Saturday, January 31, 2009


After a week of dealing with the necessary evils of production financing, distribution and defining "motivation" for the Harvard MBA in the perfect suit, manicure and hair, who now runs the network -- it's good to be reminded of why you got into show business in the first place.

And that's not as hard to find midst the phony glitz and exotic facades of Las Vegas as you might think. The grounding I needed was at the MGM Grand in Cirque du Soleil's breathtaking production "KA".


Britain can claim Shakespeare and America invented Jazz. But Canada gave birth to an art form that already outdraws and may well outlive them both -- Cirque du Soleil.

Cirque was the brainchild of Montreal street performers Guy Laliberté and Daniel Gauthier. I first became aware of their creation in the early 1970's when they came to Toronto, pitched a tent on a muddy parking lot across the street from the Royal Alex theatre and began promoting a "circus without animals".

The public reaction was tepid disinterest at best. I mean, seriously, how can you have a circus with no lion tamer, no seals balancing balls, no dancing ponies or even an elephant?

Nobody cared and a rainy summer didn't help. Night after night, the first Cirque du Soleil acrobats, wire walkers and jugglers performed to audiences that barely outnumbered them.

But Daniel and Guy refused to give up and every day you'd see one of them (I can't remember which) tooling around town on a bicycle, literally seeking out an audience one ticket buyer at a time. I remember him rolling up to the front of the Toronto Free Theatre in his white suit to engage a gaggle of actors on a coffee break.

To his mind, theatres were the perfect place to find sympathetic fellow artists eager to support a ground-breaking concept.


Most of us didn't get the "no animal" thing either. Jugglers and mimes were also fairly de rigueur at any rock concert of the time. And hell, we were making minimum wage working at a theatre that literally gave its tickets away to find an audience.

The man in the white suit listened and still begged us to come. A few days later a few of us did. We enjoyed the show but I don't think anybody thought it had much of a future. Although, we all did admit, it had -- something...

But the former buskers didn't give up and today the concept they created has annual earnings of over $600 Million with permanent touring companies around the world; not to mention pretty much owning the Las Vegas show scene with six companies performing to more than 9000 people every night.

"KA" isn't a new show. But it's my favorite; blending circus, theatre, dance, martial arts and spectacle into an experience that not only serves all of the senses but renews the spirit as well.


"KA" tells the story of a civilized tribe attacked and almost annihilated by a band of evil warriors bent on creating a weapon of mass destruction. The tribe's surviving royal twins go on separate quests, ultimately finding what they need to defeat evil and reunite their people.

It's a classic Joseph Campbell paradigm fusing stand-alone circus acts into story driven set pieces while transitioning acrobats and trapeze artists into three dimensional dramatic characters. And in the Cirque du Soleil tradition, all of this transpires using language-less babble for dialogue except for a single sentence of introduction.

Surrounding and supporting the production is a brand of showmanship almost lost to the rest of the entertainment industry; a belief in serving the audience by both awing and inpiring them; delivering unforgettable and enriching moments until its the audience and not the performers who are spent.

The next time you're in Las Vegas, save up those nickels that will never win you a jackpot and pull yourself away from the happenings that will have to stay a secret in Vegas once you've left. Instead, use that time and money for "KA", an experience you will treasure forever.

Here's a taste. Enjoy your Sunday.

Thursday, January 29, 2009


I'm into the home stretch at NATPE, the annual desert journey for seekers of wisdom in the television trade. Up to my neck in meetings, conferences, pitches and major league network players. It'll be a day or two before I find the time and space to decompress and communicate what I'm learning down here.

Lesson #1: Don't ask Flavor Flav "What time it be, dawg?". Dude's got some kind of clock/watch bling issue.

But changing times and how much time we have to make those changes are at the forefront of everyone's mind here.

I'm catching bits and pieces of the media coverage back home and "yes" the industry gloom is everywhere. But so are people unwilling to throw 'up'' their hands or 'in' the towel. The major networks may be scared by the worsening economy and dragging their feet on finding a strategy to overcome or survive it. Everybody is losing money. Everybody is hurting. But there is also no shortage of really smart and energetic people with paradigms to change how we do what we do so the business can get stronger and richer.

So, here's a taste of what's coming at this site over the next week, once the random thoughts and notes have been collated:

1. Kiss Youtube Good-bye. Not the site but the deluge of mindless user generated content. The marketing studies are all finding exactly what Rishad Tobaccowalla predicted here last year -- people can tell the difference between quality and crap -- and they are now demanding even the crap be made by professionals before they will watch it online.

2. Seminars on building show websites: 50 -- Canadian TV Networks in attendance: 0

3. Sponsors are building their own online networks and now going directly to content creators for programming instead of relying on the TV networks that currently (I repeat -- currently) receive the bulk of their advertising dollars.

For the longest time, I thought was just the new "Funny or Die". But it's Sony's attempt to create a viable online studio. There's probably more worth seeing on than CTV or Global and a huge number of corporate behemoths will soon be rolling out shows they feel will be desireable to their customers and are set to rival most TV offerings -- in both dramatic content and quality.

4. Video games have officially assumed the #1 position in home entertainment choices.

5. Within three years, the television commercial will be a memory.

6. The clearest message from everybody from content providers to network executives is the same -- Television stations and even some networks will be gone within a year if they don't immediately find a way to cut through the digital clutter and re-engage and inspire their audiences. And I don't know anybody who doesn't find that concept far more exciting than depressing.

All for now, I'm off to talk to Obama Girl. Now there's somebody who knows what time it be.

Saturday, January 24, 2009


A couple of Canadian Icons collided in the public consciousness this weekend. First, the National Film Board of Canada put its massive archive of Canadian films online. And tonight, the NHL all-Star game will be played in Montreal in honor of the one hundredth anniversary of the founding of the leagues most successful franchise, the Montreal Canadiens (French Spelling).

For most Canadian kids, films by the National Film Board are among the first movies we're exposed to. Their award winning animations are all over our Kids channels and pretty much any documentary we see in school comes from the NFB vault.

And similarly, most Canadians who've witnessed one of our home teams winning a Stanley Cup saw "Les Canadiens" do it. Because in those 100 years, they've hoisted the championship trophy an astonishing 24 times.

