Canadian Networks Cancel TV Upfront Events Amid Pandemic

Doug Murphy, CEO of Corus Entertainment-Publicity - H 2020
Corus Entertainment

"The upfronts were an expensive exercise that weren't really necessary," Corus Entertainment CEO Doug Murphy told analysts on Wednesday.

As the COVID-19 crisis puts the brakes on local advertising buys, Canadian TV networks continue to follow their U.S. peers in canceling plans for their annual upfront presentations in Toronto.

Corus Entertainment, a traditional buyer of American series at the annual Los Angeles Screenings, on Wednesday became the latest Canadian broadcaster to cancel its in-person upfront presentation to local advertisers.

Corus CEO Doug Murphy told analysts on a morning call following the release of the company's second-quarter financial results that while there was little visibility on the nature and duration of the coronavirus impact, immediate cost-cutting at Corus included the "elimination of all discretionary or non-essential expenses such as our annual upfront."

Rival Rogers Media, another package buyer of new U.S. studio shows, said it, too, will bypass a live upfront presentation for the second year in a row. And Bell Media, the top-rated Canadian broadcaster, told The Hollywood Reporter it was "still in discussions about how we'll present our upfront."

That's as Canadian politicians and public health officials have warned against mass events with large crowds, which is typical of glitzy upfront presentations. Unlike other foreign buyers, the Canadians buy on the hop during their annual Los Angeles Screenings in May before rushing back to Toronto to unveil their fall primetime schedules at their own upfront presentations in early June.

The Canadian upfronts also follow quickly after the U.S. upfront presentations in May as primetime schedules north of the U.S. border, where possible, mirror those of the Americans networks so they can simulcast hit American shows to boost ad revenue.

But with North American travel bans and a deepening advertising recession brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, Corus CEO Murphy on Wednesday questioned the future of the Canadians' annual shopping expedition in Hollywood before in-person presentations for local advertisers in Toronto.

"The upfront cycle in Canada is something that all of us, the broadcasters, have talked over the last year about why we are doing that," the exec told analysts. "In the U.S., it's a bit of a different animal. They have a different buying process. In Canada, one could have argued prior to the COVID crisis that the upfronts were an expensive exercise that weren't really necessary."

Murphy also discussed possibly bypassing the traditional rotating screenings of U.S. network pilots on Hollywood studio lots this year, before the green light for package buying of rookie shows by the Canadians is flashed. "We'll find ways to screen our new shows, probably digitally," he said.

Also complicating just how wide the Canadians will open their wallets for new and returning U.S. shows this year is the major studios closing down or delaying production on pilot series destined for sale on global broadcast and streaming platforms.

Murphy told analysts that most Hollywood studios have reduced their season show orders, and that much depended on individual titles and creative pedigree and at what stage production was at before shutting down or being postponed.

"The U.S. situation is very disparate. You have hotspots in Florida, Georgia. California is in lockdown. We all know about New York," the exec added, as he described the U.S. production landscape.

"Given the size of the investment that the U.S. studios make in their content, there's a wide variety of potential outcomes that we could experience. That will be more apparent as the months tick on," Murphy said as Corus remains in contact with its Hollywood suppliers on likely scenarios.