Thursday, September 03, 2009

Without Stories


The two guys who clear the grocery carts off the Costco lot were in a good mood. It was payday and one of them finally had enough money to get his nipples pierced.

He was absolutely ecstatic at the prospect of parading the beach with his newly sparkling pecs on the last long weekend of the summer, exhilarating in how Cool that was gonna be.

My first thought was of how “Cool” might have a different context when he was humping those empty carts across the windblown ice of the same parking lot come February.

But as they went on about whether they should splurge for a few beers at lunch or pick up one of those way sweet Budwiser knapsack cases on the way home, my second thought was of the inspired Craig Ferguson clip on “the deification of imbecility” that had been making the rounds.

As I finished loading my car and the boys continued their banter, one of them picked up a business card from the pavement and tried to decipher it. His buddy stepped in to help. And it quickly became clear that neither one of these guys really knew how to read.


For too many reasons I’d bore you to death by describing, I learned to read before I went to school. And I firmly believe the stories I read as a kid helped me understand and figure out things my parents, friends and teachers couldn’t. Those stories also gave me experiences and insight I wouldn’t have otherwise had. And they inspired me to strive for what others around me didn’t.

And while somebody much smarter than I’ll ever be once said that “good books are those that reinforce your own prejudices”, I believe even the bad ones help you find your way through the world.

From parables that founded religions and philosophies to Sci-fi novels that inspired scientists to get us to the moon, human history has always been guided by bringing our myths and fantasies to life.

We’re a species that hungers for stories and maps our progress with them. From kids needing comfort before drifting off to the unfathomable world of sleep to a foursome playing bridge in a Seniors’ home reminding themselves of their history, we are sustained and energized by the stories we share.

But those two guys in that parking lot had had a segment of their deserved humanity withheld from them. And they’re far from alone.


A few years ago, I went to see a much anticipated new Comic book hero movie. The snack bar line wasn’t moving because the cash register wasn’t working. By that I mean, when it tallied your total and you gave the kid behind the counter your money, it wouldn’t then do the math and let him know how much you got back in change.

A half dozen kids in spiffy uniforms were all trying to help each other and equally flummoxed. Older people in the line, those who had never had the luxury of pocket calculators in math class, tried to help, as in “You owe me $2.32.” But even then, the kids couldn’t deal with the lack of certainty the failure of the till had instilled.

And then about halfway through the movie, the pace of the action slowed for what was the only scene of character important dialogue between the male and female leads. Less than thirty seconds into their conversation, a voice from the back bellowed “Either Fuck or Fight!” an admonition loudly cheered by those in attendance.

I needed two slabs of post-movie pie that night to mull over what all this meant to the craft of screenwriting and the kind of audiences writers would soon be asked to engage.


Around the same time as my movie incident, people in other industries began complaining about the lack of high school and even university graduates who had basic skills in reading, simple math and other supposed core tenets of our education system.

Their criticisms went unaddressed and we now have a growing population that haven’t had the benefit of the perspectives to be gained from encountering Huckleberry Finn, Holden Caulfield or even Harry Potter.

A few weeks ago, a High School Board in Brampton, Ontario voted to remove “To Kill A Mockingbird” from their school libraries because it contains the “N” word --- a word their students hear more often in one hour of listening to Hip Hop than they’ll find in that book, while at the same time missing out on one of the most powerful anti-Racism messages ever written.

It’s this same lack of story understanding that caused people to pull “Huckleberry Finn” off the stands when I was in school. Luckily, that happened after I’d already read the book, which left an 11 year old white kid from Saskatchewan, one who’d never even seen a Black man, with the impression that Huck’s friend Jim was about the best friend anybody could ever have.

Not being able to encounter the “N” word and then be masterfully shown the way past it by Mark Twain and Harper Lee would have made me a different person than I am today. A lesser person.

