Friday, June 08, 2007


I've had the same dentist for more than 30 years. We met when he was covering for my original guy, who was on vacation. I liked him right from the start. He's Chinese and at the time spoke very little English. His attractive assistant (now his wife) translated -- "He say, rinse and spit!".

Since he was good at what he does and fit my life philosophy of not having any ordinary experiences unless absolutely necessary, he became my dentist.

He was always interested in what I was doing, but never recognized the titles of any of my shows -- he'd just smile and shrug. Sometimes I'd give him videos or DVDs of my output. When I asked if he'd liked them, he'd just give me the same smile and shrug.

Four or five years ago, he opened a new office in an ethnically mixed part of Toronto with his son, Dentist Jr. And it's actually that building which drives one of the theories I have about Canadian television ratings.

The lobby features a video store that isn't of the Blockbuster/Rogers world. I don't know its name although it's posted in several languages; none of them English, with the closest script being Cyrillic. Although I'm a big fan of Japanese, Chinese, Bollywood and Eastern European films, until a couple of years ago, I'd never been inside. I still need subtitles and there was nothing that indicated their offerings provided that consideration.

Then, on the night before a dental appointment, I saw a "60 Minutes" piece on Aishwarya Rai, a Bollywood star considered by many to be the most beautiful woman in the world.

I'd seen posters for her films in the window of my Dentist's video store. Now I knew her name. So the next day, I went in and asked if I could rent a copy of the film "60 Minutes" had profiled.

The young woman behind the counter explained that they didn't rent films, but I could buy a copy for $3.00.

Sounded like a good deal. I was in. Then she asked me to come back in a couple of hours because she had to burn the disk...

Okay -- not quite down with that. She seemed to sense my discomfort and assured me they weren't pirates. In order to get the new releases her customers wanted, feeding a desire to view what was currently onscreen back home, the studio in India airmailed a disk they could copy for customers.

Not knowing if she was making that up but knowing even less about South Asian copyright law, I handed over three bucks and returned a couple of hours later with newly de-scaled choppers to pick up a shiny disk additionally light-scribed with the artwork of the film.

The movie was pretty good, had that wonderful Bollywood combo of Hindi and English so you can follow what's going on even without subtitles and played perfectly. I'd driven home with sudden reservations about PAL and region codes. But there were no problems and I recalled something I'd learned in Australia, that DVD regional codes are a nice conceit for North Americans and Europeans, but most of the rest of the world just buys players with built in hacks or publishes all-region content.

How all this relates to Canadian television ratings is this...

I visit this store quite regularly now, buying current films from Bollywood, HK, China, Japan, Russia and the occasional point in between. Most of those films are still in theatres in their home countries and will never be released here.

That allowed me to see the magnificent Chinese film "Hero" a full two years before it debuted here to critical acclaim -- and a sudden studio/network awareness of color design. I've been similarly exposed to writing and shooting techniques, visual concepts and edit styles nobody in Canadian television is even thinking about, let alone putting in their programming.

Just an aside, but wait til you guys attending Banff get a peek at the new Brit series "Green Wing". You're going to realize that understanding the abilities of an editing program like Final Cut Pro is becoming just as important to your writing as whatever script software you currently use.

While I was in Australia, I also learned that much of the world is so far ahead of us in things like cellular phones, computer accessories, etc. that it's scary.

Last week, my Gaffer turned up on set with a new GPS clipped to his visor. It looked like an ordinary GPS, except it was also an HD video player with a 5 inch screen, an MP3 player and arrived from China with an 80 Gig flash card. You heard me -- 80 Gb - enough for about that many movies in HD. Price delivered -- $200.

So point one is, we're falling behind. Okay, the Fraser Institute can bore you with that insight.

Point number two is what's important -- we're falling behind our audience.

Exposure to the material from my Dentist's building's video store means I can't watch much Canadian TV drama anymore. It's just too fricken uninspired and boring. Perhaps not in concept or inspiration, but almost certainly in execution.

We have countless new or debuting shows which look and feel exactly like material we made back in the 1980's. So, if I can't get excited enough to watch this stuff, how attractive is it to people who are coming to it fresh?

Our immigrant population is huge and while I may buy one or two DVD's from this video store, I see people leaving with shopping bags full. The owner tells me it's not unusual for a South Asian family, for example, to buy 30 - 40 hours of movies, comedies and soaps every week.

Trust me, those families are not watching CTV, Global or even CITY-TV. There simply aren't that many hours in the week. If you take a look around at the satellite dishes on your average urban Canadian street, they're not all pointed in the same direction as the ones that read "Expressvu".

