Thursday, July 29, 2010

Twilight of the Bureaucrats

Farmers and cowboys used to say that the scariest words in the English language were "I'm from the government and I'm here to help."

That phrase has been echoed by occupations of all sorts recently as governments extend their influence deeper into our lives.

This morning, for example, the Canadian Federal Department of Health announced a 27 step program to reduce our consumption of salt. Included are new regulations for restaurant menus, institutions and health care professionals.

As a doctor of my acquaintance remarked, "How about one step -- 'Hey! Stop eating so much damn salt!' ". 


Take a moment to consider how many conferences, office confabs and regional meetings it took to identify and agendize 27 different sodium reducing initiatives.

Calculate the number of studies that had to be scrutinized, the army of consultants that had to be consulted and the acres of forest leveled for the piles of annotated and indexed reports soon to be available in Government bookstores.

And then consider the miles flown, the hotel stays, the per diems and meals, not to mention the contributions to indexed pensions.

There's no doubt that busy bureaucrats are a boon to some parts of the economy. But is their work really making a difference where its supposed to matter?

Last year, Ontario spent $1 Billion on consultants and an inner bureaucracy to design a medical record database -- and ended up scrapping the whole thing and starting over because the system didn't work.

By this afternoon, some of the same medical professionals who exposed that boondoggle were questioning how anybody arrived at the quoted figure of 15-23,000 lives that would be saved annually by reducing our salt intake.

Have we all forgotten that after decades of Health Department functionaries finding new ways to get Canadians to follow the continually evolving Canada Food Guide, it was revealed that much of our daily allotment of fruits and vegetables wasn't based on what was good for us but what worked for agricultural lobbies and marketing boards...?

It's no wonder that Government programs from Global Warming to New Media funds are more and more being taken with a (sorry) grain of salt.

And yet our bureaucrats insist neither we nor our governments should be questioning the job they do.

We've just endured a couple of weeks of raging debate over the fate of Canada's long form census, a document distributed to something like 5% of the population every 10 years and comes with an admonition that refusing to answer questions or falsifying your answers can net you a few years in the slammer.

The government decision to make the form "voluntary" has resulted in everything from bureaucratic resignations to op-ed pieces claiming this exhibits our slide toward dictatorship and will be used to do such things as "make the poor disappear" -- (statistically speaking of course).

I actually watched one statistician on CBC Newsworld claim that without this miniscule once a decade sampling, governments wouldn't know where they needed to create jobs. His appearance was followed by a report on the closing of the GM plant in Windsor where the unemployment rate is now over 13%.

Hey, I got an idea -- how about we create some jobs IN WINDSOR!!!

And that lack of awareness of what's happening right in front of your nose, for me, exemplifies both the mentality of your average bureaucrat and what's really going on here.

Stephen Harper may well be a Pol Pot in the making, but can you imagine the reaction if, instead of making the census voluntary, he had imposed mandatory compliance and imprisoned those who objected to any questions they felt were intrusive?

This poor bastard can't win no matter what he does. I was him, I'd opt for banging my head to Nickleback too!


A wise man once said that the true purpose of a bureaucrat is to create more bureaucrats. And while there are many supremely dedicated people working in the public service, how come there are still Canadians in Aboriginal Communities boiling water or drinking raw sewage after decades of government reports and studies saying we needed to fix that problem?

How come the bureaucrats screaming now about not having the stats they need weren't screaming back then when nobody acted on the reports they slavishly labored to produce using them?

Or is this really about a growing public perception that a lot of people employed by the government aren't interested in much more than remaining employed by the government -- and a realization among bureaucrats that some of us might like to see our taxes supporting fewer of them?

A couple of days ago, the newly elected British government chose to disband the UK Film Council, its version of Telefilm, which annually distributes $94 Million to local filmmakers.  Within hours of the decision I was flooded with emails from those who lobby on behalf of Canadian artists asking me to add my voice/signature/vote/whatever to one of the many websites, social media groups or petitions decrying this decision.

Some of those rallying to the UKFC's defense included this reaction from John Woodward, the Council's Chief Executive.

Meanwhile, the younger incarnation of my own Libertarian spirit (Trevor Cunningham) copied me an opposite reaction from those actually working within the British film industry.

And while I only have limited experience with the UKFC, what struck me was how much the sentiments of the working members of their industry echoed what many similarly involved people here feel about Telefilm and the CMF.

I was also intrigued by the well chosen words Mr. Woodward used to describe the situation, words that completely ignored the concerns of the constituency he was supposed to oversee while wishing there'd been more time for further study and consultation on the ramifications of the decision.

As in Britain, it seemed those who did the work fell on one side of the ledger while those who depended on such labor to justify their own reason for being energetically took the side of the bureaucrats.

According to information provided today by Deadline Hollywood's Nikki Finke, you begin to wonder if Mr. Woodward's major concern was not that the films he'd funded had never made a farthing but the loss of his own salary and hoping not many noticed that 23% of that $94 Million budget went to cover bureaucratic overhead.

Is that why their logo even has its fingers crossed?

Maybe its time we took a hard look at how many people it takes to administer the Arts here in Canada and whether, as is now happening in the UK, more options might be available to those making films if they weren't around.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010



I first met Maury Chaykin a few days after he'd emigrated from New York to Toronto. We'd both been cast in a new play called "Hooray for Johnny Canuck" written by Ken Gass for the Factory Theatre.

The theatre, like most in Toronto in the 1970's, was in a dirty old warehouse. The play was an attempt to revive the once hugely popular, but by then completely forgotten Canadian comic book industry which had thrived through the 1940's with Canadian heroes like Johnny Canuck, Derek Bras D'Or, RCMP Corporal Wayne Dixon and Nelvana of the North.

Like Captain America and Sgt. Rock, these pulp creations had almost single handedly defeated the Nazis and Imperial Japan in their B&W hand drawn pages. But they'd had a lot of fun doing it. So the show was a slapstick romp, patriotically over the top and politically incorrect.

We did a lot of improvising to help the script find its shape, all playing multiple characters in scenes that did or did not make the final cut.

A lot of actors are uncomfortable working in that kind of atmosphere. And for the first week, Maury was fairly quiet. None of us took that as him being aloof or harboring any New York actor sense of superiority. He just seemed a little shy and to be trying to figure out where he fit in.

I learned he'd gotten into acting with the help of his uncle, director George Bloomfield and had come to Canada looking for greener pastures not long after some New York agent had suggested he wouldn't work much until he was old enough to play Tevya in "Fiddler on the Roof".

One afternoon, we took a crack at a scene that just wasn't working. It featured a number of mad scientists pitching doomsday weapons to Adolph Hitler. Ken asked us to set aside the original comic book pages and kick around the concept. So we all took turns creating our own mad scientists and their comic/demonic creations as Der Fuehrer waited to be impressed.

When it was Maury's turn, he nervously took the stage, acting very deferential as he introduced himself. "Hello, Mr. Hitler. My name is Maury Chaykin and I'm very pleased to be able to audition for you this afternoon."

He stepped back. Cleared his throat. And launched into a full fledged performance of "If I were a Rich Man" from "Fiddler on the Roof". The cast and crew collapsed in hysterics. It was one of the funniest things any of us had ever seen. And like much of the work Maury did from there on, it exemplified his incredible talent for turning his own life experience into memorable moments of comedy and drama.

I worked with Maury in a half dozen plays after that as he became a fixture in the Toronto theatre scene and we became friends. He even starred in the first short film I made, playing a Samurai warrior trying to grasp the concept of baseball after the American occupation of Japan. It was no great moment in the history of Canadian cinema, but it gave us a chance to laugh ourselves silly for a couple of days.

