From Jaime Woo of the Toronto Standard:
OutTV’s Canadian Cop-Out
Here’s the thing: OutTV sounds embarrassed by its Canadian content. Yet if OutTV is in such dire straits with its Canadian programming, why not throw a Hail Mary then and go for some really interesting, out there stuff? It doesn’t even need to be expensive. Take a look at Comedy Central, the American channel that built itself up with the Daily Show, Colbert Report, Tosh.0, and other talking head shows. The biggest question is—and without knowing the financials or how syndication deals are structured at OutTV—how did New Addams Family became the poster child for queer television? Especially when Canadians are or were behind huge chunks of Degrassi, Lost Girl, and Wonderfalls. Read more.
Lately I’ve been thrilled to see senior executives at the major Canadian broadcasters publicly declaring their desire to support Canadian content. I’d be slightly more thrilled if they gave some basic support to their Canadian content.
Barbara Williams, Senior Vice President of Content at Shaw Media, is co-chair of the working group that so piqued my interest with their ideas about celebrating the success stories in Canadian on-screen content. A recent example is that Shaw successfully cancelled Bomb Girls for low ratings that dropped after Global pulled it off the air and changed timeslots mid-season to make way for an American import.
Kevin Crull, President of Bell Media, says he wants to duplicate the star system of Quebec in English Canada, and acquiring Astral apparently will help him do that. The Montreal Gazette explains: “Crull didn’t give any details of Bell’s plans, though he did tell members of the academy that Bell’s strategy of putting Canadian TV shows in popular prime-time spots, keeping them there and heavily promoting them are keys to their success.”
Ah yes, regular timeslots and promotion — two of the most basic ways to build an audience. Which include, for instance, not programming Motive, your only Canadian scripted series on CTV, on Sunday nights so that you have to move it when ratings sag amid the killer competition.
To give Bell credit, they wisely launched Orphan Black after Doctor Who on Saturdays, where there was a well-primed audience free from most other TV-related distractions. If I were feeling magnanimous I wouldn’t point out that BBC America chose that timeslot and Space followed suit.
Crull’s colleague Scott Henderson, Vice-President of Communications at Bell Media, was a panellist at this week’s Academy of Canadian Cinema and Television’s event Getting Canadians To Watch Canadians. “How do you get Canadians to watch Canadian television?” the blurb reads, promising that executives from the major networks would “share what they are doing to capture and increase this audience.”
Let me share what they’re doing. The same week that Henderson spoke about this topic, his two homegrown scripted shows — Motive and Orphan Black — had nothing on their homepages to indicate that a new episode would air that week. No promo, no episode description, no information even that the episode would be new. The episode descriptions in the usual programming highlight media releases were AWOL too.
The CTV media releases — generally sent out bimonthly with descriptions of new episodes — were missing the May 2 Motive airing. One release listed shows until April 30 while the next began with May 3.
In the coming apocalypse, Space is clearly betting on zombies over clones. Their programming highlights media release has been condensed, eliminating Orphan Black episode descriptions, but if you want to know the details of Abraham Lincoln vs Zombies, or their zombie mini-series import In The Flesh, you’re in luck.
The episode descriptions are now only located on the walled media site, but that change was not communicated and relies on the media actively seeking the information. If their shows were in witness protection Bell couldn’t do a much better job of protecting them from prying eyes.
Both Motive and Orphan Black launched well, the former garnering over a million viewers and the latter breaking original series premiere ratings for Space. I have genuine respect for Bell for their initial promotion and for giving Motive the post-Super Bowl premiere.
But both shows have declined from their premiere ratings. Orphan Black has already been renewed and I’m confident it will continue to go strong. While it loses its Doctor Who lead-in soon, besides the engaged fans there’s at least the BBC America promotion seeping over the border.
