Source : MacLean's
The snow-capped peaks of the Rocky Mountains are predictably used as the logo of the Banff World Television Festival, which takes place each June in this resort town. But a more precise image for the event's 2006 incarnation would have been a Magic 8-Ball. Most everyone here, from Lowly Writer with a Dream to Dream-Crushing Network Executive, was aching for a glimpse into the future -- to see what it might hold for an industry that's in the infancy of what is likely to be nothing short of a revolution set off by technological advance. How will content be delivered in the world of tomorrow? Is the end nigh for the 30-second advertising spot, the backbone of broadcasting revenue? Are we witnessing the demise of traditional prime time television? And if so, could we maybe swing it so that Jim Belushi stops getting work? So many questions here -- even if you ignore the last one which, to be fair, only I was asking.
In the search for answers, few at this year's festival seemed able to stop thinking about 21-year-olds -- and not for the usual horny-based, show-business reasons. Instead, conference delegates were obsessed with trying to get inside the heads of today's "younger demographic" to figure out what their fickle, baggy-panted kind wants from television and how, ultimately, they'll choose to watch shows and series, if at all. Maybe on an iPod? A mobile phone handset? Possibly on a computer or a neato Dick Tracy wristwatch? Or maybe even on that, uhh, that big boxy deal . . . what's it called again? . . . it has a screen and a . . . oh -- a television set! Will they ultimately prefer to watch TV on a television?
Apparently not. "Young people want to watch things where they want, how they want, when they want" -- variations on this phrase were uttered by several senior executives, and quickly became the festival's mantra, replacing the traditional mantra of, "Will work for food." Broadcasters and producers, joined in some sessions by senior officials from telecom companies, pondered and brainstormed, reflected and delved. They concluded that young people have an "on-demand mind-set" and are demanding a "more portable entertainment experience." Yet the precise contours of the next era are still frustratingly vague in terms of what technological platform will ultimately prevail.
"My dream is you walk into a grocery store and watch a video clip from the Food Network on your mobile phone," says Phyllis Yaffe, a senior executive at Alliance Atlantis Communications. A list of required ingredients is then downloaded to your phone; you check out using an electronic coupon supplied by one of the program's sponsors. Yaffe's dream concludes with you going home and cooking the dinner you just watched being made on your phone. Oh, one other part to her dream -- somehow Alliance Atlantis makes a little money off of the whole deal.
Cool dream. Sure, not Martin-Luther-King-dream cool, but certainly more easily attainable. The technology already exists. The clips are simple enough to produce. The big question: will anyone actually buy the service, watch the clip, purchase the food, use the coupon? Or to put it more generally: is this what 21st century viewers want from a television network?
"We need to understand how quickly things are changing out there for young people today," said Jay Switzer, chief executive at CHUM. "If you're a 21-year-old, you're doing three or four things at once." (And he's right: for instance, all 21-year-olds currently reading this article are also ironing a shirt and thinking about waffles; 42-year-olds, by way of comparison, are demographically irrelevant -- they could be doing seven things at once and no one in TV would care, unless one of the things they were doing was somehow bisecting themselves to create two 21-year-olds.) If executives at Banff 2006 had come together to pen a letter to the twentywhatevers of the world, it would have read something like this:
Dear You Kids,
You frighten and confuse us with your multi-tasking ways, your electronic lifestyles and your make-out parties. Tell us what the hell you want and maybe we won't get fired.
Everyone in TV
OUTSIDE THE INDUSTRY, the Banff TV festival is probably best known for its entertaining "pitch" sessions, in which aspiring or experienced television writers are allotted four minutes to describe their new show idea and attempt to persuade a jury of its must-see merits. (The big winner this year was a comedy, pitched by Ian Johnston of Toronto, about members of an '80s heavy metal band who reinvent themselves as children's entertainers.) But the festival is valued among industry players as an annual opportunity to make acquaintances and to make deals, usually while repairing for cocktails in a quiet corner of the Banff Springs Hotel (the corner typically grows less quiet when the bill arrives -- those $ 15 martinis tend to prompt a degree of yelping among cash-poor Canadian "celebrities").
