In 1951, the Massey Commission warned of “the deluge of the less worthy American publications” which “threaten our national values, corrupt our literary taste … and endanger the livelihood of our writers.”1 But it was only in the next decade that this concern found its way into the wider public arena. The onset of mass television brought a whole new dimension to this concern and gave rise to a movement in support of public policies to defend Canada’s cultural industries.

It may very well be that we will look back upon the current decade, with the onset of streaming services like Netflix, as having effectively put an end to that discussion. Best we be prepared.

Promoting Cancon

The highlight of the 517-page Massey Report2 was the recommendation to create a “Council for the encouragement of the Arts, Letters, Humanities and Social Sciences.” Six years after the release of the report, the Canada Council for the Arts was established. The founding of the Canada Council marked a departure from the Canadian government’s previous reluctance to spend taxpayers’ money to support culture: the Council awarded grants to writers and artists as well as institutions such as the Stratford Festival, Théâtre du Nouveau Monde and the Royal Winnipeg and National ballets. Canadian literature, relatively unknown internationally before the war, flourished in the writings of Robertson Davies, Margaret Laurence and W.O. Mitchell, among others.

The arrival of television brought significant direct government involvement. American television signals already reached an estimated 100,000 Canadians before CBC television began broadcasting in September 1952. The Broadcasting Act of 1968 created the CRTC, which established “Cancon” – Canadian content – regulations meant to ensure that broadcasting was “basically Canadian in content and character.” In addition to subsidies for Canadian content, non-Canadian (i.e. American) content was to be restricted. The government was reacting to concerns raised by leading intellectuals, starting with George Grant who warned of the Americanization of Canadian culture in his 1965 book Lament for a Nation. In 1976, Bill C-58 ended the tax concessions enjoyed by Canadian editions of foreign-owned publications such as Time and Reader’s Digest, as well as Canadian corporations advertising on American television and radio stations.

In this period, the CRTC adopted regulations requiring that 60 per cent of programs overall, and 50 per cent of prime-time programs, be Canadian-produced. Yet the effect of these restrictions on television content was limited since private broadcasters could fulfill this requirement in large part with news and public affairs shows, and thus show primarily American drama and comedy. Moreover, the explosion of cable soon brought U.S. programming into almost all Canadian homes.

To stimulate the production of original Canadian content to fulfill Cancon requirements, the Broadcasting Act created a mechanism, Canadian Content Development (CCD), whereby the Canadian broadcasting system would contribute to the creation and production of Canadian programming. Broadcasters with more than $1,250,000 in annual revenues were required to make a financial contribution of $1,000 plus 0.5 per cent of revenues above that amount. However, with the ongoing changes in the media landscape, these contributions have been falling. Conventional television stations’ revenue in 2017 declined by 4.1 per cent to $1.6 billion, the sixth consecutive year of revenue declines due to lower advertising revenue, according to the CRTC.

The Netflix age

At the same time, Netflix was exploding. Between 2011 and 2015, the streaming giant expanded its Canadian revenue base by over 300 per cent.3 Netflix is the most important of the content providers that distribute streaming media directly to viewers over the internet, bypassing telecommunications, multichannel television and broadcast television platforms. These providers offer subscription-based access to television and film content acquired from other producers as well as original content produced specifically for the service.

We do not have up-to date or comprehensive data for Netflix since Netflix categorically refuses to provide it. In its public hearings, the CRTC unsuccessfully tried to require Netflix and Google, owner of YouTube, to provide data, such as the number of Netflix paid subscribers in Canada and YouTube’s advertising budget. In 2016, according to the Canada Media Fund, 96 per cent of Canadians under age 35 reported using YouTube in the previous year. We know that once a critical mass of users has opted for such a media service few ever cancel, leaving little room for this audience to migrate to other services.

Since these companies deliver – and even produce – programs for the Canadian public, they should fall under the definition of a broadcasting undertaking as set out in the Broadcasting Act of 1991. But they do not. In 1999, through its Exemption Order for New Media Broadcasting Undertakings, the CRTC excluded internet broadcasters from its Canadian content quotas, a position it reaffirmed in 2012. This position, it claimed, was based on its unwillingness to hinder innovation in the digital sector and its recognition of the evolution of new technologies.4 In reality, the CRTC had little choice, since only through Chinese-style censorship of Canada’s telecommunications system could Canadian consumption of internet-based content be controlled.

This means that, effectively, the age of open artistic borders is truly here, a byproduct of the widespread availability of broadband internet. “The genie is out of the bottle,” Rogers Communications argued in its submission to the CRTC study on the future of Canadian broadcasting. “There is no going back to the protected closed broadcasting system that existed prior to the widespread adoption of broadband internet.” In 2015, with more than 3.5 million paying subscribers, Netflix’s subscription base in Canada was around 30 per cent of all broadband-connected homes. Meanwhile, according to research from Ottawa-based consulting firm Boon Dog Professional Services, Canada’s seven publicly traded television providers lost 153,000 subscribers in 2015.5

Do Canadians outside of Quebec really care about the threat to their perceived cultural identity? According to a poll released in June 2016 by the Angus Reid Institute, 56 per cent think online media should be free from CRTC’s imposed Canadian content and ownership regulations. The same poll showed, not surprisingly, that young Canadians aged 18 to 34 are, at 63 per cent, most strongly opposed to such intervention. The principal reason why Netflix is growing while traditional television is dying is simply content. In Canada as elsewhere, innovative and high-quality programming, no matter where it is produced, attracts well-educated viewers.

No longer is American television the only benchmark for world-class shows – not even in the United States itself. Netflix, after producing the Spanish-language show Narcos, has been investing in international coproductions, offering its U.S. and Canadian subscribers an extensive foreign- as well as English-language library. A case in point is the supernatural mystery Dark, the streaming service’s first original German drama production. In a letter to shareholders, Netflix wrote that besides doing well in its home territory, Dark has been viewed by millions of subscribers in the United States.6

In sum, according to Netflix Chief Product Officer Greg Peters, “Netflix members around the world want authentic storytelling, they want a perspective from a passionate creator that’s grounded in the local culture.”7 Canadians, like viewers elsewhere, can now get the best-quality television and film from all over the world just as easily as they can get what is produced at home. The many shows Netflix has offered from almost every country in the world with a television industry include Case (Iceland), The Mechanism (Brazil), Babylon Berlin and Dogs of Berlin (Germany), Trotsky (Russia), Hibana (Japan), Rita (Denmark), Cable Girls and Money Heist (Spain), Bordertown (Finland), Suburra: Blood on Rome (Italy), La Mante (France), The Paper (Croatia) and Fauda (Israel). I could add many more, especially if I were to include other providers like Hulu and Amazon, with more coming onstream every week.

For artists and media producers in Canada, like their counterparts elsewhere, the future of the film and television industry lies in producing homegrown content that the rest of world wants to see. A critically acclaimed and internationally aired show like Orphan Black, which has a mostly Canadian cast and doesn’t hide its Toronto setting, will always find a market. Mediocre shows will struggle or fail.

With the introduction of more streaming services into the already crowded marketplace, including the much-heralded new venture by Disney, competition for content is growing fierce. Because the rivalry for television productions has made the rights to much content so expensive, on-demand services like Netflix and Amazon, have begun producing their own, typically contracting local production houses and artists. This further reduces the amount of available content that can be licensed. And as the cost of licensing American content rises with rising demand, the decision to fund local productions becomes economically more viable for Canadian broadcasters. In this environment, Canadian producers have huge opportunities to find markets for their productions. As CRTC Chair Jean-Pierre Blais told the Canadian Club of Ottawa on March 12, 2015,

We live in an Age of Abundance. Content is everywhere on the internet and on television. And it is available to us at any time of the day or night, on any device we choose. Ironically, that is now our central challenge. The trick for all of us – creators, distributors, viewers, even regulators – is how to adapt to life in this new age. Because it won’t be easy.

No longer good enough

In a much-noticed statement at the Prime Time conference in Ottawa in January, Catherine Tait, the newly installed President of CBC–Radio Canada, went “a little off script”:

I was thinking about the British Empire, and how if you were there and you were the Viceroy of India, you would feel that you were doing only good for the people of India. If you were in French Africa, you would think, “I’m educating them, I’m bringing their resources to the world and I am helping them.” Fast forward to what happens after imperialism and the damage that can do to local communities. So, all I would say is, let us be mindful of how it is we as Canadians respond to global companies coming into our country.8

The company she had most in mind was Netflix, whose director of public policy in Canada, Stéphane Cardin, responded that “Canada year over year ranks either number two or three in terms of production activity,” competing with the U.K. for second place behind the United States. Cardin noted that Netflix had produced film and TV content in eight of the country’s ten provinces, coproduced with just about every major broadcast group in English Canada and looked to greatly exceed its commitment of $500 million to be spent in Canada on local production over five years.9

The $500 million had been negotiated in a much-criticized deal with the now former Heritage Minister, Melanie Joly. However, whatever the numbers, we need to face reality and admit that the closed system of television distribution is long gone; the CRTC is effectively a cipher in the face of borderless international content providers. Canada can no longer produce mediocre television content and then try to protect it. Rather than try to inhibit Netflix and others like it, Canadian public policy should seek to help transform Canada into a world-leading media hub. On the global stage, Canada will have to compete against the rest of the world and create the climate to produce the kind of quality television that it has shown itself capable of turning out. Canadian artists will have to excel instead of merely survive and, with a nod to the CBC, in the Netflix age, “good enough” isn’t good enough any more.

Continue reading “Canadian Cultural Nationalism: A Casualty of Netflix”

In a world in which media giants compete for ever-increasing content, Canada is being left out in our proverbial cold. Last year, a study commissioned by the Canadian media producers’ associations entitled Exporting Canadian Television Globally found that Canada lacked flexibility in funding media content to meet the demand from streaming content providers like Netflix, Amazon and Hulu.1 These conglomerates are making ever more substantial investments in drama series for worldwide distribution. For Canadian media producers to win a greater share of these investments, the report called for more public funding and incentives. This is true, but far from the whole story. The recommendations need to be set in the context of media developments in recent years.

