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Link: Writers Guild of Canada: Keep Canada’s TV industry strong

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The Writers Guild of Canada (WGC) urges the CRTC to maintain a vibrant, healthy Canadian television industry. A strong industry will ensure the creation of the high quality programs the Commission has stated it desires.

The WGC appeared at the CRTC’s “Let’s Talk TV” hearing today, representing the viewpoint of talented Canadian writers who create shows that millions of fans watch, shows such as Murdoch MysteriesOrphan BlackDegrassi, and Rookie Blue. Continue reading.

WonkReport

Talk TV – Early Hearing Update

If you are at all following Canadian television in mainstream or social media or read TV, Eh? regularly then you know that this week the CRTC started its huge Talk TV public hearing (hearing singular – not plural). It’s huge for two reasons – it covers a wide range of topics but it also has the potential to dramatically change the Canadian broadcasting system.

In my last post on the topic I shared some of the proposals that the CRTC had issued two weeks ago as a way of trying to limit the discussion. They belatedly seemed to realize they were trying to tackle too much. It didn’t really work. Stakeholders are reacting to the proposals but still talking about what they want to talk about so it has still been a huge discussion.

There are a few themes that have come out of the discussion so far. The Chair of the CRTC, Jean-Pierre Blais, wants to hear big picture discussion and not self-serving ‘this is what would be best for us’ and he isn’t getting it. Every stakeholder so far to varying degrees has presented fairly self-serving arguments. This isn’t surprising because each stakeholder’s job is to represent their company or their members’ interests. However, they should also be aware of competing interests and try to present a balanced argument and that isn’t happening.

For example, the Competition Bureau, a government agency tasked with ensuring that “Canadian businesses and consumers prosper in a competitive and innovative marketplace”, argued that the only relevant concern was reducing prices for consumers without any recognition that the CRTC had cultural obligations under the Broadcasting Act. It surprised me that a government body required to uphold legislation would advise another one to ignore its legislation.

Another theme is that no one really knows how consumers will behave if the CRTC implements either of its ‘pick and pay’ choices (Option A being an all Canadian basic with Option B being all-Canadian plus any other services cable and satellite companies want to add but capped at $20, $25 or $30). There are many studies out there but none of them are on point (e.g. the U.S. has a different regulatory system and the Quebec market is pretty different from the rest of Canada).   Without being able to predict consumer behaviour it is pretty hard to make recommendations taking into consideration consequences but stakeholders are trying.

We heard from Bell and others that either option of pick and pay would be the apocalypse. With less drama, concerns were expressed that prices for individual services would have to be higher and therefore consumers would drop many of the services they have now and those services would fail. Corus made the unusual argument that pick and pay is just too complicated for us and we’d be paralyzed by all that choice. We are just not smart enough to handle pick and pay?

Did anyone talk about anything else other than pick and pay? At moments it seemed like no but there have been some stakeholders actually talking about Canadian television programming and the impact that some of these proposals would have on it. Strangely, after years of being ignored, Blais has been focusing on children’s programming.

The CMPA pointed out in its submission that the PNI policy allows broadcasters to shift their expenditure obligation to drama to the detriment of children’s, features and documentaries. Given that private conventional broadcasters do not air children’s programming and public broadcasters are focusing on preschool, there would be few opportunities to watch a full range of children’s programming in a skinny basic. While the Shaw Rocket Fund would like to see conventional services air children’s programming again, Corus would like to see specialty kids services (which they happen to own) in skinny basic.

Even more strangely, Blais chose to argue with the Shaw Rocket Fund about the definition of children’s programming – how could they define it as 17 and under when you can drive at 16? I myself would not argue about kids media with Annabel Slaight (founder of Owl Magazines, Owl TV and chair of the Shaw Rocket Fund) but Blais seemed to be consciously trying to limit CRTC support to the preschool market, abandoning school age and teen age to a choice of either commercial children’s programming (i.e. YTV or Family Channel) or adult programming (e.g. Teen Mom). You can tell what I think about that from the way that I phrased that sentence.

The CRTC tried to limit the conversation about regulating OTT (which is currently exempted under the Digital Media Exemption Order) by not including them in the proposals. The topic inevitably came up though with Google appearing (at the CRTC’s request) on the first day. The Google argument was basically – we have tons of Canadian programming on YouTube so there’s no need for regulation. The problem is that, not being experienced with the CRTC or Blais, they made broad statements about the volume of Canadian content on YouTube but did not have the stats to back up the statements. So Blais asked Google to back up their statements and submit facts and methodology before the end of the hearing on September 19th.

Google has taken no position on whether they are subject to the CRTC. There are competing arguments as to that jurisdiction. Observers are now watching to see how Google handles this request – will they provide any information and tacitly acknowledge jurisdiction or will this be the line they draw and take the position that the CRTC does not have jurisdiction to compel the disclosure.

