Saturday, September 09, 2006

Guest Post: No BullSh*t Here...

A heads up that this entry is primarily of interest to the Canadians in the crowd (okay, maybe not so much of a crowd...more like a gaggle), but it's still a good read.

I've had the pleasure and priviledge of working with a lot really smart and talented people in the television business. And some of those people have become good friends.

The following guest post is from one of those friends. He's a pretty big wig in Canuck tv circles, and someone I can honestly credit with having a lot to do with me getting somewhere in this business. I will always be indebted.

Part observation, part vent --- it's an enlightening yet ultimately damning overview of the Canadian tv/entertainment business. He said he didn't care if I credited him, but this ultimately being a 'people' business, I chose to keep it anonymous. No need to burn any bridges if you don't have to.

Read on.


I was born about the same time that television arrived in this country, growing up in a rural setting that was populated by cowboys and farmers and others whose living came from the land.

Entertainment was the local rodeo, when everybody put on their best boots, shiny buckles and Stetsons and went to watch the Bull riders. It takes a lot of courage and skill to ride a bucking Brahma bull and staying aboard for the full eight seconds earns the rider not only a handsome purse but a great deal of respect. So, the rodeo ring is full of swaggering young cowpokes, wearing their best chaps and looking for all the world like bull riders.

But all of them are aware of a simple rodeo adage – “You can fool everybody but the bull.” In other words, if you don’t know what you’re doing, the bull will figure it out in an instant and you not only won’t stay on his back, you may not survive the experience.

In the entertainment world, the bull we all try to ride, the creature we all try to subdue and conquer has another name. It’s called the audience. And anyone truly connected to this business understands that they are the ones who determine whether you succeed or end up gored and stomped on.

It’s my contention that the problems in the Canadian television industry arise from the fact that the audience is seldom, if ever, given consideration, as are many of those creative professionals who have learned how to ride it.

I began my professional career as an actor, dedicated to a then rare commodity known as the “Canadian play”. I had the good fortune to perform in more than a hundred new plays that told Canadian stories and enjoyed the additional pleasure of touring many of them to Europe and the United States. I moved on to writing films and television and then to producing. To date I can be held responsible for more than 200 hours of prime time drama – the vast majority for American television networks.

Yet, I have chosen to live and work in my own country, sharing the goal of seeing the kind of homegrown dramatic work that is produced all over the world produced here. But while I’ve had some success within the Canadian industry, you need to know some of the reasons why I think the ultimate goals we both seek are not being achieved.

There will be numerous people pointing the finger at the CRTC and its 1999 rulings. But I feel, as I’m sure you do, that there is far more to the problem.

Most of what I write and produce is considered popular entertainment. Cop shows, science fiction, horror and stuff for kids; romance films, movies with rampaging dinosaurs and TV shows with lots of cleavage. In short, I create what most people who turn on a television like to watch. I doubt that anybody would ever consider any of it “important” work.

But I also have a stack of letters from people whose lives have been informed, enhanced and even occasionally changed by what I’ve written and produced. So I know I’m doing something right and perhaps contributing to somebody’s definition of a culture at the same time.

But interestingly enough, Canadian networks barely return my calls. It’s a situation that is not unique to me, but unfortunately all too routine to many Canadian creative professionals with a resume of successful popular programming. We’ve never had anyone from a Canadian network tell us our material isn’t suitable, is too expensive or needs some re-tooling. They’re all simply “not what we’re looking for at this time”.

Requests for information on what they are seeking, illicit vague responses; if we receive any responses at all. We’re simply not on the list of people to whom they are talking.

In other words, they don’t want to be involved with someone whose track record proves they not only know and understand the bull, but also know how to ride it.

All that might encourage a normal person, or at least a well one who hasn’t been bucked on his head a few times, to look for another line of work. It might also indicate I’m hideously out of touch, over-the-hill or no longer relevant – except -- I still manage to sell scripts outside my own country.

