Legends of Magdalen caps Absolutely Quebec’s 2013 season

When I chatted with Absolutely Quebec series producer Carrie Haber about her job, it was in the context of a story about the airing of the Parc Avenue Tonight special. But in discussing the series, it was clear there was another episode she seemed more excited about: Legends of Magdalen, a documentary about the hundreds of unexplored 19th-century shipwrecks near the Magdalen Islands.

That episode, the season finale for Absolutely Quebec, airs at 7pm on Saturday (and again at 3am Sunday) on CBC Montreal.

“It’s just spellbinding. It’s just a beautiful work about shipwrecks in the Magdalen Islands,” Haber told me.

She said the documentary came to her about a year ago. The film crew has been up to the islands three separate times to shoot, including going scuba diving. “They found a wreck that hadn’t been found before, dove down and discovered what was there. It’s a lovely reflection of what the Magdalen Islands is.”

This is the second year that Haber has been producing the Absolutely Quebec series for CBC Montreal. The Saturday evening one-hour specials, which run during the summer when there’s no hockey, are usually regional documentaries, but can include other types of programming as well, like Parc Avenue Tonight or the Short Stop series of short films. Haber’s involvement varies by the project, but usually involves dealing with the film’s producer to help them improve the story and then cut the resulting film down to 40 minutes for broadcast.

“My heart is in documentary after spending eight years at the NFB,” Haber said, while adding that she would like to see more drama and comedy on television that reflects the region. “Quebec has this opportunity of this multi-lingual multicultural place that it is, I think that’s great fodder for stories, and I don’t see that reflected.”

(You can read more about Haber’s views in the story I wrote for The Gazette.)

Story, story, story

I asked Haber what she looks for in a documentary for this series. The keys, she said are an original story idea and original cinematic approach. “Something with some kind of resonance that resonates beyond the hour. The originality of the idea and production values.”

When it comes down to it, she said: “Am I excited enough about it to want to invest nine months of my life on this producer and this idea? I want to feel excited when it airs like the audience would.”

And story is what really matters to people. It’s what people get excited about.

“It’s story editing, writing, being clear about the emotional arc of the piece. That’s the number one area in which I work with people the most. People come to the table with various degrees of experience and production values. But I think that story is still the most important. And it seems to be commonly the last thing that’s figured out.”

Documentaries can easily get lost in too many story lines, she said. Cutting it down to an hour often means focusing on what’s important and eliminating unnecessary tangents.

But “honestly, every production is so different. From the acquisition stage to the contracting stage. We’re dealing with one-offs here so there is no formula. Each production has its challenges.”

Season 2013

The 2013 season of Absolutely Quebec has six episodes, one of which is a repeat from last year.

Sixth doc got postponed

The repeat of the short films episode, I’m told, isn’t due to budget cuts. Rather, the sixth documentary “is following a story that took a serious twist in late spring,” I was told by CBC Quebec Managing Director Shelagh Kinch. “We made the decision to include new events in the story arc, which meant prolonging production. So we will hold off on airing it until next season. These are decisions that you sometimes have to make for the sake of maintaining high production values and programming quality.”

Same story from Haber: “It happens, that shooting gets prolonged, and in this case we both felt it was worth waiting for a better film next season.”

Neither of them told me what the documentary is about or what the twist was. So I guess we’ll have to wait until it airs next year.

Next year

Speaking of next year, Haber is going to begin preparing Absolutely Quebec 2014 soon, and that means meeting independent producers and hearing or watching ideas. “I’ll start in earnest in September and October,” she said. “I like to have them lined up by January at the latest.”

That doesn’t leave a lot of time. So get those stories ready.

If you like local documentaries and want to watch more, there are some from last season also online: Hockey Migrations, a documentary about hockey in northern Quebec; Fortunate Son, a documentary about a son’s relationship with his Greek parents; and Never Destroy Us, a “rockumentary” about the Montreal band The Dears.

The entire Absolutely Canadian series (or at least those that were posted online), including regional documentaries from elsewhere in Canada is on CBC’s video player here.

7 thoughts on “Legends of Magdalen caps Absolutely Quebec’s 2013 season

  1. Dilbert

    What is sad is that for all the untold millions of dollars in the Canadian TV industry, productions of series like this are rare enough to merit news coverage. Shouldn’t Abosolutely Quebec just be something that is on going every week, and not some truly special event?

    It’s sad to think that TV production is so special that we are down to calling it special.

    Reply
    1. Fagstein Post author

      What is sad is that for all the untold millions of dollars in the Canadian TV industry, productions of series like this are rare enough to merit news coverage.