So, of course the paths of these two local institutions have crossed more than once. This week, I'd like to give you a taste of that mix of art and sport.

Two short films from the NFB are embedded below. For the full effect, click the "Full Screen" button.

The opener is Roch Carrier's "The Sweater", maybe the best reminiscence of a kid's relationship with a sports hero ever written.

And to close out this double feature, "Here's Hockey" a beautifully shot mini-documentary from 1953 narrated by Danny Gallivan, the voice of the Canadiens when I was a kid. For every fan of hockey's Golden era and any lover of film, the NFB archives have got goodies galore.

Enjoy your Sunday.

Thursday, January 22, 2009


Last spring I was on Vancouver Island and the Toronto Maple Leafs still had a slim chance of making the playoffs. But the game I wanted to watch was only available on the team's own 'Leafs TV' channel. And you can't get Leafs TV in British Columbia.

But I still saw the game.

A couple of weeks back, one of the blogs I read linked a clip from "Saturday Night Live" courtesy of, but content from Hulu can't be accessed from Canada.

Five minutes later, I'd seen the clip.

The other night, I wanted to see a film that had just been released on DVD. But the kid at Blockbuster told me it wasn't something they stocked or had on order. I got the same story at the nearest HMV store.

A couple of hours later, the popcorn was ready and the movie started.

How was I able to do all these things?

Do I possess some kind of special magic?

Well, actually I do. But that's one subject that'll never be discussed here!

When I began this particular series (you may want to visit Part One and Part Two to catch up) my intention was to counter the arguments I suspected would be put forth by CTV and Canwest Global in the lead up to the Spring hearings on Canadian television before the Canadian Radio & Television Commission.

Given the initial whining and punishing job cuts that followed the Commission's denial of their request for "carriage fees" (payment by the public for traditionally free services) I, like a lot of TV professionals in this country, figured we'd soon face a full-on assault on the networks' "requirements of license" to produce Canadian programming.

So I wanted to point out that most of the problems these networks are facing come not from their content requirements but from their own historic inability to support local production, embrace and serve new technologies and terribly ill conceived convergence strategies.

I have to admit that while I've always felt Canada's private networks were more interested in being simple re-broadcasters of foreign content than entertaining and informing Canadian audiences with Canadian stories; I had not truly seen the depth of their complete disdain for the job they were licensed to perform.

In the last couple of weeks, I've heard investor briefings where broadcast executives describe using their newly acquired specialty channels not as venues to deliver more or enhanced genre material, but as additional platforms to amortize their simulcasts of American prime-time programming; repeating shows most Canadians have already seen endlessly over all the various segments of their show-biz empires.

This week Canwest also announced it was abandoning its morning and noon newscasts and then both networks indicated a desire to close stations in smaller markets, effectively eliminating local news coverage in those areas.

Apparently, Canwest had toyed with the idea of replacing Toronto's morning newscasts with a feed from their E! Network outlet in Hamilton, before realizing that doing so would serve neither market. And maybe they also realized that many living at or near the center of the Universe in Toronto already assume that the planet drops off sharply long before reaching such mythical places as Hamilton, Oshawa or Barrie.

Unfortunately, the message sent by our private broadcasters could not be more clear.

CTV and Global don't intend to live up to their requirements of license and couldn't care less how that impacts the 30% of Canadians who live in remote or rural settings. And while they haven't yet defined exactly how "small" the markets they intend to unplug will be, you don't have to look at too many Statscan figures before realizing they could be abandoning local news coverage to more than 60% of the population.

Next week, I'll again be posting from the NATPE Convention in Las Vegas. And that will inevitably mean attending a think tank or two on growing the audience. There, I'll hear the Mantra I've heard for years from successful broadcasters -- "Go Local". Over and over again, all around the world, dozens of broadcasters have proven that the secret to success is providing programming the people living closest to you need to inform their lives -- and can't get anywhere else.

But here in Canada, our guys think the future lies in formating a video version of some 'Flow' radio format, their futures secured by funneling what gets produced in New York or LA to the folks just down the street.

They might as well sell start selling their offices and studios as trendy loft condos right now instead of waiting until the real estate market tanks even further.

Look, I understand that it's tough for CTV and Canwest right now. They have no viable libraries of self-owned material to exploit, either because they didn't make any for years on end or leveraged what they once owned to buy out the competition.

They also never aggressively marketed what they did produce, accustomed as they were to simply slapping their logos on sales packages that were shipped up from the States.

They're also way behind in delivering their signals with the HD clarity the sets most of us now own can replicate. And their online presence is far below the level Canadians regularly find from broadcasters in other nations while casually surfing the web.

You didn't have to be Albert Einstein to see this coming -- or Stephen Hawking to know the innovations aren't going to stop.

Back around 1992, I bought my first Home Theatre system. It was primitive by today's standards. The TV was all of 36 inches wide and standard definition. There were three speakers and a sub-woofer. It was all wired to a laser disk player and a VCR.

And yet...

It immediately cut the amount of time I was watching broadcast television in half.

I was the only guy in my neighborhood with that kind of system ("Well, he's in the business") but the looks on the faces of those who dropped by to watch a movie told me I soon wouldn't be alone.

Or maybe more correctly would be even more alone because they had their own theatre at home.

Today, it's arguable that you can have a far superior viewing experience in your living room than you can in a movie theatre. Yeah, you sometimes miss the collective experience, but you never miss the inane chatter, the cellphones and paying ten bucks for a snack.

When it comes to TV product, I can time-shift with my PVR instead of fitting my schedule to the increasingly mercurial whims of a Network programmer. Or -- I can catch an entire series on DVD a couple of months after it runs, no longer interrupted by commercials and usually of better quality than they appear during their initial simulcast.

Bit by bit, I've gained more control over the quality and convenience of my entertainment options, while our broadcasters have attempted little to win back my heart or mind.

But let's get back to the three scenarios I mentioned off the top.

The Leafs Game.

A while ago, for under two hundred bucks, I bought a nifty piece of hardware you can find in any Consumer electronics store called a Slingbox. In about ten minutes it read my cable/satellite menu and now makes it available anywhere I can find an Internet connection -- in HD if I prefer.

