Monthly Archives: August 2013

It’s all about the fans

As an advocate for Canadian media I have been told time and time again that Canadians don’t watch Canadian television, go to Canadian movies or play on Canadian websites because it just isn’t good enough. We have the stats to prove otherwise but that doesn’t stop the trolls (who are sometimes even mainstream media) from slagging the stuff that we make here. I wish they all had spent the weekend at Fan Expo to see the truth. We have a star system, we have crazy fans, we have a huge audience for our home-grown content. This is a good news story (and a good news blog post). And honestly – if someone tries to tell me today that we don’t make good stuff I think that I might slap them.

I’ve been going to FanExpo for a few years now. The first year (2010) there was one Canadian property at FanExpo – the steampunk web series Riese (that’s the wikipedia reference – I couldn’t find a Canadian source to watch it as it’s geoblocked on Syfy.com) – I saw some fans still cosplaying characters from that webseries this year – which is quite cool. Each year since then the Canadian contingent has grown. This year there were panels and booths and cast signings for “Lost Girl”, “Call Me Fitz”, “The Listener”, “Murdoch Mysteries”, “Orphan Black”, “Bitten” (which hasn’t even aired yet but has a huge following based on Kelly Armstrong’s books – which I first learned about at last year’s FanExpo) and several other series which are American but shot here such as “Warehouse 13” and “Defiance”. The Independent Production Fund hosted a booth for several of the web series that they have funded. Across from them was the booth for “Ruffus The Dog’s Steampunk Adventure” (which apparently Gina Torres loved – #geekheaven). The animated web series “Captain Canuck” had a booth where Kris Holden-Reid, who voices the main character, did signings (I stood there for a while and ogled him – have to admit it). Quite a few indie gamers had booths. The Canadian presence was huge.

And the fans loved it. I spent some time on Saturday in line with fans and I really enjoyed meeting people. In the “Murdoch Mysteries” line people kept talking about being in line to see Jack and that confused me until I realized that was Yannick Bisson’s character name from “Sue Thomas F. B. Eye” (an industrially Canadian series from 2002-2005). My favourite fans were the lady in her 60s and her 90 year old mother in a walker. “Jack” was the mother’s favourite actor on TV. Both mom and daughter were pretty excited when the cast made a fuss over them. [Note – FanExpo is not just for geeky gamer boys and Lolitas. This story shows just how mainstream it has become.]

I took a break from the madness of FanExpo on a Saturday and went early to line up for “The Listener” panel and sit and read my graphic novel. I had passed a surprise “Listener” cast signing and let the women around me know that it was going on and offered to save their places for them. Then I started talking to the identical twins behind me. They now introduce each other as ‘clones’ after becoming big fans of “Orphan Black”. We talked clones (Will there be a new one next season?) and “Bitten” casting (can Supergirl play a werewolf? They think so) and they raved about how terrific everyone they met had been.

When the ladies came back from their cast signing one had brought me a poster and another invited me to join her in her VIP front row, as thank yous for their incredible experience meeting the cast. Awwwww! Listenerds are the best!

It’s not just about meeting the stars though. At each panel I attended (or heard about), fans got a chance to ask questions about story and in a few cases pitched story ideas for future seasons. [Christina Jennings was quite taken by a few of the “Listener” fan ideas.] They loved meeting the creators when they had a chance – I heard about how great it was to meet co-creators John Fawcett and Graeme Manson of “Orphan Black”.

And then there were the “Bitten” ears. Everyone who went to their panel got a pair of wolf ears. You could tell after the panel was out and the rest of FanExpo (including the Nathan Fillion line which I was in instead of the panel – sorry guys) was infiltrated with wolf ears. Brilliant.

As we all know Nathan Fillion is Canadian. I’m not sure everyone knew how proud of that fact he remains. He made that clear and the crowd roared in appreciation (I have to admit it – I almost teared up). And yes, an appreciation for our Canadian talent who have gone south and done well for themselves is an integral part of our Canadian media world. Which is not the same as only promoting our ex-pat stars.

So what did I learn from this? Canadian fans are very aware that they are Canadian and different from Americans (you should have heard the crowd loudly correct George Takei when he said both Canada and the US entered World War II with the bombing of Pearl Harbour). We are proud that we are polite and generous whether we are celebrities or fans. We love our Canadian television not because it’s Canadian but because it’s great stuff. It competes with and is just as good as the American shows. We have a star system that seems to have grown organically just on the basis of that great television.

It’s not that the broadcasters do NOTHING – no, they do promote their Canadian programs and talent but just not enough. So the producers and talent take on promotion when they have the time and money to do so. Some of it is as simple as jumping in on social media (I think more than a few fans will be joining Twitter to twatch the “Listener” finale next Wednesday after the cast talked about regularly twatching) and the lack of ego that leads to free cast signings when the big US stars are charging mega bucks and limiting the number of autographs.