And it's obvious that CRTC rules about diversity are not changing these viewing habits. Those rules are giving a lot of talented people the opportunity to work. And while they may be presenting a more realistic vision of our society to the world, they are quite simply not drawing more viewers to the programs, or markedly increasing foreign sales.

Even among 2nd and 3rd generation communities, there is no desire or incentive to watch Canadian channels. Walk into any ethnic eatery, tavern or "social club" on a Saturday and there's either a live sports event from their homeland running or some kind of non-Canadian game/variety show that has everybody present in stitches.

I'm constantly struck by the fact that there is a vibrancy to these programs we neither have nor seem interested in finding.

To realize how much of a rut we've fallen into, you only had to watch NBC's coverage of the Stanley Cup. It was quite simply -- awesome -- superior on every level to the competing network that has been doing hockey for generations. The game had an immediacy, a passion and muscle to it that made it just so much damn fun to watch.

Over at the CBC, we had announcers who are household names unable to remember the names of half the players, an ill-tempered clown in a loud suit weeping over our Afghan fallen in perhaps the most inappropriate setting for such sentiments, and the standard shoulder shot interviews between periods with players draped in a logo'd towels offering sports cliches I'm convinced must be fading on their cue cards by now.

To attract audiences, we've got to start doing things different. The concept that the average Canadian wants shows that poke polite fun at politicians, deal with "issues" without getting too in-your-face about it and depend on Peter Mansbridge clones for their news, are woefully out of date.

Likewise, I must ask what audience attraction is achieved by producing TV MOW's such as a fictionalized version of the "true" story of the deaths of four RCMP officers because the actual facts have yet to be determined, or by displacing the Montreal incident in which an American kids hockey team was insulted to a more bucolic setting in New Brunswick?

You're either doing TRUE stories or you're not and equivocation to avoid offending anyone or any group doesn't have a lot to do with making a film that gets at the truths an audience wants to know or understand -- and watch.

That said, much of our network production has veered from anything that can be described as innovative fiction. A couple of years ago, I discovered a truly whacked Russian film entitled "Nightwatch". The sequel, "Daywatch" is currently in theatres. Can you imagine any Canadian network initiating anything with this kind of visual style?

The current Canadian approach to programming can barely scare up a million viewers on a good day. Even the Stanley Cup Final can't attract 10% of the population. Our maximum total audience for our hundreds of channels this season never rose above a quarter of the country.

Is nobody wondering what the other 75% are watching -- instead?


Anonymous said...

Amen to all of that!
And thank you for the lead on Night/Daywatch. That's worth chasing up.
Hero is still my favourite movie...but maybe not for long...
And now I must see about doing this kind of thing...on radio!

wcdixon said...

All good stuff, sir. I'm all for pushing the envelope where we can (and can afford), but is it really reasonable and fair to compare the visual stylings of some biggish budget features to making conventional television...Canadian or otherwise?

jimhenshaw said...

Yeah, Will, I think it's absolutely fair. According to Wikipedia, "Daywatch" had a budget of $4.2M US -- admittedly spent in Russia, but still...

From the audience's POV, the ticket price at the theatre is still the same whether the film cost $200 Million or $2 Million. They're paying for entertainment value.

Likewise, they don't care about the strictures of TV. They pay the same monthly bill for cable whether the shows are made for May sweeps or the doldrums of August. They just want the experience to be on a par with what they're used to, so it feels worth watching.

The bar gets raised everywhere but Canada. Average cost of a prime time episode in the USA is $3M plus nowadays. Canada -- budgets are lower than they've ever been, and it shows.

We all know money doesn't equate with quality. And you can always make up the difference with imagination and innovation. Sadly, our networks don't seem capable of recognizing or embracing those qualities.

As long as Canadian shows are looked on as "fill" and the cost of getting the license to make money off foreign imports, we won't get better programming and the numbers will continue to decline.

Juniper said...

Thanks Jim,
I now need to search out a similar vid store in my home town - Heros is one of my favourites too. Plus I still have to find the original movie that The Departed is based on. It sounded great too.


Riddley Walker said...

I have to agree, Jim. I have Nightwatch on DVD here and it’s a regular reference watch. Terrifying how good it was, based on its minuscule budget...

As you know from the way I’d been describing The Order, what we’re aiming for is television of the quality of Battlestar Galactica’s use of colour, Heroes’ and many others’ cinematography and the use of editing tools like Final Cut Studio as an integral part of the creative process.

I honestly can’t stand the way that utter slapdash rubbish like Doctor Who and Torchwood get trumpeted over here as ‘cutting edge’ and ‘sophisticated’ when they’re (at best) workmanlike.

I’ll get Paul to send you the script for episode one... ;-)