Tuesday, June 30, 2009



I’m on a break for a couple of weeks. Not exactly on vacation. More of on a Quest that’ll either turn out to be very interesting or a total disaster. More on that soon.

I also decided not to write about TV for a couple of weeks. With the CRTC making some major announcements on July 6, I figured I should use this time to clear my head, do a few curls and crunches and get ready for what looks to be “The Big One” – or at least “The Next One”.

Given some of the pre-announcement posturing by some members of the Commission, it would appear they didn’t get the Heritage Committee memo to take “all of a media conglomerates” holdings into account when determining who needs assistance and what kind.

Being servants to the broadcasters seems to be the only job these people think they have.

Anyway, while I’m on my “Quest” I decided to recall some of my favorite vacation memories. Maybe it’ll give those of you who have some free time this summer a few ideas.

When I was a kid in Saskatchewan in the early 60’s, the place my parents usually took my brother and I was Lake Waskesiu in the Prince Albert National Park.

Around the time I turned 10, my mom and dad took up golf. Back then, most Saskatchewan golf courses adapted to the dry weather and lack of water access by not having grass greens.

Instead, the “greens” were a mixture of sand and oil, pressed into a firm flat surface with a garden roller set nearby to erase the footprints and ball impressions of the players once they had finished the hole.

So your second shot likely landed either in the dry sand of a trap or the wet sand where you then putted out. And if the guys behind you were annoying, you just left them some footprints to try to putt around for a birdie.

But Waskesiu had a great course with real greens, so my folks always looked forward to shooting a round or two there each summer.

From the point of view of my brother and I, it was just a great place to swim, canoe to Grey Owl’s cabin, ride horses – and pelt the bears.

One of my contemporaries, Blue Collar Comic Jeff Foxworthy, has a great routine about how parents in our day seemed to have no regard whatsoever to the dangers the world held for us kids. While modern laws demand seat belts, harnesses and car seats for example; Jeff, like me, can recall riding all the way to Florida in the back window of a car.

Among my toys were lethal steel tipped lawn darts, a wood burning iron and a chemistry set that more than once sent my buddies and I scrambling from the basement ahead of some brown toxic cloud.

Parents just didn’t seem to care.

I guess they were from a generation that had dodged artillery and sniper fire and somehow playing with a BB gun or a jack knife just didn’t hardly seem worth a lot of anxiety.

Likewise, the first couple of days of our Waskesiu vacations were spent with them searching out a couple with kids approximately our age, having a few drinks with them and then handing us over to their care and supervision.

On the days mom and dad played golf, we went off with the new couple to do whatever they were doing and then their kids were with us while they went off to shoot skeet or make Molotov cocktails.

Somehow, a couple of Rye and Cokes was all it took to determine that these strangers were not child molesters or looking to sell us into white slavery.

And so we’d head off to bike, horseback ride or rock climb (all without a helmet) and if anybody did need a few stitches at the end of the day – well, what kid doesn’t take a header every now and then.

But looking back on it all, there was one nightly event that now seems utterly, completely insane. But was by far the most fun of going camping.

After dinner, once the white hot coat hangers we roasted weenies on had been put away, we all piled in the car to go to the nearby garbage dump and pelt the bears.


You see, every night, just before dusk, anywhere from eight to a dozen large black bears would come out of the woods and go through the garbage the park staff had dumped in a deep ditch at the end of some lonely forest road miles from the nearest hospital or infirmary.

Carloads of campers would roll up and while the parents sat inside the warm cars, warding off the growing chill by sipping coffee or their first of the evening; all of us kids would get out and scamper to the waist high wood railing that marked the edge of the pit to watch the feeding.

And, not twenty feet from these creatures, we’d laugh and cheer as they shredded trash bags, rent cans with their claws and feasted on the refuse.

What’s more, we’d all brought a couple of apples, baked potatoes or uneaten sandwiches that we’d toss to (or more accurately “at”) the bears, squealing with delight if we managed to draw them closer with the possibility of eating something less “tangy” than what was in the garbage bags.

More than once, I can recall one of my surrogate summer fathers calling out “Bean the Big One!” between chain smokes. And, of course, we would.

Somehow, nobody ever got chased, flayed or eaten.

And despite the disrespectful, environmentally irresponsible behavior, what I also vividly recall are moments when the proximity and uniqueness of the experience made you realize just how special these animals really were.

And -- once we were out of things to throw at the bears, our parents would take us back to the camp where big granite rocks had been heating on the fire embers.

And while we roasted bedtime marshmallows, our parents would tuck those almost molten rocks in our sleeping bags to keep us warm until morning –- when, instead of frostbite, we’d be treated for second degree burns before heading off to a day at the beach without sun block.

Yeah, life was a lot simpler then…

And somehow, we managed to survive –- with stories that kids today will never be able to tell.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Lazy Sunday # 77: Paparazzi

There are generally two kinds of people in this business. Those who are creative and those who feed off them.

Please don't read that assessment as being harsh. Because that which the creatives create is meant to be consumed and exploited and copied and used to provide a livlihood or cultural enrichment for others.

But lately an entire industry has stepped to the fore wherein the creatives themselves are consumed, leaving less worth exploiting and a pervasive feeling of emptiness.

We call this industry Gossip or tabloid journalism or the cult of celebrity, with that last term accurately defining it as a false religion. A false religion whose high priests are called the Paparazzi.

It's gotta be tough making your living capturing, manufacturing and trying to sell celebrity news. One week you have a movie star making a salacious exit via a hotel closet with all the shock value you can dream of, but choosing a closet so far away that some Bangkok weekly scoops you with "the good stuff" and makes you look twice as shameless in the process.

The next you're run off your feet as big names drop like flies without regard to deadlines or previously crafted specials and eulogies.

And not being all that creative, you need to scramble to find something to say, opting for questions like "What's the mood of the family?" revealing either your own lack of intelligence, empathy and life experience or how stupid and out of touch with themselves you believe your audience must be.

And then some little floozie you thought you helped make famous, calling herself Lady Gaga, comes along and simultaneously nails and outdoes what you're all about in seven minutes of inspired creativity with more eye-popping moments than an entire season of pretty much any reined in and micro-managed television series.

This is somebody creative operating at the inspired level.

Drink your fill as she intended.

And enjoy your Sunday.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Life After Farrah


I was living and working in Hollywood in the late 1970’s during the tail end of what was probably the golden age of iconic prime time television. The big hits were M*A*S*H*, Dallas, The Dukes of Hazard, Taxi, Happy Days, The Incredible Hulk, CHiPs and, of course, Charlie’s Angels.

Cotton candy television for the most part. Shows with big budgets and big stars. Every one of them had a familiar theme, great title sequences, popular catch-phrases, cars blowing up and guest stars just as well known as the regular casts.

More people probably tuned in to their lowest rated summer repeat episodes than are currently counted on first run series considered hugely successful. They connected with huge audiences and dictated taste and fashion and fads across North America and around the world.

One of the most important things any successful television series requires is getting its iconography right. The audience has to be able to see one promo or even a single photo in a newspaper or magazine and “get” what you’re selling.

Nobody did that better than “Charlie’s Angels”.

angels in chains

The photo above is from an episode called “Angels in Chains”. Kinda says it all, doesn’t it?

Pretty girls in jeopardy on a chain gang yet without one hair out of place. The prurient thrill of “Women Behind Bars” combined with cheerleader innocence in a way that said nobody was really going to get hurt – or corrupted.

At the center of that photograph stands an actress who also personified what American television was selling back then, the perfect California blonde; the kind of woman who populated discos, roller rinks and the center sections of Playboy.

