Friday, April 15, 2011

Behind Closed Doors

"And when we get behind closed doors
Then she lets her hair hang down…
Oh, no one knows what goes on behind closed doors."

-- Charlie Rich


Except now we do…

And it's a little disturbing.

License Renewal hearings for Canada's television conglomerates continued this week, focused primarily on how much Canadian content they'll provide and what percentages of it will be in the forms of drama, comedy, documentary, news and local programming.

The meatiest of those discussions (in truth, negotiations with the regulator) take place "in-camera", behind closed doors and far from the prying eyes of those whose livelihoods depend on the decisions that are made after these secret consultations have concluded.

Redacted transcripts later appear, often with so much content omitted the reader leafs through endless blank pages, enduring hard questions never answered and the punchlines of jokes made at the expense of Canadian artists excised.

But every now and then a chunk of dialogue escapes unexpurgated -- and the reality of how the broadcast system in Canada operates is revealed.

It's not a pretty picture.

But it's one every creative artist and producer aspiring to create television in this country needs to take to heart.

The following is lifted from transcript of the April 4, 2011 in-camera discussion between representatives of Bell Media and the CRTC. The bulk of the session is a numbing bickerfest over the percentages of Cancon the broadcaster may be required to deliver and how the accounting will be done.

But toward the end, they get into the actual production of Canadian drama and how they all feel about the people who actually make the stuff. To label it as self-serving and insulting wouldn't begin to describe the wholesale negation of what most Canadian artists do for a living.

If I were to list three take-aways from what follows, they would be these:

1. Never again assume that anyone who works for a Canadian television network actually likes or truly wants to do your show.

2. Don't believe for a moment that a rebirth of Canadian television drama is on the horizon.

3. Tom Pentefountas, the newest Commissioner, the man derided as a crony of the current government with absolutely no experience in the industry he was appointed to regulate, well -- he might be the one guy who "gets" what we do and shares our inability to understand why the system can't be changed.

And maybe that means that some of those who represent artists and railed against him have as much vested in the system not changing as our broadcasters.

Read. Weep for your dreams. Then either decide to draw your line in the sand or update your passport and get out while the getting is good.

380  COMMISSIONER PENTEFOUNTAS: I think everyone in this room would agree that Canadian drama constitutes a mirror for who we are and that's why it's important. I'm not sensing a lot of excitement from the representations I have heard this afternoon and this morning for Canadian drama.

381  I understand that "CSI Miami" is profitable, but "CSI Miami" does not reflect Canadians. We don't see ourselves in "CSI Miami" necessarily. I don't mean to offend any of the producers of "CSI Miami" and nobody likes Miami more than I do, but that's the reality of the situation.

382  So are you telling me that competent creative people such as yourselves cannot make quality Canadian dramas that Canadians, for one, want to watch without being forced to watch and that, second, is not of a sufficient quality that we can sell it and export that product to create a revenue stream outside of Canadian revenues?

383  MR. CRULL: Well, what I had hoped the video to convey in our opening remarks, is that this team is incredibly passionate about Canadian dramas. "The Borgias" just is premiering last night on Bravo, it's an amazing Canadian produced drama; "Flashpoint" has been the most successful Canadian police drama.

386  COMMISSIONER PENTEFOUNTAS: I saw your video. It was great. Yes, you used those Canadian dramas in your promotional video and that was fantastic, very exciting, but I don't see an energy, an excitement and a desire to go forward with more Canadian dramas and to put our efforts, our creative and advertising efforts towards pumping up Canadians to watch Canadian dramas.

387  MR. CRULL: We have delivered in the last few years the most successful Canadian drama, the most successful Canadian comedy and I can guarantee you with the spend obligations the reason there is not a lot of energy is this isn't a creative review, this is a policy setting for financial purposes.

388  The 30 percent CPE is going to provide enough money, the PNI at 5 percent and the benefits, there is going to be an amazing flow of Canadian drama, documentary and scripted programming that is going to flow from this effort.

389  COMMISSIONER PENTEFOUNTAS: You know, there are increased costs in production and that was mentioned earlier. Why don't we have a PNI of 10 percent given the increase in production costs? Your overall CPE is still at 30, but your PNI is at 10. I understand you feel that those are the biggest money losers out there; right?

390  The only problem with that is they are also the greatest reflection of who Canadians are and we want to see ourselves -- it used to be on the small screen, now we want to see ourselves on all the screens and all the platforms. So why can't we do 10 percent PNI?

