From Scott Stinson of the National Post:
See you, regulator: Canadian TV needs an overhaul
The CBC opted against developing any new shows next season and instead renewed its entire schedule. CTV ended Flashpoint and replaced it, surprise, with another police procedural. Showcase and Space have had new success with Canadian-made drama, provided that the drama stars an attractive woman in some sort of science-fiction setting who wears tight pants. And one private network in particular made history by scheduling an entire weeknight of Canadian programming — except that was the Syfy channel in the United States. Read more.
A few podcasts ago, cohost Anthony Marco and I grilled Canadian media policy wonk Kelly Lynne Ashton, who has been my resource for a lot of “is it CanCon or not?” type of questions. She answered a lot of questions around funding, coproductions, the CRTC and vertical integration that keep popping up, so I thought I’d include a partial transcript in a post for easier reference for all. I also thought I’d get Rachel Langer to help transcribe (thanks Rachel!)
On Vertical Integration Re: The Bell/Astral Merger
We’ve got the vertical integration policy which encouraged cable companies owning broadcasters owning prod cos owning internet service providers. Over the years the commission encouraged that under the idea that bigger is better and these companies needed to be bigger to be able to compete international and be stronger Canadian companies.
The market has shown that big companies have evolved. Whether we agree with it or not, the horse is out of the barn. They’re big companies. They own almost everything. We do need competition, we need to have different options and voices, but one of the problems is that Astral wants to sell. We can’t make them continue business.
Regarding Our Blended System
We are completely muddled. Every cable company argues out of both sides of the mouth. “It’s a free market, you have to let us do what we want to do” then “but we survive because of regulation”. So we are blended. Everybody knows it’s a blended system, but when you’re standing in front of the commission [CRTC], you argue out of one side of the mouth or the other…frequently at the same time.
On Mandatory Carriage
It’s the individual broadcasters who are looking for mandatory carriage. Other than Sun News, it’s Vision, Starlight, APTN — these are small guys and they’re looking for mandatory carriage to have a secure revenue stream, because they’re niche broadcasters, for the most part.
As for Sun News, their arguments aren’t very strong. They’re a news service. News was released as a competitive, it’s not a protected genre. For mandatory carriage there is a very high standard that you need to meet of exceptionality. You have to be an exceptional service that is necessary to Canadians, and there are all the other news services.
On the Power of the CRTC
The CRTC is growling more than they used to. They have the same tools that they’ve ever had. They seem to be much more willing to use those tools, and be aggressive with those tools. [In terms of enforcing consequences] the big hit is pulling your license, but they can also issue a short license. With Shaw Cable, they didn’t fulfill a number of their obligations, and they didn’t do the reporting they were supposed to do and they were playing games with the services they didn’t like, so they got a short license – instead of the usual 7 years, they got 3.
It’s a real pain [for broadcasters]. Those license renewal hears are huge. The amount of staff you have to put in, the amount of money and projections and studies– it’s actually quite costly to have to go through that process, so to have to go through it twice in the normal period you were expecting, it’s a real wakeup call to any licensee.
On OWN Network operating under the original licence’s educational mandate
To bring it back to Oprah Winfrey [and the OWN Network] the commission is doing something it always had the power to do, but wasn’t willing to do and that is a mandatory order. That is telling a licensee “you have to do this and we are filing the order with the federal court.” The federal court has much greater penalties than anything the CRTC has. They can fine, they can seize assets, they can seize personal assets of the directors of the company.
On Network Reporting Obligations
[Networks] DO have annual reports, but all that info is deemed to be confidential so the commission aggregates it. So what the stakeholders, the unions and guilds are trying to do is to get that info a little bit disaggregated so you can actually have SOME idea whether say Corus or Shaw or Bell is living up to their expectations as a group.
You can’t get [stats for] one channel. What is publicly available to everyone in annual reports — “this is what is spent by Canadian broadcasters.” They argue the info is competitive between one service and another. I’m not going to defend it, I’m just saying this is the game we have to play.