And that's what made Maury special. No matter what was going on in his working life, he always found time to have fun. I once watched him with a newspaper reporter doing a profile piece who insisted he should get into big time drama at Stratford or Shaw. "Don't you want to be a serious actor?" she asked. Maury shrugged, "If I was serious I wouldn't have become an actor in the first place."

Maury went on to enjoy what many would call a serious actor's career. He made more than 150 film and TV appearances, memorable in everything from his portrayal of Hal Banks in "Canada's Sweetheart" to "Dances with Wolves" to his inimitable take on Nero Wolfe for the USA Network series.

He won a Genie for "Whale Music" giggling as he held the award when I referred to his nude swimming scene as "Free Willy II". He won Gemini awards for "Nikita" and "At the Hotel". But I think he was probably proudest of the Canadian Comedy Award he shared last year with his fellow cast members on "Less Than Kind".

Through all those performances, he still found time to recreate that magical first moment I'd remembered. Like, calling me up one night to invite me to dinner, demanding that I wear a really good suit -- and then taking me to topless steakhouse -- as if it was the only fit place such well dressed gentlemen would dine.

He was a guy who always fashioned a long fuse, caught you unaware and made you so happy you hadn't seen it coming.

Maury Chaykin died this morning, after fighting a disease he'd kept mostly to himself for several years. He leaves behind a magnificent body of work as well as a legion of heart broken friends.

But I think all of us who shared the blessing of his life know that a spirit like his doesn't just go silent. And if there's an audition to get into Heaven, God's already tearing up with laughter.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Lazy Sunday #129: Not Necessarily The News


When you bounce around the world as much as I seem to do, you begin to notice things about local newscasts that probably escape the locals. Like what's the deal with Sportscasters and hair gel?

The minute the lights come up on the local panel of News Anchors, you can always tell which guy is going to do the sports report because, whether he's 16 or 60, he's gellin'.

I guess hair gel is supposed to imply you're young and hip and cool. At least it did in the 1980's. And I presume the implication is that those are the kind of guys who need to know what's going on at the British Open or the Tour de France.

Same thing goes for the guys who come in to deliver the stock market reports. They're always wearing a pinstripe suit.

It doesn't matter whether the rest of the team is all in matching lavender jackets or decked out in Hawaiian shirts because it's summer. The boys on Bay and Wall Streets or down in "The City" all wear pinstripes so the assumption is that you're not going to take the cratering of your retirement funds seriously unless the guy telling you they're going South is also wearing a pinstripe suit.

This is showbizzing up the News at its lamest. But it has become so ingrained in the broadcast culture barely anybody notices anymore. Perhaps in the same way they don't notice the agendification of what used to be considered journalism.

Fox News has been a deserved whipping boy in that respect for a while. This week the existence of a group calling itself "Journal-List" was exposed in the US where some fairly well known writers on the Left were "conspiring" to spin stories to attack those not fully in agreement with President Obama.

You can find a balanced report and reaction on it all here from Andrew Sullivan, a really worthwhile Left leaning writer for The Atlantic.

I'm not exactly sure when journalists decided that simply digging up and relaying what's going on in the world was boring and it was up to them to advocate for one cause or another. But that's clearly the era we're in. And, like hair gel and pinstripe suits, its the way TV News attempts to convince us they're really an integral part of the stories on which they report.

This week in Canada, we had journalists on the Right campaigning to have Conrad Black allowed back into the country. Despite the fact that ninety-plus percent of the population probably makes it through the day without giving Lord Black a second of thought, it was endlessly advocated. Friday, the first six pages of the National Post were completely devoted to speculation on the return of the King or Baron or Ex-Con or whatever he is.

My favorite was some knob arguing that despite renouncing his Canadian citizenship and spending the last decade in the House of Lords, Palm Beach, Bora-Bora and prison, "He never stopped caring about this country".

Su-u-u-u-u-ure he did.

It's interesting that while all this was going on, none of these journalists were following somebody else who cared about his country and was being repatriated from Afghanistan in a pine box.

Over at the CBC, the Leftist agenda -- okay, I know the CBC Ombudsman did an investigation and didn't find any Liberal bias, but some of us can tell the difference between a capital L and an ordinary one -- anyway, their unending story this week was the decision to make the Mandatory long form census -- uh, voluntary.

Faceless Bureaucrats screamed with outrage at this lessening of their ability to penalize somebody for not filling out a form. One group even composed a song based on Gary Lewis and the Playboys' "Count Me In". The funny part about that was that as their video went viral, one of the performers changed his mind about not being faceless and the CBC blurred out his image in subsequent airings.

I guess if you work at CBC News you know faceless bureaucrats are not only most of your audience but the "unnamed government sources" in all those stories you often have to apologize for later.

Indeed, by the end of the week, a CBC Reporter actually more concerned with discovering the facts than bashing the government appeared to declaim that several countries had given up on their mandatory census forms because people tended to fib a lot in order to hide what they wanted to keep private while still staying out of jail.

Apparently Great Britain ditched theirs after discovering an inordinate number of the respondents claimed to be Jedi Knights.

South of the border, where what passes for News is at its ugliest, we had the sorry tale of Shirley Sharrod, an innocent functionary in the Obama administration who was outed as a Racist, humiliated, fired, cleared of all wrong doing, rehired and apologized to -- all within 48 hours.


Too often, watching Fox and MSNBC, I've watched somebody go off on somebody from "the other side" while video clearly shows them simply flubbing their lines or doing something utterly benign. But that doesn't matter. What matters is making sure the moment is spun out to fit pre-ordained agenda.

The clip I've chosen for this Sunday's offering relates to Shirley Sharrod as Glenn Beck mocks one of Keith Olbermann's diatribes on the story. If MSNBC has taught you to hate Glenn Beck, there's probably a lot in here to reaffirm your bias. If you have no time for Keith Olbermann, it'll probably make your day.

But the reason I chose it, is because it exemplifies just how out of whack the whole "Honest, we're telling you the truth" news game has become. This is patent showbiz sideshow stuff, right down to a format first pioneered by Howard Stern (probably proving he really is the King of All Media) and the forced laughter of drive time radio and chummy local newscasts.

The TV News world is all about preaching to a demographic now and the false belief that somebody will, like Walter Cronkite, be able to sway the national agenda with their opinion. It's show business as practiced by clowns when we deserve the opportunity to be handed the facts and allowed to make up our own minds.

Enjoy your Sunday.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Family Night At The Burger Scoop


The dog and I had been driving for hours, flanked by endless walls of trees and we both needed to pee real bad. Our road finally wound out of the woods and into a town so small it didn’t even seem to have a name.

The street was deserted, far from unusual in any small town on a Sunday night, and the only place that looked open called itself “The Burger Scoop”.

I pulled into the parking lot figuring they might have coffee as well as washroom facilities and popped the door so the dog could do her business.

As she made a puddle in the parking lot, I realized that every single space was taken, urging her back in the car quickly so I could take care of my own urgent agenda.

I told her I’d get her a cookie. She cocked her head the way every dog does when you say “cookie” and then tipped it that extra 5 degrees to petition “Peanut Butter?”.

What is it with dogs and peanut butter? Show ‘em a peanut. Nothin’. “Butter” it and you’ve got canine Oxycontin.

I hurried inside, making a beeline for the john, but unable to miss noticing that the couple at the corner table were dead ringers for Tim McGraw and Faith Hill – if Tim and Faith were 19 and three times their original size.

