Monthly Archives: June 2013

Bell-AstralFinal

Mirko Bibic must be heaving a huge sigh of relief that the transaction has finally been approved.  Bell won’t be happy with all of the details but it’s at least done and from my perspective, the additional conditions are things that they can live with.   They might have to hire a new body to manage the new reporting requirements but that won’t cost much.

As always, my perspective on this transaction (which is my own alone) is focused on the English television side of the deal (Steve Faguy does a great job on the radio market with an emphasis on Montreal, which was so hotly contested).  There are some parts of the decision though that are noteworthy in that they signal the Commission’s thinking in the upcoming rationalization of the benefits policy (part of the Three Year Plan).

The big clear message from the top was that this transaction was still carefully reviewed for the public interest and was only approved as being in the public interest with the addition of a few new safeguards.  The revised application wasn’t a slam dunk.  “The Commission finds that but for these safeguards, it would not have been persuaded that the present transaction is in the public interest, and would not have approved it.” (para 28).

Aspects of the Vertical Integration code will now be enforceable conditions of licence, there are conditions around negotiation of non-linear programming rights, access to advertising availabilities by competitors and affiliation agreements have to be filed shortly after they are signed.  These all relate to a number of allegations that were made during both Bell-Astral1 and Bell-Astral2 that Bell was already treating smaller BDUs and independent programming services unfairly due to its size and would only get worse if it got bigger.  Rather than make any determination on the validity of these allegations (many of which were not supported at the hearing by evidence of the unfair activity) the Commission has taken the position that the new bigger Bell will have more opportunities to be anti-competitive so there’s a greater potential (whether or not they are anti-competitive now) and that potential has to be protected against.  The final piece to this is the warning that the Commission will not hesitate to act if they are presented with evidence that Bell is acting anti-competitively.

A lot of the decision was dedicated to a revised valuation.  This section will be of value to valuators of future transactions.  One of the parts that I liked was the valuation of leases related to the out-of-home business (billboards).  As those leases relate to an unregulated side of Astral, the Commission had asked for an auditor’s report of how they came to the valuation.  This is one of the ways that broadcasters artificially reduce benefits payable by increasing the value of unregulated assets that can be deducted from the calculation.  Instead of an auditor’s report, Bell filed an accountant’s report explaining how the valuation was made.  As they didn’t get an independent verification as requested, the Commission did not deduct the value of the leases related to the out-of-home business from the valuation.  Lesson – provide the Commission exactly what they ask for or it will cost you (Note – the same thing happened to Shaw when it acquired Global so they had warning).

So the value of the transaction was increased from $4.017 billion to $4.154 billion.  The Commission then changed the allocations between TV, radio and unregulated assets.  It is also worth noting that Bell tried to argue that SVOD  (i.e. TMN on Demand) services were unregulated but the Commission added them back in as extensions of regulated assets. They did not do the same for the value of digital assets such as websites related to broadcasters, which is something that I had argued for in Bell-Astral1.  The bottom line for benefits then is $175.4 for television and $71.5 for radio.  Note that radio was increased from the usual 6% to 7% of the value of the assets because of the size of the transaction.  An increase for size for radio has been done recently (Corus) but that argument hasn’t worked for the television side for years.  It is likely that the television transactions are just so large that the transactions could not support an increase in the benefits formula.

Unlike previous transactions, the Commission has not decided for Bell how they will allocate the increased benefits but instead require them to file a proposal on how they will be spent by July 29th.  I hope that the result and the final approved benefits are public.  In the past when the Commission has left the final package to later determination there have been letters that you had to know to ask for to be able to find out what exactly was agreed to.  Not good for the process.

Most of the television benefits were approved as proposed but there were some exceptions.  The proposal to allocate $3million to CAFDE for a fund for the promotion of feature film was not approved.  Bell is to come back with a new proposal for the promotion of feature film.  What is odd is that there really isn’t any direction as to what needs to be fixed.  What is clear is that the Commission didn’t buy the argument of feature film producers such as the Producers Roundtable of Ontario that the funds should go to feature film production before promotion.

