pin in a special Summer or memorable love affair. But sometimes it's something more.

I don't remember the first time I heard an Eagles tune nor whether or not it was one of their hits. But something in the tone and the writing spoke to me and I sought them out.

It was a time when I still wore my hair long and was given to boots, jeans and leather. It took me back to my country roots but included a sophistication I still longed to acquire. And though it could rock, there was also an attractive, illusive gentleness.

Songs like "Lyin' Eyes", "James Dean" and "New Kid in Town" seemed directed at me personally. And one day "Hotel California" just put everything in perspective.

During various sojourns in Hollywood and one particular summer in Laurel Canyon, they were pervasive. And not just musically. They seemed to capture the essence of the days and the soft desert nights. Everything in their lyrics and the instrumentals resonated with the world that surrounded me. 

I think that's what people really mean when they use the word "culture".

With Glen Frey's passage, it became clear that all of that was gone. Oh, it's been gone for a long time. But listening to an Eagle song, even one from the last few years, made it feel like that world was still accessible and capable of returning.

But it's not. 

And maybe that's why the loss of a rock icon we never actually knew hits as hard as it does. It's a reminder that we've moved on. Perhaps from a life and way of living we never thought we'd leave. And more than likely leaving us bereft of a current soundtrack that reflects who or where we are now.

The other night, I went to a hockey game and noticed that all the music pumping the crowd was 30-40 years old. I could remember when that music was new and just as powerful as it is today. But since I'm far from the major hockey crowd demographic, it got me wondering where the music was that spoke just as dynamically to them.

Did the record companies who once so perfectly guided our tastes decide to rest on their laurels and just keep releasing the old library in new formats? 

Did the rise of boy bands and baby doll harlots block the road to artists who really had something to say to us?

Or did we ourselves stop demanding a new voice and new horizons, preferring we be surrounded with those who reflected us in a former incarnation?

When I was 18 or 25, I didn't listen to music from the flapper era. Why do so many younger people look so far in the past today?

Maybe losing a Bowie or a Frey cuts deeply because none of us have replaced their voices. And maybe replace is the wrong word. Maybe it's really about accepting the voices that speak more to who and where we are now. 

Whatever it is, I'll still miss you Glen. You and the guys were a bigger part of me than I'm sure you ever realized. 

And I'll never forget you. But you were of one moment of my life and forgive me, but I'm not letting my soundtrack keep repeating the tracks we've already heard.

And somehow I think you'll understand that. For it's almost as if one of your first songs foretold your own transition to wherever you are now.

Adios, Desperado. Keep moving.

And Enjoy Your Sunday.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Lazy Sunday #411: Offline Dating

Every now and then, I use the Lazy Sunday post to link to a video from one of my favorite short film sites, Short of the Week. This is despite the fact that I'm not a huge fan of short films.

I think that's because I come from an era where those with a passion for film went out and made an actual full length film. Full length films had the potential to both reach and find an audience and that was the whole point of the medium, to tell a story to an audience.

Not that there weren't/aren't great short or even really short stories. And not that there aren't/weren't niche audiences for all kinds of films.

But when I was starting out, short films were primarily for animation, experimentation and people who dabbled in the form rather than intended to make it their future career.

Not so today.

With the silo-ing of distribution and exhibition as well as the tightening of who gets to meet with studio and network gate-keepers, it's tougher than ever for somebody intent on a film-making future to get their ideas produced and showcase their talents.

Often, even government funding agencies want some idea that you know what you're doing before they'll consider funding -- a short film.

So today's budding film-maker has to find a way to finance their own sample of what they can do. And that almost always means something affordable and therefore -- short.

But there's an audience component to this change too.

Art houses showing independent and foreign films are becoming almost as rare as the drive-ins that used to show the action shlock and quickie horror films that kicked off many a famous writer, producer or director's career.

Given the increased availability of films online and the opportunity to find pretty much what you want where and when you want, a film-maker now needs to make an immediate impression to get noticed at all.

Apparently, nobody's got time to search for talent anymore.

Understanding these realities, Short of the Week has recently revamped its site to offer even more collections of titles or channels that fit search modes. 

They've always had spots for documentaries, sci-fi or comedy. But now films can be found based on country of origin, the festivals at which they debuted and even the type of film stock used.

Among these are their staff picks of the best films from 2015, from which I picked a film about the "lack of time" or "need for immediate gratification" syndromes that seem to afflict all levels of social interaction these days. How hard it is, for example, to get a date if you don't search for a partner online.

Along with making a first feature, the art of offline dating might also be disappearing. I'm not sure which might be the greatest loss

Enjoy Your Sunday...

OFFLINE DATING from Samuel Abrahams on Vimeo.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Lazy Sunday # 410: The Chilliwack Channel

Like most people, Canadians included, my first exposure to Chilliwack, BC was the 70's band of the same name who apparently didn't even live there.

A city of around 80,000 nestled in a picturesque spot in the Fraser Valley, it's primarily known for farming and bad city planning. "A mere 2 hours from civilization" as it's described by the hip-wah-zee of cosmopolitan Vancouver.

But this week, with Canadian media beginning the process of educating us on what we can expect when cable "unbundles" our channel packages, a video appeared suggesting Chilliwack might be the bellwether of what we find interesting enough to watch in the year to come.

Local homeowner Rob Iezzi, for reasons that become apparent on viewing, has his home surrounded with surveillance cameras.

He uploaded a synopsis of what those cameras recorded during 2015 and it's far more interesting than anything you're going to find on A&E, History, Biography or a whole host of other channels you finally have a chance to boot from your cable package 10 weeks from now.

By merely capturing what's going on outside his front and back doors, Iezzi has not only matched or beaten the viewer numbers most Canadian dramas get in an average week, he's revealed a vast untapped audience for the ultimate reality show -- "Shit That Just Happens Everywhere Everyday".

Trust me, this is a future a lot of people are going to embrace.

Enjoy Your Sunday.

Sunday, January 03, 2016

Lazy Sunday # 409: The Last Saskatchewan Pirate

Aaaarrrggghhhh! Things are getting tough out there.

The Loonie's sinking faster than the bird it's named after diving for a Pickerel.

Alberta's losing 12,000 jobs a month while the family farm becomes the next candidate for a wing of Drumheller's Tyrrell Museum.

Even the mighty Wall that Saskatchewan built is starting to crumble.

How much longer until the fabled Prairie Schooners slip from their barns and once again sail beneath the living skies?

Captain Tractor, we await our orders...

Enjoy Your Sunday

Friday, January 01, 2016

The Only Resolution You Need

…For this or any year.

Make 2016 all it can be by promising yourself to become one thing and one thing only.

A Riser…