TELEVISION

Small-screen static

Experts take the tube’s pulse in Banff

DIANE TURBIDE June 19 1989
TELEVISION

Small-screen static

Experts take the tube’s pulse in Banff

DIANE TURBIDE June 19 1989

Small-screen static

TELEVISION

Experts take the tube’s pulse in Banff

Outside, the sunshine gleamed on the peak of Alberta’s Mount Rundle. A stately elk with magnificent antlers ambled across the parking lot opposite the Banff Park Lodge. But for more than 700 people inside the lodge last week, attention was directed to a different kind of scenery—the electronic images of the developed world’s most popular pastime, viewing television. Throughout the week, that assembly of broadcasters, producers, directors and writers from more than 20 countries formed an informal marketplace, competed for awards and argued over the shape of things to come on the TV screens of North America,

Europe and other parts of the world. A prime-time focus at the 10th annual Banff Television Festival was the explosive proliferation of channels available to viewers because of the rapid development of TV technology and more liberal regulation by governments. For some, that development is a boon. For others, it is a menace. But most agreed that “the Television Revolution”—the theme of this year’s Banff festival—is profoundly transforming the TV scene for the industry and viewers alike.

In addition to grappling with big issues, the festival was a celebration of the medium’s best offerings. And at a gala dinner at the end of the week, it presented its prestigious Rockie Awards to TV programs chosen from among 151 entries by a six-member Neil: international jury. The three-hour political thriller A Very British Coup, produced by Skreba Films and Channel 4 in London (it aired on the CBC twice in the past year), won the $5,000 grand prize and the award for best limited series. In fact, Britain won most of the festival awards, while Canada took only one: the five-part documentary series about challenges facing U.S. President George Bush, Cinq devis pour le president (Five Questions for the President in its English version), a coproduction by two Montreal independents, won the $2,500 Special Jury Prize.

But mostly, the festival involved a lot of talk about the small screen. And debate over the revolution driven by expanding cable, satellite and pay TV services—and by changing attitudes in governments—was perhaps the most divisive in the event. Supporters of publicly

funded TV argued that the expanding television menu will create a uniform global village glutted by the vast inventory of U.S. shows, which are the cheapest way to satisfy the growing worldwide demand for programming. Said Vancouver broadcaster Laurier LaPierre, a veteran of such pioneering CBC programs as This Hour Has Seven Days in the 1960s: “The history of television so far has not demonstrated that more channels equals more choices. I have 35 channels at home, but they don’t necessarily provide me with things I want to see.” Against that, others contended that more channels will revitalize the medium and bring variety and higher quality. Predicted Andrew Neil, executive chairman of Britain’s new satellite service, Sky Television: “The new players in the television arena

will stimulate original production.” Europeans who expressed concern about the invasion of foreign programs to meet the demand of new channels describe that development as “Canadianization”—a reference to the dominance of U.S. programming on Canadian television. Indeed, in a panel on the worldwide proliferation of TV choices, Moses Znaimer, president of Toronto’s CITY TV, said that the changes sweeping Europe began long ago in Canada. “The so-called revolution in TV everyone is panting about has been happening in Canada for the last 20 years,” he said. The expansion of television is a pressing issue in Europe, where deregulation within the European Community has paved the way for the growth of new satellite and cable channels, many of which bring in foreign programs. Many European participants argued the new channels are causing upheaval and cultural dilution. Swiss TV executive Guillaume Chenevière noted wryly that American TV is even introducing strange new words to the French language, including the verb dallaser, derived from the TV show Dallas. Chenevière, who is president of the Communauté des télévisions francophones—an association of 14 French-language networks in five countries—explained that the word means “to sashay around.”

Still, the TV revolution in Europe was presented in favorable terms by Sky TV’s Neil. He lauded the advantages of privately owned, commercially driven television over governmentcontrolled TV, which has traditionally ruled the airwaves in Britain. Until the introduction of Sky TV in February, Britain had only four channels—two public British Broadcasting Corp. networks, and the independent, partly publicly funded ITV and Channel 4. Sky TV—a satellite service owned by media magnate Rupert Murdoch—doubled the number of channels available. Neil, who is also editor of The Sunday Times, said that British television has been dominated by a narrow elite that produces noncommercial domestic

