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.


Unknown said...

Sigh. Brilliant post.

Sam Jephcott said...

So right - everyone seems to have failed in the 'challenges' presented by the 500 channel universe. Remember when "Adventures in Rainbow Country" garnered 5-million?

Mona said...

I love this post. One of Canada's strengths is that it's smaller and with a smaller audience CBC can afford to take more risks with series than a major network in the US can -- but they take less risks! If it fails, not that big of a deal, but a success can (theoretically) go around the world! England has done this well many times over, we should study and learn from their model.