The Wonk Report: When Canadian TV producers gather

A Prime Time in Ottawa summary – Part 1

By Cynthia Lynch

(Full disclosure: I had a very small role in helping out this year’s organizers put the conference together.)

This year’s Prime Time in Ottawa conference, the 20th anniversary of the annual event put on by the Canadian Media Production Association (CMPA), took place over two days last week. I have attended this conference many times and while some things never change, two things stood out for me about this year’s event.

First, the conference organizers did a great job at improving the diversity of voices at the conferences. This meant not only racial and gender diversity – 43% of the panellists at the conference were women, according to the CMPA’s Marguerite Pigott – but also plenty of new and younger faces who brought a new perspective on the industry.

Second, there was a much greater focus on audiences and the consumer than I have ever noticed before. There was still the usual talk about the financial and regulatory challenges that go along with being a producer in Canada, but for the first time it seemed like people are seriously considering how to reach and interact with their audiences. This is just a summary of some of what went on at the conference; almost all of the panels are posted online so have a look for yourself if you’re interested.

Michael Wolff

Thursday morning kicked off with a welcome from CMPA President and CEO Michael Hennessy, and then moved into an “In Conversation” session with former CMPA President Norm Bolen interviewing journalist Michael Wolff. Wolff definitely got things off to a controversial start, calling digital “the great wasteland”, referring to everyone’s Facebook feeds as “constant drivel” and calling people who still watch ads “morons who will be dead soon.”

His larger point, though, was that 50% of television watching is through paid subscriptions and that people have not yet reached the limit of what they will pay for television content, a hopeful message in a room full of TV producers. He didn’t ignore the importance of Netflix, but called it a television business, not a digital business. This is a theme that would come up several times throughout the course of the conference, with many speakers pointing out that it is traditional broadcast that still gets content funded.

Not everyone agreed with what Wolff said, especially those of us who were tweeting during the conference, but if the purpose of an opening speaker is to start a conversation, he definitely achieved that goal.

The Broadcasting Titans aka Getting Ahead of Change Panel

Next up was a panel of broadcast executives moderated by Lisa De Wilde from TVO. I knew I was going to enjoy this panel right from the beginning, when Bell Media’s Kevin Crull said that $8-9 per month won’t pay for TV and Michael MacMillan from Blue Ant jumped in to ask him why Crave is so cheap then. (The answer is that it’s not, really, since you have to be a subscriber to get it; it’s a value-add service.)

A couple of things stuck out from the wide range of topics covered. One was that the message of protecting Canadian rights to programs acquired from elsewhere (see more on that below) is a song that all the broadcasters are singing. On this panel, it was Doug Murphy from Corus who pointed out that 1.5 of the 5 million Canadian Netflix subscribers access the U.S. service and that something needs to be done to level the playing field.

The other was the statement by the CBC’s Heather Conway that success requires a willingness to fail – not something we’ve heard coming from broadcast executives much in the past. Conway pointed out that while the number of original series is up by 400% in the past five years, the number of renewals is down by 50%. In other words, there’s a lot of stuff out there and nobody really has the magic formula for what works.

The best part of this panel for me was the presence of Michael MacMillan. First of all, he had the line of the day when he said that unless we smarten up and give CBC long-term stable and predictable funding, we’re all screwed, imploring all of us to stop using CBC as a whipping boy.

As an independent broadcaster, he also brought a wider perspective to the panel, talking about the audience as citizens and not just consumers. An industry that receives so much public support should bring value to citizens and not just cater to consumer needs. It was refreshing to hear someone talk about their audience as people with brains and not just lines on a balance sheet.

The other great point that he raised at this panel was that talking about free market in the context of broadcasting is misleading – people can’t just do what they want in this space; they all have to follow the rules. Rather, the conversation should be about a fair market, one where all companies have a legitimate shot at getting ahead and creating successes.

The Perennial Problem – Promoting Canada to the World Panel

It wouldn’t be Prime Time if there weren’t a conversation about promoting Canadian content and attracting audiences. Although the panel was called promoting Canada “to the world,” most of the conversation was about promoting Canadian content to Canadians.

