Sunday, February 27, 2011

Lazy Sunday #160: The Award Is For Being Exceptional, Right?


About halfway through "Black Swan" I started hoping that Leon from "The Professional" would bust in to blow away the creepy ballet maestro perving his lead dancer. That's how much I like Natalie Portman.

It's been a huge pleasure watching her grow and grow up as an actress, where great performances in "Beautiful Girls", "Closer" and "V for Vendetta" have more than made up for the "Star Wars" prequels and "Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium".

So while I'm kinda hoping she wins an Oscar for her performance in "Black Swan", part of me hopes she might not, so her career will be asterisked by winning one in the future for a much better film.

I'm not saying that I thought "Black Swan" was a bad movie. I just never felt it deserved the level of adulation it got.

Maybe the trailer had set me up to expect a psycho thriller instead of a slightly darker Lifetime movie about Bulimia and body image issues.

Maybe I expected it to delve into the Life versus Art dilemma of "The Red Shoes", or use dance to convey added dimensions of character like "Chicago" or even "Footloose".

But it didn't do any of those things and in the end I felt like I was watching Darren Aronofsky's last film, "The Wrestler", all over again -- right down to the titular character dying to give the crowd what it wants.

And as good as Natalie Portman was at keeping my attention through all of that and even making me continue to care about her character, can you really give an Academy Award to an actress when so much of her role was assayed by body doubles and two different stand-in dancers? 

That's a roundabout way of saying if Natalie wins I'll feel a little bit like she's in the company of Al Pacino and Paul Newman, both of whom, despite careers of remarkable performances won for less than spectacular turns in "Scent of a Woman" and "The Color of Money" respectively.

But if she loses, no matter who she loses to, that'll be okay too. Because there are four stunningly powerful performances competing with her, and she's good enough that her time will come.

Meanwhile, here's a version of Swan Lake that nobody in Hollywood could dream up but is more than deserving of recognition for being exceptional.

Enjoy it. Enjoy tonight's Academy Awards. And Enjoy your Sunday.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Camping it Up!

hello muddah

"Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah! Here I am at -- Podcamp Taranah!"

The bane of my sixth or seventh summer was Camp Shagabek, an ancient Saskatchewan Indian term for "The place where the scrotum tightens".

My parents told me it was a Church Camp where I'd be able to run and play, do woodcarving and learn to swim. I spent most of my time running from nine year old heathens and playing dead in the Poison Ivy.

I managed to half carve a wooden squirrel as most of the other kids were using their knives to carve up real ones. And we never went swimming because the water was so cold it retarded the testicle descent of those who did until they were well into their 20's.

"Podcamp Toronto", a conference about podcasting which runs in Toronto this weekend, promises to be far less physically rigorous and much more rewarding in other ways.

It's still not too late to register here, where you can "purchase" a free ticket giving you access to dozens of workshops on the art and craft of Internet podcasting.

And you don't even have to be in Toronto.

I'll be thousands of miles away myself, dabbling my toes in an ocean while my laptop streams live coverage of any podcast subject on which I wish to be enlightened.

For those not familiar with the concept, a Podcast (P-O-D for playable on demand) is a series of digital media files (audio or visual) packaged episodically and available to stream or download.

They have their own library on iTunes (where most are free) and range from broadcast fare produced by NPR, HBO or CBC to ordinary Joes with a passion for telling you all that they know about stand-up comedy, ancient history or how to macramé socks.

Among my favorite Canadian Podcasts are the incredibly insightful and hilarious "Dyscultured" previously reviewed here, and Diane Wild's always informative "TV-Eh?" which this week featured the remarkably insightful and articulate -- ME!

In the last week, I've been inspired by "TedTalks", enlightened by Aaron Sorkin's description of how he wrote 'The Social Network' at "Creative Screenwriting" and learned how to make the perfect Tikka Masala from Jaimie Oliver's "Ministry of Food".

Who needs universities, film schools or even community colleges, when you can get what you want to know directly from those actually involved in the process!

Not since the invention of the printing press and pamphleteering has such a golden opportunity existed for people with a passion for something to reach a massive, world wide audience.

And many of the stars of the Podcast world will be making an appearance at Podcast Toronto, from Leo LaPorte, one of the industry's pioneers to Anthony Marco, who hosts or co-hosts no fewer than five weekly podcasts (including the two Canadian ones listed above). Their workshops will cover everything from how to go about setting up a Podcast to how to handle fame and fortune when they come your way.

This is an essential event for everybody who wants to know more about Social Media and the ways information and entertainment will be transmitted in future.

And you won't need an ocean of Calamine lotion when it's over on Sunday night -- unless you're into that sort of thing and have been wondering if there's an audience out there who shares your particular interests.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Worth The Reminder

death star

The enduring image I'll take away from "CMPA 2011", last week's Canadian Media Producers Association conference of all those concerned with the Canadian film, TV and new Media Industries, was provided by Etan Vlessing in The Hollywood Reporter; an item which began…

"Canadian film and TV industry players are coming together Friday in Ottawa to discuss how to deal with Netflix. Local broadcasters, cable and satellite TV services, indie producers and unions and guilds will overcome rivalries and in-fighting to address concerns that the upstart Netflix Canada service undermines their industry’s revenue model."

It would appear that the Industry had met, discussed all of the problems facing it and concluded, "Hey, let's make the new kid pay!"

You could just visualize everybody running off to find a windowless room where they could quickly draft "Policy" before they had to beat the "Winterlude" traffic out of town. has a less polite assessment of the moment here.

Once again, the movers and shakers in our industry continued to follow what's become the traditional strategy of people unable to understand the simple economic reality that if you make a product people want they will pay for it.

But because the Canadian film and TV industry is more about regional job creation, bureaucratic job retention and cultural mandates nobody can ever quite define, we do something different.

First it was "make the government pay". Then it was "make the cable companies pay" which evolved into "make the ISPs pay".

Where once we were threatened by American hegemony, then DirectTV and then Specialty channels crucifying local TV, now we're all going out of business because Canadians might want to spent eight bucks a month on Netflix for all the streamed movies they can consume instead of six bucks a month for the cable portal which allows them to look at what they can rent for an additional charge from Shaw or Rogers or Bell.

