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Corus’ EVP of Broadcast Networks, Troy Reeb, and the newly announced host of Big Home Overhaul Cheryl Hickey talk about Global’s fall schedule.Hand-out/CNW Group/Corus Entertainment

By 4:30 on Monday afternoon, the crowd at the bar was already five or six deep. Young and highly buffed advertising folk, freed early from their office duties to attend the annual TV ad time sales presentation of the Canadian broadcasting behemoth known as Corus Entertainment Inc., jostled amid the lush indoor greenery of the event space at Toronto’s Evergreen Brick Works.

Over thumping funk, they yelled for one of the specialty cocktails on offer: tequila-, vodka-, or rye-based concoctions, the last of which was known as a Campfire Delight and featured a smoked marshmallow garnish. It seemed fitting, this modern nod to the ancient human impulse to congregate around a fire and tell stories of heroism and survival. For here, in the advertising and TV communities, were two tribes facing wrenching upheaval if not certain extinction, offering up stories and succour through the dark times ahead. Also, alcohol.

Corus’s upfront presentation, as the sales show promoting the fall TV season is known in the industry, is the first put on by the Canadian commercial broadcasters. Bell Media, which owns CTV and a raft of specialty channels, will go Thursday afternoon at Toronto’s Sony Centre. For the first time in recent memory, Rogers Media, which owns CityTV, cancelled its upfront, which had been slated for Tuesday, amid tightening budgets. Anxiety is creeping in.

Which may be why executives from Corus, which owns the Global Television Network and more than three dozen specialty channels, including some of the most popular lifestyle brands (HGTV, Food Network), began their pitch by invoking the long arc of history.

Greg McLelland, the company’s chief revenue officer, told the audience that the inspiration for the founding of the Brick Works came in the late 1880s, when the young mill worker William Taylor was digging holes for a fence nearby and happened upon a type of clay he believed would be ideal for bricks. Those bricks, said Corus chief executive officer Doug Murphy, became “schools and hospitals and businesses and homes, and … the foundation for the great city of Toronto.”

Troy Reeb and Cheryl Hickey welcome Lilly Singh from Global’s new late night series A Little Late with Lilly Singh.Hand-out/CNW Group/Corus Entertainment

McLelland elaborated: “In the same way Mr. Taylor transformed clay into an essential building block, we at Corus are transforming, too.” Corus’s “premium brands and content” would become the “building blocks that will transform our business, and ultimately grow your business.”

And, he added, “Just like the founders of the Brick Works, we can build great things together when we’re all fired up!” He cued a pair of black-robed choirs, on either side of the vast stage, who launched into a bombastic rendition of Pink’s Just Like Fire from the motion picture Alice Through the Looking Glass, as plumes of genuine fire shot up from the floor at the front of the room.

The tune begins with the lyric, “I know I’m running out of time/I want it all/And I’m wishing they’d stop trying to turn me off," which, considering the circumstances, seemed perhaps too on-the-nose.

Like all traditional media businesses, legacy broadcasters such as Corus are scrambling to beat back the threat from internet-based companies such as Google and Facebook, who pay little or sometimes nothing for the content that attracts audiences to their ads. They’re also struggling to compete with global streaming and cable services such as Netflix, Hulu and HBO that have won critical acclaim by spending heavily to develop daring shows, and then spreading those programming costs over a worldwide audience.

You could feel these twinned frustrations when Troy Reeb, Corus’s executive vice-president of broadcast networks, began describing some of the new U.S. network shows that Global had picked up for the fall.

He and his programming team, he explained, “look for those great concepts and original characters, the kind that can generate all the buzz of the big cable dramas and hook in viewers that way, but since we’re going for broad reach on an over-the-air network like Global, the perfect shows also have to have those procedural elements, to make it really easy for audiences to keep coming back, week after week.”

Mr. Reeb is joined by HGTV Canada’s Drew and Jonathan Scott to talk about Corus’ premium brands and content.Hand-out/CNW Group/Corus Entertainment

He didn’t actually say the words “dumbed down." He didn’t need to.

A few minutes later, Reeb, a former newsman, spoke of his pride in the company’s news division, saying that, “at the same time that some social platforms are increasing division and polarization in our society and our democracy, Global News is working to uncover the truth and bring our communities together.”

He didn’t actually say the words “Facebook” and “Twitter.” He didn’t need to.

But then, if he had, someone might have pointed out that Global News has more than 1.9 million fans on Facebook. And then maybe raised an eyebrow at the numerous announcements, later on, of Global’s multiplying partnerships with Twitter.

Besides, there were celebrities such as Everybody Loves Raymond’s Patricia Heaton (back with a comedy called Carol’s Second Act) and Lucas Till (MacGyver) and Toronto’s own Lilly Singh to corner for selfies, and gourmet food stations to visit and more cocktails to swill. And surely nobody noticed that the black-robed choir never even bothered singing the final verse of Just Like Fire, which includes the lines: “And I’m walking on a wire, trying to go higher/Feels like I’m surrounded by clowns and liars."

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