Recently, I submitted a script to Telefilm for development. That submission garnered two immediate responses: one that the submitted material was “more than 25 pages long” and a second informing us that another document “was not double spaced”.

Another project was rejected within hours because I “didn’t have enough experience”. Calls to Telefilm for clarification went unreturned, even after we learned that projects had been accepted from producers who had little more than a couple of ten minute films or a single feature that had failed at the box office to their credit

I understand Telefilm is a hill I’ll have to die on at another time, but it got me wondering if either they or the CRTC were really seeking to further the development of popular entertainment or just continuing a process which has succeeded in virtually killing off a once thriving indigenous production industry.

Because we feel our culture is synonymous with being known as the “nice people” from the Americas; that means that those creating our programming are encouraged, either directly or indirectly to make sure our television doesn’t exhibit the same things we and the rest of the world associate with American television. As a result, we counter their big stars, action formats and fascination with sex with something that I’ll call “gratuitous niceness”.

In keeping with this same desire for acceptance, our programming is, for the most part, more concerned with “issues” than with character; more directed toward “reasoned exploration” than conflict, and more focused on “not offending anyone” than plot. All of these are laudable traits outside of the dramatic arena, but an assured recipe for creative disaster when they occur within it.


Look at any ad for a Canadian made television movie and you’ll notice that its selling points are seldom the stars or the story, but the “issues” we are told the film will earnestly address, and which, it is implied, we as Canadians are wrestling with in our daily lives, or have elsewise formed us as who we are.

I ask you to consider that the reason for this is not because the creators of those films passionately believe that such work will find a popular audience, but because they know it will find acceptance among those who want Canada to be associated with earnest values and more “acceptable” programming – and simply get made.

But it has been my experience that most Canadians do not turn on a television to be reminded of their Canadianism, or wrestle with societal issues, but only to be entertained. And in the same way a bull has been trained to buck, their understanding of what constitutes entertainment comes from years of watching the American version.

Therefore, if our programming does not replicate the more familiar technical and contextual traits of that programming, it will not find a popular audience, let alone hold it.

Some people might think such a statement means I want to see more American programming created in this country. I don’t. But I feel our dramatic films and series must be created by people with an understanding of what makes that programming style work and can then imbue it with an artistic vision that reflects this country.

A couple of years ago, I had the opportunity of meeting Peter Bart, the legendary Paramount Studio head of the 1970’s; a period considered by many to be the true Golden Age of American film. Mr. Bart green lighted such iconic films as “The Godfather” and “Chinatown” and is credited with discovering many of the great filmmakers of our time.

He visited our set, and during a discussion with the crew, I asked him what he thought of the Canadian industry. He kind of sighed and shook his head, “Canada,” he said, “I’ve never seen so much talent living in such denial.”

It’s a sentiment most creative professionals in this country completely understand. Those of us, who have ridden American bulls with success, aren’t even asked to climb on the back of the Canadian version. God forbid, we might speak to the Canadian audience in a language they understand or by way of stories that might interest them.

In many ways, we have become part of a process which puts the audience in third place, behind the needs of Government agencies and the networks; both of which appear motivated more and more by a “nine to five” culture.

In other words, decisions are made according to what is necessary to keep the system operating smoothly rather than accomplishing the most positive goals.

The simple answer to why we’re not succeeding in our own country is that the bulk of the programming is being overseen by people less than interested in doing it, let alone in doing it well or finding an audience for it.

A few years ago, economists Arthur De Vany and W. David Walls published a detailed study of 2000 movies and concluded: “Revenue forecasts have zero precision. A large budget and high profile stars may increase a film’s chance of success, but not enough to make the investment worthwhile. The only real determinate of long term success is word of mouth.”

Like I said, “You can fool everybody but the bull.”

The only way Canadian television networks will find an audience and the profits that come with them, is to back those creative professionals who have proven they can ride the bull and understand its next moves.