Despite everything that Luke Skywalker and the Ewoks have done for us, there's always another Death Star lurking amid the Northern Lights.

And so we had Norm Bolen, CMPA's president and CEO, insisting the CRTC needed to force Netflix to bankroll the local industry even while it was already doing that by way of paying pretty good money to his Indy producer members to buy Canadian movies and TV shows it felt its subscribers might also pay to see.

Meanwhile, ACTRA National Executive Director Steve Waddell was declaring that Netflix was "unfair competition". Unfair to who, Steve? To Government funding agencies who might not wield as much clout over what gets produced in this country? To your own membership, whose work went unseen in local multiplexes but could now be easily accessed and appreciated via a video stream?

Part of me is eternally surprised that things move so slowly in this country while another portion keeps witnessing how readily those in control band together whenever it's time to hold back the hands of the clock.

Following "CMPA 2011", I spent the weekend catching up on some archived podcasts, which included the February 7th episode of CBC Radio's culture monitor "Q" (available for free on iTunes).


That morning's debate revolved around Usage Based Billing Fees and included University of Ottawa Professor Richard French, a former Vice-Chair of the CRTC. At one point it touched on whether the CRTC is representing the best interests of the Canadian Public.

Professor French's views on this would have been jaw-dropping if I wasn't already convinced that the CRTC had long ago undergone a regulatory capture by the corporations it supposedly regulates.

After explaining that most of the small ISPs hardest hit by Bell, Shaw and Rogers imposition of UBB only existed through the beneficence of the CRTC via a process he described as "Regulatory Arbitrage", Professor French took issue with the Public being unhappy at usage caps or what they were being charged for their Internet services.

"The Public can quote unquote decide anything it wants… But at the end of the day, people have to spend billions of dollars to build network capacity and they're not guided by what the Public quote unquote decides!"

In other words, this country is run by corporations who make the decisions -- not you, your government or any regulatory agency mandated to ensure the Public is fairly treated. You got that!?!!

Later, as the discussion turned to the possibility that Bell, Rogers and Shaw were imposing usage caps to protect the broadcast networks they own from Netflix competition and the CRTC was assisting in that strategy, Professor French seemed almost aghast at such a tinfoil hat conspiracy theory.

"…To imagine that somehow they're all perversely motivated to line the pockets of the shareholders of the big network operators is to imagine the world working in a way that it doesn't work."

Maybe the learned professor needs to do a little reading. Because if he happened to crack open Michael Lewis' "The Big Short" or Matt Taibbi's "Griftopia", both brilliant and 'take no prisoners' best sellers on the current financial crisis, he might learn that's EXACTLY how the world works.

Somehow we've got a lot of people in influential positions in this country who are either naive or completely out of their depth when it comes to divining how new technologies are going to impact the status quo.

And while that's disheartening, it reveals how incredibly ill-prepared the country as a whole is to the waves of change about to swamp us if we don't get our act together.

A year ago, this site and many others featured a video that Sony presented to its Annual shareholders meeting. Entitled "Did You Know?" it itemized the significant ways the future will be different from the past. If you missed it, take five minutes…

Today, our newscasts are filled with images of Social Media fuelled revolutions that network journalists struggle to understand. They and the political pundits they interview all swear nobody could see any of this coming.

Meaning, I guess, that they didn't see either "Did You Know?" or this follow-up video from last summer prophetically entitled "Welcome to the Revolution".

The message of both these videos is clear. The models of the past no longer apply.

In the case of Canadian film and TV, whose models didn't ever apply anywhere outside the country, we're even further behind and all our attempts to re-jig the future to save those overly invested in what worked before will ultimately prove futile -- and may even destroy any chance we have of catching up.

Stop trying to hold back the hands of the clock. It'll tear your arms out!

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Lazy Sunday #159: Everything Is A Remix


Last Sunday's 53rd Annual Grammy Awards spawned several "copycat" controversies. Some claimed that Cee Lo Green had copied the costume Elton John wore while playing "Crocodile Rock" on "The Muppet Show" in 1978.

Others whined that Lady Gaga's new hit "Born This Way" reminded them a whole lot of Madonna's "Express Yourself".


La Gaga poo-poohed such comparisons by pointing out that her song had arrived in an "immaculate conception" written from start to finish in less than ten minutes -- negating any chance of imitation since it takes four whole minutes to even get through "Express Yourself" to begin with.

Meanwhile still others insisted that Lady Antebellum's winning Song of the Year, "Need You Now" was almost identical to The Alan Parsons' Project's hit "Eye in the Sky" from the Grammy nominated 1982 album of the same name.

However, as one musicologist familiar with musical plagiarism lawsuits pointed out, "These songs are strikingly similar in production, arrangement, and groove. The first five notes and 2 chords of the chorus are the only similarity, and they're not identical."

Almost nobody remarked on how much the "53rd Annual Grammy Awards" resembled the "52nd Annual" and "51st Annual" Grammies, The Tonys, The Emmys, The Oscars and whatever ceremonies take place bi-weekly on MTV.

We live in a world where half the movies in the multiplex are sequels, pro hockey mascots wear the same capes and tights as Marvel Superheroes and Dane Cook has a comedy career. As the man said, "Amateurs copy, professionals steal" -- and I'd tell you who that man was but there are about 50 guys claiming the title.

As the debate over copyright law rages in Canada, with all kinds of people trying to define WHO gets to use WHAT and HOW they can mash, repurpose or just copy it; it might be worthwhile to take a step back and contemplate how much of what we think is original was copied in the first place.

Filmmaker Kirby Ferguson has embarked on just such an exploration, designing a four-part series of short films (perhaps to avoid being accused of copying the standard trilogy format) and releasing each once he's raised enough money to cover its cost through his website.

Part One of "Everything is a Remix" concentrates on music and you might want to avoid it if you're a Led Zeppelin fan or just hold a special place in the memory of your formative years for "Stairway to Heaven".