And that same lack of understanding of the true power of storytelling and the “lack of stories” itself has a lot to do with the problems we’re now facing in the TV industry.

Look, don’t get me wrong. I’m not some kind of book snob who thinks you need to appreciate the Classics to succeed in life. But I am a story advocate. And I don’t care if you get your stories from comic books, movies, TV or an XBox. Because that doesn’t matter. What matters is that you have stories in your life.

A crisp Chardonnay is still a crisp Chardonnay whether it’s sipped from a mason jar or fine crystal. Novels (Graphic or otherwise), eBooks from iTunes or Kindle, movies, TV and the Internet are merely the context by which the content reaches you. It’s what’s in that content, those stories, that enriches you.

And when we lose what’s gained by following a fictional character on his journey and applying it to our own lives, we breed the aimless, goal-less, coarsening and porn imitating society anybody being honest with themselves can see burgeoning around us.

And I don’t blame any of the people you see in that lifestyle for any of this. Hell, if I was stuck with an endless string of dead end jobs at minimum wage without having been taught the tools to escape that prison, I’d probably skip the nipple piercing and go right for a Prince Albert.


For an image more accurately related to the above reference, please consult Dr. Google.

I once tried to get the Writers Guild involved in supporting some kind of literacy program. But we’re a small Guild here with not many resources and the general feeling was that if we were going to teach anybody to read, it might be in our best interests to start with those who make programming decisions at the networks.

And I tend to agree with that assessment.


We’ve just come through a decade dominated by “Reality” programming, most of which is actually manufactured reality, an imitation of dramatic elements that are most often not created or programmed by people with any real dramatic skill.  And yes, some of these shows do make a lot of money for broadcasters. But those profits can be deceiving.

This summer “Big Brother 11” and “So You Think You Can Dance Canada” were about the only shows our private networks offered which earned them any kind of audience worth paying their PR flacks to brag about.

Yet, even these successes have not managed to make much difference to their collapsing business model.

Anybody with any kind of profile in the entertainment business will not only tell you how much their continuing failure has affected our own bottom lines and ability to find work. But each and every one us also has a wealth of personal encounters we can relate with gym rats, bartenders and reno contractors who all firmly believe they could be the next reality star, hit show host or Bachelor/Bachelorette winner.

It’s all part of an “I know my life would look all right if I could see it on the silver screen” syndrome that’s as false as the lengthy careers experienced by “Canadian Idol” winners. There isn’t one person at any broadcaster who honestly believes their next/latest “SYTYCD” champion or “Triple Threat” winner will even be in the business a short distance down the road.

And that cynical, devoid of talent manipulation of a mass audience that already doesn’t have a lot going for it is killing television.

I don’t think I go out on too flimsy a limb in predicting that 2009 will be the last or at best next to last, season of television resembling anything the industry and its audience have previously known.

The 2009 – 2010 TV season will have fewer hours of drama than ever before. NBC has entirely wiped the once highly valued 10 o’clock show from its schedule. In Canada, even the CBC has stopped pretending it’s the bastion of Canadian drama as it endlessly promotes a pointless exercise involving retired hockey goons and past their prime ice dancers.

What will anyone learn from “Battle of the Blades”? That some semi-famous people have a sense of humor about themselves? So….?


Nobody in Canada wants to produce Drama anymore because making it is “hard” and “time-consuming” and “expensive”. But the truth is that our networks can’t afford not to endure that (painful for everybody) “Development Hell” process. Because more and more people are going elsewhere to find the stories their lives and their very souls need and they’re not coming back.

In the ten years since our networks began depending on non-dramatic programming, their audience has declined by 35%. Last season they experienced an overall loss of 10% from the numbers they had enjoyed only one year earlier. The drop in the coveted 18-49 demographic was 17%. 

You don’t need to be a business genius or even only smart enough to work at CanWest to know that continuing to follow a cheap programming business model is hastening the day when you have to turn out the lights for good.