392  MR. CRULL: In a business that is burdened like this and the loss of flexibility -- the definition of the PNI's makes it very difficult for us, I think, to find that. And with the amount of money also, there is more money flowing to PNI in the next five years, from my observation, than in the history of this industry. So I would find it a very misguided policy decision to go to 10 percent.

396  MR. KEVIN GOLDSTEIN: One of the things that needs to be highlighted from a policy perspective relating to 10 or 9 or 8 or 7 or even 6 in the case of ours, it far outpaces historical spend in the area, which the Commission made it quite clear in their policy statement was not going to happen out of this process. So I think obviously we have concern on that.

397  As to your specific question about rising production costs, the impact of rising production costs is that a dollar doesn't go as far as it used to so you are getting less content for the same amount you would have spent historically.

398  So raising it to 10 percent simply means you are going to have to spend more on productions that are going higher that lose money. So you are creating a situation where the proportion of your spend creates a much worse profit-loss scenario than it was in before.

399  So we don't believe that is in the interest of the system or consistent with the policy.

400  MR. CRULL: I also worry you would create a situation where those producers aren't motivated or inspired to create great -- if they bring great commercially viable product we buy it, we jump on it, but whenever you create this flow of funds that's guaranteed to them regardless of the quality that they produce, I really worry about that.

401  COMMISSIONER PENTEFOUNTAS: They will get lazy.

402  What percentage of the 5 percent PNI will go, if you can just give us a guesstimate, towards dramatic works?

404  MS COE: The largely CTV and its platforms have been dramatic services. That's been our focus, certainly on the main network. That's one of our strengths and one of the things that we concentrate on in trying to attract viewers. Typically dramas, followed a little less so by big event kind of specials or one-off shows or event kind of -- you know, Amazing Race thing if you were speaking about the U.S. side of things.


406  MS COE: And on our specialty services, certainly for Space it's almost predominantly drama and scripted programming; comedy is a lot of scripted programming, with some, you know, stand-up thrown in there; Bravo is a mix of documentaries and scripted, and the direction for Bravo as we try and revitalize that channel a bit is to try and work in high-end provoking and thoughtful dramas into that mix along with our arts programming.

407  Certainly as we look at Much, they have moved into some dramatic programming. Just a couple of years ago they took over "Degrassi" to real success, it's fantastic, and we are developing -- we have commissioned a show called "Highland Gardens", which is a new drama for them that's going to be playing on Much and MuchMore. We are developing some things, so that has typically in the past been our focus over some of the other genres.

419  COMMISSIONER PENTEFOUNTAS: The numbers I have here show that in '08 you were at 8 percent PNI and in 2010 you were at 5.7 percent PNI. Why this constant drop? Is there an explanation for that?

420  MS BROWN: Well, from time to time it has to deal with projects. So for example, when we started out this year one of the projects that we were counting on coming through was the next season of "The Bridge" and, as you may have read, the show -- we were working with the producers -- but it fell apart. So it's there in our budgets, it falls apart. You know, it's after Christmas, we don't have another large production drama in the wings and that's the difficulty sometimes with Canadian programming.

422  COMMISSIONER PENTEFOUNTAS: That was not foreseeable, the fact that "The Bridge" would fall apart?

423  MS COE: No, not at all.


425  MS COE: 427  MS COE: We had actually ordered it and commissioned it and were excited about having it go -- and then for a mix of both financing and a little bit of an issue with the talent it just kind of -- there were way too many bleeding holes in that show to ever really come together and at the final -- I guess probably only about two months before we were hoping it would go ahead the producers and CTV sat down and went it's just never going to be able to happen.

428  COMMISSIONER PENTEFOUNTAS: C'est dĂ©solant. It's unfortunate to see the pattern.

431  MR. BRACE: But it has to be understood that there is real cyclicality to the interest in a drama program and the way that viewers tend to view it.

432  There was a time not so long ago, six or seven years ago, when Movies of the Week -- we were heavily involved in Movies of the Week and I'm sure if we went back to that time we would see just the number we were doing, but things like "Lives of the Saints", "Eight Days to Live", there were numerous movies that we were actually -- "The Terry Fox Story" -- that we were getting a million-plus viewers for and I remember making that a submission here a few hearings ago.

433  But it does change. I mean, we move into "Flashpoint", "The Bridge", they become popular, they lose popularity. There is a period of time to develop these shows. In excess of a year, sometimes two years, where you are waiting for the script to be developed, to be approved, for the cast to be approved.