OLMC’s (Official Language Minority Communities) have been a major concern of the Commission this past year at this hearing and at CBC.  After many years of making presentations about the need for specific allocations they earned an allocation as part of the CBC licence renewal and an allocation of 10% of each of the English and French envelopes of the benefits package.

An important wonky determination is that 100% of PNI not only has to be independently produced but also original.  If a program airs on TMN and then on CTV (or airs on Citytv and then TMN) it only is original for the first broadcaster unless both broadcasters participated in the financing of the production.  This is similar to the Canada Media Fund’s definition of original.

Bell proposed an allocation of $2.73 million to Consumer Education as part of the social benefits.  The Commission has found this to be too vague and is requiring more detail with a direction that it would be appropriate to fund The Broadcasting Accessibility Fund, MediaSmarts and the Centre d’études sur les medias.  Lesson – if you don’t provide detail then the Commission just might decide for you.

Social benefits will have to be reallocated on a language basis as well.  They were majority English but have to be consistent with onscreen benefits, which were allocated along the lines of the value of the services in each language – 69% French and 31% English.

Bell had proposed that a significant portion of the television benefits in English would be spent over three years starting in 2017 because of the large amount of benefits for English television currently in the system.  A number of the creator groups objected to this.  The Commission did not agree to this proposal because some of the communities (OLMCs) and some genres of programming (documentaries) are not participating in the current benefits bulge and need the funds now.  Benefits will be paid in equal installments over the next seven years.

As part of the application, Bell made a number of ‘intangible’ benefits proposals that in some ways the Commission is treating as tangible.  In particular they are asking for more detail on the new position of ‘Canadian Programming Champion’ to ensure that it’s not just BS and Bell will have to file annual reports to demonstrate what the champion did, what their budget was, who they met with and what projects were funded.  This report will be public.  As well, the commitment to regional offices has been expanded from Vancouver and Halifax to include Winnipeg and detail as to their mandate has to be filed and then reported on annually.  The regional communities have experience with regional offices that have no authority and exist only to fulfill benefits requirements (*cough* CHUM-Craig *cough*) and the Commission wants to ensure that doesn’t happen again.

I was surprised to see the Commission re-evaluate Astral’s group CPE and PNI because that issue hadn’t been aired much but it does make sense.  Bell will have to sell off a number of the Astral specialty services and several of them are low CPE and PNI services which reduced the overall historical average CPE and PNI for the group.  The Commission is asking Bell to make a proposal but their preliminary view is that CPE should increase from 30% to 32% and PNI from 16% to 18%.  Remember that Astral’s group CPE and PNI will still be calculated separately from Bell so this is important to ensure that services like TMN and Family Channel maintain their level of investment in Canadian programming.

There are quite a few details still to be worked out and proposals to be made by Bell by July 29th, so the dollars at play in each envelope are not yet certain.  Again I hope that that part of the process will also be public and we will have a clear, public decision on the final makeup of the benefits package that we don’t have to go hunt for.  Please.

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Funding Application Tips – Partnerships

I probably should have done this post on Partnerships before last week’s post on how not to screw up your funding application but there you go.  I’m doing it now.

One of the biggest ways that a project can fail (in general, not just with funding applications) is in picking the right partners to work on the project.  This is co-producers or digital media and television producers or creative partners.  The same rules/guidelines apply.

Audio-visual media is a collective work.  None of us can create (high quality commercial) film, television and digital media on our own.  We need to work with other people to bring complimentary skills together to get the end product completed.  I think that we all understand that a screenwriter, producers, director, actors and crew are needed to produce but this also applies to the producer.  Sometimes it is skills that are needed, for example when a smaller production company or series creators partner with a more experienced production company to take on a bigger challenge.  Sometimes it is financing as when a Canadian production company partners with a treaty co-production partner.  And then there are the partnerships between formats when a tv producer partners with a digital media producer to create affiliated digital media content for a television program.

Early on in my career I learned a few key rules on partnerships from a tv producer who became a broadcaster and then a winemaker and is back to being a broadcaster.  I like to sum them up as ‘can you get drunk with your intended partner?’  It may seem frivolous but bear with me.   You get drunk with people you like (most of us do anyway).  Production is hard and you should only do such hard work with people you like and trust, can talk to and feel that you can rely on.  This means spending time with people and getting to know them before signing an agreement.  Put the relationship ahead of the deal.

