Wednesday, March 28, 2007


With the NHL Playoffs less than two weeks away, me and about half the male population of Canada are about to embark on our annual three month sabbatical from television.

What that actually means is we'll be completely glued to the tube every single night until late June but we won't be watching anything but hockey.

I'm not sure there's an equivalent in any other country or culture. But this "thing" we have for the world's greatest sport completely warps the entire television landscape in this country.

During the regular season, "Hockey Night in Canada" on CBC dominates the ratings for 5 prime time hours every Saturday night. This allows CTV and Global to bury their Canadian content on the same night. Luckily for them, also the only night of the week when the American networks are repeating their own offerings and there's nothing to simulcast.

Likewise, with three months of primetime devoted to the playoffs, it justifies all the Canadian networks reducing their series orders from the traditional 22-26 to our more common 13. Simply fewer hours to fill on CBC and not much audience for whatever the other guys are running during their spring schedules.

Around this time of year, I always start wondering why I'm paying for the packages of channels I don't watch at all for literally one quarter of the calendar. I used to rationalize that I needed to hang on to them to catch the repeats of whatever I missed over the summer.

But that's not the case anymore. Now you can get most of what's programmed on television -- for free.

The Canadian nets have blocked video sales to Canadians on itunes and other legal video sites, which has made the new Apple TV device all but pointless here. But they can't stop you from viewing episodes of almost every popular program currently being broadcast almost anywhere in the world from several other websites.

Might I recommend: TV LINKS and DOWNLOAD TV

Some of what's offered on these sites has to be viewed online. Some shows are downloadable. The wealth of programming available, in either case, is nothing short of awesome.

If your tastes run towards documentaries, try THIS ONE.

I'm not going to get into the legalities of which shows it's okay for you to watch and which you should have Tivo'd or PVR'd or had a friend tape for you to make it all right. Because as much as I understand copyright law, I don't understand how it's okay to watch "Desperate Housewives" on Sunday, but you have to pay to download it on Monday and then it's okay to tape it again a month later when it repeats.

Most of these shows are also offered for free in most of the world but their home websites are 'geo-locked' to prevent their viewing by Canadians, whose treatment by our national networks and the CRTC in this regard, puts us on a level with Chinese dissidents.

How would I feel if some of these were my shows? Well some of them are. And I'll be driving an ice cream truck in Hell before I see residuals from any of them. Trust me, the same people 'geo-locking' TV shows in this country are also ducking their contractual obligations to cut some royalty checks.

If you're squeamish about all this and would rather just go see a movie. There's a free movie deal you can get in on for the next week I can tell you about as well.

The Academy of Canadian Cinema is offering an affiliate membership (for free) which will allow you see any Canadian movie (for free) for the next six months. You can get details and sign up HERE.

Both DIX and CAROLINE posted articles today about how much money Canadian networks are spending while not supporting the country's culture. Something DMC also details from a completely different and hilarious angle.

The websites above are a glimpse of the future of broadcasting. And let's hope our broadcasters find a way to join us there. Because I'm starting to think that those channels I don't watch for a quarter of the year could be done without for the remaining nine months as well.

These guys don't owe me a living. But I don't think I owe them one either.

Monday, March 26, 2007


In the midst of my thoughtful, well-researched and otherwise delightful treatise just below on bringing Canadian television back to some semblance of reality; I happened to mention that I once wrote a speech for Ronald Reagan. This has generated more email than comments on the posting, which goes a long way to showing why we get the television we deserve.

But, since you asked. Here's the story.

To debut our 2nd season on "Top Cops" we did a special episode called "The Memorial Show" which combined stories about Cops who had died in the line of duty with the dedication of the Law Enforcement Officer's Memorial in Washington.

As a quick aside, if you're ever in Washington, this local landmark is well worth the visit. It's a beautiful monument engraved with the names of fallen officers, constantly updated with the unfortunate addition of one or two names each week. The best time to go is at night, when the dark marble motif of fallen lions is lit by the eerie glow of a blue laser representing the "thin blue line" of the police.

The "Top Cops" format was real police officers narrating their stories as we dramatized them with lookalike actors. In the memorial episodes, the narration was handled by a wife, child or partner of the deceased. Tough to write and tougher to shoot, but we never had a single person turn us down and the result was some very moving television.

Because the Washington Memorial was being dedicated just prior to our first such show, we used footage of President George Bush senior's dedication speech. When the premiere of our next season rolled around, the network wanted another presidential opening. For reasons I forget, Bush Sr. wasn't available.