Part Three is currently under construction, due to be released in the Spring.

Part Two, which deals with motion pictures, is appended below. Don't click off when the credits roll because there's a whole lot more after that and even more at the filmmaker's website.

This is a great series for everyone interested in the boundaries of ownership, copyright or even what gets defined as "original".

Enjoy Your Sunday.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Moment of Absolute Certainty Never Arrives


The Canadian Media Production Association (Canada's industry rep for Producers formerly known as CFTPA) opened its annual conference in Ottawa today.

This is where our television networks, independent producers, government funders, regulators and enablers as well as related Creative Guilds and individual artists all gather to figure out what's going on in the business and where we need to be heading to build a more successful future.

Many will skip some of the speeches, discussion panels and workshops to make presentations to government committees on cultural issues like copyright legislation or file an intervention with the CRTC.

Others will use their free moments to lobby politicians on subjects like Tax credits, regional production incentives and funding for the Arts.

For those who live to take part in dry discussions in air-tight, windowless rooms, it's a dream come true. It's also the sad reality and necessity of how the Canadian production industry needs to operate to survive these days.

That's not to suggest that creativity, imagination and the desires of the audience (the things that ultimately determine true success in our industry) aren't in the back of delegates' minds. It's just that they are -- at the back of their minds.

A couple of experienced writer/producer friends and I confer regularly on the "State of the Industry", usually as it relates to the Canadian scene. What's working. What's not. Why it maybe is or isn't.

In a business where "Nobody Knows Anything", we like to think we perhaps do -- or at least we're a little ahead of the herd.

Our discussions are the reverse of what's going on in Ottawa this week. We examine what creative spark triggered which audience synapse, if those who'd been ignited told their friends and those friends told enough other friends to cause a ratings uptick and if that indicates a particular social or personal need has been satisfied.

Oh, we know that nothing gets on the air here unless the right balance can be struck between network development envelopes, regional incentives, federal tax credits, disparate funding bureaucracies and finding a foreign partner. But for us, it's the ideas driving the shows, their execution and the audience's acceptance or rejection that carry more weight.

Because otherwise, you might just as well work in a cubicle, manufacturing some nameless product that looks just like everything else out there and most people show no interest in acquiring. Oh wait, I'm talking about Canadian Media Production Association again.

For the vast majority of CMPA stamped shows only get made by meeting a bureaucratic checklist. Their main function is to replicate what everybody else is making. And most of the product is hardly watched in its homeland with few among that group of viewers who would miss them much if they were gone.

I doubt many members of the CMPA wanted to spend their lives as government welfare recipients churning out replicant series for diminishing pools of viewers. A lot of them are very passionate, intelligent and creative people who know they could be far more successful than they are.

But the Canadian way of making television has gotten in their way.

Now that could easily be changed. But it would mean taking a few chances and making a few hard decisions, traits for which our industry is not widely known.

Survival in Canada usually means following the herd and not being one of the Outliers. Often it seems like it's a process of waiting until conditions are absolutely perfect and unquestionable before taking a shot at something, moments which seldom if ever occur.


A couple of weeks ago, my writer-producer buddies and I all noticed that President Obama's State of the Union address coincided with a significant uptick in ratings for that night's CBC schedule of original Canadian shows.

Astute TV scribe Bill Brioux had also noticed, detailing the numbers here.

What those numbers indicated is that with programming on the major US networks pre-empted and their simulcasts here therefore replaced with reruns at CTV, 'A' Channel and Global, CBC had one of the few menus of new episodes on offer -- and they gained an audience.

This isn't a rare phenomena. It happens whenever there's an American election, major tragedy or other event of primary interest to those who aren't Canadians.

Another fairly reliable statistic for most Canadian produced shows is that, whatever the flaws in their pre-debut marketing, most debut extremely well. A few million for "Little Mosque" and up to 800,000 on very genre specific cable series like "Lost Girl".

Then the numbers inevitably decline. Maybe that's because the siren song of the American simulcast assisted by accompanying marketing machines reasserts itself. Maybe it's because audience needs went unmet by content or execution.

There are ways we could be fighting back and trying to hang onto that audience. But we're not. And each of our three main combatants in this fight, the networks, the producers and the creatives, could be stepping up to make a difference.

First, the networks.


I'll leave CTV, Global and Rogers out of this, because frankly they are out of it, showing only as much commitment to Canadian shows as their license mandate and Canadian Media Fund envelopes require. They've never done more than they absolutely had to -- and short of another prolonged Writers or Screen Actors Guild strike, they probably never will.

So what could the CBC do practically to get more people watching their shows?

Well, for starters, we could dispense with the repetitive five year plans to do something. Unlike Mao's Agrarian Great Leap Forward, the media world isn't based on a definable landscape of arable land that'll be there season after season to replant and harvest while learning to be more efficient.

Things change fast in TV and they're changing faster every day. What's more, CBC has already made it clear that year one of the newest plan is a write off by renewing virtually everything currently on-air no matter how weak the ratings.

They've also just announced Public Hearings on the latest plan so it can be adjusted. Far be it for anybody in charge of the CBC to actually take charge. Sign up to voice your opinion here.

So we'll be into 2013 before anything substantial is in place. And by then -- well, take a look at what audience viewing habits were in late 2008 and ask yourself how helpful that is in crafting the show you're making today.

CBC Execs have to move quicker. It should go without saying that they should not be obsessed with making sure we're all eating carrot sticks and have a personal trainer named Chad. But apparently, the size of the audience as a whole is of less concern than their individual waistlines.

They also need to be reminded that, while they are "technically" government employees, they can't operate as if everybody has a job for life once they're in the door.

CBC Development in the Comedy and Drama departments is virtually "Zero for…" two seasons running now, three if you count what little seems to be in the hopper for next year.

And I'm sorry -- spin all you want but "Republic of Doyle", which consistently loses 50% of its lead-in, is not a hit. Nor is "Insecurity", "Men With Brooms" or "Being Erica" ie: half of the current slate.