How do you do that?  Meet lots of people and companies before decided which one you want to work with.  Attend markets and conferences where you can meet a lot of people (and socialize with them!).  Talk to your friends and colleagues about their experiences with those companies.  Yesterday I told a story about the reactions of two different companies to an event that I was trying to set up and the person I told it to heard the story as more evidence that one company was a better potential partner for her than the other company.  It wasn’t the point of my story but it definitely informed her opinion about which one she would rather work with.

It is more than likeability and ethics though.  What you look for in a partner depends on what you need but you need to be certain that your partner has it and isn’t just BS’ing you or entertaining magical thinking about their abilities.  That’s the due diligence part that you have to do.   Can they bring that financing to the table – check out their past projects.  Can they produce the digital media component – check out their past projects.  Do they have the distribution skills or marketing skills that you lack – check out their team.  Right now possibly the biggest problem in convergent media production is tv producers partnering with digital media companies who do not have the skills and experience to produce what the tv producers are looking for.   For example, if a convergent project is going to be about developing and supporting the television audience with content then a digital media shop that has only created websites that sell products will not have the necessary skills.   The result, if it can be funded, just may be garbage.

If you don’t know the sector that you’re exploring for a partner then consider hiring a consultant who works in that area to help you find potential partners.  Yes, it does sound like hiring a matchmaker but it can work.  Some organizations are partnering with other organizations to facilitate matchmaking, for example WIFT’s Digiscape in partnership with CMPA, CWC and Interactive Ontario.   Go to funders’ websites and check out what they’ve funded and who produced it.

OK, so you’ve found your dream date, now what?  An effective partnership comes out of both parties clearly understanding the strengths that each bring to the partnership, the roles they will each perform and being completely on the same page about what is being produced.  You can do this in a co-production or services agreement but you also need one or more meetings where you can talk about the big picture and all the little details that it will take to get there.  I cannot tell you how often I have been able to see in a funding application that partners appear to have completely different ideas about what they are producing.   An effective partnership involves constant communication – which of course isn’t difficult because you do like each other, right?  [see above re getting drunk together]   You do not carve up the responsibilities and go off and do your thing, assuming that your partner is off in their corner doing their thing and somehow magically it will all get put together and end up being fantastic!

Ideally you want to have such a fantastic working relationship with your partner that you can work with them again and avoid all of this hard finding your partner work.

Project Funding Application Tips

I have been evaluating project funding applications for various funds for many years. You may find this an odd thing for a policy wonk to do but I’ve also been a producer of websites, was active in children’s television and was the business manager for a fund so have a wide-ranging set of skills that allow me to assess creative, business and marketing potential for projects. I’ve seen a lot of applications in my day and have a few tips that I’d like to share to make my life and yours easier. They apply to applications for television and digital funding applications.