The guy was wearing a Tim T-shirt, so I figured I wasn’t the first to make the connection. He held Faith in a pinkie lock as the pretty Ojibwa girl behind the counter finished decorating their ice cream cake and bubbled at how exciting it was they were finally tying the knot.

Faith began detailing their first date as I entered the washroom and it couldn’t have been that long a courtship, because she had gotten all the way to Tim’s proposal by the time I came out.

The guy who ran the place had a celebrity resemblance as well, impersonating Marvel Comics’ Stan Lee right down to the gravel in his voice when he asked what was I havin’.

I  scanned the overhead menu hoping all those trees hadn’t drifted me into some alternative dimension Hollywood canteen. Burgers and ice cream (hence the name I guess) were featured, augmented by cheese steaks, fries and chicken fingers.

I ordered a coffee to go and asked if they sold cookies. Stan smiled and poured me a paper cup so scalding hot I knew his lawyer had never heard of McDonald’s. He said he had a dozen coming out of the oven in a couple of minutes.

That suggested they were probably worth waiting for. Any cafe owner making cookies in a town this small late on a Sunday night was either ridiculously optimistic or knew they’d sell.

He went in the back and I looked around, realizing for the first time that the place was packed – or as packed as a place with four small tables can be.

There was Tim & Faith, now lip-locked in the corner, an older couple huddled over a banana split, a handsome single mom with two husky teenage boys and a raw boned father and son with their dressed to the nines wives and a little girl in a party dress.

I should have known it was family night.

It was New York that introduced me to the concept of Sunday being family night at the public eateries. Weeknights were mostly for the business crowd. Conversations were important. People took notes and conference called from their tables.

Those not doing business had just as important appointments. Yoga class. An obscure French film. Group therapy. Activities approached with the same intensity as a hostile takeover. The meal and the ambience were secondary.

I once watched a weeknight couple finish dinner and pull out a copy of “New York” magazine, ticking off a highlighted mini-review and debating how many stars they felt the place really deserved.

Friday nights, everybody unwound with rounds of pre-dinner cocktails and Saturday was date night.

The only time you saw people slip comfortably into sync with their dinner partners and what a restaurant was selling was Sunday. Sunday they were out with their families.

You can tell a lot about a place by who you see there on a Sunday night. It usually depicts their brand and demographic personified.

I once did a series with a fellow producer who was a practicing wine snob. Nice guy and all but having dinner with him was mostly about finding palate matches.

One Friday night, as he and some of the other staff went off to unwind and figure out what went with the exotic vintages he tried to slide into the show budget, I stayed behind at the production office.

I was interrupted by a squeal of delight from a young production accountant who turned up with bunch of last minute cheques that needed to be signed.

“I’m so glad you’re here,” she said, “I thought you’d all be out dining. That’s what producers do Fridays, isn’t it? You dine.”

As I signed the cheques, she went on about all the receipts she processed from establishments she’d always dreamt of enjoying. I didn’t have the heart to tell her most of the people submitting those receipts probably didn’t even register what they’d eaten.

Sunday dinners out were different.

Sundays in New York you’d see a couple who’d probably first dated to see Disney’s “Lady & The Tramp” replay that movie’s dinner scene at an Italian bistro in the East Village. Splitting the last meatball, him still blushing a little when she brushed his hand in public.

Here at the Burger Scoop, the elderly couple playfully pushed the Banana Split’s last cherry back and forth across the ice cream tray with their spoons so the other could have it.

The raw-boned son stopped his raw-boned father from paying for their cheese steaks. He was on a highway crew for the whole summer and could cover this one.

His wife and mom both smiled proudly as the older man relented and scooped up his giggling granddaughter instead. You got the feeling the young couple`s luck had recently taken a turn for the better.

By the window, Mom teared up as the elder of her sons reminded her how early the bus was coming in the morning. He was on his way to try out for the hockey team in the big town an hour away.

The way his younger brother looked on with envy you could tell this was his first real trip away from home. They both had that lanky, too tall for their age build and oversized hands that make hockey scouts salivate.

I hoped one of them might someday get far enough that he could pull Mom out of here too so she could see parts of the world not hemmed in by trees.

Stan came back from the kitchen and gave me a nod. Cookies were up. And the cookie gods were smiling. They were peanut butter.

I paid the bill and tried to pretend the coffee wasn’t still burning my hand when I turned to go, stopping to take them all in one last time.

At the table by the door, Tim and Faith had almost finished their engagement cake. The elderly man munched the last cherry as his wife pulled a sweater over her shoulders with a satisfied smile.

Stan picked up the bill from the highway worker, handing back a couple of Toonies because the sign on the cash said “No Tips”.

Mom smiled, looking on proudly as her sons debated the Big Town team’s chances in the coming season.

Nobody talked business or politics or television, giving those of us who write it about as much thought as we usually give them. But there they were, a whole room of who we write for.

I got back in the car and the dog inhaled the cookie bag, her eyes rolling back in her head at the first whiff of peanut butter. She folded into my shoulder patiently as we drove back into the tunnel of trees.

I put my arm around her. It was family night and time to split a cookie.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Bad Cop. No Donut.


Sad news for those hyping a "Canadian Invasion" of locally produced series into the US market. As of late Wednesday, writers and stars of the CTV series "The Bridge" were informing their fans of a notice from CBS that future American broadcasts of the show had been cancelled.

The cancellation comes after the 2 hour pilot and 2nd episode both played to dismally small audiences in a Summer Saturday night slot traditionally reserved for titles that a network has little faith will find or sustain a viable number of viewers.

Often a cancellation is no fault of the show itself. It's simply been put into a time and day where its audience can't find it. That happens. There's only so much shelf space. And as Steven Bochco once remarked after one of his creations went down, "Sometimes, it's just your turn in the barrel."

So, while this isn't any death blow to the Canadian industry, where other series are already tooling up to take their shot at the Holy Grail of foreign TV sales, it still hurts --- and it didn't have to happen.

I've been openly critical of "The Bridge" since it debuted. I didn't like the show when it started. And I was positively disgusted by it as it drew to a close. Those opinions are subjective, of course. But since the audience has now also voted against "The Bridge", maybe there are objective lessons to be gleaned.

I know absolutely nothing about what went on in the boardrooms, network suites and production offices as "The Bridge" was developed and produced. But there are readable clues in the finished product and the manner in which the show was handled by its more experienced American broadcast partner (as well as tidbits that slipped out following the cancellation) that point to what caused it to fail.

My own experience tells me that the fatal flaw was there from the start in the person and personality of Craig Bromell, the former Toronto Police Union head on whose career the series was based.

Bromell was always a thorn in the side of police management in Toronto, a guy some called a thug who fought for the "little guy" or more accurately the rank and file uniform cops of the force.

There's no doubt he brought a potentially valuable insider's perspective to the creation of the series. There's also no doubt he represented a mindset where his perspective was always the correct one.

But a guy who knows what makes a police union tick isn't necessarily able to take the pulse of a much more diverse demographic -- the viewing public.

There's nothing wrong with having a showbiz outsider, even a maverick one, executive producing your series. But his strengths and weaknesses need to be equally balanced by somebody else on the production team who knows what an audience will embrace. And that somebody needs to be able to go toe to toe with the maverick to make sure it's the audience and not some other ego or agenda that is being served.

Recent TV hits like "The Shield", "Dexter", "Deadwood" and "The Wire" have all showcased dysfunctional heroes. What made them different from "The Bridge" is that they all espoused a specific moral code which the audience could either embrace or question.

They never implied that you should just sit down and shut the fuck up because you weren't a cop and didn't know what it was really like out there.

