Canadians see sellers market

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TORONTO -- While Canadian broadcasters cue up homegrown drama sales to U.S. networks during the WGA strike, they also have begun mulling how to buy U.S. network series if the traditional upfronts and Los Angeles Screenings in May are canceled.

Talk of contingency plans came as NBC and Canada's CTV on Friday confirmed NBC's pickup of CTV's drama "The Listener." The U.S. net has ordered 13 episodes of the Shaftesbury Films-produced series, in preproduction with shooting set to begin in the spring.

"This deal is another example of us reaching out to the international community to find innovative and interesting programming," NBC executive vp Teri Weinberg said.

The NBC sale follows another new CTV drama, "Flashpoint," going to CBS earlier last week as U.S. networks turn to Canada for fresh content during the writers strike.

"It's been an incredible week," said Susanne Boyce, president of creative, content and channels at CTV. "Two different series, two different American networks, two different producers -- one huge success for CTV's original development team."

Also Friday, ABC Family and the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. confirmed ABC Family's 13-episode pickup of "Sophie," a new comedy from Montreal-based Sphere Media.

The two deals closed as several U.S. nets, including ABC and CBS, continue to circle another new CBC show, drama "The Border."

"We're building a strong and important creative community, and it's an exciting time when Canada can get back to exporting its own shows, especially to the U.S.," said Kirstine Layfield, executive director of network programming at CBC.

Also said to be garnering interest from U.S. outlets is Global TV's drama "The Guard."

But as the Canadians cheer their U.S. program sales, they also are buzzing about NBC Universal head Jeff Zucker's recent comments about changing the TV business model, including dramatically reducing the number of pilots to five to six a year and possibly scrapping the upfront presentations.

"If you said to me there's no more upfronts, and it meant for me and for us at CanWest that we could spend more time with our agencies and their clients talking about their needs, that's probably a better use of time and money," said Kathy Dore, president of Canadian television at CanWest Global Communications.

Dore, who oversees two national TV networks here, conceded that seeing U.S. nets' pilots help Canadian broadcasters in their decisions about what to purchase at the L.A. Screenings. The weeklong marathon following the upfront presentations where international broadcasters view and buy the new U.S. series is in jeopardy if there are no pilots to screen.

The Canadian networks often buy their homegrown programming on spec and could learn to do the same with their Hollywood suppliers.

"We do that all the time with our shows, and that's the way cable channels have been programd since the outset," Dore said.

While it is not clear if rival networks will join NBC in limiting the number of pilots and possibly ditching the upfronts, the chance for the Canadians to avoid the frenzy of buying at the L.A. Screenings before they race back home for their own upfront presentations in Toronto has its benefits.

"Maybe ... those of us in Canada involved in that process will be able to take a little more time and get more insight," Dore said.

Nellie Andreeva in Los Angeles contributed to this report.
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