December 8, 2016 2 years 10 months ago

Reflections from the Writers' Room: "He Rode a Blais-sing Saddle!"

(Notes on a Very Silly CRTC Dustup)

Did you hear the one where a six-figure-earning chair of the CRTC hijacked his own hearing to go after some guy who hurt his feelings on “The Twitter?”

In the world of content creation it wasn’t the most important twist to come out of the group license renewal hearing last week, but it sure was the most surprising.

Here’s what happened at the end of the Writers Guild of Canada executive director Maureen Parker’s thoroughly-researched presentation to CRTC chair Jean-Pierre Blais, on November 30:

THE CHAIRPERSON: Ms. Parker, we’ve known each other for a while. And, you know, there’s an expression in Australia in sports -- and you may not be a fan of sport -- but they say, “You play the ball, not the man.” I think that’s also true on the regulatory field. And I am wondering if Mr. Denis McGrath is a member of your leadership team at the Writers Guild.

MS. PARKER: Yes, he is.

THE CHAIRPERSON: And does he speak for you when he makes comments?

MS. PARKER: At times.

THE CHAIRPERSON: You know, in a post-truth era, I guess it’s normal to have rude comments and hear defamatory statements about public figures. I guess I have to live with that. It’s become the norm, but we’ve known each other for a number of years. And when you say to a regulatory official that they’re not listening, that raises a legal issue.

So for the record, do you think your WCG’s position has been heard in this proceeding so far? Are we listening? We may not agree in the end with your position, but are we at least listening?

MS. PARKER: I would say it’s a very convivial discussion. We would like to talk to you more about, you know, the percentages.

THE CHAIRPERSON: Sure.

MS. PARKER: And but yes, I think we’re having a nice little chat.

THE CHAIRPERSON: Good. Well, perhaps Mr. McGrath is not helping you as much as he thinks he is.

MS. PARKER: Well, I will say that Denis does speak the truth in some cases, and I would never want him to be told not to have his free voice. So while I appreciate your concern…

THE CHAIRPERSON: …free voice apparently includes truth, error, you can say anything.

MS. PARKER: Well, apparently, you can and gosh knows people say stuff about me too, so…

THE CHAIRPERSON: There you go.

As storms go, I’d place it somewhere between a tempest in a teacup and a minor Hullstorm.

As a screenwriter, it’s my job to give and receive notes. Every day is constant criticism of motivation, execution, action and exposition. It means having rhino skin, being unfailingly honest, and doing your best to try and diagnose and fix the problems at the heart of the story.

So, in that spirit, let’s dive into this current draft of “J.P.Blais: Regulator Adventurer” and see where we land.

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Guys,

Thanks for the new draft on the J.P. project.  A lot of exciting progress in this one! We’re sure no one saw the twist coming where everyone got up at the hearing and asked for their spending requirements to be reduced. It’s amazing how we manage to work that in every time and it’s always such a gosh-darned surprise!

We’re just a wee bit confused on some of the details and hoping for clarification.

1) Do we buy the part where the Blais character goes after this guy at the end of the WGC presentation? We worry because he hasn’t been part of the story up ‘til now, and isn’t even in the room. Also, it seems to go against the image we’re trying to project of a tough, capable, in-control Chairman.  What dramatic juice are we getting out of this?

We worry also that it kind of seems to be a repeat beat. When the CIPF decision came down and garnered negative reaction, didn’t the Blais character send off that snarky letter to Ferne Downey from ACTRA? Does this guy go off on everyone who disagrees with him?

(Referring back now to our notes from the last draft: in that montage of speeches that criticized cable companies, producers, broadcasters, and especially that move where he gets all mad at Netflix and decides to erase their testimony – it all seems a bit… Nixonian, doesn’t it? We want this guy to be strong, and articulate a clear, positive vision for what the Canadian broadcast system can be. He seems to spend a lot more time responding to perceived slights. Maybe look at adjusting? Just thinking out loud here.)

2) The reference to legal stuff is confusing and we fear doesn’t come across very well. First, what are we talking about here when we talk about ‘legal issues?’ Are we really to believe the top bureaucrat in the industry doesn’t understand or respect Charter Rights to free speech? Also, we know from the previous draft that our J.P. Blais character was singled out in September by a Federal Judge for conducting a “witch hunt” at the CRTC.  Seeing as that strand is still unresolved, we worry that people are going to find this confusing. (By the way, props to the CBC coverage you sent over of that story…love, love, LOVE the juicy stuff about what a nutty place to work the CRTC is … maybe we should focus more on that in the next draft?)

3) Anyhoo, our main worry is the Blais character keeps referring to his “Let’s Talk TV” hearings as the basis for all his decisions, but it’s not at all clear where these decisions line up with the things he’s announced.  