Without somebody willing to say, "Ya know, Craig, we gotta find some way to make an audience see things your way." neither the series nor Bromell's unique point of view had a chance.

And I'd be the last to suggest those conversations would have happened without some fireworks.

Yet, despite the fact that drama is based in conflict, Canadian networks are traditionally averse to any friction within their executive suites. They like everybody to get along -- and maybe also buy their suits at the same store -- that's always a nice touch.

But this attempt to assure a harmonious work environment often results in the loudest or most shameless voice taking over and winning the day. Too many of our series have failed because good taste or sober second thought lost out to intimidation or what somebody needed to make themselves or their company or their network look good.

I'm not saying that a strong showrunner needs to be constantly at loggerheads with anyone. That's as much a recipe for disaster as allowing someone who's never run a television series make the ultimate calls. But you do need a showrunner willing to pick their battles and win enough of them to keep the ship on course.

If you need to see this process in operation, seek out the PBS documentary "Anatomy of a Homicide" which chronicles the making of a single episode of "Homicide: Life on the Street". Watching Tom Fontana navigate network and production shoals while cajoling his writers and producers to trade personal wants for what's best for the show is an object lesson in when to chill and when to go in with guns blazing.

I once dropped in on a showrunner the afternoon the studio had dictated his star to him. The choice was manifestly wrong. I knew it and more importantly so did he. He also knew that if he lost this skirmish, the rest of production would be an uphill battle in order to get the show that had been envisioned. But he also suspected that giving in on this one issue might smooth the rest of the path.

I told him he had to stick to his guns.

He gave.

The path only got rougher. And the show was gone after a handful of episodes.

There's a reason that the top business schools teach the ruminations of warriors like Sun-Tzu, Attila the Hun, Hannibal and Mithradates. Every great ancient general knew he wouldn't win every battle. But most importantly, they knew which ones they absolutely could not lose.

Throughout the produced episodes of "The Bridge" you can see bad writing, bad directorial choices, weird casting and other elements that immediately ring false on a conscious level for those of us who make television and simultaneously resonate in an unconscious way to propel the casual viewers away.

They are like a forensic trail denoting every "Aw, fuck it! Who cares.", each "Just give him/them what they want." and tragic "We'll live with it"s that gradually drained away any chance "The Bridge" might have had.

In John McFetridge's explanation of how his episode evolved, it's clear that the series was being re-envisioned and reformulated while in production. Sometimes that sort of thing can't be avoided. But here it seems what CTV green-lit was not what CBS felt would work for them. And no series can serve two masters with differing requirements.

If the network doesn't have its shit together and KNOW what it wants, no amount of creative energy is going to make up for that lack of focus. A network needs to know what it is selling. It can't succeed by hoping the audience finds something worthy in whatever they fling at the wall.

But it seems whatever was going on down on the stage was either ignored or beyond the comprehension of those in the CTV executive offices.

While they hyped the program and played up their concept of "Reverse Simultaneous Substitution" implying that the branch plant student had suddenly outsmarted his Hollywood teacher, prefacing a new Golden Age of Canadian helmed production -- the Mr. Miyagis at CBS were trying to diplomatically handle the ill-formed turd that ended up being dropped in their lap.

The post-production handling of "The Bridge" by its American partner speaks volumes about the lack of a shared vision between they and CTV.

No broadcaster sits on any program it thinks has even the slimmest of chances. So when "The Bridge" repeatedly failed to make an appearance on the CBS schedule, it became obvious that somebody was having second thoughts. But that didn't stop CTV from going full speed ahead with a post-Olympics launch on its own.

When CBS finally selected the worst spot on their schedule for "The Bridge" and spent next to nothing on promotion, anyone who keeps track of the television world knew they were burying it.

In announcing the cancellation to his fans, the series' star, Aaron Douglas, however, reveals that CBS had an even lower opinion of the show than had previously been made public. According to Douglas, CBS never intended to broadcast more than 7 hours of the 13 produced. For one reason or another they had chucked half of the production slate into the trash, in the process killing any ongoing story lines and serialized elements.

American producers with that kind of production record seldom get another show and the execs who supervised them are searching the Want Ads. Yet, back in Canada, the same folks who green-lit "The Bridge" and stood idly by as its debut numbers diminished week after week were still around to proudly announce last month that it was returning to the CTV schedule.

Maybe there was nothing wrong with that. Maybe, unbeknownst to the rest of us, they'd come up with a plan to retool the series and get it back on track.

If they have, that plan had better include the possibility of wholesale cast changes. Because a commenter on Douglas' site includes facts the star previously twittered stating that during the current hiatus all of the actor contracts have been allowed to lapse.

Now who goes into a major series without locking up their leading players for the run of the show? Perhaps the more pointed question is, "Who renews a show before being certain they can put it into production?"

Without the CBS portion of the budget giving "The Bridge" the production values the audience have come to expect is going to a whole lot more difficult. Without a familiar cast, it might not be recognizable as the same show at all.

How could all this happen?

Well, quite simply, there's a desperation for success and a desire to generate good news in this country that often jumps up to bite us on the ass. It sparks us into seizing the day when we've still got our hands full with undeveloped story ideas. It tries to build on momentum when bodies are not yet in motion.

Did CTV decide to go ahead with a show it knew wasn't ready because it didn't want the "Flashpoint" success to look like a lucky fluke?

Did they approve handing the reins to a producer who'd never done anything before because they honestly didn't see his shortcomings, or because they needed some immediate Cancon and didn't have anything else even close to ready?

Did the desire to be "edgy" and "dangerous" take precedent over knowing what their audience was searching for?

Did anybody involved think about who that audience might even be?

These are all questions everyone associated with "The Bridge" should be asking.

They're questions all of us who want to see a successful television industry here should be asking as well. It's questioning we never do because we're all so worried a showrunner we query might not hire us or a network we question won't welcome us to pitch.

But like that aforementioned aversion to mixing it up a little, those fears are what holds us back.

There will be a lot of self-satisfied snickering in Hollywood this morning over the cancellation of "The Bridge". More proof that those Canadians aren't as smart or as talented as they thought they were.

And we'll kind of shrug and say "Sorry" and go back to our silent plodding and hoping things will get better tomorrow -- or the day after -- or the day after that.

Instead, we should be getting angry and figuring out how to make sure it doesn't happen again. Every one of those great generals won their wars after crushing defeats. But they learned from those defeats and stopped losing.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

And So It Begins…

Two years back, in posting updates from the NATPE Convention, I estimated that Canadian television networks only had a couple of years to change their ways or they'd be swamped by upstart technologies. It appears that prediction is closer than ever to coming true.


To be honest, I've sensed something unusual was in the wind since the CRTC delivered its broadcaster friendly semi-decision on saving Local TV back in April and the CMF simultaneously issued new funding rules which also primarily assisted established broadcasters.

Instead of ramping up development of new programming, our nets instead took a conservative path into their immediate future.

Little new drama or comedy was announced for the Fall and Execs seemed more indecisive than usual about what they wanted, content to increase the episode totals of shows with ratings that would have doomed them to cancellation a season or two previous.

While there has never been a huge appetite for risk at Canadian networks, even innovation suddenly took a backseat to taking the minority partnership in foreign made co-productions or tweaking formats to include more cheap reality or lifestyle programming.

I also began noticing that newscasters (particularly on Global) often tagged a story with an invitation to find "more" on the network website. Perhaps that is an attempt to drive traffic to their internet presences. But it also carries the faint odor of defeat, as if they know their current approach can't begin to offer the context and content real journalism requires.

