It was a 25th anniversary that almost didn’t happen.
Eight weeks ago, the Banff Television Festival, the annual Rockies field trip for the TV industry, sat in gloomy bankruptcy. It was the victim of mad cow, SARS and overly ambitious expansion plans.
Then, Toronto-based Achilles Partners LLC stepped in to guarantee that the 2004 show would go on. Producers, directors and dealmakers from Toronto to Tennessee to Tokyo kept the faith and showed up. What they got was a shorter, smaller, less glitzy version of the event.
So, while past festivals drew world-class comedians such as John Cleese, Peter Ustinov and John Candy, this year’s laughs came at the expense of earnest hopefuls pitching their wacky ideas. Attendance numbers were down, but everyone was relieved that the festival had been pulled back from the brink of oblivion. And, at the closing ceremonies, new CEO Robert Montgomery was able to confirm that there will indeed be a Banff 2005.
This year’s event seemed to attract a younger crowd, perhaps not as high up in the entertainment industry food chain. But what they lacked in grey hair, they made up for in enthusiasm. Many of the wannabe producers seemed like rodeo performers – they came for the prize money, which ranged up to $50,000 for the best documentary idea pitched. These were also the kind of folks who tend to ignore the lines between television, computer games, chatrooms, cellphones and PDAs. If it’s media, they’re interested.
A good example of what they’re interested in is Urban Legend, a web/TV crossover product that carried away $10,000 from the Bell Broadcast and New Media Fund.
As described by its creators, Urban Legend will start life as a website/interactive game. Players will be encouraged to help the characters in the show solve problems. An example? A cab driver is speaking in a language that nobody can understand. Someone on the website realizes it’s Urdu, types in a translation, and the onscreen character solves the problem. The web player is then eligible to win prizes such as free cellphone airtime from the sponsors that the producers hope to sign up.
After a period of building awareness, an actual TV show will be launched and – here’s the twist – some of the best players from the website get to become characters. Hey, it saves on unionized writers and prima- donna actors.
“This is a big idea,” says Urban Legend’s Allan Novak, “and you’re probably wondering, ‘Can we pull it off?’ Well, as a Gemini Award-winning producer, director and editor with over 20 years experience in comedy, and a reality show veteran, I know Urban Legend: The TV Show will be exciting, compelling and funny.”
He didn’t mention that his latest claim to producing fame is Loving Spoonfuls, which is described on its website as “a docu-comedy about grandmothers and food.” Here’s the plot of the first episode: “Barbara Hauer claims to make the best German dumplings in the country. David investigates her claim while they polka in the kitchen.” I can hardly wait to see how Novak and friends will handle Urdu-speaking cab drivers in their “fully converged media experience.”
Novak has teamed up with the obligatory geek, in this case Marshall Golden. Golden reports, in a single breath, that he has “10 years of New Media experience, including being the director of wireless Internet at Telus Mobility, one of this country’s largest telephone companies.”
Golden says he also has a background in entertainment law, which might come in handy when you start mixing a bunch of starstruck amateurs into an on-the-air TV show. The Banff judges found the idea interesting enough to give it the loot, ranking it above competitors such as the crime-solving series Contents of a Dead Man’s Pocket and a collection of web video vignettes called Homeless Street Archive.
Besides the pitching, there’s a lot of education to be had at the Banff TV Festival, if you can recover from the late-night parties, which continued unabated.
A series of CyberLunches featured experts such as Jonathan Drori, who ran the BBC’s website for a while and is now some kind of policy wonk in Her Majesty’s government. Drori claims that at one point he negotiated extra compensation based upon the number of times people clicked on the Beeb’s webpage.
“I put the information into smaller chunks,” he laughs, “so they’d have to click more. Some months I made tens of pence extra on my salary from that.”
Drori and colleagues went through a helpful, and humorous, litany of “25 things about interactivity we wish they’d told us.” Needless to say, “content is king” was near the top of the list.
Sara Diamond, the Banff Centre’s director of research and monarch butterfly of the centre’s New Media Institute, is usually good for about 25,000 things you wished you knew. She did not disappoint at her session, giving a fire-hose stream of information, all based on her globe-trotting search for cool stuff.
Diamond took us to Bristol, where she donned a headset to experience the Bristol Riots of 1831. She described GPS drawing, where people with too much time on their hands travel thousands of kilometres to trace out giant symbols like a huge dollar sign over Las Vegas. She reported on Uncle Roy All Around You, an online adventure that links web surfers and street players to hunt the elusive Uncle Roy, who’s hiding somewhere in London.
Diamond called her talk “Deep Mobile – From Data to Dating Services to Digital Media” and she gave Canada high marks in this field. For example, she reported that Montreal-based Airborne Entertainment distributes its specialty channels and programs to all top-tier wireless carriers, reaching nearly 100 per cent of all enabled mobile subscribers in North America.
As if to confirm the growing role of New Media in the world of television, Montgomery announced that the Next Media Festival scheduled for Charlottetown, P.E.I., will go ahead as planned in October.
So if you have ideas for a highly converged media experience about Urdu-speaking grandmothers, that might be the place to be.
(Tom Keenan is a professor at the University of Calgary and an expert on technology and its social implications. He can be reached at email@example.com)