  1. Read the guidelines. Read them again. Prepare your application and then double check the guidelines again. If you’re not sure about something, call the funder. They almost always are happy to talk to you though perhaps not on the deadline date.
  2. Every application requires a synopsis. This is a brief, one paragraph description. Forget the blah blah and focus on writing a tight, accurate description of the project that will set the stage for the rest of the material in the application. A properly written synopsis will set the tone for the rest of the application and strongly influence an evaluator’s attitude as they set out to read the rest of the application. Often the synopsis is the only creative that a jury or board member will read before they make a decision based on the evaluator’s recommendation.
  3. Do a search for exclamation marks and delete same. This didn’t used to be an issue but is increasing. I blame Twitter and texting. My daughter tells me that all adults overuse exclamation marks in texts and tweets. It may be becoming a bad habit. Don’t use them in funding applications but put your emphasis in your words! Otherwise it feels like you’re shouting at us! See what I did there?
  4. Spell check. Seriously. You have no idea how often the phrase ‘and I was irritated by all the typos’ comes up in an evaluation.
  5. If you are referring to past work as being ‘landmark’ or ‘groundbreaking’ or using other such ‘never been done before’ adjectives then it better be. Describing previous work as hugely innovative when it isn’t will just undermine your current application.
  6. Make sure that your budget reflects the work proposed. If the budget preparer is fully informed of the creative then this should not be a problem but sadly often is.
  7. If you haven’t figured out your story or your project then you are not ready to apply yet. Do not rush the application and try the ‘trust us, we’ll figure it out’ argument. If the words aren’t there on paper then the funder has no idea what it is being asked to fund and won’t.
  8. You need a business model, marketing plan, distribution plan. The funder needs to know that there is audience demand and a way to make money, even if the funder doesn’t take an equity position. If there is no international market or revenue potential but there are other goals then explain that. The goal of a funding agency is to build the industry and not just fund good ideas.
  9. Try very hard to avoid buzzwords. First, a buzzword has a limited lifespan and if you are new in the sector you could easily be using a buzzword that is no longer in use (e.g. mobisode) or has negative connotations often because of overuse (e.g. transmedia). If you must use a buzzword, use it properly and only when necessary.
  10. Make sure that the bios of your team show that you can do what you propose. If your main team is new or new at what you propose, hire a consultant with relevant experience. If you partner with a company to provide more experience make sure that your partner really can do what they say they can do. Include examples of relevant past work in your bios. Do not make the evaluators use google.
  11. Describe exactly what you plan to do with social media. Mentioning Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest and Instagram are not enough. You actually need a strategy and each strategy is different depending on the program and the audience.
  12. Use pictures, sketches, illustrations and mockups. You know, they say that a picture is worth a thousand words. The evaluator knows that they are just sketches, illustrations etc. to help communicate the idea but pictures do help communicate that visual idea. That means character sketches for animation, mockups and wireframes for websites but also stock images for live action characters and photos of possible locations or sets.

Hmm. I could go on but I think 12 are a good number for you to digest and think about. Most of these points are not going to make the difference between funding or no funding but they each in their own way can influence the evaluator’s assessment.

Wonk Down

As many of you heard, the Canadian media industry lost one of its own over the weekend when Alan Sawyer passed on after a 9 month struggle with cancer.  I won’t make any attempt to summarize his life but just wanted to share some thoughts.

I first met Alan through evaluating Bell Fund applications and meeting to review the evaluations.  After a while I started playing Scrabulous with him.  He loved his words.  Then it was running into him at digital media and television conferences and cocktail parties.  Then came Twitter.  Alan was one of my first Twitter friends (3rd in fact).  We both really took to twitter and enjoyed talking about the daily wonky events in Canadian media.  A group of like-minded tweeters started to form.  It was inevitable that we would start to drink together.

Mary Henricksen, Cam McMaster, Alan and I met for drinks in March or April 2010.  We had so much fun talking about wonky things that no one else in our ‘real’ lives enjoyed talking about – policies, hearings, politics, media developments, gossip . . . . oh and shoes but that might have just been Mary and me.  We decided that we needed to do it again and bring others.  In no time we became a monthly gathering of those who love wonky conversations about Canadian media:  Mary, Cam, Alan and I plus Joanne Deer, Sasha Boersma, Bram Abramson, Suzanne Keppler, Cynthia Lynch, Reynolds Mastin (special dispensation to attend though he doesn’t tweet), Peter Murphy and Ottawa chapter wonks: Jason Kee, Mario Mota, Jeff Lieper.   They became known as Wonktaculars and Alan was the creator of the monthly password (ostensibly to keep out wannabe wonks but really just to amuse us greatly).

Alan loved #wonktacular.  Except maybe when we talked about spas or shoes.  But other than those topics he had a wide ranging set of interests as did we all and he enjoyed talking about whatever was going on in the media world or the greater world, poking fun, being controversial, drinking craft beer.  He challenged our ideas and asked ‘but why?’  He celebrated our successes with us and we celebrated his with him – an Emmy!  He was very excited about transitioning away from wonkery and into interactive production but still loved wonky conversations.

Somehow, between drinks and giggles over NMBUs and serious work conversations that went behind and under the powers that be, we became a tight knit group of wonks.  In the past year a number of us have had challenges to deal with and turned to the others for support but nothing challenged us more as a group than Alan’s illness and nothing made us see what we had become as a group more than Alan’s illness.

