Tag Archives: television

Global Culture

Cultural industry. It sounds like an oxymoron. ‘Culture’ relating to the artistic or creative, and ‘industry’ describing business interests, on a large scale. At the very least, it seems a rocky marriage.

The term is most often applied to the electronic arts, as they are called: music and motion pictures, the artforms which lend themselves to mass duplication and distribution. No one talks about the dance industry, or the sculpture industry.

The cultural industry I’m most familiar with is the motion picture one, and indeed, someone once referred to the movie industry as ‘too much of a business to be an art, and too much of an art to be a business.’ That just about encapsulates the conundrum.

In Canada, unlike the U.S., the movie and television industries have always needed public subsidy. The costs of production are simply too high, and the Canadian marketplace too small, for the indigenous production companies to survive. That’s been the argument at least.

I can recall, back in the mid-80s, when the Canadian Film Development Corporation, originally founded in 1967 to advance the Canadian movie biz, became Telefilm Canada, charged with promoting and funding the Canadian ‘audiovisual’ private sector, that is television as well as movies. People from the agency were talking about how it was intended to grow production companies from the nascent stage, but then to gradually withdraw its funding as those companies matured and became financially independent.

In the 90s, Telefilm still explicitly required funded productions to be ‘distinctly Canadian.’ These shows were to be stories told by Canadians, set in perceptibly Canadian locales, in which Canadian audiences could recognize themselves. So too were so-called ‘lifestyle’ and ‘industrial’ shows excluded from support; game shows, talk shows, that sort of thing.

downloadAs we rolled into the new millennium, TV shows like Flashpoint, Orphan Black and Rookie Blue made little effort to clarify where their episodes were shot (Toronto), although Rookie Blue did, in its latter seasons, begin to actually use Toronto street names. Rookie Blue also, in its final season last year, received over five million dollars in subsidy from the Canada Media Fund, a public-private partnership administered by Telefilm. That in addition to the considerable monies the production company would also have received via both provincial and federal tax credits. The parent company for Rookie Blue is E1, a multimedia corporation, headquartered in Toronto, with revenues in 2015 of more than $1.5 billion Cdn. You’d have to consider that mature.

And today, when Paperny Entertainment, a Vancouver-based production company owned by E1, produces World’s Weirdest Restaurants for the Food Network, surely a ‘lifestyle’ distributor, that show can access all the same government subsidies that can any other TV show.

At the same time, I don’t mean to sound alarmist bells here. The situation I’m describing is not unique to Canada. It was probably naive to think, back in the 80s, that production companies could be weaned from the public funds which did so much to create the business model by which they grew and prospered. And god knows governments everywhere are competing (some say in a race to the bottom) to offer ever more generous tax credits to attract the industry, given that it pays well, is labour intensive, and relatively non-polluting.

Governments everywhere have also fought to exclude cultural industries from the various free trade-type agreements that continue to proliferate in our times. Ultimately though, the problem is beyond national controls, subject to the same global economic and technical forces which are inexorably interconnecting the planet. As Catalina Briceño, Director of Industry and Market Trends at the Canada Media Fund, wrote in a new report, “[the] globalization of tastes is supplanting cultural differences.”

It’s no surprise then that, especially with dramatic movies and television shows, creators and producers design them to play like home product in several markets. Rookie Blue aired on Global in Canada and ABC in the U.S. Orphan Black premiered on Space in Canada and on BBC America in the United States.

John Fawcett, one of the creators of Orphan Black, certainly did his best to put a positive spin on the situation in an interview with Entertainment Weekly in 2014: “To be honest, we don’t want to say we’re American and alienate the Canadians, or say we’re Canadian and alienate the Americans. The bottom line is we’re one big happy family. We’re just a little bit further north than you.”

Nice. As culture and industry evolve globally, their marriage begets family. I can get behind that. The family part at least. Happy? Maybe not quite so much.

Television’s Last Stand

I nearly cut the cord last week. I wanted to do it earlier, when the hockey and basketball playoffs ended, but some members of my household wanted to watch the FIFA Women’s World Cup, then it was the Pan Am Games…

Which is to say that, in our home at least, live sports is the last remaining reason to pay for cable TV.

It’s a good one, mind you. A hard-fought elite-level sports contest is simply the best entertainment around, involving strong characters, intense pressure, great achievements, profound loss, and far less predictability than 98% of the dramatic storytelling currently out there.

It’s also an incredibly lucrative business, especially for the pro players (not that I don’t think the money should go to those who play the game, as opposed to those who own the teams). Our appetite for professional sports continues to grow—the industry in the aggregate is now said to be worth more than $500 billion globally—and so the scope of the salaries earned by [mostly] men to play games has become patently absurd. The average salary of a Major League Baseball player, for instance, will exceed $4 million this year (That’s the average salary mind you; ‘A Rod,’ the New York Yankees star third baseman, may earn as much as $50 million this year, including marketing bonuses). If Joe Average Baseball Player were to play every minute of every game this summer (and he won’t), he will earn $8230 per hour of playing time. Patently absurd, given the utter lack of intrinsic social value attached to the work he does. Incidentally, Joe is also allotted $100 a day in meal money when he is on the road. Wouldn’t want him to feel the pinch in those expensive hotel restaurants.