      Documentaries are pretty common, at least if you include reality shows ;)

      As for the “untold millions”, television in Canada makes about $6.5 billion a year in revenue. But private conventional television stations made a grand total of $11 million in profit in 2010. They’re not exactly swimming in money.

      Shouldn’t Abosolutely Quebec just be something that is on going every week, and not some truly special event?

      Carrie Haber certainly thinks so, as does the Quebec English-language Production Council. But there isn’t the budget to make this happen (especially now that CBC is working on a reduced budget), and I’m not sure that programming of sufficient quality is out there if it was.

      Reply
      1. Dilbert

        “But private conventional television stations made a grand total of $11 million in profit in 2010”

        Where did you get that number from? Bell turned a billion in profit, are the playing games with the profitability of their local stations?

        Reply
        1. Fagstein Post author

          Where did you get that number from?

          The CRTC’s communications monitoring report.

          Bell turned a billion in profit

          BCE’s profit is actually higher than that, but the profit of Bell Media was $561 million in 2012. And Bell Media includes a lot more than local CTV stations.

          are the playing games with the profitability of their local stations?

          I’m not a professional accountant, but you don’t need to be one to understand that the business model for local over-the-air television isn’t as strong as it used to be.

          Reply
          1. Dilbert

            “you don’t need to be one to understand that the business model for local over-the-air television isn’t as strong as it used to be.”

            See, I find that odd. As you say that, Montreal is at it’s peak for local english stations, with now 4 major “brands” (cbc, ctv, city, global) all on the air in town. Clearly SOMEONE thinks that there is some income stream there.

            Now, what you may be seeing is that they are centralizing and “selling” services such as switching back to the local stations at a high enough price to assure that the local stations aren’t very profitable, such that they can continue to cry a river to the CRTC when it comes to local programming. 10% of Bell Media’s profits pushed back into local production (50+ million) could mean a ton more local shows all across Canada. But that isn’t part of the plan, because local production would require local production equipment, which is NOT part of the game anymore.

            Reply
            1. Fagstein Post author

              Clearly SOMEONE thinks that there is some income stream there.

              Rogers does. They’re the only one expanding their network. And it’s not like they’re relying mainly on local programming to fuel the station.

              Now, what you may be seeing is that they are centralizing and “selling” services such as switching back to the local stations at a high enough price to assure that the local stations aren’t very profitable

              The reality is that it’s hard to break down profits by individual service anymore for these large media companies. When Bell Media buys a U.S. program and airs it on CTV, Space, Bravo, online and mobile, how should that cost be shared? But I don’t think games are being played here, for the simple reason that the CRTC has accountants to prevent that from happening. And I’m also unconvinced that making specialty channels look even more profitable by shifting their costs onto conventional networks is a winning strategy.

              Could Bell Media spend more on local programming? Absolutely. But good luck trying to convince them that local documentaries are a profit generator.

              Reply
  2. Dilbert

    ” And I’m also unconvinced that making specialty channels look even more profitable by shifting their costs onto conventional networks is a winning strategy.”

    Actually, I think it’s sort of the opposite here. Generally, the game played in this sort of situation (any industry that can do it) is to shove as many expenses onto the front line (income earning) companies, which in this case would be the local affiliate, the network itself, and for that matter the specialty channels. You have a company that provides “technical services” to them, which is not specifically under the prerogative of the CRTC, and you charge your money making front line companies the absolute maximum you can for said services.

    In many industries, this is done to play games of tax avoidance, with the services (which can include stupid things like “use of branding”) sucking the income away from high tax areas to lower areas (you can look up the “double dutch irish sandwich” for an example of how this is done). This technique has allowed companies like Apple to make billions of dollars while avoiding taxation.

    In the case of Bell and other companies, it would be in their interest to keep their affiliate station and specialty channel profits as low as possible, as it gives them more whining space when it comes time to ask for increases in rates or better deals to avoid having to produce local programming. It keeps the local stations relatively cash poor, while keeping the center much more fluid. After all, considering they own the affiliates stations, it’s not like those stations are going to negotiate a better deal with anyone else, right?

    A little business sense here too: If all of those OTA stations only made 11 million in profit, then the actual asset value of the stations would be very, very low, as they are turning an incredible small profit considering the income generated. So either the profits are artificially low as shown, or the valuations are incredibly high. You wouldn’t spend 100 times the annual profits to buy anything, considering you can do better with your money invested almost anywhere else.

    Reply

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