We asked him what he needed, he said distraction – and we gave it to him.  We got him out to industry functions and parties and made sure he always had company.  We met for drinks as often as he wanted.  We laughed at his jokes even when they got really, really dark.  When he was tired he would just sit and listen.  We were a safe and comfortable crowd.   He was grateful for our company.  I know that because he told us.  And we were grateful that there was something that we could do for him when there was nothing that we could do about the cancer.

I really respected the way that he handled this challenge.  Alan went public very early on and kept anyone interested informed through a blog (which he wished he had the energy to fix – it just didn’t work the way that he wanted it to!).  He rediscovered his love of writing and was really good at it.   The result was a huge wave of ongoing support for him and through the blog he was able to tell us all how grateful he was for that support.  The last time that I saw Alan, in late April, we compared notes about blog writing.  He really enjoyed it, but he felt that he had run out of things to say.   His last few posts were sparse and he ended up having written his final one in early April.  I kept on top of what he was up to through his Foursquare checkins.  I’d start to worry if he hadn’t at least checked in for schnitzel once in the previous week.  Other wonks who weren’t on Foursquare would ask me if he’d checked in lately.  We had found each other through social media and we kept an eye on each other through social media.  With Alan at the centre of it.

We knew this day would come but we all thought Alan, and we, would have more time.  He was getting more and more tired whenever we saw him and started cancelling social gatherings because he just wasn’t up to it.  But still, it was a shock and we are all still processing it.

Mary has some last words that pretty much sum up how I think we all feel: “He was a good guy, a sharp wit, a curmudgeon and a friend deeply missed.”

Thank you Alan.   Kim, you are in our thoughts.

Women in TV – The Stats Please

We have had two research reports released recently that try to shed some light on aspects of gender representation, and as well diversity, behind and in front of the camera in our television industry.  There was the Ryerson study of Canadian Screenwriters and the Women in View on TV Report.  Both reports left me wanting more – more detail, more explanation, more context.   The Ryerson report was a survey of 266 of the over 2100 Writers Guild of Canada members.  That’s just over 12% of the membership who chose to answer the survey.   It isn’t a large sample.  That being said it highlighted facts which are known to those who work in the industry – it takes time to become a successful screenwriter, they are highly educated, about a third are women and few make a full time living out of screenwriting.  It attempts to draw the connection between few women making a lot of money by screenwriting and systemic discrimination.  That may be true but I couldn’t follow the logic from the available data.

As for the Women in View on TV Report, it was more statistically significant as it researched staffing in key creative positions on 21 live action drama series with CMF funding.  It is a snapshot of a particular time and will not be able to identify trends until this study has been done year after year – which I understand is their hope.  We can see that women are not well represented behind the cameras but we cannot tell if this is a long standing problem, one that is getting better or perhaps even worse.  Also, by focusing on the statistics it again makes it difficult to extrapolate causes and therefore solutions.   It is a very good start but I would like to see the study grow in the future.

Yesterday I attended a panel discussion that Women in View had arranged as part of TIFF’s Higher Learning program to present their research and put it in context and I found what I had been looking for –  Dr. Stacy Smith of the USC Annenburg School of Communications.  Now, this is not to slight the other panelists (John Doyle, Globe and Mail columnist, Ferne Downey, ACTRA  National President, Laura Michalchyshyn Head of Sundance Productions) who had some great things to say (more on that in a minute) but just to say that Dr. Smith’s research on gender representation in the Hollywood film industry had the detail and the context that I was looking for.  She has conducted two studies that she presented to us.  One was a study of women onscreen and behind the camera in big blockbuster Hollywood films between 2007 and 2012  and the other was of Sundance Festival applicants and accepted films over the last ten years.  In addition to the statistics, they also interviewed key creators to ask them the ‘why’ questions.  The results were fascinating.   You can find more information in the links but the key for me was the reasons given for the low representation of women.  It is all about what Hollywood thinks that they need to do to make money.   It is ‘common wisdom’ that women will watch a male driven movie but men won’t watch a female driven movie.  According to Dr. Smith the statistics that she has gathered from a film distribution study proves that is not true.  Men tend to resist writing female-centric stories while vice versa is not true.  Female writers tend to write more female characters but Dr. Smith admits that she does not yet know if that is because they are advocates for women or if there is a ‘pink ghetto’.