One of the selling points of the Slingbox has been that it allows you to keep in touch with local events while you're thousands of miles away -- an advantage that may not be of future use if you're from Red Deer, Kamloops, Swift Current or Kingston.

If I don't want to watch the game on my laptop, I simply connect a Slingcatcher (another hundred bucks) which will zap the signal to the nearest TV.

Leafs TV, in an effort to hang-on to an increasingly suicidal fan base also streams their games (usually in multi-cam formats) a nifty innovation you may have noticed doesn't turn up on the sportscasts of any of the bigger players.

Interestingly, when I first Googled my need to find a local source for the game, I came up with page after page of sites I'll call the "Rumpus Room Networks". For it seems a new generation of sports fans and other program fanatics have hit on the idea of replicating the experience of watching the game, or an old movie, in your buddy's basement.

The technical quality isn't the best because what's generally on offer is somebody feeding his cable through a computer TV card or using a web cam to view his plasma screen and then sending that out over the web. It's usually accompanied by a chat screen where the supporters of the different teams endlessly trash each other.

Now, I'm certain that on some level this is illegal. But don't take my word for that. Because, when you think about it, there's little difference between watching a game this way and dragging your ass over to a friend's house or a local bar when your own cable's out.

But don't take my legal opinion. I'm the guy who was never completely clear on how it was okay for a library to share its often donated copy of a CD with anybody who walked in the door but some guy who uploaded the music he'd purchased to a similar stranger risked going to jail.

It also got me wondering why a network that has a problem with this doesn't simply beat the cellar dwellers at their own game. CBC streams 'Hockey Night in Canada', sometimes in several languages, but always on a tiny screen that might be sourced from Don Cherry's web cam. How hard would it be to add a chat forum, maybe offer prizes for trivia answers, throw in some multi-cams? Basically, they could deliver a much richer and completely legal experience without breaking a sweat.

But they don't. That's because all of our broadcasters are content to continue picking the low-hanging fruit rather than go to the time and expense of expanding their reach. And that lack of initiative and effort is why they are struggling -- and losing audience.


The NBC managed website traditionally streams network programming a few hours after the debut broadcasts, allowing it to roll the viewers receiving those streams into overall ratings calculations and therefore increase ad revenue. The site also offers movies and archived television unavailable elsewhere.

It's also Geo-locked so you can't get it in Canada. This is done to protect either the original broadcaster or the local rights holder from stepping on the other's toes. But there are a lot of free programs out there to unlock Geo-locks, most often by rewriting your IP address to an American locale.

Unfortunately, many Canadian broadcasters don't offer similar access to all the programming they run which is Geo-locked from their fellow citizens. And even when they do, it can be weeks before the favorite show you missed last night is online.

And it would seem that's because such services require tech and bandwidth they'd have to spend money on and most of these guys are still dipping into the taxpayer's pocket to fund websites for their own productions.

It's always much easier to force viewers into the narrow original broadcast time-slot where they can be most easily measured and marketed.

So, I suspect, on some level, it's illegal to unlock your Geo-lock with any of the programs openly linked by reputable and respected tech sites. But again, I'm not sure just as I'm not sure who's being hurt if you do that. The product was delivered free in the first place, remains free on hulu -- where you're additionally encouraged to sample all of the other wares.

Is there a system that could count visitors from Global's turf so they could be counted in Global's ratings? Of course there is. But then, they'd have to offer their viewers on History Channel and Showcase alternate programming instead of charging them subscription fees for what everybody else gets to re-screen for free.

The DVD.

Okay, I understand that Blockbuster and HMV only have so much shelf space and need to stock titles that are frequently rented or purchased. If I've got a Jones for something arty or from 60 years ago or French, I should just get in the habit of running around town trying to find it or order it from some obscure website in London or Mumbai and pray it's in a format I can use when it arrives.

You want to be different, there's a price.

Or there used to be...

I found the movie I was looking for on iTunes. Bought it. Downloaded it. Watched it the same night.

But many sites now offer equally legal and convenient ways to bring Video on Demand through the Internet to your TV. Netflix has teamed with Tivo, offering more than 12,000 titles in its initial list.

Youtube is hosting feature films and all kinds of "set-top" boxes are arriving from a wide range of hardware developers from Apple to Sony's Playstation 3 to Netgear which make it possible to watch pretty much anything available online in HD and surround sound.

What we're coming to is a world where not only are traditional broadcast models no longer viable, but we may not need cable companies or satellite systems either.

It's a whole new world, kids. One where I'm confident in saying that a year from now you won't need much more than an Internet link to watch whatever you want on television. It's a world where traditional broadcasters will have to start doing some very un-traditional things if they want to survive.

Perhaps Canadian broadcasters might want to abandon trying to hold back the hands of the clock and deliver products their public can't find anywhere else. Product like, oh -- I don't know -- local news and Canadian drama?

Wednesday, January 21, 2009


Well, the BIG day has passed and Barack Obama is finally President of the United States. I've been impressed by this guy for a while and it's refreshing to finally have somebody in a position of power in America who seems to possess both great qualities of character and a clear desire to make the world a better place.

I could have done without the Media Love-In that accompanied him into office. But I realize that in a time of rare "Good News" stories some of that's to be expected. The Globe and Mail's John Doyle has a nice piece today about this disconnect between the real story and what passes for news coverage these days.

And it got me wondering how many of the media -- and the rest of us -- really picked up on what "The Man" had to say during his inauguration yesterday.

Last night on the news, I was treated to shots of wild-eyed Kindergarten teachers leading their kids in frenzied chants of "Ba-rack-O-ba-ma" in scenes that reminded me of newsreel footage of braided Aryan children praising Hitler or Asian toddlers giving Mao a mass fist-pump.

Is there no way that "indoctrination" (of any kind) can be added to the definition of child abuse?

This morning, one of the meat-puppets on CTV's "Canada AM" described Obama's walk to the White House being accompanied by cheers that were "Just like the Beatles -- only much louder" as if the story still needed even further embellishment and she were a reliable expert in decibel comparisons of crowds 40 years apart.

