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Echo chambers and missed opportunities

Echo chambers and missed opportunities

We tend to surround ourselves with people much like ourselves. Most of my days, I exist in a space where, for example, no one voted for Stephen Harper, everyone has a post-secondary education and white collar job, and chocolate is the undisputed king of foods.

It’s comfortable there in our unchallenged world. Boring, maybe, but comfortable. And when we’re confronted with someone who doesn’t share our ideas and values, someone who belittles our own point of view, we instantly change our minds. Right? Or, wait, maybe I mean the opposite of that.

I didn’t mean to bring this up during the Dyscultured podcast, or ever again, but I did, so I’ll expand on my thoughts a little and try to make them more coherent …

The Canadian cultural community missed a huge opportunity to educate the public last week, and they did so in the most predictable way possible – the way a shit TV show would have scripted it, ensuring the audience would tune out at the 5 minute mark.

When Alberta Culture Minister Lindsay Blackett asked “why do I fund so much shit” at the Banff World Television Festival, the angry responses turned it into an us versus them, conservative versus liberal, black hats versus white hats diatribe, instead of an answer to the question that didn’t vilify the question. And it’s a question a lot of people I know — even in my little liberal, Canadian TV community echo chamber — privately wonder.

Sure, the man could have chosen his words more carefully, and he should know the answers to the somewhat rhetorical question he was asking, but he represents a constituency who do not all know the intricacies of Canadian cultural industries. Most people do not know the intricacies of Canadian cultural industries, including those of us who tend to go on about them. Most Canadians, if they’d been trapped in that room at the festival, would have been wondering the same thing.

Why DO we fund so much shit in this country? The only people to challenge the premise misunderstood or distorted the premise – that was the focus of the initial media stories and infuriated reactions. But he didn’t say all our television is shit. Just that there’s so much shit.

And good lord is there a lot of it. I don’t just mean in Canada – look to the US, the Hollywood hit machine, and calculate the percentage of good to shit shows, if you can count that high. So … why? It’s a fair question, ignoring the politics of the speaker. The panel, in fact, took a stab at answering it, both before and after the Minister asked it.

There are general reasons that cross national boundaries: most of everything is shit. It takes a lot of practice, a broad training ground, and hit-and-miss luck to create the gems. Specifically in Canada, we have a smaller industry with less funding and more competition from near-bottomless pockets of the Americans, fewer opportunities to work, and a broadcasting system that has far more incentive to buy American hits than to produce their own.

I don’t give a shit about Lindsay Blackett or his politics. I don’t want to defend him. But outrage was the perfect response to ensure that no one who wondered the same thing would listen to the answer. And there is an answer, an answer that might have listeners if we could only turn it into a conversation instead of a fight.

But the debate today is in the same place it was a week ago, the same place it was five years ago, when I first started going to the festival, and probably in the same place it was decades ago: those who think Canadian TV needs defending were outraged, and those who think Canadian TV needs explaining believe they poked the sore spot.

EDIT: Need an example of what I think a good response is? Check out Rob Sheridan’s “yeah, we make a lot of shit …” guest post at Dead Things on Sticks.

Post-Banff ruminations

Post-Banff ruminations

Oh dear. I have a lot of writing to do. I didn’t have a lot of time for writing during the Banff World Television Festival, and then I was on the slow road back home, with stops in Calgary and Kelowna. And now I’m home with a pile of notes and full recorder, waiting for me to write it all up.

I’m not entirely inspired, since so much of the issues-based and future-excited talk I usually find intriguing was the same old, same old, but there were some good sessions to write up, and a mammoth interview with actor Peter Keleghan on the state of Canadian television. I loved the screening of Call Me Fitz  – the first stirrings of excitement I’ve had in a while after seeing a Canadian show – and star Jason Priestley and writer Sheri Elwood had some interesting things to say.