The Sundance data showed a much higher representation of women in indie film than in the Hollywood blockbusters.  For example, 20% of the drama screenwriters are women while only 13.5% of the blockbusters were written by women.  There was a definite skew in the doc format as 32% of the docs were written by women.  The same trend is visible in the producer category where 29% of the indie dramas were produced by women, 45% of the docs were produced by women but only 20% of the blockbusters were produced by women.  Here though the reasons given were different as indie film isn’t as influenced by myths of the distribution world.  Reasons included lack of financial resources for women, male dominated networks, stereotyping on set, work/life balance and exclusionary hiring decisions.  More research needs to be done to try and identify why there are more women in documentaries (self-selected or funnelled?) and to determine if the size of the budget and risk is the only reason why there are more women in indie film than blockbusters.

I really love that Dr. Smith has done many studies and will continue to do more.  As our world in Canadian media is different than Hollywood we need to have our own studies like these.  If we can truly identify the causes for lack of representation, then we can try to come up with effective solutions.  Yes – evidence-based policies.

The rest of the panel discussion was interesting as it tried to give context and causation to the Women in View research.  Laura Michalchyshyn thinks that women have been socialized to be quieter and that does not get us the jobs – we need to grow a pair.  We need to encourage women to enter these careers in school and then mentor them along the way.  Ferne Downey offered that it isn’t enough to look at numbers but also to look at portrayal – too many female characters are stereotypes.  More women writing, producing and directing will mean more realistic portrayals of women.  “Orphan Black” was identified as a television show that is proving that men will watch a female-driven show, disproving that myth.  More successes like that (i.e. “Continuum”, “Lost Girl”, “Motive”) will breed more opportunities.  Finally, John Doyle was as provocative as he can be.  He thinks that part of the problem in Canada is that our big broadcasters are all owned by cable companies and as a result their senior executives have less creative vision than traditional broadcast executives.  They are less comfortable with risk and stick to formats that work (ahem – cop shows!).  I took down the following statement as close to verbatim as I could:

“There is a cabal of guys who look after each other, who won’t admit to blocking women from jobs.  They are mostly hacks though some are talented.  They get jobs because they are the loudest voices in the room.  They network, sit on juries, write blogs, promote themselves and their friends.  They hold grudges, organize campaigns against shows they don’t like.  You can’t ask women to say they have to also be the loud voices, that’s not fair.  Though it is incumbent on women in power to promote the work of other women.”

Personally, I don’t think that there’s a cabal with secret handshakes etc.  That sounds way too organized.  But what Mr. Doyle is talking about here is the existing network and it is hard for newcomers to break into it or to move up within it.  We each have to find our own way – whether it’s growing a pair and getting loud or just figuring out how to network better.  I have enjoyed the mentoring and support from some terrific women and I think I’ve turned around and done the same for those who have followed after me.  But I’ve been in this business for 25 years and while there has been progress (oh, the stories I sometimes tell to the younger ones), we clearly need to do something more concrete to speed up the pace of change.  Until we can say that those who create our stories are representative of our society, we need to keep shining a light on the problem and talking about solutions.

Don’t even get me started on diversity!  [actually – I will tackle that but it’ll be the subject of a later post].

The last word today goes to the brilliant (yes – I’m a fan) Joss Whedon, interviewed about his “Much Ado About Nothing”:

Why do you think there’s a lack of female superheroes in film?

Toymakers will tell you they won’t sell enough, and movie people will point to the two terrible superheroine movies that were made and say, ‘You see? It can’t be done’. It’s stupid, and I’m hoping The Hunger Games will lead to a paradigm shift. It’s frustrating to me that I don’t see anybody developing one of these movies. It actually pisses me off. My daughter watched The Avengers and was like, “My favorite characters were the Black Widow and Maria Hill,” and I thought, Yeah, of course they were. I read a beautiful thing Junot Diaz wrote: “If you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves.”