Prime Time – Talking About TV

The theme of Prime Time 2014 is Talk TV – the hashtag for the CRTC’s consultation with the public about the current and future Canadian broadcasting system.  A lot of the panels led into that theme.  But even if they didn’t, that’s pretty much all anyone was doing today – talking about TV.

After a breakfast burrito, large latte and talk about CRTC expenditure and exhibition requirements with my tablemates over breakfast, the keynote was an interesting talk by Wendy Bernfeld on the European VOD/OTT rights market.  Wendy came out of the Canadian broadcasting system but has been in Europe for about 20 years (I worked with her when she headed up the Atlantis Amsterdam office).  Her basic thesis was that there are now so many VOD buyers who are trying to acquire catalogues to either compete with Netflix or establish themselves before Netflix that this is now a good time to either make a lot of non-exclusive deals or a few big exclusive deals and reap the rewards.  For those making those European deals themselves, her slides will be very helpful just to help get to know who the players are and CMPA will be posting the slides at some point.  It was good to hear someone talk positively about revenue opportunities with OTT and in the fractured universe.  She also provided insight on the shifting windows of VOD – they no longer have a set order in windowing but can be before, during or after the main screen (i.e. theatrical or primary broadcast) release.  A good piece of advice for those dealing with broadcasters who have retained certain distribution rights was to cut those rights holders in to their deal so that the deal can be made and everyone win rather than just assume that it can’t be done because you don’t have those rights.

Rita Cugini (so strange not to be referring to her as Mme Cugini as I always did when she was a CRTC Commissioner) moderated a Talk TV Super Panel with Raja Khanna from Blue Ant, John Morayniss of EOne, Louis Audet of Cogeco, Kevin Crull of Bell, Michael Hennessy of CMPA and Christina Jennings of Shaftesbury.    As Blue Ant is a small group of independent services it was no surprise that Raja Khanna was an advocate of regulation, though he suggested that the key question was ‘regulation of what’.   At the very least that regulation needs to ensure that the small broadcasters have a place to ensure diversity in the system.   I did react negatively when he brought up the 17 year old YouTube sensation making ‘big bucks’ on that platform and cited that as the future of content.  In the first place, how many people are making that kind of money (I couldn’t find stats but I don’t think THAT many in Canada).  And second, it ignores the fact that people like to watch big budget dramas, which need broadcast partners to be financed.  Some people also like short form or edgy content that can be found on YouTube but mass market content like “Saving Hope” and “Big Bang Theory” will always be popular and need a platform.   Michael Hennessy pointed out that the evidence for this was that the top pirated content is all mainstream television.  [Devil’s advocate – why would they need to pirate YouTube videos?].

It always surprises me when I agree with anything that the top guys at Bell, Rogers or Shaw say, and truthfully, that doesn’t happen very often.  But Kevin Crull said a few things that I agreed with.  For one, he suggested that a problem with the CRTC’s TalkTV consultation is that people will always say that they only want to pay for what they watch but they forget the discovery process that they went to, to find that content.  You need the larger pool of content to pick from.  I do agree.  The other point that he made that I agree with was that with the business models under pressure we have to ensure that changes in the system don’t reduce the money that is available for Canadian content because it can’t be done for less.  Now I kinda think he’d like to do it for less but the point is no less valid.

The next panel that I attended was the Canadian Broadcaster Programming Panel.  I have to say that I was expecting it to be as boring as it has been in the past with programmers saying very little about what they were actually looking for.  We didn’t get a lot about what they want to buy but it wasn’t boring.  It started with an offensive comment from Bill Brioux (who I am otherwise a fan of for his reporting on Canadian TV, particularly as a resource for ratings) about how the programmers on the panel were all women and did that affect their programming decisions.  Yeah, that didn’t go over well with many people in the audience or the twittersphere.  I’d love to hear someone ask an all male panel (which happens SO often) if their gender affects their decision-making.

There were some good nuggets to pull out of the panel.  CTV is experimenting with niche content by doing a 6-episode order of a darker story adapted from a Giles Blunt thriller.  The CBC finds it difficult to program niche content since their CMF envelope is based on mass eyeballs (as is everyone else’s but there’s a political point there).  Sally Catto (CBC) does see an opportunity to aggregate an audience across multiple platforms and in that safely create niche content (which prompted me to launch a “Bring Back Michael Tuesdays and Thursdays” campaign – feel free to use the hashtag #bringbackMTAT – I know not likely but wouldn’t it be nice . . . ).  Both CTV and Global are trying again with comedy but as Corrie Coe pointed out ‘drama is hard but comedy is harder’.  It’s not about not knowing how to do it or not having the talent – it’s just hard and you have to keep trying before you get a hit.  [The US has a much higher ratio of failed tries to hits – commentators often forget that.]