If any of you journalists reading this are wondering why there's so little public sympathy for your recent and precipitous job losses, consider that these are the people you have allowed to stand unchallenged as the cream of your profession.

Before those who feel I'm of a conservative bent get the wrong impression, I was also put off by all the whining about what "bad form" it was for the crowd in Washington to Boo President Bush's departure. If you ask me, they should be heaving a sigh of relief that he was being put on a plane bound for Texas and not heading out to make a court date in The Hague.

Be all that as it may, what's really nagging at me today are a few indications that those who put Obama into office might be the first to bridle at the changes he hinted at bringing about yesterday.

And I gotta say, off the hop, that these are impressions created by things most people probably didn't notice. But then, noticing what others don't is supposed to be part of my job.

During the four seasons of "Top Cops", I did a lot of ride-alongs with American police departments in an effort to make sure our stories reflected, as much as possible, the actual experiences of law enforcement officers.

One of my first was with an elite drug squad in New York City. This was at the height of the much vaunted "War on Drugs", a war the good guys were losing badly.

The unit I shadowed was considered the best of the NYPD's gang and drug officers, augmented by State Police, FBI, ATF and DEA members. Despite all those movie cliches you've seen about competing departments and clashing egos, these guys were crystal clear about their agenda and everybody's contribution.

By night, we prowled sections of Manhattan most people didn't know existed. Block after block was like an urban setting that had been dropped in from Beirut, Gaza, or some post-apocalyptic thriller. Whole chunks of the most populated island in the world's greatest city were without electricity, garbage pick-up and other normal necessities of life. Fire and Ambulance crews would not venture into them unless accompanied by a police escort and the police themselves always responded en masse.

I was stunned by my first trip through one of these "No Man's Lands" and stunned further when one of the cops checked his watch and announced it was time for coffee. Where could you possibly find coffee here?

Yet, five minutes away, we pulled up in front of a trendy coffee shop, the kind that serves $3 cookies, having organically grown coffee on a patio among Yuppies pushing baby carriages or walking their dogs. It was bizarre. Venturing a block from this location on your own wasn't a good idea and traveling a block further was downright suicidal.

Across some invisible line -- chaos. On this side -- an understood entitlement to comfort and safety. And while the officers I was with talked about taking back those lost blocks, I wondered how they went astray in the first place.

The team was headquartered in one on Manhattan's elegant old courthouses, a building with that architecture most of us were first introduced to in "Batman" comic books. I was particularly impressed by the massive washroom down the hall, all marble and antique porcelain. A brass plaque on the door made it abundantly clear it was for the use of court officers and judges. Every time I stood at one of its floor to chest urinals, I wondered what famed legalist, Supreme Court Justice or perhaps American President had once whizzed in this very spot.

One day, I was washing up and the head of the team wandered in and rinsed off his hands, talking to me about something the whole time. He yanked a paper towel from the dispenser, dried his hands and tossed the crumpled paper -- on the floor.

As if on cue, one of the other men in the room did the same and I suddenly realized there were a number of discarded towels all around me -- even though there was a shiny chrome garbage can on the way to the door. As the head of the team held said door for me, I bent to pick up the towel he'd dropped. He stared at me.

"What're you doing? Come on! That's somebody else's job."

And there it was. The reason so much of the city had been lost. For too long, looking after it had been somebody else's job.

With all the wonderful things that were in Barack Obama's speech yesterday, one phrase stuck in my mind and reverberated as its sentiment was repeated in much of the rest that was said.

"In reaffirming the greatness of our nation, we understand that greatness is never a given. It must be earned."

A theme that returned again and again...

"Our journey has never been one of shortcuts or settling for less. It has not been the path for the faint-hearted -- for those who prefer leisure over work, or seek only the pleasures of riches and fame."

"Our time of standing pat, of protecting narrow interests and putting off unpleasant decisions -- that time has surely passed."

"For as much as government can do and must do, it is ultimately the faith and determination of the American people upon which this nation relies."

"What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility -- a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation, and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character, than giving our all to a difficult task. This is the price and the promise of citizenship."

The challenge was repeated in as many combinations and permutations as could be encompassed in 18 minutes... "Listen up, I'm not the Messiah -- how this turns out is up to you."

He mentioned workers cutting their losses so friends don't lose jobs and dumping government programs that hadn't succeeded and I wondered how that sentiment will play in the unions and artistic community that have so thoroughly embraced the man.

Here in Canada, in our last election, the majority of our Artists vilified politicians opposed to funding failed arts programs, refusing to consider other paths. This week, our auto unions are refusing to even countenance rollbacks in their wages in order to save their industry.

Obama said the time has come to get rid of "petty grievances", "worn out dogmas" and "protecting narrow interests", yet a whole lot of Canadians who support this man recently sided with a coalition of political parties who threatened to seize power rather than forgo their entitlement to funding from the public purse.

And the new American President made it clear he will take on the terrorists and I wonder how that will sit with those of us here who decry "Harper's War" in Afghanistan or march in solidarity with Hamas.

And while, for me, accepting those challenges includes somebody with more muscle taking a hard look at Blackwater and Halliburton and a whole lot of investment bankers, I have this awful feeling that many of the people who supported Obama were looking for somebody who'd do their jobs for them and (like a good Messiah) also suffer for their sins, so their lives could continue uninterrupted by any "hard choices".

And what makes me think that? One thing was this photograph taken on the Washington Mall a couple of hours after the inauguration.

Litter. Waste. Some poor old lady in a wheelchair left to find her own way out of the obstacle strewn cold. This is what everybody who heard those eloquent words left behind.

What happened to all those drawn to Obama and to be a part of his inauguration by their desire to save the planet, provide help for the sick or make America a more conscientious and caring society? These people heard those words first hand and yet, somehow, it's still somebody else's job.

Seeing that photo was followed moments later by perusing the video below. Others elsewhere have rightly torn this thing apart in both heavy-handed and light-hearted ways. It clearly indicates that among those who most don't get the hard choices that lie ahead come from within our own community. A community that has always been privileged, pampered and imbued with the belief that their job is to deliver a message, not do any of the heavy lifting.

