Thursday, October 15, 2009

The Hole In Daddy’s Arm

“There's a hole in daddy's arm where all the money goes,
Jesus Christ died for nothin' I suppose.
Little pitchers have big ears,
Don't stop to count the years,
Sweet songs never last too long on broken radios…”

                      -- John Prine (“The Ballad of Sam Stone”)


On Wednesday, I was invited to attend a conference ostensibly billed as my opportunity to learn about and comment upon the newly established and still working out the wrinkles Canada Media Fund, the Federal Government’s new program to assist in the finance of television programming and projects designed to take advantage of the burgeoning “New Media” frontiers.

There were about 300 of us. Independent Producers. Documentary Filmmakers. Creative Guilds. Broadcasters. And pioneers in the realms of interactive entertainment, game design, online content and other enterprises trying to bring Canadian innovation and creation to the Internet.

It was a very genteel affair. There were curried soups, Italian sandwiches, tofu nibblies for the Vegetarians in the crowd and fancy pastries. There were screens for Powerpoint presentations, whiteboards for scrawling and a mass of microphones to make sure every question and comment was recorded.

At the centre of the room was a circular table with microphones where volunteers from each of the gathered groups could be specifically questioned on various topics by the facilitators and representatives of the new Canadian Media Fund.

These were mostly the same people who have administered the Canadian Television Fund for many years and are now charged with preparing the industry for the new rules and regulations that will govern what drama, comedy, documentaries and children’s programming gets made in this country.

The whole thing was a well orchestrated bureaucrat’s fantasy. And in true “The Bureaucrats are running things” fashion, the first thing that those of us already tech savvy learned was – the room had no internet access.

No tweeting colleagues across the room. No googling additional information on anything discussed. No fact checking. No showing somebody your Youtube video. No comparing what you were being told today with emails on your home computer from yesterday when the nice lady at the CMF had assured you they were really “on your side”.

Speaking one on one, they’re always “on your side”, aren’t they? That’s how bureaucracy works. You think you’re being taken into confidence, when you are simply being taken.

Somewhere around the 7th Century BC, Sun Tsu, author of “The Art of War” the most important book ever written about dealing with crisis and conflict and those who would govern others warned, “When bureaucrats prosper, the people are harmed”.

And for the next few hours we were duly harmed. Disabused of any notion that this new fund will actually finance any innovative activity in new media. Made to realize that there will be less money in this diluted pot of public money for actual production of television. Instructed to give up any hope for a turn around in the industry.

Oh, they were gentle with us, repeating the mantra that nobody was going to get everything they wanted, slathering us with lubricants so it wouldn’t hurt as much when the penny finally dropped and what was being “recommended”, “seriously considered” or “mandated by the Heritage Department” was finally revealed and we all knew that the creative community and Canadian taxpayer were once again going to be royally boned in order to feed the insatiable hunger for free money of our nation’s broadcasters. 

“But the morphine eased the pain,
And the grass grew round his brain,
And gave him all the confidence he lacked,
With a Purple Heart and a monkey on his back…”

While the chipper CMF people kept insisting that no final decisions have been made, a simple read of the detailed handouts made it clear that creating and supporting even more revenue streams for the broadcast networks was a fait accompli.

Not only do our broadcasters already get a major portion of their program financing from the Canadian Taxpayer, not to mention such handsome regulatory gifts as simultaneous transmission, increasing commercial minutes, genre protected specialty channels, Local programming funds to pay for the one hour of news they do each day and the incessant consideration of “carriage fees” --- under the new CMF they’re going to get even more.

Broadcasters will now be able to access public money to produce their own “in house” programming. They’ll receive funds to set up and operate the online streaming of the programs they produce. And unless I’m completely misinterpreting the lines we were carefully coached to read between, the shows they produce with taxpayer money won’t even have to have many Canadians in them.

The fund created by Parliament to “tell Canadian stories” will instead finance stories written by writers who aren’t Canadian and star actors who live in Hollywood. The next time a picture like the one below appears in the newspapers, it’s quite likely the only actual Canadian content will be the Heritage Minister.


Keeping Canadian television series that are funded with public money 100% Canadian was the first item on a top ten wish list I was given by the Writers Guild of Canada. Number two on that list was a request that CMF regulations be relaxed so Canadian writers can write science fiction stories that “take place in a generic or fantasy setting that is not identifiably foreign”.