On the “Confidentiality” of CanCon Reporting Data
The CRTC says that they’re privy to all the information and we have to trust them, that they’re reviewing it all. We do know that they go back. We hear the commission being frustrated and saying “You didn’t meet your CanCon regulations”. … We want to encourage the current commission’s toughness. It’s gotten more and more opaque. We used to get data whenever a company was buying another company (like a Bell/Astral), we used to get a lot of financials but then they just started calling it confidential.
On Determining CanCon Requirements for Productions and Co-Productions
It’s not that complicated. [For measuring CanCon] first we’ve got CAVCO. It’s a point system. You have to have 6/10 points for any show to be Canadian. That’s your writer, director, top two lead actors, composer, designer, editor. Plus on top of that the producer has to be Canadian and own all the copyright, and you have to have spent 75% of the money in Canada. So that’s a basic outline [for a completely Canadian show] and one of the writer or director has to be Canadian.
The funding system is set up for 8/10 point productions. Those are the truly Canadian shows. Flashpoint is 10/10. (Any Canadian Media Fund show) is 10/10. There are some exceptions – you can bring in an American lead if you apply for certain exemptions, but generally [the CMF funded shows] are 10/10.
Co-Productions: Two countries have agreed that when they work together the resulting product will qualify as domestic under each country’s rules. So for example, a Canada-UK production. You’ve got UK leads, UK writer, UK talent, but it still qualifies as a 10/10 Canadian production. It gets complicated here. It applies for broadcast [but not necessarily funding]. It depends on the size of your budget, whether it’s worth going to CMF. A lot of the copros don’t, but I think Borgias did.
There is a minimum level of Canadian involvement [required]. So first off, when you’re talking about copros, the idea is that overall your minorities and majorities are going to balance out, so other countries are not just using Canada as a source of financing. That’s the idea. I myself have looked at the stats, and overall they balance. But overall means feature films, it means docs, it means animation – a LOT of animation is done through copros. Overall it balances. Where there’s a problem is really prime time drama.
We started to bring to people’s attention that while the system worked overall it was NOT working with prime time drama – there was an imbalance there. When you’ve got excessive minorities (and you can name them all, The Tudors, The Borgias, The Pillers of the Earth) they’re using Canada for post-production, that’s how they’re getting their minimum. The minimum you have to do with the minorities is 20% of your budget. They’ll have a couple actors who are killed off early. Name actors with red shirts. ;)
On Canadian Awards for Copros
First off, do we want to be known as a country of post production? I agree that composers and post-houses and editors are important but they’re not the only part of our sector that we need to be supporting. When we celebrate Canadian, do we celebrate minority co-prods? I was offended when Telefilm said “We do such great Canadian productions like The Borgias”. … Some of the other countries have separate categories for international productions.
Regarding American Shows that Shoot in Canada
They get production service tax credits. So they do get funding from the government, but the benefit of that is that they employ crews. They don’t [count as CanCon].
On US-Canadian Co-Ventures
A co-venture is a very definite term. …Defying Gravity was a co-venture. I believe it was a co-venture because it didn’t have a US broadcaster. It had an American producer. It was a co-venture between a Canadian producer and a US producer to allow the US producer to have creative say.
A production with an American pre-sale (like Rookie Blue)… they don’t own a piece, there’s no need for a formal designation.
On the Public’s Understanding of Canadian Shows
I honestly don’t think that many Canadians think that much about whether a show is Canadian or not. If they find out it’s Canadian then they’re pleased and they’re happy and they’re proud. I do think that people are proud of the fact that …we have a really strong lineup right now. When you tell people that these shows are Canadian they’re surprised because they thought they didn’t like Canadian TV.
The news that Canadian network executives will be speaking on an Academy of Canadian Cinema and Television panel on how to get Canadians watching Canadian TV gave me a flashback to the Canadian Media Production Association’s proposal that caused me to be more enraged than engaged.
I’ll be interested to hear the Academy webcast and from people attending the session — the panelists are smart people who’ve worked in the industry for ages — but first here’s my modest proposal for them (non-Swiftian version). Consider it a checklist for networks before they ponder more transmedia extravaganzas, online games that gamers would ridicule, sharing more effing “success stories,” or putting the responsibility of basic promotion onto the audience.