But we fans have only ourselves to blame. We’re the ones who fill the stadiums, tune into the games, and yes, pay those cable TV fees, regardless of the cost. We’re the ones who seem to think that our team winning or losing somehow reflects well or poorly on us as individuals. In fact we use terms like “WE won” when a team of players whom we will never meet, and who are only rarely from our home town, never mind our home country, outscores another team that we don’t label ours. It’s more than a little odd.

What’s interesting though, is where the video marketing of big league sports is going. Surely with broadband expanding steadily, and video streaming gaining popularity by the day, it is only a matter of time before these sports franchises begin to control and market their games online, in high quality imagery. Forget ESPN or Rogers Sportsnet. These teams will find ways to make even more money by charging you directly to watch their games via their own internet channels, say in packages featuring certain opposing teams, maybe all home games, or of course with ‘tickets’ for individual games. How can it possibly not go this way?

Well, one possible way is for government agencies to prevent this sort of ‘vertical integration’ of the marketplace, akin to the 1948 antitrust case which prevented Hollywood studios from owning and operating their own theatres, to which they would grant exclusive rights to their movies. Like that case, will we see governments move to forestall undivided control of the production and distribution of sports entertainment?

It remains to be seen; the conventional TV networks have proven to be more resilient than many believed they would be in finding new revenue models (like money from Netflix), but the trends are there. TV viewing declined roughly 10% in the last year, and it’s not like the major sports franchises have to go out and build their brand. It’s there now for them, bigger and better than ever, primed for exploitation via a new medium.

5805107962_48e85060aa_zI’ll likely simply try, at some point, to renegotiate my deal with my cable TV provider. I’ll do my damndest to cherry pick just those channels which carry the games of the teams I like to follow, and my cable provider will do their damndest to ensure that I’m obliged to pick up as many channels as possible in order to do that. Shaw Cable, my provider, for instance and in most obnoxious fashion, spreads the Vancouver Canucks games over four or five of their various channels, then places those various channels in different packages, each of which costs more.

My desire for big league sports entertainment may be a passion which adds meaning to my life, or it may be a pathetic identification with a bunch of rich strangers. Either way, and even if the medium changes, one thing is certain: meeting that desire is not likely to get any cheaper.

Full Circle

There’s some interesting reading to be found in a paper released by the Canadian Media Production Association last week. It’s titled, Content Everywhere: Securing Canada’s Place in the Digital Future, and it offers up an effective survey of the current media landscape. At first glance, suffice it to say that recent trends continue:

* Video progressively rules on the internet—YouTube now has more than one billion unique viewers every month, with 100 hours of video uploaded every minute.

* ‘Cord cutting’, that is escaping the tyranny of cable ‘bundling,’ continues for consumers—an American who owns an iPad now has a 65% likelihood of being a member of the cord cutter tribe.

* As the market penetration of the so-called OTTs (‘Over The Top’ online streamers like Netflix, Amazon and Hulu) continues to grow—one of the OTTs now reaches almost half of all American households; over 60% of the 18 – 24 demographic—they are moving increasingly into the financing of original content.

The ‘old boys’, the established television networks, know all about these trends of course, and so they have, in recent years, moved actively, if still hesitantly into the digital realm. In Canada, Bell Media launched Crave TV in 2014, Rogers and Shaw finally birthed Shomi, and CBC now has an online comedy channel called Punchline. (Conventional TV’s great strength increasingly remains of course in the provision of live events, mostly sports, but also news, and of course the odd award show, although it’s interesting to note that ratings for the Oscars this year were down about 15%.)

Ben Templesmith photo
Ben Templesmith photo

Overall, the evolving picture is of the online media industry maturing, in all the good and bad that that entails. Perhaps most disconcerting is a subtitle within the paper which reads: “Many things about OTT look like TV.” AOL greenlit 16 original series in 2014, all of them featuring major celebrities or movie stars. Pitch meetings with the big-league OTTs are usually booked through agents or entertainment lawyers these days. And we can all be sure that when David Fincher, after House of Cards, pitches his new series, he’ll be strolling into the Netflix offices past a long line of waiting, lesser-known producers who once hoped that the web would provide them with new and different opportunities. Sigh.

And of course, as the paper, points out, creators for the web face a unique set of additional challenges, even as the process morphs into something distressingly familiar. Chief among them are ‘discoverability,’ and an overcrowded marketplace. The gatekeepers for the online game may no longer be the same, but the smaller players still face a huge disadvantage when it comes to putting bums in the seats. They simply don’t have the resources to compete with the big guys at marketing, or at perhaps hiring the talent which comes with a built-in audience.