Motive shows more troubling signs of softness that can be strengthened with consistency and promotion. It had recovered from the natural viewer erosion after the (wise) timeslot shift, but its ratings still fluctuate down to Bomb Girls levels now after reruns.
I don’t expect Bell to pull a Shaw and cancel Motive, but they have no other original series to promote right now. They should be aggressively promoting what they have.
Or at the very least, broadcasters should stop telling us about their successes and their valiant efforts to get reluctant Canadians to watch Canadian TV until they demonstrate a true desire to succeed with their Canadian shows.
On April 23, 2013, the CRTC began a public hearing on “distribution orders under section 9(1)h) of the Broadcasting Act” – in other words, mandatory carriage orders. Mandatory carriage automatically adds a service to a cable/satellite/IPTV provider’s basic package, and – unless the service is distributed for free – requires distributors to pay that service a wholesale fee per customer. This is a privilege ten services currently enjoy. A new or existing service granted mandatory carriage is the CRTC equivalent of winning pole position in a horse race. It practically guarantees that service some form of subsidy.
New and/or unlaunched services applying for mandatory carriage, such as Starlight: The Canadian Movie Channel, ACCENTS, and FUSION, are forward-looking statements in search of stable funding. Starlight, in particular, has made some noise in the media about its commitment to Canadian film. Existing services, such as Sun News Network and Vision TV, see mandatory carriage as the way to secure their futures.
At the other end of the spectrum, there’s a Steve Ladurantaye Globe and Mail piece about four services — Blue Ant Media’s Travel + Escape, OUTtv Network Inc.’s OUTtv, Stornoway Communications’ ichannel, and ZoomerMedia’s ONE – asking the CRTC for licence amendments. To that end, the Independent Broadcast Group — the four previously mentioned broadcasters, plus APTN, Channel Zero, Ethnic Channels Group, TV5 Quebec, and ZoomerMedia — lobbies to protect the independent broadcasters’ interests.
ichannel, OUTtv, ONE, and Travel + Escape’s renewals are part of the same CRTC Broadcasting Notice of Consultation as the applications for mandatory distribution orders. To demonstrate what a new “basic” service could become in the future, I point to two current services on differing prosperity levels — OUTtv and Vision TV — as they have at least one thing in common.
OUTtv debuted as lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender (LGBT) service PrideVision, and struggled to attract viewers in its early days – it aired pornographic content in the late night hours, and lacked a West Coast feed. Shaw Communications, in particular, resisted PrideVision. Headline Media Group (later Score Media Inc.) sold the service in 2004, to a consortium led by broadcaster William Craig.
PrideVision, by then doing business as HARD on PrideVision, briefly aired porn between 9:00 PM and 6:00 AM. In 2005, HARD on PrideVision spun off into a separate service (now Playmen TV), making the “new” OUTtv a full-time, general-interest LGBT service. Today, OUTtv is almost fully owned by Shavick Entertainment (Re:Source Media owns 4.16%), and has 939,200 subscribers as of 2012. Arguably, it took a decade, two ownership changes, and the “spinoff” of a questionable program block for OUTtv to find its footing.
Vision TV began in 1988 as a multi-faith religious service, initially owned by a company that evolved into S-VOX Foundation. ZoomerMedia acquired the service in 2010. Under ZoomerMedia ownership, Vision TV is more of a general-interest service for older audiences. ZoomerMedia’s chief argument is that cable and satellite companies want to remove Vision TV from their basic tiers, in part due to Vision TV straying from its original mandate. In the event Vision TV is bumped off basic cable, ZoomerMedia will attempt to amend Vision TV’s licence.
Where OUTtv and Vision TV intersect is their desire to amend their licences, and reduce Canadian content levels. This is why I don’t see a future for Starlight, EqualiTV, Dolobox TV, or other unlaunched services vying for mandatory carriage. The history of Canadian specialty services suggest that a service will rebrand, and/or amend its broadcasting licence, at some point. Even well-established, profitable services like The Comedy Network want to reduce their Canadian content levels.