Hits BUILD audiences, they don't BARELY MAINTAIN the average audience or approximate the population of some city in Northern Ontario most of us couldn't find on a map.

When shows don't achieve ratings success it either means they haven't found their audience or the audience has found them lacking.

For some reason CBC rarely moves a show to see if a larger audience for it might exist elsewhere on the schedule. I don't know if that comes from a feeling of looking inept or not feeling it'll make any damn difference anyway.

Either way, if you don't passionately believe in a show and try everything you can to get more people to see it, it shouldn't be on your network in the first place.

I also don't know if the CBC Development problem is the people in Development or the people they answer to, but one or both needs to see a change of either personnel or proficiency.

How about finding somebody with more than ten names on their Rolodex to start with.

Seriously, Kevin O'Leary, a Bay Street Blowhard, will get to do his arrogant act on a THIRD series next year? Is everybody with an ACTRA card busy? Or does working with them not impress the wealthy and/or influential friends somebody in an Executive suite would rather have?

But if everybody in a corner office really does have a job for life, here's something else they might try to pump the numbers…

The guy who ran CBS when I was there never went anywhere without this ginormous binder under his arm that listed every episode of every show his network had in production, when it was available for broadcast, who was in it and the key story elements.

It also held as much of that info on every show from every competing network as he could find.

He'd get a call that Fox was bumping "The Simpsons" because of a baseball game or ABC had to run a repeat because the star was in rehab and he was immediately in that book, figuring out how to best take advantage of any viewers who might want an alternative.

He did this ten times a day. Sometimes we'd get a call after a major news event (let's say a Mob boss being gunned down) asking if we could rush our own "mob boss gets shot" story through post so it could run before audience interest diminished.

Even miniscule bumps in the ratings were worth millions to him and he knew that if the audience thought what they were watching was just as good as their regular show they'd come back the next time it got bumped or repeated or his show resonated with something rattling around their awareness.

Simulcast has always been our biggest enemy but it could easily become the way we pry audience away. Apparently CTV has a huge problem this year with the conflict between the scheduling of "American Idol" and "Big Bang Theory". Now the 2nd night of "Idol" has to run on "A".

Canadian shows need to take advantage of those kind of conflicts and miscues. And when we get a State of the Union Address or Tucson Memorial we need to know that despite our personal feelings or network news priorities that they have less overall resonance here and hype what's running opposite that's Cancon.

While it's great to provide your audience with some stability and regularity, there's nothing wrong with changing things up every now and then. You just need to decide to be more flexible. Those folks who eat roast beef (or Tofu) every Thursday might enjoy a change once in a while themselves.


Continuing that thought brings me to our Independent Producers…

They need to be pushing networks harder to maximize the potential of their shows, to offer their own strategies for increasing the audience on a week to week basis. Often that kind of advocacy puts off a network. They know their audience and they know how to sell to them.

That's all well and good. And no Producer wants to irritate the network running their show. But there's no better cure for chafed egos than more people watching.

Those high debut numbers for Canadian series and the migration to Canadian shows rather than repeats of their regular diet should also clue Producers in that there is a hunger out there for something the audience hasn't seen before.

Yeah it's comforting to have buyers who'll pay for the same old same old. But we all know there's equal money plus the chance of multiple development deals when you break new ground or bring in an audience they weren't expecting.

Beyond maybe one series a year, we aren't gaining audience share by copying US programming (where we can be endlessly found wanting when compared with somebody's experience with decades of similar shows) than we would be by trying to be different.

Instead of getting into the well-worn doctor/lawyer/cop beaten path, we need to do what they either can't do in LA or are afraid to try.

If MTV's version of "Skins" can be filmed here and simulcast here as well as the US, why couldn't a Canadian company have found the support to garner the rights in the first place?

Around 1973, I starred in a US Pilot filmed in Toronto that had a locked production schedule and ended up having to shoot in the middle of a blizzard. At first, everybody thought that would wreck the project. But I'll never forget the director screaming with glee after seeing the winter wonderland that his completely derivative and forgettable pilot was now inhabiting.

"Okay, you Motherfuckers! Do THIS on the back lot at Universal!!!"

Point being -- we have strengths we don't use and story directions we don't take because we're trying too hard to imitate US shows.

I've always believed you imitate pace, shooting style and story structure because that's what the audience uses to unconsciously determine what's "professional" and what's not. But to really break through, the content has to be something they can't find anywhere else.

Which brings me to those of us who create the shows that are pitched to independent producers in the first place…

And while I don't mean to single out the writers of "Men With Brooms", "Insecurity", "The Listener" and "Republic of Doyle" -- I do.

Ladies and Gentlemen, the work just isn't good enough.

I know many of you are dealing with clueless executives, out-of-control producer or star egos or concepts that diminish what you write and often the end product is interchangeable with brain neutralizers much like anything on ABC or NBC.

I know that there will always be better shows than the one you're making in your own genre.

But when ALL the shows in your genre and maybe on television anywhere are better than your show, you need to speak up.

Because the audience don't know you've got a shit-for-brains Exec or a showrunner who has to ask nicely before somebody will show him the jar in which his testicles are being stored for the duration. They think the show is shitty because of you.

In a recent review of Showtime's brilliant new series "Episodes" screenwriter Ken Levine touched on the responsibility of writers and showrunners in television:

"It just makes me uncomfortable to see showrunners portrayed with absolutely no spine. Because here’s the dirty little secret: You might as well fight and do the show your way because even if you do all of their suggestions, and even if you surrender to them at every turn, if the show doesn’t work YOU still get blamed."

For me, all of us, network Execs, Producers and Writers are all operating within an approach to production not far removed from the mentality than runs most government departments -- initiative isn't rewarded and just showing up is its own reward, so what's the point of even trying to do a better job?

But we have to. Because no matter how well we learn to work or play the system, it's a system which has a weaker grip on the audience every day.

We need to decide on a new direction.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Lazy Sunday #158: It Came From The Rec Room

wayne's world

Last week, "Saturday Night Live" opened reprising a sketch format and characters that hadn't been seen on television since 1994. Yet in 17 years, the iconic images of "Wayne's World" hadn't lost resonance with the SNL audience.

