BANFF 2009: Cancon a growing trend on U.S. nets
By: Norma Reveler
Date: June 11, 2009
BANFF – With Flashpoint, The Listener, The Bridge and Copper, all Canadian shows airing or about to broadcast on a U.S. conventional network, Canada’s creative community was given the low-down on the trend at the just wrapped Banff World Television Festival (BWTF).
It’s a good deal for them (Americans) because they can get the programming for a fraction of the price of what it would cost them to wholly fund a series, said Tara Ellis, vice-president of Showcase and drama content at Canwest, on Wednesday at a broadcaster briefing. Canwest-backed E1 Entertainment’s Copper, a series about five rookie cops, will air on ABC. Filming on the series begins this month.
It was the U.S. writers’ strike that really propelled the American networks to look at Canadian shows as they worried they would be left without any programming inventory. But it’s a trend that Ellis doesn’t anticipate will end, even now the writers are back to work, because of the cost-efficiencies of co-producing programming.
“From the CBS end, we were open to looking at Flashpoint because of the writers’ strike, and the sensibility of the show was right. It became a great opportunity and it’s been very successful for us,” said Christina Davis, senior vice-president of drama series development at CBS, the U.S. network that is simulcasting Flashpoint with CTV.
Davis was on a panel that looked at Flashpoint as a case study, and also on Monday’s “The Biz – Packaging, Pitching and Landing the U.S. Presale” session.
Flashpoint co-creator Mark Ellis also chalked the partnerships up to good timing: “There was the writer’s strike and it was also at the end of the Bush days and the beginning of the Obama days.” A pilot of the series about an elite tactical police unit was completed, and producer Bill Mustos presented it to Davis.
Davis noted that the series was in the perfect stage of development – advanced enough for CBS to get a feel for the series, but also not far enough along that the U.S. network couldn’t put its stamp on the show.
One concern was that co-creators Ellis and Stephanie Morgenstern had limited TV experience, and Canada doesn’t have the U.S. tradition of using a single showrunner – one writer who becomes the voice of the show. As a result, veteran screenwriter Tassie Cameron was brought on board as head writer in the first season, and she helped shape the series.
Since then, Canwest initiated the Canwest Showrunner Training Program, in conjunction with the BWTF at last year’s festival, to train seasoned series writers for the role. The program is funded by the benefits package linked to Canwest’s acquisition of the Alliance Atlantis specialty TV channels.
Now that Flashpoint is on a more aggressive production schedule, it has seven full-time writers plus freelance writers, according to co-creator Ellis.
“We saw it was possible with Flashpoint, so we jumped in with The Bridge. The quality is there and it’s very affordable (especially in these times of economic downturn),” said Davis.
The street cop series, which has been in development since 2005 by Shaftesbury Films in conjunction with CTV, was originally commissioned as a two-hour movie of the week with a back-door pilot. The Bridge was the third Canadian drama series in less than 18 months from CTV to get distribution on a U.S. network. The Listener, a supernatural drama about a paramedic who can hear people’s most intimate thoughts, was acquired by NBC.
Shaftesbury Films chair and CEO Christina Jennings said the indie does all of its shows in partnerships, and that The Listener was fully financed before NBC came on board.
“If you want to sell to the States, you really have to do your homework,” added Jennings. She suggested researching what’s working in the ratings, where there are holes, etc. She added that Shaftesbury was thinking of opening an L.A. office to show there’s “a long commitment to be made” with U.S. partners.
Fellow panelist Bill Hamm, executive vice-president of original production and development at Starz Media agreed that knowing the types of shows already on the docket at the U.S. networks was helpful.
Starz is a U.S. pay TV channel that runs Canadian company Starz Animation Toronto. The Canadian animation house is producing an animated show called 9 by U.S. director Tim Burton, and Gnomeo and Juliet, a take-off of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet with pop music superstar Elton John.
“Like with Flashpoint, find something unique. Flashpoint has more of an emotional component,” he said. “The Canadians have broken through; they’re on the map. Their shows are as good or better than (those created by) the Americans.”
Asked, if there is resistance on the part of the U.S. networks to obvious Canadian landmarks or references in the series, Davis responded, “We have agreed not to run from it or spotlight it.”
For example, Flashpoint is obviously set in Toronto, with the CN Tower appearing regularly and the characters referring to Toronto street names.
Jennings admitted to changing a reference to being as cold as Winnipeg to as cold as Buffalo in one episode of The Listener, but said the series generally tries to be “Canadian.”
“If Toronto is alienating to viewers then the U.S. networks shouldn’t buy the series,” she noted.
It’s ironic that Canadians are trying to break into the U.S. conventional TV market at a time when the CRTC is looking to curb the amount of money Canadian over-the-air networks spend on U.S. programming.
In a speech on Monday morning, CRTC chair Konrad von Finckenstein stated, “It was pointed out (at CRTC public hearings) that conventional broadcasters are spending increasing amounts on non-Canadian content. …we intend to make sure, through regulation, that an appropriate proportion of the financial resources of the English-language conventional broadcasters is devoted to Canadian programming in the years to come.”