Banff to the future

The Banff Television Festival is celebrating its 30th anniversary in the midst of a media renaissance that sees many conventional approaches considered somewhat primitive.

It would appear to be a bad time to be investing in traditional television programming or even holding conferences to discuss it. Many media companies are in serious trouble. The list includes Canada’s two major media monopolies. CanWest Global is looking to sell off its seven specialty channels and CTVglobemdia recently cancelled news broadcasts in three major markets.

While the Festival has always been good at bringing industry leaders together to create greater opportunities for producers and broadcasters, its new executive director, former Playback Editor Peter Vamos, says that it needs to stay focused on the business aspects of the industry.

“It’s definitely refocused itself which is part of the reason that I pursued this job. It has become more and more about facilitating the industry’s needs in terms of getting business done which is very similar to what we saw our mandate being at Playback. I felt it was a natural extension from what I had been doing. I have been impressed with the changes that they have made in the past. It has had many incarnations and I am very pleased with the current version in terms of what they have been trying to accomplish. I imagine that the industry is as well. The feedback I had been getting as a member of the industry and someone outside of Banff is that the business element had become key to what it does.”

The fact that the Festival has made it to its 30th birthday would have been considered an unlikely event as recently as 2004. Five years ago, the Banff Television Foundation, which operated the Festival, declared bankruptcy, offering creditors ten cents on the dollar. A few weeks later the Foundation announced that Toronto-based Achilles Media had purchased all of the Foundation’s assets and rights.

Achilles senior executives polled industry leaders to ask them what would bring them back to the festival. They were told that they felt the Festival was moving away from the business aspects and had become too involved in creating social functions. They felt that the Festival would work better if it put more emphasis on business and keeping up with advances in the industry.

Vamos’s job is to keep that approach on track and to assure potential delegates that the individual sessions will feature speakers and panellists who address their needs. He says that while the panels will include several senior executives from television networks, he wants the discussion to focus on a collective vision for the future of the medium.

“We are definitely making an attempt, in every one of our sessions, to discuss where the industry is heading and how it is going to impact things. I think that if you are doing the job, you are not just putting together the show you are putting together a multi-platform concept as well. So with every panel we will be trying to address the future of television on some level and to give some direction. We are trying to not just bring executives. We are trying to bring in visionaries; people who can talk about how things are going to evolve. The panels and the master classes should not be about ‘how I am doing my job today,’ they should be about ‘how I will be doing my job tomorrow.’

“I think we are fortunate that the Banff Television festival goes back to back with (Achilles’ new media conference) Next Media so we can integrate a lot of the discussion about the future of media platforms. Through the two events we can discuss how shows are produced and disseminated online and through mobile platforms. We work hand in hand with Next Media in terms of developing content. We have an entire stream of Next Media conference sessions called Digital 360 which follows producers as they take an established ‘old media’ show and reformat that to the web and stream it on line. So we definitely are addressing these things. There is something that we have planned for next year that is really going to dive into that space but this year the evolution continues.”

Norm Bolen knows a little about the need of television executives to be aware of the evolution of media. When he was first asked to sit on the board of the Banff Television Festival Foundation, he was running Alliance Atlantis’s specialty channels. Soon after he agreed to be a board member, the festival collapsed. When Achilles took over he became chairman. After CanWest Global bought up the channels Bolen moved on to work as a consultant and is a director of a web-based video distribution company called mDialog. He says that the festival would be negligent if it neglected to keep up with the options available.

“I think that there are few people working in television who don’t think about how they can make the transition (to the new media). I think the board and staff of the Festival has made a concerted effort to turn their attention to what is going on in the media marketplace and that it is not just about television any more. The CFTPA (Canadian Film and Television Producers Association) has been getting involved in new media, for instance. Most companies who have been involved in television want to transition their businesses as a hedge against change and to do more in the online world. I have been sharing ideas with TV people and I think you see them increasingly focusing their energy on online and digital media.”

Bolen says that despite the evolution of new technologies and the introduction of multi-media platforms, it’s unlikely that traditional television will disappear any time soon. He says that while the federal government Is encouraging applicants for funding to include new media platforms, they are also encouraging a blending of traditional programming with online platforms. However, he says that while television still wins out in terms of its ability to attract advertising, advertisers eventually find their audience.

“I think that digital media people will be turning towards television as a platform in order to find a balance. The guidelines of the Canada New Media Fund say that one of the requirements is that applicants need more than one platform for their production. That will motivate TV people to include digital media platforms and for digital people to include television in their plans, which will be good for both sectors. For instance, television producers are discovering that mobile phones are incredible platforms for distribution. They are using the iPhone and the Blackberry for video content and creating opportunities to monetize video content. The ad and broadcast industries are conservative but change is happening and they are trying to see where the future is going. I think we are all aware that the history of advertising is that they eventually follow consumer behaviour.”