Although made world famous by comedians Mike Myers and Dana Carvey, "Wayne's World" actually first reached a mass audience as "Wayne's Power Minute" on the CBC series "It's Only Rock And Roll" many years earlier, when Myers was an up and coming member of Toronto's Second City Theatre.

For the most part, I think the concept owes both its longevity and its popularity to the conceit that Wayne and his Metalhead pal Garth are broadcasting live from his parents' basement.

Because, somehow, somewhere, we all got our start in mom and dad's basement.

I don't know how long the Rec Room or "Rumpus Room", as it was known in my day, has been around. I just know that in the summer of my 12th year, they were all the rage in the suburbs of my hometown Regina.

My dad was finally making enough money to turn our unfinished basement into a place where the kids could be sent after school and where the neighbors would gather on weekend nights to savor the pleasures of the Tiki bar.

Yes, my basement had its own Tiki Bar, created following the precise fold out blueprints from some back issue of "Popular Mechanics".

I myself spent most of my last summer before puberty carving the 4 foot Tiki God that greeted visitors at the bottom of the stairs. I'm pretty sure it earned me a Boy Scout Merit Badge for Wood Work.

I also recall visiting the local Beaver Lumber yard, where the harried sales guy haggled with my dad over the price of wood paneling, at a time when everybody hungered for exotic "Shan-Tung" but usually settled for low cost "Knotty Pine". Our Tiki bar was the pride of the neighborhood because it was backed by four panels of hard to find faux "Don the Beachcomber".

But when my dad wasn't mixing Mai-Tai's and my mom had stopped selecting Les Baxter records, and when my brothers and I weren't watching some late movie on the B&W TV exiled to the basement for the color RCA upstairs, the Rec Room became something else.

It was where I first learned the audition piece I needed to land my first high school play. It was where I plugged in my first electric guitar. It was probably the first place I ever got to third base.

Every budding artist and anybody who just wanted to say or do something creative to mark their passage through this life once curled up on a discarded couch in their parents' basement to see if they could get that spark to ignite.

If it did and you went on to a career, some secret part of you still remembers that moment of creative conception.

Moments that still go on in the basements of the homes kids grow up in today.

A couple of weeks ago, one of the neighbors I walk my dog with told me his son had just gotten famous on the Internet.

Working out of mom and dad's basement, Hip-Hop artists Dan Bennett and Dave Wallace had decided to see if they could write a successful pop song in eight hours -- just to prove how predictable and formulaic the current Pop charts have become.

Using Mom's alarm clock to verify they were keeping within the 8 hour challenge and with a videocam recording the entire process, they created a tune called "Lights, Camera, Action" within the proscribed time -- burger break included.

Then they posted the result on Youtube.

A month later, they had garnered a half million video hits -- and sold more than 5000 copies of the song on iTunes.

But there's more…

In addition to vastly increasing sales of their less tongue in cheek iTunes library, the song has also led to all kinds of other music and video industry opportunities for the guys.

Like Wayne and Garth, they connected with a world-wide audience from their parents' basement.

A couple of weeks following the debut of their 8 hour video, Dan Bennett appeared on CBC Radio's culture journal "Q" to discuss all that had happened, in the process revealing a deep understanding of not only the way New Media works but of the importance of doing work that matters to you as an artist and not just what might give you a moment in the sun.

At it's half million hits, "Lights, Camera, Action" stands head and shoulders above all of the New Media offerings funded by the Canadian Media Fund over the past year at a cost of several million dollars.

So if the real intent of that Fund was to establish a "Canadian presence on the Internet", it would appear that a couple of guys goofing around on a fold-out couch for an evening accomplished more than all of the government approved Media professionals over months of development, approval meetings and shooting.

I'm not trying to start an argument here. I'm just pointing out that maybe our subsidy system has got it backwards. And instead of trying to kick-start a culture, we simply need to start rewarding those who accomplish the intended goals through their own creativity and initiative.

In other words, maybe its time to stop investing in vague bureaucratic intentions and start coming up with some cash for those who actually bring in the harvest by proving they can reach an audience in the first place.

What's a Canadian "Internet presence" worth -- certainly it's more than Google Ads are paying.

In more cases than you can count, an idea nurtured under a paint-by-numbers picture hung on a wall of knotty pine has led to some real life director calling "Lights, Camera, Action" and this is just the latest. But it points in a direction we all need to start looking.

Enjoy Your Sunday.


Link to the CBC "Q" interview is here.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

The Man Ain't Got No Dysculture

red abbey

"He's so unhip that…
When you say Dylan, he thinks you're talking about Dylan Thomas,
Whoever he was.
The man ain't got no culture,
But it's all right, ma…
Everybody must get stoned."
-- Paul Simon (A Simple Desultory Philippic)

I used to think I was the only one having trouble keeping up. There were days I looked in the mirror and swore I saw Andy Rooney staring back at me.

I mean, really, how did Kim Kardashian make the transition from being pissed on in a sex tape to having her own series on Slice? Every time somebody stopped her on the red carpet to ask "Who are you wearing?" was I the only guy stifling a giggle?

Was I the lone onlooker finding it odd that all those people championing the numerical purity of StatsCanada were suddenly chastising it for delivering crime stats they didn't like?

Did no one else notice that those newspaper editorials suggesting '…Usage Based Internet Billing might actually be worthy of consideration by right-thinking people…' were sandwiched between the full page ad from Rogers and the three color brochure insert from Bell?

Although I'm often accused of being a contrarian, a voice in the wilderness and a tinfoil hat wearing troublemaker -- not to mention Cyber Luddite who can't make his typeset choices compatible with an RSS feed -- despite all that, I really do try to discover where my laser sharp lens may have been knocked a kilter.

So I do a lot of research. I watch Jon Stewart AND Glenn Beck. I listen to CBC radio WHILE making sure I touch base with Corus Radio's Mike Stafford every morning. I have people in my Twitter feed I'd NEVER allow within 300 meters of my physical person.

I even listen to podcasts.

