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Women in TV: Another example of “You can’t be what you can’t see”?

How can you dream of what you can be, and all you can be, if you never see it in the storytelling of your culture?” – Jill Golick, Writers Guild of Canada President

Tatiana Maslany should have an Emmy for her performance as the kick-ass clones of Orphan Black. Anna Silk, Laura Vandervoort and Rachel Nichols headline other popular Canadian genre shows. But when you dig deeper into the statistics of women in Canadian television, the idea of a female-friendly industry erodes.

Last year’s Women in View report and the previous Ryerson report show that the industry has a long way to go in representing women and minorities, particularly behind the scenes.  If telling our own stories is foundational to the Canadian television industry, we should aspire to have our country’s diversity of voices represented.

In this Operation Maple video, Golick and ACTRA National President Ferne Downey speak about the challenges facing women in television, onscreen and off.


My answer to … risk-averse networks

Are network executives responsible for failures in Canadian TV? Only if you believe making shows is their job.

Because I enjoy talking about the Canadian TV industry, sometimes I’m asked questions about it. I have no solid answers but a lot of opinions, so in this irregular column I’ll share some of them.

Here’s an email I received just before we re-launched the site:

The failure (or lack of success) of comedies is widely apparent and so is the blame everyone heaps on writers, creators, actors, etc. But no one seems to attribute some blame on the network executives who are green lighting these shows.

In the blame-game that is Canadian TV, network execs are getting off scott free, and it’s frustrating. They are the ones choosing the shows that get made. It is an integral part of the system, yet it has no checks or balances, no feedback, consequence or review. And it shows.

If you played a drinking game for every time Anthony Marco and I brought up the issue of risk-averse networks on the podcast, you’d have consumed at least a few beverages over the last couple of years.

What you’d lack in drunkenness you’d make up for in shared frustration that there’s no easy solution like pointing out the problem and ranting energetically about it. Believe me, we’ve tried.

I actually rarely hear actors and writers blamed for a show’s lack of success in Canada. In my world it’s just a generic “why aren’t Canadian shows very good?” (I have an answer for a whole other column, which will begin with “you aren’t watching the right ones.”)

It seems particularly unfair in a business where most shows fail that because we make so few of them in Canada, each failure is taken as an indictment of  the industry. Is our batting average worse than the US? Maybe, maybe not.

Anyway, the issue at hand isn’t limited to comedies. Canada’s export economy seems to consist entirely of crime procedurals that US networks can use as cheap summer filler. Some catch on, some don’t, but no network exec is going to get fired by greenlighting yet another one, no matter how bland or derivative. If it sells overseas, great, If not, who can blame them for trying.

What pays the bills?

There will be no change to the lack of accountability as long as the core business of a Canadian network is buying American programming and simulcasting it at the same time as the US network. In that model, the Canadian company gets the advertising dollars even for those viewers watching the US channel. (One of the biggest complaints to the CRTC? No US Superbowl ads in Canada.)

The costs and risks of development have already been absorbed by the US networks, who winnow down what they’ve put into development to choose what to shoot as pilots, and from there which pilots to take to series. Then the Canadians cut a check for the rights to air those series. If NBC or ABC or CBS or FOX cancel it? Oh well. Slot in another acquisition or maybe even a Canadian show if they don’t own the rights for something else they can simulcast.

Being a good shopper is a key competency for a Canadian network executive. Developing successful scripted series themselves? Not so much.

What is this “success” you speak of? 

They do develop shows — in conjunction with independent production companies — and I know they want them to succeed. Though not always so much that they’ll give them a consistent timeslot between compatible shows.

And they sometimes seem to define success more as “sell to another country” than “get lots of Canadian eyeballs on it.”  (I started TV, eh? partly as a reaction to discovering that to some network executives, Canadians were not the primary audience for Canadian series.)

Networks have Canadian content requirements to fulfill as a condition of their license, and money to spend on original programming as a condition of all the buyouts and media conglomerating going on, though success rarely seems to be measured as “fulfilling our legal requirements,” That accounting isn’t made public so  we have to have faith in that compliance as we look at one network’s fall schedule devoid of primetime Canadian series.