Farrah Fawcett hit television like a bombshell. Although she’d been around for years, guesting on dozens of series and being a semi-regular on “Harry O” and her husband Lee Majors’ series “The Six Million Dollar Man” nobody really seemed to notice her until she became one of Charlie’s girls.

And then it was like there was nobody else. She not only captured the iconography of the series, but in posing for a poster for a photographer friend, tousling her hair in front of a Mexican blanket, she became an icon for the entire culture of the 1970’s.

That poster was everywhere. And I mean everywhere. Locker rooms. Restaurants. The bedrooms of both sexes. Looking at it now, you can’t figure out why. But looking at it in the late 70’s you just knew she was it. That was beauty. That was perfection. That was what every man wanted and every woman aspired to be.

Farrah Fawcett was one of those moments in time. Mostly forgettable before and after, but absolutely perfect in that one instant.


I didn’t watch “Charlie’s Angels” much. And when a friend who was guesting on an episode asked if I wanted to visit the set, my main reason for going was to meet director Lawrence Dobkin, famous not so much for being a good TV director but as the guy who weekly uttered the immortal line “There are eight million stories in the Naked City. This has been one of them.”

The “Angels” set was on the 20th Century Fox lot and when I arrived, I was almost run over by Harry Morgan, Col. Potter from M*A*S*H*, who careened up in a jeep and in costume. It was one of those moments where you wondered if that had been his quickest way to get to the front gate from the set or he really went home that way.

The “Angels” studio was no different from any other working studio or television set I’ve been on before or since. People professionally going about their business or socializing around the fringes while waiting for their next scene or set up.

Farrah had left the series after one season, encouraged to make the leap to features by her sudden fame and had been replaced by Cheryl Ladd. Her desertion had scandalized the tabloid press who filled the checkout counters with endless headlines about her bad behavior, out of control ego, etc. etc. etc.

But none of the people she’d left behind had a single bad word to say about her. Indeed they were thrilled that she was coming back in a couple of weeks to do a guest shot, something she did annually for the run of the series.

It was my first introduction to the difference between what you read or heard about the entertainment scene and what actually went on. What was written about Farrah was no more true then than what’s written about Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan or anybody else these days. 

In the reality of the real Hollywood, Farrah’s sudden fame had given her opportunities previously unavailable to her and not one person she was working with begrudged her that or hoped she’d fall on her face for moving on.

And while the tabloids debated whether Cheryl could fill Farrah’s shoes or have her impact, the clear mood on the set was, “We got a job to do. The new girl’s part of the team. Let’s make some television.”

These people were proving what one of my theatre teachers had tried to ingrain in all of his students. “This isn’t about fame. It isn’t about Art. It’s a job. Whether what you do is considered a success or determined to be of cultural importance is out of your hands. Other people decide those things. Your job is simply to do the job.”

The movies Farrah left to do weren’t very good or very successful. Later on, she made several “comebacks” that saw her nominated for several Emmys and Golden Globes that she never won. But her icon status also saw her receive People’s Choice Awards and Razzies doubly cursed by her fame to symbolize both success and failure.

She also established herself as a continuing character for the Tabs, fodder for gossip, innuendo and derision simply because she’d once captured lightning in a bottle and in doing so had sparked the synapses of people incapable of firing them themselves.

Farrah Fawcett died today and no doubt will be eulogized as “important” by some and a “train wreck” by others.  Like all of us, she had her successes and failures both in her career and in life. But what no one can deny is that for one brief moment she epitomized all of our dreams and aspirations.

And while others wanted her to be more or less than she was, the truth of her life is this.

She did the job. And she did it well.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009


In an example of how much Canadian broadcasting executives just don’t get it, CanWest issued a press release recently to announce changes to its specialty channels.

These included:

1. Turning out the lights at “Fine Living Canada”.

I guess people here aren’t living as fine as the Prime Minister seems to think.

2. Going after a larger male demographic on the, currently heavy with Wedding shows and Makeover shows and shows on Figuring-out-how-to-make-boys-like-us, Slice Channel.

Hint to Slice, most guys are uncomfortable with weddings and change but there are a couple of sure-fire ways to get them to like you -- if you really want to push the envelope.

3. Shifting The History Channel more to entertainment than historical documentaries.

4. TVtropolis won’t change because it can only run shows more than 10 years old and has to wait for whatever changed in the fall of 1999.

“Look, TVTropolis has got “Moesha”! Oooh, I hope it’s in High-Def!”

With regard to The History Channel, Michael Kot, VP of factual content at Canwest, said, "We've stopped being the Hitler channel.”

Actually, Mike – you just became exactly that!

When The History Channel was licensed in 1996, it came on the scene with a mandate to present historical documentaries and films with a special emphasis on documentary and dramatic programs related to Canada’s past. That was reiterated by the CRTC in 2004 when the channel’s license was renewed...

1. (a) The licensee shall provide a national English-language specialty service consisting of historical documentaries, movies, mini-series and history programs which embrace both current events and past history, with a special emphasis on documentary and dramatic programs related to Canada's past.

2. In each broadcast year, the licensee shall devote to the exhibition of Canadian programs not less than 50% of the broadcast day, and not less than 40% of the evening broadcast period.

Now, The History Channel has taken a long and storied end run around those terms of licence right from its beginning with movies that had little if any basis in fact beyond being set during some discernable point of human residence on this planet.

They became "The Hitler Channel" early on because, either unable or unwilling to invest in showcasing any portion of Canadian history which occurred prior to the invention of public domain film clips, they ended up running an endless number of documentaries on WWII.

A couple of years into their existence, any producer pitching a WWII project to History had to list the sources of their archival footage -- mostly because the same free or close to it material was turning up with tiresome regularity.

"Marge, didn't we see that same tank go through that same hedge earlier tonight -- and apparently in a completely different country?"

But rather than look for creative ways to live up to their mandate, the channel simply got creative in their justification of how you defined 'history'.

"CSI:NY" represented New York after the trauma of 9/11 although few episodes even mentioned that event.

"JAG" was a look at the work of the American Judge Advocate General's office, although most of the stories were concocted in LA writers rooms rather than military courts.

Or their current staple "NCIS" wherein the actual series has stopped pretending it has any basis in reality, let alone historical fact.

Despite getting slapped on the wrist for some of this by the CRTC, The History Channel just kept soldiering further from what it was licensed to do, simultaneously spitting in the faces of the CRTC Commissioners they knew were toothless and holding up the genre protection that regulator had granted them to prevent anybody else from delivering actual historical content.

And that's why The History Channel will always be, even without his constant presence, "The Hitler Channel".

You see, Adolf Hitler was an evil, conniving and lying little fuck who rose to and retained power via a propoganda tool he dubbed "The Big Lie".

The concept was to tell a lie so huge people would believe it because they wouldn't be able to comprehend somebody so egregiously misrepresenting the truth.

And then Hitler just kept repeating that lie until those saying something different became the ones who were not believed.

Adolf Hitler blamed Germany's pre-war problems on the Jews. The History Channel insists that running "NCIS" twice nightly during Primetime lives up to its broadcast mandate of educating and informing Canadians about history.

In fact, if you look at The History Channel's overall schedule, you're hard pressed to believe they're anywhere close to exhibiting Canadian programs "not less than 40% of the evening broadcast period".

And when barely any of those "Canadian" non-NCIS offerings deal with actual Canadian history, opting to explore urban legends, the T-Rex and Dracula, you begin to see that The History Channel has less interest in history than becoming yet another re-run platform for its corporate conglomerate's library.

As one of my visitors recently commented:

"Specialty channels are making rates of return of more than 20%.... Not hard to do when you regurgitate every property you've ever owned onto every channel it kinda almost maybe fits. Hey, we own 'Blue Murder'. It has women on it, so its a great fit for Showcase Diva AND it has people moving in it, so its a match for Showcase Action too! And its a cop show, so its PERFECT for Mystery as well."