And finally, if you’re a Canadian hoping to succeed with online content, you face an added problem with financing, because as slow as the big broadcasters have been to move into the online space, the established ‘legacy’ funders, like Telefilm Canada and the tax credit programs, have been even more lead-footed. Because online revenues have been so difficult to realize, these agencies have been extra adept at shuffling their feet and avoiding eye contact whenever, for instance, documentary filmmakers with an online-only audience in mind have come calling.

I’m reminded of the final scenes in George Orwell’s classic Animal Farm, when the pigs move into the farmhouse, begin to walk upright and wear clothes. Or of Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson’s incisive explanation of Why Nations Fail, describing how it is that, following revolutions, tyrants like Robert Mugabe replace tyrants like Ian Smith, how Joseph Stalin replaces Csar Nicolas II. The digital revolution may not have yet completed itself, not yet come right round in what Acemoglu and Robinson term “the vicious circle,” but the streets have gone quiet again. It may be that no one has been sent off to a “knacker” or to the gulag, but if you were among those who dreamed of a better world, or maybe even who manned an online barricade, well, purchase a ticket and get in line. It seems that all along, the digital revolution was for sale, to the highest bidder.

Just Like Yesterday

Meet the new boss.

  Same as the old boss.

from Won’t Get Fooled Again, by Pete Townshend

 

The guardians of the old media have found a brilliant way to exploit the denizens of the new. By dangling the carrot of access to television—a mature industry where recognition and revenue remain solidly in place—the executives who stand at the gates to TV can cause the multitudes who populate the online realm—an industry where revenue is dispersed very unevenly and recognition is highly fragmented—to work tirelessly to promote their exclusive brands. It’s perfect.

In recent times, those clever folks who control TV have evolved the method of the online competition in order to shamelessly advance their corporate brands. Offer those who create content for the web—especially of course those who operate within the social media arena—the chance to create for TV, and those creators will toil doggedly, nearly interminably on your behalf, and they will do so without a cent of actual remuneration, and on the slimmest of chances at success. How great is that?

The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation has just concluded a nation-wide contest where 285 comedy creator-teams submitted video ‘teasers’ in pursuit of a single (although lucrative at $500,000) prize of the production of a half-hour TV special. The competition ran over ten weeks, and the teaser was only the beginning of the work demanded of these aspirants. Each week, in addition to the endless amount of online ‘sharing’ these teams were obliged to do—if they were to have any realistic expectation of prevailing in the contest—these teams had to produce a new video ‘mission’ on a specified theme (‘The Do Over,” “The Differentiator” etc.).

Likewise Telus, a corporation with a more regional territory (Alberta and BC), have just run the ‘Storyhive’ competition, where hundreds of applicants chased 15 grants of $10,000, leading finally to one winner gaining $50,000 toward the production of content for Optik TV, the television service owned by Telus.

It’s a truly prodigious amount of work done by talented people on the behalf of others for absolutely no monetary recompense. The competitions are won of course via online voting solicited by the contestants, and don’t think it’s anything like a democratic, one email address, one vote mechanism. No, visitors to the relevant site (where you must of course register) ‘earn’ votes by repeated visits, or, more germanely, online promotion of the corporate site. For CBC and Telus it’s win win win; for 99%+ of the contestants it’s lose lose lose. And, if it’s necessary to drive home the point of this losing game, in the Telus competition, in winnowing the pitched projects down to the final 15, there is not one iota of critical adjudication applied; it is entirely determined by online voting. In other words, at least until that first significant selective step, Telus does not care one whit about the actual creative quality of the submissions; they care only about the quantity of online visitation they are able to achieve.

Let me be very clear about my take on this process. It’s manipulative, exploitive, and vile. The folks behind it should be ashamed of themselves.

Tau Zero photo
Tau Zero photo

But, as with so many of the changes wrought by the digital revolution, neither is this obnoxious game about to go away. The television executives who have invented it have mined gold for themselves, and they could care less about the fact that almost all of the losing contestants have nothing good to say about them or their contest. Those losers are simple collateral damage in the winning war for online traffic, and thus advertising dollars.

It’s odd and slightly unsettling that (as described in a recent article in The New Yorker magazine) KingBach, a top star on Vine, an online video site where content episodes last a sum total of six seconds, dreams of making it on TV and in the movies, where fewer people will watch him.

Welcome to the new world of mass media, which looks altogether too much like the same old world. The ‘young adult’ demographic still watches far more TV than they do online video. YouTube will make less than $4 billion in advertising this year; CBS will earn more than $8 billion.

Pete Townsend’s prayers may well have been in vain.