The world really has changed and it's time for us to change with it. Much as I had no use for the Bush White House, I have the greatest respect for whichever staffer left a telling welcome gift on every single emptied desk -- a jar of hand sanitizer. A clear message congratulating the new arrivals for the courage of their convictions and achieving power, while reminding them that the time will come when somebody has to get their hands dirty.

Saturday, January 17, 2009


Bless the sweet baby Jesus! Is it cold here in Canada right now or what!?! Minus 30, Minus 40 -- who cares whether that's Fahrenheit or Celsius, we're talking COLD! And don't even get me started on what that kind of cold does to your life when you factor in wind chills, no-visibility blowing snow and black ice!

Forget trying to start the car. And the dog takes one look outside and curls back in a ball, quite happy to hold it until April.

Is there any other country in the world where you can watch a warning slowly crawl across the bottom of your TV screen letting you know exactly how many minutes it will take to freeze exposed flesh if you venture outside?

And yet -- we love it! Make that more than love -- we wallow in the agony of winter.

Many snowstorms ago, I visited a small dot in the Caribbean that rarely saw tourists let alone Canadian Snowbirds. Bored one Saturday night, we ventured down to the island's only movie theatre, an open air affair parked near the beach. I don't remember what they were showing, mostly because the refreshment stand located right below the screen served awesome banana daiquiris instead of popcorn.

What remains crystal clear through the Captain Morgan haze, however, was a preview for the Charlton Heston version of "Call of the Wild" which featured a snippet of Chuck crashing through what was clearly Styrofoam ice into a Yukon river. The crowd of locals SHRIEKED in terror! We Canadians laughed.

The crowd turned to stare in shock. In truth, we were laughing at how awesomely phony the effect had been. But in their eyes we could see that look -- the look Canadians secretly desire beyond a 'come hither' from Angelina Jolie. An expression that says, "These people have no fear! They laugh at the worst nature can throw at them."

Yeah, that's us -- Winter, bring it on! Just ask anybody in the line at Canadian Tire buying remote car starters and variable temperature butt warmers.

Up here the term we use to describe weather like this is "stupid-cold". I'll let you decide whether the adjective applies to the climate or those who choose to endure it.

Yet, in our perverse desire to get more of those "They are Super-human" looks, we've gone beyond simply surviving the winter to finding ever new and innovative ways of challenging it.

Trust me, put a Canadian in front of a sleeping Polar Bear and he will kick it awake!

We either invented or perfected snow-shoeing, ice-fishing, dog-sled racing, not to mention hockey and the ski-doo. And we'll go down any snowy hill a civilized person descends on skis or a sled with our asses strapped to metal spheres and over-sized inner tubes.

We DEMAND that winter meet us in the street or be forever known as the PUSSY of the Four Seasons.

Have you ever noticed that any time the Winter Olympics debuts a sport, it's usually a Canadian that wins it? Moguls, Aerials, we nail them before anybody else. When Snowboarding arrived at the Nagano Olympics, Canadian Ross Rebagliati snagged the first Gold.

A day later, the IOC tried to revoke it because Ross peed a trace of Marijuana into his post race urine sample. And while the media tore at its parka'd breasts and moaned, most Canadians were thinking, "If Ross made that run after blowing a doobie, they oughta give him TWO medals!".

Psst -- Ross, turn the board around, Dude! People might get the wrong impression!

Eventually, the IOC ruled that Rebagliati just had a bad reputation and too many friends, letting him keep the hardware. And Canadians have gone on to perfect new ways of showing winter we're more than its match.

The latest is called "Crashed Ice".

Imagine a two mile, frozen, downhill river. Then add hurtling down that steep sheet of ice on skates and trying to go faster than three other guys racing alongside you. That's "Crashed Ice". Think of it as Bobsledding -- on skates -- with obstacles -- and no metal sled to protect you.

Next week "Crashed Ice" returns to Quebec City, it's most spectacular venue, for the Winter Carnival.

See that! We take the absolutely worst fricken month of the year and label it a Carnival! Yeah, go ahead, Winter, bring on the sleet! We're makin' snow-cones!!!

This year, for the first time there's a Women's division and the whole thing is available Live on TSN (and sports networks elsewhere) -- so some of us don't have to suffer an increase in our Seasonally Affected Disorders by watching the Leafs.

Here's a taste of Crashed Ice! Tighten up your chin-strap. And enjoy your Sunday.

Thursday, January 15, 2009


There's no doubt that a dramatic shift in the way people access their entertainment options is well under way. Traditional business models in broadcasting, publishing and music distribution are all undergoing quantum shifts. It's a crucible of fire that vaporizes those who can't embrace change while forging new heroes imbued with the power to take us forward.

Last month, in part one of this mini-series, I looked at Ivan Fecan, one of Canadian broadcasting's super-heroes. This time out, it's Leonard Asper's turn.

The above photo of Asper (in the background) and Fecan was taken at the April 2008 CRTC hearings in which both men requested "carriage fees" to offset the huge amounts of company and borrowed money they'd just spent to purchase other local broadcasting assets.

The CRTC rightly turned them down, expecting that executives in their positions should have been aware of the potential cash-flow impact of such corporate over-reaching and maybe should develop better strategies than getting you and me to pay for their follies.

Spurned but unbowed, Asper proceeded to axe 560 of his employees in the month before Christmas, using the current economy and the CRTC's edict as his excuse.

A couple of months earlier (while the economy was apparently still rosy and the CRTC still considering his request for free millions) he'd turned out the lights at Cool-TV and the X-treme Sports Channel. Both were either a further example of Canwest unwisely wanting to have the most toys or that fewer young viewers are watching television.

The failures of these channels, however, were just the latest in a long list of botched business decisions by Asper.

In some ways, you have to feel a little sympathy for Len Asper. Like that picture of he and Fecan, he's always been the guy in the background.

The Canwest Global empire was founded by Len's father Izzy, one of the most astute business minds to come out of this country and rightly ascribed with the "Boy Wonder" title in his younger years. Within a decade of launching Winnipeg's third television station, he had parlayed it into a loosely knit string of independents that became the Global Television Network.

