Canada sees an opening to strike

Reality, homegrown fare at the ready as WGA standoff drags on

You'd think Canadian broadcasters might be fed up by endless disruption from U.S. network partners, what with low ratings for rookie U.S. series, midstory network cancellations and pre-emptions and now a Hollywood writers strike.

Think again.

"It might be a little more uncertain than at other times, but this is a roller coaster that we're used to being on," said Barbara Williams, senior vp programming and production at CanWest MediaWorks.

"The feeling of, 'Gosh, I wonder what (U.S. networks) are doing, and I wonder what that will do to us' — it's not a new feeling. We're pretty familiar with this scenario," added Williams, who oversees the Global Television and E! Canada networks.

The Canadians have been the first casualties of the WGA standoff because they mostly air U.S. series on the same night and the same time as cross-border U.S. network affiliates to drive their ratings and advertising revenue.

"When you're in the network simulcast game, you live with the fact that you have to schedule reactively rather than proactively," said Don Gaudet, GM of Toronto-based SunTV.

The Canadians also insist that fears of a content drought during the strike are overplayed. They point to ample American and Canadian product that can be brought off the shelf when U.S. networks turn to reruns of top-rated network shows after the supply of fresh episodes is exhausted.

"We feel we have a good selection of product that can continue to deliver a strong, viable schedule for our viewers and for our advertisers," Williams said.

Global Television will not have "24" in its midseason lineup after Fox yanked the popular series from its own schedule because of the strike. But it will have CBS' "Big Brother" and "Survivor" as well as NBC's "The Apprentice" in the winter, traditionally a Canadian primetime showcase for U.S. reality TV series.

"When you think of a Global Television schedule in January and February, having a 'Big Brother,' an 'Apprentice,' a 'Survivor,' those are classic top 10 shows, and they will be for us again," Williams said.

Another possible upside for the Canadians is a reprieve from U.S. networks for rookie series with low ratings — including Fox's "Back to You" and ABC's "Dirty Sexy Money" — that might have been canceled in any other year.

New homegrown dramas, TV movies and miniseries for 2008 could similarly benefit from the Hollywood labor strife with a clearer path into Canadian living rooms.

"There's Canadian content that we always intended to launch through the winter and spring, and now we have a platform that might allow Canadian shows to pop a little more easy than they might have in a slew of new American shows," Williams said.

New midseason Canadian dramas set to launch from Global Television in early 2008 include "The Guard," an action series about offbeat Canadian search-and-rescue officers, and "Durham County," a portrait of a bent police officer who starts his life over in a seemingly idyllic suburban community.

Louise Clark, vp programming development at rival CTV, agreed that the writers strike offers an opportunity for homegrown dramas and comedies to build on their audiences as popular American shows shift into reruns.

"If there's less competition out there, maybe there's an opportunity for more eyeballs," she said.

Clark added that the challenge during the strike to stay focused and consistent schedule-wise is no different than at any other time for Canadian broadcasters as they continually challenge for viewers astride the giant American market.

"We're in business at CTV, and it's business as usual," she said.