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TalkTV – Have Your Say, Again

You may have heard about the CRTC’s Talk TV consultation.  It’s been a multi-part consultation that first started with an online discussion forum where the public was asked for their thoughts on issues related to Canadian television.  The public and industry groups were also encouraged to conduct Flash! conferences to talk about Canadian television and send in reports to the CRTC.

The CRTC took all of that information and floated a few proposals to the public and asked them to answer a survey.  Finally (we thought), they announced a public hearing and solicited submissions on 80 specific questions to be followed by an oral public hearing starting September 8, 2014.  [If you're interested, summaries of the other phases of consultations and the public notices can all be found on the CRTC TalkTV microsite.]

Today the CRTC added in another public consultation and provided more proposals for the public and stakeholders to consider and respond to.  They re-opened the online discussion forum and they would like you, yes you, to read the working document and share your thoughts.  The discussion forum will stay open from today until the last day of the hearing and close on September 19, 2014.  This will allow you to respond to things said during the hearing as well as to the working document.  That is a very interesting option, particularly for those who don’t live tweet hearings (I tend to have very immediate tweet responses to things said during hearings).

I believe that the Commission’s attempt to look at the entire television landscape is laudable but too much for one hearing.  Having received all of the submissions it looks like they might have come to the same conclusion.  While maintaining that anyone presenting at the hearing can bring up any topic they wish (though hopefully a relevant one – please no Value For Signal), they are trying to focus the discussion under the headings of pick and pay, the relationship between cable and satellite companies and broadcasters, Canadian programming and specifically local programming.  They would also like comments on the specific proposals including implementation schedule and how proposed regulation can be adaptable to future change.

Some of the proposals are wonky but several would have a direct impact on audiences and creators.  Your input is important regardless of which side of the screen you sit on.  And which screen.  This CRTC has been known to read into the record written submissions from the public.  So please share your thoughts.

A few of the issues:

Pick and pay:  In addition to the proposal contained in the public notice (a small all-Canadian basic), the CRTC is floating another option.  Under that scenario, cable and satellite companies would be able to add in any other services that they wish as long as the small basic has the price of $20 per month, $25 per month or $30 per month.  The benefit of this is that the cable and satellite companies can add in ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX and PBS if they want but still need to keep the basic package small.

After the small basic, consumers will be able to either pay for only the specialties they want, put together their own packages or buy prebuilt packages.

Simultaneous substitution:  There are two options, either no more simsub or remove simsub from live events such as the Superbowl or Oscars.  It’s interesting that these are even proposed when so many stakeholders pointed out to the Commission the importance of simsub revenue to broadcasters and therefore the amount they have to spend on Canadian programming.

Preponderance:  Two options again – either Canadians receive a preponderance of Canadian services or they are offered a preponderance of Canadian services (and could pick only the US ones after small basic if they wanted).

Redefining Broadcasting Revenues:  Currently there are expenditure obligations that are calculated as a percentage of a broadcaster’s revenues from broadcast (CPE or Canadian Programming Expenditure).  The proposal is to include revenue from programs offered online in the base for calculation.  Broadcasters would then also be able to count expenditures from programming created for online platforms as part of their CPE.  The CRTC sees this as a way to encourage made for digital content but it is also a huge potential first step towards looking at the broadcasting system as a whole and not its regulated and unregulated parts.

Programs of National Interest:  This expenditure requirement, which obligates broadcasters to spend money on drama, docs and Canadian award shows, will be maintained and children’s programming will be included.  There has been a decline in commissioning original children’s programming and this is the CRTC’s response.  Expect to see discussion about whether this proposal will be effective or whether there also needs to be CPE sub-quotas for children’s programming (as well as feature films and long form documentaries).

Programming requirements:  An interesting proposal is to eliminate exhibition requirements during the day but maintain them for prime time.  This will mean no incentive for Canadian daytime talk shows, particularly on conventional stations that can also simulcast US daytime talk shows or soaps.  Do people care?

Genre protection:  The proposal is to eliminate genre protection (which says that there can only be one service per genre, so only one science fiction channel, history channel etc) and nature of service definitions.  If this goes through then the Commission will overturn its recent decision on OLN and you’ll get your Whisker Wars back because services will be able to morph into anything that they want, whenever they want.  Good thing?

There are a number of other issues on local programming, community programming, Official Language Minorities, accessibility, set top boxes, vertical integration rules and a few other issues probably of less interest to TV, eh? readers.  The big topic missing from the proposals is any attempt to include OTT (foreign or domestic) within regulation.  I doubt that will stop it from being a topic of discussion.  The proposed implementation schedule is to have it all in place by December 15, 2015.

I encourage you to go online and have your say.  If you do not like any of the proposals share your thoughts.  If you think any of them are good ideas, let the CRTC know.

And stay tuned – this is going to be an interesting hearing.

I will leave the CRTC with the last word:

Screenshot 2014-08-21 17.23.01




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.