- Make more shows. Why are Canadian networks full of American shows we can watch on another channel? Most shows — American, Canadian or Ukrainian — fail, so if you’re only making a couple a year, odds are good you’ll only get a hit every several years.
- Invest more in their quality. This means you, broadcasters, not the funding agencies. More writers than executives? Higher production values? More marketing? Consequences to continued failure?
- Schedule regularly and well. The Listener is the rare show that’s managed to find a large, steady audience despite being bounced around from timeslot to timeslot, and with long, unpredictable gaps between seasons. And consider the compatibility of lead-ins and timeslot competition, unlike City and its beleagured Seed.
- Create exciting promos to launch the series. See the striking difference between ABC’s jazzy Motive promo and CTV’s sedate promo for example.
- Promos is plural – don’t play the same one over and over and over and over again or audiences will flee from it over and over and over again.
- If it’s a comedy, make the promo funny. Actually funny. If it’s a drama, make it dramatic. This applies to the shows too, by the way.
- Put the promos online and make them embeddable so other websites can help do your marketing for you. Show promotion shouldn’t be treated like a state secret.
- Create episode-specific promos
- See above – exciting, embeddable.
- Have episode-specific photos available to media and fans. How many times do we have to use the same group cast shot, with all of them standing and staring at the camera?
- Populate the show’s website well up front, and keep it updated.
- At a minimum, I should be able to easily tell when the next episode will air and what’s exciting about it.
- Use your promos, make all other content you do embeddable or copy and paste-able (I can’t tell you how many times I’ve tried to grab an epsiode description only to have it be Flash or part of an image and therefore not grabbable).
- Make sure the show’s IMDb page and Wikipedia page are updated.
- Social media the hell out of your show… but not in a spammy or smarmy marketing way.
- Teach everyone involved with the show the mores of the social media channels they’re using.
- Get your cast and key creatives (showrunner, director, whoever) to not just live-tweet shows but respond to fans – set up a search for the name of the show and the star and respond to comments and questions.
- Find out where your audience is and go there. Think beyond your own official channels. Tumblr? Pinterest? A Facebook page other than the official one? Forums? Fansites?
- Research before getting interactive. See what your fans do online, or fans of similar shows … especially before you try to make them do something else. Are they making videos, or fan art, or discussing issues? Tap into that. Go where they are, and support them in doing what they do. Tap into a competitive spirit or a desire for recognition.
- Cut the BS. Don’t get ridiculous parsing the ratings, or call everything a hit.
- Respond quickly to journalists on deadlines. Treat credible bloggers like online journalists. Offer actual stars for interviews.
- The usual marketing suspects: ads, billboards, bus ads, banner ads on the network’s family of sites and other targeted websites, etc.
- Get creative, think outside the box, be the first to do something new and shiny, and I’ll cheer you on. But first make sure you’ve got the basics covered. Few Canadian shows do.
I’m sure I’m missing some basics – any others you can add?
At least it’s not a Royal Commission?
Recently the Canadian Media Production Association posted to their blog an ask for advice and volunteers to help promote Canadian content:
At Prime Time in Ottawa a few weeks ago we provided an update to delegates about a National Promotional Strategy to raise awareness about the great on-screen content produced in Canada. While there are a number of initiatives underway, (creating a platform for access and discoverability, branding), the working group that I co-chair with Barb Williams from Shaw Media has a very specific mandate— and that is to promote the success of Canadian TV, film and second screen content in terms of shows, its creators, talent and economic value. …
The first project involves using social media and online tools (and you as experts and audience) to build a buzz about success stories by reaching a critical mass of grassroots supporters. …
We simply want our initial ideas to be catalysts for grassroots movements and engagement in creating and promoting Canadian success stories.
The problem? They’ve arrived at a tactic before determining the stakeholders or even a measurable goal. Never mind a critical mass of grassroots supporters – have they talked to a grassroots supporter?