This year's festival attracted a strong roster of big-name attractions, including the Oscar-winning writer Paul Haggis and the creators of such of-the-moment shows as Prison Break and House. Away from these high-profile sessions, however, the talk was all about "exploiting the branded entertainment space . . . adapting our business model . . . producing brand relevant content . . . migrating revenue to a functional long-term scenario" and a variety of other phrases that roughly translate as, "I hope this convinces you I have a clue what I'm talking about." The hippest of the new buzzwords is "mo-co," short for mobile content -- video that's watched on an iPod or mobile phone handset. Everyone wants to get into mo-co, apparently so they can earn mo' money. "There's a Wild West atmosphere out there," said one entertainment lawyer. "Nobody knows what the future really holds, but everybody knows that everything is changing."
For instance, you may be of the foolish belief that a TV show is a TV show. It's not. Not anymore. Nowadays a TV show is apparently "a subset of a bigger experience . . . a wonderful content experience" that incorporates the Internet and digital platforms. That's how it was described by Fred Fuchs, newly hired as a senior programming executive at the CBC. So next time you watch a terrible Canadian television program, don't say, "This show sucks." Remember to say, "This subset of a bigger experience sucks."
Fuchs told a panel on the future of Canadian television that the public broadcaster will no longer develop TV series without simultaneously working to produce "content experiences" related to the shows that can be deployed on the Internet and on digital platforms. While certainly deeply trendy in its future-savvy parlance, Fuchs' remarks prompted a minor outbreak of Head Shakes of Disbelief among producers and writers in the audience. Indeed, a wisenheimer might be tempted to suggest that before CBC gets too obsessed with exploiting new media opportunities, it might first want to focus on producing a new show or two that Canadians might actually want to, you know, watch.
Fuchs isn't alone in believing the future is now. "If I were an investor, I'd be very nervous" about investing in traditional TV networks, said Robert Rabinovitch, president and CEO of the CBC. Rabinovitch is among those who thinks the tipping point is near -- that the terrain on which the industry is built is about to endure a seismic shift. TV comes down to the "delivery of eyeballs," he told the conference, and if fewer eyeballs are watching then advertising revenue is going to erode. "You have to ask yourself: is this a business built on sand? Big ad firms are looking away from the traditional model. TV is going to have to redefine itself."
The holy grail of revenue growth, according to some, may be "product integration." Forget about product placement -- only squares and losers talk about product placement anymore. The in thing now is the pursuit of a "deeper experience" in which products are "seamlessly integrated" into the plot and dialogue of a series.
Consider The Tournament -- the CBC mockumentary that was welcomed by critics but not, alas, by viewers. For this program, the automaker KIA was involved even from the scripting stage: it was built into the story that the main characters worked at a KIA dealership and said things like, "Here, honey, you take the Sedona today." One can't help but envision a future in which scientists from a pharmaceutical company hover over a laptop scripting an exciting, seamlessly integrated new climax to an episode of Corner Gas:
INT. BRENT'S bedroom. BRENT is making it with SOME BABE.
This Cialis from Lilly ICOS sure works well and has minimal side effects limited to headache, back pain and, in rare cases, the abrupt loss of vision.
I'm glad you consulted your physician to see if Cialis was right for you.
BRENT (suddenly blinded):
Who said that?
Viewers will be subjected to more of this kind of thing because broadcasters feel they have few other options. They need to keep big-money advertisers from fleeing to the more fashionable confines of the Internet and elsewhere. Consider the potential impact on the industry of the personal video recorder alone. PVRs have yet to secure anything approaching widespread use, but they are hugely addictive and tend to fundamentally alter the way in which a person watches television. They make it extraordinarily easy to record every episode of a series -- so now it's the viewer, not the network, who essentially controls the schedule. Goodbye, prime time! And PVRs enable users to fast-forward through commercials. Adios, ad revenue! One veteran producer summed it up this way: "It's the weirdest vibe I've ever felt here -- there's a lot of hope that changing technology is going to mean new opportunities for producers and writers. But there's a lot of anxiety, too. We've done things a certain way for a long time in this industry. And people and broadcasters have made a lot of money. And they don't like thinking about the fact that in a few years, maybe someone else will be making all that money."