Storytelling 3.0 – Part 2

We tend to forget—at least I do—that, in the history of storytelling, movies came before radio. By about 15 years. The first theatre devoted exclusively to showing motion picture entertainment opened in Pittsburgh in 1905. It was called The Nickelodeon. The name became generic, and by 1910, about 26 million Americans visited a nickelodeon every week. It was a veritable techno-entertainment explosion.

The thing is, anyone at all—if they could either buy or create the product—could rent a hall, then charge admission to see a movie. To this very day, you are free to do this.

When radio rolled around—about 1920—this arrangement was obviously not on. It’s a challenge to charge admission to a radio broadcast. In fact, the first radio broadcasts were intended to sell radios; this was their original economic raison d’être.

Sadly, very quickly it became illegal to broadcast without a government granted license. (Oddly enough, the first licensed radio broadcast again originated from Pittsburgh.) And almost as quickly, sponsorship became a part of radio broadcasting. The price of admission was the passive audio receipt of an advertisement for a product or service.

An exhibit in the Henry Ford Museum, furnished as a 1930s living room, commemorating the radio broadcast by Orson Welles of H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds. Maia C photo
An exhibit in the Henry Ford Museum, furnished as a 1930s living room, commemorating the radio broadcast by Orson Welles of H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds.
Maia C photo

Radio shows were much easier and cheaper to produce than movies, and they weren’t always communal in the way movies were, that is they were not always a shared experience. (Although they could be—many a family sat around the radio in the mid part of the 20th century, engrossed in stories about Superman or The Black Museum.)

More importantly, as with book publishing, the gatekeepers were back with radio, and they were both public and private. No one could operate a radio station without a government license, and no one could gain access to a radio studio without permission from the station owner.

Then came television with the same deal in place, only more so. TV shows were more expensive to produce, but like radio, they lent themselves to a more private viewing, and access to the medium for storytellers was fully restricted, from the outset. As with radio, and until recently, TV was ‘free;’ the only charge was willing exposure to an interruptive ‘commercial.’

With the advent of each of these storytelling mediums, the experience has changed, for both storyteller and audience member. Live theatre has retained some of the immediate connection with an audience that began back in the caves (For my purposes, the storyteller in theatre is the playwright.), and radio too has kept some of that immediacy, given that so much of it is still produced live. But the true face-to-face storytelling connection is gone with electronic media, and whenever the audience member is alone as opposed to in a group, the experience is qualitatively different. The kind of community that is engendered by electronic media—say fans of a particular TV show—is inevitably more isolated, more disparate than that spawned within a theatre.

The first commercial internet providers came into being in the late 1980s, and we have since lived through a revolution as profound as was the Gutenberg. Like reading, the internet consumer experience is almost always private, but like movies, the access to the medium is essentially unrestricted, for both storyteller and story receiver.

And that, in the end, is surprising and wonderful. Economics aside for a moment, I think it’s undeniably true that never, in all our history, has the storyteller been in a more favorable position than today.

What does this mean for you and I? Well, many things, but let me climb onto an advocacy box for a minute to stress what I think is the most significant benefit for all of us. Anyone can now be a storyteller, in the true sense of the word, that is a person with a story to tell and an audience set to receive it. For today’s storyteller, because of the internet, the world is your oyster, ready to shuck.

Everyone has a story to tell, that much is certain. If you’ve been alive long enough to gain control of grunt and gesture, you have a story to tell. If you have learned to set down words, you’re good to go on the internet. And I’m suggesting that all of us should. Specifically what I’m advocating is that you write a blog, a real, regular blog like this one, or something as marvelously simple as my friend Rafi’s. Sure, tweeting or updating your Facebook page is mini-blogging, but no, you can do better than that.

Start a real blog—lots of sites offer free hosting—then keep it up. Tell the stories of your life, past and present; tell them for yourself, your family, your friends. Your family for one will be grateful, later if not right away. If you gain an audience beyond yourself, your family and friends, great, but it doesn’t matter a hoot. Blog because you now can; it’s free and essentially forever. Celebrate the nature of the new storytelling medium by telling a story, your story.

Guns

The Gaiety Theatre became a church, then a parking lot. pinkmoose photo
The Gaiety Theatre became a church, then a parking lot.
pinkmoose photo

The game was derived directly from ‘the westerns’ we watched every Saturday afternoon at the Gaiety Theatre in downtown Grande Prairie, wherein the final act of every movie consisted of the good guy and bad guys (the baddies always outnumbered our hero) running around and shooting at one another. “Guns” we called it. “Let’s play guns!” we would shout, and soon we’d be lurking/sneaking around the immediate neighbourhood houses, blasting away at one another with toy weapons, inciting many an argument as to whether I had or had not “Got ya!” If indeed you were struck by an imaginary bullet, a dramatic tumble to the ground was required, followed by rapid expiration.

