No cold shoulder for Screenings

Canada's CanWest, CTV, Chum return, set to buy again

TORONTO -- Expect the appetite by Canadian networks for U.S. network series to be bigger than ever when they preview pilots and buy potential primetime hits this month at the Los Angeles Screenings.

Despite so many cancellations on U.S. network schedules since last year's Screenings, the international TV bazaar represents the Canadians' one big annual buying spree.

The Canadians are closely tied to U.S. network schedules, as they generally air -- or simulcast -- American series in the same time slots held south of the border and make money by replacing U.S. commercials with Canadian ones.

"We do believe that we will go back to Los Angeles this year and be a strong buyer and a competitive buyer and certainly be a decent volume buyer," said Barbara Williams, senior vp programming and production at CanWest MediaWorks, which operates two national TV networks.

CanWest MediaWorks, which has output deals with NBC and Fox suppliers, has enjoyed a ratings bounce thanks to primetime revivals by 20th Century Fox and NBC Universal product.

Williams last year bought 14 dramas and eight comedies in Los Angeles. Many purchases went sour, including such dramas as NBC's "Kidnapped," Fox's "Vanished," ABC's "Day Break" and the CW's "Runaway."

But CanWest MediaWorks did find gold in NBC's "Heroes," CBS' "Shark" and ABC's "Brothers & Sisters," and it has a host of such returning network shows as "Prison Break," "House," "Bones," "Las Vegas" and "The Office."

"We will put our dollars where they will help take us to the next level as opposed to spreading those dollars across a lot of spaces," Williams said.

Toronto-based CTV Inc., which leads Canadian broadcasters with the most primetime U.S. network hits on its schedule, faced its share of failed bets on rookie shows last year, including three Warner Bros. dramas: NBC's "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip"; Jerry Bruckheimer's "Justice"; and "Smith," from John Wells, responsible for such CTV money-spinners as "ER" and "The West Wing."

At the same time, CTV rules Canadian primetime with such returning hits as Fox's "American Idol," CBS' "CSI" franchise and such ABC stalwarts as "Grey's Anatomy," "Lost" and "Desperate Housewives" and CBS' "Criminal Minds" -- most of which were acquired through traditional output deals with CBS and ABC suppliers.

Given that bench strength, CTV president of programming Susanne Boyce doesn't expect volume buying from her network this year, especially after last year proved "disappointing" in terms of U.S. product offerings. NBC's "Studio 60" and CBS' "Smith" secured proportionately better ratings in Canada than in the U.S., Boyce said, leaving loyal CTV viewers in the lurch when the shows sagged.

As in past years, Boyce will be seeking a mix of dramas, comedies and reality series at the Screenings as well as favoring rookie series with "pedigree" showrunners. Although Canadian buying patterns in Los Angeles depend in part on output deals, the network generally needs a simulcast slot for rookie shows they might covet from traditional suppliers to ensure profits down the line.

Toronto-based broadcaster Chum Ltd. did better than its rivals, buying freshman dramas and comedies for simulcast at last year's Screenings. Such rookie series as CBS' "Jericho" and ABC's "Ugly Betty" and "Men in Trees" will return, with only CBS' Stanley Tucci starrer "3 lbs." proving a notable failure.

Chum senior vp content Roma Khanna, like her Canadian rivals, is waiting for the U.S. networks to finish confirming renewals before deciding what and where to spend to replenish her schedule.

Chum also features more Hollywood movies in primetime than its rivals. "If we see a show we love, we are able to make room for it," Khanna said.

The Canadians insist it's too early to know whether uncertainty before and during upcoming writers' contract talks with the studios will impact their buying expedition.

CanWest MediaWorks' Williams also said discussions by the Canadians on possibly acquiring digital rights to new series, besides the exclusive broadcast rights, are ongoing.

"But I don't think anyone on either side is certain about the right business model" to underpin any eventual deals, she said.