Tag Archives: TV series

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.

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.

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.

 

Eggs and Scam

“Egg and Bacon;images
Egg, sausage and Bacon;
Egg and Spam;
Spam Egg Sausage and Spam;
Egg, Bacon and Spam;
Egg, Bacon, sausage and Spam;
Spam, Bacon, sausage and Spam;
Spam, Egg, Spam, Spam, Bacon and Spam;
Spam, Spam, Spam, Egg and Spam;
Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam, baked beans, Spam, Spam, Spam and Spam;
Lobster Thermidor aux crevettes with a Mornay sauce, served in a Provencale manner with shallots and aubergines, garnished with truffle pâté, brandy and a fried egg on top and Spam.”

The above is the menu bawled out by Terry Jones playing a waitress in a 1970 Monty Python restaurant sketch while speaking to ‘Mrs. Bun,’ a customer played by Graham Chapman—who emphatically retorts, “I DON’T LIKE SPAM!”  It seems that Spam, a canned meat product of dubious biological origins, was readily available in Britain during World War II, when rationing meant that many other less processed meats were not; thus the derogatory comment about the unwanted ubiquity of ‘spam.’

The term has of course subsequently come to mean any unwelcome, permeating internet messaging.  Although no one is quite sure precisely where that morphed usage began, its Pythonesque source is undisputed.

I mention this curious bit of etymology because this blog was brought down by a ‘brute force’ onslaught of spam two weeks ago, and the blitz continues even now, despite various efforts by myself and the good people at myhosting.com, where this blog ephemerally resides.  These messages are cloaked in language meant to convince me that the writer has actually read and much admired my post.  They are also riddled with links, and apparently poorly translated from Chinese, if the number of surviving Chinese characters is any indication.

It’s a new, and infinitely more pervasive form of scam that in the past would have manifest simply as, say, a ‘contractor’ knocking on your front door to offer a spiffy new surface for your crumbling driveway, or a well-dressed man accosting you downtown one night, telling an elaborate tale of losing his car, then his wallet.  I’m invariably given to wonder just what it is that motivates these obviously very capable, skilled people to pursue these nefarious practices, at such laborious length?

‘Money’ is of course the answer, that greatest of all motivators within a society where money may not always buy happiness, but where it most certainly buys status, power, creature comforts and pleasure, but then I’m given to note that people as determined and accomplished as these perpetrators could obviously earn money in less objectionable pursuits.  So why do they choose the scam as employment, why a vocation with only negative consequences for the ordinary, often less able scammee?

(More specifically, in the case of modern-day spam, it seems the goal is more links, with the attendant increase in search engine profile, which is of course to say the goal is money.)

‘Easy money’ might be the next answer; it’s a pursuit with greater payoff-per-hour than other less damaging endeavors.  It’s an essentially sociopathic activity, taken up by individuals who simply don’t care about the consequences for others, so long as it means money flowing to their own pockets.  And I don’t think the practice is then pursued by only those inherently conscience-free; I suspect there’s an incremental opportunity-reward process at work in the corruption of these scammers.  These folks simply find themselves one day in a position where they know they are doing no good for anyone, but where retreat to moral legitimacy is now difficult and costly.

As a younger man I aspired to making the world a better place, in the long term if not daily.  These days my ambitions may have retreated to a position best articulated by a wise friend of mine: “Do no harm.”  If each of us could simply get up each morning, then manage our day without causing any damage to others or the planet, the world would immediately be a far, far better place.  If the spammers would just change the menu, the internet café would be so much more enjoyable for all us customers.  Sadly, as another less wise but no less accurate friend of mine likes to say, “It ain’t happenin’.”

 

 

 

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.

images

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.