We were already prepping an episode on Secret Service Agent Jerry Parr, who had been in charge of the unit protecting Reagan when John Hinckley Jr. tried to assassinate the President. Jerry learned of our dilemma and asked if we wanted him "to call Ron."
We did. He did. And Reagan agreed to open the show.

You have no idea how something like this "excites" network people. No matter their politics, what they thought of the man or where they stood on Iran/Contra, they all went into an exceptional state of activity to turn this moment into a major television event. I was suddenly dealing with an entirely new echelon of network lawyers and officials to make sure everything went smoothly.

The first thing that had to be done was write what Reagan was going to say. I knocked out the 90 seconds we had alloted for the opening and sent it in. The thing went back and forth for days, with people parsing phrases to make sure nothing in it could be misconstrued or otherwise cause embarrassment to our guest. Somebody with a connection to the Republican party searched out some of Reagan's old speech writers in the belief they were better suited to the job.

They probably were, but we had a show to put out and all this additional attention and caution was making it harder to meet our deadlines. When we discovered just how much one of these speechwriters wanted for writing 90 seconds, we told the network that we "might" have a problem with the Writers' Guild if we went in that direction.

Since "Writers' Guild" meant WGA to them and not the Canadian version, that scared them enough to let us move ahead with what we already had.

So my two page speech was sent to the California Ranch for approval.

Up to that point I'd had two very, very indirect connections with President Reagan. I was living in LA when he was elected and a friend of mine was in the local reporter pool covering him. He told me of trailing Reagan as he went horseback riding a couple of day's after his election. The riding party reached a fence on the edge of the property and spotted a phalanx of photographers training lenses on them from a distant ridge. Reagan turned to one of his friends and said, "Okay, here's the plan. I'm gonna grab my chest and fall off this horse. You pretend to panic!" The man may have been a politician, but I thought that showed some class.

Years later, I was sharing an office with a writer deeply involved with the Democratic party. He came in one morning, incensed because Reagan had made a speech somewhere claiming the American armed forces were desegregated on December 7th, 1941 when a Philipino Houseboy at Pearl Harbor had picked up a machine gun and shot down a Japanese Zero.

After spending the morning phoning all his buddies to vent, he got the number of an old acquaintance working on the White House Staff. Connecting with the guy, he punched the speaker button so I could listen and harangued him for not knowing that the American forces were desegregated by an act of Congress signed by President Harry S. Truman (a Democrat) in 1948.

White House Guy: "You and I know that, Don. But the President remembers it differently because he was there. He saw it happen."

Don: "Saw it happen? What do you mean?"

White House Guy: "He saw that Philipino houseboy shoot down a Zero!"

Don: "Reagan was at Pearl Harbor?"

White House Guy: "He was there for the master, the two shot, the close-ups..."

I laughed my ass off.

Anyway -- my speech got to Reagan about two days before we had to shoot it. Which was the day before the episode would air. We had booked a CBS News studio in LA and one of our Executive Producers there would supervise, satellite feed it to us, so we could feed the completed show back to CBS before nightfall, allowing CBS to run special promos during that night's World Series game. (Toronto/Atlanta -- we won!)

Our guy called me the morning of the shoot, really nervous. We hadn't heard a word since the speech was delivered and had just gotten a call from Reagan's limo saying he wanted some changes. Because the rest of the show was cut and we were waiting to drop in his 90 seconds, our guy was now worried about coming in too long or too short. I told him to call back if he needed a rewrite.

Ten minutes later he called from make-up. Reagan was in the chair and needed to talk to me. It seemed important. Our conversation went like this...

Ron: Jim, it's Ron Reagan.

Me. Mr. President...

Ron: I wanted to change the speech.

Me. Okay...

Ron: I'd like to say "Thank You" at the end. Is that all right with you?

Me: Sure. That's great.

Ron: Okay, then. Nice to talk to you.

And he was gone. Less than ten minutes later, our guy called back. The shoot was done. One take. No cue cards. No teleprompter. The timing -- exactly 90 seconds.

I never thought much of Ronald Reagan as an actor. I didn't think much of him as a politician. But I'll say this -- he was a real pro, and nice about it as well.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Tear Down This Wall, Mr.Von Finckenstein!

Today’s topic, Kids -- after I apologize to Ronald Reagan for warping his quote and explain to non-Canadians that Konrad von Finckenstein is the new head of the CRTC...

Why am I apologizing to Reagan? He's dead. And he was a right wing goof. As well as a terrible actor -- although not bad in "The Killers" -- and I once caught my dog watching "Bedtime for Bonzo" with apparent interest...

I also wrote a speech for him. More on that another day...

Anyway, today's topic is the Capitalist system and how it doesn’t apply to Canadian television.

