Nets pluck Canucks for primetime


The Canadian invasion of U.S. primetime intensifies.

NBC is finalizing a deal to pick up 13 episodes of CTV's upcoming drama series "The Listener."

The distributors of another Canadian drama, CBC's "The Border," are in discussions with several U.S. networks, including CBS and ABC.

And ABC Family is in talks to pick up 13 episodes of CBC's comedy series "Sophie." That follows CBS' deal this week to acquire 13 episodes of CTV's new drama series "Flashpoint."

The prolonged writers strike had triggered a serious look by the U.S. broadcasters into local series in the top English-language markets — Canada, the U.K. and Australia — reversing a decades-long programming flow in the other direction.

But Canada is getting all the attention these days. "Canada is the next big thing," one U.S. agent said.

Canadian series are considered more accessible to U.S. audiences. They also provide the networks — whose pipeline had dried up because of the strike — with some much-needed original scripted series.

"This is good news for Canadian producers, writers, directors and creators that we have the opportunity to have Canadian series exported to the U.S.," said Stephen Waddell, national executive director of ACTRA, Canada's actors union representing about 21,000 performers. "Canada is ready for the big time. If you look at the (Canadian) programs that are being produced now, they're interesting, they're innovative, they bring a new perspective."

What's more, Canadian series acquired by U.S. broadcasters are strike-proof, as evidenced by the Writers Guild of Canada's recent statement that "Flashpoint" is not a "struck work."

"Listener" and "Flashpoint" were ordered to series by CTV in December.

In an interesting twist, the two series are a result of CTV's first venture into pilot production — the same model that the U.S. broadcast networks are trying to abandon. With "Listener" and "Flashpoint," CTV for the first time ordered pilots as part of its series development.

"Listener," produced by Toronto-based Shaftesbury Films, features a young paramedic (Craig Olejnik) with telepathic powers. The drama, created by Michael Amo and exec produced by Shaftesbury's Christina Jennings, is slated to begin production in the spring and is expected to be available to CTV and NBC in early June. The ideal scenario is for the series to run simultaneously on NBC and CTV, but that is considered a long shot.

CTV, NBC, Shaftesbury, "Listener's" U.S. distributor Program Partners and WMA, which is brokering the deal, all declined comment.

Under new programming chief Ben Silverman, NBC had been vocal about looking abroad for content, especially during the writers strike. One of the network's upcoming series, the anthology "Fear Itself," which was ordered before the strike, is being produced in Canada by Lionsgate. The network's talks with CTV for "Listener" started long before the "Flashpoint" deal was announced, sources said.

"The Border," which stars "CSI: Miami" alumna Sofia Milos and James McGowan, centers on an elite force of Toronto-based immigration and customs officers battling the threat of terrorism and human trafficking among other challenges along the Canada-U.S. border.

In Canada, the White Pines Pictures-produced drama is touted as the country's answer to Fox's "24." It has drawn impressive audiences of 700,000-800,000 since it bowed Jan. 7.

Peter Raymont, who is exec producing the drama, said "Border's" international distributor, Content Film, is "in the midst of negotiations with several broadcasters" but stressed that no deal has been closed.

Sources said U.S. suitors for "Border" include CBS, ABC and cable networks TNT and USA.

"Sophie," which might be ABC Family-bound, also is a fresh series, having premiered Jan. 9 on CBC. The comedy centers on a young woman (Natalie Brown) whose picture-perfect life comes crashing down. The series, exec produced by Jocelyn Deschenes of Sphere Media Plus, is based on a French-language series that aired in Quebec before it was transplanted to the CBC.

While Canadian series, including "Degrassi," had made inroads on U.S. cable networks, the sales to broadcast networks signal "a coming of age for Canadian writers and performers," said Ira Levy, co-founder of Toronto indie producer Breakthrough Films and Television.

He cautioned that it will take time to see how the homegrown Canadian series fare on the U.S. networks but said, "I think it's a fundamental shift in (the U.S. networks) looking to the international market to provide more programming for the American market."

Nellie Andreeva reported from Los Angeles; Etan Vlessing reported from Toronto.