Can you imagine radio in its heyday ever recommending people buy a newspaper if they wanted all the news or TV in the Walter Cronkite era suggesting you pick up a copy of TIME or NEWSWEEK if you really wanted to know more about Man walking on the Moon? It wouldn't happen.

And as another example of this odd malaise, Heritage Minister James Moore had to issue a request to the networks last week to stop dragging their feet and offer a plan on the digital transition scheduled for next summer. It included a terse reminder of Government policy: "We need solutions that will encourage innovation and new approaches, rather than asking Canadian taxpayers to subsidize existing business models."

It's like our nets have given up. Maybe that's just the hangover from a tough couple of years or a symptom of the dog days of Summer. Or maybe they got an early head's up of yesterday's announcement that their own dog's day is about done.


Netflix, arguably the most popular video service in the United States has announced that it will begin streaming movies and television into Canada this Fall.

While not having a menu as all-encompassing as Google TV, which also launches this Fall but which has not yet applied for access to the Canadian market; Netflix doesn't require the purchase of any additional hardware to deliver its content.

You don't even need to own a computer. The system is configured to be accessible by video game devices, PVRs, blu-ray players and almost any HD television manufactured in the last two years.

What's more, what you download from Netflix can be watched on your TV, your computer or transferred to your laptop or smart phone so you can take it with you. You can even watch the same movie on your business flight at the same time the rest of the family is enjoying it at home.

And unlike iTunes or other subscription download services, subscribers pay a single monthly or annual fee that gives them access to everything in the Netflix library. That library currently includes more than 3000 films and thousands of episodes of popular television series.

The current American subscription rate is $8.95 per month. So I'll predict something in the $12.95 range for Canada.

That's basically the monthly cost of a bundle or two of tired Canadian movie channels. I mean seriously, how many times can you watch "Exotica" or endure its being programmed over an endless number of different genre channels or cable platforms?

It's also about the cost of renting a pair of the VOD titles that have become a major revenue stream for our cable companies.

Perhaps more important in the conventional TV realm, Netflix is one more entertainment alternative to further dilute the audience pool.

Our networks could have spent the last decade creating content that would have continued to have value and earn them money on emerging formats like Netflix. But they didn't. They opted to empire build and renovate palatial offices and in-house studios instead.

No amount of lobbying at the CRTC will alter the outcome of those ill-advised decisions now.

If you're a Canadian TV viewer who wants more for your entertainment dollar, you can register here to be notified when the service is available.

And for you Canadian creatives troubled by the troubles afflicting broadcasters, just remember -- we're only losing buyers who were always reluctant at best to get involved in what we offered. This new guy is going to need lots of fresh content to keep their subscribers interested. 

We've got a future. The broadcasters who have ignored us -- not so much.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Lazy Sunday #128: The Unseen Culprits

"O pardon me thou bleeding piece of earth, that I am meek and gentle with these thy butchers…"

Julius Caesar Act III  Scene 1.


When I was ten or eleven, I decided I was going to be an Oceanologist. It was one of those passing romantic fantasies kids have. Heck, I was living in Saskatchewan, didn't know how to swim yet and hadn't even visited a body of water where you couldn't see the opposite shore.

But I'd watched a few episodes of "Sea Hunt" and "Flipper" and something about the whole ocean thing appealed to me.

Then I went to the Regina library one afternoon and found an issue of National Geographic featuring an Oceanologist who'd spent 20 years studying the life cycle of the shrimp. No way I was going to spend my life doing something that boring! I went back to waffling between being a cowboy or a fireman.

Once I matured, I regained my respect for people who dedicate their lives to understanding how things invisible to the rest of us function, realizing that often what's below the surface or hidden from public view has a greater impact than the things we can observe for ourselves.

As the "will they cap it or won't they" soap opera has played out in the media coverage of the Gulf Oil Spill, it's become clear to most that we haven't been told the full story.

While there are conspiracy theories aplenty as to what happened on the doomed rig in the days and hours before it exploded, why financial giants like Goldman Sachs sold off their BP holdings right before the accident and how a myriad of government agencies were so slow to react; there's been little discussion on what we can expect once the leak is stopped or how we ensure that nothing like this ever happens again.

And when that time comes, we all know that all kinds of competing interests will want to be heard, everybody from ecologists and geologists to pensioners dependant on BP dividends to bureaucrats and political parties hoping to protect their backsides.

So you need to set aside twenty minutes right now to hear from Carl Safina, ecologist, writer and founder of the Blue Ocean Institute.

In Safina's opinion, what we've witnessed in the Gulf has its roots in the same covert and secretive mentalities that were behind the recent economic collapse and the growing cultures of corporate entitlement and government indifference.

This is heady stuff and while you may find some of it difficult, at least sample the anecdote that begins at 07:45. If you have any kind of concern for the other inhabitants of this planet, that alone should galvanize you into doing something.

Enjoy your Sunday.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Could Osama Bin Laden be in Arizona?

Arizona cave

Every writer knows the primacy of Place in telling a story.

Defining where a story happens both taps into your audience's knowledge or interest in the locale as well as helping to make them comfortable in a world that could be far removed from what's familiar to them.

When the process is done well, you reap great rewards in story potential, character dimension and unique plot twists that couldn't happen anywhere else.

Great examples of this from last season's crop of TV shows include "Justified" and "Treme" and can be repeatedly seen in the way "Friday Night Lights" nimbly reinvents itself from one season to the next.

When place is ignored or hidden, as it was in many of the series that came and went, you end up with cop or lawyer shows indistinguishable from one another or what's come before. And then, no matter how well the rest of the story telling and execution play out, there's a level of connection unavailable to those who might have kept watching if they could ascribe a recognizable local identity to the events.

Tony Soprano wouldn't have been the same guy without his Jersey surroundings and Vic Mackey owed much of his particular bent to his LA environment. Understanding Place makes everything clearer.

One of my own minor fascinations with Place is the difference between people who live in big cities and those who make their homes in less populous regions. A stock broker and a lumberjack might order the same thing for breakfast, but everything from the way they hold their coffee cup to how they use a napkin changes after that. A Harvard professor prepares for work on an intellectual level while a farmer scans the sky knowing he has to take nature into account.

Those dichotomies were never clearer to me then when I was writing and producing "Top Cops" for CBS. On my first ride-along in a NYPD patrol car, I realized that no New York patrolman moved on a call without radioing for "Backup forthwith" and reinforcements never arrived more than a minute or two after the original officers dispatched.

Our Executive Producer was a born and bred New Yorker who'd served 20 years as a NYPD detective. He knew policing inside out -- and yet he was continually brought up short in situations involving small town and rural cops.

We once profiled a North Dakota Highway Patrol officer who'd had to deal with a dangerously violent situation single-handed. The fact that his nearest back up was 200 miles away made complete sense to me, a prairie kid from Saskatchewan. But the Exec's New York perspective on the world made anybody willing to accept that kind of occupational hazard impossible to comprehend.

Which brings me to the current debate over enforcing immigration laws in Arizona.

For starters, I want to say, not being an American, that I don't fully grasp concepts like where States Rights end and Federal ones begin or vice versa. I don't know the current level of racial tensions in Arizona either. But on the few occasions I've visited, the Mexican residents seemed far more integrated and accepted than they did during all the years I lived in LA County.

And during my time in Los Angeles, I was always aware that as a non-resident, I needed to have some kind of identification with me at all times. It's apparently the law.

But what I understand well is people and Place. And it surprises me that so little consideration seems to be being given to the concerns (real or imagined) of the people most involved with and closest to the issue.