I’ve said it before: TV, eh? shouldn’t exist. It ghettoizes Canadian TV. I’d be thrilled if a coordinated strategy could place Canadian shows on the same playing field as their American counterparts, so that the audience, the bloggers, the grassroots and mainstream media know about City’s upcoming Package Deal as much as NBC’s failed Office spinoff, and I could retire and start a site of cat videos. This isn’t that strategy. It’s not a strategy. It’s not even the start of a strategy. It’s the start of alienating people who should have been at the table before that post was written.
I don’t just mean TV, eh? I also mean First Weekend Club, The Shorts Report, Limited Release, The TV Addict, Mike’s Bloggity Blog, Press Plus 1, etc. – sites either dedicated to various forms of Canadian content or that include Canadian content in their coverage. The CMPA post lists industry groups as stakeholders, but no sites that have a direct connection to the audience they want to reach.
I’ve been promoting Canadian television success stories for seven years and they didn’t think to ask me who the audience for my site is, what efforts I’ve made that have succeeded or failed, what similar sites I know of (or even bother to look at my blogroll), or what I see as barriers to audience engagement. I know that TV, eh? was name-checked at Prime Time (“pretty good”) and they reached out to me after the post was published so ignorance of the site wasn’t an issue. This was a deliberate top-down approach. They made decisions about a grassroots effort without wanting to get any icky grass on their shoes.
Canadian television doesn’t have a shortage of success stories. It has a shortage of credibility.
The CMPA thinks it has to tell individuals to feel free to promote themselves without permission? Twitter — and my inbox — are overflowing with actors, writers, directors, producers, and public relations professionals promoting their latest series, and with industry organizations pumping out information about how amazing their latest project is. Who are these people that they aren’t inundated with everyone from their favourite TV star to their mother trying to push themselves as a “brand”? Can we trade places?
Gosh, you mean the people with a vested interest in the success of a show or the industry as a whole are telling me it’s good? Let me set the DVR.
Promotion isn’t engagement. One of the sites I mentioned above resorted to buying fake twitter followers – that’s how difficult it is to build a large audience when catering to a Canadian audience. And that’s how poorly the concept of engagement is often understood.
The suggestion is to get more industry people sharing success stories. And … then what? If you build it, they will not come. The average audience member isn’t following industry associations on social media, and has little incentive to seek out that kind of information. It’s a closed loop unless the media or one of these grassroots sites or a connected individual picks it up.
Where do success stories come from, the CMPA asks? In great part, they come from all of these sites and people already interviewing, reviewing, passing on information and building community who have no ties to the industry other than an interest or passion, wanting to share with other fans. Engagement comes from contributing to conversations. It doesn’t come from sharing success stories.
Plus, a success story to the industry is not the same as a success story to the audience. Media releases from networks and industry associations often focus on the arcane – ridiculous parsing of ratings, foreign sales without context – that have little interest for any but the most jingoistic of audience members. And the CMPA post includes many of those examples that will cause the audience to tune out or, more likely, never tune in at all.
What’s my measure of success, as a member of the audience? Do I like the show. And I’ll only get to find out if I know about the show. Absolutely we should share successes, but more importantly we need to foster discussion, positive or negative, about the shows.
To be fair, the CMPA is asking for advice, and they’re probably sorry they ever asked me to spread the word about that post. This is their invitation for the grassroots to speak up. But the initial ask is dismissive to those of us who have been doing this work for years without waiting for a coordinating body, and without a vested interest in the success or failure of the Canadian industry.
Because of the way this idea has been launched, it feels like another attempt by industry types to create another bubble where what’s meaningful to them should be meaningful to the audience. Because of the way it’s launched, they’ve demonstrated an aptitude for alienating those they are hoping to engage.
Kevin White (InSecurity, Dan For Mayor) is one of the speakers at the upcoming Toronto Screenwriting Conference on April 6 and 7. He shared his thoughts on the conference, the Canadian comedy sensibility, and our national batting average for TV comedies.
What do you want to convey at the Toronto Screenwriting Conference?
