Monday, March 05, 2007

The Visions of the Anointed

(Back from two weeks flirting with Pneumonia and already feeling late to the game with the Canadian TV Posts I promised. This is the first of a few that will roll out over the coming weeks.)

Every time discussions arise on reworking Canadian TV, the sensation is similar to listening to sports radio call in shows and some arcane debate on changing the infield fly rule or the dimensions of goalie pads.

Likewise, in putting together my own thoughts on making our industry better, I feel like one of the rabid fans who call those stations, certain he can take his team to a championship simply by trading this week's slug of a player straight up for some opponent's shining star.

There's so much to consider here. So much history that's defaulted to fable. So many options and directions we could take. Ultimately the process seems endless and pointless and better left to people with far more time on their hands and much greater intelligence than I'll ever have.

And then I realize that's how I'm supposed to feel.

There have always been two solitudes in this country. We're taught that's English and French. But in reality, it's the elites and the rest of us.

Even in a democracy, those with money and influence control the decision making process and ultimately the final decisions. And historically, Canada has not been much of a democracy.

Decades before the country was founded, the elite residents controlled the rest, the "hewers of wood and carriers of water" by doling out the land they could own through what was known as the "Family Compact".

Like the American Revolution, our own uprisings of the 1830's were attempts to prevent such a system of privilege from being established in the new world. The failure of guys like William Lyon McKenzie to pull the trigger when they had the chance and the residual fear of America's successful revolt cemented a governing vision designed to protect the interests of the powers that be.

The history of Canada is a history of government and corporate partnerships. From railroads to pipelines to telecommunications, we are regulated to benefit corporate elites who then fund the parties who create the next set of regulations. Like somebody once quipped about Frank Sinatra, it's their world, the rest of us just live here.

Innovations evolve slowly above the 49th parallel unless or until the elites work out how they can own or control them. The process has driven not just our artists but some of our finest minds elsewhere. It destroyed an aerospace industry once miles ahead of the United States and Russia and has hobbled everything else from medical research to high tech development. God help us all now that they've turned their attention to the environment.

This government/corporate relationship is the main reason our film and television industry is in the desperate position it is in today.

In the 1970's, I was part of a revolution that took place in Canadian theatre. The critical mass born of the elite's founding of Stratford and a handful of regional copycats to serve up classical European and popular American culture, suddenly sparked in an unexpected way in Toronto. Theatres began producing a virtually unheard of product called "the Canadian play" these being plays written by actual living Canadian authors, usually embodying stories and characters that if not uniquely Canadian, espoused decidedly Canadian points of view.

We had begun telling our own dramatic stories to ourselves. Newspapers didn't pay much attention. Neither did radio or television. Yet, within a couple of years, Canadian plays, although produced in the city's smallest theatres were not only outdrawing the competition but gaining an international reputation and creating interest and excitement in the general population.

So, the government stepped in to "help".

In the guise of fostering the arts, government subsidies and their new rules for private support gradually nipped any possible theatrical blossoming in the bud. Money for production was soon earmarked instead for "infrastructure" and suddenly a season arrived where virtually all the theatres were closed, federally funded to renovate or upgrade.

Then came such concepts as matching subsidies to privately raised capital, funding based on marketing initiatives or diversity, funding workshops rather than actual productions, seasons which funded only new playwrights, only emerging playwrights, or only playwrights who wrote musicals for puppets with dyslexia. You get the picture. Instead of supporting the work just because it was creating work or attracting an audience, the emphasis was turned toward fulfilling social and regional agendas, in the process establishing a bureaucracy that did little but stymie further growth.

The nuttiness got so out of control that there was actually a dance company in Quebec that had not employed dancers or mounted a production for years but still remained heavily subsidized for fulfilling its mandate of bringing "an awareness of dance" to its local community.

Meanwhile, a new "management class" moved in. Most of them didn't know the first thing about theatre but they could write (or assess) grant applications and knew the right people in Ottawa, at Foundations or among corporations deemed "arts friendly". I once dubbed them the "unemployable inbred children of the wealthy", but now the theatres couldn't survive without their connections or approvals and they soon took charge.