In 2007, the landscape of the television industry (and in some respects the film industry as well) was forever changed when Netflix began streaming content over the internet. With the rapid growth that followed Netflix’s expansion across the globe (as of January 2018, according to Wikipedia, Netflix had 117,580,000 paying subscribers in 190 countries), other media companies, and even some companies with internet proficiency that had never before been involved in media distribution, were attracted into the market by the almost unlimited potential that opened up.

For example, Amazon Unbox, launched on September 7, 2006, rented out DVD movies. Soon, however, as it expanded the library of its media streaming division, it made that content available with the development of Amazon Prime. As of September 2017, there were 90 million Amazon Prime subscribers in the United States, up from 63 million in June 2016.2 With new players entering the market at a regular pace, it was not a matter of merely being able to develop and manage a media distribution enterprise, but of finding the content that would draw the subscribers.

The traditional networks – which once saw Netflix as a complementary revenue stream, an outlet to rebroadcast old shows and earn residual income – came to realize that it had grown to threaten their existing business model, and acted accordingly. Faced with increasing royalty fees and a reluctance by the networks to supply it with content, Netflix elected to develop and produce its own shows. Its first self-commissioned original content series, House of Cards, was released in 2013, and the company has dramatically expanded its original content since that time. Netflix released an estimated 126 original series or films in 2016, more than any other single American network or cable channel.3

In 2018 Netflix is set to spend upwards of US$8 billion on content and expects to have about 700 original TV shows on the service worldwide, according to CFO David Wells. This original content, Wells told the Morgan Stanley Technology, Media & Telecom Conference, is driving up Netflix’s subscriber base. The “700-range” figure he cited includes 80 non-English-language original productions from outside the United States, such as the psychological thriller Dark from Germany and Club de Cuervos from Mexico, plus a large number from Spain and South Korea.4 On the basis of the level of spending that Netflix has committed to, its annual budget would place it second among media networks in the United States, up from fourth in 2014 (see figure 1). It would be number one if you were to remove the huge amounts of money that ESPN spends to secure broadcast rights to professional sports.

With this new drive for television shows and movies and the limited ability of any one media provider to produce sufficient content to draw in a wider range of new subscribers, Netflix and Amazon primarily, along with the other streaming services, are expanding their search for independent productions worldwide. With 80 productions from outside its own in-house creative division in 2018 alone, Netflix is only one of many media giants roaming the globe for interesting and dynamic shows.

With this ever-growing thirst for television and movies – principally in English, as the North American market is by far the largest – Canada has come up short. How can we quantify this? Because of the intricacies of copyright laws and the deals transacted by Netflix to broadcast shows that they have licensed from other production companies, not every television series or movie is shown in each country that Netflix serves. Because of these limits, certain foreign and domestic productions are not shown in the United States and Canada. This makes it difficult to provide statistics that give a complete portrait of Netflix’s presence by country. Here I use figures for the North American and Caribbean regions.

Moreover, Netflix has been famously discreet about its internal matrices on the level of viewer support for its shows, the number of total productions and how well any one production does worldwide. Most readily available statistics have been garnered by data amalgamators and are, at best, rough estimates. Hollywood’s interest in Netflix’s unreported numbers is high, but, as reported by the Hollywood Reporter on April 12, 2016, when NBC Universal’s research chief Alan Wurtzel recently tried to publicly expose them to TV critics, Netflix swiftly dismissed the numbers as inaccurate.

As a large swatch of Netflix’s viewers in the United States and anglophone Canada are not that interested in subtitled foreign-language productions – although, overall, shows from non-English-speaking countries are growing in popularity – the demand for English-language television and film for the North American market is of particular interest to the streaming service. It’s true that Canada ranks only behind the U.S., the U.K. and Japan in the number of independent productions Netflix has coproduced or to which it has purchased the rights (Japan’s score is due to the incredible popularity of anime, a cultural phenomenon developed and created principally in that country alone). However, this is misleading, since on a per-capita basis, and even more so on a GDP-per-capita basis, Canada ranks behind every other region in which English is the predominant language of the creative arts.

Indeed, two Scandinavian countries, Norway and Iceland, produce more content per capita than Canada. Figure 2 illustrates Netflix’s model of seeking out English-language viewers by the dates that the streaming service entered foreign countries in its drive to expand worldwide. It shows how, as Netflix sought out foreign creative partners to entice its new viewer base outside the United States, it gave priority to countries based on their level of English fluency.

With its $8 billion content budget, Netflix is consistently adding new original and licensed titles from around the world. There are 50 new and returning productions in various stages of development this year in Latin America, including Mexico’s Diablero, and 19 standup comedy specials in Spanish. In fact, many of the streaming giant’s most popular productions were not created in the United States. With its top-rated international originals, the list of global titles at Netflix is growing rapidly, encompassing various cultures and languages from all countries (figure 3). These shows are proving highly successful for the streaming giant. For example, Netflix’s first original German series, Dark, has a viewership that is 90 per cent outside its country of origin, even though the show is in German.

Given this enormous appetite for new content by streaming and conventional media providers, why does Canada not hold its own on the world stage? Why do Canadian content producers have trouble creating world-class products if Canada has a national policy of supporting the arts? It is well known that the Canadian government funds the creative industry, both through generous grants and tax incentives and through the trickle-down effect of maintaining a national broadcast network. The CBC tells us that it spends over $700 million a year on Canadian content funded by the Canada Media Fund (CMF), CBC/Radio-Canada government funding and a system of production tax credits and other incentives.5

Moreover, Canada offers a host of attractive incentives for investment in creating content in Canada. The Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists (ACTRA) is the umbrella organization that represents the media industry at home and internationally. It participates in international trade missions which aim to bring more work to Canada and works with the industry and governments to improve the business environment for production in the country. On its website, ACTRA tells us that Toronto is the third largest screen-based production centre in North America, behind Los Angeles and New York City. It claims that the 25,000 people in Toronto’s film and television industry sport superb talent both in front of and behind the camera, including in digital animation and special effects, while the city also has some of the industry’s best production and post-production facilities.

The numbers bear this out. In 2014 domestic and international screen-based production companies invested a record $1.23 billion in on-location filming in Toronto, exceeding the $1 billion mark for the fourth consecutive year. Hence it would appear that there is no shortage of money in Canada to fund new creative content. And yet, in an environment where the budgets necessary to produce topflight entertainment grow annually, sometimes the funds are insufficient. Netflix spent about US$100 million (C$130 million) to create two seasons of House of Cards. To put that into perspective, this investment represents close to the entire annual budget for each of CBC and Radio-Canada’s nonnews programming.

If Canada has the homegrown talent to compete on the world stage, would greater availability of financing be one of the solutions? Is there a correlation between the amount that a country spends on its public broadcasting budget and the success of the media productions that inevitably come out of this rich environment? Figure 4 is suggestive.

In 1997 the British government launched Creative Britain, which prioritized culture as a pillar of the British economy and drove sustained investment in British culture. These investments have subsequently yielded important economic, as well as artistic, benefits and have resulted in British productions being sought after throughout the world. As figure 5 shows, public funding for Britain’s public broadcaster has tripled in the last 25 years. This has resulted in the BBC producing the kind of world-class productions that the rest of the world, including Netflix, appears to crave. In the same period funding for CBC/Radio-Canada has declined in real dollars.

A 2017 study, conducted by using Google Trends data, identified the most popular shows by country as well as the world’s favourite TV show to watch on Netflix. Instead of the world’s most popular show being a Netflix original series or even a high-production American program, it is in fact the BBC’s Sherlock, featuring Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes and Martin Freeman as Dr. Watson.

It was in this climate of fertile British productions that a U.K.-based production company, Carnival Films, teamed up with the Masterpiece show on PBS in the United States in 2010 to produce the hit series Downton Abbey. The series became a skirmish in Amazon and Netflix’s battle for subscription streaming video supremacy when, in 2013, just one day after Netflix premiered its original show House of Cards, Amazon announced that it had struck a licensing deal to exclusively carry the U.S. subscription streaming rights to Downton Abbey. For its part, Netflix has streamed high-quality, much-sought-after series, including The Crown (Britain), Top of the Lake (New Zealand) and Wanted (Australia).

In October 2017, Netflix announced a deal that would have the media giant spend $500 million over the following five years on making Canadian content, a move seen as primarily seeking to defend its preferential tax status in Canada. Many media critics had called for a “Netflix tax” because of the negative effect on Canadian producers of Netflix’s entry into the Canadian marketplace. But the details the company trumpeted made it clear that no taxation was part of the deal. And while the $500 million investment sounded significant, it actually worked out to only $100 million a year, far less than the $2 billion investment in European productions from 2017 onward that Netflix had announced.6

Anglophone Canadians have always spent much more time watching American TV programs than programs produced in Canada. Public opinion surveys have also shown that English Canadians are not all that interested in seeing homegrown, Canadian dramas. Even in the 1950s, when the CBC was the only Canadian channel, with a 100 per cent market share in most areas of the country, two thirds of its prime-time audience was generated by American programs like Ed Sullivan, Father Knows Best, Perry Como and I Love Lucy. These American shows attracted huge audiences, with ratings of 20, 30 or even 40 per cent – numbers unheard of today, when a show with rating of 2 or 3 per cent is considered a success. Today there are a few excellent Canadian productions such as Orphan Black and 19-2, but, as in the past, they are swamped by dozens of American and British shows. TV is an expensive business and despite complaints that we spend too much on CBC/Radio Canada, the reality, as we have seen, is that our public broadcaster is in fact dramatically underfunded compared to countries that are much more effective in recouping their investments through selling rights to the likes of Netflix and Amazon.

This is the challenge. Coproductions are becoming the new standard in creative content, both film and television, and Canadian producers have been slow to invest the time and funds necessary to compete against the rest of the world. It is no accident that our most promising producers and directors – including, for the first time, francophones like Denis Villeneuve, Jean-Marc Vallée and Phillipe Falardeau – have found their way to Hollywood. This is far less the case among producers of English-language content elsewhere. The year 2017 marks 65 years since CBC-TV first went on air. It’s time to properly fund the producers of Canadian content on the CBC and private networks. It’s time to test whether Canada indeed has the talent, resources and expertise to produce the English-language shows that the rest of the world wants.