Arguing that any of our Specialty Channels actually specialize within their genre is the current "Big Lie" in Canadian broadcasting, with The History Channel being perhaps the most hypocritical offender.

They may have gotten rid of Hitler, but they saved his brain.

Don't be surprised if the original "B" movie with that premise turns up on History in the near future -- probably on a double bill with "The Producers".

Monday, June 22, 2009


When life gives you lemons, make lemonade, pee in it, and serve it to the people that piss you off. (Jack Handy)

Sunday, June 21, 2009

LAZY SUNDAY # 76: iPredict

This week I watched three different television news services, CNN, CTV and Newsworld all run segments in which the anchors were awed by the Twitter–ed uprising in Iran. They marvelled at the ability of a repressed population to get around the brutally restrictive practices of their government to share information and get their stories out to the rest of the world, achieving what these organizations could not.

The parallels to Canadian television were boggling.

And while I was struck by the fact that none of these guys were spending their airtime on the real news happening in Iran or even trying to overcome the Twitter advantage in covering it, I also realized that they were missing the next big story.

We don’t need TV news anymore.

And that’s not because most of it has devolved into predictably argumentative talking heads and watching airliners that aren’t really in trouble make uneventful landings at foreign airports.

Whether your “Smartphone” is an iPhone, a Blackberry or Pre, you can now install Apps that let you read newspapers, listen to radio from all over the planet, get video directly from Youtube or Reuters and receive Tweets on where the next rally against oppression is happening.

I’ve got an App called Feeds on my iTouch that allows me to read every blog, news or sports website I follow pretty much wherever I plop my butt of an afternoon to get a cup of coffee.

I don’t need to wait for the top of the hour, the 20-20 updates or try to hang in for any breaking “news at eleven”. I get what I want where and when I want it.

And I get it on the same device that gives me traffic reports for the specific section of road I’m driving, warnings on where the speed traps are and maps that pinpoint the best local pizzeria.

That little device sits unobtrusively on my desk, providing music when I write, tracking for something I’ve shipped, games I can play while I’m on hold or talking to somebody boring and that beeps when I’m supposed to be leaving for an appointment or so I can get out of that boring conversation.

I can’t remember the last time the TV in my office was even on for any other reason except watching dailies.

Over the past month, Canadians have been deluged with pleas to save local television as networks bartered with regulators over how much local news they’re prepared to provide where and when.

But maybe that’s all just so much ancient history. Maybe we’re past needing our television networks to even attempt providing the news. More and more it seems that be the story local or of international importance they can’t do it justice anyway.

Maybe we should just let them concentrate on saving themselves by providing the series, movies and specialty shows that apparently make them all of their money and continue delivering it to those large stationary boxes in the corner of the living room.

But then…

I can already download most of the shows they broadcast and all of the movies they won’t be able to show for up to a couple of years to my mobile devices and zap them to the TV from there.

Major League Baseball even has a new App that will bring me live television broadcasts direct from any of their ballparks.


Maybe we don’t need TV networks anymore.

And why should I have to purchase bundles and search around for their channel or even access their online portal for content when I can just Google “Bill Cunningham” press a link and download his latest from iTunes, Netflix, Amazon or maybe directly from him?

And if we don’t need TV networks anymore. Maybe we don’t need cable companies either.

Jim Shaw, maybe you ought to be nicer to those Superchannel guys. They could be right behind you in the line to get into Alberta’s next job fair.

While I know TV isn’t going anywhere for a while, this week’s events have made it clear it’s stale date is being rapidly pushed closer.

And all the rhetoric of needing to “monetize” the internet and mobile services before they become a competitive system that can employ us creative types sounds more hollow each time a new App is created to deliver something else to that smartphone.

I’m predicting that in the future you won’t pay for a specific film or web offering, you’ll simply pay for the dedicated App that allows you to view it.


I just successfully monetized the internet.

Excuse me while I set up a bank account in the Caymans to handle the royalties you all owe me.

But seriously. Can you make a profit at 99 cents a movie purchase? Why not? If your potential audience is everybody in the world with a smartphone and there are no distributors and exhibitors taking 60% off the top, trust me, that system’s making money for us creatives.

Think about it.

Because the guys below are going to become very wealthy doing just that.

And pray for those people Twittering from Iran.

And enjoy your Sunday. 

Friday, June 19, 2009


We just had one of those violent High School incidents in my part of the world. There was a big fight at a local high school. Knives were drawn and several kids and a teacher who tried to intervene ended up in hospital.

So now there's a big debate here about metal detectors, cops in schools, what teachers should do in such situations -- and probably whether Fencing and Kendo should be on the ciriculum.

It's been 40 years since I was in high school, so I won't offer an opinion on all that. But it reminded me of a teacher I had who faced a similar predicament and what I learned from him.

I had a lot of great teachers (And if any of them are reading this, my apologies if I'm mispelling names. It's been a while and who knows what happened to that yearbook).

There was Mr. Gowdie, a rugby built hydrant of a Scotsman, who taught Latin and so loved ancient History he could easily be distracted from declensions to spending a whole class discussing battle tactics of the Roman army.

There was Mr. McKague, a lapsed Jesuit with a love of life that made you want to learn everything there was about anything he taught.

There was elderly and cranky Mr. Muir, who snagged me by the collar one day, pulling me back into his classroom and said, "Why are you wasting your time with Science? You're a story teller. Let somebody else find a cure for Cancer. There are more important things to be accomplished."

And there was Mr. Ramendez.

Mr. Ramendez taught Math and Geometry. He was Venezulan or Columbian, maybe 5' 6" and slight, looking and sounding exactly like Edward James Olmos in "Stand and Deliver", the brilliant film biography of another Hispanic Math teacher.

He was easy going with a dry sense of humor, quiet and reserved. But distant and detached. I had him all four years of High School and I don't think I ever once heard him raise his voice or say a single word in anger or disgust.

He was one of those people you barely noticed and never gave a second thought about. He wasn't in our lives and we weren't in his.

Until trouble came to our school.

Gangs weren't an issue in Regina in 1967. I'd seen "Blackboard Jungle". I'd hummed along with the Sharks and the Jets. I'd smirked when Brando looked up from that diner Jukebox and said "Whaddaya got?". But that was stuff in faraway places and movies.

And then we got a gang.

They called themselves "The Apollos" and patterned themselves after the Hell's Angels, with motorcycles, sleeveless demin jackets emblazoned with their colors and the first tattoos I'd seen on somebody who hadn't been in the navy.

There were four members at my school. Big, tough, no nonsense guys who made it clear they'd as soon kick your ass as look at you and constantly looked for trouble.

We were all afraid of them, careful what we said in their presence, avoiding eye contact, doing all those things kids do to not attract attention.

Two of them were in my senior algebra class and I'll never forget the first day they walked in wearing their colors, daring anyone to confront them.

Mr. Ramendez sat on his desk, playing catch with a piece of chalk. They riveted their attention on him, almost begging him to say something.

So he did.

He walked to the back of the room, made a show of noticing the vests and stood between the two thugs, speaking very calmly.

"Apollos. Do you know what a-pollo is in Spanish?"

One of them eyed him.

"A chicken."

The kid glared. Mr. Ramendez smiled and nodded.

"It's true. So you're a bunch of Chickens?"

He went on like that for a good five minutes. Not backing down. Never showing one glimpse of fear. Just doing Chicken jokes as the two muscled goofs steamed.

And from then on, he found an excuse in every class to push their buttons. He'd ask an impossible math question, pointing to one of the gang members for an answer, greeting the puzzled look or silence with a soft (Puk-puk-puk)-- nobody here but us chickens.

