Last week the Canadian Media Producers Association put on its annual Prime Time in Ottawa conference. There was a theme that I felt throughout Prime Time in Ottawa 2018 that I think was intended but was also a little unexpected and I will sum up that theme as ‘Real Life’. While producers were meeting with potential funders, buyers and broadcasters and attending sessions on how to use data and what’s going on with ‘new’ formats these days, running through the conference was a preoccupation with a few big picture issues which rarely get much attention. You can check out the hashtag #PTiO and the CMPA’s YouTube channel for recorded livestreams of four sessions to see if you agree.
The most obvious was gender parity. Marguerite Pigott, CMPA’s VP of Outreach and Strategic Initiatives and responsible for Prime Time, announced at the beginning of the conference that half the speakers were women and ‘it wasn’t that hard’. Well, it appears to be for some conferences so that was a welcome start. Women in View presented a glossy ‘Diversity Toolkit’ aimed at getting more women hired in front of and behind the camera. It is inclusive of women of colour but the priority is gender parity. While that work clearly needs to be done, the Toolkit reflects a use of the word ‘diversity’ that I find problematic. When people conflate gender parity with diversity then other forms of diversity (visible minorities, ability, neuro-diversity, income, education, gender orientation etc.) are swept under the rug. I would have liked that report to spark a conversation about how the Canadian media industry does not do a good job of reflecting the full diversity of its audience in front of or behind the camera and then a discussion of ways to improve that. That’s my Real Life. [Full disclosure – I authored a Diversity and Inclusion Toolkit for Interactive Ontario and earned a Certificate in Leadership in Inclusion from Centennial College so I love the big discussions about how to improve diversity and inclusion.]
The panel on Underserved Audiences: Finding a Market could have touched on diversity but didn’t really. What it did highlight was how OTT can help broadcasters and producers aggregate underserved audiences and find larger audiences for what mainstream broadcasters might consider ‘niche’ content. I was fascinated to hear Brad Danks of OutTV talk about the channel becoming viable now that they can go over the top and aggregate LGBTQ audiences from around the world. It was depressing to hear Lisa Meeches of Eagle Vision talk about major broadcasters turning them down for “We Were Children”, a documentary about the residential school system, which at the time limited their audience to APTN. Now, however, it is finding a much bigger audience and a lot of success on Netflix. However, there was little discussion about how storytellers from these less mainstream audiences could get their content funded when the main gatekeepers are still the mainstream broadcasters. As Netflix made clear in their fireside chat, they do not develop but rely on mainstream broadcasters to do that work and then they’ll partner on production. Underserved storytellers were encouraged to create content themselves and prove their audience exists using YouTube and similar platforms but that is still requiring them to jump an additional hurdle that mainstream storytellers don’t have to do – ‘prove there’s an audience and then maybe we’ll license it’. For example, if the industry continues to ignore the 22% of Canadians who self-identify as visible minorities (much higher in Canada’s urban centres) and the stories that they want to see, they will increasingly turn away from the broadcast system and find their entertainment on YouTube. Real Life.
Another big topic was Harassment, which I’m sure that we can all agree was very timely. It was my favourite session as PrimeTime invited accomplished women from other sectors who have a great deal of experience with the topic to come talk to and engage with us. It was a great opportunity to learn how institutions as patriarchal as the military and the Senate were trying to change their cultures. Both Senator Marilou McPhedran and Rear Admiral Jennifer Bennett broadened the conversation beyond sexual harassment to what they see is an abuse of power and authority against vulnerable people – which in many cases but not all are women. They encouraged the industry to keep shining a light on the issues and keep the conversation going while trying to fix the culture which allows such abuses to happen within the industry. [As the mother of a young woman who was screamed at by an A.D. for fumbling a pizza order while on an unpaid internship, I concur with everything they said.] McPhedran and Bennett also provided very specific advice for next steps: provide not only someone to complain to but someone who can provide advice, don’t just look at complaints but try to fix the culture that gives rise to them, build your own plan for long term change and don’t get distracted by quick fixes. Real Life.
The other Real Life theme I’ll call generational change. Media leaders in Canada are getting older and there were three tributes that marked the passage of time. Jay Switzer, co-founder of Hollywood Suite and former CHUM CEO, died from brain cancer at the age of 61. Bob Crowe, Saskatchewan producer and CMPA board member died of a heart attack at 62. Carolle Brabant retired after eight years as Executive Director of Telefilm Canada. While both Switzer and Crowe’s passings were unexpected and early, along with Brabant they mark the passage of time and the evolution of the industry and for me raised the question – where are the next generation of media leaders? Some organizations are planning for it, bringing up young producers, programmers, administrators but others seem to be waiting to deal with it when forced to. This would be a worthwhile conversation to have as we discuss OTT services, using data and ‘new’ formats because I suspect the next generation of leaders will also have some new ideas about how to do business and reach audiences.
There were other good moments at PrimeTime 2018 (another great opening speech from Reynolds Mastin, Jesse Wente’s first speech as Director of the Indigenous Screen Office, a very detailed explanation of the FairPlay proposal by lawyer Barry Sookman) but this theme of the impact of Real Life on the Canadian media industry and how well we’re dealing with it, is what I’m taking away with me this year.