But has a network executive ever been fired because of unsuccessful original programming? How many years would it take to evaluate their track record? The private broadcast networks usually air at most one original scripted show per network at a time, often changing timeslots to move out of the way of those lucrative simulcasts, often using the same show to count toward their CanCon requirements across multiple channels.

Often a low-rated show is renewed because a) the network has faith in it or b) the network doesn’t care  much what the ratings are for a Canadian show or c) mysterious reasons.

Sometimes a well-rated show is cancelled because a) it’s too expensive or b) they have another Canadian show to fill their lone Canadian TV slot c) mysterious reasons.

Think Seed and Spun Out in the first category and Murdoch Mysteries on City and The Listener in the second.

CBC is a different story — original programming is their core.  But their goal is a moving target: are they competing with the private networks for ratings, or aiming for an audience not served by those, or, as it often seems, either, neither or both depending on what carrot or stick we need to make our point.

Any discussion I’ve ever been in about the CBC boils down to: “It can’t be everything to everyone. It has to be everything to everyone.”

When it’s a mystery to me what the goals are, it’s hard to know if CBC’s executive have achieved them. They’ve taken risks with shows like Intelligence and Michael: Tuesdays and Thursdays, shows a private network likely wouldn’t consider, and then cancelled them because of low ratings amid the ratings-chasing fare surrounding them.

With recent changes at the top and drastic budget slashing,  my impression is that CBC’s executives have to survive the politics of their time more than the unsuccessful scheduling of shows.

Beyond the broadcast networks

Some of the specialty networks are doing some of the riskiest and — no coincidence — most rewarding television in Canada. But when even a moderately successful network show can fly under the radar, a specialty’s minuscule ratings means their shows rarely enter into the discussion unless they happen to be sci-fi, especially sci-fi that also airs in the US.

APTN has Blackstone (early seasons coproduced with Showcase) and Hard Rock Medical (with TVOntario), plus Mohawk Girls, for example. HBO Canada and The Movie Network/Movie Central have given us Call Me Fitz and Durham County. Love them or hate them, they’re originals in every sense of the word.

What’s the solution? 

Back the the original question from way back at the top  … Remember in the US several years ago when “comedy was dead”? It came back.

Some day we’ll stop marketing new Canadian sitcoms as this newfangled thing called a multicam and market them (ideally truthfully) as funny. Some day we’ll get another … name your flavour of comedy: Corner Gas, Trailer Park Boys,  SCTV.

We might have to make a lot of not-so-great to get to more good because of the law of averages and because of the concept of nurturing talent to stay in Canada and not flee to the much bigger US industry.

That’s the glass half full view. The other half of the glass — network executive accountability to homegrown successes or failures — means shifting their core business to be about creating hits instead of selling ads on American ones.

And that will only happen if they’re forced into it by the CRTC or by a changing television landscape that makes owning great content the only way to survive. I’m not hopeful either scenario will happen in the near future, but I think the last one is inevitable in the long term.

Think I’m way off base? Let me know. 

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No More “Whisker Wars” on OLN


Recently the CRTC renewed the several licences owned by Rogers. I won’t get into all the wonky details here but one aspect of the decision impacts on Canadian programming. And it’s entertaining.

OLN is a specialty service that was licensed to provide exclusively “programs that deal with outdoor recreation, conservation, wilderness and adventure”.  On two previous occasions Rogers has tried to amend its conditions of licence so that it could broadcast more Canadian drama, more U.S. drama, cartoons and to remove the word ‘exclusively’. Rogers had limited success (they got cartoons) because the Commission felt that their requests would undermine the nature of service for which they were licensed. “Lost” reruns do not qualify as outdoor adventure.

Instead of US reruns (they have FX Canada now) Rogers started broadcasting the kind of reality shows that you see on Discovery and increasingly on History – “Baggage Battles”, “Storage Wars”, “Ghost Hunters”, “Operation Repo” and my personal favourite “Whisker Wars” (competitive facial hair – seriously). Rogers put most of the benefits money that they are required to spend for the acquisition of the CITY stations and OLN into “The Liquidator”, a series about Jeff Schwarz, a guy in Vancouver who buys and sells unwanted merchandise.

