Canadians predict fast biz at L.A. Screenings

Tighter wallets could mean business done in record time

TORONTO -- Expect another fast closing market for Canadian broadcasters at the upcoming Los Angeles Screenings.

The Canadians don't plan to huddle round the bar or lounge poolside at the annual TV market as their broadcast business continues in crisis. They're scheduled to screen pilots on studio lots even before the Upfronts wrap, from May 21 to 25, and to finish their deal-making and be back home by Sunday.

"This will be a condensed market. Everyone's being fiscally responsible," Don Gaudet, general manager of programming at SunTV, said.

Last year, market leaders CTV and Canwest Global Communications completed their buying in record time owing to a dearth of pilots after the Hollywood writers strike.

This year, the Canadians welcome the return of pilots they can screen, rather than having to rely on scripts and storylines as they did last year.

"We're retreating back to what we used to see. We're seeing robust development slates, lots of pilots," Barbara Williams, executive vice president of content at Canwest Broadcasting, said.

But the Canadians will also be shopping for U.S. series that fit both their schedules and their wallets as their TV ad revenue back home collapses during the economic downturn.

"Whatever becomes the buzz show like '90210' last year, that will go for a premium. But the overall cost of programming will come down," Gaudet predicted.

CTV and Canwest Global in April promised Canada's TV regulator during license renewal hearings that they will be frugal and not engage in bidding wars at the Screenings.

Of course, they say that every year. So their U.S. studio suppliers are keen to see whether the Canadians hold to that pledge in Los Angeles, or melt during the heat of battle.

"As a result of the economy, things being tighter, people will be a little more methodical and careful on how they spend their money. That will result in a little more of an orderly market," ventured one U.S. program supplier.

The pressure on the studios to maintain prices could grow if CTV manages to have its way at the Screenings while debt-laden Canwest Global struggles to stave off bankruptcy protection with ongoing creditor talks.

CTV reached new lending terms with its bankers on April 30, putting it in position to renew existing series and pursue new ones in Los Angeles.

Canwest Global has already said it will only buy for its Global Television network, and not five E!-branded TV stations now up for sale.

At the same time, if CTV, which remains Canada's primetime ratings leader, has too much product on the shelf and few holes to fill going into the Screenings, distributors could be forced to hold out for higher prices rather than see them plummet.

Other wild cards this year include Rogers Media, which has promised to raise its game to buy for its Citytv channels, and cable operator Shaw Communications as it gets set to buy for three local A-branded TV stations to be purchased from CTV.

In addition, output deals that the Canadians have with studio suppliers are set to expire this year and next. So those deals will either be renewed or the Canadians will end the bulk buying they have done in recent years at the Screenings to purchase only what they need for their schedules.