434  So it's not a process that's linear, it really ebbs and it flows. That's why you see kind of the ebb and flow in terms of the annuals. You can't really look at it kind of on an annualized basis, it's something you have to look at over a period of time to really get a better picture of it.

435  COMMISSIONER PENTEFOUNTAS: Yes, but you had a 25 percent drop on one project falling apart.

437  MS BROWN: I didn't mean to say that it was the one project caused the whole change, I was using that as an example of the type of situation that makes it difficult sometimes for us to

438  COMMISSIONER PENTEFOUNTAS: But wouldn't a higher PNI put more pressure on people to keep coming up with creative ideas that are popular?

440  MS COE: Well, I think what hasn't been mentioned is the stuff that we have recently ordered. We have two new drama pilots, one which we are hoping we will shoot in early June, looking to hopefully make that a 13-episode series.

441  We have a second one with Alana Frank which will also be going in the same timeframe.


443  MS COE: Just ordered another season of "Todd & The Book of Pure Evil", which is a fantastic drama for Space.

444  We have a new pilot called "Borealis", so there is --

445  COMMISSIONER PENTEFOUNTAS: Okay. I understand all that, but none of these -- you mentioned maybe about 50 projects or so and none of them were ready to go when "The Bridge" fell apart?

446  MS COE: No.


448  MS COE: Well, you have things in various stages of development. Things get more complicated at a production level when you factor in that "The Bridge" was also reliant on Canada Media Fund financing. In order to secure that financing you have to have a locked budget, a locked production schedule, you have to have financing that looks like it can come together in a certain amount of time, you have to have casting ideas, you have to have directors. To try and replace that at the last minute is virtually impossible. I wish I could, I would love to have a whole bunch lined up like that, but they just -- they can't come together that quickly.

449  COMMISSIONER PENTEFOUNTAS: Okay. Given the fact that quality of programming is cyclical, wouldn't we be able to attain a higher PNI over the course of the license, a higher average? I mean some years you are at seven, some years you are at five, some years you are at eight.

463  I mean you say it's cyclical and you have been through a major recession and a bad year, you also have been under tremendous pressure because we had all these wonderful hearings on BFS, et cetera, but you are now under stable ownership, you are now part of the largest conglomerate in the country.

464  You have seen the submission from everybody else which basically thinks it should be a 10, and yet on the numbers you just gave me you are going down. Shouldn't they be going the other way?

465  I think you have to rethink your offer, what you are putting on the table here on this one because this is the heart of it. This is the heart of the Canadian broadcasting, this means jobs for Canadian creators. And it's the quality stuff that you do, that's why we are not including games shows or some things which are relatively cheap to produce but you don't need that much talent, et cetera. This is documentaries, award shows and drama.

466  You, as the largest broadcaster in the country, I thought you would be putting a leadership option on the table rather than one that seems to be holding it to the minimum.

467  MR. BIBIC: Mr. Chairman, that's a little bit unfair.


469  MR. BIBIC: I mean the fact is Bell Media is a leader in delivering this type of quality programming and I think there is a passion there. Vice Chairman Pentefountas, like you, I am coming new to this and I have asked the same questions, which is: Wait a minute, how can we not produce Canadian programs with a passion towards quality and a passion towards making money and making those two fit together?

470  I asked about "Flashpoint" because -- and I read the press releases like everybody else, "Flashpoint" has a huge audience and draws over 1 million viewers and has been sold in the U.S., et cetera, how can that not make money? So I asked the very same question.

471  I learned, well, CTV or Bell Media doesn't get the revenues from the U.S. sales, doesn't get the revenues from the DVD, doesn't get the revenues from download to own, you know the iTunes, so from a Bell Media perspective "Flashpoint" has made a little bit of money, in some years has lost money -- and we are talking here about the most successful one of all.   

476  MR. BRACE: It's an interesting point because although "Flashpoint" has made a little bit of money we actually requested more episodes this year and -- just to give an idea of how the industry works.

477  THE CHAIRPERSON: Yes, please. Please.

478  MR. BRACE: We currently have 18, we were looking for 22 and they couldn't deliver. They said that there just wasn't enough capacity for them to kind of deliver that number of shows. They just didn't have the infrastructure to do that.

479  So it's just an example of how things kind of morph and change in this space, particularly with the dramas. We are dealing with a very highly creative process that is really not tied to any kind of a calendar, it's not tied to any kind of a finite term, you know, for the most part.