Let no one ever doubt the influential power of the ascendant mass medium of the day. As I’ve written elsewhere on this blog, I grew up without television, but those Saturday matinees were more than enough to have us pretending at the gun violence that is all too real in the adult world. Video games seem an even more powerful enactment of the gun fantasy that can grip children, but the difference may be marginal. I doubt that movies have lost much influence over young people today, and I further suspect that in the majority of Hollywood movies today at least one gun still appears. Check out how many of today’s movie ads or posters feature menacing men with guns, with those guns usually prominent in foreground. Sex sells, but so it seems do guns.

And of course the rest of the world, including those of us in Canada, looks with horror upon the pervasive, implacable gun culture in the U.S., wondering how it is that even the slaughter of twenty elementary school children isn’t enough to curb the ready availability of guns. Because, from a rational perspective, the facts are incontrovertible: more guns do not mean greater safety, quite the opposite. You are far more likely to die of a gunshot in the U.S. than you are in any other developed country. Roughly 90% of Americans own a gun. The next closest is Serbia at 58%. In Canada it’s about 30%. Australia 15%. Russia 9%. And a higher rate of mental illness does not mean greater gun violence. It’s pure and it’s simple: more guns mean more gun violence, more people being shot and killed.

But we are, by and large, not rational animals, and no amount of logical argument is going to convince members of the gun lobby that gun ownership should be restricted. It’s an emotional and psychological attachment that cannot be broken without causing increased resentment, anger, anxiety and a sense of humiliating diminution. Guns are fetishes to those who desire them, sacred objects that allow the owner to feel elevated in status, elevated to a position of greater independence and potency. After all a gun will allow you to induce fear in others.

And yes the American obsession with guns has historical roots, the revolution and the second amendment to the constitution and all that, but, as Michael Moore so brilliantly pointed out in this animated sequence in Bowling for Columbine, much more essentially it has to do with fear. People enamored of gun ownership feel threatened; without a gun they feel powerless in the face of threats from people they view as dangerously different from themselves. And nothing but nothing empowers like a gun.

You might think that people who love guns do not wish to play with them. Guns are not toys to these people, you might say; they are genuine tools used to protect their owners, mostly from all those other people out there who also own guns. But just down the road from where we live on Galiano is a shooting range. On quiet Sunday afternoons we invariably hear the sound of gunfire echoing through the trees, as gun aficionados shoot repeatedly at targets, trying to do exactly the same thing over and over again, hit the bull’s eye. Those people are indeed playing with their guns; they are recreating with their guns. Why? Because it makes them feel better.

Successful movie genres are manifestations of broadly felt inner conflicts; in the case of westerns those conflicts are around issues of freedom and oppression. And the western may still be the most successful of all movie genres, remaining dominant from the very birth of dramatic film (The Great Train Robbery, 1903), right through to the 1970s (McCabe and Mrs. Miller, 1971). The problem is that the western offered ‘gunplay’ as the answer to oppression, and therefore the suggestion that everyone should have a gun. But once everyone has a gun, everyone is afraid. And once you are afraid, no one is taking away your gun.

Foreign Culture Wars

When it comes to culture, Europeans think differently than many of us west of the Atlantic.  Just last month, European countries, led by France, unanimously endorsed the concept of ‘cultural exception’ in the current U.S.-European trade deal talks—meaning that cultural industries are exempted from full exposure to the free-trade winds that will blow through other industries under the new agreement.  It’s a position that in the U.S., with its mega-imagesscale cultural industries (Amazon and books, Hollywood and movies, ABC and Desperate Housewives, etc.), seems almost nonsensical.  For someone like the late Jack Valenti, Hollywood lobbyist extraordinaire, it’s simply a matter of cultural industries outside the U.S. failing to make competitive product.  He used words like “baloney,” “odious” and “a needless crutch”, for instance, when describing quotas on foreign television previously established by EU member states.

It’s a battle that Canada had to fight when negotiating its own free-trade deal with the U.S. back in the 80s.  At the time the Americans were keenly interested in gaining unfettered access to both the energy and cultural industries in Canada.  And, in the interest of context, it’s worth tracking back further, to the institution of ‘Canadian content’ regulations in the early 70s.  Prior to 1971, for instance, Canadian musicians heard on the radio were a thin and scattered bunch.  Following the imposition of the ‘Can-con’ rules, there was a veritable explosion of Canadian musical talent, from recording artists as diverse as Anne Murray and Steppenwolf.  (Although Anne may have won the day on most radio stations, prompting one wag to wonder whether AM was in fact her moniker.)  The digital revolution has since of course, negatively impacted the music industry as much as it has any trade anywhere, but, for a time, the pop music scene in Canada was never more robust.

In TV too, the original imposition of Canadian content rules quickly spawned a sizable industry that had previously been hardly present at all, and that continues as viable to this day.  There was an original mandate with government subsidies of the film and television industry to create product that was ‘culturally distinct’—stories would be ‘recognizably Canadian’—and with globalization that mandate has suffered (Is there anything genuinely recognizable as Canadian about a show like Rookie Blue?), causing one to wonder if the TV industry is still ‘cultural’ at all, but I digress.