Please don’t interpret that as meaning you have to hire only me or someone with my experience. There is plenty of fresh talent in this country that suffers under the same restrictive operating procedures. It’s the process which needs to change.

In the American model, a script is written, either before or after a concept is sold to a network, and then a single episode is produced. If that single program finds acceptance with advertisers, who spend their entire lives figuring out what the Audience wants, then a few more (3 or 4) are ordered. If the market research is wrong and the audience does not appear, the project is usually cancelled and something else replaces it.

That makes for a fairly cut throat business; with a large turnover in creative and executive staff. It’s a process which demands a high level of dedication and talent. But it inevitably produces programming audiences watch and to which enormous profits flow.

The Canadian model, more often than not, is to write a pilot script, and then write up to 13 more scripts which all undergo network scrutiny and receive some stamp of approval before a pilot is ever considered. More often than not, rather than a pilot, all 13 episodes are filmed, edited and in the can long before the first even debuts to its first audience.

Because script writing alone can take a year or more, these projects are always in danger of being out of date or overtaken by competitors before they ever see the light of day and they make the process more expensive than it has to be.

More importantly, it ignores the basic realities of finding an audience. What if the audience doesn’t like some part of the concept or the arena in which the series takes place? What if they don’t like a character? It’s too late to change those elements, because your series is finished, you just have to keep disappointing them, and they go in search of something else.

Television series are very organic creatures. They’re created by a collaborative team of individual artists who bring their own unique talents to the process. I’ve never worked on a series where scripts were delivered more than a few weeks in advance of their production dates. And while that means longer hours and more stress for all concerned, it also means that the stories can take advantage of growing strengths within a production and eliminate the weaknesses or dislikes we’re picking up from not only our network bosses, but the audience.

Because the audience is the purpose and the most important element of this process.

I’ve worked on series where bit players have evolved into stars because the opportunity existed to discover their talents and give their characters room to grow. I’ve seen stars reveal their true talents by radically altering characters an audience had initially rejected, and I’ve seen series revise their entire creative direction when the audience indicated what they really wanted to see.

Sometimes those changes make you proud of the work you are doing, because you can tell stories that an audience connects with because they are “into” the show. Sometimes they add to the time you spend in a bar on Friday nights. But good or disappointing, you know that the audience will be back the next week for more and whatever artistic agenda you have gets another chance.

The Canadian system of virtually ignoring the audience’s participation leaves you open to their dissatisfaction or disinterest, while serving that “nine to five” mentality. “We’re giving them the Canadian content we need to keep our license.” “It’s a cost of doing business.” “It doesn’t matter if anybody is watching because it isn’t our money and …oh, it’s five o’clock, time to go home.”

The same money that funds 13 episodes of one show could more productively be spent on shooting four episodes of three shows, or three episodes of four, even pilots for a dozen. That money should all come from the networks and producers, who, knowing that they didn’t have grants and government funding to make their jobs “safe”, would actually have to acquire the very real producer skill of figuring out what the audience wants.

If a show appears to be getting ratings, that’s when the funding could kick in. And it should be done at a level that rewards the risks already taken, by making a commitment to a full season of shows, not the anemic orders of 13 that typify a Canadian “season”.

As Les Moonves, president of CBS, has been oft quoted, “You must be available to your audience at least 22 times a season. It’s like dating a pretty girl. If you don’t come around to see her, somebody else will.”

Canadian broadcasters are well aware that they compete directly with the most successful television networks in the world. Yet, with a few exceptions, they insist on beginning seasons of shows 3 or 4 months after viewers, already into their winter viewing patterns, have picked favorites or which nights they are even watching television. By debuting shows in December or January, Canadian series are virtually assured they will never be found. It’s a policy which is “safe” but, once again, gives an edge to failure.

As risky as it may seem to debut Canadian series at the same time as American networks, we have to realize that this is when the audience has been programmed to make its selections. And if they are offered programming which, as I said earlier, replicates what they are used to seeing from American sources, at least contextually, they will have no problem with the Canadian content we all want to see included.