That should give you some idea of how much control bureaucrats in Ottawa now have over what gets written in this country.

Please, sir – permission to write my own ideas? I mean, it may not take place in Toronto, but it’s a really good story…

Nope. Not if you want Public money.

However, if your program schedule is wall-to-wall with American Science Fiction, American cops, American soldiers fighting in Iraq, American reality Shows and American celebrity gossip, you can have almost as much Canadian tax money as you want. With these new “in-house” regulations, CTV, CBC and CanWest are well on their way to getting tax credits for just telling you what the weather is.

And when they stream that weathercast online, you’ll pay for it some more.

And when they send it to your iPhone, you’ll pay twice. Once for the stream and once for the air time you used. And likely both to the same conglomerate that owns the TV channel and your cell phone company and still seems to need government welfare.

And while the Canadian public is constantly told by this Federal government and our business leaders that we need innovation and imagination to get our country to the forefront of the high tech future, the insatiable need of our broadcasters to have control of the vast majority of the new media funds makes that an impossibility.

Like a junkie who needs ever larger doses of Heroin to get high and lets his kids starve to get his fix, our broadcasters have successfully lobbied the Heritage Department and the Canadian Media Fund to make sure almost none of these public funds go to anyone actually trying to innovate any form of new media.

Our broadcasters’ addiction and the apparent willingness of our Government to feed it is literally destroying any chance that we’ll ever be a player in any high tech future.

This country already lags much of the world in almost every aspect of new media production and delivery. More money is made by 16 year old kids designing iPhone Apps in other parts of the world in one day than is earned by our new media creators in an entire year.

Without an intervention, where somebody in government has the courage to finally tell our broadcasters to start putting their enormous profits back into their own research and development and their own business instead of spending it to buy more companies they can unsuccessfully synergize and vertically integrate with, Canada will soon be so far behind the rest of the world in this department that we’ll never catch up.

It was patently obvious to everybody in that room that our media fund bureaucrats had been doing what the broadcasters have demanded for so long that they were completely incapable of conceiving how money from the fund could be used for projects that don’t need a broadcaster in the first place.

Mobile Apps, Gaming, Interactive Content, IPTV all had no handholds in the new regulations their developers could even grab onto. And why should that be surprising! The people who run the CMF still don’t get why “The Trailer Park Boys”was a success, insisted they didn’t want to “de-stabilize” an Independent Production community that went flying off the rails years ago and didn’t laugh out loud when somebody making documentaries insisted their work shouldn’t be judged by audience ratings but by how much they had healed the world.

“And the gold rolled through his veins
Like a thousand railroad trains,
And eased his mind in the hours that he chose,
While the kids ran around wearin' other peoples' clothes...”

Over coffee later, I met people from the new media tribe who could have been my kids or my grand kids, as boggled as the clutch of screenwriters my age were as to why a fund established to foster creativity had so little actual room for it (or them) and yet had all the money in the world to pour into broadcaster coffers.

Maybe it’s too soon to say what I’m about to say. Maybe I’m tired and I’ve just had too many years of taking the rap for bad Canadian shows when I know most of the good ones never even got the chance to be on the air.

But I know that while I was in that meeting, other meetings were being held across town as CanWest assured its staff that they haven’t really gone bankrupt and they’ll all be back bringing more American entertainment into Canadian homes real soon.

So maybe I gotta say it…

If you’re under 30 and want a career in television or new media. Leave now.

I don’t know where you should go. I don’t know if your best destination is LA or Australia or London or Hong Kong. But leave now. And once you get where you think you can make a go of it, write James Moore, our Heritage Minister, and let him know that his country will have to do without your innovation and your imagination. Tell him you wanted to stay, but these junkies were stealing all your stuff and even taking the food off your shelf in the fridge, although they had more than enough of their own.

Tell him you’ll come back if he can get the broadcasters off the public teat, get them to clean up their act and contribute to society and the business the way the rest of us do, instead of being the self-centred pigs that they are, squeezing producer budgets so some shows aren’t even paying people minimum wage or they’re working for credits.

If you’re over 30…

Maybe the best thing is to go to your nearest Tim Horton’s and see if you can get on the night shift. There might be a chance you can get some writing in around 4:00 a.m. when the rubbies are all snoozing and the bagels the Bureaucrats will be buying to go with their morning coffee are still in the oven.