A quick lesson for those who, like me, grew up under one socialist regime or another and don’t really understand where money comes from: “Capitalism: A logline”…

Profits attract investment -- which increases production -- which increases profit.

In short, “if you build it, they will come”, spend their money, allowing you to build more or bigger, which makes more money.

Now let me tell you a couple of stories.

About 2 years ago, a friend of mine received a screenwriting grant/loan/whatever from Telefilm for a feature project. A couple of months later, he completed a script that was pretty damn entertaining.

This script also included, from a prospective producer’s point of view, everything you could possibly want in satisfying Canadian government funding sources. It was set in a formidably tax incentive friendly region, had a sizable diversity component to its cast, and told a story that was 100% Canadian and yet spoke to the universal human condition.

On the Cancon, CTF and CRTC checklists, my friend had managed to tick every box and still leave room for a viable co-production deal and the participation of bankable stars. In my world, this is tantamount to one of those guys on “The Ed Sullivan Show” who kept endless numbers of plates spinning. Despite their glittery pirate shirts, they always impressed the heck out of me too.

"Ees no the same without my brother..." Sorry, old joke...

Whatever happened to all those guys? There used to be a whole plate spinner industry.

Anyway, my friend dutifully provided a number of Canadian production companies with his script and waited. And waited. A few weeks later, the phone still silent, he followed up. No one had read it yet. Not one company. So he waited some more. And waited.

After six months he still had not received a single reply, so he did something unusual. He contacted Telefilm and got the names of all the other writers who had received a grant/loan/whatever in the same funding period as he and called those writers.

Like him they had all submitted their material to Canadian production companies. And like him, not one had received a single reply.

By his estimation, half a million dollars of taxpayer money had been spent funding scripts which were not only not being considered for production by the major and minor players in the Canadian industry but, quite possibly, had not even been opened.

I used to think the silence on the other end of the calls I make or the black hole my scripts and projects disappear into in Canada were a result of people not liking or not wanting to do them. But I’ve come to believe its something else entirely.

Last week I had a conversation with an LA based producer. He’s ribald and rough around the edges, with his finger firmly on some starlet and yet never far from the public pulse. He makes a lot of films – many up here. He liked one of our projects and asked who’d seen it. I gave him a list of Canadian producers. His response, “What’re you wasting your time on them for? They don’t have any f---ing money!”

He’s right. Our system of government administered funding has finally reached a point where the players see no purpose in buying anything unless it fits an already specified broadcaster need and falls within their pre-approved envelope.

Nobody risks anything unless the carrot is within immediate reach.

So, although my friend thought he’d leapfrogged the Turtle Derby of the development process by solving all the culture restrictions for his producer, our producers now focus their energies not on executing work that might capture an audience but on the limited windows our national broadcasters and re-broadcasters have in their schedule. The money in their “envelopes” is the only thing driving the Canadian industry.

I’m not saying the days of producing something because it’s original or innovative or immediate are over in Canada, but the shadows are lengthening. And that does not bode well for the industry or any of us creatives and semi-creatives who labor within it.

Writers and Producers in Canada have been reduced to surviving on corporate welfare.

A second story, this one detailed in Friday’s Globe and Mail.

“Some of the most attractive -- and lucrative -- real estate on the television dial will be up for grabs next week, and several cable channels are scrambling to stake their claims.

The CRTC is planning to redefine basic cable service, shuffling the list of channels available to all cable and satellite subscribers who buy the minimum packages offered by their carriers.

Basic cable and satellite packages are akin to beach front property on the TV dial, since it exposes those channels to more than 10 million households.

Specialty cable channels are paid a fee for each subscriber they have by the cable and satellite carriers. Every viewer who has basic service is considered a subscriber, so being on basic can mean big dollars.

The Weather Network, for example, gets paid 23 cents per subscriber each month. The network, estimates it has 12 million subscribers, meaning it collects roughly $2.76-million a month and fears moving off basic would cause revenue to plummet, since fewer subscribers would buy the channel.

It plans to argue that its forecasts and road reports are a crucial service. It has offered to drop its subscriber rate to 20 cents to stay on basic, essentially surrendering more than $4-million in annual revenue to remain there.

Each channel must also argue it is crucial to the national fabric, including furthering Canadian culture, contributing to learning or providing an essential service. They must also prove that without the financial benefits of basic cable they would be losing money.”