Despite my bad first day – actually, in a weird way, partly because of it – I had a fun time at the festival, also despite my usual awkwardly shy deer-in-the-headlights feelings. I met some great people I’ve “known” for years, but have never actually met, people like Jaime Weinman of Maclean’s magazine (left), Adam Barken of Rookie Blue and Flashpoint (taking picture), Barb Haynes of The Latest Buzz, Winnepeg producer Polly Washburn, the WGC’s Kelly Lynne Ashton, not to mention some I’d met before (Jill Golick, Alex Epstein – right) and others who “knew” me through TV, eh?

After I wrote that bad day post, I got a lot of “are you having a better day today?” sympathizing and  indignation over the fact that the PR firm of a Canadian-based television festival wasn’t accommodating to the only such site dedicated to Canadian television. The support and gratitude from the Canadian television industry is what makes TV, eh? worthwhile to me, so not surprisingly it’s what made the Banff festival worthwhile.

I started TV, eh? five years ago, and in places like Banff I get asked how it all started. It’s a long, boring story that has no real hook. I wasn’t passionate about Canadian television. In fact, I hadn’t heard of most shows on the air. I went to the festival that first year to cover Paul Haggis, David Shore, and the rest for Blogcritics, and left furious at a panel on Canadian television where executives talked about how to make it better. Their answer? Make it appeal to foreign markets. Meanwhile, they couldn’t get Canadians to sample their shows because we didn’t even know they existed.

I still am not passionate about most Canadian shows. Most are, to borrow a phrase, shit. So are most American shows. And British shows. And New Zealand shows. And … you get the picture. But now I have the opportunity to find the gems while giving other people the same opportunity, and to feel like I’m doing something meaningful because of the Canadian TV community that has welcomed me into their fold.

This was supposed to be a post about the last two days of the festival, so let me wrap up by saying I’ll be writing about sessions by Ricky Gervais (The Office, Extras), Bill Prady (The Big Bang Theory), Ian Brennan (Glee), E1 Entertainment (Rookie Blue, Shattered, Haven), the Call Me Fitz screening, and the Peter Keleghan interview, touching on the issues raised by the Home Grown Talent panel. I hope to be inspired to write some articles with themes that span multiple sessions. And if not, I still have a lot of writing to do. Gulp.

Audio: Lindsay Blackett comments

By popular request, here’s the audio file of the Home Grown Talent panel, where Alberta Culture Minister Lindsay Blackett made his controversial “shit” comment. I don’t have my audio editing software on my laptop so it’s the full session and in WMA format. Listen from 37:50 for the context of Blackett’s question (Peter Keleghan is speaking then). Note the panel answered the question; they didn’t object to the premise.

EDIT: The panel at the Banff World Television Festival was this:

Home Grown Canadian Talent – The Key To Your Success Is On The Marquee

Zaib Shaikh, Actor, Producer, Writer, Director

Kenny Hotz, Film Maker, Actor, Producer, Director, and Writer
Peter Keleghan, Actor
Eric McCormack, Actor & Producer
Jason Priestley, Actor, Director

Lindsay Blackett is not the devil

I’ve been a bit incommunicado today so didn’t have time to respond by deadline to an Edmonton Journal request for comment on the story about the Alberta Culture Minister Lindsay Blackett who called some Canadian television “shit” at the Banff World Television Festival. I’ll write more about the overall issue of Canadian television later, unattached to this news story, but this is what I wrote back, knowing it’s too late for her article:

I was in the room and have the session recorded. I feel his comments were taken slightly out of context, though I know a politician – especially a Culture Minister – being less than supportive of tax money going towards culture is obviously going to cause consternation among the cultural community, as it should. However, he said the same thing I have heard in that room year after year.