In many ways, Izzy Asper was our Ted Turner or Rupert Murdoch, determinedly turning stations the media derided as "The Love Boat" network (because of the constant re-runs of that series) into an entity a lot of that media soon worked for.

Even in its early stages, Global-TV was a force to be reckoned with. Maybe they weren't as innovative or ground-breaking as the competition up the dial at CITY-TV, but they were doing their bit.

Global pre-imagined the ESPN model of sports reporting with a nightly sportscast called "Sportsline" that launched such now internationally known sports journalists as Jim Tatti and Bob McCowan. They pioneered magazine shows, found a way to turn lottery draws into weekly variety specials, not to mention sliding aside the news desks and weather map in their single Toronto studio to produce the first seasons of "SCTV".

I got to watch a lot of this up close while hosting the absolutely, bar none, worst series ever to run on Canadian television, an ill-formed mash-up called "Pizzazz".

To this day, I have no idea how I got that job. But when the offer came in it was one of those that pays for a house outright. And I long ago learned that when they drop through the mail slot, you hold your nose, oil up, double-bag Mr. Happy and go to work.

"Pizzazz" was part "PM Magazine" part "E! Talk" with "Oprah" style interviews and "Designer Guys" segments thrown in while being liberally sprinkled with avante garde art and new age cures. Like I said, some guys at Global were ahead of their time. In this case, a little too ahead.

Yet, despite getting rightfully slammed right out of the gate, Global stuck with its original commitment of 130 episodes because they were certain it was serving their core audience.

Imagine that happening today...

During our many months of production, I met Izzy Asper only once. He was this mysterious guy who would fly in from Winnipeg, closet himself with the executives and then disappear back home, appearing little interested in the "exciting" things going on in the studios.

Toward the end of our run, I was also doing a play at a local theatre and a very glowing review appeared in one of the Toronto papers with my picture appended. They were scattered around the studio cafeteria and when I walked in one afternoon, I noticed Izzy reading it. He smiled and waved me over.

"You got another job", he said. I nodded. "Good thing."

We both laughed and he asked me to sit down. Although those were the only words that had ever passed between us, he proceeded to thank me for the work I'd been doing. Despite what it so clearly was, "Pizzazz" was bringing advertisers to the network.

Global was suddenly being contacted by companies who wanted their products showcased in episodes as well as celebrities with books and movies to promote in Canada. Producing their own shows, even a bad one, was raising the network's value and credibility both inside the industry and out in the world.

He said he hoped I'd come back and work for Global again. And later in life, I did, several times.

Although it was always a smaller player, Global did go on to create a number of notable dramas. And then a different mentality took over in the form of Leonard Asper -- a "Boy Wonder" of a different kind.

The company went on an almost immediate buying spree, gobbling up media outlets in Australia, New Zealand, the UK and even Turkey as well as Internet providers and a 20% share in the largest Canadian production and distribution player Alliance-Atlantis. Somehow what the network owned was becoming more important than what it produced.

In 1998, Canwest acquired Fireworks Entertainment, ostensibly to "own" its own production and television distribution arms. It was a deal that didn't make any sense to anybody in the industry. They already owned or had a share in foreign buyers for their product as well as a share in a thriving production entity. They didn't have to do this.

One Global exec described the deal as "Two guys with randomly firing synapses who happened to go off at the same time".

But Canwest still shelled out $40 Million to buy Fireworks and poured over $100 Million into production. Money seemed to be of no consequence if it increased the Empire.

That perception was reinforced at the Banff Television Festival when Fireworks CEO Jay Firestone proudly crowed that he was now "lighting my cigars with hundred dollar bills" -- just in case anybody really wanted to know how the taxpayer subsidy dollars involved in the new Canwest shows were actually being used.

It was an odd experiment which pancaked 5 years later with Canwest suffering a $200 Million write-down and selling much of the resulting library to Alliance Atlantis, a company Asper soon began maneuvering to acquire.

As my Cowboy grand-pappy was wont to say, "This is a fella you want to play poker with."

While buying all these new toys, growing bigger but also precariously unfocused by a lack of self-defining production, Asper began confronting the CRTC. He whined about onerous production levels and local news requirements and on one occasion lobbied to have infomercials classed as Canadian content.

He even complained about the ad dollars he was losing to specialty channels -- including some channels where he already shared in the profits. In his, perhaps overly measured world, it was always somebody else's fault that all of his various and increasing divisions weren't in profit.

Asper didn't gain Canadian citizenship for the Veg-O-Matic but he was among the voices that screamed loud enough for the CRTC to enact rules which devastated the Canadian production industry in 1999 by lowering the broadcaster requirements for drama.

Now, why would a guy who'd just bought a production company immediately strive to cut it off at the knees?

Well, the overall impression was that Leonard Asper didn't think that far ahead or changed his priorities on a whim. Or maybe he didn't really want to have to provide compelling Canadian programming. It was much cheaper and more profitable to rebroadcast US network content and be in co-pro partnerships where other people paid most of the cost.

I've never met Leonard Asper and I don't have a doctorate in Psychology. But if I could park this guy on a couch, I'm pretty sure I'd find someone who grew up with the mixed blessing of a wealthy and successful father and an overwhelming drive to prove himself. Some sons find it easy to emulate the old man because the footprints of the path and the relationships are clearly established. But some only learn the trappings of deal-making and empire building and not what it's really about.

ie: Daddy went to Toronto and bought stuff and everybody was happy. I'll do the same.

Uh -- Not a Boy Wonder -- but I thought some of you might need a break...

In 2007, Leonard Asper made another business deal that didn't make a lot of sense. He purchased Alliance-Atlantis. On the surface, it was a smart move, putting Canwest in control of most of the country's successful specialty channels. But to do it, he had to borrow an immense sum of money, saddling Canwest with $3.7 Billion in debt which has to be repaid two years from now.

Now he's in the unenviable position where the assets he owns aren't worth the debt they're carrying and his cash flow from rapidly declining ad revenue can't sustain both operations and interest payments -- let alone eliminating the principle.

The Empire is in rapid decline. One of the crown jewels, "The National Post" recently announced it was no longer publishing in Halifax, Regina and even Winnipeg, home to the company HQ. I assume the paper's name will soon be changed to "The Almost National Post".

