Los Angeles Screenings: Will New-Look Canadian Buyers Be High Rollers or Tightwads?

Cliff Lipson/CBS

After a wave of industry consolidation, Canadian broadcasters under new owners could be cautious buyers of new and returning U.S. shows as they descend on Los Angeles for their annual Hollywood shopping expedition.

TORONTO – Canadian TV ad dollars are flowing again, but the coming week will reveal whether Canuck broadcasters return to form and drop big dollars for new U.S. shows at the Los Angeles Screenings. 

New ownership of major broadcasters here could make for cautious buying on studio lots during the Canadians' annual Hollywood shopping expedition for new and returning U.S. network series.

“I’m quite sure they will be quite conservative and careful with how they invest their dollars,” Florence Ng, vp of broadcast investments at ZenithOptimedia in Toronto, wagered.

After a wave of industry consolidation, the former Canwest Global Communications Corp. was acquired by cable giant Shaw Communications and renamed Shaw Media, and more recently CTV was taken over by phone giant BCE, with top execs and U.S series buyers Ivan Fecan and Susanne Boyce departing.

And a major management shuffle at Rogers Media has put its U.S. series-heavy Citytv TV stations under the control of former CTV exec Keith Pelley.

Phil King, now number two at Bell Media as president of CTV programming and sports, said his new programming team will go out and do what they need to in order to improve an already strong primetime schedule filled with hits like Grey's Anatomy and Desperate Housewives.

“We have to be fiscally responsible. But if we see some shows we like, we will take a run at them,” he said.

CTV, which can shift excess inventory to its secondary A Channel network, tends to bulk buy in Los Angeles for ABC and CBS series through long-standing supply deals with the Disney and Warner Bros. TV studios.

King remained tight-lipped about CTV’s buying plans in Los Angeles as his programming team has yet to screen new pilots on studio lots while his sales team reports back from the Upfront presentations in New York City.

But CTV is eyeing rookie comedies after doing well with Big Bang Theory and Two and a Half Men, now to be re-tooled after Charlie Sheen, in its lineup.

Arch-rival Shaw Media, which tends to pick up CBS Studios, Sony and 20th Century Fox product at the LA Screenings via its own output deals, is also making the usual Canadian pledges to be thrifty and avoid bidding contests ahead of rotating screenings of new pilots on studio lots.

“I understand there’s a perception that it can all get out of hand.  I don’t expect it to be out of hand,” Barb Williams, senior vp of content at Shaw Media, and a veteran buyer of U.S. series, said.

Global Television has fewer holes to fill than in past years now that it has popular hits like House anchoring its Mondays, Glee on Tuesdays, Survivor on Wednesdays and Bones on Thursdays.

Williams and her programming team, like their Canadian peers, in recent weeks have studied how the U.S. networks schedules may shake out in the coming days at the Upfronts before finalizing their Fall 2011 primetime campaign.

“Now we’re waiting to see where they (U.S. shows) all land, and what little gems we can find to fill in the gaps,” Williams said.

Rogers Media programmers were not available for comment before flying out to Los Angeles this week.

Rogers, a division of cable giant Rogers Communications, is the biggest buyer of fourth-place NBC series among the Canadians and, like last year, will have the most holes to fill when the major studios eventually fire the starting gun to signal deal-making by the Canadians.

“We have been reassured by Rogers that they know they need to improve the programming and they are prepared to do what is required to do that,” ZenithOptimedia’s Ng reported.

“They’re (Rogers) number three. They need to build on their schedule to build consistency, to be more neck and neck with Shaw. They would be the one to probably be the most aggressive of the three networks,” she added.

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 late May and early June.

  European broadcasters epecially have the luxury of window-shopping at the Screenings before buying new U.S. shows later this summer.

As in past years, the Canucks are likely agree on larger price tags for proven U.S. primetime hits when bargaining with the TV studios, and where product is untested, they are likely to bid low or remain on the sidelines.

That said, the Canadian networks’ multi-year supply deals with the major U.S. studios still largely dictate what programming they acquire in Los Angeles, and at what price.

And that leaves critics of the Canadian broadcasters back home nervous that, in the heat of battle for new U.S. network series, Canuck execs will throw caution to the wind and drop big dollars in Los Angeles.

"Instead of dumping buckets of money on U.S. programming yet again, Canadian broadcasters should be making smart investments here in Canada,” Stephen Waddell, national executive director of ACTRA, the actors union, said ahead of the Los Angeles Screenings.

“The only way our broadcasters are going to survive is by distinguishing themselves through airing original, scripted Canadian drama,” he added.