He did not say or imply that all Canadian television was shit. He said that a lot of what he saw at the funding stage was shit, and asked how we could have a business model that supported better quality – a question that generated interesting discussion from the panel who agreed that a better model is needed. I interviewed Peter Keleghan later and he was not happy with the comment but acknowledged that he was right about needing a better business model (it was Keleghan who responded at the panel to say that broadcasters are given no incentive to make shows Canadians want to watch – their financial incentive is in buying American programming.)

If you read industry blogs or talk to anyone making their living in Canadian television, they aren’t shy in talking about the problem of quality. You only have to look at the failed pilots the networks burn off every year to understand that a lot of what goes into development is not great television. I believe if he were a television producer saying the exact same thing, everyone would have nodded and moved on. In fact, that’s exactly what I’ve seen and heard in three previous years at the festival.

In fact, the panel had been talking about the problem of quality in Canadian television. They, however, aren’t politicians and didn’t use the word shit. Kenny Hotz (Kenny vs Spenny) disparaged Canadian television far more than the MLA, using far worse expletives, but then he isn’t a Culture Minister. He’s just a guy who makes Canadian television.

EDIT: The audio is posted here.

Banff Day 1: PR in a Twitter Age

Banff Day 1: PR in a Twitter Age

What to say, what to say? This is my fourth time in five years covering the Banff World Television Festival. The Festival was the birthplace of TV, eh? I’ve interviewed and met some great people here, some of whom are still part of my life. So I guess it was inevitable that I’d have a bad day in there somewhere. This was that bad day.

And it will be a boring bad day to most of you, but since my dayjob (when I have one) is in communications, I’m interested in how things escalated from laughter at the discovery that I wasn’t officially registered by Jive Communications, the contracted PR company doing media accreditation – which was fixed quickly and with good humour by the Festival staff – to anger.

I wasn’t the only one with registration mixups. Of the three I know personally, all are web media rather than mainstream media. Coincidence? Maybe.

I had contacted Jive weeks ago asking about access to the online delegate area, which had previously been part of the registration process. Even though I found out today that I should have had access, as usual, and in fact that was the missing piece for why I wasn’t properly registered, Jive told me I would not get access and any questions I had that weren’t answered by the public site should go through them.

This morning, after getting my pass, I couldn’t find representatives of Jive in the on-site media room, so sent an email telling them I hadn’t been properly registered, should have online access, and by the way, what’s the status of the interview requests I submitted to them, as requested?

That’s where things went wrong. The response made it clear, though there was no explicit admission, that my interview requests hadn’t even been considered until today. So at noon, with 2 ½ days left of the festival, I found out most were now booked solid, a couple I was given contact information for to arrange myself, and oh yeah, I could use the online delegate area to find contact information for others.

I get that I’m not the Canadian Press, or Entertainment Tonight. I didn’t ask to speak to Ricky Gervais or William Shatner because I knew I’d be too small potatoes for them. But I’m not a semi-literate blogger with no audience, either. My site isn’t the New York Times but it fills a unique niche out there.

Peter Keleghan articulately ranted in the Home Grown Canadian Talent panel about how not enough people see Canadian TV, but Jive couldn’t be bothered to contact him to see if he wanted to spend 10 minutes talking to a popular website whose sole purpose is to try to get people to be aware of Canadian television? It’s ridiculous, and the giveaway that they hadn’t tried to arrange interviews for me comes from the fact that they have no idea if his interview schedule is booked up, but passed me his contact information to do myself.

That’s when I vented on Twitter to say that I was trying to regain my zen before responding to the supremely unhelpful PR company.

What they did right

Both Jive Communications and the Banff TV Festival contacted me after seeing my tweet and tried to take the discussion offline. The festival went straight to the phone, which was even more right, particularly since it was emails from Jive that set me off.

What they did wrong

Jive still has not addressed or apologized for the crux of the issue, which is that they neither assisted me in arranging interviews nor allowed me access to the delegate area that would have let me to do it myself. They were either simply wrong when they told me last month that I should not be registered, or they were attempting to control my access to information that they’re now telling me I need. Either way, that’s what I’m angry about, not the fact that Vince Gilligan (Breaking Bad) doesn’t have time to talk to me.