Continue reading “Our Home and Native Mediocre TV”

Ever since HBO broke the mould that had defined conventional network television by beginning to produce intelligent, well-written and expensive productions, critics started to proclaim a “Golden Age of Television.” Of course, what one terms a “Golden Age” is inevitably subjective: television as a medium has always been evolving, and with every new generation groundbreaking shows have redefined what the viewing public and critics see as excellence in broadcasting. The most innovative accomplishment of the show that broke the conventional pattern, The Sopranos, was to finally end the quasi-monopoly of the “Big Three” networks – ABC, NBC and CBS – that for all intents controlled the airwaves that had been beaming programming into American homes for so long.

Because they never had to conform to government regulations regarding language prohibitions and sexual content, HBO and subsequent premium networks could broaden the range of human experience in television scripts. No longer were shows produced just for network, prime-time broadcasting. Longer story arcs, realistic depictions of circumstances peppered with profanity-laced dialogue, and comedy shows without the legendary laugh track were offering what many considered the best television content. Able to skirt Federal Communications Commission regulations because they were not broadcast on open and free airwaves, they could offer the kind of risqué content that the networks could not.

In 1987, three decades ago, every single Emmy-nominated drama show could be viewed at no cost, all having been broadcast by one of the “Big Three” networks on free, open airwaves. For drama, these were:

LA Law – NBC
Cagney & Lacey – CBS
Moonlighting – ABC
Murder, She Wrote – CBS
St. Elsewhere – NBC

Cable shows like The Sopranos were not even eligible for Emmy consideration until 1988. There has been an explosion of content providers since then and, with the advent of the newer streaming networks like Netflix, Hulu and Amazon, the landscape of television broadcasting companies, whether traditional cable or internet-based, has changed immeasurably. Now the situation is completely reversed. Listed below are the 2017 Emmy nominated shows for best drama. Only one show, This Is Us, was produced by or shown on a major network:

Better Call Saul – Netflix
The Crown – Netflix
The Handmaid’s Tale – Hulu
House of Cards – Netflix
Stranger Things – Netflix
This Is Us – NBC
Westworld – HBO

The current situation was highlighted in 2015 by John Landgraf, CEO of FX Networks (Sons of Anarchy, American Horror Story, Atlanta, Louie, The Americans, Legion) and the philosopher-guru of cable television, who stated that “there is simply too much television … (the audience) is overwhelmed by the sheer volume of TV shows.” That year, Slate magazine calculated that taking into account all television available in the United States and most of Canada (network, cable and streaming), there were nearly 400 original series.1 There will be far more in 2018. Perhaps the best term to capture this phenomenon emerged in 2015 when John Landgraf took to the stage at an industry event for TV critics and coined the phrase “Peak TV.”

A lot of this explosion of content has been driven by the new streaming services. As Netflix and Amazon have expanded their customer base, their business model of allowing subscribers to sign up for as long, or short, a period as they wish has given them the incentive – and the cash – to create the kind of original content that encourages paying viewers to remain loyal clients.

However, with the introduction of new streaming services on a regular basis, the market of content providers seeking out new and innovative television becomes more competitive. Creators of TV content are abandoning the traditional networks for the freedom of streaming providers like Netflix, where they can produce series as long or as short as they like, with all the sex and profanity they care to write into their scripts, and without the forced artificial cliffhangers needed to keep viewers hooked during commercial breaks. The freedom to create without the restrictions of network television has become seductive for almost every “A-lister” in the media business today, even those for whom the movies have historically been their only home.

Add to this the mind-blowing budgets that services like Netflix are able to employ and you have a formula for a fertile environment in which to grow startlingly innovative television. In 2016 alone, Netflix spent an estimated US$6 billion on 123 original shows, and expects to have spent more than $7 billion in 2017. The goal, as Netflix’s chief of content Ted Sarandos told GQ magazine, “is to become HBO faster than HBO can become us.”2 Coinciding with this interview, Netflix accompanied its worldwide launch of House of Cards with the announcement that it was prepared to outspend its competitors.

With little competition so far from upstart streaming sites, Netflix, Hulu and Amazon have enjoyed unprecedented access to the living rooms of television watchers worldwide. Much like the “Big Three” of a generation ago, their ability to offer huge funds to the creative writers and producers behind much of the innovative television being made has had an impact on the industry as a whole. One indication is that these three major streaming services took home 32 Emmys at this year’s ceremony and a similar number at the Creative Arts awards the weekend before. This exceeded the total of 26 awards won by the original “Big Three” networks. And the bulk of these wins came from original, out-of-the-box programming. Clearly, as long as significant revenues come rolling into the coffers of Netflix, Amazon and Hulu, viewers can expect to continue to be treated to interesting, indeed startling, new television.

But can this new “Golden Age” of television continue? Cut to 2017 and an unheralded batch of cancelled shows and one must wonder if the bubble is on the way to bursting. In an interview in the Guardian earlier this year, former AMC executive Christina Wayne noted that “you have to have enormously deep pockets and have the ability to withstand spending for a very long time before any profit comes in. Netflix are (sic) way outspending what their profit is now.”

What has kept Netflix going in its almost neverending quest to produce original content has been its huge customer base and associated cash flow. In the third quarter of 2017, Netflix had 109,250,000 streaming subscribers worldwide with an annual gross income of $8.83 billion.3 If Netflix maintains its customer base, and the associated cash flow, production budgets can stay stable and potentially even grow. But this is far from certain.

Aside from the original content that Netflix produces, the bulk of what it provides its subscribers is actually made up of rebroadcast television shows and movies that it licenses from other studios. In July 2017, FX Networks announced that it would start its own ad-free on-demand service, FX+, for which it would charge subscribers $5.99 a month.4 The arrival of this new competitor to Netflix and Amazon Prime means, moreover, that they will no longer have licensed access to FX content.

This is one instance of a larger trend among original television and movie production houses to get a bigger piece of the pie by reducing their reliance on big streaming services like Netflix. Last month, Disney announced its intention to take its films away from Netflix in 2019 and start its own streaming service. This will surely not be the last such case. Netflix shares, it should be noted, fell after Disney announced the new service.

Originally, in previous talks, Disney had left the door open to maintaining its contract with Netflix for its lucrative Star Wars and Marvel film series, but Disney has now slammed the door shut. It has decided that it is better served by using movies like Iron Man, Captain America and the forthcoming Star Wars: Episode IX to draw viewers to its new Disney-owned streaming service.

This will inevitably have an effect on Netflix subscribers, many of whom subscribe to Netflix in good part to have access to the Disney catalogue. A reduced client base translates into less revenue and less revenue means less money available for original programming. Given that Netflix’s business model is predicated on sufficient good-quality original content to differentiate it from other services, where does this leave the future of television production?

In this context, we should note that the total revenues of the film industry in 2017 were the lowest that they have been in more than a decade. U.S. box office revenue for the summer of 2017 was down by 11 per cent from 2016, and things are likely to get worse for American studios. BoxOffice Media predicts that by the time final numbers for the summer of 2017 are in, sales will be down by as much as 15 per cent.5

This is a scenario that translates into roughly one in six American moviegoers choosing instead to stay home and stream Game of Thrones. Here’s the bad news for the movie industry: streaming television is much more innovative then movies these days so when kids growing up today become adults they just aren’t going to be there to support Hollywood productions. Labour union contracts have driven up the cost of making movies to a point that excludes small-budgeted, risky film projects. The movie industry is effectively on life support, propped up by a generation that still goes to movies out of nostalgia – and by 17-year-old boys. Appealing to the latter, Hollywood has produced fewer and fewer intelligent, narrative-based films, depending instead on blockbusters, often based on comic book characters.

With the future of television lying in a multitude of competing services, where “cord cutters” replace cable by streaming services that are popping up almost daily, the number of content providers keeps growing. With each increase in the number of options available to the television viewer, each content provider will have less money to produce new shows. I suspect that as this competition for viewers intensifies we will get the kind of vicious circle scenario being played out in Hollywood today: to guarantee a return on investment content providers will produce “safe bets” – the kinds of shows that no longer stretch the boundaries of original content, serving rather to placate the masses. For every Handmaid’s Tale, which swept this year’s Emmy Awards, we can expect two or three or ten Marvel-style comic book–based shows. And humour will slide back down the scale of intelligence, again depending on the laugh track.

Television viewers have been living these last few years in the golden age of “Peak TV,” a period punctuated by some of the greatest shows in the history of the medium. I hope I am wrong, but I fear that we will soon return to the days of Hollywood Squares and Let’s Make a Deal, shows that delivered solid profits and entertained millions but were hardly places where the best and the brightest were welcome. In 1966, humour columnist Art Buchwald wrote, “Every time you think television has hit its lowest ebb, a new type of program comes along to make you wonder where you thought the ebb was.”

So let us take advantage of the current offerings and hope that television is able to continue to meet the challenge, at least in the short term.

Continue reading “The end of Peak TV?”

Starting in the 1930s, when Raymond Chandler changed the scope of the detective novel genre that had, before him, traced its roots back to Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” and Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes (the most famous of all fictional detectives), America has laid claim to the detective novel as a home-grown reflection of its urban culture.

The private eye novel, and its natural outgrowth, the police crime drama, were adopted wholeheartedly by American writers, for whom it became a vehicle to explore the darker sides of the American urban landscape. The street realism of detective fiction, embodied in characters created by Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Jonathan Latimer, Erle Stanley Gardner and others, explored the corrupt and dark side of the American inner city. This style of fiction came to be known as “hardboiled,” a genre that told the stories of those who represented the law, but also the criminals they pursued, and their victims. As Carole Kismaric and Marvin Heiferman have written,“Told in stark and sometimes elegant language through the unemotional eyes of new hero-detectives, these stories were a truly American phenomenon.”1

With the advent of film, and its natural evolution into television, the detective novel developed into a far more complex landscape of police, criminals, the judiciary and the growing use, and importance, of modern scientific investigative methods. The tough, street-smart private eye gave way to an orchestral arrangement of cynical police detectives, scientific nerds trained in physiology and genetics, and public prosecutors trying to do their jobs in an overburdened and understaffed system.