Two points I find interesting here. The first is uniquely Canadian. Our national symbol is the Beaver, a rodent known to gnaw off its own testicles and offer them to a predator so it can live to fell another tree. And here we have a Canadian company willing to give up 15% of its annual income simply to maintain the status quo.
Given that the “profit margin” in the Canadian broadcast industry runs around 20% that’s a very substantial hit to take. Maybe they’re only doing it to serve that last point of proving they’d be losing money…

What’s more interesting is that rather than creating programming to attract more viewers, making format adjustments to increase interest or doing “anything” for that matter, to make their product more marketable; the Weather Channel is arguing that unless they retain their cushy beachfront condo, their subscribers will “suffer” from a reduced service.

And we wouldn't want the little people to "suffer" would we, Mr. Von Finckenstein?

Maybe “Weather” isn’t the best example here, but other companies in danger of slipping off the basic tier are making similar noises.

This is where the Canadian broadcast system is skewed and our creatives screwed. In Canada, the market does not drive the industry. Here, government and the industry dictate to the market.

Historically, we’ve always been a protectionist bunch. Part of that comes from the domino theory of Canadian culture. The xenophobic belief that some (probably American) entity will come in and topple what we have.

The odd thing about this theory is that in the digital age, the American elephant we so fear treading on us is just one of a herd beaming internet or satellite options in the first languages of a good portion of our population.

From 1982 to 2005, The Canadian government made $18.4 Billion dollars in corporate grants and loans. That includes a couple of hundred million a year for the last 10 years to the Canadian Television Fund and Telefilm. To date only $1.3 Billion of all that money has been repaid, little of it from corporations within our own industry.

We’re told that such subsidies create jobs, encourage research and development and spur economic growth. But the sad fact is that they often have the opposite effect.

GM and Ford, for example, have received Billions in subsidies and yet are slashing jobs while producing a product people stopped wanting to buy years ago.

Our largest corporate welfare bum, Bombardier, can’t make money no matter what it does and its leading product was grounded by dozens of airlines this month because it didn't seem to be able to stay up in the sky.

Most protected industries aren’t a magnet for brains. Their cash flow is propped up. They don’t have to think about coming up with an engine that gets 100 km/liter or runs on highway litter to trump the competition. They don't need to innovate or create to survive at all.

Think about it! If you’re dynamic and filled with new ideas are you taking a job where most of your time is spent dealing with bureaucracy and filling out forms?

And given the numbers above, our government has proven itself incapable of selecting corporations to fund that can earn a return, protect and grow their employees jobs or wean themselves off the government teat. And why should these companies even try? Cashing a cheque from Ottawa is way easier than having to actually compete for the consumer’s money.

And who suffers?

It’s not just the guy who thought he had a lifetime job at Chrysler or the screenwriter who believed Canada wanted to tell its own stories to its people. It’s those subscribers who zap their remote hour after hour not understanding why the same series is playing at the same time on eight different channels, the same movies are endlessly repeating and some show about painting your dog house is on virtually every tier they subscribe to –- all -- day -- long.

That’s why Jim Shaw and Quebecor touched such a nerve when they challenged having to make further contributions to the CTF. That’s where the vitriol that spewed from viewers came from. Our over-protected industry is the primary reason Canadians hate or mistrust much of Canadian television.

The system that works for broadcasters sure doesn’t work for them. And oddly, they’re the ones the CRTC is mandated to protect and serve.

Another industry protected and regulated by the CRTC is the telecom industry. Last week numbers were released showing that Canadians paid some of the highest rates in the world for cell phone service. An example of the average monthly cost…

Canada $48/mo
Denmark $9/mo

Okay, maybe there’s only three people to phone in Denmark but the reason for this huge ding to the consumer is the same as the television industry. The CRTC has set prices to benefit the telecom companies while barring new competitors who might lower costs or offer innovations to the market.

The CRTC doesn’t seem to understand that by lifting restrictions, they would spur companies to create and compete or perish. And if they perished, somebody who could do it better would come along to replace them. Y'know that “survival of the fittest” thing.

Would anybody watch the Superbowl on Global if they could get the American feed? Of course not! And it’s not just because of the commercials. This year, Global eliminated the post game hoopla, including the presentation of the Vince Lombardi trophy and the MVP award, cutting directly from the final gun to the “Canadian” version of “Deal or No Deal”.

Imagine being a hockey fan denied the moment when the Captain of your team finally hoists the Stanley Cup! That's what Global did to football fans. Not only that, but during their NFL playoff coverage, they missed two different game deciding scoring plays with their extended commercial breaks.

That’s not giving the audience what it wants – and yet, they know they will still be paid their mandated subscriber fees, despite substandard service and they will still retain a privileged position on the dial.

How much better do you think Canadian TV might get if HBO and Showtime were allowed to be carried here?

And come to think of it, why aren’t they? Those networks are providing a higher level of dramatic Canadian content (in the form of individual artistic contribution) than some of our own.