And I think a lot of that comes down to not understanding the Place part.

According to statistics, Arizona is one of the most porous sections of the US-Mexico border with up to 1000 illegal immigrants crossing it daily. Most of those people are merely looking for a better life or to escape a vicious drug war between cartels that is killing tens of thousands of Mexican citizens every year.

But some sneaking in undeterred or undetected are also members of those cartels.

In the last couple of years, Phoenix has replaced Bogota, Columbia as the #2 Kidnapping capitol of the world. #1 is Mexico City. Rural police officers have been ambushed by drug smugglers and isolated ranchers have been attacked and killed as well.

In one case a few weeks a go, a police officer was wounded in a shootout with drug smugglers. Other officers managed to reach him in time. But nobody was put at risk chasing his attackers. The darkness and the distances just made that job too dangerous even for trained police officers.

Having grown up in a place where the closest neighbor was a couple of miles off and police or ambulances might be hours away, I can understand how a lot of people in Arizona feel.

What I have trouble understanding is why those opposed to the action the state and its citizens want to take have deemed them racist or fascist or both.

Maybe there are differing political agendas at play. But when dairy farms along the American border with Quebec are being expropriated to strengthen the integrity of a border hardly anybody but guys smuggling cigarettes seems to sneak across, it makes you wonder why there's so much resistance to dealing with a much bigger problem elsewhere.

It seems to be a case of people from one Place with a particular perspective unable to see the perspective of those in a different Place.

Maybe putting a different story in the same place would help them.


On 9/11 Osama Bin Laden launched an attack on New York City. And in the days that followed, thousands of Americans who had never been to New York came to the city's aid, including many from Arizona, maybe even some from those lonely ranches near the border.

Not long after, American soldiers went to Afghanistan to go after those who attacked them. Some of them were from Arizona. Maybe a few were kids who grew up near the border. They likely didn't fully understand the pain New Yorkers were in, but they knew their country felt endangered and they wanted to help.

Some of them probably died in Afghanistan. Some are probably still there. Whether its a just war or not, they're doing what they feel they have to so guys in New York and Washington and places they've never been can feel safe.

How come the people in those cities don't want the same for those in Arizona?

A couple of weeks ago, the CIA admitted they had absolutely no clue where Osama bin Laden is hiding. They say they're pretty sure he isn't in Afghanistan anymore. He might be just over the border in Iran or Pakistan. But he could be anywhere.

Now, put yourself in Osama's sandals for a minute.

You still want to destroy America. You prefer (or have grown used to) living in a desert cave. You need to be in the last place anybody would look for you. Hey, what's wrong with Arizona?

If a thousand Mexican peasants can sneak across the border every night without much trouble, how hard could it be for a guy who's ducked the CIA for a decade?

If many of those people could make the journey carrying all their worldly goods or a knapsack full of Cocaine, lugging in a portable dialysis machine would be a breeze.

Or a suitcase nuke.

Or a regular sized one that fits in the back of a van or a Ryder truck like a lot of the drug shipments coming through do now.

And how many guys trained in an Al-Qaeda camp could you bring in with you? Looks like Battalion strength if you needed it. But easily enough to help you find one of the many spectacular caves available in Arizona.

And it doesn't even have to be one that well hidden given that you don't have to worry about drone surveillance planes anymore.

Come to that, nobody's going to notice an Afghani tan around any pool in Scottsdale or Yuma. Osama and the boys could rest up a little, get a nice mineral scrub and a shower. Maybe catch a Coyotes game or two (God knows there are seats available) before heading out to do whatever they want to do anywhere else in the country.


Far fetched?


How much sense do No-Fly lists, cargo inspections and taking off your shoes at the airport make if anybody who really means you harm just has to stumble their way across a few miles of sand?

The people who live in Arizona seem to understand that. Why is everybody else having so much of a problem?

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Have We Saved Local TV Yet?


Did we finish saving local TV last year or is everybody just gearing up to make us give up something more to save it all over again?

I'm just asking, because the whole "our broadcast system is in trouble" thing seemed to go quiet after the CRTC offered its decision (okay, technically only a proposal for a decision) last April in which it said Cable companies had to give broadcasters more money -- uh, if the courts said it was okay for them to decide stuff like that.

As far as I know, no court has made any determination on that yet nor has one side or the other filed the inevitable appeals that would follow.

But to get a head start and make sure they had the cash on hand if they had to fork it over, Cable companies immediately announced a rate increase. In the last 15 months, Rogers has increased their cable fees by 10% to offset increased operating costs of only 3%.

According to Rogers, their costs are actually up 10% and they're eating half of it to be nice. But their financial statements show adjusted operating profits at Cable operations for the first three months of this year rose 10% to $449 million on a 6% increase in revenues. More on that here.

Bell jacked their rates up across the board last November in anticipation of the CRTC decision, earning between $2 and $4 per customer per month ever since for doing nothing new while Shaw reports its revenues and income are up 10% and 17% respectively over the last nine months.

And it appears the broadcasters are just as healthy. An item in the Hollywood Reporter yesterday indicated that even as the broadcasters were appearing in Gatineau to cry poor last summer, their revenues were already increasing over 2008 and ended up totaling $6.5 Billion for 2009.

To be sure those numbers are skewed because Specialty Channels are raking it in (revenues up 16.6%) while the free-TV side is down 7.7%. But that's really a matter of the same guy having more money in one pocket than the other since all the free nets own all the specialty channels.

What's more, despite all the dire predictions from Global, Rogers and CTV about having to close up shop and with no new Cable money arriving in the mail just yet, the Free Three somehow found $800 Million to buy new Fall programming in LA while cutting their Canadian production orders back to about an hour of new drama or comedy apiece.

And really, why spend money on new shows when you already have a lot of stuff people already aren't watching that you can renew so it'll look like you're committed to Cancon while amortizing your investment over enough episodes that you've got something you can dump offshore.

But if we've really saved local TV, how come CTV has applied to the CRTC for a little relief from requirements on its "A" channels?

The network has asked/instructed the Commissioners to now…

1. Eliminate all programming exhibition requirements.

2. Eliminate any requirement that 75% of priority programming be independently produced.

3. Eliminate the obligation to broadcast Canadian programs 60% of the year.

In return, CTV offers to make "best efforts" to support priority programs, programs of national interest and independently produced programs.

CTV's submission comes three months after Global filed one of its own with the CRTC basically asking for a break from genre protection so anything produced for any one of its specialty channels (or the free net) could run on all of the others. What better way to lower costs, maximize revenue streams and completely piss off your audience.

So here's where we stand after almost three solid years of whining and lobbying and cluttering the airways with self-serving drivel:

Cable companies -- still making billions.

Broadcasters -- still making billions (but forced to carry it in a different part of their pants).

Canadian creatives and production companies -- trying to hang onto their pants with little money for production, fewer buyers and less available shelf space.

Canadian audiences -- over-taxed to assist the industry, over-charged for TV signals and completely underserved with Canadian programming while being constantly harassed or cajoled into buying new channels that repackage what they've already seen.

Local TV saved? Your guess is as good as mine.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Lazy Sunday # 127: Write The Future

I'm not a huge fan of the sport that's Soccer to us North Americans and Football to the rest of the world. Coming off the Stanley Cup playoffs and right into the World Cup felt like segueing from Yosemite Sam to Pepe LePew. Chaos to finesse. Raw Machismo to sophisticated charm.

sam and

And while the tendency among those broadcasting the game here is to play up the competing ethnicities like you're on some tour of the funny foods aisle of your local supermarket, what I've most enjoyed about the 2010 World Cup has been how identically all the disparate nations have behaved.