In 1951, television was still in its infancy and experimenting with wildly different formats. The ever-growing audience wanted more than the traditional fare of variety shows and comedies. The result was a whole slew of shows that, given the times, were far more realistic.

The critically acclaimed Dragnet, produced by Jack Webb, was the first cop show to win an Emmy. Webb took the tough-talking detective from the pages of the hardboiled novel to the television screen. The show started each episode with the statement, “What you are about to see is true,” a reminder that many of the story lines were taken from real-life cases. The protagonist, Sergeant Joe Friday, expressed what David Marc called a “relentless crime fighting consciousness” that “left little room for sympathy for the twisted vermin who opposed the public order.”2 Dragnet’s view of the world was a paranoid one in which the forces of evil were constantly held at bay only by the relentless efforts of men like Joe Friday.

On the basis of Dragnet’s success and America’s growing appetite by for police shows, Webb also produced Adam-12, which premiered in 1978, providing a “day on the job” look at police work by two clean-cut officers, and Hawaii Five-0, which ran from 1968 to 1980, the longest running crime show until Law & Order (1990–2010) came along.

As the years went by, the police crime drama became a staple of American television. Although virtually every country in the world adopted this format and produced excellent television and film versions, the American crime drama was accepted as the “standard,” and most of the more popular U.S. productions were translated and shown around the world.

In 2015, Eurodata TV Worldwide named the American police drama NCIS “The Most Watched Drama in the World” for the second year in a row. The show garnered 55 million viewers across the globe in 2014, according to the network, and is licensed in over 200 markets worldwide and in over 60 languages – from Arabic to Vietnamese. Other American crime drama shows that have earned that distinction include CSI and The Mentalist. There is something inherently American about the crime drama genre, and most of the world has, in the past, chosen to watch shows about detectives and crime that have been produced in the United States.


The most popular shows were not necessarily the best, by any means. Yet even when it came to quality, U.S. shows stood out. Of course, any attempt to rank television shows is subjective. The best such source, when it comes to popular culture, is probably Paste magazine, which for two years in the mid-2000s had a weekly segment on CNN Headline News called “Paste Picks,” in which editors would recommend new albums and films.3 In 2015, Paste published a comprehensive list of the “40 Greatest Cop Shows of All Time.” The top ten, listed in table 1, are still considered to rank among the best produced, regardless of genre.

18-1Of all of these shows, only one, the British drama Luther, was not produced in the United States. As the list is based on television shows in which the spoken language is English, there is a built-in bias to this ranking – but not as much as one might think, since English has been the language of a large proportion of such shows.

That apparently is now changing. In the last few years, there has been an explosion of superb crime dramas produced throughout the world. In our globalized world with its specialized streaming services that have a built-in audience for subtitled television productions of merit, these new shows are being seen by millions of people. Viewers are exposed to crime television series from countries other than the United States, presenting divergent pictures of social challenges and how they are tackled in different societies. When one views these shows, the language barrier quickly disappears. As a result of the subtle mix of easily absorbed subtitles and outstanding writing and production values, the viewer little notices that she is following the story by reading rather than listening.

18-2One salient feature is the important role of the female detective. The New Zealand series Top of the Lake carries with it the pedigree and craft of Jane Campion, the Academy Award–winning director of the film The Piano. Initially about the investigation of a young pregnant girl by a female detective (played by Elisabeth Moss of Mad Men fame), it quickly evolves into a metaphorical battle between male and female psychologies.

Campion’s landscapes, with their striking starkness, are as feminine in their imagery and concerns as The Wire’s are utterly and unapologetically masculine. The weaving subtext of the protagonist detective’s interactions with her all-male colleagues, who constantly strive to diminish her even though most of them never think of themselves as misogynists, will resonate powerfully with those accustomed to the testosterone-fuelled backdrop of American police shows.

But the miniseries never directly takes up the issue of the role of the female cop. It’s about mindsets and prejudices, anger and fear, but mostly it’s about complicated people, male and female, coping with tremendous buried pain. Top of the Lake injects a huge dimension of social psychology and gender angst into a startling story about a terrible event and the detective who uncovers it. The fabric of this series takes the American crime drama to a level that has not yet been as eloquently attained by a U.S. production.

18-4Witnesses, a French television police procedural drama noir series by Marc Herpoux and Hervé Hadmar, is another non-American show in which the lead detective is a woman and mother fighting for legitimacy in an all-male world. Set in a small coastal village in France, this is a quiet thriller of crime and dark secrets. Her investigation of an elaborately staged crime scene setting links the bizarre events to her former instructor, whose framed photograph is found at the scene. Her old mentor, who had retired after a car crash killed his wife, is forced to return to duty; but there is clearly more to him than the brilliantly written script lets on.

The wonderfully gloomy setting in northern France makes everything seem sinister, and a scene shot on the aerial railway that takes riders from the town through a tunnel to the overlooking cliffs is cinematography and editing at its best. In his glowing review in the Daily Mail, Christopher Stevens added, “Don’t tell the French, because it will only make them even more big-headed, but their TV writers are streets ahead of the Brits with police dramas.”

18-3But the Brits are catching up. River is a BBC-produced series by Abi Morgan about a genius whose unstable mind leaves him haunted by the ghosts of murder victims. Unlike conventional crime dramas, River is an eclectic mix of the supernatural and a gripping story of the efforts of the metropolitan police to solve a teenage girl’s murder. Morgan’s story of a cop (Stellan Skarsgård’s John River) in the throes of a psychotic break that has him communicating with people who have died manages to get the viewer to suspend disbelief. The crisp writing and the authentic police dialogue transcend the clichés of the genre to present some of the real angst of mental illness.

Although everything about the series is first-rate, including the performances of the other actors, this is really Skarsgård’s show to carry. He gives an unbelievably intense performance of a man living in the throes of a mental condition that he is acutely aware of, switching in seconds from distraction to fury, from twinkling joviality to sarcastic scorn, a detective unable to separate himself from the crimes that he investigates. There has never been a more credible, more original tortured TV detective than John River.

The novels of a number of British crime writers including Ian Rankin, Peter Robinson and Colin Dexter have found their way into generally solid but unremarkable television series. More notable was the 1991 six-part series Prime Suspect, written by Lynda La Plante and starring Helen Mirren.

18-5But the U.K.’s most recent important contribution was the BBC’s distribution of a remarkable 10-part series from Iceland. Trapped is a murder-mystery television series created by Baltasar Kormákur that had its debut at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2015. When a ferry arrives in a small Icelandic town just as severe weather closes all routes, a headless corpse is found floating nearby. Filled with diverse characters who all appear to have a past that will come back to haunt them, Trapped is not only gorgeous in every way, but a reminder that in police dramas, as in all dramas, a good story is always a good story. What Trapped illustrates so clearly is that what makes a TV series distinct is how the elements are shifted around and combined in distinct and memorable ways, then filtered through the voice of a creator and a home country.

Iceland’s Scandinavian cousins have taken an important place in crime writing. Henning Mankell put Sweden on the map, and it became world-famous with Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy. Many others, such as Norway’s Jo Nesbo, have joined the ranks. But the TV series based on them, such as the British-made series about Mankell’s detective, Kurt Wallander, are nowhere near the quality of Trapped.

So, almost 50 years of unassailed American leadership seems to be ending. Of course the United States still produces stellar shows, most of them products of the premium networks and the new presence of the streaming giants, Netflix and Amazon. What has definitely raised the level of quality in the American productions has been the introduction of the longer story arc, a narrative played out over the course of a series of many episodes. The use of single-episode storylines, with the entire plot, from the crime to the police work to the dispensing of justice, all told in the space of less than an hour, appears to be under siege as even the major networks realize that audiences are now demanding what the likes of HBO are delivering. When a production and writing team has 10 hours to flesh out the subtleties of character and plot, the result is generally closer to a long movie than a television show.

A case in point is HBO’s recent acclaimed series The Night Of. The story is ostensibly about a Pakistani-American student accused of murdering a young woman whom he meets one night. Had Law & Order taken this story and turned it into an episode, the salient facts of the crime itself and the courtroom drama would have played themselves out much as they do in The Night Of. But The Night Of takes the framework of that story and scrutinizes it through the lens of race, prejudice, immigration and the impact of the imprisonment of a young man in a harsh and bleak prison system. Relying on stunning performances by every cast member, the series sheds a searching light on how the fabric of a family withstands or succumbs to the trauma.

With the emergence of other countries producing crime series that are both suspenseful and thought-provoking, the need to raise the bar in the American television community grows. Having learned from, and improved upon, U.S. televised crime dramas, writers and producers in the rest of the world could have a trickle-down effect on what their American counterparts can do in the future. This can only be good, especially since there is a difference between the non-American and American genres that can be traced back to the way solving a crime is depicted.

The non-American versions stress the necessity for cooperation and rational intelligence, be it for the detective work itself or the potential coverup. The characterization and plot are moved along by conversation, finely executed schemes and often Machiavellian planning. The plots are driven by dialogue, encounters, real investigative work and accidental sightings of what the audience often knows but the characters, at that point in the narrative, do not.

The American versions, in contrast, are usually crafted around an improbable event, the cliffhanger that often ends each episode (a product of the serialized story arc), and inventions that show off the writer’s impressive imagination and the detective hero’s superiority but actually bear little resemblance to the drudgery of true detective work. Speed, surprise and the de facto shootout drive many American versions of the crime genre. But prospects are improving as premium television providers like HBO, Netflix and Amazon have found success with their own brand of original content. A good example can be found in the two 10-part Bosch series, based on the novels of America’s top-ranked crime writer Michael Connelly, which in certain ways are more like their European counterparts.