480  COMMISSIONER PENTEFOUNTAS: But when did you sign up for those new episodes? We are not ordering a pizza here, it takes time obviously. You have to sort of sign on long-term; right?

483  MR. CRULL: You know, the other tough thing -- many of you have learned this, the producing television shows is a real, real, real low probability success business and so you have to get, you know, probably 50 to 100 projects on-air to find one that becomes "Flashpoint" and so the capacity necessary in order to create more of the Flashpoints, you are really throwing a lot. I mean, I'm going through the process of picking the schedules right now and looking at the amount of product that gets produced in order to get one hit and it's astonishing.

"Oh, no one knows what goes on behind closed doors."


gdott said...

Was that a bus that just thumped over me?

Unknown said...

When you give obscene amounts of money to businesspeople, it's "investment" and "incentive," but when you give artists *just enough money to adequately do their jobs,* "they will get lazy." Hilarious. At least we know they have giant balls.

Ross McKie said...

Good grief! Still, what a window to see, quite clearly, that this is such a systemic problem and not one based entirely on some Victorian histrionics around slamming doors or, at best, even creative fickleness. The whole approach is a mess and it seems to me that-- dare I say it?-- a broadcaster need take a sacrificial leadership role in creating (read: development modela) and presenting this aspect of our (English-Canadian) culture radically differently. Thank you for this post. Enlightening to say the least.

Rusty James said...

I like when the COMMISSIONER asks questions that would ultimately lead to 'incriminating' answers (read: real motives), the MAN skates around them with irrelevant 'supporting' arguments.

Classic Bullshit.

Unknown said...

When the pool of money is limited, the pitches become targeted to known commodities -- the same wheel, but this time with a new hubcap. A bigger pool of money doesn't make for laziness, it makes for risk taking, breaking into new areas outside of Dr. Lawyer Cop, creating the surprise hits no one knew they wanted but will all lay claim to after the fact.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps relevant: over at Jay Currie's blog, the idea has been floated that Netflix just needs to spend some money on old Canadian shows and movies, and stuff that "no CanCon" back at the Three Media Corporate Stooges.

Wil Z said...

They make it sound like they buy these shows like suits off a rack, ready to wear.

But they want one arm longer than the other, organza on the lapels, a tweed shirt, and twenty pockets up and down the pant leg. When everyone laughs and points, oh woe the quality of the Canadian tailors!

We aren't talentless. We're spineless.

Anonymous said...

Day #2:

625 COMMISSIONER [LEONARD] KATZ: So your entire business is predicated on non-Canadian programming and, I guess, as Vice-Chair of Broadcasting said earlier, you are using Canada just as a loss leader. You have got to do this so you do it and you will do the minimum amount necessary, but that's it.
626 MS [SHANNON] VALLIANT [ROGERS]: That's what all the broadcasters do.
784 COMMISSIONER [TOM] PENTEFOUNTAS: Everything but the whining. Cry me a river.
785 UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER: You don't want that on the record.

Unknown said...

Shaw Media fun:

1146 So the argument has been progressing for years, and finally this year -- I think it's good, actually. Even though it is going to be a challenge for us in some ways, I think it is good that we have actually put a bit of a line in the sand around this and created a category that is reality -- 11(b) is reality. That now is clear, and we are more clear now about what is actually a documentary that should be funded by the documentary envelope at the CMF.
1147 It's good clarity. It does have a backlash for us in terms of accessing funding, there is no doubt, but, honestly, the spirit and intent of this is good.
1148 COMMISSIONER PENTEFOUNTAS: You were given an inch, you took a foot, and until somebody catches you on it you are going to keep doing it, and that's where we are at now, basically.
1149 MS WILLIAMS: Yes. I mean, that is a little more sinister than I would have put it, but --
1150 COMMISSIONER PENTEFOUNTAS: I appreciate your honesty.


1487 MS SHIPTON: I mean, I will just say that, on the drama front, we are incredibly strained in this country finding talent.
1488 I mean the competitive environment in terms of just the writers if you get more than four or five big drama series up and running, those writers rooms have at least seven to eight writers per room. It is brutal. Doyle is stealing from Endgame which is stealing from Rookie Blue which is now stealing from Flashpoint. I mean we have got big shows underway.
1489 So as we go to spend more and more, you know I know we have got to bring up the younger guys, bring up the younger guys, ---------------------------------------------------.
1490 The Writers Guild may kill me on that but they know that we are always trying to find more and more writers. It's writers.