Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The SPACE/Aurora Saga Continues

An update in my tantrum over the failure of SPACE, Canada’s science fiction cable TV channel, to cover the Aurora Awards (Canada’s awards for professional SF literature in English & French, along with art and fan participation):

On Friday, I received the following reply to my email from one of the producers of Hypaspace, the news & gossip show on SPACE. I have to admit, I was pleasantly surprised to get such a well-thought-out response. Heck, I was surprised to get any formal response from them. Based on the producer’s letter, one can see how things panned-out the way they did. I still think SPACE could have done a better job giving attention to the Auroras, but as you can see, this producer has something of an uphill battle on his hands. At any rate, here’s the letter:



Dear -

Thank you for your letter.

I, too, share your disappointment that SPACE didn't cover V-Con, or the Aurora Awards on television.

We did discuss the Aurora Awards on our weekly podcast, but when you wrote your letter the podcast wasn't 'up' yet. (It won't be on-line until the weekend.)

Part of the problem for this years Aurora Awards were purely timing- SPACE only has two producers, and I'm the only 'book producer' and I was covering the International Festival of Authors and interviewing Jasper Fforde, Mathew Skelton, Rutu Modan, James Sturm, and covering events like JK Rowling's only Canadian reading that weekend, and in the days around the weekend. So, that's the 'practical' reason SPACE did not attend.

Another reality is that we've known for weeks that this weekend would be a repeat of my Spider-Man Hypa special, so there was no place for it on the weekend show.

There's another bigger concern, though.

Lately SPACE has moved away from literary interviews. We used to have a weekly book segment called ShelfSpace, and did 50 books a year (and 50 comics a year). ShelfSpace is now only comics, and the book portion has been cancelled.

For the first time in years I didn't attend any local literary conventions this year, and I haven't attended a WorldCon, a World Fantasy Con or a Hugo/Nebula/Aurora ceremony since TorCon (2003).

Why?

For almost a decade SPACE attended worldcons, various literary conventions and gatherings. I have interviewed hundreds of authors for SPACE. As I say, I've produced many ShelfSpace segments...

The audience response has been ZERO. No e-mails at all. No questions about authors. Nada. Zip. Until your e-mail, my Executive Producers would have to conclude that our audience just doesn't care about literary SF.

I lobby for it, but I have nothing to support my pleas, other than nice feedback from book publicists.

I still interview authors, as I refuse to abandon the beat, but I have to tie them into other stories we're working on, or use the in the podcast…

The other aspect of this is that when I do public interviews with people like Gibson or Gaiman I have discovered that most of the audience doesn't watch SPACE. Strange but true. Our audience is skewing younger, and their thirst is for film/anime/tv/comics/toy related material.
So, your letter was wonderful, and I shall use it to show that there is an interest in (part of) what I do here…

There has just been a regime change at SPACE, so perhaps the new management will support SPACE's long tradition of covering books.

Thanks again, -.
M.

Mark Askwith
Producer SPACE



Here’s the response I sent this evening:



Hi Mark,

Thanks for your thoughtful response to my letter. It's heartening to hear that there's at least one person at SPACE who's still placing a value on books.

I didn't have time to catch the podcast this weekend, but I'm glad to hear the Auroras had some presence there.

I can appreciate the difficulties of having to set coverage priorities when an outfit is short on staff and faced with multiple events. Admittedly, Rowling is a huge draw by herself, never mind when there were so many others of note at the Festival. That being said, presumably because the Spider-Man special was airing this past weekend, segments from the Festival will likely be aired at a later date. I still think that arrangements could have been made to get footage of the Auroras through other channels (freelancers, etc) featuring noted Canadians like Robert J. Sawyer, Dave Duncan and Jean-Louis Trudel which could also be used at a later date. A quick recap of the awards using a couple of clips of footage during the next regular episode of Hypaspace would have been in order. However, this is now academic and something to consider for future years when other conventions host the Auroras and other scheduling conflicts arise. (We could get into a discussion of whether the new Spider-Man movie merited a repeat of the Hypa special [acknowledging that a lot of hard work went into the special itself], but that's a different matter.)

The real crux of the problem, is, as you point out, the position of management as to whether books and book-related events have relevance to SPACE's audience.