Anybody noticing any parallels to the current film business or the rules governing the CTF?

Today, despite 35 years of "help" from successive governments of all political stripes, Canada's theatrical output and its average annual audience has shriveled rather than bloomed. Some of those original Canada-centric theatres still survive albeit producing fewer and smaller plays each season, providing job opportunities for fewer actors and playwrights -- telling fewer original Canadian stories.

The same strategy has been repeated in our film and television industries.

Back to the 1970's for a moment. I'm a cutie-pie actor just starting out. In addition to some theatre, my first professional year included several guest shots on TV series, roles in three Canadian features and one US picture. I starred in a half hour action pilot, did a couple of radio plays and about 10 commercials. But I was far from hot (I speak, of course, career wise) and lots of actors worked more than I did.

There was work for actors. Not as much as there would be ten years later when the American studios rolled in, but significantly more than there is today. There was no Global then, no CHUM unless you were listening to Top 40 radio and no specialty channels. There weren't even as many content guidelines.

But there was an industry. Looking around the current landscape, I'm sure it's impossible for many of you to imagine that there were weekends when 3 or 4 Canadian films were playing up and down Yonge Street and enjoying healthy runs.

What happened?

Once again our Government decided to "help" and picked a few worthy corporations to be their fingers in the business.

We all know where the ensuing years have gotten us. Financial systems based on pre-determined envelopes and mad scrambles to meet deadlines that fit the fiscal schedules of bureaucracies and not production realities.

Corporate entities that don't live up to their contractual obligations or have openly broken the law have been protected from examination by the internal rules of the very government agencies that fund and are supposed to scrutinize them.

There have been moves to "industrialize" the industry, creating crews (the current "hewers of wood and carriers of water") who work for primarily offshore entities that mostly import their creatives. And, in the way the elites have always treated their hewers and carriers, those crews now have to travel longer distances and work under poorer conditions in order to practice their professions.

Then there are regional incentives. I wouldn't deny anyone the opportunity of working in their home town, or suggest that local governments shouldn't attract film dollars to their community, but if you lived in a country say 10 times larger and to the South of us, there would really be only 2 or 3 locations where the industry is real, understood and has solid support systems that keep it vibrant and viable.

How do we fight this? How do we create (or maybe just bring back) an industry that earns profits, makes business sense and produces material that audiences embrace?

I don't think it's by traipsing back to CRTC hearings and demanding new rules on content and carriage and percentages of who works where. The CRTC has never shown itself in any way responsive to the needs of either the Canadian people or the country's artists. We'll simply get more watered down or impractical rules that will once again not give us the kind of industry we need.

Forget our Guilds and unions too, along with various friends of Canadian broadcasting, lobbyists for the rights of artists and other culture vultures. They have all proven themselves either impotent or complicit in creating our current situation.

I believe we need to start going public with the stories we've all lived and experienced, exposing the symbiotic relationship between government and broadcasters which has been beneficial to them at the expense of the rest of us and the culture as a whole.

A system only changes when it has no choice and if there's one thing politicians and large public companies hate, it's people seeing how they really operate. With an election around the corner, the time to do that is now.

Let me go first...

A couple of years ago, my company was approached by an American Producer to create a show that would be filmed in Canada for an International audience. In searching for a Canadian sale, he and I had a conversation with a local network executive. She was familiar with my work, having recently programmed something I'd produced to great audience and advertiser success.

Aware that they were now airing a show in the same genre, I asked how it was performing. The answer was -- not well. Audiences weren’t tuning in and advertisers did not want to be associated with the new offering. “Gee,” I said, “Maybe you should buy more of my stuff”. “Oh, we can’t do that!” was the answer. “We’re committed to making these!”

After our conversation, the US producer called me back. “Let me get this straight,” he said, “You have networks up there that don’t care what their audiences want or what their advertisers will pay for – how do they make any money?”