I know it’ll take you longer writing that script if you’re working at Tim’s. But at least you’ll have one ready once the Bureaucrats realize that if the broadcasters are getting all the money then nobody probably needs them to do any fund managing anymore.

The creatives in this country and the taxpayers are the ones suffering now. But you people from the CMF who spent the day annoying, patronizing and marginalizing us will be next. Because when Daddy needs to fill that hole in his arm, everybody and everything else will sooner or later disappear.


deborah Nathan said...

T'was ever thus. And since 1999, I could only see death by attrition. No one wants to come out and actually kill us, but little by little making a living as a creative becomes impossible here. I have said to all young writers since '99 to leave the country and go somewhere that views the industry as an important business.

It is galling that there is not one bureaucrat, not one politician, who has the stones to tell the broadcasters to pay up and stop expecting the taxpayer to finance their business.

As has been said many times, broadcasters pay less than 20% of the cost of Canadian programming, the lowest in the English-speaking world.

And now that we've waited until the new regulations will not require 10/10, what leverage do we have to do anything about it?

But perhaps the broadcasters will disappear - Canwest being the first. And none of this will have mattered.

And unlike USA, which is so in-your-face patriotic, there is no hue and cry from the Canadian public about any of this. Can you imagine the outcry in the US if all their programming was imported from the UK?

Without the will of the people, broadcasters, BDUs and governments can do as they please.

I'm off now to submit my application to become a barista.

Rusty James said...

Here is a link to send a message to Heritage Minister James Moore:

I have some talented friends here in Montreal with great television ideas - dozens of scripts I'm jealous of - that keep getting screwed over by Execs at our broadcasters.

And these are young guys with the support of their creative community?

Whatta joke.

Ted Brunt said...

Great pig on a stick, superb post.

The disdain I saw for the non-tv people was remarkable. And you know that they just want to slip in the old rules, just "get things going and then we can evaluate later" crap, which will make sure that nothing changes.

Fact is most interactive extensions are just marketing for tv anyway. So that leaves.....the "experimental" category. I've been experimenting for 15 years.

Ryan Henson Creighton said...

"More money is made by 16 year old kids designing iPhone Apps in other parts of the world in one day than is earned by our new media creators in an entire year."

That's debatable ... the kid in his basement making his fortune on the iPhone is a modern-day wives' tale. Whenever i hear it told, the age of the newly-minted millionaire gets lower, the amount of money he pulled in gets higher, and the effort he expended to get that money becomes more and more understated. It's enough to give a guy a complex.

But SINCE there's so much mythical money to be made in this crazy "new" media thing (Ted's clocked 15 years, i've clocked 10 ... when do we get to stop calling it "new", "cutting-edge" and "experimental"?), and if a single creative person can get something off the ground without benefit of an army of sound engineers, camera people and equipment, editors, and people to snap the clapboard ... doesn't that suggest that a little investment in interactive can go a long way? Doesn't it suggest that Canada stands to make significant in-roads with taxpayer money if it doesn't have to deal with the bloat of an overweight industry like teevee?

i'm sure that in 20 years, i'll be hiring people to operate my right mouse button, or to organize my graphic assets into folders, because the interactive industry will naturally develop the same level of bloat that more mature industries have incurred.

But until then, i can still be a one-man band running a tight, lean ship, and get my ideas in front of an audience of millions for little to no upfront money.

Don't hate the industry cock-blockers. Hate the industry.

Rusty James said...

I think calling them Industry Cock Blockers is disingenuous. Industry bureaucrats with less business sense than creative imagination, more like it.

The Americans have the same 'problem' with their decision makers - the only difference being their cheques are signed by publicly traded multi-nationals - whereas our television and film 'decision' makers' cheques are signed by the Government of Canada. And guess who pays the Government?

The short and sweet of it is, I don't want my money going to reruns of GHOST WHISPERER or SUE THOMPSON F.B. EYE, I want it to go to CANADIAN writers, directors, sound technicians, gaffers... working in T.O, Montreal, Vancouver, Halifax goddammit!

People with *their* stories to tell. Not Saskatchewan's. Not the Metis'. Our WWII ballads. But stories by Canadians, told by Canadians, about universal themes.

wp said...

Excellent post, Jim. Not sure what would have been more painful -- sitting through that or sitting through a Leafs game.

Unknown said...

I don't Think there's much chance of winning at either. Perhaps just a faint hope. The money is in being a bureaucrat, not in being creative.