This post was updated/edited for clarity.
Today's treeware column on the current obsession with quantitative models for picking programs at CBC-TV:
Developing and commissioning series is an art, not a science. There is no regression analysis that will spit out statistics to back a go-with-the-gut decision on hits such as Lost, The Wire or Desperate Housewives.
So why is CBC-TV management now touting "the PARC system, the Program Planner, the Public Value panels, the FIATS survey, and the new Audience Segmentation approach'' — tools that look to past performance and not to the future? Is this what passes for programming vision nowadays?
All these acronyms came up two weeks ago when CBC-TV executive vice-president Richard Stursberg, whose background is mostly as a planning and policy wonk, promoted Christine Wilson from senior director of strategy and planning to deputy program director. That makes the number-crunching Wilson, who briefly produced a radio show and served as deputy head of radio variety, one of the most powerful programmers in Canada.
This is a woman who, in 2003, told the trade magazine Playback: "If a show scored 7.6 out of 10 and that ended up bringing in an audience of x-hundred thousand, I can build models on that that I couldn't with qualitative research."
Which is great if you want the trains to run on time backwards but not very useful if you're trying to engage viewers forwards.
As I have remarked before, one of the beauties of blogging is that there are no space constraints.
So I'd like to fill in some of the missing info that got cut here. Here's what I wrote:
Now it seems that all eyes — but not eyeballs — are on CBC-TV, as more news of its low ratings seeps out. Two weeks ago came word that the prime drama series Da Vinci's City Hall, This is Wonderland and The Tournament had all been cancelled because their numbers couldn't scrape near the 400,000 mark.
That prompted a joint news release last Friday from the Friends of Canadian Broadcasting lobby group and ACTRA darkly titled "CBC Drops the Drama Ball" and sub-headed "Management must be held accountable."
There's reason for ACTRA to be upset, since many of its members are going back to their day jobs. And Friends is always punching for more Cancon, especially if it can beat on CBC's current management, which frankly deserves a walloping. But when ACTRA and Friends toss numbers around, they should be sure they're correct.
"The latest data show that between September 2003 and August 2005, CTV presented 219 prime time (7 to 11 p.m.) hours of Canadian dramatic series, compared to only 122 hours during the same period by CBC," they claim.
CBC counters that, according to the CRTC definition of drama, it had 620 hours of Canadian drama, versus 390 for CTV (for that period).
I no longer have my collection of Star Week classics with which to verify either claim.
Here's the thing that was left out of the column: According to Barry Kiefl -- who used to be chief numbers guy at CBC, worked at the CRTC, and now heads Canadian Media Research Inc -- this is not an apples-to-apples comparison. As he wrote to me this morning, citing CRTC categories of programming:
I produced the numbers for Friends/ACTRA and they are correct.
They refer specifically to drama series, that is, on-going drama as defined by the CRTC (category 7a).
When CBC refers to 620 hours of 'drama', they are including not only on-going drama series but also on-going comedy series (7b), MOWs and drama specials (7c), theatrical films (7d), animation (7e), comedy sketches/stand up comedy (7f) and other drama (7g).
This means that shows like 22 Minutes, Air Farce, Rick Mercer, Winnipeg Comedy Festival, Red Green, Just For Laughs, Halifax Comedy Festival and Wayne & Shuster are counted as drama by CBC.
These are important shows but to put them in the same category as scripted drama series?
The CRTC calls this 7a to 7f category Drama and Comedy, not Drama, which CBC may have neglected to mention. Programs in category 7a account for approx. 25% of all prime time viewing, more than all the programs in 7b to 7f combined, which tells you how important a genre it is.
The important point is not the comparison with CTV, which is interesting, but rather that CBC seems to have abandoned the most challenging and important program genre and airs more foreign 7a than Canadian (and more than twice as many foreign movies as Canadian).
Which leads me to conclude that CBC was being
dishonest disingenuous yesterday when it refuted the Friends/ACTRA release. The truth is, CBC-TV has dropped the ball on drama series.
Some independent producers, said they’d expected him to announce new drama programming. What they got instead was a snapshot of the Corp.’s new vision for its entertainment programming and a long list of do’s and don’ts for producer pitches.
“People say we’re not clear enough about what we’re looking for,” Stursberg continued. “They find our process complicated, expensive and difficult. We want to remedy this because (producers) are the most important partner CBC has.”
The plan is to make CBC the most important and popular video platform for Canadian news, current affairs, entertainment, documentary and kids programming in what he describes as “the most competitive TV market in the world.”
To better carve its niche, he says, CBC will boost primetime drama and entertainment programming by 100 hours a year by 2008-09. “These extra 100 hours have to be financed outside the CTF because we’re tapped out” at the fund.
However the new shows are financed, CBC wants to see ratings in the one million range.
Hmmm. No more money forthcoming from the CTF (Canadian Television Fund) and yet drama and entertainment programming will be increased by 100 hours?
These inflantasies -- yes I made it up -- come from the same brilliant minds who cooked up all those acronyms with which to develop programs.
PARC indeed. I'm told that the worker bees in the research department have been known to refer to it as CRAP, for costs, revenues, audiences and programming goals.
That sound you hear is CBC-TV swirling down the drain.