Crime drama will probably always be a staple on television given its lasting allure for millions of viewers around the world. What has changed, though, is that the productions now being shown are as likely to come from Britain or New Zealand – or even Iceland – as from Hollywood. And in a television landscape where quality and diversity seem to be constantly improving, that can only be a good thing.

Continue reading “The television crime drama goes global”

A new art form, the feature-length movie, emerged in Australia in 1906; a second, the television drama, in the United States in 1936. Each was a reflection of the medium in which it was shown. Among other things, this constrained its length, which in turn set limits to the kind of story it could tell.

Until 1915 films averaged 15 minutes in length; then five-reel (50-minute) features became common practice. Silent films were typically either five-reel dramas or two-reel (20-minute) comedies. Once sound became a standard feature, the length increased. The average length of feature-film talkies was around 90 minutes as early as 1931 and, possibly as a result of competition from television, almost 120 minutes by 1960 (figure 1).1


From the outset, film production proved lucrative. The first feature film, the 1906 Australian Story of the Kelly Gang, cost £1,000 and was reputed to have returned at least £25,000 to its producers. Yet it was only in 1911 that countries other than Australia began to make feature films. Soon, as the need to produce films to fill the ever exploding number of movie theatres grew, production companies, which often had a stake in the theatre chains, found that the 90- to 120-minute length offered many advantages. It was ideal for keeping the audiences engaged and long enough to complete the storyline. And movie theatres could sell more tickets: a 7 p.m. starting time combined with a length under two hours allowed three showings. Hence, with no input from the directors and writers who actually crafted the movies, the 90- to 120-minute feature film became the norm.

A parallel process took place in television drama, which soon evolved into a standard format. As it began to be seen during the daytime as well as late at night and on weekends, demand for new material increased, while competition for prime-time viewers swelled. The norms for the modern prime-time TV show solidified within the parameters of the 30- and 60-minute blocks of time allocated for these productions (including the commercials needed to fund the business model).

Hence producers, and thus directors and writers, found themselves required to structure their story arc to fit one of the two options available: a feature-length film that could run for up to two hours or a television season that had to be segmented into 43-minute blocks (the actual time of most productions once commercials are subtracted). These arbitrary and yet strict guidelines placed constraints on the story to be told. While many fine works of art were produced within these constraints, other productions, usually based on a story arc that was very long and had many characters, could not comfortably fit into either model. Although a television series offered writers of content the chance to use up to 15 hours of programming to flesh out the narrative, the rhythm of having to cut the story into small chunks that fit neatly in between commercials disrupted the flow of many storylines. At the same time, the two-hour or so maximum for a feature film limited the amount of detail and character development that was possible.

There were attempts to transcend these limitations, in film at least. Some experimental or “art-house” films, typically European or Asian, succeeded artistically but were commercial failures. Two that stand out are the 1994 production of Satantango by Hungarian director Béla Tarr, which runs for 7 hours and 30 minutes, and the 2003 film The Best of Youth by Marco Tullio Giordana, which runs for 6 hours and 23 minutes. Both won many awards, but were shown in few theatres. Only a few longer productions broke out of the “art-house” niche: David Lean’s sweeping productions of Lawrence of Arabia (1962; 3 hours and 36 minutes) and Doctor Zhivago (1965; 3 hours and 17 minutes) were among the best.

By the early 21st century, the internet was becoming the new medium via which more and more people, especially among the emerging generations, were receiving content. As we shall see, recent developments suggest that another art form is emerging, one that transcends the constraints of the feature film and traditional TV series. A good illustration of this evolution can be found in the career of two innovative figures.

Born and raised in Chicago, Andy and Larry Wachowski2 made their way to Hollywood and in 1995 cowrote the screenplay for the mainstream feature film Assassins. Then they wrote and directed the innovative lesbian, neonoir Bound, which debuted at the 1996 Toronto Film Festival. Their next film, The Matrix (1999), propelled them to the Hollywood A-list, winning four Oscars for editing and sound and visual effects.

Seeking to go further, the Wachowskis wanted to make a film adaptation of David Mitchell’s 2004 novel Cloud Atlas. They spent years trying to find a studio willing to invest $100 million. Eventually they produced it independently, collecting the money from a roster of international backers and putting in millions of their own when some of the funding fell through. Cloud Atlas is a huge and sprawling book consisting of six nested stories, each read by the main character of the next. Migrating the complex story arcs and numerous characters and locations into a film was a challenge that many thought impossible – even at almost three hours in length.

The film proved the sceptics right. Slant Magazine‍ ’s Calum Marsh called it a “unique and totally unparalleled disaster.”3 Writing in the Guardian, Henry Barnes noted, “At 163 minutes, Cloud Atlas carries all the marks of a giant folly, and those unfamiliar with the book will be baffled.”4 Nevertheless, Barnes added that “it’s hard to wholly condemn the directors’ ambition – this is fast-paced and cleverly assembled, with the best of the performances shining through the prosthetics.” So what went wrong? “We simply don’t spend enough time with any particular set of characters for a single emotional arc to properly register.”

The novel was far too sweeping, the disjointed story segments far too complex and the characters far too numerous and rich to fit into three hours. By trying to condense the Cloud Atlas canvas into a cohesive film short enough to placate the demands of the Cineplex owners, the Wachowskis ended up satisfying no one. What could have been a brilliant visual adaptation of a hugely popular novel in a six- or eight-hour production failed miserably when edited down to three. It was the lingering “what ifs” of that failure that appear to have been addressed in the Wachowskis’ latest work, Sense8.

The stage was first set in January 2008 when Netflix, once a company that merely rented DVDs, lifted the restrictions controlling access to its streaming library, at which point virtually all rental-disc subscribers became entitled to unlimited streaming at no additional cost. Netflix’s groundbreaking decision affected every corporation that owned media content, both television and film. Soon thereafter, in response to competition from other online media providers like Hulu and Amazon, Netflix began offering its entire library of past television shows for online viewing on demand. Consumers could now watch television shows when they wanted to and, more importantly, watch as many episodes as they wished at one time. Moreover, because they are paid for through subscriptions, there are no commercial interruptions in Netflix programs.

Thus was born the phenomenon that is rather unfortunately termed “binge-watching.” A 2014 survey conducted for Netflix found that it most commonly consists of watching between two and six episodes of the same TV show in one sitting.5 As binge-watching transforms the way people watch television, it is changing the way television content is being developed. Vince Gilligan, the creator of Breaking Bad, began writing for television while working on the series The X-Files. There, he was schooled by creator Chris Carter in building cliffhangers that would lure the audience through the mandatory commercial breaks of network television and into the next episode. Now, in creating their weekly narrative, season by season, writers must also cater to fans who, notes Gilligan, take the story “in a giant inhalation.”6

It is this “giant inhalation” that now allows creators of original content to go beyond the constraints of the single television episode or the two-hour feature film. The ability to present story arcs that run as long as 10 to 12 hours without the restrictions of commercial breaks or movie theatre showtime limits has opened up a whole landscape of possibilities. And some of the brightest and most creative minds, many from Hollywood itself, leapt to the challenge.

15_Figure_2Since this introduction of online streaming and the instant availability of entire seasons of popular television shows, binge-watching has become a global phenomenon. And since Netflix (estimated to have over 75 million subscribers worldwide) began releasing episodes of its own series in entire blocks of seasons, binge-watching has gone some distance toward becoming the norm rather than the exception. According to a 2014 survey, some 84 per cent of those 14 to 25 and even 37 per cent of those over 68 years old engage in binge-watching TV series.7 The Nielsen rating company recently calculated the time it would take to watch the entire breadth of some of TV’s most popular series. Figure 2 sets out the results. While it is highly unlikely that anyone would actually commit the more than four days needed to view all of the episodes of The West Wing in one sitting, there is clearly an interest in pursuing such possibilities that has gained the attention of the industry.

Hence binge-watching has been evolving from the consumption of vast amounts of previously produced television into a broadly accepted manner of viewing content that has begun to affect production. Producers and writers have been exploring creating shows with arcs designed to take advantage of this burgeoning art form to tell sweeping and intricate stories that demand a greater investment in time from the viewer. No longer limited by time constraints or the strict schedule of weekly episodes, the storytellers of television have become free to explore the boundaries of story arcs that flow over much longer periods of time.

Many television series have lent themselves to binge-watching as they become available online. These include past masterworks that can now be seen on view-on-demand streaming services and are being gobbled up at a frantic pace as viewers immerse themselves into stories that they may have missed the first time around. Netflix reports that nearly 75 per cent of viewers who streamed the first season of Breaking Bad completed all seven episodes in a single session, a figure that rose to 81 and 85 per cent for seasons two and three. The Internet site BrandWatch, a marketing analysis company, tracked social media for mentions of binge-watching and which shows were being consumed. BrandWatch’s research found 40,065 specific mentions of binge-watched shows surveyed over eight months in 2015. Figure 3 shows the results.


It is not surprising that the content creators who have made perhaps the most innovative use of this medium to transcend the length limitations of traditional television and film have been the Wachowskis. Sense8, which first appeared in 2015, is a science-fiction series about eight strangers who discover that they are emotionally and mentally connected to one another and must work together to save humanity and themselves from an organization hunting them. The scenes jump from continent to continent as the protagonists make contact from distances thousands of kilometres apart through a form of symbiotic connection. At the outset Sense8 focused on the individual characters’ conditions and concerns, but the story develops organically as the subplots intertwine – something made possible by the 12 hours that Netflix allowed the Wachowskis.

With a second season projected for 2017 and a potential for three more (the Wachowskis have stated that their vision involves a five-year story arc), Sense8 has opened doors to a narrative that flows at its own pace and created a chaotic and imperfect world that could inspire viewers when least expected. Unlike almost all television that preceded it, Sense8 episodes are uneven in length, allowing each one to unravel with the story arc. It could never have worked either as a movie or as a conventional episodic television series.

The world of streaming media affects every form, including standard television fare and movies, but binge-watching fundamentally changes the basic structure of cinematic storytelling. Netflix, as an online provider of content that can be viewed at a person’s own pace, evolved from delivering traditional television shows to creating a new art form that will only grow and mature as the years go by.