The point is that cultural industries outside nation-state juggernauts like the U.S. and China have historically needed protection in order to flourish, if not survive.  What someone like Jack Valenti failed to recognize is that it takes the same ratio of talent within any pool to produce hits, regardless of place; therefore the Canadian or French pool has to be protected if it is to remain large enough to produce proportionately fewer hits, that is enough hits to survive.  Without that protection the industry will simply be overrun by the wildly larger numbers of both people and dollars emanating from the American cultural behemoth.

Which is exactly what has happened with the Canadian movie industry, where Can-con rules have never been applied.  (If you’re wondering why, perhaps it’s sufficient to say that Hollywood movie distribution contracts, back in the day, did not even recognize Canada as a separate territory.)  While the Canadian radio and television industries have evolved a reasonably sound business model, the same can’t be said about the indigenous movie industry in Canada.  It has been, and remains marginal; what I have described as an ‘ego-driven crap shoot’ where few people are employed, and audiences are meager.  (I’m referencing English-speaking Canada here; French Canadians actually go to see their own movies in considerable numbers.)

In Europe, French regulations delay the release of DVDs, in order to preserve movie houses.  German regulations force online book retailers to sell their product at list prices, in order to preserve bookstores.  Different thinking.

The internet of course arose in a ‘wild west’ American culture where any form of regulation was considered anathema.  In 2000, Yahoo! was sued in France after Nazi memorabilia was offered for sale on its auction site.  (It’s essentially illegal to sell such stuff in France in any venue.)  Yahoo! fought back, arguing “free speech,” that France could not rightly impose its laws on a U.S. company.  Yahoo! lost that case.

Vive la différence.

 

Documentary Demise

Documentary film may be the definitive post-digital-revolution media product: big audience; no market.  From all indications, documentaries are as popular as ever, perhaps more so, but making—that is financing—documentary films these days?  That’s another story.  In a recent report, titled Getting Real, the Documentary Organization of Canada reported that Documentary production volume decreased in Canada by more than 21% from 2008/09 to 2010/11.  The number of documentary projects dropped 23% in that time, from 591 to 457.  It’s not at all likely that the situation has improved any since.

IMG_8598 (2)The decline began with the great 2008 recession.  The television industry is one of the very first to feel any economic downturn, as even large companies can quickly cut advertising budgets in response to nose diving sales.  But, as the report indicates, by 2010, “Canadian conventional broadcasting revenues rebounded to pre-2008 levels, and specialty cable channel revenues continued to grow despite the recession.”  Essentially, Canadian broadcasters seized the opportunity presented by the 2008 crash to reduce or suspend the commissioning of documentaries, and they have chosen to maintain that diminution ever since, despite revived revenues.  Government regulators have meekly stood by over this dismal decay, too timid to promote cultural values in the face of stressful times within the free enterprise arena where combatants like Rogers, Bell and Shaw snarl and throw up their steroid-enhanced arms to the roar of the ratings crowd.

Prior to 2008, all three of the major Canadian networks, CTV, Global and the CBC, carried documentary ‘strands’ as part of their regular programming schedules, commissioning numerous one-off documentaries each season, usually as part of a loosely integrated series.  Audience numbers were not huge, but they were steady, and it meant that a vibrant community of documentary filmmakers existed across the country, and that Canadian audiences were regularly exposed to their work, along with the stories and issues contained therein.

Alternate means of funding have of course arisen post-revolution, chief among them crowdsourcing, but another recent report, this one by the Canadian Media Fund (CMF), called Crowdfunding in a Canadian Context, is illuminating in this regard.  Despite the lurid success stories of millions raised in just days (akin to those mega-rare video clips that go viral, when it’s hoped that every clip posted will), the report makes it clear that, “Crowdfunding is best suited to independent producers and developers who work on a smaller scale, with smaller budgets.”

Documentary filmmaking is far less expensive than is dramatic filmmaking, but when the making is by experienced professionals, budgets generally still need to run at least $250,000 for an hour-long show.  The larger Canadian production houses, those with full-time staff and facilities to pay for, are reluctant to consider a budget of less than $400,000 per hour.  (A top-drawer freelance documentary cameraperson will be looking for $800-$1000 per day, the best editors for $1800-$2000 per week.)  The CMF report states, “Crowdfunding appears to be best suited to smaller-scale funding with the majority of projects posting funding goals and reaching funding volumes of between $10,000 and $50,000.”

Adding to the problem is the decreased cost of production hardware.  Topline video cameras that just 10 years ago sold for $20,000 can now be replaced by DSLR cameras costing less than one-tenth of that amount.  Ditto with computer editing systems.  Post-production set-ups that once filled rooms with multiple monitors, tape decks and tower drives, are now supplanted by a laptop set upon… well, your lap.  These days just about anyone capable of picking up, pointing and pushing the record button on a camera, then operating a computer, can go about making a documentary.  It’s meant that there is a plethora of product out there now.  Most of it isn’t very good, but it’s out there, glutting the market.