There were some predictable moments in this panel – of course, the broadcasters all said they just want to promote great content, not Canadian content. Later, though, Scott Henderson from Bell complained about people not knowing that Orphan Black is Canadian because it’s “too good”; it seems to me that would be a natural outcome of promoting great content without emphasizing where it comes from.

The new twist to this year’s panel was the presence of Bill Cooper from the Twenty Ten Group, the company responsible for promoting the Canada “brand” during the 2010 Winter Olympics. Ironically, it was the non-producer / broadcaster on the panel who reminded everyone that it’s the stories that matter.

He used the example that highlighting the athletes and their stories during the Olympics was something that brought greater attention to Team Canada. In other words, no one was crying out for a Canadian skeleton racer until they met Jon Montgomery, then it became something everyone was immensely interested in.

His message was that focussing on the brand itself gets us away from what is important – the stories – and ends up losing the audience.

Francesca Accinelli of Telefilm acknowledged that a weakness of the industry is that it has only been talking to itself, people need to learn how to talk to consumers.

That brought the conversation around (and around, a couple of times) to the Eye on Canada campaign and website, which for me and others is a frustrating concept. Eye on Canada, meant to be a neutral place for Canadians to find Canadian content, re-launched on the Sunday before the conference (if you didn’t know this you’re not alone – not even everyone on the panel knew).

When asked if it should be re-booted again, the panel said that maybe broadcasters should be involved. Bill Cooper said what many have been saying about it all along – don’t manufacture something false, find a way to integrate the content into the rituals that people already have, which is basically the opposite of Eye on Canada.

During the conference we also heard about, an aggregated list from the Motion Picture Association of where to find legal sources of content (not necessarily Canadian) in Canada, and Canada Screens, which will be a video-on-demand (VOD) service from the First Weekend Club for accessing Canadian content.

I am someone who pays close attention to these things, and even I am confused by all the different websites that all seem to be doing different things, however good the idea might be. It was heartening to hear from the panel that they believe in engaging with audiences, and hear some examples of how they use their talent to do that, but in the end no one had any really concrete ideas, except to hire Bill Cooper.

Personal Highlight – Michael Gubbins Keynote

Friday morning kicked off with a speech from Michael Gubbins that I found inspiring. Gubbins is a journalist and consultant as well as being the Chair of the Film Agency for Wales. He gave a speech that was funny and hit on all the themes of the conference, called the Economics of Engagement. As an independent filmmaker who has done a lot of thinking about the current media environment, he was highly entertaining and managed to weave some of what he had heard the day before into his talk, all within a 45-minute timeslot.

Gubbins covered several themes in his talk. First he talked about the digital environment and how it relates to filmmaking. He noted that digital wasn’t built for the entertainment industry, that it’s just the environment we have to work in, and we’re only at the very beginning of figuring it all out. He talked a lot about how the massive amount of choice we have now actually makes us more conservative in our choices – we get overwhelmed by all the choice and so revert naturally to what we know we like. This has led to an environment where Hollywood focuses on successful franchises, to the detriment of independent filmmakers.

Gubbins also talked about the importance of audience and the need to connect with audiences. He repeated the idea that connecting with audiences is the thing that producers do worst – handing over their finished products (like irresponsible parents) just at the time when they should be nurturing those products and making sure they connect with audiences.

He also criticized the elitist attitude of some producers, with the point being that producers need to be asking audiences what is good rather than telling them what is good; a refreshing point of view when contrasted with Michael Wolff calling the audience morons the day before.

He also pointed out that what they need from Netflix isn’t a tax to finance production, what they needed is access to Netflix’s data so that producers can understand what the audience is watching. (Although anyone who watched the TalkTV hearings might suspect that it would be easier for producers to get money from Netflix than data.)

Finally, where Gubbins appealed to me the most was when he talked about the importance of the industry and the place that culture has in the market. Or rather, he said there is no market, fair or otherwise, but the industry is culturally important and by extension so is public funding. Public funding is an important element in keeping more interesting choices in the market: House of Cards is based on a BBC public-funded script that never would have been made without that public funding.

Of course that message was met with approval by an industry audience, but he also reminded us that with cultural importance comes responsibility. Can you really justify public funding when, for example, very few projects are directed by women? He challenged the crowd to think about this and many other things – so many that I had trouble getting it all down and am still processing it several days later.

Look for part two of our Prime Time in Ottawa summary tomorrow.