Canada b'casters gird for upfronts

Schedule pitches come quickly on heels of L.A. Screenings

TORONTO -- After arming themselves to the teeth last week with rookie U.S. series, Canadian broadcasters are set to battle for domestic advertising dollars at competing upfront extravaganzas this week and next.

The Canadians did their buying on the fly last week at the Los Angeles Screenings before finalizing their 2007-08 grids and honing preseason sales pitches to domestic advertisers and media buyers for upfront presentations in Toronto.

The Canadian Broadcasting Corp. will be the first Canadian broadcaster to host a shindig for buyers, making their pitch today, with industry leaders CTV, CanWest MediaWorks and Chum following next week.

CBC executive director of network programming Kirstine Layfield said that nine new Canadian series and an extended 22-episode run for the returning "Little Mosque on the Prairie" will be strategically scheduled this fall against the American fare dominating primetime on rival domestic networks.

"As they fight each other, spending a lot of money on U.S. product, I'm assuming that, as always, Canadian programming will be a lesser priority for them and a higher priority for us," she said.

Unlike the U.S. upfronts, where network executives have a healthy lead time to prepare slick presentations, the Canadians finalize their fall campaigns and rally their sales and marketing crews for upfront presentations in just under two weeks.

And as in past years, the Canadians will trot out Hollywood stars to bolster their presentations and parties. After all, private Canadian broadcasters don't want to tip their hand ahead of their upfronts, as they traditionally give their best primetime slots, promotion and attention to series that are simulcast with their U.S. network telecasts.

CanWest MediaWorks is expected to crow about recent hits like Fox's "House" and "Prison Break," and NBC's "Heroes," while rival CTV will claim bragging rights as it heralds its broadcast of the Academy Awards and the Super Bowl this year.

CTV's cable sports channel, the Sports Network, meanwhile, will begin airing the Canadian Football League's Grey Cup championship game from 2008. That means from 2008 CTV will have the Oscars, the Super Bowl and the Grey Cup game -- the three most-watched shows on Canadian TV in its stable.

CanWest MediaWorks and CTV also are expected to dominate next week's domestic upfronts after doing the bulk of buying by the Canadians in Los Angeles last week.

CanWest MediaWorks picked up product from CBS Paramount International TV, Sony Pictures Television International and 20th Century Fox Television Distribution, while rival CTV did its volume purchasing from Warner Bros. International TV and Disney/ABC International Television (HR 5/23).

"It's dividing into a two-corner fight. Our industry hasn't seen that before," said Michael Taylor, president of Peace Arch Television and a veteran Canadian distributor and programmer.

With CTV set to acquire rival Chum Ltd., pending regulatory approval, Canadian primetime has effectively turned into a cage fight between CTV and CanWest MediaWorks.

The result last week was CTV and CanWest MediaWorks doing deals for new U.S. series on Tuesday night, rather than waiting as in past years for their previewing of U.S. pilots to conclude on Wednesday. Their haste came from needing to rush back to Toronto to prepare for their upfronts by playing to their strengths.

"It's really about talking about our wins last year, our best stories and releasing the new schedule and letting (ad execs) know that we're ready for business," Don Gaudet, general manager of Toronto TV station SunTV, said of his June 12 upfront presentation.

Going into next season, CTV will continue to dominate Thursday nights, with ABC's "Grey's Anatomy" and CBS' "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" anchoring the 8 p.m. and 9 p.m. hours, respectively. Three network shows, meanwhile, rookie ABC drama "Big Shots," CBS' "Without a Trace" and NBC's "ER," are contenders for the pivotal 10 p.m. slot.

Last week, rival CanWest MediaWorks strengthened its Monday night lineup by acquiring two rookie dramas, NBC's "Journeyman" and Fox mid-season entry "K-Ville," to bolster a Monday night lineup that already includes NBC hits "Deal or No Deal" and "Heroes."

On Wednesday nights, CanWest MediaWorks has bolstered its chances by complementing "Deal or No Deal" at 8 p.m. with two new series from NBC Universal: "Bionic Woman" at 9 p.m. and "Life" at 10 p.m.

For its own Wednesday night, which is anchored by CBS' "CSI: NY" at 10 p.m., CTV picked up three new ABC series: "Pushing Daisies" at 8 p.m., "Grey's Anatomy" spinoff "Private Practice" at 9 p.m. and "Dirty Sexy Money" at 10 p.m.

Privately, Canadian ad buyers insist the domestic upfronts could see modest primetime rate increases from 3% to 5% secured by broadcasters, with a 10% mark-up possible for hit product.

After all, domestic ad buyers recall last year when CTV and CanWest MediaWorks made hay over a slew of edgy, serialized dramas acquired from U.S network suppliers, only to see most quickly shelved.