Within a short time, the two came to class less frequently. Then they stopped coming all together. Mr. Ramendez never seemed to notice or even commented on their absence. If they were there he baited them. But out of sight out of mind.

On the last day of class, those of us who bothered to show were mostly hoping for a hint at what might be on the final exam.

But for the first time, a man, who had seemed little interested in us beyond our being an excuse for a paycheck, seemed to be looking right at us.

"I hope you learned more than Math this semester," he said as the class came to an end. "I hope you learned not to be afraid of people who want you to fear them. There are many things to be cautious of in life. But people who demand fear don't fall into that category."

"When you refuse to be afraid, to be silent, to be intimidated, you take away the only real power they have over you."

"Save your fears for more important things. Tomorrow's test for example..."

We all laughed. But the lesson stuck.

Every time I come up against someone demanding my unthinking obedience, my silence or respect for their skill at intimidation, I remember that small teacher facing an evil he wanted out of his classroom and away from his students and refusing to play its game.

You never know how strong you are until you simply refuse to be afraid any longer.

Thursday, June 18, 2009


stupid tv 1

I was cleaning out the garage on the weekend and found a copy of MacLean’s Magazine I’d bookmarked from October 3, 2005. The story was a report on CTV boss Ivan Fecan’s ratings battle with Global and included elements far more interesting now than they seemed back then.

For students of modern history, this article may have been the first time the public became aware that CTV was purchasing hit American network shows and then parking them on the shelf until there was room in the schedule.

It’s a similar practice to what CBS is now doing with CTV’s “Flashpoint”, holding it back from the American audience this fall until they don’t have anything better to air.

But what was extra-interesting about the piece was this little passage:

“The network (CTV) has amassed such a stockpile of TV hits that there’s barely time to air them all. But rather than see a potential winner fall into the hands of the enemy, Fecan will bump popular shows into dead time slots – often sacrificing major ad revenues in the process…”

Excuse me?

CTV employed a broadcast strategy that made losing money on some of its more popular programs a certainty?

And the strategy succeeded...

And now CTV comes to us demanding a handout in the form of carriage fees.


So they can go and throw away that money too?

Is that the broadcast model that’s broken? The one where you alienate your audience by running their favorite shows when they can’t watch them and also try not to make back what you paid for them? Because a lot of people could have told you that never works.

When I was a kid, my mom used to insist that spending too much time in front of the TV would make me dumber. Maybe she was right. Maybe all the moms of the guys working at CTV sensed the same thing, because that “making sure you don’t make a profit” scenario isn’t the only problem with addition and subtraction CTV seems to have.

During their recent “Save Local Television” campaign, Pierre Bourque’s excellent Canadian News portal kept a running tab on the number of people who had signed the network’s petition to save their nearby affiliates. The numbers rose daily over a couple of weeks and then seemed to stall around 50,000. Suddenly, one Monday morning, the total had doubled according to a CTV press release headlined “100,000 Expressions of Support”.

Part of me was impressed at the sudden spike. But then another part of me read the press release.

It seems that 100,000 broke down as follows:

50,000 signatories to their online petition.

25,000 letters to the Minister of Heritage

And over 30,000 people who attended one of the networks open houses.


And I don’t mean “Huh?” as in, 50K plus 25K plus more than 30K doesn’t come out as 100K.

I mean, are you telling me that if you dropped by the local station to have a hot dog and ask what the fuss was about, you were automatically tagged as wholeheartedly agreeing that CTV deserved a bailout?

Does that include those who were encouraged to leave if they actually asked any questions?

Did it include the busloads of Seniors trucked in like it was election day in Chicago?

Those poor souls probably thought they were off for an afternoon at the Slots and instead only got to stand in front of a green screen weather map.

And somehow, the math wizards at CTV failed to mention that a lot of those visitors were handed those cards of support pre-addressed to the Heritage Minister  (no postage required) and assisted in signing the online petition.

So, it would seem the number of people who legitimately bought into CTV’s little scare campaign was a whole lot less than 100,000.

And frankly, even if it was 100,000, that works out to fewer than 5,000 concerned viewers for each of CTV’s network or ‘A’ Channel stations. Perhaps an indication of how little the rest of the Canadian public relies on CTV for local news and local programming.

I’m also hearing from others in the business that CTV’s “The sky is falling” mantra has caught the attention of a couple of banks who are now less than anxious to bridge finance on the basis of a CTV broadcast letter.

Maybe that doesn’t matter, since the network’s production focus seems to be shifting to creating programming that can find a home on American networks.

But I wonder if any of the bean counters at CTV have stopped salivating over the potential of the US Market long enough to recall that the CTF, which they rely on to provide the bulk of the financing for their shows ---- is finite.

There’s only so much Public money available. In reality, the CTF funds maybe six big budget series (the kind American networks prefer to purchase) a year. And then they’re done. Out of cash. Closing the vault until next season.

And when they’re done, so are our networks. Because, well, making anything else would require putting up more than half the budgets themselves.

And they don’t do that.

Under any circumstances.

So the much lauded push into the US market will probably total six series a year at best.

Fewer if our nets are going to make anything with a Canadian audience in mind. You know, the folks who pay for it? The ones the money is supposed to be used for telling their stories to…

In a way, it seems the current excitement at being able to attain half or less of the license fee CBS, ABC, NBC or Fox would pay an American producer for the same show will amount to no larger Canadian presence on US television than we had in the late 1980’s (“Night Heat”, “Adderly”, “Diamonds”) or the middle 1990’s (“Due South”, “Top Cops”, “Secret Service”).

I hate to burst anybody’s bubble, but – the numbers don’t lie.

And it’s apparently getting harder for some people to reliably spin them.

Monday, June 15, 2009



I first heard the term on a chilly Friday night in 1986. I was working on my first television series as a staff writer, a Canadian series called “Adderly” sold to CBS as part of its late night slate.

The practice of American networks buying cheaper Canadian programming is older than some people realize.

We’d been on the air for a few weeks and were doing well; so well that a couple of executives from our American studio partner had come up to hang out and offer input.

We were shooting in the studio we’d built downstairs from our production offices in the old King Street West Massey Ferguson plant. The place was always cold and damp, the crew bundled in jackets and sweaters even under the hot banks of film lights.

I was on set that night because I’d already begun to realize that having a writer close at hand was sometimes helpful and because I’d learned that one of the skills of effective television production was quick and efficient problem solving. I had gotten most of my initial education in these skills from the two very experienced ADs we had on the series.

The execs came back from dinner, had obviously had a few and hung on the fringes kibitzing with the crew as they prepared to shoot the final scene of the night. One of the California guys wondered at our ability and willingness to keep working in the cold. We were like the illegals in LA who’d just grit their teeth and do whatever job was offered without complaint. His partner chuckled and pointed at me.

“They’re Mexicans in sweaters.”

The Crew froze. The AD I was shadowing keyed his walkie and said, “Ten minute break.”

As most of those present wandered to the craft table and coffee urn, he turned to face our Executive Producer and his studio friends, speaking very softly.

“When they come back, somebody’s going to apologize for that. Because if you don’t, I’m leaving and they’re leaving and the entire cast is leaving and nobody will be back on Monday morning.”

Like most of the crew, that AD had worked through a decade of “Runaway” American production during the crazy, tax-credit years of the late 1970’s and 80’s when the mediocre casts of failed American TV series and writers whose lone credit was the premise for a Looney Tunes cartoon starred in and wrote movies made in Canada while far more talented Canadian actors played bit parts – and Canadian writers simply wished somebody would return their calls.

Back then, cinematographers and sound recordists and people with talents at lighting, wardrobe and make-up all took a back seat to those, often far less skilled, who were flown up from Hollywood. To have the opportunity of being close to their crafts, these Canadian artists endured being called “Mexicans in Sweaters” and “Ice Niggers” or “Frostbacks” when they went to LA to try to wring a career out of their hard won secondary credits.

