sharper picture

Canadian producer enjoying role as U.S. network content provider

"Christina's been making dramas forever," a friend of Canadian producer Christina Jennings, chairman and CEO of Shaftesbury Films, remarked in a throw-away line that made her sound like a gnarly veteran. She's a veteran, but far from gnarly. In fact, Jennings is the model for the dynamic, young and smart producer that is bringing Canada into a new frontier of film and TV production.

It's probably true to say that Jennings, more than most TV executives north of the border, has orchestrated a possible paradigm shift for Canadian TV producers.

Jennings recently sold Shaftesbury's drama "The Listener" to NBC. It tells the story of a young man who reads people's thoughts and acts on them. The show is in preproduction, with shooting set to begin this spring.

Another Canadian drama, "Flashpoint," went to CBS, and ABC Family bought the comedy "Sophie."

"There seems to be a new pattern emerging at American TV networks, which have lately become more open to working with production companies outside the U.S.," Jennings says. The deal was done during the writers strike, but Jennings argues that NBC's decision had less to do with the strike than the shifting needs of U.S. TV production.

This is her first U.S. network pickup and comes as the nets battle soaring production costs and competition from the Internet and pay-cable players, among others. So it makes sense, the argument goes, that the U.S. nets pact with the likes of Shaftesbury, which can deliver high-quality drama at an attractive price. Cablers like Showtime have already exercised that model with such shows as "The Tudors," produced in Ireland by Irish production outfit World 2000.

But Jennings is under pressure now for "The Listener" to perform well for NBC. If it make ratings hay, then the U.S. nets may see value in doing more straight-to-series orders with the help of foreign producers. If they don't perform, that might give U.S. networks reason to rethink the whole thing.

"It's a lot of pressure. A lot is riding on this series," Jennings concedes. "But if we deliver for both NBC and CTV (the show's Canadian carrier), then the door will be more open for us to say to the U.S., 'Look, we also have these other two series that we would like to go forward with you on.' But I'm confident because in the month-and-a-half that we have been working with NBC on this, they have been on this every bit as though it was one of their own shows."

Jennings is not quite ready to contemplate failure. "You can just do your damnedest to succeed," she says. But with success will come more partnerships with U.S. networks for Shaftesbury. She's sure of that. So is WMA, which has signed the Canadian shingle for representation.

"Here we are, this company up in Canada with all these one-hour shows, and so WMA is now getting us on the radar," Jennings says. "Over the past couple of months, we have met with all the (U.S.) networks. These are incredibly exciting times." But, she adds, "It was just a matter of time. There is a finite amount of money (for production in the U.S.), and programming needs to be made so that, if as a broadcaster you can find partners, why not?"

For years, Canada's attractive tax incentives for TV and film helped make Canadian-produced, world-class content the norm rather than the exception. If Jennings is right and her gamble pays off, then look for much more foreign-produced primetime TV to come your way.