Some people are catching on – loved the sneak peeks from Shaftesbury and seriously if someone could send me some wolf ears I swear I’d wear them. Somewhere. Space does a great job at working FanExpo. We can do more. We can grow the audience with more fan support. And if the audience grows then maybe, when benefits money runs out and BDU contributions to the CMF drop, then just maybe broadcasters will see that it’s in their best financial interest to continue to give the audience the great Canadian TV that they have come to expect, with the stars and stories that they love.

Every year I tell people what a great experience it is to go to FanExpo if you work in Canadian television (and digital media but this year I focused on the tv side – maybe next year). Our task now is to support the fans throughout the year. Seriously guys, I don’t think a hashtag is going to do it.

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Social Media Musings – Personal Rule re My Industry

As I have mentioned before, I don’t believe in a set of social media rules that should apply to everyone.  I think however that everyone should create their own set of rules that govern how they interact in social media and some of those rules might be universal but others will be very specific.  I’ve talked about my personal rule on politics and now I’m going to talk about my personal rule on how I tweet about my industry.  If you also work in film, television and digital media this could be directly applicable to you.  If you don’t then think about how you could adapt this rule to your industry.  If you play the role of an advocate, whatever your sector, then I think my rule might be helpful.

I have spent my entire career working on or advocating for Canadian content film, television and digital media.  Social media gives me a great platform to talk about Canadian media, promote it and advocate for positive change.  Positive is the key word here.  I take a very positive approach to my social media activity.  I will sometimes question whether a policy or program is the right one but even then with the utmost respect and politeness (I think).  I will not be negative about media that I have seen but if I love it then I will shout it from the rooftops.  You may think that this is a biased approach and it is but hear me out.

It is tough to work in Canadian media.  We could all be making more money easier – I am convinced of that.  The vast majority of us who work in this field, whether we are creators or administrators or even wonks, do so because we have a passion for Canadian media.  We work hard to get the best content possible in front of Canadian audiences.  So I hugely respect the work that people do, even if sometimes I don’t like the outcome.  It’s all a crapshoot and sometimes the elements that kill a project are outside anyone’s control.  The broadcaster didn’t promote it or the producer couldn’t get enough financing for a decent budget or the wrong actors were cast or the script needed a rewrite.  What are you going to do.

If it’s great then it needs help to get seen.  That’s just a reality in our world.  I did my best with “Michael Tuesdays and Thursdays” but it needed more than me and the other handful of advocates.  Sigh.  I’m a Listenerd and a member of the Clone Club.  And I’m a big, vocal, fan of a few other shows that don’t have cute names for their fans.

There is a place for critical review of media, both by regular people and professionals.   There have been many conversations about how we need to be more critical of our Canadian media – it isn’t all great and some of it needs to be much better.  Sometimes it makes sense that a television show is cancelled or a feature film doesn’t get a big audience.  I just feel too close to the content and know too many of the people involved to have the necessary distance to play that role.  So I don’t.  And sometimes, I have to tell you, it’s really hard.  But that’s my rule.

[Note – I have also been called an incurable optimist so this ‘rule’ may just be who I am.  You decide.]

 

 

CRTC S.9(1)(h) Hearing (Mandatory Carriage) Decision

For background, last March I wrote a post that explained what mandatory carriage means and talked about the applications that I was most interested in.  The hearing took place the week of April 23, 2013 and the decision was released today.  13 of the 22 applications for mandatory carriage were denied as the CRTC reiterated that mandatory carriage was reserved for services that ‘make exceptional contributions to meeting the objectives of the (Broadcasting) Act’.  See Fagstein’s blog for a good chart form summary.

Most of the mainstream media and social media focus has been on the Sun TV application for mandatory carriage (which was denied) – see Simon Houpt and Steve Ladurantaye of the Globe and Mail for excellent coverage of the topic) but I have always been much more interested in the other applications which had the potential to impact the Canadian content part of the broadcasting sector – APTN, VisionTV, Starlight.  There were also several licence renewal applications of interest, particularly Superchannel and Blue Ant, but those have not been released.  There was however, one aspect of the Sun TV decision that I think is worth noting (in addition to the upcoming policy hearing on Canadian news services which will address the bigger picture of whether all Canadian news services need regulatory assistance).  The Commission noted that not only did Sun TV not demonstrate how its service would make an ‘exceptional’ contribution to the objectives of the Act – it never referenced the Act in its application.  #duh (sorry – couldn’t resist).  Further, the service didn’t make ‘exceptional’ expenditure and exhibition commitments to Canadian programming beyond what other Canadian news services, which do not have mandatory carriage, make.

But enough about Sun TV.  APTN received a renewal of their mandatory distribution order on the basis that its service was consistent with the objectives of the Act, it was important that the service be widely available across the country and that APTN is ‘exceptional in its contribution to Canadian expression and reflects attitudes, opinions, ideas, values and artistic creativity that would not otherwise be seen on television’.  As well, should the BDUs only carry the service where concentrations of aboriginal populations warranted it, then many who were spread out around the country would not have access.  This is a good description of the bar required for a service to be entitled to mandatory distribution – exceptional contribution to the objectives of the Act, and anticipation that the market would not provide the service consistently across the country.

