In the Rocky Mountains this week, the world of TV felt a little more level – at least for a moment – with word from Los Angeles that Canadian Tatiana Maslany had won the Critics' Choice Television Award for her role in the clone thriller Orphan Black – beating out the likes of Claire Danes in Homeland and Elisabeth Moss in Mad Men. Her performance (as multiple characters) on the critically acclaimed sci-fi conspiracy series – produced and shot in Toronto – is getting Emmy buzz across North America: The Daily Beast and The Boston Globe are among those raving. For Canadian TV types who had gathered in Banff, the good news from Hollywood about this Canada-U.S. co-production, developed at the Canadian Film Centre, was a breath of fresh mountain air in a time of great disruption.
The TV production world came to Banff this week – and by production world, we mean everyone from traditional broadcasters to online giants such as Vice, as well as a whole bunch of people wanting to create and/or sell content for whoever wants to buy it. And once again, as it has for the past few years, the Banff World Media (formerly Television) Festival heard a dizzying array of opinions about the state of the industry. Dealing with the disrupting forces – and finding the bright spots – was the focus. Still, in murky times, one thing emerged as crystal clear: The old rules are about as relevant as the instructions that came with your VCR. Millennials are preoccupied with their screens (not TVs); everyone from Bell Media to BuzzFeed is preoccupied with millennials.
In this cultural shift, second screens – tablets, smartphones – have become first screens. As the millennials age, those "phones" will be used more infrequently for voice contact; they'll be all about apps and texting – and, yes, watching TV. That generation is off Facebook – their parents are there, for God's sake – pivoting instead to smaller, disposable sharing networks such as Vine and Snapchat. As for subscribing to cable? Ha.
There's another preoccupation in the midst of this upheaval: hunting down revenue. Just as delegates were heading home from the Rockies, the CRTC released stunning figures on Thursday, showing that for private conventional television broadcasters , profits (before interest and taxes) dropped from $151.6-million in 2011 to $22.9-million in 2012. At the same time, broadcasters (and everyone else) are having to sink money into online content even as they scramble to determine how to monetize it. Online ads, the networks will tell you, are not nearly as profitable as those on TV. "We have a real revenue crisis in our business," Bell Media President Kevin Crull told an audience at Banff.
But at the same time, more television (or "television") is being consumed, thanks to access on multiple platforms – and scads of sharing on social networks. This is, ironically, a new golden age of television, with no end of smart, sophisticated content – call it what you will. You might even call it TV, despite the fact you may never own one. TV is dead. Long live TV.
While traditional broadcasters try to roll with the punches of technology and use their big brains and still big (if shrinking) bank accounts as they grapple for solutions, it's the behaviour of the all-powerful, ever-demanding, and decidedly unpredictable millennials that will determine the course, scope and profitablility of the industry's future.
"The jury is still out. Will they buy cable subscriptions? They haven't bought cable subscriptions because they're in university now or they're just graduating and in their first jobs. They can't afford a $120 cable subscription package," says Mark Greenspan, executive director of nextMEDIA, the digital arm of the Banff Festival. "The question is, five years from now, are they going to have a relationship with iTunes, Google, Microsoft? Or Rogers, Shaw, Telus, CTV?"
In this quantum shift, it's a DIY world, where content creation is becoming democratized, and curation is being conducted at home (or at the coffee shop, or in line) and not just in Hollywood boardrooms. YouTube is a huge area of opportunity, with its own emerging ecosystem of channels and studios. You can become a YouTube sensation with something shot on an iPhone – or a YouTube powerhouse by aggregating content. Indeed, you could say viewers have the ultimate remote control: Beyond curating their own social media feeds, they can crowdfund projects (think Veronica Mars; the Zach Braff film) and contribute via social media to the very direction and outcome of their favourite reality shows.
Social media can do more than engage viewers and promote content – done right, it can hand crucial qualitative data, and an e-mail address to broadcasters struggling to figure out who is watching what, where, and maybe even why.
"If the medium is the message and the audience is the medium, then what does that actually mean?" asks Ana Serrano, chief digital officer at the Canadian Film Centre. "How do you play with your audiences in such a way that you give them a starring role in whatever property it is that you're developing?" Audience behaviour, she says, is one of the key metrics being tracked as a way to determine the value of content online, in an effort to convince advertisers that they'll get bang for their buck. "The producers who are able to actually make a case for true participatory audience behaviour are the ones who can win."
If all this may not be brand new, observers say we're at a tipping point: A growing number of producers and writers are willing, even eager, to create digital content first – and not just as a stepping stone to the big(ger) screen. Scoring a broadcast deal is a great way to access funds, but, as one conference attendee put it, it's not the victory lap any more.