You might be a fan of “Whisker Wars” and “The Liquidator” but you would also have to agree that they aren’t outdoor adventure shows. The CRTC felt the same way and gave Rogers until January 31, 2015 to clean up their schedule and report on how OLN is now broadcasting shows consistent with their nature of service.

If we end up in some variation of a pick and pay universe, it will be increasingly important for consumers to know what a service is before they buy it. Enforced nature of service means that a broadcaster can’t entice a subscriber with one concept and then change it because they think that audiences have shifted or another form of programming is cheaper. For creators it is important to know what a broadcaster stands for now and for years to come when they are pitching proposals.

For everyone enforced natures of service work towards ensuring that there is real choice of programming in the broadcast system and broadcasters aren’t all chasing the same audience.


Why should I care about the CRTC?

I have been asked to write about regulatory activity for the TV, eh? audience. You might ask yourself – “why should I care about regulations – I am a fan/creator/broadcaster/distributor and I just want to know about Canadian TV”?

Without government policies, in their infinite and constantly evolving complexity, there would be no Canadian media. None. In particular, the Broadcasting Act and its stewards the CRTC ensure that we have a Canadian-owned broadcasting system and that each element of the system (primarily broadcasters and cable and satellite companies) contributes to the creation and presentation of Canadian programming.

Without these rules and regulations we would all be watching Masterchef and Under the Dome and other US shows on a US network. Well, we are anyway … but we have the choice to watch Canadian programming that reflects our world, our stories and how we see ourselves.

Nurtured, our talent pool has created terrific programming that has been extremely popular with audiences – Amazing Race Canada was the top show in Canada last week and during this summer season Rookie Blue and The Listener are both averaging over a million viewers each episode.

We also have the choice to watch high quality documentaries, children’s programming and Canadian feature films because of the regulatory support of the Broadcasting Act and policies and funding through Heritage Canada.

It is, however, an imperfect system. The CRTC is always trying to tweak the balance between consumers, creators and citizens and between broadcasters, cable companies and producers. The media world is constantly evolving with new technologies, new business models, new consumption patterns and new players. The system is constantly in tension and sometimes, often, you — the lover or creator of Canadian television — is forgotten.

My job here will be to translate regulatory activity (mostly CRTC but also changes in funding at Canada Media Fund or the independent funds or changes in policies at Canadian Heritage) and explain the impact on Canadian programming. Will there be more or less, what kind, should I be upset or excited about it?

Acronyms will unfortunately creep in. I have a decoder on my personal blog.

Coming up:  The big regulatory news is the TalkTV hearing which will take place September 8 – 19th, 2014. We could expect a decision on that hearing possibly before the end of the calendar year and then the following year we will likely have a number of follow up hearings on specific issues.

The Movie Network announces slate of shows in development

From a media release:

  • Attached talent includes Oscar® nominees Chris Lavis and Maciek Szczerbowski, Scotiabank Giller Prize winner Joseph Boyden, and seasoned writer Stephen Tolkin
  • Production companies working with The Movie Network include Serendipity Point Films, Prospero Pictures, Halfire Entertainment, ICF Films, and Darius Films

The Movie Network announced today its current roster of 14 drama and comedy projects in development, featuring acclaimed writers Chris Lavis and Maciek Szczerbowski (Madame Tutli-Putli), Joseph Boyden (Through Black Spruce), and Stephen Tolkin (BROTHERS & SISTERS). The diverse group of stories ranges from historical event series (THE TENDERNESS OF WOLVES, UNCOMMON YOUTH), to provocative character drama FERAL, epic fantasy THE SEIGE, and a comedy about hicks, skids, and hockey players living in Letterkenny, Ontario LETTERKENNY.

In total, The Movie Network currently has 14 drama and comedy projects in development, including three previously announced comedies.