Continue reading “How binge-watching creates a new art form”

In recent years, I have come to an appreciation of film as the greatest embodiment of the human spirit in an art form. No other medium has shown itself to be so available to people everywhere in so many walks of life. Throughout history, art was typically produced by an elite for the aristocracy and bourgeoisie. While theatre has often sought an audience beyond the privileged few, there are only so many places in any theatre and each production is essentially unique. Film was different: from the outset it attracted a mass viewership many times larger than that of the stage. It soon grew into a universal language of expression with an impact on humanity that cannot be overstated.

At its birth late in the 19th century, film was a novelty, a social as well as visual experience for the population, like nothing ever seen before. Soon, with the advent of film editing and the continuous narrative, film rivalled theatre as a medium for telling stories. The first feature-length, multireel film was a 1906 Australian production called The Story of the Kelly Gang. It traced the life of the legendary, infamous outlaw and bushranger Ned Kelly (1855–1880) and ran for more than an hour with a reel length of approximately 1,200 metres. It was first shown at Melbourne’s Athenaeum Hall during Australia’s gold rush in December 1906 and opened in Britain in January 1908.1 In the years that followed, artists of vision and creative force migrated to this new and compelling medium and the history of film as a true art form began.

The United States led the way, combining newly developed film technology with the dramatic structures already in use on the stage. D.W. Griffith was the first of a series of successful directors, making films that brought dramatic excitement to large audiences. In The Cheat (1915), Cecil B. DeMille evoked the moral dilemmas facing the film’s characters more subtly than Griffith. The Cheat established DeMille as the new titan in the burgeoning film industry, challenged only by Charlie Chaplin, and later by Irving Thalberg at MGM. In the years that followed, the silent movies saw the emergence of “stars” like Douglas Fairbanks and Rudolph Valentino – not to mention Chaplin himself – and the advent of the studio system. Movies, as they were being called now, were starting to mature: some of the greatest storytellers of all time were coming to make Hollywood home and film their medium of expression.

16_Table 1

It was through the early efforts of the American film pioneers, combined with the devastating effect of World War I on the European film industry, that Hollywood established itself as the “film factory for the world.” As a magnet of talent for artists who chose film to express their creativity, Hollywood began producing films that would set the standard for generations. Although many non-American productions over the years have touched both the masses and the critics (see numbers 8, 9 and 10 on the critics’ list, and numbers 9 and 10 on the directors’ list of the greatest films of all time in table 1), there cannot be any history of film as a worldwide art form that doesn’t have the Hollywood classics on the top of its list of “best ever” movies. Of course, film, and very good film, was still being produced in the rest of the world throughout the period 1930 to 2000, but without a doubt the movies that had the greatest impact on both the viewing public and the community of film critics and aficionados were made in Hollywood.

The Hollywood studios were able to assemble immense talent. At their height, eight studios produced virtually all American films being seen in the theatres. It was only after 1948, when an antitrust decision against Paramount ended long-term star contracts, that independents began to account for more than a small proportion of released films, though most of these relied on the majors to help in financing and distribution. The vast amount of money films brought in, even in the depths of the Depression, made it possible for the studios to take risks when it came to hiring the most creative minds and, with fewer exceptions than we might expect, to allow them wide intellectual freedom in making films.

2001 A Space Odyssey

When I look back at the 20th century and at the films that enchanted me, it was Hollywood that set the high mark for the rest of the world to match. Social changes that rocked the existing establishment, wars and conflicts that shaped the world, outstanding individuals who charted new courses for humanity – these subjects were the mainstay of Hollywood. Early in 1942, during the worst days of war in Europe and just after America’s “day of infamy” at Pearl Harbor, Humphrey Bogart reminded us in Casablanca that we’d “always have Paris.” When Marlon Brando, in his Oscar-winning role as Vito Corleone in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (1972), graced the screen with a presence that few actors have ever matched, we all knew what he meant when he said, “I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse.” Richard Nixon told the world that he had ended the Vietnam War with “peace and honor” in 1973, but five years later in The Deer Hunter Americans gained a real insight into what that conflict was all about – followed the next year by Apocalypse Now in which they came to know that napalm “smelled like victory.” Hollywood made us weep and made us laugh with such power that, with few exceptions, the rest of the world’s movies seemed like cheap imitations in a foreign language.

These are just a few personal favourites that I happened to pick out. The least subjective list of the greatest films ever made is based on a poll carried out by Sight & Sound, the magazine of the prestigious British Film Institute. Roger Ebert described it as “by far the most respected of the countless polls of great movies – the only one most serious movie people take seriously.”2 Every decade, Sight & Sound asks an international group of film professionals to vote for their greatest film of all time and to provide a top ten list. Since 1992, directors have also been invited to participate in a separate poll, the results of which are incorporated into the final standings. As we can see in the latest (2012) poll, five of the top seven films in both categories were made in Hollywood (table 1).

Tokyo Story

Note, however, that for both critics and directors the greatest films were all produced before 1980. The decline in American film becomes evident as the millennium approaches, a reflection of an underlying change. Hollywood has always been a business, but that business model used to have room for a symbiotic relationship between profit and art. It was accepted that not all movies could make a profit. It was sufficient to start from printed pages that told moving stories, stories with the potential to bring magic to the big screen. When it succeeded, that magic drew people into the theatres and filled both the seats and the Hollywood bank accounts. For close to a century, as new books were published that touched people’s lives, Hollywood would arrive cheque book in hand and film treatment in the works. Movies were produced that appealed to every taste, from action to romance, from history to Shakespeare, from drama to comedy, and the wide spectrum of film projects made Hollywood the juggernaut of the film world.

Many superb literary works of the 20th century inspired equally inspiring movies. These included Pulitzer Prize–winning novels such as Gone with the Wind, The Grapes of Wrath, The Caine Mutiny, The Old Man and the Sea, To Kill a Mockingbird andThe Color Purple. More recently, E. Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News and Michael Cunningham’s The Hours were given successful film treatments in the early 2000s, as was Cormac McCarthy‘s bleak 2007 vision of a post-apocalyptic America, The Road.


How did all this change? Slowly and nefariously, through a combination of internet-inspired marketing and technological innovation that led to the rise of the “fanboy.” Just as the previously dominant baby boomers were losing their market position, computer-generated imagery (CGI) facilitated the production and marketing of movies based on fantasy and comic book characters. Hollywood began to see big dollar signs in front of the blockbuster format. The result was the proliferation of movies that were big on pyrotechnics and small on storyline. The loss to filmgoers everywhere was Marvel Comics’ great gain. In 21st-century Hollywood, it appears, New York Times bestselling novels don’t stand a chance against Spiderman.

16_Table 2

If only the bottom line counts – if the industry is there to produce profits instead of films – the last few years have been a bonanza. If, instead of quality, one makes a list of all films based on gross revenues, as we can see in table 2, seven of the top ten grossing movies of all time have been produced since 2011, and five of those have been based on a toy (Transformer movies), a Marvel Comics character or a Harry Potter novel. (These figures are not adjusted for inflation, but even taking into consideration the net present value of older blockbusters like Gone with the Wind, these present day grosses are still high on the list of most profitable film productions ever.)3

While Hollywood was seducing 17-year-old boys into theatres with the allure of comic characters and mass destruction, all courtesy of the rapidly progressing innovations in CGI technology, the rest of the world was quietly producing films based on stories that still touched people’s hearts. Previously unknown directors from countries with small and often state-funded film industries started turning out movies that captured the attention of cinephiles worldwide.

Festivals like Cannes that had previously been the standard for film excellence outside of the United States started to give way to other gatherings of respected experts in the field, and many of these other festivals recognized the impact of non-American films. In a relatively short time span, the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) has become a respected festival and one that highlights non-American directors. Founded in 1976, TIFF is now one of the most prestigious events of its kind in the world. In 1998, TIFF was noted by Variety Magazine as being “second only to Cannes in terms of high-profile pics, stars and market activity.” And in 2007, TIFF was recognized as having “grown from its place as the most influential fall film festival to the most influential film festival, period.”4 In 2012, 372 films from 72 countries were screened at 34 screens in downtown Toronto venues, welcoming an estimated 400,000 attendees, including more than 4,000 were industry professionals.

According to FestivalFocus, an online database of all of the film festivals around the world, there are currently 2,676 festivals actively showing and allowing internationally produced cinema to compete for prizes.5 Of those, there are 16 “heavyweights,” festivals that draw the best films from all corners of the globe as well as the critics who review them.6 It is at these film festivals that the world gets to see those movies that most North American theatres won’t show. Limited to “art house” cinemas, university campuses and the occasional showing in a theatre in one of the more progressive metropolitan centres in North America, the new breed of non-American films is setting a standard that many cinephiles think is largely unattainable by Hollywood today. In its blind seduction by blockbuster dollars, Hollywood is losing artistic ground to the rest of the world. And the communities of film critics who establish the criteria that informed cinema-goers seek out are leading the way.

To reduce the subjectivity inherent in critical comparisons of film quality, the best method is to consult the influential American website Metacritic.7 Metacritic posts the articles published by all major critics and reviewers in North America and distills them into a “weighted” value for any specific movie. In this way, even if a majority of critics praise a film, the few who do not will lower its average score. Universal acclaim by all critics is rare, and those are the films that that demand to be seen.

On December 17, 2009, Metacritic published its list of the highest rated films of the first decade of the 21st century. Movies that were released between January 1, 2000, and December 31, 2009, and had seven or more reviews in Metacritic’s database were eligible for the list. Rereleases and alternate versions (e.g. director’s cuts) were excluded.8 And the results were astonishing.

