Banff: International Broadcasters, Producers Push Benefits of TV Co-Productions


"Everyone wants some piece of the upside, while paying low license fees," said NBC Entertainment exec Jeff Bader of shows like "Rookie Blue" and "Hannibal."

BANFF, CANADA – Canadians, burdened by a tiny home market, have long seen their fate as TV producers tied to Hollywood and the world market via co-productions and co-ventures.

This week at the Banff World Media Festival, American and other foreign broadcasters with their own pressing needs came looking for solutions in the Canadian co-production tool kit.

“I really feel that, with the globalization of media, with the subsidies that exist in so many parts of the world, with the number of countries that Canada has treaties with, co-productions are managing now not to have the Euro-pudding stigma. And so it is an exciting area now,” Melinda Benedek, executive vp business affairs and production at Showtime Networks, told a panel on international co-productions and co-ventures.

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Jeff Bader, president of program planning, strategy and research at NBC Entertainment, said Canada was the U.S. studio’s “favorite partner” for TV production, given a common North American language and setting.

Bader, a veteran ABC scheduler before switching networks to NBC last year, recalls the early success of the Canadian transplant Rookie Blue from Entertainment One.

The Canadian locations for the cost-efficient cop drama were “invisible to our audience and it did well,” he recalled.

ABC co-finances Rookie Blue with Canadian broadcaster Shaw Media.

Now at NBC, Bader has the shot-in-Toronto drama Hannibal, which stars Hugh Dancy and Mads Mikkelsen, and last year briefly aired the Canadian medical drama Saving Hope before it was canceled due to low ratings.

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Here the production model has a U.S. network getting a primetime show for a fraction of the cost of a drama that a studio develops on its own.

Bader said the TV ratings for Hannibal, combined with its VOD and online viewership, points to a show with a sizeable audience.

“We just can’t monetize it, yet. The price point of the show allows us to do that,” he added.

Co-productions, especially those that go straight to series, can be a tough sell for U.S. networks that traditionally enjoy full creative control, or are prone to cancelling a series after only a few episodes on poor audience performance.

Here Canadian partners offer the Americans greatly reduced license fees to win back creative control for co-production or co-venture partners.

“Everyone wants some piece of the upside, while paying low license fees. We’re willing to take no distribution, if the price is right,” Bader said.

Benoit Runel, senior vp international drama productions at Zodiak Media's Marathon Images, said a co-production with Canada can be a gateway to European financing and production partners, and the North American TV market.

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“We are putting together projects that are of common interest for two broadcasters on both sides of the Atlantic. After that, we put the projects through treaty co-productions that exist between Canada and Europe,” he said.

Runel said traditional Canadian-European co-productions are usually with a French, U.K. or German partner.

“Every combination is possible,” he added.

At the same time, the Banff panel touched on the irony of co-productions that reduce the risk and cost of a show, and yet pose a significant creative challenge in having too many cooks in the kitchen.

“The key I always say is subject matter. You need to find something that will appeal to your partners,” said Noreen Halpern, president of Halfire Entertainment.

That’s not always possible. Take The Firm, produced by Entertainment One in association with Sony Pictures Television and Paramount Pictures, and based on the John Grisham novel previously adapted for the 1993 movie starring Tom Cruise.

The Firm had a showrunner who didn’t understand they needed to take notes from three substantial partners, and a network that thought they were in charge,” said Christine Shipton, creative topper at Shaw Media, the Canadian broadcaster that combined with NBC to launch the drama on its Global Television network.

“There’s two networks. You need to accept both of their notes,” Halpern, who produced The Firm while with Entertainment One, added.