The Movie Network’s current slate of development projects include:

Drama - A violent, romanticized, post-modern take on the classic saga. Attached:
Omni Film Entertainment: Brian Hamilton, Michael Chechik (DEFYING GRAVITY)
Matt Greenberg (1408) – Writer
Co-developed in partnership with Movie Central

Comedy - A half-hour, single-camera comedy about a group of young, divorced women living the very definition of the term “hot mess”.
New Metric Media -Patrick O’Sullivan and Mark Montefiore (Cas & Dylan)
Jessie Gabe (Cas & Dylan) and Linsey Stewart (BEING ERICA) – Writers

Drama - A slightly unhinged child protection worker avoids her own life by throwing herself into her work.
Sherry White (ROOKIE BLUE, SAVING HOPE) – Writer
Semi Chellas (MAD MEN) – Story Editor
Co-developed in partnership with Movie Central

Comedy - A famous porn star returns to his childhood home in Brantford, Ontario to get away from the business.
Halfire Entertainment: Noreen Halpern (WORKING THE ENGELS, HUNG)
Kevin Smith (Clerks) and Aaron Martin (SAVING HOPE, BEING ERICA) – Writers
Co-developed in partnership with Movie Central

Drama - Chronicling the House of Gucci’s notorious rise and fall.
Bauman Entertainment: Ted Bauman (THE CLIENT LIST)Angus Fraser (ROGUE, TERMINAL CITY) – Writer
Co-developed in partnership with Movie Central

Drama - An epic genre drama that follows an unlikely trio as they discover a shocking experiment has awakened an ancient conspiracy.
Copperheart Entertainment: Steven Hoban (Ginger Snaps) and Clark Peterson (Monster) – Executive Producers; Clive Barker (Hellraiser) – Executive Producer and Creative Consultant
Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens (PRIMEVAL: NEW WORLD) – Writers and Executive Producers
Co-developed in partnership with Movie Central

Drama - An epic adventure set on a 19th-century prison ship where the brutal journey becomes an intimate study of humanity, both above and below the decks.
Darius Films: Nicholas Tabarrok (The Art of the Steal, Defendor)
Jeremy Boxen (LOST GIRL) and Jonathan Sobol (The Art of the Steal) – Writers
Co-developed in partnership with BBCA

Comedy - Based on the YouTube sensation LETTERKENNY PROBLEMS, a series where hicks, skids, and hockey players have the last laugh.
New Metric: Patrick O’Sullivan and Mark Montefiore (Cas & Dylan)
Jared Kesso (19-2) and Jacob Tierney (The Trotsky) – Writers

Comedy- A satirical behind-the-scenes look at the making of a police procedural.
ICF Films: Ilana Frank (SAVING HOPE), David Wellington (SAVING HOPE), Sonia Hosko (SAVING HOPE) – Producers
Peter Wellington (Cottage Country) and Peter Mooney (ROOKIE BLUE) – Writers

Drama - Set in Hong Kong and Victoria B.C., this epic historical drama charts the turbulent journey of the pious McLellan family as it takes control of the international opium trade.
Reunion Pictures: Matthew O’Connor (CONTINUUM)
Nick Willing (NEVERLAND) – Writer
Co-developed in partnership with Movie Central

Drama - A fantasy/genre series set in New France in the early 1600s, a land of myth, magic, warriors, Jesuit assassins, and monstrous Wendigos.
Prospero Media: Martin Katz (Maps to the Stars) and Karen Wookey (ANDROMEDA) – Producers
Chris Lavis (Madame Tutli-Putli), Maciak Szczerbowski (Madame Tutli-Putli), and Andrew Wreggitt (JACK) – Writers

Drama - A gripping whodunit set against the wild and captivating backdrop of Upper Canada in 1867, based on the award-winning novel of the same name by Stef Penney.
Adlib Films and Origin Pictures: Greg Dummett (THE CRIMSON PETAL AND THE WHITE), and David M. Thompson (Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom) – Producers

John Brownlow (Sylvia) – Writer
Co-developed in partnership with Movie Central

Drama - A wayward daughter returns to her family and is haunted by past and present dangers.
Serendipity Point Films: Ari Lantos and Mark Musselman (Barney’s Version)
Joseph Boyden (The Orenda) – Writer

Drama - Based on the gripping true story of the infamous 1973 kidnapping of John Paul Getty III in Rome.
Sea to Sky Studios in association with Epix
Stephen Tolkin – Writer (BROTHERS & SISTERS)