Of the top 100 films, a full 43 per cent were non-English-language films; and many of the English-language movies were obscure gems that few moviegoers saw. More significantly, some of the biggest money-making films of the decade did not make the list at all; only two of the ten highest grossing films of that ten-year period made the list. In those years Hollywood was raking in record box office receipts, but not making movies that inspired critics.9

As many talented creators of content in America, and the actors drawn to these kinds of projects, were facing a lack of viable opportunities in Hollywood, the once almost “untouchable” alternative, television, became a real option. For most of the early years of TV, any actor, writer or director of any status in Hollywood would have seen a job in television as a step down, a mark of their diminishing worth in the movie industry. Today, not only has that stigma vanished, but now, in what must be regarded as the Golden Age of Television, the opposite is true. Highly gifted writers and directors have recently looked to the subscription-based premium channels, those bastions of endless pocketbooks free of FCC content restrictions, for a new home in which to prosper.

The A list of talent that has produced TV shows that are in many ways far better than conventional movies today is extensive – and the list of actors, writers and directors seeking the opportunity to participate in making such dramatic art is burgeoning. For example, the 2014 Academy Award winner for best actor, Matthew McConaughey, drew universal acclaim for his role in the TV series True Detective, narrowly missing being the first person in history to win both an Oscar and an Emmy in the same year. This is a trend certain to continue as more and more premium channels, as well as internet streaming services like Netflix, continue to expand their range of creativity.

Pan’s Labyrinth

Meanwhile, non-American directors and production houses have become the leaders in contemporary film as an art form, producing works that touch a wide range of emotions and interests. Young, avant-garde directors all over the world – many of whom, ironically, grew up watching the masterpieces of their Hollywood idols – are now at the forefront of film and are turning out works of cinema that are opening up new frontiers. What is evident in this new generation of non-American filmmakers, and makes them so engaging, is a fresh approach to the human experience, often autobiographically inspired. It is their originality of vision, more than the production values in their cinematography, that make many non-American films so captivating.

On Metacritic’s all-time list of the highest rated films by review score, the number of highly placed non-American films is a reflection of just how much Hollywood has lost its dominance over the years.10 Pan’s Labyrinth (a Spanish-Mexican co-production and number 3 on the list), 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days (from Romania, number 5), Virunga (from the Congo, number 11), A Separation (from Iran, number 14 on the list), Carlos (a German-French production, number 26) and Amour (from France, number 28) are just a handful of recently released films that have astounded the critics. These movies prove that obscure gems requiring subtitles to be enjoyed by almost all the Americans who view them are still a preferable alternative to English-language blockbusters whose scripts appear to have been written for people who move their lips when they read.

16_Table 3

With Hollywood increasingly putting profit over content, not only is the blockbuster becoming the business model of choice, but sequels are becoming more common. As tables 3 and 4 reveal, the new Hollywood maxim seems to be “if they pay to see it once, they’ll pay to see it again.” As much as non-American directors are turning to scripts that are fresh and innovative, Hollywood is stuck in the mill of profitable sequels. In the past year in cinema, only one top-grossing film, Interstellar, was neither an adaptation of a comic book, fairy tale or fantasy novel or a remake. Most revealing in the tables, covering 30 years of film production, is the triumph of form over substance.

16_Table 4

Further, by 2011, not one of the top grossing films was made from an original script. Able to rely on its technical prowess and superb production values, Hollywood has no economic incentive to make a movie from an original source.

Until its producers decide that there is value in films that that keep audiences thinking about them long after the curtain goes down, based on good stories and not special effects, Hollywood will continue to lose critical ground to directors from other countries. No amount of pyrotechnics or car chases or CGI can substitute for a good script, something that should be obvious – unless adolescent boys are your target audience.

16_apartment Wilder
Wilder’s The Apartment

In 1987, at the 60th annual Academy Awards, the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award went to the director Billy Wilder. Recognized by film historians as one of the most acclaimed directors in the history of American film, Wilder produced some of the greatest films of all times. Wilder was the first person (and still one of only five people) to win Academy Awards as producer, director and screenwriter for the same film: The Apartment. The American Film Institute has ranked four of Wilder’s films in the top 100 American movies (Sunset Boulevard at number 16, Some Like it Hot at 22, Double Indemnity at 29, and The Apartment at 80).

During his acceptance speech for the award, Wilder told a very touching story. He explained that as a young man, he escaped from Berlin and the Nazis and came to America in 1934, where he started his career writing scripts for Hollywood. After six months, his U.S. visa expired and Wilder applied to stay. In the interview, the consular officer asked Wilder what he did for a living, to which he replied, “I write movies.” Wilder continued with the story: “And he said, ‘That so?’ He got up and started pacing, kind of behind me, but I felt that he was measuring me. Then he came back to the desk, picked up my passport, opened it, and took a rubber stamp and went , handed me back the passport and he said, ‘Write some good ones.’” So Wilder did.

Perhaps we cannot expect films to rival Gone with the Wind in today’s more cynical age, but Richard Linklater’s 2014 masterpiece Boyhood, an astonishing 12-year project that chronicles one boy’s experiences with family and peers from age six to eighteen, is a film that harks back to the days of intelligent and moving stories. Boyhood is the only newly released film to garner a perfect 10 on Metacritic’s list of reviews since the site’s inception in 1999. It was nominated for six Academy Awards and won the Best Picture category at the Golden Globes, BAFTA Film Awards, American Film Institute Awards, Australian Film Institute, Berlin International Festival, César Awards in France and TIFF, as well as most other international festivals.

It was also a film that almost nobody saw. In 2014, during its entire theatre run, Boyhood grossed $25 million at the box office. During that same period, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 grossed $337 million while Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy grossed $333 million and Captain America – The Winter Soldier grossed $260 million.11 The message to Hollywood is clear: invest in comic-based blockbusters, not intelligent moviemaking.

Thus Linklater remains at the margins. Until mainstream Hollywood producers come once again to find value in stories that touch people’s lives instead of relying on well-worn formulas and adaptations of previous successes, it will be filmmakers from other parts of the world who will touch the hearts and souls of film audiences. Except, of course, the 17-year-old fanboys.

Continue reading “How Hollywood sold its soul to the comic book fanboy”

Once is left with the horrible feeling now that war settles nothing; that to win a war is as disastrous as to lose one.”
— Agatha Christie, An Autobiography

François Dupeyron’s very personal and haunting 2002 film The Officers’ Ward1 addresses the horrors of war and the damages that are inflicted on the human spirit. And, on many levels, it more than succeeds. A stunning reminder that war is more often about the men who fight it than the politicians who wage it, this French period drama uses the First World War as an oblique setting in which to examine the issues of identity and self-image that define us all. The war, however, is more than merely the back-story: it is one of the main protagonists.

In our collective, historical memory, we are approaching the 100th anniversary of what we once called The Great War, the name bestowed on that world war before humanity had the audacity and the hubris to create another and start numbering them. It has been the hallmark of modern science to use new technology to kill before eventually finding a more pragmatic peacetime use for any scientific advancement. What set the First World War apart from previous conflicts was the huge chasm between the warfare technology of that time and the relatively ineffectual state of medicine during that same period. The metamorphosis from simple guns and men on horseback that were the norms in the 19th century to mustard gas and long-range artillery transformed the First World War from merely another conflict into a bloodbath.

German soldiers were killed at the rate of one every 45 seconds, and French death rates were even higher. In the five months during which the battles of Verdun and the Somme were waged in 1916, nearly a million men died – an average of 6,600 every day, more than 277 every minute, nearly five every second. The 20,000 British soldiers killed on the first day of the Somme are often recalled with horror, yet on average a similar number of soldiers died during every four-day period of the entire war.2 French casualties from the First World War were greater than American casualties from every war that the United States had ever taken part in to that point in history. Russia and Germany each suffered even greater casualties. Those who survived often returned home as shells of their former selves, unable to be healed more than superficially. The Officers’ Ward is a film about one such man and his voyage to find his humanity once again.

In his first few days as a soldier in the First World War, French officer Adrien (Eric Caravaca) is critically wounded when a German shell explodes in his face. Barely alive and horrifically injured, he’s taken off the front lines without having ever fired a single shot. For both Adrien and director Dupeyron, the First World War effectively ends there, as The Officers’ Ward isn’t about the battlefield but about Adrien’s five-year regeneration and recuperation in a special army hospital.

In a masterstroke of film tension, Dupeyron makes sure that for the first 35 minutes of the film we don’t get to see Adrien’s face. Unable to speak and too weak to move, Adrien lies immobile in his hospital bed, racked with pain and afraid to be confronted with the consequences of his injuries. It is a private hell that Dupeyron beautifully captures through point-of-view shots from Adrien’s perspective combined with scenes of his injured body. All of which is made even more harrowing by the sound of Adrien’s rasping breathing and the horrified faces of those who come to tend his wounds.

As the film progresses, Tetsuo Nagata’s masterful cinematography captures the essence of Adrien’s situation. The film is bathed in washed-out hues and set against a consistently yellow tinge, reminding us of the jaundiced nature of warfare and the bleak and dismal future that Adrien and his cohorts at the hospital face. It is when Dupeyron addresses the private battles raging inside Adrien’s head that the film really soars. For Adrien, the battlefield has been left behind, but the war to find himself and the remains of his humanity is what The Officers’ Ward is really about.

The basis of Adrien’s wounds are medically accurate and reflect the horrors that millions of soldiers faced when wounded. In his book Before My Helpless Sight: Suffering, Dying and Military Medicine on the Western Front, 1914–1918,3 Leo van Bergen wrote about the true-life injuries that the character of Adrien is based on – on wounds so ghastly that one nurse wondered if the patients that she tended to would not have been better off dead:

Bagnold wrote of having to nurse a man called Ryan at the hospital where she worked in England. He lay on five or six pillows, tied down with bandages that ran under his arms and were secured to the bars of the bed. “He lay with his profile to me – only he has no profile, as we know a man’s. Like an ape, he has only his bumpy forehead and his protruding lips – the nose, the left eye, gone.” Then there was a man without nostrils, struggling to breathe through two rubber tubes inserted into what was once his nose. “It gave him a more horrible look to his face than I have ever seen.” Bagnold believed the medical orderly was convinced he would not survive and she asked herself whether the soldier in question might actually prefer that to the prospect of living.