Basking in Maslana's victory this week, Michael Hennessy, president and CEO of the Canadian Media Production Association, noted that there's been a 25-per-cent increase in domestic production, but a decline in the number of programs being made. The reason: Canadians are making bigger-budget and better-quality shows. Productions, dare we say, that don't look Canadian. They are sent out into the global marketplace where Cancon means nothing and they must compete on their own merits. Canadian-content creators are waking up to the need to go big or stay home.
"The real issue is: How do you, in that world where there's more fragmentation, afford to make the quality programming that people actually want to watch? ... And what is the role of Canadian content in there?" asks Hennessy. "From a producer's perspective, we understand it is a very simple equation. It's totally different from the old days. You have to make stuff that people like to watch, period. If you're not doing that, you're not relevant any more."
In the midst of this new world, it's the old guard that stands to lose the most. Traditional broadcasters and distributors are trying to navigate through all the change, with fragmented viewing, advertising dollars lost to Facebook, people cutting the cord entirely, and digital natives interacting with technology seamlessly and fearlessly (and not always legally). And they have to do it, they are quick to point out, under regulatory controls that currently do not apply to over-the-top services such as Netflix. "I believe that Netflix is having a significantly greater impact on the industry, on consumption habits, on the cost of our content, on the advertising revenue that we're generating, I think a significantly greater impact than is currently appreciated," Bell's Crull told the festival.
Depending on your perspective, Netflix is either a new (if markedly less inflammatory) N-word, or it's a land of opportunity, eager for great original content that can drive up subscriptions, and that has the big bucks to pay for content.
But on that same panel, Rogers Media president of broadcasting Scott Moore warned the audience – made up largely of Canadian producers – that Netflix is not their white knight. "The people in this room should not want Netflix to succeed. Because Netflix is not a part of the Canadian broadcast ecosystem," said Moore. "They have no Canadian-content requirements. They don't have to spend money on Canadian producers. …They're not out there actively promoting Canadian shows the way all of us are."
Moore pointed out that broadcasters' conditions of license dictate that they have to spend a certain percentage of gross revenues on Canadian production. So when profits drop 85 per cent, there are implications for Canadian shows. That same CRTC report shows that despite the decline in revenues, private conventional stations invested 17.6 per cent more on Canadian programming in 2012 than the year before.
And as for promotion, Bell Media says Orphan Black and the Canadian series Motive, which aired on CTV and is now holding its own on ABC, were the No. 1 promotional priorities for Space and CTV respectively for mid-season.
Of course, TV viewers, although they might enjoy recognizing the odd location shot in Toronto, probably don't care that Orphan Black is Canadian content, produced by Toronto's Temple Street Productions. They only care that it's compelling. But it was made – and funded – in the context of the Canadian regulatory framework, with cash from a variety of sources, including Bell Media, the Rogers Documentary and Cable Network Fund, COGECO Program Development Fund, and assistance from federal and provincial tax credits (as well as funding from other sources, including BBC America and Worldwide.)
Says series co-executive producer Kerry Appleyard, of the Canadian financing, "It's massively important, really."
Social networks: What's trending in TV land
The impact of social networking on content viewing is enormous. BuzzFeed told the festival that 45 per cent of its traffic comes from Facebook; 63 per cent of Buzzfeed's video views happen during prime time.
Corus Television President Doug Murphy said 10 years ago that if a Canadian producer had approached a U.S. company about a co-production, the Canadian would have been met with an eye-roll. Now, he says, he fields calls all the time with co-production proposals.
Network ain't dead?
In terms of prestige, there's nothing like network TV, insists CBS Entertainment President Nina Tassler, who called it "the mainstage." "When they see your ratings on CBS from being on broadcast, and knowing the millions and millions and millions of people that watch their shows, there's nothing that compares to that."
The impact of technology
The jokes are coming fast and furious, because they can. If you're watching on demand, and you probably are, you can go back and catch missed jokes by rewatching a scene or an episode – or a whole season. This point was made in relation to Veep (star Julia Louis-Dreyfus was at Banff to accept an award) and has been made about Season 4 of Arrested Development.
Demand for online content will only increase as the business model gets worked out. CTV will launch its first series conceived for the Web, Backpackers, this summer – with a slew of complementary social initiatives meant to market the show. The series will also run on the CW's digital platform, CWD, created a year ago for shows which may (or may not) move to the network. As for complementary online programming, there is an expectation now that the quality will be high, and that it will be distinct from what's on TV. How to monetize all that online content remains a huge question.
Can you remember the last great banner ad you saw? Bet you remember that Old Spice guy on the horse. Branded content is growing rapidly – advertisers want in, and so do content creators. Branded content, done right, is highly watchable and shareable. BuzzFeed, for example, creates the kind of stuff you can easily imagine getting passed around – for example, the 20 coolest hybrid animals (donkey + zebra = donkra), in a campaign for the Toyota Prius. Clearly advertising, it looks like editorial – and it's a heck of a lot more interesting than your average car ad.