And that's when I discovered I not only wasn't alone. There were people out there podcasting who were way smarter, much more opinionated and certainly far drunker than I'll ever be.

May I introduce you to "DYSCULTURED".

If you care in the least about Canadian culture, the state of the Media and somehow figuring out the difference between 3G and 4G, this is a podcast you must listen to, preferably live and in all cases with handy access to alcoholic beverages.

"Dyscultured" is the audio creation of Anthony Marco, Andrew Currie, Shane Birley and Mike Vardy, four Cultural pundits and New Media pioneers streaming live for an hour or so every Wednesday night at 10:00 pm Eastern and thereafter available in episodic downloads on their website and via iTunes.

An open chat room runs concurrent with the audio presentation, allowing listeners to interact with their hosts and either interject new information or goad them to further excess.

There's also a wiki page for those who sign on to the site (for free) to drop in links on both the topics of the evening and other items they think will interest this community.

The resulting discussions are all over the map (as are the Skype linked hosts) covering everything from Usage Based Billing and the latest 3D films to web page design, emerging technologies and bullshit politicians.

In other words, it's all the stuff that anybody working in culture industries or trying to navigate their personal online options bumps into every single day.

But what makes "Dyscultured" not only informative but enormously entertaining is the "four-guys-who-actually-know-a-thing-or-two-talking-loudly-in-a-bar" format. Any single podcast includes more laughs than an entire season of "Little Mosque", more profanity than is bleeped from an MTV Awards show and better information than all the American "experts" interviewed on Newsworld.

In other words, they know their beat and you can drink to it.

Maybe the best thing about the Internet, the reason there's a Julian Assange, streets full of jubilant Egyptians and a CRTC Chairman pounding his head into his desk, is that we don't live in a one-note world anymore, a world where you're considered out of place or out of line because you don't hum the same note as everybody else.

There really are enlightening and energizing new ways of looking at the culture and Dyscultured is one of the best.

Monday, February 07, 2011

The CRTC Gets Super Bowled and Steam Rolled


So, I'm hosting a Super Bowl party yesterday afternoon. Still operating on Eastern Time, I'm in a hurry to get the last of the fixin's just right -- because on the West coast the game seems to start mid-afternoon.

The "boys" are all arrayed in the den. Friends of my dad in their 80's who'll nurse one beer through the first half and opt for a nice cuppa tea if they're awake after zoning out during the Black Eyed Peas.

I thumb the remote for the Shaw cable box wondering if the CTV feed will be as muddy as it always appears in Toronto, landing on FOX-HD and thinking its actually pretty good. Then the pre-game show breaks for one last set of commercials and I realize they're not Canadian commercials, they're American. And there's no CTV logo glowing in the corner.

Oh God! Can this really be happening? The biggest ratings night on television and somebody forgot to flip the sim-sub switch?

As they doffed their coats and picked out a La-Z-boy, a couple of the fellas had mentioned what a shame it was that Canadians couldn't watch all those commercials everybody was talking about. One or two had managed to peek at a couple on the Internet and didn't understand what the harm was.

Being in Canadian showbiz, I tried to explain how Canadian broadcasters were struggling financially and needed to have their audience protected, how simultaneous substitution worked and the like. It all went in one hearing aid and out the other.

Protecting cash strapped broadcasters doesn't make much sense to guys who all saw their cable rates jump fairly significantly in the last year and just got notices from Shaw about how they needed to protect themselves from sudden shocks on their Internet bills by pre-buying new packages of data.

The guy with the most net-savvy gestured to the commercial he'd sneak peeked on his daughter's laptop and asked how I was getting it. "Do you show people have special codes or something?"

As the game kicked off and the US feed, complete with all-new commercials and FOX promos for "Glee" instead of the CTV hype for "Flashpoint" CanCon, I wondered if CRTC chair Konrad von Finckenstein's previous week from Hell was but a prelude to an even larger upheaval.

Maybe the revolutionary winds blowing across the Middle East were also sweeping through Cable company boardrooms.

I flipped on the phone and Twittered a quick "Nyah-nyah, I can see the commercials and you can't" to all my Canadian friends -- promptly discovering that a lot of them had made the same discovery. The news from elsewhere was that Rogers also hadn't closed off the Fox HD feed in many of their markets either.

Toronto and Vancouver seemed to be the only exceptions.

So -- what was going on?

Was somebody pissed that Konrad had lost the Usage Based Billing argument with the government and now Bell had to get by on the $200,000 it makes every hour while still claiming rural broadband and urban fiber optic cable is just too expensive to achieve at the moment?

Were Shaw and Rogers, realizing that the CRTC is toothless, or still intends to make them pay for the local broadcasting CTV can't afford (and still hasn't scheduled) -- were they reminding KvF who's really in charge now?

I mean, it's not like we haven't been here before.

In 2008, Bell Expressvu (now Bell TV) broadcast the US feed of the Super Bowl on its satellite service claiming an exception because the game was/is "…a Pop Culture Phenomenon".

Local rights holder, CTV, disagreed and the CRTC agreed with them in their traditional stance of "whatever the broadcasters say goes for us too".

Nobody got fined or anything because the CRTC can't do that  -- making you wonder why anybody else feels the need to comply when they pull a radio license or say you and I have to cough up a few more dollars for cable, mobile or Internet service. 

But they made Bell promise to follow the simultaneous simulcast rules in future. They also did the same with Shaw who had broadcast the American version on their HD service due to -- ahem -- "technical difficulties".

For the 2009 and 2010 Super Bowls everybody did what they were told. I'm not sure how much that had to do with the "No TV Tax/Save Local TV" debate that was raging at the time with cable operators trying to convince the CRTC they were the real good-guys fighting for the rights of Canadians.

Now -- there is a loophole in the sim-sub rule…

A cable operator can opt not to replace a US program feed under three criteria:

1) The substitution must be requested by the Canadian network.

2) The Canadian signal must be of equal or better quality than the imported one.

3) The market must have a Canadian over-the-air broadcaster.

