Canadian TV in border skirmish

Critics on offensive after study details nets' U.S. spending spree

TORONTO -- Canadian TV unions and guilds this week berated domestic broadcasters for spending increasingly more on U.S. network series and less on Canadian fare. The latest round in the ongoing battle for airspace here casts a shadow on the upcoming L.A. Screenings.

"Business as usual for broadcasters in Canada means trying to top each other in bidding wars for U.S. programming," Writers Guild of Canada executive director Maureen Parker said. "Quality Canadian drama is paying the price for their cross-border shopping sprees."

The Canadian networks are among the biggest spenders each year at the L.A. Screenings in mid-May, an informal global TV market at which the U.S. majors screen and market the latest program pickups by the American networks.

Parker's comments came as the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission issued a report that indicates private broadcasters outside of Quebec in 2007 spent $505 million on foreign, mostly American dramas to find the next water-cooler show. The tab was up 5% from $479 million in 2006. That compares with $74 million spent by domestic broadcasters on homegrown dramas in 2007, up from $71 million a year earlier.

That's not what Canadian actors and other professionals who depend on indigenous dramas for lucrative work want to see, observers say.

"(Broadcasters) are now spending more than half a billion dollars on Hollywood shows, as they annually bid up the prices against each other at the L.A. Screenings," said Steve Waddell, national executive director of ACTRA, which represents 21,000 domestic performers.

Despite generous government subsidies funneled to private broadcasters for Canadian programming, Waddell warned that such leading broadcasters as CTV and CanWest Media will continue to chase ratings with U.S. series unless the CRTC reins them in.

"You can't trust the broadcasters. You need to re-regulate," he said, calling for the regulator to restore the Canadian-content spending requirements on domestic conventional broadcasters that were abandoned in 1999.

The CRTC report said that private broadcasters spent $722 million on foreign programming in 2007, 4.9% more than the $688.3 million invested in 2006.

Canadian ratings leader CTV has struck pay dirt with such U.S. series as "American Idol," "Grey's Anatomy" and the "CSI" franchise. Rival CanWest has hit the jackpot with "House," "Heroes" and "Survivor."

Canadian programming expenditures, by contrast, fell 1.2% to $616 million, down from a year-earlier $623.7 million, the CRTC said.

Ian Morrison, a spokesman for the Friends of Canadian Broadcasting, which represents about 50,000 TV viewers, said unions and guilds were misreading the ratio of Canadian and American program spending at domestic networks by dwelling on falling Canadian-content expenditures.

The problem is not lower spending on Canadian programs, he said, but rising costs for U.S. primetime series, which ultimately drive the train.

"The Canadian broadcasting industry is addicted to simulcasting Hollywood programming," Morrison said. "That is the money pump that enables it to meets its commitments to Canadian content."

He said that recent industry consolidation, which has left CTV and CanWest as the two main buyers in Los Angeles, eventually could constrain prices paid by the Canadians for rookie and returning U.S. shows.

He recalled last year's Screenings, where the absence of Chum after it was acquired by CTV left the Canadians mostly to do package deals along studio lines.