The odd thing about the tax credit years was that the tax credits that defined them had evolved out of an exploding Canadian independent film industry. But instead of lifting all boats on that tide of financing, most of the local ones foundered as the money was sucked up by the siren call of the fabled American market and what you “had to do” to open those doors.

Canadian writers weren’t in large supply before or during the tax credit years. On the first season of “Adderly” I didn’t take pitches, I called every writer I could think of and held mass meetings in the production office, where I pitched the show to them.

The bulk of our early scripts came from guys in LA who were often Canadian by only the most corrupt immigration lawyer’s definition – and I knew we could do better if given the chance.

The writers left those first “Pitch” meetings with big binders containing a bible, some sample scripts and details on the ideas and arenas we wanted to explore. If they had better ideas I wanted to hear them. In order to continue succeeding, the show needed to hear them.

In the words of my Russian Grandfather, “If is better is better. If is no better is no better.”

By Season Two, all of our scripts were written by honest-to-God Canadian writers. And that pool grew as more series came through town. And some of those writers went on to create their own successful shows here and in Hollywood and Australia and New Zealand and England and South Africa.

Our writers gained confidence and experience, realizing they were just as good as (and maybe sometimes even a little better than) the writers who had dominated their trade in the past. And that confidence grew all through the 1980’s and 1990’s. Right up until 1999, when some political bagman blessed with a plumb post on the CRTC decided Canadian drama wasn’t that essential after all.

Many of our good writers left. Others stayed, believing their credits and experience could help recover what had been lost.

And those that stayed and those who graduated into the craft from all the new film schools all struggled against a growing tide that valued the ability to fill out government forms over the ability to conceive and create drama.

Many worked really hard at creating shows that were different and good and definitively Canadian. Shows like “Intelligence” and “Corner Gas” and “Trailer Park Boys” and “Flashpoint”. Television series any writer in this country would be proud to call their own or have had a hand in writing.

But along the way, they saw their efforts compromised and countered by others who felt they knew what was better for Canadian broadcasting. No matter how many times the Writers’ representatives would appear before broadcasting commissions and no matter how many times their predictions on the negative outcomes of changing regulations would come true, they were marginalized and ignored and berated.

And like a lot of peoples who feel marginalized and abused, those writers began to become the “Uppity Ice Niggers”; the ones who weren’t going to just shut up and do what they were told when they instinctively knew there were ways to make something better.

And even as our networks fail and the shows they’ve “sold to American networks” actually sit unscheduled on those Southern shelves and return a pittance for trading away their creative control; the CRTC chooses to believe what truths (or lies) they hear in private over the openly raised voices of those who actually create the programs.

It’s as if the same myths perpetrated to keep waves of immigrant communities from becoming empowered are now being used against writers.

Different eras have seen different signs at the employee entrances of Toronto factories.

No Blacks.

No Jews.

No Irish.

And one of the first things the powers that be did to all those people was find derogatory names for them. Niggers. Kikes. Bog Trotters.

When they were not maligned as a group, they were debased individually by malicious gossip, where the physical racism or cultural xenophobia could be justified by what “one of them” or “some of them” were or were doing.

Nobody calls Canadian writers “Mexicans in Sweaters” anymore. Now we’re “complainers” or we’re “difficult” or we’re “snobs”. Like the creeds and nationalities and races before us, it’s easier for some to snigger that somebody thinks they’re Hemingway or Shakespeare or Frank McCourt than to figure out if they, perhaps, just might be.

It’s always easier to be arrogantly dismissive than to engage those who don’t share your world view as possible equals.

I’ve run shows and hired writers in a half dozen countries over the last 25 years. Hundreds of writers. And unlike some of our current successes, many of the shows I ran were pure, unadulterated crap. ‘Cleavage and Dinosaurs’ as I’m wont to describe the formula.

But even if the shows I was working on demanded vivid decapitations, misogyny or ridiculous leaps of logic, I’ve never had a single writer turn me down because they thought they were better than the show.

They turned me down because they were busy, absolutely hated the show or didn’t think they could write a good script for it.

Not one ever gave the least impression the material was beneath them.

That’s because good writers know that nothing is an unworthy subject nor is there a title that might not come in handy on their resume someday.

Good writers also know that what they deliver will never be as good as it could have been if they had more time, or were smarter, or blessed with more talent, or the kids and the dog weren’t being so demanding.

No script is ever happily handed in at deadline. They escape. They thud over the transom heavy with regret. They arrive with apologies and suggestions and calls the next day to ask, always genuinely, “Are they happy?”

And be they HBO Special or run-of-the-mill gun drama, if you’re Canadian the money is exactly the same and rarely, if ever, does the work put you in line for something more prestigious.

Sometimes it feels like there’s a new myth being developed. A myth that we writers are the ones not delivering ideas for popular entertainment to the networks or that we’re the reason some over-hyped shows aren’t breaking through the way their makers have predicted they would.

I know all that’s false because those cool ideas cross my desk every single day and in the past months I’ve seen two picked up by American networks right in the room after failing to get one single return call from a long list of Canadian networks.

For those who don’t like this new breed of “difficult” writers, who seem to be digging in their heels more and demanding better of those outside their writers rooms, I’ve got one thing to say.

It’s gonna get worse for you.

Because of some writers who blog and run discussion groups and facebook pages, and because of a Guild that isn’t afraid to speak truth to power, we’re all talking to each other more than we used to. And we’re discovering how much we’ve been lied to and played and patronized – and betrayed.

Call us “snobs” if you must. Or “The Prawn Sandwich Brigade” or whatever turn of phrase gives you comfort among your peers or secret personal glee. Before we were writers, many of us were “Spaghetti Benders” and “Chinks” and “Wagon Burners” and “Spear-chuckers” and “Rednecks” and “Newfies” and “Chix”.

And remember that in the short recent life of television in this country we’ve always been right about what should have happened and what was best for the industry.

We know that no matter how you want to characterize us, we’ll just keep going and eventually come out on top.

Because we’re the ones who are really trying to tell the stories of this country.

And we know who has to succeed so there can be a happy ending.

Sunday, June 14, 2009


As I’ve said many times before, my philosophy of producing is simple: Hire good people. Leave them alone. Take credit for what they do.

When you follow those steps, you’re invariably more successful than you are on your own.

And considered much smarter than you actually happen to be as well.

A lot of people in this business and many other endeavors follow a different strategy. They make sure they’re the smartest people in the room.

And they do that either by not hiring people who appear more intelligent, skilled or talented than they are; or having hired them, make sure their lights stay hidden under a bushel for fear of reprisal, ridicule or the just to make their own lives easier.

The trouble with that approach is that people who are smart – are smart. And eventually they go to work for the competition and punch your lights out.

A few weeks ago, Trevor Cunningham, a pretty smart guy who lives and works in Winnipeg, posted a video on his blog that completely blew me away. It was one of the most thoughtful and intelligent explanations of what’s going on in contemporary television that I’ve ever seen.

I’ve been back to Trevor’s site to watch it several times. And then I decided, “Why send him all this traffic? Post it on your own site where a whole bunch of people who haven’t been smart enough to discover Trevor’s place yet will think I’m the really smart one who found it.”

Wait, did I just say that out loud?

Actually, the guy even smarter than Trevor or me here is Clay Shirky, an American writer and consultant on the social and economic effects of Internet technologies who teaches New Media at NYU.

This is a guy who believes “The Internet runs on love” and coined the phrase "cognitive surplus" to describe the time freed from watching television which can be enormously productive when applied to other social endeavors.

This speech from the 2008 Web 2.0 Conference is stunning on almost too many levels to count. I mean, I ran out of fingers in almost no time.