Yes, there are the subtle differences of culture and history that set each apart. But in the same way people go to movies to see stories about people and no matter what part of the world those movies are from the stories of those people matter to you -- there's absolutely no difference in the way every fan of every team enjoys and endures the game.

The frozen rictus during a penalty kick, the hands on the head when a ball hits the crossbar, the elated leap when their team scores. We may be divided as individual nations on the pitch, but the humanity in the stands is simply humanity.

We all still want "our" guys to win, but there's a universality in the desire to see heroes born and succeed that transcends flags and colors.

And what we want to see in those heroes is what we all most want from and for ourselves, the ability to rise to the moment and control the outcome.

That desire has been perfectly captured in one of the many videos Nike produced to promote the World Cup and their own contribution to it. It's aptly titled "Write the Future", knowing that despite what some Octopus might say, nothing is ever fated.

Enjoy the message of the video. Enjoy today's Cup final. And mostly Enjoy your Sunday.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Quit Bitchin'!

Once again the Legion hosts a guest blogger. Today we welcome Will Pascoe. Will's one of those all around, well-rounded writer filmmaker whattayagot kinda guys. He's written a great book about Baseball. Directed award winning documentaries, including a festival fave about Noam Chomsky and was recently nominated for the WGC's Jim Burt Screenwriting prize. I'm hoping to entice him back later this summer to describe sharing tacos and baseball talk with Tom Hanks.

And just as there's "No Crying in Baseball", Will believes its time for some of us to stop whining about the state of Canadian television.

All responses to this post will be vetted and responded to by Will. I got fish to clean.

rookie blue

In university, I had a friend who used to mock me for listening to what he called "cheap Canadian rock". For the record, I listened to music from everywhere, but I was a fan of several Canadian bands and was proud of it. I still am.

A few years later I saw him at a friend's BBQ and he asked me if I still liked "the CanCon" music. I said I did, and he made his usual wiseass comments. A year later, I had become a Canadian screenwriter and I saw him again and he asked me if I was still into “that CanCon”, I said yes, but it also now included CanCon film and TV.

Despite the naysayers, it seems Canadian TV is on a roll of late. Canwest's press release touted the numbers for Rookie Blue where 1.8 million Canadians watched the premier. Almost 7 million Americans did too.

Was it a surprise? Not really. In the month leading up to the premiere I couldn't throw a stick in Toronto without hitting an ad for the show. I was in LA two weeks ago and everywhere I went I saw Rookie Blue promos. Whether it was on TV, billboards or bus shelters, ABC/Global/Canwest/Jim Shaw/Whoever was doing a tremendous job getting the word out.

Well, something worked. Almost 2 million of us tuned in, and Global was only too happy to tout those numbers to anyone who would listen. 1.8 million viewers for anything in a country of 34 million people is great. The Canwest press release stated the Rookie Blue premiere was watched by more Canadians than the premiers of Flashpoint, the Bridge, and the Republic of Doyle and was the highest watched new Canwest drama in years.

Despite the strong start, the naysayers were already chiming up -- it's the premiere… of a summer show… on a slow TV night… during a full moon, etc. Yes, they have a point. People will tune in to see a premier. They'll watch it, gauge it and decide if they're going to invest more hours of their lives in it over the course of the next few months. But people do that for any show. Not just Canadian shows. Again the naysayers were telling me -- they won't get over a million for the second episode… holiday weekend… the US ratings will drop dramatically, etc. Well, surprise, surprise. The second episode brought in 1.4 million Canadians. Oh yeah, it did that on Canada Day when a large part of our nation is either getting drunk at a cabin in the woods or shooting off fireworks on the street -- neither of which lend themselves to television watching. And another 6 million plus Americans tuned in as well.

My point is, perhaps (just perhaps) if the networks actually PROMOTE IT, people Canadians (and Americans) will watch it. I suspect most TV viewers could care less where the show actually comes from. They just want it to be good. So, 1.8 million Canadians one week and 1.4 the next and over six million Americans? I'll take those numbers any time. That's more than Mad Men gets after three fantastic seasons. (I love Mad Men, but for all its acclaim, the show has a mind boggling tiny viewership mostly composed of people who work in advertising, fashion or television it seems).

CTV's Flashpoint gets over a million Canadians to watch it on a Friday night week after week -- even when it's a repeat. Every Sunday night, CBC's Heartland forces a million and a half Canadians to eat dinner at 6pm or 8pm so they can catch it live at 7. And now Global's Rookie Blue is getting a million plus viewers in the summer when even I, a TV junkie by any definition, hardly turn on the television. Three vastly different shows on three vastly different networks. And while each of these shows succeeds on their own terms, one of the big reasons has to be that their networks have gotten behind these shows in a big way and have done an exceptional job of promoting them.

The next time the CRTC holds its hearings and the networks fly up to Ottawa to scream about loosening CanCon regulations because "Canadians won't watch Canadian shows", I hope someone from the various unions -- or god forbid a regular TV viewer -- pulls out these network press releases touting the numbers of Canadians watching their Canadian shows, as proof that we will support Canadian drama if we know about it, because at the end of the day, it seems a lot of us are.

And while there are still many issues and challenges in the broader Canadian TV industry, (which I leave for smarter people like Henshaw and Dixon to blog about), it's kinda nice to celebrate someone else's success for a moment because their success is our success and it's good for the rest of us working in Canadian TV. Who wouldn't like to be able to call our families the day after their show premiers to say that more than seven million people watched it? Getting a show made in this economic and broadcast landscape is hard enough, getting a broadcaster to spend money to promote it is even harder and getting seven million to watch it is impressive. That’s a show with our writers, our directors, our actors and our crew. And millions are watching. And they don’t care if it’s Canadian or not.

With each of the big three national networks having a hit show with a million plus viewers (so far) and Canwest announcing last week that they're doing a slew of new pilots, I’m wondering if we were slowly coming out of a dark age in Canadian television. Time will tell.

And my old university buddy who mocked me for love of CanCon? Last I heard, he was a large animal vet and spent most of his days with his arm up a cow's ass.

Too bad he doesn't have seven million people watching.

"Rookie Blue" runs Thursday nights at nine (eight Central) on ABC and Global.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Detaching From The Matrix

I had breakfast on a Banff patio the last Wednesday of June, a mere two weeks after the mountain town had been Ground Zero to the biggest upheaval in Canadian Arts in recent memory.

As the guys at the next table snickered over how bad the Calgary Stampeders were going to kick Toronto Argonaut butt the next day, my eyes swept the street. But I guess the heavy Spring rains had washed away all the blood and tears that had been shed during the conflagration.

On the other side of the patio fence, Japanese tourists lined up to get their picture taken with my sheepdog…

"Is -- this -- a -- bear?"

"Yeah, but just a little one. A lot of us tame them."

I searched for the telltale damage from the battle and tried to discern where the barricades might have blocked the streets. But Banff is a tourist town, so imperfections are quickly painted over or repaired. Those must be the reasons it looked like nothing had happened.

And then I remembered I was still in Canada, where little ever comes from Artist outrage. And certainly not if any of those artists want a future grant or a pitch meeting at networks that only survive because of Government largesse.

Glenn Beck, the former failed stand-up comic and current rodeo clown on Fox TV either opens or closes his show with a quote from (I think) Thomas Payne. "When people fear the government, there is Tyranny. When government fears the people, there is Liberty."

In some countries, artists are feared and their talents respected because they have an ability to influence hearts and minds that politicians can only ape. We in Canada, on the other hand, put our governments first, thus inhabiting an arts colony on the Planet of the Apes.

