Maureen Parker is frustrated with the way the CRTC’s Let’s Talk TV campaign rolled out.
As executive director at the Writers Guild of Canada, Parker made a presentation to the CRTC as part of the Let’s Talk TV public hearings late last month. There she–along with WGC members and screenwriters Cal Coons and Andrew Wreggit, and Guild director of policy Neal McDougall–championed the Canadian television industry, the entertainment it provides and the quality content being made here.
Her frustration was the result of an overall negative tone to the hearings. As she says, Canadians are making consistently good television at home that results in fantastic ratings for a country with a small television market. It’s a success story she wishes would be discussed more often. So we did.
How do you feel your presentation went to the CRTC? Do you feel like yourself, Andrew Wreggit, Cal Coons and Neal McDougall got your message across?
Maureen Parker: Yes, I do. I think our presentation went very well. It’s very tough to address any of these very big issues in a 10-minute oral presentation, so we decided that we would focus on one or two of the issues at the hearing that were very distinctly writer related, and that was the issue of how do you make quality programming and we talked a lot about our audience and the success of Canadian programming. I think that message was really getting lost at the hearings.
It was a very negative hearing. No one is talking about the good things out there and the great accomplishments in Canadian television and those that work in the Canadian television industry. It felt like drudgery. Nobody wanted to do it, Netflix didn’t want to contribute … it’s disheartening to be honest.
Cal and Andrew’s part of the presentation was enlightening. How important was it for them to stress that good TV writers are choosing to stay in Canada and create?
MP: First of all, they’re volunteers and they feel very passionately about their career choice and they get very tired of defending that career choice because they are both very successful. Again, every time we are in a hearing we are forced to defend Canadian content and the focus really should be elsewhere.
Do you think that will ever change?
MP: You make me laugh! No, but it should.
I thought the Canadian TV Delivers video was very effective in getting the message across.
MP: That was something we did in conjuction with the hearings because I think the message is getting lost. Canadians watch Canadian programming, and they like it. You can talk about unbundling, you can talk about packaging, you can talk about the vertical integration code, but we’re really getting lost in all of the details. The main priority is making Canadian programming for Canadians and we make very good programs. I’ve used a couple of stats to back that up. The CRTC Profile Report, for example, said that in 2013, 46.1 per cent of viewers of English language programming were watching Canadian programs. They have all of their American shows to choose from, but 46 per cent of them are watching Canadian programs. That’s pretty darned good.
We’re getting programs that are coming in at over 2 million viewers per week. That is a huge number in a small market like Canada.
Those numbers would indicate a growth then, in Canadian programming?
MP: I would say yes, we are growing the business as everybody is. We’ve always underrated ourselves and we’re getting better. That was our message. Let us grow our craft; that’s how you build quality.
Everyone is so concerned with cutting the cost of their cable bill they’re not considering the fact that it means less channels, less timeslots and less work for Canadians in this industry.
MP: The CRTC has been directed by the government to address the unbundling issue and they are doing that. So we can waste energy fighting that or we can look for ways to enhance our business models within that structure. The Harper government has told the CRTC to address this. I don’t think Canadians want this. I need to be very clear about that. We’re now looking at either the skinny basic or enhanced basic setup and we have faith in our programming. Look, this will mean that some channels with disappear. The one thing that was very important to us to obtain was an expenditure requirement on Canadian programming. They’ll still have to spend the same amount of money. That’s why we’re in favour of the enhanced basic. That means Bell Media could decide to include Space, Shaw could include Showcase.
I do want to say this about the presentation. At the end, the chair thanked us and asked us to help the CRTC to get the message out about Canadian programming. We took heart from that.
It freaks me out a bit that until this year I never really paid much attention to this and I’ve been in the business for over 15 years. The focus is being put on cable prices.
MP: And that’s a fair discussion, but it’s the way they’re going about it with the unbundling. They don’t unbundle in the States. That’s the market system. The bigger channels have to support the smaller channels. Really, this is about the Harper government inserting its opinion into our business and the broadcasting business.
Let’s switch gears a bit. I’m interested in the fact that here in Canada it is the television stars who tend to be promoted to viewers and less the writers or showrunners, which is something they do in the U.S. In the U.S. there is a focus on Greg Berlanti’s next project or what Aaron Sorkin is up to. Should we be focusing on longtime Canadian showrunners and championing them in the pitch a little more?
MP: Absolutely, and I think that’s changing. One of the things we started about 10 years ago was the Showrunner Awards. This isn’t a new position in the industry, but it’s more quiet and behind the scenes. Writers are not lead performers and they don’t get the lead spot in the promotion machine. Does there need to be more talk about that? Sure. The showrunner model works, but it’s a little different up here because we have independent producers who have always thought of themselves as part of the creative vision. It’s not like working for a U.S. studio. U.S. studios are not giving endless notes like they do in our system. There are too many cooks in the kitchen. Broadcasters, broadcast executives, producers … let us do our business. It’s a win for everybody. Butt out!
What’s next for the WGC?
MP: We’re working on collective bargaining. Our primary mandate is to negotiate the compensation and provisions around writers’ work. It’s very complicated. The one message I want to get across about that is: no more free work. No free rides. Writers have families, mortgages and rent as well and we cannot prop up the industry. That is not our role. Our role is to create content. It’s up to the producer and the broadcast to pay for that content.