You’ll be a whole lot smarter once you’ve watched it. And then you can find even better ways to enjoy your Sunday.

Saturday, June 13, 2009


Now THAT was some game! I know you Detroit fans needed it to last about five seconds longer. But somebody had to lose and any Red Wing supporter hanging their head after that performance needs to have that head examined.

A Canadian Captain hoists the cup. A Russian kid is MVP and kids and veterans from all over the hockey world finally live their dreams and sip from the Holy Grail of sports trophies.

Admit it, you fought back a couple of tears.

Uncle Willis and I shed a couple of tears too, trying to figure out how to handle this year's "Infamous Writers Hockey Pool". Because for the first time in the short, but storied history of this event...

We have a tie!

Will Pascoe Repeats and Movie Quill picked up the lone point won in last night's contest to lift himself out of 2nd place.

2nd (technically 3rd) place goes to Mark Wilson and 3rd (okay, it's really 4th) was snagged by Michael Foster to close out the podium.

In the Props division, Peter Wildman pulled off the win. But again it was close with Uncle Willis losing by a single point.

The Official Final Standings Are:

1 Moviequill 205
1 Will Pascoe 205
3 Mark Wilson 198
4 Michael Foster 185
5 Allan Eastman 181
6 David Kinahan 180
7 John Callaghan 177
8 Peter Mitchell 176
9 Brian Stockton 172
10 Larry Raskin 170
11 Barry Keifl 159
12 Scotty William 144
13 Jeff Martel 141
14 Will Dixon 135
15 Jim Henshaw 125
16 Wil Zmak 123
17 Daryl Davis 103
18 Denis McGrath 71

Normally what happens now is I get mailing addresses from the winners and we all ship whatever you've determined will be your prize.

And I think we'll still do that, knowing that the honorable members of this contest will either equally divide the gifts they had prepared or find two of something that makes a suitable replacement.

Prizes to Mark, Michael and Peter will be dispatched from the phantom hockey arena located at Legion World Headquarters hidden somewhere in the Great White North.

And Willis and I will be tinkering with the rules over the coming season to make the next playoff contest a little more difficult.

Anyway, Congratulations to all the winners. I hope the rest of you had fun and with adjustments, we'll be back to do it all again next year.

Friday, June 12, 2009


Somebody up there likes us! We have been blessed with a Game Seven. And double blessed because it has all the makings of a Game Seven for the ages.


And outside of rabid fans for one of these teams, I get the distinct feeling that most people will be thrilled for whichever side hoists The Cup tonight.


Let’s just say, this isn’t the night you want to head out to see if either John Travolta or Eddie Murphy can once more kick-start his career.


This is the night you want to be as close to a TV linked to the Joe Louis Arena as you can. If your playoff pattern has been the TV in the den, a corner stool at the local or hanging out with snooty screenwriters who’d rather be writing a dark HBO series yet still manage to be obsessed with hockey, don’t break the tradition.


Uncle Willis and I still blame ourselves for the Leafs loss to the Kings in 1992. We opted for a larger screen in Game Seven of that series and completely blew the Mojo.


At any rate, the Pool winner will be crowned tonight and announced tomorrow morning here and probably over at Dixon’s place (likely after his Saturday Golf game). The Props winner will also be crowned and like the Pool that’s come down to a two horse race between the aforementioned Dix and Peter Wildman.


Oh, and by the way, the pictures through this post are of a segment of the species known as women. Most of you may have forgotten what those are during the last two months of playoff hockey. After tonight, they are what you take to movies, plays, concerts, bed, etc. Talk to them. Do things for them. Be nice to them. Many are far more exciting than Sidney Crosby or Pavel Datsyk on a breakaway. I know, I know – but it’s true. They’ll also help get you through till the pucks begin to drop again in the fall.


See you tomorrow. The standings with one game remaining are:

1 Will Pascoe 205

2 Moviequill 204

3 Mark Wilson 197
Michael Foster 184
Allan Eastman 180
David Kinahan 179
John Callaghan 176
Peter Mitchell 174
Brian Stockton 171
Larry Raskin 169
Barry Keifl 159
Scotty William 144
Jeff Martel 139
Will Dixon 135
Jim Henshaw 125
Wil Zmak 123
Daryl Davis 103
Denis McGrath 71

Wednesday, June 10, 2009



snakes on a plane

The term “Snakes On A Plane” might describe:

a) A really bad movie

b) Canadian Television Executives flying off to buy shows in LA

c) A good example of a high concept pitch

From their first moment in a screenwriting class, writers are confronted with the concept of “High Concept”. And while it can technically be described as a show premise encapsulated in one sentence, that’s not the whole story.

A High Concept piece needs to take the expected and twist it to the unexpected.  There needs to be something about the story that immediately tweaks the interest of those hearing it. Something that makes it imperative that they find out either “What happens” or “how it happens”.

By its very nature, a High Concept forces the writer to get to the essence of his story, provides clarity so the broadcaster knows what they’re selling and tells the audience “Ah, but you’ve never seen this before”.

Much of current Canadian television, however, is predicated on familiarity. There are clones of formats that have succeeded in other markets. There are copy cat reality, cooking, interview and magazine shows. And mostly there are dramas replicating the tried and true formulae of Prime Time seasons past.

A decade after police procedurals began to dominate the American landscape, Canadian networks decided to make them.

“The Border”, “Flashpoint”, “Murdoch Mysteries” are all capable and watchable and derivative. Shows that allow you flop back on the couch and say “That was okay” – not sit up straight, imagination aflame, gasping, “Wow, that was awesome! Let’s have some more of that!”

Is “The Listener” as enjoyably inconsequential as “Ghost Whisperer” or “Medium”? Of course it is.

Will  “Sanctuary” have people so freaked out they rush home to make sure they programmed their DVRs for the next episode? Not likely.

Is “Junk Raiders” going to be the series that revolutionizes Reality programming? Uh – probably not.

They’re all nice. They’re all respectable. They’re all inoffensive.

Interestingly, three words often used to describe Canadians.

Those would be the same Canadians who don’t or won’t turn out in great numbers to watch any of those shows.

And for all the hoopla about cash strapped US networks now hungering for our series, I’ll be very surprised if any of the artists involved in any of the ones being trucked South see a lot of royalty or residual money.

And now that the SAG contract has been ratified, watch for the push back.

But from the Canadian network point of view, they are providing their viewers with what “they say they want”, the audience making those requests silently, simply by turning up in significant enough numbers to watch one offering or another.

When asked or allowed to voice their opinions on what they’re watching, the audience reveals that this familiarity approach has also bred contempt.

“There’s nothing worth watching.”

“It’s all the same.”

“Canadian TV is crap.”

The network response is usually to point to the numbers and mutter, “They don’t really know what they want.”

In an interesting twist, that’s the same line you often get from writers fresh from a network pitch. Most likely a pitch that included show ideas copy-catting some currently popular concept.

God, we’re so far down this road, we even make a show where judges critique people’s similarity to somebody famous! I mean, how utterly pointless does the task of filming cheap and not considering an audience in order to meet Cancon requirements have to get?


You see, in the process of delivering familiarity and replicating it, a creative fog develops where nobody really knows who’s trying to provide what to whom. And when those familiar shows begin to spread to specialty channels owned by the same networks, other delivery platforms and anywhere else they can think of to squeeze another buck out of them, that fog gets so thick the audience doesn’t so much fragment as it just gets lost.

Can anybody really tell me the difference between the shows you see on CTV and the ones on Global or ‘A’ Channel or Rogers? If there wasn’t a logo in the bottom corner, would you know if the show you’re watching could also be on History Channel, Showcase or TVtropolis?