Then we got into the dustup with Mr. John Doyle – or rather I unintentionally did when I tweeted that Corrie Coe disagreed with him and thought “Orphan Black” and “19-2” are both golden age shows.  See John Doyle’s column Where is Canada in the Golden Age of TV?  He took exception to my tweet; others took exception to his position that we don’t have great TV and should.  There was a flurry of tweets.  Broadcasters and producers and creators feel very strongly that Canadian TV is in general quite good these days and we have some really great shows.  The more important issue, for many, is that Canadian TV is really popular with audiences these days with shows like “Saving Hope” earning 1.6 million audiences every week.  [And for those who say it isn’t very Canadian – when was the last time one of the story lines involved a patient’s inability to pay their bill or having treatment refused by an HMO – think how often they were ER story lines – hmm?].

After that there was the fun question – what show would you like to steal from a competitor.  I would like to see that question become a staple of the Broadcaster Programming Panel as it tells you so much about the programmer and the broadcaster.  Sally Catto and Tara Ellis would both love to steal “Orphan Black”.  Corrie Coe would like “Lost Girl”.   Vanessa Case of Blue Ant, the only non-drama group on the panel would like “Amazing Race Canada”.  My only comment to those choices is – when exactly did Showcase become Space2 and except for the regulatory nature of service issue is this a problem?

More schmoozing at lunch (and explaining CanCon rules to a young producer because the CRTC Commissioner I was sitting beside wouldn’t let me inflict bodily harm) and then an interesting panel moderated by CRTC Chair Jean-Pierre Blais on the Future of Television.  Noreen Halpern (EOne) and Mark Bishop (marblemedia) were terrific – really passionate about creating content and needing the rules to evolve to be able to continue to support Canadian content.  They both see the day when there are no silos of funding or licensing because the platform is not relevant – you release it when and where it makes sense for the story.  That world is coming and we need to work now of the framework to support it so that we continue to have a robust Canadian industry in the future [that’s what I’ve been saying!].  I never really got the points that Tom Perlmutter (NFB) was making.

The New Business Models was a very popular breakout panel but I chose instead the International Markets panel.  I won’t write out all the really good tips here but I will Storify the whole conference and I encourage you to look for the specific advice given in this panel.  Experienced producers shared really specific tips about how to attend markets and go to pitch meetings and there were some great tips for both newbie producers and more experienced producers.  Some times you don’t think about comfy shoes.  I do find myself having difficulty ensuring that I get enough sleep at any event like a market while also ensuring that I leverage the social events and the scheduled events.  There just aren’t enough hours in the day.

Friday was mostly a day for Canadian feature films.  The issue that rippled through a few talks and panels was whether the solution to increasing audiences for Canadian feature films was online distribution or television broadcast.  I wish there had been a panel that had allowed Carolle Brabant (Telefilm) and Patrick Roy (CAFDE) to debate the issue since Telefilm seems firmly in the position that we need to get more Canadian features digitized so that they can be downloaded while CAFDE believes that Canadian broadcasters need to make more of a commitment to Canadian features since more people watch television than download.  I think a case can be made that both strategies could and perhaps should co-exist but they do play into different policy solutions.  Dave Forget of Telefilm presented a research study that provided a picture of feature film viewing habits of Canadians and that supported both positions – Canadians mostly watch features in the home and that is mostly but not exclusively on broadcast.  Online is of increasing importance.  The research also pointed out that Canadians pick features on the basis of genre, story and cast with director 6th and producer 10th.  This is of interest because Telefilm’s funding prioritizes producer and director and has always been more director-focused.

I have to describe to you my favourite moment of the conference.  It was unanticipated, unplanned brilliance.  The Governor General, His Excellency The Right Honourable David Johnston, came to be interviewed as part of a Canadian feature film promotion project that he’s working on with the CMPA and other partners.  Before he got up to the stage the Canadian women’s hockey team tied the score with moments left in the game.  Our GG is a huge hockey fan and it was such a pleasure to see him jump up and hold out two fingers in each hand to demonstrate that it was now a 2-2 game.  It was authentic.  When he was on stage though, the women scored the winning goal and his response was to lead us in O Canada while the screen behind him flipped to the live feed.  I’m tearing up just thinking about it again.  What a Canadian moment.  And that’s what we’re all about when it comes right down to it.  Sharing our stories with each other.

You may ask how I felt about Prime Time – was it worth going?  Yes.  I always see people, both Toronto people and those from around the country, and it is important to connect, especially for me in my independent consulting career.  I had a few business meetings.  I promoted a few clients to other stakeholders.  There is one more young producer who understands how our Canadian Content support system works and why.  I picked up a few interesting bits from the panel sessions.  Should you go?  Well, honestly, it depends on what you do in the industry.  There isn’t a lot at Prime Time for digital producers except the ability to meet TV producers (who won’t be showing up at digital conferences – this is a problem).  There isn’t much for creators unless you are also trying to manage the business side of production because this is a business conference.  If you are a producer or work with producers or need to meet producers then you should come to Prime Time.

I’ve updated this post with my Storify of Prime Time 2014 tweets.  It isn’t as complete as I would have liked because Storify and Twitter just didn’t co-operate and at times wouldn’t show me tweets that I knew were there – sigh.  But you can get a feel for things if you weren’t there.

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