Industry catching up to Bell Fund

Ten years ago, when websites were little more than an afterthought for most TV producers, the Bell Broadcast and New Media Fund was established to encourage digital media innovation and closer collaboration between the television and digital industries.

Ten years ago, when websites were little more than an afterthought for most TV producers, the Bell Broadcast and New Media Fund was established to encourage digital media innovation and closer collaboration between the television and digital industries.

Today, TV and digital producers are indeed working more closely, but fund chair Paul Hoffert says the idea was not an easy sell in 1997.

‘When we started the fund 10 years ago, the television industry and the new media industry were absolutely two solitudes that had no connection at all,’ he says. ‘It was a reasonable question as to whether the idea of the Bell Fund was a good one, because the idea of tying new media production and television production seemed a bit of a stretch at the time.’

Today the top TV-related websites have matured from simple, text-heavy destinations providing background and promotional information into complex interactive experiences, offering value-added content, social spaces, access to episodes, and advanced 3D games.

‘Many are now beginning to see the web in a way that the Bell Fund did 10 years ago, which is that the web is part of the way you tell a story,’ Hoffert says.

With support from the Bell Fund, which is run by executive director Andra Sheffer, a venture such as Regenesistv.com has been able to take this approach. The site for Shaftesbury Films’ award-winning biotech drama ReGenesis (airing on The Movie Network and Movie Central) has received multi-year Bell Fund support since launching in 2004, and was selected as one of Canada’s top 10 new media projects by the fund as part of its 10th anniversary celebrations, announced Oct. 3.

Produced with Toronto-based Xenophile Media, the site is one of two Bell Fund-supported projects to win an International Interactive Emmy Award in Cannes in April, the other being the Zimmer Twins site by Zinc Roe Design.

Shane Kinnear, Shaftesbury VP sales and marketing, says support from the Bell Fund allowed Regenesistv.com to be more innovative than other sites being developed at the time. Site developers and series writers worked together to make the site more than just a promotional tool. For example, elements of the script are created specifically to provide clues for playing the online game.

In fact, according to Kinnear, avid players of the online game have made ReGenesis one of the most downloaded shows in the country.

‘Our writers were thinking simultaneously about the show and the website,’ he says. ‘Without the fund, the site would not have been possible, period. It allowed us to be innovative – to do things that hadn’t been done before.’

The Bell Fund has grown from distributing $3 million to nearly $10 million annually. Bell ExpressVu contributes more than $8 million annually, with the rest coming from investments from a $10-million endowment from the BCE/CTV benefits. In 1997, it supported a handful of television websites. Today it provides essential support for a wide range of digital media undertakings, including industry reports and research, apprenticeship programs and events such as nextMEDIA’s CyberPitch competition.

The importance of the Bell Fund is stressed this year with the major broadcasters slashing digital media spending. With key digi-execs at CHUM, CTV, Alliance Atlantis Communications, Corus Entertainment and CanWest gone and initiatives such as AAC’s BlogTV shutdown, private and public support for the continued development of Canada’s digital industries may play an even more pivotal role in keeping Canada’s industry on the international radar.

While Hoffert sees the cutbacks as a temporary trend, he also cautions that moving too far away from the digital industry right now may leave Canadian companies out in the cold.

‘The cuts are happening because there’s a money squeeze on. But those who don’t participate won’t participate,’ he says.

According to Hoffert, digital media has not only secured itself at the center of the entertainment industry’s future, but in Canada the industry is on the cusp of developing viable business models.

‘The digital industry is just starting to get economical now,’ he says.

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