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Comedian Samantha Bee is the host of the 2023 Canadian Screen Awards.Kevin Wolf/The Canadian Press

The first sentiment that comes to mind when thinking about this year’s Canadian Screen Awards is: Huh, okay then?

For its first big bash since the pandemic, the Academy of Canadian Cinema & Television has decided to forgo a live telecast in favour of an experimental one-hour show. It will mix pre-recorded segments with edited clips of acceptance speeches from winners who collected their awards earlier in the week during a series of in-person ceremonies honouring the best of homegrown film, television and digital media. Hosted by comedian Samantha Bee, the production will be broadcast on CBC and CBC Gem April 16 at 8 p.m. ET.

The unprecedented move – I cannot think of another televised awards show, anywhere, that has taken such a hybrid approach – has drawn criticism from the artistic community, with Eugene Levy, as big a CSA name as they come, questioning the strategy during an interview last month with The Canadian Press: “I think it’s important for the Canadian entertainment industry to not have it in an abridged form. I don’t think it does justice to the industry that you’re supposed to be serving.”

That makes sense … until you expand the idea of just who the CSAs are meant to serve. Is it the community of nominees – which this year is topped by Clement Virgo’s drama Brother on the film side and CBC’s The Porter on the television side – or is it the audience that those artists desperately need to become at least vaguely aware of the stories that they’re telling? Or both?

As with everything involving the Canadian cultural sector, the answer is complicated and confusing. But there is at least one overarching element driving this year’s CSAs, at least according to its producers: entertainment.

“There’s more emphasis this time on storytelling than there would be during a live show where audiences are watching to see what people are wearing, what is said during acceptance speeches. We have to put our focus on entertainment, that’s our north star,” says Roma Ahi, who together with Katie Lafferty is producing this year’s CSAs for the Toronto-based production company, Makers. “We’re bringing the audience in, giving them some intimacy, some exclusivity.”

Lafferty adds: “We want to make sure that we respect and celebrate the nominees, but also provide something that’s incredibly entertaining for the audiences at home.”

This seems like a polite way of saying what most everyone in the Canadian screen sector has long been thinking: Very few people are tuning into the CSAs, if they are watching at all, in the hopes of seeing their favourite performer or film or series take home a statuette. Instead, the CSAs should act as a giant, shiny, slick commercial for all the Canadian content that people aren’t aware of, but should be.

While it isn’t exactly fun for directors and producers and stars to receive their awards during off-camera events, there has to be a reality check here, too. So many of the films and TV series that are being honoured by the CSAs are flying completely under the radar. So why not mix things up by turning the annual awards show into a star-filled and hopefully entertaining one-hour marketing tool?

“We were getting concern around not having that celebratory feel, but we’re reassuring people that Canadian Screen Week still involves four days of fanciness and glamour and glitz at the seven genre-based awards shows held at Meridian Hall, where there will be cocktails and red carpets and speeches,” says Tammy Frick, chief executive of the Canadian Academy. “People are understanding about catering to the public audience and showcasing what traditional awards ceremonies can do.”

While there are formidable challenges in packaging the entirety of the CSAs into 60 minutes – there are 157 awards categories, including the Special and Fan Choice awards, which allow the Canadian Academy to smuggle in such high-profile celebrities as Ryan Reynolds and Catherine O’Hara into the proceedings – producers Ahi and Lafferty are confident that the final package will act as a new kind of celebration.

“We have to be somewhat realistic that in the past, the broadcast show was only able to recognize a specific number of categories,” says Lafferty. “We have to be entertainment-first, and the fun is in gathering what those moments could be from the various in-person ceremonies that happen earlier in the week. They could come from the kids TV awards, or in sports, or in news, or in film.”

However the ultimate edit shakes out – and it will be a race to the finish line, with Lafferty and Ahi stressing that they won’t get much sleep next weekend while sifting through footage of seven separate awards ceremonies – it is comforting to know that the CSAs are returning to the host format for the first time since 2018.

Bee, who has already shot her material over two days last month, assembled a writers room that was led by Scott Vrooman (a former staff writer on Netflix’s Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj) and included her husband and former Daily Show co-star, Jason Jones.

“Especially working with a new format, it was important to have that steady hand of a host to guide the audience,” says Lafferty. “It’s no secret that the awards show format has been challenging these past few years, but I hope that people watch this and see there can be a different path – one that energizes audiences while making the nominees feel recognized.”

In other words, here is hoping that this year’s CSAs can turn a “huh?” to a “huh!” Canadians – both storytellers and audiences – could use an exclamation point in their lives now and then.

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