It wouldn’t take someone with a much higher IQ to realize that the people who have been in charge of program development at almost all of our networks have a track record that would have seen them taken out behind the barn and shot if they had four legs instead of two.

And it’s not that these people have never had the time or the money to bring their chosen projects to fruition. In Canada, development lasts an average of SIX TIMES longer than it does South of the border. Meanwhile, channels that will NEVER broadcast the finished product chip in on somebody else’s development slate in order to meet their own mandated “development spend”.

What’s standing in the way of more successful dramas coming out of this country? To my mind it’s simply that the people in charge of development are not themselves story tellers. They don’t instinctively know what works, what inspires and which tweaks will evoke which emotions.

They understand how much the audience enjoys “The Sopranos” or “Mad Men” or “Arrested Devewlopment” because anybody even halfway human can experience and appreciate a finished product from any culture. Creating shows that original themselves, however, is simply far above their pay grade.

Babble about marketing trends and audience taste and the zeitgeist all you want. When a script works, it works. When it doesn’t, it doesn’t. And the majority of Canadian development executives can’t spot the difference at the outline stage.

So how do we solve this? How do we find people who know how to make good television in this country?

Once again, the answer is simple. We already have a bunch of them.


Just quickly perusing the membership of the Writers Guild of Canada, I can find a couple dozen writers with a hundred or more individual script credits to their names. These people know story. They know the craft backwards because they’ve had to create or fix the scripts that gave them all those credits.

These people are almost all approaching the age at which, if they wrote novels, they’d be considered for Nobel and Giller prizes, their next stories eagerly anticipated for the life experience and craft skills they have acquired along the way.

But in the film and television business they are considered mostly unemployable at 40 and not even worth talking to at 50. At a stage in their lives when they’ve pretty much heard all the excuses, seen all the games, savored every flavor of bullshit and know why what worked on “Desperate Housewives” won’t work on “Wild Roses” they are usually just turned out to pasture.

But like good Scotch, most writers actually improve with age. There isn’t one who looks back on a script he or she wrote at 20 and doesn’t long for the chance to turn it into what it could have been.

These people are story tellers. They have dedicated their lives to learning the ways you connect with an audience. And most of them already mentor the writers with less experience who populate the current network wish lists.

Having people who understand story from the inside actually on the inside means the entire development process suddenly becomes streamlined, faster, and cheaper with less emotional angst for all involved. Combine these people with showrunners who write and you suddenly have a network/studio team capable of bringing stories to our screens that will attract and inspire an audience.

Continue in the “cheap programming” direction we’re heading, continue to rely on people who can critique but not create and we not only lose an industry, we create more aimless, lost people who measure their achievements in piercings and body ink and one night become so hopeless and lost they carve somebody up for an iPod or take that one drink or hit too many.

Since the dawn of time, Story tellers have been our healers. If we’re going to save Canadian television, it’s time we let the ones we have do their job.


deborah Nathan said...

Brilliant. Sad, but brilliant.

Unknown said...

I agree Jim. The programming on the Canadian television scene continues to degrade. But I don’t think this is just a Canadian phenomenon. The ‘reality’ fad has me completely uninterested in TV period (except for the odd Flames game).

wcdixon said...

I'm going to borrow some of this for my CMF consultation submission...hang on, has it been copyrighted?

Unknown said...

So last week we meet up with Pierre Grégoire of Zone 3 production (the largest producer of TV programs in Québec) and show him several new, creative and innovative TV show concepts.

He won't move on any of the shows.

Even when we propose a show that will change afternoon television and not only get high ratings but actually -make- money, he tells us that Radio-Canada has set that time slot for older folks and it's like concrete and they will never change.

He told us his hands are tied, that he needs that $5,000 license fee from the broadcaster so it will unlock all the funding from telefilm, sodec, etc...

he says to us he feels like a dinosaur that that his industry is becoming extinct...


Welcome to Canadian television.