Canadian television is littered with services that failed – C Channel, WTSN, The Life Channel, Edge TV, Cool TV, X-Treme Sports, Fox Sports World Canada, etc. Other services have new storefronts – Drive-In Classics is now Sundance Channel, TV Land is now Comedy Gold, mentv/The Cave is now H2, and so on. Services might wrap themselves around noble goals – engaging youth, reviving the Canadian film industry’s fortunes, appealing to underserved minority groups. What matters is whether the services are managed well enough to survive on their original mandates, and whether channels will still be maintained, if their preferred source of funding doesn’t materialize.
In the end, I don’t think CRTC’s current mandatory carriage hearings will produce much of value. In 2013, there are too many examples of services that meant well, but gave in to the pressures of commercial broadcasting. I rarely see a CRTC licence amendment that increases Canadian content, or strengthens a service’s mandate – maybe AUX’s 2011 application to play more music videos, which the CRTC denied.
I neither want to see overfunded services that can’t sustain themselves, nor services using mandatory carriage orders as a substitute for venture capital. In the wake of CRTC’s second round of Bell-Astral hearings, there are more pressing matters in Canadian television.
From Kelly Lynne Ashton of Butter Tarts and Brown Drinks:
Does Canadian TV need an overhaul? Maybe. Probably.
Does the Canadian broadcasting system need improvement? I think we can all agree to that, including the CRTC. Without the CRTC how do we do that? Do we advocate scrapping the Broadcasting Act and the CRTC with it and let the free market dictate what gets made and who airs it? I seriously do not think that any of us want the broadcasting system that we’d end up with then, it as it would likely be nothing but retransmission of US signals. Continue reading.
In ancient Twitter times, maybe a year ago, a discussion popped up: where’s Canada’s Mad Men? Why can’t we produce something so excellent, so embraced by critics and audience?
My answer: we have. We had it before Mad Men. But we have to scale down our thinking from Hollywood levels.
Slings & Arrows was an intelligent, fun, carefully crafted series, and a critical favourite. I posit there is no show better, Canadian or American or Mexican. Girls is no cleverer or funnier or well-loved than Michael: Tuesdays & Thursdays. Durham County, Intelligence, Call Me Fitz, Less Than Kind – we have shows that in another country, with a larger population base, and not as overshadowed by the Hollywood machine — in a country with a healthy TV industry and more diverse media — these shows might have received the same kind of attention as a Homeland in the US or a Luther in the UK.
A crucial element to sustain these critical darlings, however, is buzz. Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Girls, all have tiny audiences compared to a network hit — even an NBC hit — yet command a much greater percentage of critical and social media attention than an NCIS.
The problem: Canada’s population base is 10 times less than the US. Canada’s TV critic community is even tinier per capita. Canadians consume American media, including television criticism, while our critics are time-sharing their attention with American shows. Homegrown TV is crowded out of every thought-space.
It’s easy to say Canadian media should write more about Canadian shows, but it starts to become a no-profit endeavor very quickly, and the Canadian media are struggling with that well enough now. They check in with the hits, and their favourites, but there’s little checking in beyond once a season, never mind the kind of obsessive episodic analysis that’s become a staple for American critics.
My direct comparative experience is out of date now, but when you get over a thousand people clicking on an article about House and over a dozen clicking on an article about Intelligence, you have to have a certain will – one not driven by chasing ads – to persist in writing about a low-rated but thoughtful Canadian series.
Audiences aren’t talking much either, because a cult audience in Canada is a microcult spread over 10,000,000 km2. There are pockets of chatter on social media, and if a particular show is in your bubble you’re bound to see talk of it, but there’s little spreading to the greater water cooler out in the wild.
We notice loudly when the Canadian TV industry produces more mediocrity. Let’s listen for the excellence falling among us too. Because in Canada, we have to listen very carefully to hear it.