One last note for now. I think it surprised a few of the content stakeholders to hear the Commission suggest that the proposal to remove daytime Canadian programming exhibition requirements was intended to shift expenditure requirements to prime time programming. Broadcasters can stop producing or commissioning daytime talk shows (which have relatively lower audiences) and put more money into PNI or other prime time programming like Masterchef Canada. Bell, who airs The Marilyn Denis Show and The Social, didn’t think much of that proposal. It should be noted that it would be easy for broadcasters to spend more of their CPE on news, sports and reality so there should not be an assumption that this proposal would benefit PNI.

Conversations are ongoing. If you want to share your thoughts join in on Twitter under the hashtag #CRTC or #TalkTV or the CRTC’s discussion board.

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Confessions of a cord cutter

Dear Cable,

It’s been 3 1/2 years since we said farewell. I wish I could say I’ve missed you, but I have learned to live without you and be happily commitment-free (except for those three-year contracts for internet and cell phone service).

Why did I break up with you? I’m no gold digger but it just wasn’t worth it anymore.  This will seem strange coming from someone who covers TV and follows the industry but I don’t watch all that many shows regularly. I had the most basic cable package I could get — and I had to pry it out  of my cable provider’s hands; they didn’t want to tell me it was available over the phone — but even then I was paying a lot for a lot of channels I didn’t watch. To get all the specialty channels I did want, I’d have had to go up several price points and get astronomically more channels I didn’t want.

So I was already supplementing my cable back then in order to watch what I wanted to watch.  I wouldn’t even care if what I’m paying now is equal or greater to what I was paying then (it’s not), as long as I was happy with what I had access to (I am).

Cable, I thought I would return to you once I realized how much I missed my Emmy and Oscar viewing, or when it became apparent that I couldn’t access all the shows I want to watch. At the very least I thought I’d set up an over the air antenna. I went so far as to buy a defective one (well, I didn’t know it was defective when I bought it) and return it, then didn’t bother to get another one.

I was surprised how quickly my viewing habits changed.

I became content to watch the shows I could get access to. I arranged award show viewings at friends’ houses or found it wasn’t such a hardship to miss them occasionally. I bought a Breaking Bad season pass from iTunes because that would have been a hardship.

Immediately after the split I was primarily using network websites and apps (and oh how terrible some of those viewing experiences were), but after the post I wrote shortly after breaking up with you I added Netflix and iTunes to my viewing repertoire, gulping entire shows at a  time when I used to swear I wasn’t a binge watcher.

I’m fortunate I’m not a sports fan. I know there are ways to get live sports events without cable but I haven’t had to bother finding out how. I’m also in a fortunate position of getting access to screeners of some shows by some Canadian and US networks. I love you guys. Though you own the cable companies too so … I don’t know. Maybe you could make it easier on me to give you more of my money again.

With the CRTC Talk TV public hearing currently taking place, my head is swimming with all the efforts to woo me back. Not me or my fellow cord cutters specifically, but the CRTC seems very concerned that Canadians find value in our broadcasting system. At least they’re concerned until September 19 and then they don’t want to hear from us any more.

What would it take for me to come back to you, cable? A cheap basic plan with at least the major Canadian networks that I could supplement with only the specialty channels I want. I don’t even care if they’re bundled somewhat, as long as I don’t have to order a ridiculous amount of what I don’t want in order to get what I do want.

I’m considering my options now and I don’t like what I see. Maybe the CRTC can play matchmaker and help us get back together. But I wish you wanted me back without having your hand forced.

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CBC hits TIFF in grand style

Kudos to the folks over at the CBC for taking a crucial first step in the network’s reinvention by using the Toronto International Film Festival as a backdrop to let folks know about the upcoming television season and the brand overall.

Canada’s public broadcaster staked out the corner of King St. West and Blue Jays Way this past weekend, turning what used to be a condominium sales office into a welcome centre called Canada House stocked with snacks, virgin Caesars, phone recharging stations and cardboard fans emblazoned with the iconic network logo and the Twitter message “#FallForCBC.” The stars of CBC’s radio and TV shows rolled through as well, meeting fans, posing for pictures and promoting their projects all weekend long.

The network even had a cool little set-up where those featured folks held press conferences in front of groups of about 50 or so fans at a time. I sat in on the panel for Canada’s Smartest Person, and hosts Jessi Cruickshank and Jeff Douglas described how the interactive program will not only showcase the linguistic, physical, musical, visual, social and logical skills of selected finalists from across the country, but an app will challenge viewers at home.

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I also got the chance to interview Dragons’ Den David Chilton and newest panelist Michael Wekerle for an online bit for TV-Eh (I’ll post that when it’s all been edited) and the pair swear the show’s upcoming Season 9 is deserving of your investment of time. Also appearing over the weekend were the stars of Mr. D, Murdoch Mysteries‘ Jonny Harris, Adam Beach, the folks behind The Book of Negroes–which has been adapted into a miniseriesand that Mamma Yamma thing.