Given that Canwest stock was trading at $20/share when Asper took over and this afternoon was going for a few cents either side of half a buck, it also seems clear that Bay and Wall Streets don't have much confidence in either Asper's management plan or the network's overall chances of survival.

And yesterday's Annual meeting wouldn't have given them much reason to think things are going to change. For starters, all shareholders were provided with a presentation which included the following illustration...

As you'll notice, in the world of these management geniuses, television was invented in 1968 or five years after guys like me watched the Kennedy Assassination and the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show. The computer came along in 1991, making me wonder what I was writing on for the previous ten years.

You can find the whole document here as well as a stream of the Annual meeting. Both are highly entertaining and have made me realize that if this is all it takes to impress investors, I could be the next Bernie Madoff.

Most notable is a feisty performance by Mr. Asper in which, among the many things he wants from the CRTC this coming spring, is a ban on US networks sending their signals into Canada after he's bought the rights to "House" or "24".

I'm not sure how that works. I guess those networks will just be dropped or replaced by a test pattern so you can only see one of those shows during the one hour Len decides he'll broadcast it.

Boy, I really want to be a Canwest buyer negotiating with NBC or Fox for new shows now that particular cat's out of the bag!

But, don't despair. Len also talks a lot about making your favorite American shows available on video on demand -- once they figure out a way to monetize it -- and using the Internet which -- in a stunning revelation to most Australians -- "is beginning to take hold down there".

Gee, what was I using ten years ago to watch "Hockey Night in Canada" Highlights while awaiting the next set of "Beastmaster" notes to be emailed from LA?

Meanwhile, another exec, one apparently charged with Canadian development, gushes about how all these new platforms will transform Canwest. "We can put 'NCIS' on History Channel and find a whole new audience there. We can put 'House' on Showcase. We can take 'Extreme Makeover: Home Edition' and put it on HGTV..."

'NCIS' on History Channel? Aren't they already doing that?

More importantly, you'll notice no mention of Canadian shows and much new programming shelf space replaced by endless repeats across the spectrum. Yeah -- the audience really wants that!

For as much as Asper insists that "Content is our best asset", he means stuff he buys elsewhere, which will then be crammed down your throat until he's wrung every penny he can get out of it.

So, the direction of the network is clear. VOD American series. Less new Canadian programming and a reduction in local news.

Just what we all want from a Canadian broadcaster.

Over Christmas, I caught a Global newscast out of Vancouver as the host introduced a "year in review" segment. It was a lengthy feed from ABC News with not one single, solitary Canadian or non-American story.

According to Canwest -- that's the all the news that fits.

Maybe somebody should let the CRTC know that Canwest doesn't have to request a reduction in local news. They're already delivering it.

Despite all of this, Leonard Asper and his team will be lobbying the CRTC come April for even further relief from their responsibilities to the Canadian public. And it's clear to me that they need to do this primarily as a way of covering for their inept management of the company.

And given the practiced indifference of some on the Commission, they may well get what they want.

Much as I don't want to see a Canadian network fail, I honestly hope that Canwest goes under as quickly as possible. And that's for a couple of reasons.

First, it may be the only way that new and truly committed players have an opportunity to get into the game.

Second and more important, it might be what's needed to remind the surviving networks that it doesn't matter how big you are or how many platforms you use to disseminate American product -- what matters to Canadians is that you make something here that resonates with them and reflects who they are.

Instead of a Superhero, Leonard Asper has turned out to be a poor excuse for a sidekick...

In part three -- some strategies to completely remove all of these people from your lives.

Saturday, January 10, 2009


"You've got to love it when magazines release better films than Hollywood." — Rolling Stone

As the Main Stream Media continue to chronicle their own decline -- smaller newspapers, magazines folding, TV networks reducing their hours of new drama; it's only natural for us creative types to wonder where we'll find outlets for what we create and how we'll find an audience for them when we do.

We needn't worry. Because some people are way ahead of us.

Among them is a DVD magazine published quarterly by McSweeney's entitled Wholphindvd. Each issue includes short movies, documentaries, instructional videos, foreign sitcoms and other uncategorizable films. As the publishers say, "If it's good, rare, new or unseen, it's on Wholphindvd".

You can sample Wolphindvd via their Youtube Preview Channel or their own website, where you can download many of the magazine's offerings.

For a guy socked in by winter, the short video from the magazine appended below had a lot of appeal. A warm, sandy beach, a friendly impromptu game of volleyball -- make that "Wallyball" because there's also a wall -- one dividing two countries and two very different cultures.

It reminded me of how much you can communicate in a couple of minutes of sparsely verbal film. And it had me wondering what might happen if another couple of countries with their own sand and their own walls started tossing a ball over them instead of rockets and missiles.

Bask in the sunshine. Imagine the future -- and enjoy your Sunday.

Thursday, January 08, 2009



I'm always looking for new things to do with this space. I think that comes from the actor/dramatist/money-grubbing producer sides of me that demand neither I or those of my readership/audience ever get bored.

Last summer Dix and I had a long face-to-face thrash on why I don't write about writing. Basically, what it came down to is Uncle Willis is one of those kind, caring, sharing and all-inclusive individuals -- and I'm not.

If we'd both grown up in the Saskatchewan of a hundred years ago, he'd have been the fella out barn-raising and sharing his harvest with his neighbors. I'd be the guy with too many guns and his own still.

But last month, Karen Walton's inspired operation, Ink Canada, asked me to have a few drinks with some emerging writers and share anecdotes/mentor/whatever. Well, we did a lot of that, but mostly I listened. Listened to young creatives with a lot of great ideas, fresh takes on done-to-death material and a clear desire to make a contribution to bettering the film and TV product that comes out of this country.

What also registered was that the country isn't, and most particularly, those producers and broadcasters who will reap the greatest rewards from this work are not, interested in being there for them.

Granted, a country this size will never have enough job placements for all the film majors spewing from our various colleges, film centres and universities. What's truly disheartening, however, is that we've also perfected a system that further winnows those candidates into a "pre-approved" pile who find repeated support despite a less than successful track record.