But then, maybe what happened in Banff wasn't about us Creative Types at all…

For those who have already forgotten, Banff exploded (metaphorically, of course) when Alberta Culture Minister Lindsay Blackett asked a panel on "Home Grown Talent" to explain why he funded "so much shit".

Within moments, I'd received a dozen Tweets and Re-Tweets with the email address of a CBC Journalist wanting "Producer reaction" to what had been said.

Within hours, there were newspaper pieces, radio reports and blog reactions to this "ineloquent criticism" of our culture. Blackett was attacked for all sorts of reasons, including being from Alberta as well as a Conservative -- because, well -- "you know what that says about a person…".

And as the days wore on, Artists debated the definition of "shit", who had the right to call "shit" and just exactly what kind of "shit" the Minister had a problem with.

Paul Gross, a Canadian Star who seldom misses the opportunity to self-promote, immediately issued a statement. “It’s sad for the thousands of talented people working in Alberta to have their efforts reduced to a four-letter expletive and sad for all Albertans that this is what passes for responsible government.”

Mr. Gross failed to add that Mr. Blackett's apparently "irresponsible" government had kicked in $5.5 Million dollars that he'd dropped down a black hole entitled "Passchendaelle" a massive piece of shit that was a box office disaster which will likely never be in a position to return a dime of that investment to either Mr. Blackett's ministry or the people of Alberta.

Meanwhile, CBC TV's General Manager Kirstin Stewart, who was in the panel audience, responded with, “Nobody can ever question the quality of what we do here in Canada, creatively or otherwise.”

And that, of course, roused the ire of those within the anti-CBC spectrum, with some wondering "why" it wasn't okay to question what we do here in Canada and some on the fringe even going so far as to suggest in the MSNBC/Obama/Tea Party vein that Ms. Stewart disagreeing with Mr. Blackett, who is Black, suggests maybe she's a racist.

And while I'm certain that last charge is completely false, the returning shows on CBC as well as the promise of "Camelot" this season might make you wonder if somebody else around there might have a problem.

As I watched a couple of chipmunks scrabble for the last of my toast crumbs, much like Canadian artists at a submission deadline; I realized that what had happened in Banff had nothing to do with Art or Television and everything to do with what prevents both from thriving in this country -- bureaucracy.

Thanks to Diane Wilde, founder of the best source for Canadian television news TV, Eh? I was able to listen to the panel discussion in its entirety here. There's a lot of good insight into what's not working in Canadian TV, especially from one of the home grown talents who stayed home, Peter Keleghan. But all of that got lost because of what Mr. Blackett says 37:20 into the discussion.

But hearing the actual event suddenly makes you aware of a couple of things. First, the artists on the panel don't take any offense at the Minister's remarks. Indeed, like intelligent creative people, they immediately engage him, question his opinion and offer their own take on the subject.

What's more, it's clear from the tone of Blackett's statements that he's looking for some guidance and the heavy handed reaction tells you all you need to know about what this kafuffle was really about.

This is not a case of artists being smeared by an evil or incompetent politician. It's a war between bureaucracies. The reason the Alberta Ministry of Culture funds "so much shit" is because the place is staffed by bureaucrats, not artists or people with a finely honed sense of what's resonating with the Public or what projects might bootstrap the industry into being able to fend for itself.

These are people who are assigned a budget and shovel it out the door in traditional bean-counter/pencil-pusher fashion, knowing some political master is going to scream at them if enough of it doesn't end up on their preferred bed of roses.

Of course, they'll discuss and prioritize and listen to "stakeholders" and do all those things people in charge of Public money are supposed to do. But like Cub Scouts incapable of starting a campfire, their endless failure to build sparks of creativity into anything that warms the hearts of the masses, tells you clearly that they don't really know what they're doing. 

And they can't even ask for help or suggest they're not happy with their results because that endangers the complacency among other bureaucracies like the CBC, who have their own entitlements to protect. And despite achieving the lowest levels of Cancon in 30 years and renewing series audiences have clearly abandoned, Ms. Stewart has to make sure nobody starts to question what she's doing or not doing as well.

If I've told this story before, skip this paragraph. But back when I was acting there was a TV season when budgets got really tight at the CBC. I was doing a two hander at a small Toronto theatre that the head of network casting came to see. She came back afterward to gush over the performances, wishing she had something to offer. I asked what they were doing and she said they hadn't cast a single show all season. But her big worry was that she had seven people in her department and if this kept up she might have to let one of them go.

What Canadian artists need to fully understand is that while the average percentage of unemployment at any of our creative guilds hovers between 60 and 80%, the unemployment level at the CMF, Telefilm, Canada Council and the provincial Culture ministries, including Alberta, is always ZERO.

What we have built through our institutions is no longer about supporting or nurturing the Arts (their original intent) but has become a process of protecting or expanding the turf and jobs of those who dole out subsistence welfare to artists.

Like Neo in "The Matrix" we are the batteries that keep their lights on. But as long as we do, we're never going to be allowed to find a way to recharge and function on our own. If we did -- what would they do for light and warmth -- and employment?

You can perhaps best see how this functions in the myriad of new rules that were set up with the establishment of the new media division of the CMF. The intent of bringing Canadian Content to the Internet has already been compartmentalized into specified webisode lengths and defined costs per minute which must be met in order to trigger funding.

While artists from other nations on the web are spending a little or a lot to create web content that might be 2 minutes or 20 in length and on subject matter that may or may not find interest, Canadians are already being boxed in by rules and regulations controlling their output.

That's not how artists are supposed to work. And throughout history, state sponsored art has invariably alienated more people than it has inspired.

Early in my writing career, I worked on an American pilot that went horrendously over budget. Bean counters from the studio arrived intent on firing the producer, line producer and production manager for so badly exceeding what the studio felt the show should cost. But the Executive Producer countered with a simple argument. "Maybe the studio's wrong. Maybe this is what the show really costs."

He won his point because at some level the studio people understood that sometimes what it takes to succeed can't be determined in advance or reliably codified.

I know this is a tough decision, that it's so much easier to hope that one new open slot at the CBC will be for your show. But they'll buy a Paul Gross movie that tanked 10 years ago before they'll ever consider your work, no matter how original or ground-breaking it might be.

When you renew a series that has lost 75% of its audience, you know there is no interest in finding an audience let alone exciting them. When you only spend what you are "required" to spend by yet another government bureaucracy (the CRTC), you know our networks are not really trying to raise the bar, attract attention or even attempt to take on the competition.

That's just the way it is. Nobody cares about the audience -- or you. They just need to make sure their government job doesn't go away.

And when we get drawn into these bureaucratic squabbles, we only strengthen their hold on us, forcing us into their camps, signing on as the cannon fodder for wars from which we'll never see any glory or treasure.

It's time to take the Red Pill.

It's time to realize that the work YOU want to do is the only work that matters and that you can't call yourself an artist if your biggest worries are who you might offend and your greatest goal is to get hired on a show you know is shit.

So, for a start, go listen to that panel discussion. Draw your own conclusions. Maybe learn something from Peter Keleghan. Like most actors he's a pretty savvy guy.

And now and then, go into the mountains with your dog and go fishing. Get away from the "shuffling fudge lickers" (as another savvy actor I know once defined them) in the government approved tourist spots and remind yourself of what makes this country so damn special.

Then figure out how to communicate that to your friends and neighbors and maybe even the rest of the world -- without needing to get some bureaucrat's permission in the first place.

Then you'll really be an Artist. And then the Television around here might get a whole lot better.