Wednesday, August 19, 2009

What happened to my TV shows?

I personally noticed the changes in TV fare about 1999 - 2000. It was the busiest year I've ever had, going from one show to another from one coast of Canada to the other. We were stockpiling American shows in anticipation of lengthy strikes by WGA, DGA and SAG. If I remember correctly only one of the groups negotiated a settlement and the strikes dragged on for months.

That was the beginning of the network search for replacement fare and the increasing usage of non-scripted prime time shows. Here we are eight years later, another bank of strikes behind us and TV is worse than ever. What networks have forgotten is that in order to garner viewer loyalty they first have to offer something worth being loyal to. Scripted entertainment had all of that when it was quality material. That still exists, but mostly from the cable side.

When the network chairs are populated not by creative thinkers but by MBA marketing majors who see everything as "product" you have an attitude that the content doesn't matter as long as the packaging is glitzy enough and looks good - all sugar coated and sweet. Move them from Fox, CBS and NBC to General Foods or Proctor and Gamble and they'll speak the same lingo at board meetings without skipping a beat.

TV and motion pictures have never been and never will be just "product" and anytime that they are treated as such the audience suffers for it. When the audience suffers the networks pay in lost viewership. There are enough video games and cable fare to satisfy most and viewers vote with their remotes, leaving primetime shows in droves. There is likely less scripted material on network air now than there has ever been since the invention of TV.

It becomes a self perpetuating loop. The viewers leave, sponsors pay less for ad time, networks recieve less revenue, scripted shows get cut back, viewers leave. A cycle which continues over and over. In the end you have bankrupt networks, starving writers and actors and a whole industry collapses just because the networks wanted to save a buck back at the beginning of the cycle.

Of course there are some industry responsibilities as well and that is the demands by WGA, SAG and DGA - did they get theirs raises? Sure, but they also lost about 1000% more in the end in lost work. So who's to blame for this mess we're in? We all are. Its all about greed regardless of who you point the finger at. However, the networks could have handled it better and still be in business instead of heading off four hours of non scripted entertainment with Jay Leno!

Ultimately I blame the studio that made the deal with Bruce Willis for Die Hard. That started the upfront money disaster that now rules the industry. That unfortunately was the result of "funny" studio accounting that many stars were increasingly dissatisfied with. You can't blame them really because the only way to get their backend money was to sue. That said, no star is worth 35 million per show. We can still make a decent non star show for less than half of that. For our industry to survive the optics have to change. We have to be seen to be responsible and 150 to 200 million dollar budgets isn't the way to do it.

There was another factor involved that seldom garnered any attention, the Canadian and German investment funds. Back in the 90's Canada was pumping hundreds of millions into Tax Shelters that were ultimately supporting American prime time tv. When the Canadian government decided that they were tired of supporting foreign fare they pulled the plug with the last Tax Shelter projects ending in late 2002.

The Germans, never to overlook an opportunity, stepped in during the late 90s with their versions of the Media funds and again pumped copious amounts of capital into American Prime Time TV as well as an occasional feature or two. The good thing about this for Canada was that all of the activity was taking place in Canada - both from the Canadian initiatives and the German ventures, sometimes in co-production with each other with the Americans being the ultimate beneficiaries.

When the German funds were discovered to be draining into pockets it wasn't intended for they too rewrote the rules, jailed a couple of fund managers and left Hollywood to fend for itself. The real interesting element is not that the Canadians and the Germans propped up the Hollywood TV and feature industries for a decade but that Hollywood - the giant - was so greedy that it totally abandoned the old models that had sustained it for fifty years in favour of the easy "soft money" abroad. There is probably no one left who can even remember how they did things before the tax shelters.

Is it too late? Probably. Look at the ownership structures of most of the major players. They are totally owned and controlled through Wall Street giants who only care about Ferengi economics not about the fact that there is a creative industry at stake. Its sobering to see the work rosters of Los Angeles being similar to the size of Vancouver's list back in 2000. The work is now spread out over so many jurisdictions that Hollywood will soon be a memory played out through theme parks.

The scariest thing I have heard recently is a new phrase - Community Media. The concept that "everyman" can be involved in the creation of entertainment media - it is being touted as a liberation and liberation it might be, but it is the end of the professional media. There was once pride in the ability to hold a shot steady, entire film schools devouted hours of practise time to turning out camera people who could set up and execute the perfect shot - and where are we now? Feature movies have hand held cameras shots so wild and erratic that it would have made most people motion sick even ten years ago, but oddly enough we the viewers have grown used to the wildly tumbling images on ever bigger screens. The end of an era.

The only thing that will save the industry now is a major shift in technologies where story can once again be king and Youtube but a distant memory.

Ah yes the good old days...

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