In the last couple of days, I've also seen material debuted by writers who are not without talent, but of whom little has been demanded. There's little doubt CBC's "Wild Roses" and CTV's "Of Murder and Memory" could have been far better than they were. But in a world where "terms of license" carry far more weight than the integrity of the production, quality isn't the first priority.

And they're not going to promote the shows anyway.

In the face of that kind of reality, I honestly don't see the point of spending any of my time instructing someone in the proper methods of revealing character or transitioning scenes.

But, while watching those programs this week, I had a couple of ideas I thought young Canadian writers (and maybe young writers elsewhere) might truly benefit from -- and that's by learning from the Masters. My own version of the "Famous Writers School". Things I've learned from writers a lot of you probably haven't heard of or are unlikely to read beyond a script they wrote.

You see, in the real world of film and TV writing (ie: not how it's done in Canada) there are real stakes and real consequences of not delivering the goods. Careers are made and broken in titanic clashes of ego, creativity and commerce.

Even though most of those contests go unnoticed, they demand of a screenwriter the same commitment and embrace the same consequences as one of those "Wonderful World of Disney" nature shorts depicting a scorpion and tarantula going at it in the middle of the Mojave desert.

Writers who can hone a competitive attitude about themselves and their work succeed -- and just might start to make a difference here.

I can say without reservation that David Mamet is my favorite playwright, screenwriter -- okay, pretty much any kind of writer.

While I remain in awe of David Milch, David E. Kelley (why are all these guys named David?) Aaron Sorkin, Steven Bochco, Stephen Cannell, Tom Stoppard and a host of others in the drama trade, Mamet continually succeeds in finding new ways to blow me away.

I first "met" him through his plays "Sexual Perversity in Chicago" and "A Life in the Theatre". Later on, I had the pleasure of being swept away by perhaps the best play ever written about Hollywood, Mamet's "Speed-the-Plow". Seeing or reading that work and David Rabe's (Jeezuz another David!) almost-as-inspired "Hurly Burly" is all you need to know about how the business really works.

But that hasn't stopped Mamet from making a side career out of further clarifying those truths to writers who want to get into the business.

During one of my sojourns in LA, I picked up a copy of "Writing in Restaurants" figuring that book and a cup of coffee would kill an hour before the movie I was going to see started.

I never got to the movie, closed out the coffee shop and finished reading it on a park bench in Santa Monica as the sun came up, the pages by-then dog-eared and scrawled with margin notes and underlines.

David Mamet, quite simply, reminds me of what's really important in life and helps me chart the paths I follow. And while no guru or prophet is everybody's life guide, I don't think I go far wrong in recommending his non-fiction work to those who want to write screenplays for a living.

Within those pages you'll find the truth of what goes on in this industry. A truth that is spoken clearly, without sugar coating and without concern for your personal feelings or what the cherished stances of the moment might be.

In searching for an answer to some of the discomfort I'd left that Ink Canada get together with, I re-read Mamet's last book "Bambi vs. Godzilla", admiring his perfect psychoanalysis of what makes a television executive and finding perhaps the best piece of advice a new writer can take on board as a career compass.

If you can't afford to buy the whole book, drop down to your local 'Chapters' or 'Barnes and Noble' and read the segment entitled "How to Write a Screenplay". If you are truly destined to become a successful writer, this chapter alone will inspire you to knock over the nearest candy store or old lady with a purse in order to acquire your very own copy.

For in it, Mamet describes the correct attitude a writer must have.

Without embracing this reality, you might still land a job on "Blossom: The Next Generation" or even "Sophie" but you won't be writing anything that means something to either you or the audience you once intended to serve.

"...the true entry level skill of the not blind obedience to authority but loathing and distrust of the same. For if the Authority -- the agencies, the studios, the producers -- knew what they were doing, they would all be peaceful, content, happy, and benevolent instead of caught in a constant, never abating struggle to the knife."

It starts with attitude, kids.

Going along to get along might get your work purchased but you'll spend all that money on drugs and alcohol as you watch your work watered down, compromised and altered into a DNA strand deemed harmless to the corporate structure that delivers it and without nutritional value to those it feeds.

Being willing to stand up for your material and what you believe may only slightly reduce your bill at the liquor store or marginally increase the sustenance in what the audience swallows, but it's something. Something you will soon discover your growing coterie of fans appreciate more than you can know.

And its something that will put you in a position to survive and find work in the new medias that will soon replace the currently crumbling one.

If our present economic situation tells us anything, it's that the corporate structures and funding paradigms we've historically known are not long for this world. Whether they collapse because they didn't work or because those who ran them trusted them even less than we did won't matter. We're entering a time where the loneliness of the writer will get lonelier as we need to find ways to execute what we've imagined without a lot of established outside support.

In that world, you will be required to stand on your own two feet and be empowered by the courage of your own convictions.

David Mamet will teach you that skill.

I hope this post helped some of you. There will be more "Famous Writers" here for you to discover in the next few days. Writers who are far less famous but who have just as much to offer and with none of that boring grammar stuff or secrets to solving the second act.

Saturday, January 03, 2009


The longer I hold my pulse against the thumb of the nation, the more I get the feeling that 2009 will be about courage and individual creativity. The big guys are all going to be engrossed in saving their own sorry asses and we'll be mostly left to fend for ourselves.

Times like these require a level of personal strength and clarity of vision that many of us have never had to find in the past. And you won't see a better example of just what that might really take than what was exhibited in Las Vegas on New Year's Eve by an Australian kid named Robbie Madison.

While the Main Stream Media was encouraging you to watch balls drop, Robbie Madison was putting his own firmly on the line.

Please take a couple of deep breaths before launching this video...

And remember that whenever you stare into the abyss, the abyss will be staring right back into you. Don't let it see your fear. Have the courage to do what you know needs to be done. Then kick some thunder.

And Enjoy your Sunday.

Thursday, January 01, 2009


It's customary for every media outlet from your local weekly newspaper to Jib-Jab to put out a review of the past year and what follows is the best I've found so far.

But wouldn't it be great if we could all have this attitude when the events were happening instead of in retrospect.

No matter what happens, make sure you have a Happy 2009. Because a year from now, it's all going to look like this...