Since CTV has been dragging its feet setting up HD signals (because y'know they're broke and maybe the government, cable subscribers or somebody else should really pay for that) that means that cable companies are only required to substitute in two markets, Toronto and Vancouver -- which they did.

But -- the 2009 Bell ruling clearly stated that BDU's had to assure CTV in advance that simultaneous substitution would take place for SD and HD signals nationally, and that Canadian subscribers would not have access to American commercials.

So what happened?

Was CTV so busy hyping the final episode of "Flashpoint" following the big game and collecting the cheques for sponsorship within it that they forgot to request sim-sub?

Was the CTV signal not up to Shaw and Rogers standards (Stop laughing, technophiles!)

Did the Cable Operators pull a fast one?

Given that the Canadian media has been moaning about how hard done by Canadians wanting to see US Ads are in the lead up to the Super Bowl, how come neither Shaw nor Rogers came out and said, "If you don't live in Toronto or Vancouver, no problem!"

Because if what they did was on the up-and-up, what was stopping them from doing that?

Last week we were treated to the kind of populist uprising that causes responsible governments to realize the will of the people is what matters most. And no, I'm not talking about Egypt, I'm talking about the Canadian Federal Government responding to the groundswell against Usage Based Billing for Internet services.

We were also treated to obscenely profitable corporations claiming their systems would collapse unless they charged several dollars for delivering a Gigabyte of data that actually costs them about 3 cents to supply. These would be the same wealthy corporations that don't charge you more for leaving your television on 24/7 or making unlimited local phone calls -- even when that's made up of bits of the same digital data mostly travelling down the same pipe as the internet.

And we were treated to the Chair of the Commission which regulates that data sitting before a Parliamentary committee and confirming his Luddite status by assuring MPs as lost in this new world as he is that IPTV has nothing to do with the Internet.

Us Showbiz folks operate on an old Hollywood adage, "Nobody Knows Anything". And as more awareness of how the rest of the world operates comes to light, from Wikileaks to Bloggers, it becomes clear that the same theory applies pretty much anywhere else.

Did Canadians win last night because they got a chance to see a few high-concept commercials? Or did they lose because many of them wouldn't have been reminded to watch the finale of one of our finest homegrown television dramas?

Once again, it feels a little bit like the complete disarray in the regulatory agenda and an endless corporate dick-measuring contest ended up fucking a bunch of Canadian artists most of all.

I don't really care if the CRTC goes or stays. But it sure as hell needs to get its shit together.

And so does a government that doesn't seem to understand we are fully in an information and digital age that impacts every single aspect of our society from healthcare to retail to research and development. The Family Compact mentality that says we need to have Oligarchs and Oligarchic monoliths in charge of everything we do is about a century out of date.

And, on a personal note, Eminem driving through his beloved Detroit in a new Chrysler both made me tear up and gave me a sense of hope.

Sunday, February 06, 2011

Lazy Sunday # 157: Cat Shit One


On a day when the primary theme of television will be the King Kong vs. Godzilla clash between macho football titans named after muscular professions (Steel Making and Meat Packing) their respective home towns don't do so much of anymore -- why should mercenary bunny rabbits seem out of place?

About a year ago, this weird little snippet of animation entitled "Cat Shit One" appeared around the web, featuring said mercenary bunnies in a Middle East setting, doing -- well who knows what, because the whole thing was in Japanese.

Many dismissed it as another whack-job Japanese imitation of American memes that end up getting lost in translation. But within the two minute trailer there were also indications of heart and humanity which combined with an obviously very professional animation style suggested it might be something more.

"Cat Shit One" first appeared in 1998 as a Manga comic book. It followed the adventures of three American grunts in Vietnam named Botasky, Packy and Rats. Like all the other Americans in the story, they were depicted as rabbits. Other nationalities were represented in other animal forms. The Vietnamese were cats, the French were pigs and the Chinese were Pandas.

Like Art Spiegelman's "Maus", the only comic book to ever win a Pulitzer prize, "Cat Shit One" used its animal creatures to access truths we humans tend to clutter with our pre and misconceptions of other nationalities.

And now "Cat Shit One" has made the transition from comic book to animated series as well as from Japanese to English. And in an attempt to reach a wider audience, it has been updated from the Vietnam conflict and was released online yesterday, in the hope that those seeing it will want to own the DVD version.

It's a high quality and attractive piece of work, well worth a half hour of your time. Those mercenary bunnies really do manage to burrow under your skin.

Blue Ray DVD is available here. Episode One is offered for your viewing pleasure below.

Enjoy your Sunday.

Thursday, February 03, 2011

A Bit Is A Bit Is A Bit


When dictatorships want to control those who do not agree with them they control access to the Internet. When Canadian corporations want to control those who compete with them they control access to the Internet.

Most of world's economies are based on scarcity, the law of supply and demand, a system which creates most of our wealth and much of what passes for power.

Precious metals and rare earth minerals are worth a great deal more than other mined ores because they are not found in vast quantities. A frost in Florida increases the price of Orange juice.A massive salmon run decreases the cost of fish.

Fortunes can also be made by creating the impression that a scarcity exists. Vaults beneath the streets of Amsterdam hold hoards of diamonds which are carefully rationed out to maintain the value of existing stones.

OPEC turns the pipeline taps on and off to make sure their member nations make the greatest profit from their oil reserves.

Until the last couple of days it appeared that Canadian ISP's were about to make an impression of scarcity increase their already hefty bottom lines.

Supported by the CRTC, the nation's regulator of all things radio, TV, phone and internet, they had already begun rolling out Usage Based Billing, wherein the once "Unlimited" Cyber Buffet was going to be not only "throttled" to control how fast you could down or upload but also rationed so those who used more would be billed more.

To most people, this fit with the laws of supply and demand under which they have operated all their lives. If I want to download a movie from iTunes or Netflix, which amounts to about a Gigabyte and a half in Hi-Def, then I'm obviously using more bits than a guy who only goes online to email his grandma a joke every Sunday afternoon. Because as Bell Internet Honcho Marco Bibic says, "A bit is a bit is a bit."

