Canuck L.A. Screenings buyers upbeat

Spending on U.S. series continues to escalate

TORONTO -- The big reveal will come next week, as Canadian broadcasters get set to make rookie and returning U.S. series purchases at the Los Angeles Screenings.

The way the Canucks tell it, they'll be a frugal lot during their annual Hollywood shopping expedition, which officially get under way Monday with rotating screenings of new pilots on studio lots.

They claim few holes to fill as they look to welcome back the bulk of their U.S. series-heavy primetime schedules.

Given their industry challenges, they don't expect bidding wars. They'll screen all the new U.S. series before prudently buying on May 21.

"We are, once again, in a really wonderfully solid place, heading into next fall with a stable schedule," said Barbara Williams, senior vp of programming and production at Canwest Global Communications Corp.

But as ever with Canadians during the LA Screenings, things are not always what they seem.

Appearances need to be kept up, especially for the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), Canada's TV watchdog, which last year talked of clamping down on runaway U.S. program expenditures by local networks.

That is, until the CRTC learnt just how laden market toppers Canwest Global Communications Corp. and CTV are with multi-year supply deals with the major U.S. studios that largely dictate what programming they acquire in Los Angeles, and at what price.

What's more, Canwest Global and CTV are digging themselves out of a hole left by a deep ad slump during the economic downturn.

A year ago, Canadian broadcasters launched a PR campaign to declare their business model broken as they urged cable and satellite TV operators to pony up first-time retransmission fees.

This was about the time Canwest Global filed for bankruptcy protection and CTV started shedding jobs and assets to deal with a worsening business climate.

Despite that industry turmoil, spending by Canadians on U.S. series continues to escalate, and price inflation looks on the cards next week after cable powerhouse Shaw Communications secured a $2 billion deal to seize Canwest Global's TV assets from bankruptcy protection, likely before the summer is out.

That acquisition is part of an industry trend where cable giants like Shaw, Rogers Communications and Quebecor Media buy up TV content to drive their expanding VOD and wireless phone offerings.

Malcolm Dunlop, executive vp of programming at Rogers Media, will be back in Los Angeles next week shopping briskly for scripted dramas, comedies and reality TV series against CTV and Canwest Global.

"It's fast-paced and it's intense. But we're in a lot better position than last year, where we had the whole schedule to fill. We have a good basis and our ratings have increased significantly," Dunlop said.

Despite the entry of deep-pocketed cable giants into the acquisition game, Canwest Global's Williams insists prices are set to stabilize at next week's informal TV market.

"Where there's a huge hit, there's always a larger price tag, which is reasonable. Where there's untested product, prices are more reasonable," she observes.

"As partners, studios and broadcasters are understanding how the larger output deals need to be done," Williams adds.

Like last year, Canwest Global will only be buying for its Global Television network after abandoning its E!-branded secondary network.

With no new broadcast players to broaden out the market, the Canadian will likely buy along studio lines again. Canwest Global tends to do business with CBS Studios International TV, Sony Pictures Television International and 20th Century Fox Television Distribution, while CTV volume buys from Warner Bros. International TV and Disney/ABC International Television.

NBC Universal last year split its product mostly between Rogers Media and Canwest Global's Global Television network.

Unlike other foreign buyers, the Canadians buy on the hop at the Los Angeles Screenings before rushing back to Toronto to unveil their fall primetime schedules at their own upfront presentations in early June.