I think series are better when the creative and executive power of the show rests with the writer and creator. It may sound obvious but it doesn’t happen enough in this country. If you have a young untested writer with a great original script then pair them with a senior writer with showrunning experience who can execute the creative and train the creator to take over as showrunner in Season 2. Too often a creator is paired with a non-writing executive producer who show runs while the creator is relegated to ‘head writer.’ There he or she only deals with script creation, and not how the script is realized for television.
Creating a show is about having something to say. A lot to say. You want to drill down on a world and tell how the people in that world get through their day. If the creator doesn’t have the power to shape the telling of that story all the way along (from props to locations through to final cut and mix) then what’s being told? And why?
What do you hope to get out of it?
I find it very helpful to hear how other show runners approach their job managing writers and production. Particularly in this country where show runners have to get the most out of small rooms and tight budgets.
Have conferences like this played a role in your career development?
Hugely. The WGC once held a Directors & Writers conference at the CFC which I thought was great. They brought in top people from Canada, the US and Britain and I learned a ton. I never tire of hearing the insights and horror stories of other writers.
How did you get your start?
I had a few starts. CBC Radio, TVOntario, CBC’s Comics. But I feel like I started writing for real on This Hour has 22 Minutes. Mark Farrell took a flyer and hired me when I hadn’t done much. My first three weeks on the show were unremarkable and most of what I wrote was shit. But I gradually came to understand the tone of the show and got closer to the target. It was the best comedy writing training of my career.
Any advice for upcoming writers? Is it possible to specialize as a comedy writer in Canada?
My advice would be, listen. Write something, get people you trust to read it then shut up and listen. The shutting up part is important. You don’t have to agree with their comments but don’t defend it on the spot. Take in what they’re saying and sit with it a while. If, after your initial reaction, the note has merit, run it. If it doesn’t, don’t.
As for specialization, I remember a talented feature writer/director saying to me that he wanted to try his hand at comedy. I thought it was kind of presumptuous. I don’t think you can try your hand at comedy. You either look at the world a certain way or you don’t. I think comedy is about laughing at failure, evil and weakness. If that’s your outlook then I think your writing will tend to be comic. I guess what I’m saying is, I’m not sure you have a choice. Who you are, what you want to say and how you like to say it, all dictate how you’ll specialize. In Canada or anywhere else.
You’ve been involved in at least a couple long-running successes – 22 Minutes and Corner Gas – that seem like very different forms of comedy. But do you think there’s an identifiable Canadian sense of humour?
I do and I don’t. Corner Gas, Rick Mercer Report, 22 and Republic of Doyle have all done very well. To me they share certain qualities. They all come from a very specific place – the prairie, the east coast, Newfoundland – and they give voice to that culture and point of view. They also have a very unpretentious, everyman quality to them. Regular people in regional settings. We live next to a big, loud, neighbour and I think we see ourselves as a quieter nation, wryly observing from the sidelines. Comedies that do well seem to embrace that ethos. Did I just say ethos? Clearly my everyman is a pretentious dick.
I have to ask the depressing question: what’s your take on why Canadian comedies haven’t had a lot of longevity lately? Every round of award nominations it seems all the comedy contenders have already been cancelled. Is it cyclical? Systemic? Something else?
On This Hour has 22 Minutes, you’d write maybe 10 to 20 jokes for every 1 that got in the show. I think that ratio is the same for shows.
Last year in LA maybe 40 or so comedy pilots were shot. Then how many of those went to series… 20? Then not all of those went to air. And how many of those were breakout hits? You’d be hard pressed to name one. Then in Canada we piloted how many scripted comedies… 2, 4? And we expect them all to be hits. And we’re doing it with half the budget and a much smaller, less experienced talent pool. So I don’t know. It’s number of at bats. And we won’t see more hits unless we produce more shows. And we won’t produce more shows as long as we can buy high quality US programming cheaply.
Bottom line – if you make 10 shows, you have a much better chance of a hit than if you make 2. So the math suggests that in Canada we’ll get a hit every 5 to 10 years.