Instead, they downplayed the issue in a way that made me feel condescended to: “Interview schedules were tight but it’s ok because your pass gets you into everything anyway.”

When dealing with am angry client, it’s unwise to give off a “hey, it’s no big deal” vibe. Acknowledge the concern, apologize, make amends if possible. In this case, my concern isn’t that none of my interview requests could be met. It’s that they didn’t try. And they didn’t tell me they weren’t going to try. And they still haven’t admitted that they had no intention of trying. And now it’s too late for some of the interviews I wanted, and I spent an afternoon dealing with prep work I could have done before the festival instead of attending sessions or writing about the festival.

If Jive is treating some or all online media differently from mainstream media, it’s a strange decision in the year when the Banff TV Festival is combined with NextMedia, an acknowledgment that mainstream and “new” media are not as easily distinguishable as they once were.

Besides, offering me or any other website media accreditation to an event is not charity. It’s a mutually beneficial relationship. I get something interesting to write about; they get an interested person writing about them. Either offer me media accreditation or don’t, but treat me as a professional when you do.

Perhaps the biggest lesson here is that there’s a danger to treating people badly who have active online lives: we tend to share our experiences online.

Banff World Television Festival 2010

Banff World Television Festival 2010

Barring circumstances beyond my control (i.e., death, dismemberment, or a job interview), I’m headed to the Banff World Television Festival from June 13-16. The TV festival is now combined with the NextMedia new media festival, since the distinction between the two has become so blurred.

It’ll be my fourth time there, which doesn’t mean I’m blasé about it. It’s still the one event that really gets my geek juices flowing. Unlike fan-based events such as PaleyFest – which I also enjoy – Banff is a conference for the makers of television, who pay a lot of money to attend, meaning it’s not tilted towards public relations fluff so much as the nuts and bolts of making and promoting shows. That said, there’s a lot of star power arriving at Banff this year.

At a festival where writers are rock stars, it’s hard to say whether William Shatner and Ricky Gervais will eclipse or be eclipsed by the creators of shows such as Breaking Bad (Vincent Gilligan), Dexter (James Manos), Glee (Ian Brennan), or The Big Bang Theory (Bill Prady, who hates me). They’re all speaking at Master Class or Feature Interview sessions.

Producers for The Good Wife (David Zucker) and So You Think You Can Dance (Nigel Lythgoe) will speak, and attendees will be able to catch a screening for Running Wilde (starring Will Arnett and Keri Russell), a panel on Call Me Fitz (starring Jason Priestley), and previews for Rookie Blue, Shattered, and Haven.

There’s a coterie of Canadian actors appearing to discuss the star system (and, presumably, the relative lack thereof in Canada) and how it can help or hinder a show. Eric McCormack – who I’ll also be seeing at Vancouver’s Stanley Theatre this summer, where he’s performing in Glengarry Glen Ross – is the one who’s made his name in the US, while Peter Keleghan, Kenny Hotz, and Zaib Shaikh are more recognizable as stay-at-home actors.

I’ve always loved Illeana Douglas, who went from quirky actress to quirky web series pioneer. Her latest is Easy to Assemble and she’s part of a panel on Webisodes vs. Episodes.

I’m especially interested in what Matt Mason has to say (not THAT Matt Mason, those who know me from OBS). He’s the author of The Pirate’s Dilemma– How Youth Culture Invented Capitalism, and he’ll talk about how “illegal forces within the entertainment industry have always contributed to its development and that the best way to deal with these forces is to compete with them head on.” Unfortunately he’s speaking at the same time as James Manos of Dexter, so if my cloning project doesn’t pay off soon I’ll have to make a choice.

I’ll be writing about topics that come up at the festival and interviewing some of the participants for TV, eh? and Blogcritics so stay tuned for more rambling.