A "bit" therefore has a price and the more bits you use, the more bits you should have to pay for. And with more and more people using the Internet for more and more things, more and more bits are flowing through the system.


One of our largest ISP's -- Shaw -- charges $47/month for a package that will deliver 100 Gb to your computer before additional charges are applied for downloading additional bits. That would make the Shaw price $0.47 per Gigabyte.

If a Shaw subscriber happens to go over that limit, they're charged $2.00 per additional Gb. The same as Bell but less than one half what Rogers has listed on its rate sheet.

But if "A bit is a bit is a bit" then this seems somewhat out of line.

Just how out of line becomes clear when you learn that it actually costs a Canadian ISP about $0.03 to deliver a Gigabyte to begin with.

Which means -- why is a Shaw subscriber already paying more than a 1000% mark-up on those first 100 Gb? And maybe more importantly, how have they managed to get away with charging for the billions of bits Canadians have been purchasing in advance for years -- but have never used?

I've often been out of the country for months at a time, faithfully paying my monthly internet bill while nothing is flowing through my ISP other than emails that couldn't add up to a single Gb if I were a Nigerian spammer.

Estimates are that the Internet usage paid for by Canadians but never actually used has given our larger ISPs a 5000% profit margin -- meaning they are earning 5000 times more than the actual difference between what it costs to operate the system and what they take home after those costs are paid.

No wonder these guys can buy entire TV networks (while arguing over how much that makes them owe content providers) and slap their logos over everything from hockey arenas to tennis tournaments.

How they've been able to do this comes down to another economic idiosyncrasy known as "Regulatory Capture". Regulatory Capture describes a system in which a cartel takes over the regulator of the industry concerned and distorts its policies to their advantage.

Does that image fit the CRTC all too well or just "mostly"?

From the first posts on this blog, I've been writing about how out of whack the television rulings of the CRTC have been with both its parliamentary mandate as a consumer watchdog and the needs of the vast majority who work within the industry.

Since 1999, when the CRTC took the side of broadcasters over the larger needs of those who made Canadian television, we have been an industry in decline.

Initially, we dropped from dozens of Canadian made TV series to a mere handful and in the decade since have never come close to returning to production levels that had not only sustained thousands but had begun to create a visible landscape of Canadian drama and comedy on television.

In all the years since, whether the issue has been genre protection, bundling of channels, local programming or the rampant foreign spending of our networks, the CRTC has always sided with the broadcasters to the detriment of artists, content providers and the general public.

Many in television have come to believe the CRTC is securely tucked in the broadcasters' pockets, knowing well before the dog-and-pony show of various rounds of hearings what their decisions will ultimately be.

Many in the mobile industry have felt the same way. So have those who either access the Internet through or operate the small ISPs who must piggyback the majors.

We all know the CRTC consistently follows the money, no matter how negative the impact is on anyone else.

As of this morning, it appears that the Federal government is poised to overturn the CRTC decision to allow Usage Based Billing. The reality is that the rising anger in the nation compels them to do it. Any political party supporting such corporate gouging of its citizens would deservedly be defeated at the polls.

Following on the heels of the overturning of a CRTC ruling last year which attempted to keep many of the same corporations which own ISPs from having to face competition from new and upstart mobile suppliers, it would finally appear that the powers that be have recognized that the CRTC has been compromised and needs to be either overhauled or eliminated.

And maybe it's time to go a little further.

Allowing consortiums from Spain to operate toll roads in Canada doesn't seem to have destroyed the country's transportation grid. Companies from the Emirates seem quite capable of managing our largest port without impinging on Canadian trade. Even an Egyptian based cell phone provider seems not to have prevented its Canadian subscribers from carrying on their businesses.

Maybe it's time for the Canadian TV and ISP monopolies to come to an end as well.

It's clear to everyone involved that the UBB issue only gained prominence because of the arrival of Netflix in Canada. More efficient computers and routers had already made "throttling" a non-issue (which still didn't stop the CRTC from ruling the will of their regulatory captors). But now, the TV and Video on demand arms of those same ISPs were threatened. What better way to fend off the competition than to price them out of the market?

There's a clear conflict of interest when a media owner, content provider and ISP are one and the same. It's a conflict American legislators realized half a century ago when they broke up the stranglehold Hollywood studios held over distribution and theatre ownership. The studios claimed Washington would kill Hollywood. What followed instead was one of the biggest booms in creativity and commerce that the film industry had ever seen.

Is it time that somebody said you can't own the TV Show, the network it runs on, the specialty networks it runs on after that as well as the ISP that prevents the public from accessing an alternative?

Has the moment arrived when ISPs and their cable companies no longer need protected turf and monopoly status? Aren't they now big enough and rich enough to compete with one another and give Canadians a real choice in who they buy from -- or maybe even loosen things up further so they can compete with an American company like Comcast who thinks nothing of offering their customers a basic 250 Gb/month at a cheaper monthly rate?

How is that even possible with 10x the population with many more streaming and podcasting options clogging the pipes? Or have Canadian ISPs and the CRTC been a little loose on those facts as well?

Is it maybe time we also took somebody like Marco Bibic at his word and declared that indeed "A bit is a bit is a bit"? Maybe we shouldn't have to pay for any bits we don't either download or uplink in any given month.

Imagine buying a tank of gas, driving around for a few days and then going back to fill up again. Does the gas station make you give back the gas you already purchased but haven't burned? Do they insist that you must buy another full tank? Do they charge a higher price for any extra gas you might want to take home for the lawnmower?


When it comes to buying gas, a liter is a liter is a liter. So if "A bit is a bit is a bit", then I need to be rebated what I haven't used each month or be allowed to carry it over to next month.

I'm sorry if that means that some exec at Rogers can't glad-hand Roger Federer over the shrimp tray or wave to the Sedin twins from his private box.

But if "a bit is a bit is a bit", then maybe the needs of those who conduct their business, their social lives, their financial dealings, their altruism, their political agendas and anything else that Canadians use the Internet to accomplish -- maybe they take precedence over a few corporations who got where they are not through innovation, invention or hard work, but from having the CRTC working with them against the consumer.