It is when Adrien starts to understand that his injuries will define the remainder of his life that Dupeyron fully fleshes out the underlying theme of the film, the power of the human condition. The scenes that focus on Adrien’s life in the hospital are emotionally agonizing as well as ripe with fresh humour and tender compassion. Across the boundaries of each man’s unique injury, The Officers’ Ward shows the commonality of the soldiers’ experiences of sickness, wounding and death.

Slowly, however, with help from medical staff and similarly disfigured patients, Adrien’s face, faith and sense of identity and personal worth are rebuilt. The casualties emerge not as mere consequences of battle, but as the essential agents of warfare. It’s a remarkable mix that works perfectly, with Dupeyron forcing us to look at the cost of bravery, the value of sacrifice and, most of all, the way that we see ourselves. Dupeyron eloquently exercises sensitivity in the film, creating an aura of incremental bravery and recovery that transpires almost entirely in the hospital. The Officers’ Ward consistently sidesteps the potential for melodrama as it navigates between instances of compassion and cruelty. When Adrien is released after four and a half years, the struggle to make a life as a disfigured man in postwar Paris begins with surprising results.

In the century since the First World War, there have been a plethora of books and movies about the subject. Since Lewis Milestone’s 1930 classic All Quiet on the Western Front won the Academy Award for best picture and best director, the First World War has continued to have a grip on humanity’s imagination – and horror. Few film treatments of the subject, though, have been as poignant as The Officers’ Ward, a marvellously assured film, beautifully acted throughout, unexpectedly funny in places, and profoundly moving. The film serves as a powerful reminder of the terrible human suffering endured both during and after the war by those who bore the physical, mental and emotional scars of the conflict, as well as the immense power of the human spirit to find meaning in life. Haunting and emotive, The Officers’ Ward brilliantly captures the insanity of an era when science had perfected modern warfare but had yet to discover how to rebuild the ripped and shredded bodies, and souls, of the men sent out to fight.

Continue reading “The horrors of war and the human condition”

Since the dawn of telecommunications, Canada has been concerned with protecting its national identity. Long before television, Graham Spry, a founder of the Canadian Radio Broadcasting Corporation (CRBC, later the CBC), said, “The question is the State or the United States.” Many felt that Canada’s very survival required maintaining its unique national identity by protecting Canadian content in the arts.

With the advent of radio, a medium that easily crossed the Canada-U.S. border, the Canadian government came to the conclusion that protecting our national identity needed to take the form of radio programming that was funded, produced and broadcast on airwaves controlled by a public corporation. To that end, the Broadcasting Act of 1932 created the CRBC with a mandate to establish a national broadcasting service and to monitor the entire broadcasting system. The fear that American programming would stunt Canadian culture led to a government policy of Canadianizing the mass media.

Initially the Broadcasting Act referred only to radio, but that changed with the appearance of television in Canada in 1952. In 1968, the Act was modified again to create the Canadian Radio and Television Commission, which later became the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC). With the proliferation of cable TV in the seventies, the CRTC tried again to control Canadian content by limiting the amount of non-Canadian programing allowed. This was relatively easy to accomplish: cable was a wire-based distribution system that could be monitored and supervised by the CRTC.

Satellite television arrives

At the dawn of the 21st century, with the introduction of the satellite and its ability to deliver thousands of channels without wires, television entered a new era. The CRTC legislated that broadcasters and distributors must be at least two-thirds owned and controlled by Canadian citizens and, in its ongoing effort to ensure the availability of Canadian programming, that all conventional stations, and most established specialty services, be required to air a majority of Canadian content in their schedules as a whole and in prime time specifically. American satellite provider DIRECTV was excluded from the Canadian market on the grounds that it could never conform to the regulations governing the amount of Canadian content.

In the vacuum created by the absence of U.S.-based satellite providers, and in response to the desire of Canadians to receive satellite television and the plethora of specialty stations available, Canadian telecommunication giants Bell Telephone and Shaw Communications filled the demand. With Bell TV and Shaw Direct, Canadians can legally watch the specialty programming available while being spared an overabundance of I Love Lucy episodes and, at the same time, having the privilege of being able to access Inuit TV and Newfoundland fishing reports.

In 2006, the CRTC issued a report to the Governor-in-Council on the future of the Canadian broadcasting system. As recommended by the report, subsequent legislation exempted television programming delivered through cell phones and other mobile devices from regulation. The internet, while not specifically mentioned in the 2006 report, has always been considered a mobile delivery system and has, thus far, existed without any direct intervention from Canadian authorities. And this is unlikely to change: China and North Korea are among the few countries that restrict their citizens’ access to the internet. This unrestricted ability to access online content will eventually end almost 100 years of government control of Canadian media content.

A large number of media providers have seen the future of content delivery – and it is the internet. What started as a fringe group of online junkies who wanted the world at large to be able to watch their videos on the Web turned into YouTube. That was the first volley in the war of cultural identity between the CRTC and the vast, worldwide library of content that could be delivered without any means of control.

According to legend, YouTube was created when two PayPal employees found it difficult to upload a video of a dinner party to share with other guests. In 2012, seven years after it was founded, 60 hours of video was being uploaded to YouTube every minute, and 800 million or so unique visitors per month were viewing 4 billion videos every day.1

YouTube created a way for people all over the globe to produce, share and distribute video content freely, without borders or control. Since 2006, when YouTube was acquired by Google, most of the monitoring done on the site has concerned intellectual property issues and not the actual content of the videos. It is this open environment and the free delivery of almost unrestricted creativity that has propelled YouTube and the millions who produce its content into the forefront of borderless entertainment. In December 2006, Time magazine wrote, “YouTube is to video browsing what a Wal-Mart Supercenter is to shopping: everything is there, and all you have to do is walk in the door.” In 2008, YouTube received a Peabody Award and was cited for being “a ‘Speakers’ Corner’ that both embodies and promotes democracy.”

The internet is truly the dawn of entertainment without borders. YouTube was the innovation that opened the eyes of many, including large, profit-seeking content creators and providers, to the power of the internet. The ability to deliver on-demand content – without the need for a hardwired connection to each end user – opened a whole new range of possibilities.

The same possibilities also opened up a whole new range of problems for the CRTC. In the new age of internet delivery, how could Canada set limits on the content available from other countries (read: the United States)? But for a few years at least, the question would remain theoretical, as YouTube content was largely what we would term “home videos.” The CRTC, in its mandate to encourage the growth of the Canadian film and television industry, was not especially concerned with four-minute-long videos of cats dancing in a bathtub. Even YouTube’s recent partnerships with mainstream content creators – NBC in 2006 and MGM, Lions Gate Entertainment and CBS in 2008 – allowed access only to viewers in the United States.

The future changes again

At the outset, even as it became increasingly afraid of losing control over content delivery, the CRTC still had a major asset: few people actually used the internet system to watch traditional entertainment. Even after YouTube began streaming select television shows, it was still necessary to use cable or satellite for mainstream television and the traditional media to watch movies.

And then came Netflix.

Netflix was founded in the United States in 1997 by veteran technology entrepreneurs Reed Hastings and Marc Randolph to rent and sell DVDs through the mail. Hastings was reported to have come up with the idea after he was forced to pay a $40 fine on an overdue videotape of the film Apollo 13. Five years later, Netflix was barely profitable and still fending off challenges from competitors in the movie rental business. Netflix had the advantage of an early start, an established distribution system and patents for its proprietary software programs. But the company realized that content distribution through the mail, although its bread and butter, was doomed to obsolescence.

In 2007 Netflix saw the light: the future of home entertainment was on-demand content delivered via the internet. It started by offering – initially free of charge to attract new members – streaming videos for viewing on a computer or Web-enabled device. The financial goal was to reduce costs by eliminating physical DVDs, warehousing and postage. Soon, independent producers were making their content available for streaming on Netflix, which allowed them to reach a wider audience than had previously been available using traditional methods.

The results were extraordinary. Freed from having to leave their homes to get a movie, and with access to a selection of content that dwarfed any video store, millions of people signed up for Netflix’s online distribution. According to a 2012 internet traffic report (by Sandvine), Netflix’s streaming service accounted for almost one third of all Web traffic. Netflix launched in Canada in 2010. A March 2013 survey (by Media Technology Monitor) indicated that 25 per cent of English-speaking Canadians have signed up for Netflix, up from 13 per cent one year earlier.

… and again

As Netflix’s market grew, the major television and film production houses began to raise their fees for the right to deliver content. It was time for Netflix, a distribution company with no previous production experience, to create its own content. This experiment in self-funded and self-produced television further changed the television landscape. Netflix’s production and distribution of series such as House of Cards – which received nine nominations for the 2013 Primetime Emmy Awards – and Orange is the New Black showed the entertainment world at large that successful TV shows were no longer the exclusive domain of the television networks. Netflix proved that anyone with the imagination, technical and artistic skills and funding could develop and produce television that people would watch – television that could be delivered over the internet, free from the encumbrances and regulations of government control.

A recent U.S. survey (by Belkin and Harris Interactive) found that 30 per cent of U.S. internet users would consider ending their cable plan and watching television exclusively online. The future of media content delivery is online distribution and an increase in the number of independent production houses, free from the networks’ control or influence, is inevitable. The new paradigm in entertainment will see content produced by anyone with the means and the artistic skills, wherever they happen to be in this world, being delivered to interested viewers, wherever they are, without the ability of any government to control or interfere.

With premium online content drawing viewers away from traditional television delivery systems, television in Canada will increasingly become an unregulated market. With the CRTC unable to limit the shows that Canadians can watch, our national identity will have to survive on the strength of existing cultural institutions, our shared cultural heritage and our common past – as well as the level of subsidy. In an internet age, Canadian television will have to depend on the quality of production, not on an artificial market in which broadcast time is dictated by policy rather than demand.

The future is here. Canadian television and film producers must accept a world without protectionist legislation. Netflix has proven that television is no longer limited to the networks. Canadian content creators can participate – but they will have to become more daring, smarter and more excellent if they are to survive.


Continue reading “How the CRTC lost the internet TV war”