programs as well as coproductions

that cater to foreigners’ outdated ideas about Britain. He also maintained that because it is publicly funded, the BBC has been subject to government control. Said Neil: “The multiplicity of channels means the government thought police—whether it is the benign British civil service or the jackboot in the night—will find it hard to control more and more channels.” Uncertain relations between government and television in Canada was a strong undercurrent at the festival—itself partly funded by the federal and Alberta governments through the nonprofit Banff Television Foundation. Federal Communications Minister Marcel Masse opened the festival ceremonies—but gave no hints about when he would reintroduce a new Broadcasting Act to replace the outdated 1968 act, nor what it would contain. The new

legislation died in Parliament last fall when the Nov. 21 federal election was called. Masse is responsible for reintroducing the act, possibly in a revised version. Action in Ottawa is also awaited on key federal appointments. The seven-year term of CBC president Pierre Juneau expires on July 31, and there was much speculation at Banff about who will succeed

him. The names most commonly cited at the festival were Telefilm Canada executive director Pierre DesRoches and Toronto Life publisher—and former CBC executive—Peter Herndorff. Masse’s choice to replace André Bureau, former commissioner of the regulatory Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, was widely expected to be Montreal lawyer Francis Fox, who held various cabinet posts in the Liberal government of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau.

Another discussion topic: the $140 million that is to be cut from the $965million annual CBC budget over the next five years, an austerity measure in the April 27 federal budget. Mary Young Leckie of Toronto-based Amazing Spirit Productions expressed anxiety about the cuts while she was in Banff. “We are committed to projects with Canadian themes,” she said, “and if we don’t have the CBC then we don’t have anybody.”

Leckie’s sometime film-making partner Paul Stephens attended the festival to seek additional broadcasters for a dramatic series he plans to shoot in Zimbabwe this summer. He successfully sold it to educational channels across the country and was working on securing a national network. Titled African Journey, the six-part

drama series chronicles the adventures of a 16year-old Sudbury boy who is visiting his mining-engineer father in an unnamed African country. At last year’s festival, Leckie and Stephens successfully found the financial connection they needed to complete Where the Spirit Lives, a $2.6-million made-for-TV movie due to appear on the CBC this fall.

Also among the many independent produc-

ers who went to Banff seeking funding for new shows was Halifax-based Christopher Zimmer. He recently returned from Zimbabwe, where he and his partner, Lulu Keating, filmed The Midday Sun, a $2-million feature that Zimmer described as a “Graham Greene-ish tale” of a

young Canadian woman who becomes a volunteer in Africa. Noting that TV and video cassette sales are now a critical part of every feature film, Zimmer said that his priority at Banff was to find a TV broadcaster to buy the film following its theatrical release in September and after it has run on First Choice pay TV.

“Everyone is always looking for that last little bit of money,” said Zimmer, pointing to his Tshirt, emblazoned with the name of his company: Missing Piece Productions.

Canadians at the Banff festival also expressed concern about European Community legislation that threatens to severely diminish the number of TV coproduction deals that they negotiate in Europe. As part of the EC’s agenda to integrate the members’ economies—and harmonize their media laws—by 1992, the European Parliament passed a directive last month that sets out foreign program quotas and specifies that coproductions with other countries would now be considered foreign products. Before the directive, such coproductions qualified as domestic European content. Those involving Canadians included the CBC’s Glory Enough For All, a coproduction with England in which R. H. Thomson portrayed insulin codiscoverer Frederick Banting, and CTV’s glitzy evening soap opera Mount Royal, a coproduction with France. Independent production houses, as well as the federal government, are currently lobbying against the European measure. Said Pat Ferns, who is president of both Toronto-based Primedia Productions and of the Banff Festival Foundation: “Preserving access to the European market is critically important, but I think it’s a battle we’re going to win.”

The festival managed to scrutinize virtually every part of the industry. There was a lively panel discussion on the role of television in politics, which began with journalists questioning pollsters and politicians—and ended with the journalists in the hot seat as figures including former Conservative justice minister Ray Hnatyshyn questioned them. There was talk about the new highdefinition technology—called HDTV— which promises to bring viewers a clearer picture in the 1990s. There were intensive seminars for aspiring screenwriters with such industry talents as Georgia Jeffries, one of the writers for the Emmy award-winning series Cagney and Lacy, and Briton Alan Plater, who scripted the Rockie Award-winning A Very British Coup.

In the background, scores of video monitors flickered in the lodge’s lobby and in 11 screening rooms, showing the programs in competition for the Rockie Awards. Displaying shows ranging from an episode of the popular U.S. sitcom Cheers to the West German drama special Dragon Food, those television sets were on from 1 p.m. to 2 a.m. every day of the festival—and there were always viewers huddled in front of them. Even in one of the most spectacular settings in the world, the lure of the box proved to be irresistible.

DIANE TURBIDE in Banff