Don’t start screaming that this would kill us all. Because we’re dying anyway. You can only boost productivity and quality and make room for new ideas, up-and-comers, original scripts and unique programming by removing the coddling and shifting the focus to what our audience wants to pay to see.

Content doesn’t need to be protected if there is an appetite for it. And creating an appetite is what 99% of showbusiness is based on. Everybody knows most of the movies that debut every friday aren't as exciting, funny, or ground-breaking as their trailers and media hype would have us believe. But they pique our interest or suggest a respite from our boredom and we go.

If CTV or Global or any other Canadian Broadcaster or re-broadcaster was faced with disappearing or funding programming that won an audience, they would opt for the latter and market it like their lives depended on it -- because they would.

Look, the hard truth of show business is nobody needs Canadian movies any more than they need Marty Scorcese’s. Nobody’s life will be over if there’s never another episode of “Intelligence”, “Little Mosque”, “Studio 60” or “Lost”.

Okay, we’ll lose a few after “Lost” but I was talking about normal people. The ones with lives and regular jobs, hockey practices to get kids to and favorite bars to be found drunk in.

We’re merely the soundtrack and the diversions of their lives. They don’t live and breathe this business like we do. They just drop in from time to time, and can occasionally be encouraged to park some cash in our pockets for the treats we deliver. They don’t care where it’s shot, what passport the writer carried or if its production benefited one socio-economic group or another.

And if they don’t find what they’re willing to buy on their remote, they’ll find it on a P2P site – and what difference will any of our protections and regulations make then?

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Tag, I'm it!

Apparently the way this works is Ridley tagged Caroline and she tagged me and now I have to reveal five of my most closely guarded secrets to total strangers. Okay, fine -- here's what you won't find out from IMDB or the tabloids...


I was about 4 at the time and don't know how much of this I remember for real or how much comes from my mother repeating the story. Marilyn was in Banff, Alberta shooting "River of No Return" with Robert Mitchum. She wandered into a Calgary coffee shop one morning while Mom and I were in a booth and took a shine to me. She and Mom had breakfast, talked about babies and when she left, Miss Monroe asked if I'd like to go home with her. I said, "Yes". She laughed and left -- setting a pattern for me and hot blondes that has endured to this day.


Officially, just cracked, but still. This was a baby Komodo about 3 feet long guesting on "Beastmaster". I asked the trainer if I could touch him. He was okay with that. The Dragon was not. He whipped his tail around and smacked me. It felt like getting hit with a baseball bat. At the time it didn't seem there was much damage, but by morning I was in agony with a cracked jaw and three teeth broken below the gum line. I spent the next month doing story meetings in the morning and root canal in the afternoon. To this day, I'm sure the LA guys remain confused at why I was suddenly so quiet about their input.


Although I studied to be a classical actor (Will Dixon's dad was probably my finest teacher) I never did one single classical work as a professional actor. Despite Shakespeare being my favorite playwright and trying like crazy for years to do his plays, Greek plays, Roman plays, Moliere or Lorca, I ended up being most famous for playing either a Nazi or a Carebear.


Plane took off. Engine exploded. Wing caught fire. Followed by increasing weirdness as the pilot turned back for the airport, dumped fuel, discovered he couldn't get the landing gear down and took us in. His last words, "Folks, this doesn't look like our day, but I'll sure give it a try."

He did and most of us walked away. Two things I remember most. The incredible quiet as the plane went down. And next morning -- the sky had never been as blue and the birds never sang so loud. The best lesson I ever had in appreciating what you have.


The Summer of '69. The band I was with was chosen as the opening act for "The Zombies", touring behind their monster hit "Time of the Season". We met them at the airport. Four scuzzy, hairy hippies like us got off the plane and one said "Hey, how y'all doing?" in the thickest Texas accent I'd ever heard. It seems "The Zombies" had broken up before the record came out, so some canny promoter had flown 11 bands to NYC, taught them to play four of the Zombies' hits and one member to speak with a British accent to do the onstage patter. The rest of the set was whatever each band actually played. The bands were then simultaneously dispatched to tour parts of North America where they wouldn't be recognized, to milk every possible summer concert dollar available. More in Wikipedia if you're interested. Our "Zombies" would eventually achieve fame with one less member as -- ZZ TOP.

Rather than name names, I'm just gonna tag whoever's reading this. Your turn in the barrel.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Movies "On The Go"

I received a very nice letter from my cellular provider this week, informing me that I can now have the pleasure of watching "Spiderman 2" on my mobile phone.
I might frame this letter as verification of the moment one of our telecom giants officially acknowledged that they don't have a fricken clue and are completely out of touch with not only their customers' desires but the potential of their own technology.