The post-e-revolution landscape is an arid one for documentary filmmakers.  Their great tradition is fast becoming like too many other contemporary art practices, something that young, single people living in shared accommodations can afford to pursue, or that people with other jobs serving to pay the mortgage and feed the kids can create as a sideline.  Despite a ready audience, the documentary artform, as practiced by skilled professionals, is wasting away.

 

Suicide Watch: the CBC in Crisis

121px-CBC_logo_1940–1958The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) was effectively born a mixed-blood child back in 1929, taking over a series of radio stations first set up by the Canadian National Railway.  Early CBC radio broadcasts included American programming, and, even in my day, as a kid growing up the late 50s, early 60s, CBC was ‘affiliated’ with many privately owned radio stations across Canada, replete with ads.

The breakthrough came in 1974, when the radio network stopped running commercial advertising.  What followed was an unprecedented flowering of creativity and quality that saw CBC Radio become as good as any broadcast service that’s ever been offered, anywhere.  In the wake of that 1974 decision, CBC went on to undoubtedly become the most important cultural institution in the country.

I have to stress that these accolades belong rightly to CBC Radio, as opposed to CBC television, which began in 1958 with an impossible blend of commercial and public mandates, and has never been allowed to try flying without the debilitating weight of advertisers (and therefore the abiding incentive to seek higher ratings).

Last week the Canadian Radio and Television Commission (the CRTC) granted the CBC up to four minutes of advertising per hour on Radio 2, the music arm of the network, beginning what will surely be the death throes of CBC radio as we have known it.  This coup de grâce comes after decades of brutal cutbacks to the Corporation, all while overall federal spending climbed steadily.  The most recent will see a further 10% cut from CBC’s annual budget by 2014.

Thus you might lay the blame for its demise at the feet of CBC’s hostile patron in Ottawa, which has, over the years and despite it all, born the critical brunt of mostly exceptional CBC news services.  But this latest blow has of course come at the behest of CBC management, desperate to maintain its own viability.  It’s CBC staffers who have initiated their own suicide watch, in a mad attempt to stay alive by imitating the very private stations which threaten them.

CBC has one and only one viable future—as a distinct alternative to the private broadcasters.  What possible justification for its taxpayer outlay can the CBC find in providing what the private stations are already providing?  It should be but somehow isn’t dreadfully apparent to CBC executives that every inch closer to their commercial counterparts they step is an inch closer to their own oblivion.

It’s likely too late for CBC TV.  For a nation as small as Canada, in today’s media marketplace, it’s likely just too expensive to produce quality television with taxpayer dollars.  What’s more, CBC television was simply too cruelly compromised from the outset, never able to assume the robust communal role that might have won it unambiguous public approval.  CBC TV’s only hope for survival now is as a PBS-style broadcaster focusing upon news, public affairs and other serious, not schlocky (i.e. Battle of the Blades) factual programming.  That means no sports, and, like PBS, no original production of dramatic shows.  (In anticipation of all those who would cry ‘elitist’ in the face of the reduced audience that such a content shift would entail, let me say that I and many others like me would gladly, immediately contribute their own personal monies to such a service, were it to be commercial free.)

As to CBC radio, it certainly isn’t as good as it used to be when bigger budgets meant a more international focus.  But from AM’s The Sunday Edition, hosted by Michael Enright—who himself should be considered something of a national treasure—to Rich Terfry’s Radio 2 Drive, which, for my money, provides the best music programming anywhere on the dial, CBC Radio has, amazingly, been able to pretty much get it right.  This formerly brilliant and still great national lead character must not be allowed to hang itself.  Canadians everywhere should stand up and shout, as loudly as they possibly can, at both their MPs and at the frightened, misguided CBC managers, calling for the preservation of a genuinely public radio broadcaster, 100% government and listener-supported.

Otherwise we should just pull the plug right now, before it gets too painful to behold.

 

 

The Netflix Experience

In the words of one young Youtube entrepreneur, Netflix Canada (Netflix.ca), “kinda sucks.”  The video-streaming service costs just $7.99 a month, and before you think this is yet another example of the truism, “You get what you pay for,” it’s not quite that simple.  Netflix provides unlimited viewing of any fare offered on the site, but our young capitalist makes the above comment in comparing the limited selection of movies and TV shows available from Netflix Canada to the vastly greater supply available from Netflix USA.  (Netflix also provides a DVD rental mailing service, but that much is not the subject of this post.)  Our hero offers this assessment, by the by, before then telling you how to subvert the restriction on Netflix merchandise in Canada and gain access to Netflix USA, and there are any number of other videos on Youtube instructing you on how to do the same, sometimes for free, with adverts, sometimes for a low monthly fee.  God bless the youthful rebellious heart of the internet.