I’m constantly overwhelmed that our execs all know the right buzz phrases, but haven’t figured out what’s really behind them. And while they try to find that “just right” program that will set them apart (as long as it has a US partner to pay for it) they fail to see that the business they’re in is only a couple of inches away from totally disappearing.

While Bravo/Showcase/History/Whoever are trumpeting the debut of the first season of “Deadwood”, the high school kid next door has just burned season 3 for all of his buds on first day back to school. None of them will ever watch the Canadian broadcast. Yesterday he showed me the episode of “Eureka” that aired this week on his Creative Zen player. One of his friends emailed it to him along with the new Okay, Go album.

None of these guys buys anything anymore except hardware – and blank media.

The audience has adopted that old Vegas motto “Everything. All the time.” They want “Entourage” now, not when somebody with a broadcast license decides to feed it to them. Even Tivos are yesterday’s tech. When CBS is making more money on itunes downloads of CSI than they’re getting in rentals from CTV, CTV may suddenly realize they didn’t make (or own) any independent programming they can sell to offset the audience that isn’t watching their American product anymore.

Humor me, as, in closing, I return to my roots and the rodeo. If you don’t have the courage or skill to step inside that corral, you have no business even being there. And the same is true of producers and networks. If they don’t have the trust, in their own skills and talents, to take the risk such a system will ask of them, and the needs of the audience demand, they also shouldn’t be where they are.

A bull rider must pay an entry fee before he draws a bull and rides for the prize money. It’s not unusual to see a cowboy “sell his saddle” to pay that entry fee. If he loses, he’s broke and without any way of earning a living.

That same risk is taken daily by every creative professional in this country. At the moment, it is not a risk shared by the producers and networks who dominate our industry. Safely funded, safely unscrutinized, they continue a process that generally does not find projects that connect with our nation’s audiences.

They continue to fool everybody but the bull and its time they were made to ride him.



Feel free to discuss amongst yourselves and shout back...

14 comments:

Systemaddict said...

Wow. I can't help but relate to alot of that, both as a audience member, and an aspiring professional that's had some really dissapointing meetings wtih certain government grant offices.

"I've never seen so much talent living in such denial."

This sums it up. And it's sad to me. I realize nothing in this game is easy, and the only thing you can trust is your own work, and what you bring to it. But, anytime I've tried to conect to local networks, grants, etc...the brick wall surrounding them just makes it seem not even worth it. Perhaps that's naive. But I continue to focus on making my work better, but the glow on the horizon- always seems to be coming from the South.

Thanks for posting

DMc said...

Goddamn. That was a monster post.

Just monster. Spot on in every way.

Jutratest said...

Yup.


Why do executives at Canadian networks and government agencies hate Canada?

In Hollywood if you fail you are fired, but in Canada that would mean a package, which is just not in the budget.

Bill Cunningham said...

Thanks for the insight into what's "broken" with Canadian TV.

Let me ask this question, primarily because I want to examine these "forget the audience" thought processes which seem, not foreign, but "alien" to me - a guy who's whole career has been about finding and pleasing a niche audience.

What about FOREVER KNIGHT? This was a show produced in Toronto which went from CBS to Sci-fi and syndication for (I think) 3 seasons...

How is that show viewed by production and network persons?

To give my pov (which I do at the drop of a hat)that show was a success. Sold worldwide. Spawned some paperbacks and other merchandise. Elevated many of the actors to "recognized" status. Produced a DVD set or two.

For all varieties of the definition this was a success. Was there an attempt to repeat its success in another genre?

I've always been a guy that says, "go with your strengths," and yet in reading all this - I also have to ask, "Do you even know what your strengths are?" It seems they are forgotten far too quickly-which to me is a shame.

Competition is healthy and it would bring a smile to my face to see you guys kick some ass with a show. A show we couldn't do here (at least not without some major rethink).

Denis is right. This is a monster post. The road to solving any problem is identifying it, and I think you've got a bead on your target:

PUT THE AUDIENCE FIRST.