"NOBODY KNOWS ANYTHING" no longer only applies to screenwriting and Hollywood.

The phone pictured in the Ad is the one I own, a state of the art Samsung a920. It's a pretty good phone. It has a videocam and a camera, emails, text messages, links to the web, plays MP3s as well as having USB ports and a media player. I've had it for a year and still haven't mastered all the bells and whistles, but I'm fairly certain I can also make and receive phone calls.

Unfortunately, my subscription also gives me full access to Bell Mobility's much advertised video service, which I can best describe as a complete waste of time and money.

The service offers news, usually from yesterday; hockey highlights from 2 days ago and business updates from last week, all displayed on a 2" screen. Maybe I could actually make out the numbers on the player's sweaters if I switched over to a Blackberry, but that still wouldn't make the highlights more up to date, would it?

Never mind the age of the internet, these guys are behind radio and bi-weekly community newspapers.

I know Bell Mobility has access to current information because it's part of the ginormous media conglomerate that includes the Globe and Mail, CTV, TSN, ROBTV, Expressvu et al. And to be fair, my phone also allows me to watch MuchMusic live, along with CBC, FOX, and TLC were I to purchase a "Fuel" bundle.

But what Bell Mobility lacks in immediacy, they make up for with eye candy. I can tune to a channel called "Babes and Hunks" where (in the Babes section) the titles range from "Bathtime" to "Kinky Undies" and see 90 seconds or so of barely legal young women dancing in bikinis and lingerie.

This reminds me of those old flip card penny arcade machines that offered Mack Sennett Bathing Beauties for a nickle. As they say in LA, content never changes, only context.

There are actually three separate female model channels in "Babes and Hunks". Interestingly, the "Vixens" sub-channel seems to feature young women who are Asian or Black. Is Bell trying to insinuate something here...?

For research purposes, I checked out 2 titles in "Hunks". Both featured guys I'd guess were 16 and Eastern European playing with their soccer balls.

You surfers from the CRTC will be pleased to know there is identifiable Canadian content. That would be "Nicole from Hooters in Hamilton" (as we all know Hamilton is Babe Central in the Hooters empire). Nicole informs me she likes "camping and long walks on the beach" as she stretches in her bikini.

I'm not going to ask who watches this crap. I know. It's people stuck in cubicles at Bell Mobility. People who never see windows let alone encounter other human life forms unless it's in the lunch line at the Druxy's down in the lobby.

I'm certain this is the case because only people with absolutely no access to any form of media except their complimentary company phone would find any of this insipid drivel interesting.

They are part of a corporate culture so insular and out of touch, they now apparently believe somebody wants to pay $5.99 to watch a 2 year old movie dependent on visual effects and Dolby sound on a 2" screen and hands free headset.


That's an exaggeration.

The Ad says "starting from $5.99" and, given Bell Mobility's various "frame enhancements", the actual video image on their top of the line Samsung a920 is 1"x1.25".

Unless they Letterbox it.

Excuse me?

Yes. Some of Bell Mobility's offerings are letterboxed, reducing the size of their screen to 1.25"x.5". They look something like this.

Boy, that'll deliver Spidey in all his glory, won't it? "I think he's the little red dot between those two skyscraper shaped things."

This just is not the way to use this technology, let alone attract new customers.

One of my heroes is Mark Cuban. Those of you who don't link to his blog, should. (He's on my list -- up and to the right). Mark made his Billions by being on the forefront of internet broadcasting and now owns the Dallas Mavericks, HDNet, 2929 Productions, Magnolia Films and a whole lot more.

We first met in a hotel elevator where I cracked him up with "Hey, you're that guy from the future!" and our paths have crossed a few times since.

Mark "gets it". He understands where we might be going in this business, correctly predicted the post Google decline of YouTube, initiated the concept of simultaneous release patterns and continues to warn the media dinosaurs that without quantum change, their extinction is imminent. He has this to say about the bells and whistles on my Bell Mobility phone -- they're TIME WASTERS.

They have replaced buying magazines, crossword puzzles and the like as ways to fill our odd moments. They are snacks not meals and they are certainly not the way anyone wants to experience a motion picture.

Last year, I attended a seminar on new distribution systems that included representatives from major studios and networks, Blockbuster, Tivo as well as P2P and cellular providers. They all had their individual grand plans for the shining future. But all were dependent on the same thing -- selling the content they already owned over and over again in every imaginable format until the only guy who hadn't seen it was deaf, dumb, blind and living in a mud hut in Gabon.