If CanWest disappears and you can only watch “House” on Fox would you even be aware that a company employing many of your neighbors was no longer there?

Will any programming you feel is worth your time and attention have disappeared with them?


And the sadder answer is that aside for one or two hours of unique and different programming in any given week, any Canadian channels dropping off our dials wouldn’t be missed by the vast majority of the country.

The biggest change we can make that might save Canadian television is to start making television Canadians can’t find anywhere else and make it so compelling and different that it can’t help but be noticed.

And that means that as creators of those shows, we have to stop buying into the familiarity trap and start thinking “High Concept”.

It also means our broadcasters have to stop continuing to follow the broadcast model they claim is broken.

It may sound like I’m about to counter part of my own argument here – but I’ve always found it odd that CBC would never create anything as lowbrow as “Coronation Street” but considers it a mainstay of their schedule.

Similarly, although they introduced a couple of generations of Canadians to “Dr. Who”, they would never stoop to creating their own Science Fiction series.

But doing their own soap or their own space opera would be “unexpected” and might find them a larger audience.

I’ve never understood why CTV continues to insist the rest of the country buy into its super straight, white bread Toronto point of view.

Are there any shows “Whiter” than the ones on CTV? Do the central casts of “Flashpoint” or “The Listener” truly reflect the 54% non-Caucasian demographics of the same city they are claiming they are introducing to American audiences?

How come “Robson Arms” didn’t reflect Vancouver’s massive Asian and South Asian communities either?

Might there be a chance that thinking outside the box a little and reaching out to those communities could find CTV an increase in audience and ad revenue?

Can anybody fathom why Global would launch an animated version of a Hoser act that was tired out more than 20 years ago? Is that a logical way to recover the High Concept cutting edges of their first seasons of “SCTV”, the show where those characters were born?

We need to work together here, people. Those of us who write have a duty to only pitch programming nobody is seeing on television right now.

I know, I know, there’s no show about growing up in a (pick your ethnicity) neighborhood in Edmonton anywhere right now. But could you find another dimension to it? I mean give that kid psychic powers!

Hell, bring the whole genre back to Haley Joe Osmond! Isn’t that where it all started anyway?

And private broadcasters. You’ve got to stop trying to pretend you’re big American networks. Cause you’re not. You’re just the guys bidding on their High Concepts. Or their version of somebody else’s. Or the ones that turned out not to be conceived in an atmosphere all that rarified but they can twist your arm into buying as well so they can survive to develop something else that might work.

You have to do something that’s “You”, that’s “Your own” that none of the other guys had the balls or the foresight or the right place in the world to put out there.

Trust me, the audience will respond. They’ll at least nibble because it’s a fly they haven’t seen in the water before. And if they don’t like it, they’ll tell you and you can either fix it or figure out how to be better next time.

Wearing the same suit to work as all the other guys is why the cute girls aren’t noticing you.

As I suggested in the two posts below. Rebuilding this industry will require all of us being bold, stepping out there to try things we’ve never tried before and not apologizing for being different.

Because we are different. We think different. We feel different. We have different stories.

Let’s do them instead of giving our audience more of the same.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009



drive in 3 

A couple of weeks ago, I heard a film critic refer to DVDs as “The New Drive-In” and felt it was an astute observation. Mostly because I’d thought the same thing myself a few days earlier.

The “Old” Drive-In was one of the great pleasures of my childhood and teenage years. I have early memories of being bundled into the back seat of a Mercury in my Lone Ranger PJs and sharing popcorn and hot dogs with my brother through the first feature before we fell asleep so my parents could enjoy the second one.

There was a Drive-In on the Trans-Canada highway not far from our house in Regina. And on the soft summer nights of that city, I can remember looking across the vacant prairie to see those crystal projected images flickering against the mid-west sky.

Before we had cars, my buddies and I would gather at the A&W, hike across the stubbled fields in the growing darkness, wait for the girl in the ticket booth to look the other way and scale the fence to get inside. Then we’d find somebody we knew with a car and pretend we were with them, sitting on the raised shoulder nearby with a speaker box in our laps to watch the movie.

The “Old” Drive-in was more about the experience than the movie. You went to show off your ride, sample the endless buffet of snacks and find some private time with your steady. It was mostly a summer thing because in winter the windows you normally just steamed up would frost over from the inside. So you’d have to scrape off the ice before driving home.

Although the sweetest good-night kisses were from the cool lips of a hot blonde who still had ice shavings in her hair.


I got my insight into the “New” Drive-in one recent night while walking my dog. It was one of those first soft nights here after a hard winter. A winter during which most of my neighbors apparently purchased HD televisions. And like that prairie drive-in, the images from those screens were flickering silently from several family room and bedroom windows.

While the dog nosed around for the rabbits who flood our neighborhood at night, I was struck by something interesting about those television screens. Not one of them was playing something that appeared to be of broadcast origin. I confirmed that a few minutes later when I checked the local listings. What had appeared on those screens were not TV series, reality shows, news, weather or the ball game.

All of my neighbors were watching movies. None of the titles of which matched those scheduled to be broadcast that night. Somebody was watching “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”. Somebody else was going to sleep with “Paul Blart: Mall Cop”. Another was battling insomnia with “Mr. Brooks”. And another was ensuring sleep never came with “The Devil’s Rejects”.

No Canadian channels. No Cancon. Hmmmm….

How could this be turned to our advantage?

I got my answer last Saturday night after the Hockey Game.

For some reason, CBC’s “thoroughly Canadian” broadcast menu strays from that philosophy when they’re trying to hang on to the hockey crowd.

During the NHL lock-out, they attempted to lure viewers to the Hockey free “Hockey Night” slot with big budget Hollywood blockbusters. And Saturday night, they followed up the Detroit mauling of Pittsburgh with Will Farrell’s “Old School”.

Only for some odd reason, a network long tolerant of 4 letter words and nudity was broadcasting a dubbed clean version in which Will Farrell’s ubiquitous buttocks were always covered with a black band form fitted to resemble underwear.


Perhaps they were striving not to corrupt “all those kids” Don Cherry lectures on hockey skills and the smart way to decapitate a defenseman. But why bleep and cover a six year old movie most of those kids have probably already watched on DVD?

The answer was simple. Canadian TV executives don’t “get” movies or stay current on who’s watching what and why. At CTV (and CBC outside the hockey slots) they usually program ponderous, thoughtful, “ripped from the headlines” depression inducers whose mood and tone is constantly undermined and sabotaged by the insertion of chipper pitches for Iced Tea and cars that go “zoom-zoom”.

Over at CITY, they’re asking for regulatory relief from running any Canadian movies at all. Somehow forgetting that it was a News, “Star Trek” and two movies a night format that originally got them on the map.

These executives also don’t get that if you can watch an ultra crisp Blu-Ray version of almost anything you want with Surround sound, you might not be interested in tuning in a bleached version of “The Outlaw Josie Wales” with a monaural track that’s interrupted every eight minutes by a political attack ad or a cartoon bear selling anal hygiene.

They need to understand that to regain an audience, they have to replicate the “New” Drive-In.

The New Drive-In is also as much about the experience as the movie. You’re watching a recent movie that’s enough different from what’s on television that it encouraged you to go out and buy or rent a copy. (This generation’s version of fighting traffic to get somewhere before sunset).

You’re watching this movie from the comfort of your own surroundings close to where you can whip up your own sloppy joe’s or bag of Orville’s if you want. And if your companion gets warmed up by the HD presence of Brad Pitt or the sight of Will Farrell’s butt, well chances are even the guy outside with the dog isn’t watching.

Drive-In is a simple formula. Pick a genre. Deliver it. Don’t make things complicated. The people watching have other things on their mind.