However, APTN also asked for an increase in their subscriber rate from $0.25 per sub to $0.40.  It requested the increase to keep up with inflation, improve programming and make more programming available on multiple platforms.  The Commission accepted that an increase was warranted but given that an increase in the subscriber rate will mean an increase in the cost of the basic package, decided that a $0.06 increase would be a good balance between APTN’s need and the consumer’s reluctance to pay more for basic cable.

The Commission used the same balance language when it agreed to an increase for CPAC.  The $0.01 increase ‘represents a good balance between the impact on the price of the basic service for Canadian consumers and the ability of CPAC to improve its programming’.  This is the consumer filter that we have been told will be applied to all decisions clearly at work.

There were two proposed youth-focused services that applied for mandatory distribution – Fusion and Dolobox.  It was interesting that both had significant user-generated content and online components and both were denied at least in part on the basis that there were enough existing alternatives in the online world that the Commission did not see a need to issue mandatory distribution and broadcasting licences.  I heard both presentations and I could not understand why they were at the CRTC as it seemed like a backwards looking business model for forward-looking services.

Speaking of which, then there’s Starlight.  While I strongly support the idea of finding a way to make it easier for Canadians to find and watch Canadian feature films, I was part of the camp who thought that Starlight for all of its good intentions, was not the solution because of its reliance on mandatory carriage in its business model (See also Denis McGrath’s Facebook post on the subject –- sometimes a former blogger has a relapse).  As you can see from those services that received or maintained mandatory carriage, the Commission looked very closely at whether a service was exceptional enough to warrant increasing the cost of basic.

The Commission did not feel that the proposed service was exceptional enough because Canadian VOD and pay services are required to licence all Canadian services that are available so Canadian films are not unavailable.  [Now, as Mario Mota pointed out in a tweet, pay is about $20/month on top of basic, which is not very accessible to Canadians so there is a flaw in that argument.]  Starlight would to some extent duplicate the offering on pay and VOD so would not provide additional diversity to the system.  I would agree except to the extent that Starlight was planning to reach into the back catalogue to films not currently or rarely available (some rightly so of course).

Part of Starlight’s strategy was to show general support for the service and it conducted a survey to demonstrate a high level of interest.  Unfortunately that strategy seems to have backfired as the Commission felt that the high level of interest demonstrated that Starlight could be successful as a discretionary service.   However, Starlight applied for mandatory distribution because it not only wanted to be sure that it was available in every home but also it needed the revenue to fund its original feature film financing plan.  This plan could not be financed without a mandatory distribution order.  The Commission felt that Starlight had not demonstrated that the existing funding for feature films was insufficient.  I think that another way of putting that is ‘don’t force consumers to solve the problem of insufficient feature film financing’.

Over the years Vision has applied for mandatory carriage several times on the basis that its multifaith programming and its focus on its 55+ audience offers needed diversity in the broadcasting system.  Vision expressed concern that as an independent service it runs the risk of vertically integrated companies moving it from a basic package to a discretionary package in order to make room for their own services.  A move like that would draw fewer subscribers and therefore reduce Vision’s revenue.  The Commission accepted the arguments of BDUs that the BDUs would not want to risk the wrath of Vision’s audience if they moved Vision out of basic (and warned the BDUs that the Commission would need to see good reasons if they ever did so).  Vision also has recourse to the Commission should the BDUs treat Vision unfairly.  The Commission also pointed out that Vision is no longer the only other faith programming service so there is no extraordinary need for Vision’s particular service.  Or in other words – it’s all good so there’s no need to regulate.

One of the few new mandatory orders granted is worth mentioning.  It went to The Legislative Assemblies of Nunavut and the Northwest Territories for a geographically limited broadcast of recorded and live coverage of proceedings in their Assemblies in aboriginal languages, English and French.  The service clearly supports the objectives of the Act, there was a demonstrated demand and a demonstrated market failure.  Bell ExpressVu stated no plans to carry the service and Shaw agreed to but without any time commitment.  And possibly most importantly, the service did not ask for a subscriber fee.

The general feeling about this hearing was that the Commission would not grant many or possibly any new mandatory orders but would maintain the existing ones in order to keep a lid on the cost of basic cable and this is pretty much what they have done.  The decisions were clear so if any service seeks to apply for a mandatory order in the future they will definitely know what issues to address in their application.  There will be an increase to the basic cable rate but it should not be significant (Fagstein came up with wholesale increases of $0.31 per subscriber per month in English and $0.63 in French, which Mario suggests may be used by the BDUs to justify $1 increases in your bill).

In many ways those of us who watched the hearing felt that it was a throw back to an earlier era when broadcast television was the only way that you could reach an audience.  That is so not the case any more.  Now the question is whether the rejected applicants, and those contemplating new services in the future, turn to digital platforms to reach audiences and whether the CRTC needs to be there to ensure that the objectives of the Broadcasting Act aren’t being undercut by these new platforms.  Yeah, I went there.