Noticeable to anyone not drinking the Kool-Aid was that as the returns on distribution diminished the technology required to disseminate and access it became ever more expensive. They were spending dollars to chase dimes.

At $10/month Bell Video already offers me nothing and for another $5.99 I will be able to download a movie I can't even see.

If the Bell guys really understood their customers and the way that audience uses their digital services, they'd realize that nobody is going to spend the two hour and seven minute running time of "Spiderman 2" staring at their cell phone. Even the nine year olds who might be gullible enough to fall for this began downloading chunks of "Spiderman 3" two weeks ago! You Bell guys remember two weeks ago. It was when Buffalo beat Toronto in the hockey highlight reel you're still running!!!

I don't have all the answers for what will work as Mobile phone video. But I have one. It's an idea my banker is eager to finance and the 14 - 25 year olds we've test marketed call "Awesome!". But I can't get anybody at Bell Mobility to talk to me.

So, if you're languishing in one of those cubicles, surfing the net in search of real porn or maybe a glimpse of what's going on in the world, give me a call. I think I can get your company into the 21st century and maybe get you an office with a window plus enough money to take Nicole for a walk on that beach she loves instead of ogling her over a plate of wings or squinting at her on your phone.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

When Heart No Longer Matters

There is a truism widely held in the sports world that a team with character will always beat a team with talent. It's been a theme of sports movies from "Knute Rockne, All American" through "Rocky" to "Invincible" and imbues the best moments of my favorite series of this season, "Friday Night Lights".

Anyone who's played organized sports at any level might have learned certain skills from their coaches, but what they really gained and carried forward were the far more important character traits that make not only a great athlete but a great person. For the most part, those traits can be summed up by something we call "Heart".

Every good film or series I've ever worked on has had to go up against competition with more talent, bigger money and better connections. But they all survived and prospered because someone either chose to be or evolved to be their Heart.

When CBS picked up "Top Cops" they put us up against "Cosby" and "The Simpsons", saying they believed in us. To which our Executive producer shot back, "What do you do to shows you don't believe in?"

But we had some guys with Heart and for four seasons we more than held our own, sometimes beating one of them and on the rare occasion beating both. Being passionate about what we did shone through and made us a success in spite of the odds.

Sometimes that person with Heart has been me, sometimes it's been someone else. You always discover who it is very quickly and innately understand that whether you like them or not, they are the reason for your success. You support them, give them all of your talent and energy and invariably things turn out well.

I've walked from a couple of projects where I realized I could not overcome the corporate culture or would not be allowed to do my best work. It's a wrenchingly painful and difficult decision. You're always turning your back on the chance to ply your trade, friends who have no choice but to stay and a shitload of money. But I've always known that you cannot place your passion somewhere its not wanted. Not understood or not appreciated can be a given and you live with that. Not wanted is something else entirely.

Because I also believe that "nobody wants to do bad work", I've always struggled to understand why some people work so hard to do just that. They're not usually bad people. They're certainly far from stupid or fanatically addicted to a particular creative vision. But for some reason they have an aversion to Heart and it invariably leads to failure.

Recent case in point -- Ryan Smith of the Edmonton Oilers.

I acknowledge up front that it is sacrilege for a Toronto Maple Leafs fan to show any admiration for any dog ass player for any other dog ass team. But with the Leafs going nowhere for their 40th consecutive season, you tend to change channels somewhere in the second period of their games and a few years ago, I discovered a player with an astonishing Heart -- Ryan Smyth.

Ryan grew up adoring the Edmonton Oilers. They were his home team and the only team he ever wanted to play for. When he was a kid he landed a job as their stick boy and while attending a charity event for the team, one of the star players accidentally backed his car over him. Ribs crushed, he was rushed to the hospital, where the doctor later showed him the tire tracks across his shirt. Ryan's response, "That's Glen Anderson's tire. Make sure my mom doesn't wash my shirt."

Ryan made the NHL and the Oilers, becoming their shining star for 12 seasons, earning the moniker of "Captain Canada" by playing with unbelievable courage and determination. Last season, he led his last place team to within a goal of the Stanley Cup. This is how his local newspaper described Game Three of that series...

"The maintenance crew came out with scraper and shovel to pick up the pieces Ryan Smyth left on the ice. Blood, mostly, but also three teeth. His teammates had stood over him as he lay there clutching his mouth, then sprang up suddenly and skated to the bench.

No one was in the least surprised as Smyth had needles shoved into his lip and gums, was stitched up where his mouth had exploded, and returned for the third period.

He took his regular turns and put in 20 minutes of the 42:24 of overtime -- setting up the triple-OT winner that merely saved the Oilers' playoff lives."