Joe Clark said...

I think the off-red text on a white background is rather unhelpful. Also, “elicit” is spelled thus.

If this guy is having so much trouble with Telefilm, get him to blog under his real name. It’s called accountability, and it doesn’t apply solely to Telefilm mandarins.

Jutratest said...

I totaly got off on the red font on the white backgroud.

DMc said...

Bill,

"Forever Night" is a style of show that isn't done very much in Canada anymore. It was a success, and so far as I can see among the same culturecrats the poster talks about, would be looked down on. I've certainly heard it used as a punchline from some of them.

Forever Night was what was known as an "industrial" show. It was designed to be sold and exported. Though it used a lot of Canadian talent and creative ,that didn't usually extend to writers. The writers were people with Canadian passports in L.A. Other industrial shows that were Cancon included things like "Relic Hunter" "Earth: Final Conflict" and also, Stargate SG-1.

The fact that these shows reach a commercial audience are used as ammunition against the kind of shows we "should" be doing.

DMc said...

You know what? Now that I think about it, Stargate doesn't really deserve to be on that list.

That show actually is, though not "visibly" Canadian - it's largely Canadian produced. The writer's room is in Vancouver. It shouldn't be put in the same category as Relic Hunter.

The point is, rhetorically, that's the game that gets played. When you talk about the audience, they sniff their noses and point to industrial shows like Relic Hunter. They don't make the distinction that the prestige projects they want to make are broken, because they don't do what prestige projects like the Sopranos do: cater to the audience, too.

Kelly J. Compeau said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Kelly J. Compeau said...

I was saying "Hell yeah!" at the end of every paragraph. So true!

Just last month I got the "not what we're looking for at this time" brush-off by a studio boss, and when I told a few of my Canadian and American showbiz comrades (and I'm talking Emmy, Gemini and Leo winners, here) about it they were shocked that I'd even gotten a response, as they had pretty much gotten used to being completely ignored by Canadian network and studio bosses. WTF?!

I've become so frustrated and disgusted by how things are done up here that I'm now shopping my soon-to-be multi-million dollar syndicated hit show south of the border. I don't want to yell out "Screw you, Canada!" But...I'm thinking it."

KJC

wcdixon said...

Thanks for the stop bys and shout outs and complimentary words (especially the red text on white background one - live and learn...doh!)

And Denis you're right...Stargate doesn't deserve to be on that list.

Fall Guy said...

A few months ago, I had the pleasure of working on a non TV project for a provincial government department. The bureaucrats in charge of the project were more worried about getting fired than the audience.

As I listened to their inane notes , I started to get this weird feeling of deja vu. I had heard this bureaucratese before. Suddenly, I was reminded of all the horrible meetings with broadcasters who were more worried about their jobs than the audience.

To be fair, there are probably some Canadian development people who actually care about the creative, but I never stuck around long enough to find them. Personally, I think they're about as rare as a Bigfoot sighting.

Barbara said...

I found this article to be so full of interesting info I borrowed it for another post. I hope you don't mind...

blueglow said...

Interesting.

I'll just make a couple of comments.
1. When I was doing Cold Squad we started out premiering to nearly one million viewers in the "coveted" friday night at nine time slot. This was despite the fact that the critics hated the show. The network was happy, then they of course moved us to replace us with simulcast American programming. later they bought a similarly named American show and put all thier promo into that show.

Still we managed to survive despite best efforts to kill us through neglect. Why we survived and continued to find viewers was for three real simple reasons 1. we had a star the audience liked. 2. while character/theme blah blah was important to us neither of those two componets was as important as plot. 3. we didn't deviate from the genre.

No matter what development types say to you, it is your responsibility to ignore them and focus on what you know matters. If they cut you off at the knees, such is life, but if you heed their advice and go to air with a show that you know is going to fail because it fails to address what the audience is primarily interested in then you are also to blame.

It is really frustrating at times.