Mark Bishop, the co-founder of Toronto-based marblemedia, first started talking about platform options eight years ago at Banff at one of four 2001 Future Watch plenaries. He says that at the time most of the emphasis was on High Definition for television but that his company had already made a prototype of HD for mobiles. The reaction to the prototype was surprising.

“We were trying to show the future of content but several people mocked us,” he says. “We said that in the future people would be watching television on cell phones but the general reaction was that even if it could be done no one would want to watch a TV show on a cell phone. Eight years later it is happening because it is about content and not necessarily the device that you watch it on. Anyone who produces content has to look at reaching people and there are more options now than ever. It’s not just about the TV in the living room anymore. I think that Banff was ahead of the game eight years ago and hopefully it can keep a step ahead because these discussions and debates have to take place. We don’t have these big picture discussions in random situations. There has to be a place where content producers can get together and plan for the future and Banff is the perfect place for that.”

Bishop’s company is doing its best to keep ahead of the curve. Its animated shows are available on several platforms including in interactive form. He says that getting support form advertisers for the work is becoming easier. “Advertisers are still interested in television but they are interested in content that is engaging and I think you can do that with interactive. The bulk of the iceberg is finding a targeted audience for your content, which then allows advertisers to reach that audience, one that you assume is already interested in their products. But it is an educational process. Ad agency media buyers have to get their heads around the metrics of it. I think that some are still looking at the Nielsen numbers but the smart advertisers are saying ‘lets take some of it (money) out of television and find innovative ways to reach our audience.’”

Judith Brosseau, the senior vice president of programming for Montreal-based Canal D, and a member of the Festival’s board of directors, recalls that when she went to Banff ten years ago she made a deal with France’s Canal Plus for a wildlife series that was produced for High Definition. She says that while it was a simpler time, it might not have happened had there not been a place for people to talk about both traditional television and the potential of new media.

“A lot of people thought we were spending too much on HD at the time but we eventually sold the show all over the world. We had a vision and brought it to Banff and Canal Plus was there and we made the deal and made money. Banff plays that role and I think it will continue to do that even though broadcasters are facing new business models. No one has a crystal ball but we still have to go there and talk about trends and discuss what does and doesn’t work. A lot of people thought we were nuts when we were first working with HD and now it is no big deal. So we need to see each other at a regular time to share amongst ourselves the success and failures and in order to stay attuned.”

Jon Plowman won last year’s award for Lifetime Achievement for his works as the Head of Comedy at the BBC. Plowman was responsible for getting shows like Absolutely Fabulous and The Office on air before deciding to produce his own projects. He needed to make contacts and headed for Banff in 2003. He says he keeps coming back because the Festival is the best place to share ideas with producers on how to make money from the platforms that are evolving from traditional television.

“I think everyone who produces television shows is looking for ways to make money from new media applications,” he says. “I have a friend who has an American talk show that he took to the web. It is five minutes in length but he does it from his garage. It is a wonderful on-line show and he can do it for a few dollars but the question keeps coming: how do you monetize that when so much of what is available on the web, in terms of the competition for audiences, is free? A producer has to know he will get money back. The other problem, in terms of traditional television and its future, is that there is so much of it, and I am using the example of the BBC because that is what I know, that is on YouTube.

“The fact is, producers and media companies are entrepreneurs and they don’t feel they can get rich on the internet. One of the great things about Banff is that these people who are looking for ways to monetize these platforms are all there in one place. It’s always been a place where you could see what things were being done in other territories and to talk about what you have available. It’s good to keep up and now there is this new element in terms of sharing approaches to new technologies and how we can make it work as an industry. That makes Banff more relevant than ever I think.”

Peter Vamos agrees. He says that while the delegates have traditionally been interested in pitching to executives face to face, the content of the pitches and the professions of the executives have changed.

“I think that there has been an evolution in terms of the pitching,” he says. “More and more we are bringing in people from the digital media who will take pitches and this year we are bringing in agents because in this multiplatform world agents play a central role in terms of putting deals together. So while the focus is still about getting the deals done, people want to know where the business is going and how they are going to evolve. That also has to become part of the conference aspect. I think it’s entirely possible that as we become more focused on the evolution of the industry there may be people who don’t find that it is relevant to them. However, if you are not attracting new people you have no future.

“It is a fine balance but we try to address the concerns of all of our delegates. We survey them at the end of every festival to see what resonated and what didn’t resonate. I think there will be something for everyone as long as we are bringing top broadcasters from around the world and give the delegates the opportunity to meet them and to pitch them. A  lot of the people who have been coming for many years have already established relationships with broadcasters because Banff created that opportunity for them at one time or another. But while most of our delegates make their living off old media we still have to keep showing the way in terms of where television is heading. I think that is absolutely essential to the future of the Festival.”

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