The Oilers owners rewarded several of Smyth's teammates with fat new contracts for their spectacular playoff run. But they allowed the one for their star and hometown hero to languish. Some said it was in the hope he would have a less stellar season and be cheaper at season's end when his contract expired. But despite having less talented players on the ice beside him, Smyth did not have a less impressive season. Even though the owners had traded away or sold most of their finest assets, Smyth remained the team's Heart and Edmonton fans loved him for it.

And yet, twenty minutes from the NHL trade deadline, the Oilers decided they could live without their heart and traded him away.

Greater hockey minds than mine say this was an astute move by the team. It saved them money they would have had to spend on a star who will certainly soon begin to fade. It earns them some young players in return, one of whom it was later revealed, the son of one of their scouts. And it gives them the salary cap space to go out and buy a new star come summer.

But I'm willing to predict this is the end of the Edmonton Oilers current ownership. Since the trade happened, the team has lost ten straight games. Oiler fans have been barred from their arena for carrying signs or wearing T-shirts denouncing the move. There are already $2 Million dollars in lost ticket sales (far more than they would have had to pay to upgrade Smyth's contract) and significant cancellations of future season tickets. Far more important, the message sent to both star players and ones with Heart is clear -- what you do is not respected in Edmonton.

I still don't know why a team or a show would cut out its Heart but I think it comes down to a confusion about what's important in such endeavors. Like your own body, there is a heart and there is a brain. The brain knows it's in charge. It runs things, makes all the big decisions and handles the money. It gets so caught up in its own importance, however, that it forgets that it can't survive on its own.

The Heart is the one that beats, not the one that can administer a beating.

Best of luck in your new city, Ryan. You'll soon be their Heart. And being imbued with the character you have, I know you'll never forget your old body in happier times.

The Bank Teller

There's a teller at my bank who's the kind of person you just don't notice or remember. There's nothing noteworthy about her physically. She's not particularly outgoing. She's just one of those people who does their job well and goes home. She may have another side, a wild shooter girl party streak, enforcer on an all-star Bank league hockey team, compete on Canadian Idol, but I doubt it.

Yet for the last few months, every time I go into the bank, I look for her and I make sure I ask one of the staff how she's doing if she's not there. She was there today, looking worn and tired and a little down. She'd had a rough night.

We lost another soldier in Afghanistan last night and that's where her boyfriend is, serving with the Canadian army. The way the system works is that there is a news release that "A NATO Soldier" has died or been seriously wounded. A few hours later that news bulletin is updated naming the country the casualty is from, followed hours later by an identification of the unit and then the name of the deceased.

I learned this from her one day last fall. It was the first day Canada designated for people to wear red in support of our troops over there. It was also the day another of our servicemen was killed. I got to her wicket and commented on all the flags in the bank and the red ribbons the staff were wearing and she told me they'd kind of gone all out because of her boyfriend. I asked how he was doing and she wasn't sure.

Once a casualty report comes in, the families go into a kind of emotionally frozen "waiting" mode, knowing that as each hour passes, the chances increase that it's someone else getting that dreaded call and not them. Because she's not really family, she won't get that call, it'll go to her boyfriend's mother.

A couple of hours earlier, they'd learned the casualty was in her boyfriend's unit. Since then, nothing. She was scared. The line up behind me was huge. So, I told her to pretend there was something wrong with the cheque I was depositing and go make her phone call. She scooted away and came back looking relieved. The name was out. It wasn't him. And then she felt bad for feeling relieved. Because she knew what someone else was now going through.

There may be a lot of those calls in the coming weeks. Canadian troops are part of a new offensive in Afghanistan and predictions are that casualties will be high.

I don't know whether we should be in Afghanistan or not. Having seen the films of Afghan women being executed in soccer stadiums for teaching school and ancient wonders being dynamited because they represented the "wrong" religion, I'm leaning toward figuring somebody should be doing something.

What does concern me is that our politicians sent our men and women over there and don't seem to be doing as much as they could to help them succeed in their mission and get back safe. The clip below is "Exhibit A" in that argument. It's from VBS.TV, a group I've championed here in the past. Another story our mainstream media is ignoring.

Some of the guns and bullets you'll see in the clip are destined for people bent on killing my bank teller's boyfriend. They're being manufactured and sold with the obvious knowledge of a country that's supposed to be our friend and ally and to whom we send a lot of aid and assistance. Does any of that make sense to you? Or does what happens to an ordinary Canadian, say a bank teller, who does her job, pays her taxes and like her boyfriend, supports what their government says is the right thing to do -- just not matter?

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.