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Tatiana Maslany, Canadian star of sci-fi series Orphan Black, is getting Emmy buzz, an excitement no one missed at this week’s Banff World Media Festival. (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)
Tatiana Maslany, Canadian star of sci-fi series Orphan Black, is getting Emmy buzz, an excitement no one missed at this week’s Banff World Media Festival. (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)

TV’s new equation: Content bonanza meets revenue crisis Add to ...

In the Rocky Mountains this week, the world of TV felt a little more level – at least for a moment – with word from Los Angeles that Canadian Tatiana Maslany had won the Critics’ Choice Television Award for her role in the clone thriller Orphan Black – beating out the likes of Claire Danes in Homeland and Elisabeth Moss in Mad Men. Her performance (as multiple characters) on the critically acclaimed sci-fi conspiracy series – produced and shot in Toronto – is getting Emmy buzz across North America: The Daily Beast and The Boston Globe are among those raving. For Canadian TV types who had gathered in Banff, the good news from Hollywood about this Canada-U.S. co-production, developed at the Canadian Film Centre, was a breath of fresh mountain air in a time of great disruption.

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The TV production world came to Banff this week – and by production world, we mean everyone from traditional broadcasters to online giants such as Vice, as well as a whole bunch of people wanting to create and/or sell content for whoever wants to buy it. And once again, as it has for the past few years, the Banff World Media (formerly Television) Festival heard a dizzying array of opinions about the state of the industry. Dealing with the disrupting forces – and finding the bright spots – was the focus. Still, in murky times, one thing emerged as crystal clear: The old rules are about as relevant as the instructions that came with your VCR. Millennials are preoccupied with their screens (not TVs); everyone from Bell Media to BuzzFeed is preoccupied with millennials.

In this cultural shift, second screens – tablets, smartphones – have become first screens. As the millennials age, those “phones” will be used more infrequently for voice contact; they’ll be all about apps and texting – and, yes, watching TV. That generation is off Facebook – their parents are there, for God’s sake – pivoting instead to smaller, disposable sharing networks such as Vine and Snapchat. As for subscribing to cable? Ha.

There’s another preoccupation in the midst of this upheaval: hunting down revenue. Just as delegates were heading home from the Rockies, the CRTC released stunning figures on Thursday, showing that for private conventional television broadcasters , profits (before interest and taxes) dropped from $151.6-million in 2011 to $22.9-million in 2012. At the same time, broadcasters (and everyone else) are having to sink money into online content even as they scramble to determine how to monetize it. Online ads, the networks will tell you, are not nearly as profitable as those on TV. “We have a real revenue crisis in our business,” Bell Media President Kevin Crull told an audience at Banff.

But at the same time, more television (or “television”) is being consumed, thanks to access on multiple platforms – and scads of sharing on social networks. This is, ironically, a new golden age of television, with no end of smart, sophisticated content – call it what you will. You might even call it TV, despite the fact you may never own one. TV is dead. Long live TV.

While traditional broadcasters try to roll with the punches of technology and use their big brains and still big (if shrinking) bank accounts as they grapple for solutions, it’s the behaviour of the all-powerful, ever-demanding, and decidedly unpredictable millennials that will determine the course, scope and profitablility of the industry’s future.

“The jury is still out. Will they buy cable subscriptions? They haven’t bought cable subscriptions because they’re in university now or they’re just graduating and in their first jobs. They can’t afford a $120 cable subscription package,” says Mark Greenspan, executive director of nextMEDIA, the digital arm of the Banff Festival. “The question is, five years from now, are they going to have a relationship with iTunes, Google, Microsoft? Or Rogers, Shaw, Telus, CTV?”

In this quantum shift, it’s a DIY world, where content creation is becoming democratized, and curation is being conducted at home (or at the coffee shop, or in line) and not just in Hollywood boardrooms. YouTube is a huge area of opportunity, with its own emerging ecosystem of channels and studios. You can become a YouTube sensation with something shot on an iPhone – or a YouTube powerhouse by aggregating content. Indeed, you could say viewers have the ultimate remote control: Beyond curating their own social media feeds, they can crowdfund projects (think Veronica Mars; the Zach Braff film) and contribute via social media to the very direction and outcome of their favourite reality shows.

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