And never conceive the finished product within that old “Don’t offend or advocate too strongly” TV Movie of the week mindset.

drive in 2

What would happen to Canadian TV and the local production community if some enterprising executive were to take the $13 Million his/her network was about to pour into just one clone of an American series and made 13 low budget movies instead?

What if 3 or 4 networks did it?

And what if those networks eschewed commercials for these films in favor of product placement and then made sure the technical delivery was in true HD?

Do you not think some of my neighbors might skip the drive to Blockbuster and tune in?

And don’t kid yourself, you can still make a pretty good movie for $1 million. It’s simply a matter of combining a good story (with or without an underlying universal theme) and some innovative production imagination.

In the states, Sci-Fi, USA Network, Turner and Lifetime have been working at that license level for years. In some cases, the regularly scheduled “originals” which resulted have been their network’s highest rated offerings. And they continue to generate revenue as DVDs and downloads.

Our nets could be making money and drawing back their audience in the same way.

And unless Canadian television begins using the strengths of the “New” Drive-In to its own advantage, it will continue to lose audience to that kind of competition.

Worst of all, with new devices arriving daily which will eliminate the drive to the video store and other minor inconveniences, it won’t be long before the decision to spend $10/month on a cable package or on an ever increasing library of new movies delivered directly to your home won’t be a difficult one at all.


For a passionate reaction and expansion of all this, check out Trevor Cunningham’s response here. Thanks Col. Cunningham. Good to know you’re covering the Western flank.

Monday, June 08, 2009



I’ve been ragging on the domestic television scene a lot of late. It’s an easy target. In many ways, CTV and CanWest are the always reliable Clinton/Lewinsky one-two punch of the Tonight Show writers room.

But there are times when calling out the idiocies and arrogances of our private broadcasters starts depressing even me. So I’ve been thinking about what might get us through the regulatory swamp and around all the levels of greed and mismanagement to the kind of future Canadian viewers and their artists deserve.

I’m talking about a place where there’s some structure and reliability, where our work has a chance to be seen and the audience that funds us and whom we’re supposed to be telling our stories to can more easily find and perhaps embrace us.

Imagining that kind of warmth and light reminded me of Summer. And Summer might be one solution to our industry ills.


The first time I became aware that TV had two seasons was when Canadian comics Wayne & Shuster replaced “The Jack Benny Show” one summer in an American series called “Holiday Lodge”. It was a show about two guys running a – uh – holiday lodge.

I was only a kid and don’t remember much about the show other than it was pretty funny. But I think the seed was planted that Summer might be the secret back door to the American market.

According to the broadcasters, they need Prime Time American shows to drive their bottom lines. And according to the ratings, most Canadian viewers still prefer an American TV show over a Canadian one whenever they have the option.

Those of us making television here know we can compete with foreign offerings on an artistic level and our technical expertise is universally acknowledged. Fully 1/3 of those working on American television series, both before and behind the cameras, are Canadian.

But at home, we fly under the radar. We don’t get marketing support for our efforts from the broadcasters, who also often relegate our work to dead time slots or nights when viewers are virtually non-existent, further diminishing our chances of bringing a mass audience into the tent.

To the broadcasters, their choices are purely economic. It makes no sense to program a Canadian series in the prim-est Prime Time slots where they earn more for shows they pay less to purchase in LA.

Let’s put aside what we know and feel about that kind of BS for the moment and look at losing that battle to win the war.

Why don’t we let them have Prime Time –- as much as they want -- for nine months of the year. If they want to be indistinguishable from American affiliates, let them.

But in return, for three months, the summer months, their schedules have to be 100% Canadian. And instead of them branding us, we can be the ones individualizing them.

That pretty much gives our broadcasters everything they seem to want while ensuring our artists a real opportunity to step to the forefront.

And stop thinking of the Summer as some sort of straw hat, “Hey, my dad’s got a barn” option. Because summer isn’t like that anymore. But it also isn’t the time when the BIG shows with the BIG PR budgets are vying for everybody’s attention.

Since most series produced here are 13 episode orders, it would be possible to give Canadian audiences three solid months of original programming through summers where the bulk of the major network American competition now features repeat programming and a steady diet of decidedly low rent Reality that stars “celebrities” who, in another time, wouldn’t have been considered talented enough to be in an Ed Wood movie.


Recently, CBC programmed an entire new season of original material into the television wasteland created by the WGA strike, finding far larger audiences than it had anticipated. That would seem to suggest that the Audience will be there when given a choice between original drama and comedy and repeats or cheap, non-scripted programming.

Those of us who watched that launch of new programs also noted that the “It looks like a Canadian show” carping dropped in volume. They “didn’t look Canadian” because most of our stuff doesn’t anymore and when a $1 million budget show isn’t sandwiched between two $5 million budget shows, most people can’t spot the differences.

Now, seeking the favorite show-less audience isn’t an original strategy. It’s one that has been followed by many lesser players in carving out a niche for their programming and developing an audience that has made them bigger players. And it has resulted in a great number of shows which went on to enormous success.

What do iconic series like “The Avengers”, “The Prisoner”, “Northern Exposure”, “Dukes of Hazzard” and “Seinfeld” have in common? All were summer replacement series which found an audience large enough to carry them into regular season Prime Time success.

It’s a process I’ve personally experienced twice.

My first series, “Adderly” was on the CBS late night slate, part of a stable that included “Night Heat”, “Hot Shots”, “Diamonds” and others scheduled to counter-program the wee hours talk shows.

At the end of our first season, we’d done well enough that we were given a summer prime time slot on CBS, along with bigger budgets for those episodes and better known guest stars. That exposure increased our audiences enough to garner a full season order from the network when we went back to our regular slot.

Increasing audience is the Holy Grail in television and everybody benefits when it happens.

Similarly, “Top Cops” debuted as a summer series along with “Northern Exposure”, “911: Emergency” and something called “Walker: Texas Ranger”. All went on to huge success and each ended up anchoring a night of the CBS schedule for years to come.

It’s hard for broadcast executives on either side of the border to ignore positive ratings and given a rediscovered openness to scheduling Canadian produced shows on American Prime Time, a Canadian series with respectable audience numbers here becomes quite attractive and offers increased security to an American network needing its own mid-season (or earlier) replacements.

Shows down there would no longer need to be rushed into production or bounced around to patch leaks. And shows up here would not have to be designed or realigned prior to shooting to fit an American network’s needs.

It’s quite conceivable that instead of Canadian shows hanging in limbo (as a few are now), wondering if they will find a place on the American network that helped launch them and therefore retain their spot on the Canadian dial -- we could have series which through local success alone know if they’re being renewed or not, providing the local industry with much needed stability.

In addition, by remaining producible on locally acceptable budgets – but also holding the possibility of becoming very profitable in the American after-market or even seeing their initial runs extended into the Fall and Winter seasons; these shows are better placed to recoup their costs and realize quicker profits.

As a side benefit, Canadian nets will also have a fresh menu of alternative programming to offer online, providing those platforms with both product that their competition doesn’t have and the assurance there will be something on their site when the US shows they purchased are canned after 3-4 episodes.

TV has always been and will continue to be governed by audience numbers and no Executive here is going to trade a Canadian series with good numbers for a simulcast that doesn’t deliver as well.

Summer is also not the small audience ghetto it once was. Indeed, it is the time when viewers go looking for something different and smaller players have fed that appetite with such series as “Burn Notice”, “The Closer”, “Saving Grace” and “Mad Men”, all of whom have benefitted from not having to go up against the meat of the order nor compete with budgets many times their own.

There is a potential win-win here for everybody -- accompanied by the fact that we could all be on hiatus during the dead of winter perhaps with enough cash in our pockets to escape to Summer elsewhere.

Mull it over. Having a summer job might mean we all get more work in the long run.