Like all these ‘pilot projects’ he keeps talking about. Nobody seems to like them or approach them with much enthusiasm, yet he keeps banging on about them like they’re fully-realized, logical outgrowths of his long consultation process. (And you know we hate to repeat a note, but we still have the same one from last time: what does focusing on “quality shows instead of quantity” mean? We’ve got calls in to three or four U.S. Network execs and none of them seem to understand what he’s talking about. If he’s discovered a secret sauce here, maybe we should see evidence of it?)

4) Is the new scene with the Parker character on Nov 30th the new climax? Or is it the Dec 1st scene where he makes similar remarks criticizing bloggers and such? Either way, we have a big chronology problem.

The Blais character talks about people ‘sitting on the sidelines,’ and not ‘going on the record,’ but then there’s this whole prequel video of this minor McGrath character taking part in the “Let’s Talk TV” flash conference in Vancouver right when it began, back at the end of 2013.  So is McGrath on the sidelines or not? Is he on the record, or not? If he IS on the record, and DID take part in the process, then why doesn’t the J.P. Blais character seem to know that?

We worry it makes exactly the opposite point we’re all going for, here.  Aren’t we underscoring the point about our guy maybe not being a very good listener?

6) Now that we think about it, don’t we have a whole lot of other people talking about our guy not listening? That Journalist character from two drafts ago, Kate Taylor, kind of said the same thing just after the CIPF point reduction controversy, when Tatiana Maslany won the Emmy for Orphan Black (GREAT scene, by the way – whatever else we do – let’s please make sure that stays in the movie!)

Hang on, we’ve got it in the notes here somewhere. Oh yeah, here, here’s what Kate Taylor wrote: The six-point decision is typical of the way the CRTC is now chipping away at Canadian-content regulations without presenting any coherent vision of how Canadian programming is going to thrive if the so-called walled garden is no longer sustainable.”

We keep coming back to that phrase: “coherent vision.” We think it’s foundational. And we think maybe it’s something we seem to be fundamentally lacking with our central character here. 

Pierre Juneau was the first CRTC Chair; he built a whole Canadian music industry. This McGrath dude (who we agree, sounds a bit shady…can we lean into that?) creates stories and scripts.  The last time we did the CRTC Chair story, that other guy with the name we never thought you’d sell us on…what was it again, von Finckenstein? Right. Good times! – anyway, he managed to help build the new group licensing system, with worthy targets like PNI and balancing different parts of the system as a whole.  We also remember lots of scenes of him really listening and trying to get it right.  We feel like we’ve lost that magic.

I guess the big question is: What, ultimately, is the J.P. Blais character trying to create?  Does anyone know?  Does he know? Are we supposed to take it on faith that he knows what he’s doing (cause that’s a lot harder to do when the guy’s yelling at everybody else all the time.)  We can’t help but feel that a big part of our ongoing clarity issues have to do with this idea that the character spends more time attacking his critics than articulating a vision.

Ultimately, our problem with this new big scene with the Parker character is that it doesn’t really say anything new. I mean, the story isn’t about him, right? It’s about Canada, and how we can make shows that Canadians want to watch, that sell around the world, that keep an industry working, and that help enrich our common culture. It’s about giving consumers choice, sure, but it’s also about overseeing a system that makes sense for the 21st century. It’s about rowing in the same direction. Or some better version of that ball/man metaphor the character was reaching for in the new scene. (And do we really have to say this? Can we please at least change it to a Canadian reference? OMG, Why are we suddenly talking about Australia?)

Look, maybe we’re overthinking this whole thing. 

Maybe the solution is right in front of us…we’ve been trying to make this character work for several years, through many drafts now, and we don’t feel we’re getting any closer to a consensus that’s going to make Canadians happy, or this movie any better. Maybe it’s time to just start over and recast?

Thanks for the new pages.  Appreciate all the new interesting ideas. We still believe we’re ultimately going to get there with something that works.

Gotta go. Netflix is on the other line.

 Denis McGrath is a writer and producer originally from New York City. Credits include CBC's XCOMPANY, THE BORDER and INSECURITY, as well as episodes of CONTINUUM, AFTERMATH, BITTEN, LESS THAN KIND, and the miniseries ACROSS THE RIVER TO MOTOR CITY, for which he won a Canadian Screenwriting Award. Through his over 20 years in Canadian broadcasting, Denis has worked for SPACE, Citytv and TVO, contributed to CBC Radio, blogged about Canadian TV daily for five years and taught at Ryerson University. He currently serves on the National Council of the Writers Guild of Canada, who have neither endorsed or reviewed this piece.  He won the Guild’s “Writers Block Award” for service to Canadian Screenwriters in 2015.