Good question. And one that repeats across our programming spectrum. How often have we seen network campaigns to garner CTF financing for a proven ratings loser rather than take a chance on anything else? Why would any corporation dependent on profit and beholding to shareholders or any producer in need of program success to generate future sales, fight so hard for a product that does not attract an audience?

The answer is simple – they’re not paying for it.

In most markets, an endless string of financial failures would kill a production company or a network. In Canada, it puts the rest of us in jeopardy.

In the US, the network covers the lion's share of a show’s production cost. Canadian networks, on average, pay approximately 18%-25%.

That means the remaining cost must come from other sources. In Canada, that’s the Canadian taxpayer or with funds collected by cable and satellite companies from their subscribers – people also known as the Canadian taxpayer. In other words, Canadians are paying almost the total cost of their programming -- and not embracing much of what they're served in return.

An article in today's Globe and Mail on the re-branding of the Life Network to Slice states the following:

"This past fall, W had an average of 19,200 female viewers aged 18 to 49 at any given time in a 24-hour period, compared with 8,300 for the Life Network, according to BBM Nielsen Media Research."

My own numbers for another project we're developing indicates one of our sports networks is averaging fewer than 9000 viewers for its non-game programming.

Note the operative word is "average", indicating they have many hours watched by far smaller audiences.

How do these single and barely double digit operations even stay in business?

That part is easy, they don't depend on advertising or ratings, because our federal regulators have granted them upwards of a buck a channel from subscribers.

What advertiser is happy with that kind of penetration? Would the people watching even miss them if they disappeared? How does it make any sense that these broadcasters even qualify for any tax payer funding?

No wonder Canadians complain to the cable companies that send them an ever increasing monthly bill for stuff they're not watching. No wonder cable owners have finally demanded something be done about a system that benefits no one but a small coterie of broadcasters and the political parties to whom they show their largess.

Meanwhile, the American import shows that make up the bulk of Canadian programming almost universally include one or two Canadians as stars, showrunners, writers and directors. The other night, "Studio 60" featured a scene with Matthew Perry, Kari Matchett and Mark McKinney -- three Canadian actors. The script was co-written by a Canadian. It was a television moment that could have just as easily been shot here.

But it wasn't. Somehow that dynamic didn't fit with the Vision laid out for this country, although it continues to line the pockets of those who created it.


Cunningham said...

Jim -

Getting ready to step on a plane back to LA-LA land, but just wanted to say you hit it out of the park.

I look forward to reading (and learning) more.

ME said...

The reason the scene you reference from my beloved Studio 60 would not have been possible here is simple ... it would not have passed the CTF's visibly Canadian rules. Plain as that. Apparently it isn't enough that a show is written, directed, produced and crewed by Canadians, we have to have Tim Horton's, the flag and a Rick Mercer moment in every production. Even relaxing this content stipulation would make things a lot easier. That and upping the tax credits across the board both for 100% Cancon and for service work and making it really attractive for more US outfits to open up shop here permanently.

I've also never understood why so many cable and syndicated shows shot here successfully but we never seem to fully crack the nut successfully with the network stuff (the former WB and UPN were exceptions). Sure, there are a handful of shows that have been here successfully (Men in Trees and Smallville in Vancouver are good current examples) but I've often thought if the industry really got together and started courting the studios and the prodcos in a unified fashion, we could garner a significant amount more work here. Especially since you can view dailies online.

synge said...

I think this commentary does hit it out of the park.
And after years of following this crazy business, I am starting to believe that the can con regulations are beside the point.

Broadcasters here aren't in the business of broadcasting (as I define it, by producing shows for audiences). They're making money because they're pumping foreign product through the airwaves. So trying to entice or regulate them into making drama programming is like training a zebra to swim.

I'm just tired of the fact that we've been showering them with what amount to subsidies and offering them an amazing amount of protection. Mr. Henshaw's point about how we protect are elites is right on target.