I had a great conversation with a producer of Canadian film and television.

Over the course of our discussion, which focused on the lack of money for the Canadian Film and Television Industry, I came to realize that there was a fundamental problem in monetization and a pretty hefty gap in motivators.

Success for a director or an artist is if a large audience sees their art and appreciates it. They don’t want commercialism to get in the way of their art – for instance – the mere notion that perhaps the protagonist could be drinking a Diet Doctor Pepper causes the blood to boil. Naturally, history is littered with studio and network executives actively messing with the creative arc of a series. Citizen Kane wouldn’t be 1/10th as good as it is if Orson didn’t keep the execs at bay. So, I can appreciate the fear.

Success for a broadcaster is the show making money. The show makes money if advertisers pay a lot money per ad unit. An advertiser makes money if the ads placed during that show generate high GRP / TRP AND the demand curve shifts to the right.

In film, anybody from Alliance Atlantis will tell you it’s about asses in theater seats and disks in home theaters. Again, more or less, it comes down to attention share.

Producers of Canadian content complain that networks don’t put any dollars behind getting eyeballs, and as a result, GRP / TRP from the advertisers is never forthcoming. Canadian networks complain that Canadian content doesn’t attract Canadian eyeballs. Without Canadian eyeballs, networks can’t make money.

And without proven advertiser dollars and track records – banks and private lenders won’t invest in Canadian productions.

Canadian productions are expensive. It costs around 300k to produce a single 44 minute episode of programming (easily), and economies of scale are fleeting. The very cheapest one could do a short 10 minute piece is around 56k, and that’s pushing the extreme lower limit. I’m talking about quality here – not webcam quality.

Where are all the Canadian Eyeballs at?

Enter the Attention Economy.

Producers are in a full scale war for attention. We consume more media than ever before, but it’s increasingly fragmented across multiple channels and screens. It’s harder to get a concentrated slice of a target market in a single medium. These days – you gotta go longitudinal: a mental shift that only the very young marketers are actively embracing.

Our conversation came to a head when the Producer said: “How do I get the content out there without commercial interference?” and I replied, “You’re competing with commercial interference for attention – and you can’t possibly outspend them.” In fact – commercial interests are wildly tearing at each to grab a slice of a fragmenting attention. The conversation, like any good Canadian conversation, resorts to regulation and citation of previous policy.

The back-stop is of course CanCon. CanCon is a regulation by the CRTC that mandates a minimum percentage of all broadcast content be Canadian. The common complaint, in Canadian Film and Television circles, is that the CRTC defines news and current affairs programming as being included under CanCon – something that is harder to get away with in broadcast radio.

The example in public policy they cite is the success of CanCon in developing the Canadian musical talent industry. Most local stations wouldn’t and couldn’t crowd their airwaves with Canadian ‘news talk’, and as a result, a plethora of great Canadian talent became supported and launched. The policy has been hailed as a wild success.

The common complaint is that Global and CTV count their 2 hour 5-7pm news broadcast as being Canadian content, along with the 11pm news broadcast, the 3 hours in the morning show news broadcast, and two current affairs programs at one hour a piece (W5 and 16 by something). They proceed to produce such shows as “Train 48”, “Da Kink”, “DeGrassi” and “Flashpoint”, and put them out to die at 8pm on Saturdays – reserving the best of prime time for American shows. Put simply, they’re incented to engage in that kind of behavior because when push comes to shove, Canadian eyeballs just aren’t on Canadian content.

The state of Canadian film is no better. Theater operators are fighting for attention too: and they need asses in seats – and the draw that goes along with it.

The problem is three-fold in my view.

The first is the classic blame game. Broadcasters blame Canadian content producers for not producing content that can compete directly with American content. And let’s face it – that is exactly what Canadian producers are up against. It’s hard to see how CanCon can be modified to avoid this un-escapable fact. To a certain extent, I invite the ultra-pro-market-anti-regulation people to advocate consistently on their position of no government interference. Taking that argument to the extreme would mean denying Canadian broadcasters exclusive re-broadcast rights as mandated by the CRTC. Trust me – it’s not something a network executive wants you to be advocating.

I believe that most network executives are good people who would absolutely love to have 80 hours of Canadian produced TV dramas and comedies broadcasting all the time. It would have to be every bit as good as what’s on the American networks, and frankly, how can Canadian producers compete with that?

Enter the next element of the blame game. Producers blame broadcasters for not getting behind them.

The first big problem is that everybody believes that they’re a victim of one sort or another. And when you’re a victim, you’re absolved of all responsibility for solving the problem.

Canadian expectations are the second problem. Canadians, and let’s really be honest here, have a massive element of “it’s not good enough for us” attitude with respect to Canadian produced content. It’s not surprising – they’ve been trained to think that way. Consider that the United States produces hundreds of pilots just looking for winners. In Canada, we hardly have the money to produce a handful of pilots. Less experimentation means lower actual quality, and those expectations have really become locked-in over the past forty years. Of course the material is mediocre by comparison. Canadian producers don’t have as much margin for error and as a result – commit loads of error. That error adds up into expectations of mediocrity.

The third is a lack of baseline innovation. 95% of the Canadian Film and Television Industry, I dare say, is just plain happy to complain about the lack of network and government support. 5% seem to be happy to try to innovate around the problem of economies of scale. I think that that’s sad.

Canadian producers continue to lose because they continue to lose attention market share. They can’t rely on the government or private enterprise to really solve their problems. CanCon won’t be modified because it benefits too many established groups. Broadcasters can’t step up to the plate because they’re subject to enhancing shareholder value. Producers¬† have to recognize who they’re competing against and adjust against it. They must take it on, head on, to have any chance.

The Attention Economy is ruthless.