I'm glad you brought up the change in the nature of ShelfSpace. I really enjoyed this segment, back when it featured books. Whether or not I agreed with the reviews or cared about the previews, I appreciated the fact that the audience was being given the heads-up on new SF books. The highlights were the author interviews. It's always interesting to hear the author explain the book in his/her own words and then further expound on their influences or concerns. (I would offer a belated congratulations to you for your work on this segment.) There are a couple of books on my shelf that I bought as a result of watching ShelfSpace. Having books as a part of this segment rounded-out Hypaspace too - books are a part of the audience's experience of SF and completed the big picture. By talking about movies, comics and collectables on the show, but leaving out books, SPACE is omitting an important part of the equation - one that frequently gives context to the other three. The risk that SPACE runs to its own success through this course of action, is that it may lose members of the audience as a result of this and there's no guarantee that the non-reading audience will increase (or stay at even numbers through loyalty, for that matter) in sufficient numbers to make up for this loss.

Admittedly, it's curious that there has been no response from viewers to the literature-related segments. Certainly, one could argue that this means the audience doesn't care about SF. I tend to disagree though. It's too simplistic and most especially too convenient for management that doesn't want to spend money sending producers hither and yon to interview authors that management types may not themselves read. I tend to take a more cynical view. The reason the literature-oriented viewers weren't (and aren't) writing in is likely because of modern culture. When you were profiling books and authors, they were likely content to simply watch and enjoy. No need to speak-up when SPACE was doing its job. I certainly didn't. Then the books disappeared off ShelfSpace. Why didn't they write in by the thousands complaining? Simple - the alternative to complaining, the alternatives to Space is/are readily available and easy to access in the internet age. Writing a letter/email complaining about the program involves effort that many people likely believe would be wasted on a large corporation that likely won't listen to the demands of viewers, especially when those viewers are asking for something with a higher cost (paying producers & camerapersons to interview authors) than cheaper alternatives (using stock promo footage of movies provided by studios and using wire/net gossip copy to fill more airtime). Consumers are a jaded lot, and the "why bother" attitude is a hallmark of our culture. The age of the great letter-writing campaign to bring back Star Trek is over (with the exception of Whedon's "Firefly", which viewers couldn't leverage back as a TV series but did assist in getting the feature film "Serenity" backed.) If SPACE isn't profiling books any more, many have probably switched quietly and immediately to other sources (like the thousands of blogs and other 'net sites) where they can get their lit fix - including Canadian SF literature (often on international sites where our authors are known).

The question is, if this audience is lost or leaving (or too quiet to validate and quantify the station's success), is it worth even considering book content for the show? I would argue that yes, it is. Resurrect the quality product that SPACE used to have for literary previews & reviews, something that can compete quality-wise against websites that feature books & literary awards, and they'll come back. Quietly, to be sure, just as they left, but if it's a good product with intelligent content, word will spread and these viewers will return.

As for a younger-skewing audience, don't underestimate their desire to read. Yes, they stampede towards movies and comics and videogames and anime and collectables and the rest of it. No question. But then, so do those of us who are bookworms. And surprisingly, kids are reading. If they weren't, there would be no young-adult sections in bookstores. And yet there are. It's not uncommon to see a teen prowling around the SF section of a store with the adults trying to figure out what to pick up. And if you go to a convention, you'll notice there are a fair number of teens who show up - sure, the majority of con attendees are adults, but the kids are there. By all means, tie the books in to something else you're doing for the time being, you're right, that's a logical hook. But once you've hooked them, then there's the possibility of regrowing something about books simply for the sake of books. Offer them a book segment on the show, give them a chance to become well-rounded and they'll buy into it if they like what they see - even if they never tell you about it (and you have to admit that's pretty standard behaviour for a teen).

I'm glad to hear you're still trying to fight for literary content at Hypaspace, Mark. It means there's hope for Space. It's my hope that the new management will see the logic in what you're pitching. I'd like to see books come back to Space.

Best of luck!

-



So that’s where things stand now. I really do hope the new management at SPACE listens to his arguments for the return of literary content. In the absence of it, Hypaspace has become rather shallow, and I’m not the avid viewer I used to be.
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