Barry Silverthorn got into the model railway hobby at the ripe old age of four. And for the succeeding decades he found endless amounts of joy and fulfillment in building, painting, laying out track and becoming pals with similarly minded hobbyists.
In his youth, he became interested in how television shows were made and eventually graduated from the Television Production program at Fanshawe College, moving into the TV business where he remained for the better part of his career.
“I started out duplicating movies in a facility, loading the VHS tapes into 800 machines every day, and then moved on to become an assistant editor for shows like Night Heat, Diamonds and Thunderstruck back in the 1980s. I took a break to run a model train store in the 1990s and then someone called me up one day and asked if I could do some editing for them. All of a sudden I was in the editor’s chair and spent about 10 years working for Vision TV in Toronto,” Silverthorn said.
He later became a freelancer and moved to the Bay of Quinte Region where he began working with Whistlestop Productions out of Prince Edward County. It was while there that he came upon the idea of utilizing his knowledge of the ins and outs of producing a television show, as well as his knowledge of the model train community, to create what is essentially his dream job.
“I was working for a show in Picton about classic cars and when the show came to an end I said to the producer, ‘you know, if we change these to steel wheels and put them on rails, we could pitch a show and get another 13 episodes about trains.’ We did a pilot segment to show what we were proposing and the executive of the network said it was great, but that they changed their format and were not doing those kinds of shows any more,” he explained.
“So I thought to myself, rather than get a network to pay me $25,000, for example, for a show about model trains, maybe I can get 25,000 people to pay me a dollar. And that’s how the idea for TrainMasters started. And the wonderful thing for me going that route was I found a niche audience and targeted it to them. I never had to dumb down my content. With a general audience you have to explain everything or you wouldn’t be able to go into much detail. Well, here we can go into as much detail as we want and our audience knows exactly what it’s about. For me, that’s really refreshing – these are my people.”
Working out of the basement of his Belleville home, Silverthorn brought together a small team of like-minded individuals, some who had experience in TV others who had not, but had the hobbyist expertise, to create TrainMasters.TV.
“Every month we produce a 90-minute show that helps people in the hobby get more out of their hobby. So we go to see people’s set ups all across North America and do video tours to show what other people are doing. We do profiles on modellers; we have how-to segments in the studio as well. In my basement we have a three-camera studio where we have a host and we will being in a clinician – it could be somebody local or it could be someone from anywhere in North America,” Silverthorn explained.
“It could be a manufacturer who is talking about how to use their product. We have hosts who talk about electronics, we have another where we do a wide cross-section like scenery and weathering, that kind of thing. We have another segment that is specifically for people who do modelling of freight cars and locomotives, and give them information about detail, painting and weathering them to look aged.”
TV is part of the TrainMasters.TV brand, but it is an internet-based program that is offered through a subscription service. Newcomers can sign up and pay monthly, but the more devoted fans can sign up for a year and get a bit of a deal on fees.
Silverthorn worked out a partnership arrangement whereby the ins and outs of the website and the subscriptions were taken out of his hands, allowing him to simply focus on creating the program.
“I work with Model Railroad Hobbyist Magazine which is the second most popular model train magazine on the planet. They are my portal to subscribers, because there’s no way I would have had the resources to reach 80,000 people in the hobby myself. So I partnered with them as my distributor and they put ads in the magazine, they manage the website and the subscriptions for me. So all I have to do is produce the content, which is great because that’s what I do. We have lots of subscribers in Canada, but also some in places like Australia and Japan,” he said.
The partnership with the magazine gave him an instant, dialed in audience but ultimately the sky is literally the limit in terms of how much growth the TV show, and the business can handle.
“I worked in the broadcast industry as an editor for years. In Canada you have a potential audience of say 20 million people if you think about Rogers and Bell subscribers. Well, with Trainmasters.TV I have a potential global audience of seven billion. And another wonderful thing about this is when you produce a show for the internet, you don’t have to go through all the CRTC process and licencing and things like that. So I have basically started a TV show without having to go through those channels and incurring that expense. I am really shocked that a lot of media companies that have second-tier home and garden or food-related programming haven’t latched onto this,” Silverthorn said.
“Everything in television, in my opinion, is going online. They are going what we call ‘over the top’ or OTT. So rather than reaching your viewers through a cable company or through a broadcast signal, they are going online. A survey came out recently that said 60 per cent of households have Netflix. That’s huge that they have managed to do that in, what, seven or eight years. I think there is a huge opportunity through the democratization of media and through the decrease in price in the technology. Just about anybody with experience in this area can start something up and literally do it in their basement and have it look very professional and be very entertaining.”
One of the interesting challenges Silverthorn has faced is the fact that he is pretty much a lone wolf, and that it’s hard to find someone who has the same sort of unique acumen and skill set that he has.
“I would love to be able to find another me. I would love to find someone who can shoot and edit and produce TV and who has a background in the hobby. Those people are few and far between. Sometimes I wonder if it’s better to find someone who has television production skills and teach them how to be a hobbyist, or find a hobbyist and train them how to make television,” he said, adding that another challenge he has is that his production facility and gear is somewhat underutilized.
“I have a recording space that I only really need to use 12 to 15 days a year, otherwise the equipment sits there doing nothing. It isn’t a big issue in terms of cost, but it would be nice if I could find some other niches and someone else I could collaborate with to produce another show similar to this but in a totally different genre, like collecting trading cards, gaming or guitars. And a third challenge is that I am no longer just a video editor, but I am running a business and I am learning about the whole theory of grow or die. You get to a point where you either grow or you need to shrink it. My problem is that to grow would require a lot of capital and requires a lot of people and resources. I know I could use people to help with marketing, that’s where I think our weakness is. If I had more viewers than I have a whole list of projects that I would like to do that actually allow me to go out and do, but we need more viewers to do that.”
Silverthorn said he is encouraged by the co-operative and independent spirit that motivates the burgeoning film and television sector in the Bay of Quinte Region, but believes that if there is to be any sort of collective activity, there needs to perhaps be a dedicated person to help co-ordinate, market and promote the activities of the local film and TV sector.
“There has to be someone who is going to reach out outside of this area and let people know that we’re here and what we have to offer. I can see things being more of a boutique atmosphere here. But it’s good to know that there are some creative people here and it’s good to be able to have more people to possibly collaborate with, or even just to support one another,” he said, adding that he also feels no hindrance to his business by being located in Belleville and the Bay of Quinte Region.
“I am broadcasting to the entire planet out of Belleville. Everything I do is by email and uploading and downloading files, so I don’t need to be in Toronto. If I have a guest who is getting off a plane it might be easier for them if I was in Toronto, but the other thing is they can get off the plane onto the new Pearson express train and onto a VIA train and I go pick them up at the Belleville train station. Having that infrastructure is wonderful because I can just send them a plane ticket and train ticket.”
For more information, visit http://trainmasters.tv.