The CBC knows it has some catching up to do with regard to connecting with newer and younger viewers. No longer able to sit back and allow NHL hockey to draw in numbers, they’re experimenting with content very unlike CBC. Dark western drama Strange Empire has got great buzz (the rough poster I was shown has a Deadwood feel), co-production sci-fi offering Ascension is definitely not typical CBC fare and historical drama Camp X promises to be thrilling.

Sure the network acknowledges this is somewhat of a rebuilding year, but there was a palpable optimism on Saturday that they are moving in the right direction with content and, even more importantly, connecting with an audience.

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19-2 lead and Best Years creator get developing with TMN

Bell Media’s Aug. 14 announcement regarding its 14 new comedies and dramas in development for The Movie Network was significant. For the first time that I can recall, a Canadian network unveiled its development plan for the coming year, showing its cards in advance. Though commonplace in the U.S. where pilot orders and development deals are announced daily via Variety and Deadline, it’s rare to show your cards north of the border, and was an adjustment for Bell.

“We had talked about doing it or not doing it over the years,” Corrie Coe, senior vice-president of independent production for Bell Media admits. “In terms of the industry, it gave a sense of the projects that we were working on, the types of talent we were working with and the levels and range of projects which we thought was helpful. We have heard from producers and writers who have said that it has been helpful to know what we’re already working on so they know what to pitch and what not to pitch to us. We were a little worried whether we were giving away too much information but tossed that worry out the window and we’re glad we did.”

She explains that in an average year Bell Media receives 1,200 to 1,300 pitches. Each one is looked at before 40 to 50 are chosen for development before that number is trimmed down to the projects greenlit to pilot or ordered to series. Two of those given the go-ahead this year were comedies Letterkenny and Prons.

Created by 19-2 actor Jared Keeso and Jacob Tierney (The Trotsky) with New Metric Media, Letterkenny is a television adaptation of the duo’s outrageous NSFW YouTube series Letterkenny Problems, which points video cameras at two buddies living in a fictional small-town in Ontario who wax poetic on the problems plaguing they and their fellow townsfolk. Keeso says he and Tierney headed to the Internet after the CBC passed on 19-2 after a pilot episode had been filmed. (The series was picked up by Bravo and Season 2 of 19-2 is currently in production in Montreal.) Tired of relying on auditioning to decide his fate, Keeso opted to create his own content unencumbered by network rules.

“I think this is a great route to go,” he says of his show’s YouTube beginnings. “Not only are you being creative and showing initiative and you’re in control, but you can do whatever you want to. It’s all yours.” Letterkenny is being retooled for television, with more characters being added to round out the cast; at press time Keeso and Tierney have submitted three scripts to Bell Media.

Meanwhile, fellow comedy Prons has the cache of having the high-profile writer/director/actor Kevin Smith attached to it. The man behind Mallrats has teamed with Degrassi and The Best Years showrunner Aaron Martin to tell the ribald tale of a famous porn star who returns to his small town of Brantford, Ont. Martin, who is from Brantford, was approached by Smith and Halfire Entertainment president Noreen Halpern after Smith pitched the idea and needed a Canadian writer to come on board.

Martin was the pair’s first choice; he had worked with Smith on Degrassi and Halpern on The Best Years. The road to getting Prons on the air has been a long one. Martin and Smith pitched the idea to networks two years ago and Astral Media bit. When Astral was purchased by Bell Media, Prons moved under The Movie Network umbrella. Martin laughs when he recalls having to write a show bible explaining why this character is moving back to his hometown.

“It’s about a guy who is in his 30s and wakes up and says ‘What have I done with my life? How did I get here?'” he explains. “And he remembers a time before he sold out and that time was when he was a high school student and his whole life was laid out ahead of him. So he goes back to see his former girlfriend, his former best friend and to save his town’s hockey rink.” Like Keeso and Tierney, Smith and Martin are waiting to hear whether they’ll be moving forward.

Other notable projects in development at TMN include Thunderhouse Falls, written by award-winning author Joseph Boyden; time period crime drama The Tenderness of Wolves, based on the novel by Stef Penney; and Gucci Wars, which tracks the rise and fall of the famed Italian designer. Coe says all are in various stages of the creative process, with some having pilot scripts done, others not that far yet and others working on show bibles. It’s a long journey in a country that relies on tax credits and other financing to come through and networks have to be sure each project is the right fit before they commit to greenlighting a season.

“I do think making TV in Canada is hard,” Coe says. “Even once you have scripts and a bible done and all of the research completed you still have to assemble financing at a level that will allow you to support that budget and creative in a way that makes your show look head and shoulders above anything else out there.

“We’re fortunate to have the tax credits that we do but I do think it’s tricky to cobble together those pieces and get to the moment that the cameras are rolling on Day 1.”