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This international supply discrepancy may be nothing more than the math involved with 300+ million people potentially paying $7.99 a month versus 30+ million potential customers paying same amount.  Or maybe the folks at Netflix just didn’t bother including the Canadian marketplace in many of the deals they originally signed with distributors for their product; Canada is hardly a big slice of the North American pie.

Then too there is the political element.  Canadian broadcasters and cable providers are up in arms about the expansion of Netflix into Canada.  They point out that Netflix is sucking a fair chunk of change out of Canada, into their Los Gatos, California corporate headquarters, without putting much back in, save for the licensing of a few typically older Canadian shows.  They are not required, as are the broadcasters, to invest in the creation of new Canadian product.

The aggrieved broadcasters—whom no one in their right mind should ever feel sorry for—tried taking their complaint to the Canadian Radio and Television Commission (the CRTC), but the federal regulator, in predictably ponderous bureaucratic fashion, has thus far not been swayed.  That’s only partly because they are ponderously bureaucratic; the fact is that they, like many people, haven’t quite fully awakened to the impact Netflix is having, and will have on the future of television.

Before saying more about that impact, it should be reiterated that Netflix does indeed provide a dodgy product in Canada.  Much of it is mediocre, nearly all of it is older, and the way it is provided is odd and shifty as well.  Worthy titles are buried beneath layers of ‘More Like This,’ and certain of them seem to come and go.  I once noted with pleasure, as I was trolling through the product, that Truffaut’s superb 400 Blows was available.  I made a mental note to watch that on a later occasion, but when that occasion arose I was nonplussed to find it no longer offered.  Netflix in Canada is far, far from fabulous, but it is just good enough to last, and ultimately prosper.

If it hasn’t already, Netflix will fundamentally change your television viewing experience.  My teenage daughter has never watched conventional TV, but us boomers grew up doing so, and the habit for me continued, albeit increasingly selectively, until recent years.  Not any more.

At this point in my life, the idea of watching television (with the sole exception of live sports) riddled with advertisements is just not something I’m prepared to face. Yes a few ads are clever and entertaining—the first time—but nearly all of them are irritating, banal and predictable, if not insulting.  And of course they are an unwanted interruption.  Netflix comes free of all this, comes to the ‘act break’ of an television episode, flickers briefly to black, then marvelously resumes a second later.  How much better is that?

Internet moguls complain as loudly as their broadcaster brethren about how many advertising dollars remain in the broadcast pot, despite the audience numbers flowing steadily to the web.  But this too will change.  60% of PVR users fast forward through the ads, and sooner or later advertising execs are going to wake up to such factoids.  It amazes me that anybody is still watching conventional, ad-laden TV, with the exception of live news and sports.

But none of this illuminates the truly critical difference with Netflix: Netflix takes long form viewing to a new level.  I think I first grasped the value of series long form storytelling in watching BBC shows like Brideshead Revisited and Upstairs Downstairs back in the 70s—longer story arcs, from the beginning to end of a 13-part series for instance, as opposed to from the beginning to end of an hour-long episode, had so much more depth, so much more space to develop characters and themes, and the nuances of both.  These series could track with much greater validity through long periods of time, setting the appropriate pace, and doing so in a way that was more telling, resonant, complete.

Despite these quality exceptions back in the day, as a movie critic friend of mine said to me not long ago, if anyone had said to me, back in the 70s, that there would come a day when I would be generally more interested in watching television shows than I would movies, I’d have thought said speaker was sadly not far removed from a complete psychological breakdown.  Not any more.  For my money, the quality of storytelling extant in a current series like Breaking Bad or The Walking Dead is notably superior to almost all the fare being produced by mainstream Hollywood these days.  There are numerous reasons for that—television has always been a more writer-friendly environment—but chief among them is the ability to exploit the long form story potential of series versus one-offs.

And of course, not only does Netflix offer an ad-free, long form viewing experience, Netflix offers these shows at your own personal viewing schedule.  No waiting until next week for the succeeding episode, no obligation to watch until the credits roll in order to know how the current conflict is resolved.  Netflix will hold that show, at precisely the point where you pushed the stop button, ready for you to resume watching at your convenience.

The leap from episode to series story arcs has been a tough one for dramatic TV producer/writers to make.  Many of them still have not been able to summon the requisite courage.  (Hello, the team at Justified!)  Focus groups from out of the hoary past have told these creators that they didn’t want unresolved episode endings; they wanted story closure now, not next week, or at the end of the season.  Netflix changes that, forever.  That unresolved episode end is now just a couple of clicks away from the tale resuming.

The best television shows are the ones that embrace long form storytelling wholeheartedly, and Netflix allows you to in turn embrace these series at your leisure.  Enjoy.  You’ll never look back.