Veteran TV producer Christina Jennings's phone didn't start ringing right away.
But two weeks into the American TV writers' strike, the Shaftesbury Films co-chair says that several U.S. networks have now placed calls to her Toronto office expressing interest in such shows as the procedural drama ReGenesis and 13 episodes of the period drama The Murdoch Mysteries (based on the acclaimed novels by Maureen Jennings, and set in Victorian Toronto).
"They can't do reality and reruns forever, and they only have so many movies in the can," says Jennings. "So they're looking around. ReGenesis is on the desk of three networks, and I had a call this week from one of the Big Three presidents," she adds, referring to the chiefs of NBC, ABC and CBS. "Whether it amounts to anything, who knows? These calls may - or may not - have happened regardless of the strike, but let's just say it pushes [available Canadian programming]up the pile."
This past week, debate has been ongoing in Canada's close-knit production community about whether or not the mainstream U.S. networks will actually bite - and buy Canadian shows to fill a schedule that could soon be depleted of fresh content. (Talks are set to resume on Monday between the Writers Guild of America and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers).
Some, such as Jennings and CBC's executive director of network programming, Kirstine Layfield, bet they will bite if the strike drags on. Others doubt the insular, conventional American broadcast market - which rarely co-produces or buys non-U.S. programs ( Due South on CBS was a notable exception) - will ever do more than merely eyeball Canadian shows.
Regardless of whether the American interest is feigned or real, Jennings says, "we're very much on the American radar." And she is encouraged that U.S. broadcasters might finally be understanding what other broadcasters around the world have long realized: that Canadian TV can travel, sell and be lapped up by an international audience. "We are selling shows all over the world," says Jennings, pointing to a couple of high-performing Shaftesbury programs, the tween drama Life With Derek (sold in 138 countries, translated into nine languages) and ReGenesis (110 countries, 15 tongues).
"When we first started going to MIPTV (a broadcast marketplace held in Cannes during the spring) and MIPCOM (in the fall) seven or eight years ago, we didn't have a booth," recalls Jennings, chairman and co-chief executive of 20-year-old Shaftesbury. "We were floaters. And it was tough getting meetings, because nobody really knew who we were."
This is the third year that Jennings has rented prime real estate to shop Shaftesbury's wares on the Riviera. And she contends that her company is so busy with meetings that she's likely going to have to find bigger space next year, when Shaftesbury expects to churn out $90-million in production volume, with a slew of new shows including The Summit, set to air on both Global and CBC and starring Christopher Plummer and Bruce Greenwood.
And Jennings - whose company last year ranked among Canada's top three production houses, with volume of $54-million - is not alone in her assertion that exports of Canadian television into global markets has never been stronger.
John Morayniss, the Los Angeles-based chairman and chief executive of Blueprint Entertainment, says that international deals are surging due to a bigger appetite for programming among U.S. cable broadcasters, domestic specialty and digital channels - and a healthier international marketplace overall.
Morayniss, whose boutique TV production shop produces such shows as Whistler, Til Death Do Us Part and The Best Years, also just returned from MIPCOM, where his firm signed up deals in a number of new territories. " Whistler just got a deal in Germany, putting it in about 60 countries. The Best Years - on Global and The N network in the United States - is just going into its second season and is sold in 40 countries.
"There's growing demand for scripted shows, both half-hour and one-hour series," says Morayniss, adding that the half-hour Til Death Do Us Part attracted lots of attention from international broadcasters at MIPCOM, who were interested in acquiring the "format rights" to produce a local version of the show about once-happily married couples in which one of the partners ends up knocking the other off.
Mary Darling, whose WestWind Pictures produces Little Mosque on the Prairie, says there's also been many format-rights enquiries about that CBC sitcom, which is now sold in 80 territories. She, too, has noticed an uptick in international interest for Canadian-made programs, and believes a good reason is simply that "Canadian product is getting better.
"There are also way more platforms to sell onto," she adds. "Not everything has to be a big network deal. It can also be broadband, video on demand, direct-to-home video. There are all kinds of different ways to sell into the international marketplace that didn't exist a couple of years ago."
According to trade magazine Playback's 19th annual report on independent production, Canadian production and development spending in 2006 rose to $1.52-billion, up from $1.26-billion in 2005. It also reported that that was the first significant increase in spending activity since 2000, when spending peaked at $1.83-billion, and then began a downward spiral to a low of $1.24-billion in 2004. In 2005, the first signs of a potential turnaround occurred, with production volume posting an increase of 2 per cent, the magazine said.
The Canadian Film and Television Production Association (CFTPA) conducts its own annual survey of the Canadian industry. Its latest study - which takes into account production from April 1, 2005, to March 31, 2006 - also found that production activity has been on the rise, noting a 6-per-cent increase to $4.8-billion. (That total includes foreign-location shooting and broadcaster in-house production, which Playback's list does not.) The top five Canadian production houses in 2006, according to the CFTPA study, were Toronto's Alliance Atlantis (estimated volume of $157-million), Vancouver's Insight Film Studios ($120.8-million), Toronto- and Los Angeles-based Blueprint ($99.7-million), Toronto's Nelvana Enterprises ($57-million) and Shaftesbury (with $54.1-million).
Michael Shepard, president of Vancouver-based distribution company Thunderbird Films, which packages and sells several Canadian shows, says it's been a great run for Canadian programming in the United States, a notoriously tough territory to crack. Shepard predicts that 2007-08 will be an even stronger season. He notes that Thunderbird has already secured national U.S. syndication for Da Vinci's Inquest, Cold Squad, Tom Stone (about a roguish ex-cop, and now called Stone Undercover), ReGenesis and Degrassi: The Next Generation.
Da Vinci was the first show Thunderbird launched in U.S. syndication three years ago. It now draws roughly three million viewers, and ranks 83rd of the 158 shows currently in U.S. syndication.
Stone Undercover and Cold Squad have been packaged together as a two-hour block that Shepard estimates draws over 2.5 million viewers a week. " Tom Stone might not have been a huge hit on the CBC. But this show is so easy to program," Shepard says. "It's light. It doesn't take itself seriously. ... It can go anywhere in a schedule, and it attracts a broad demographic." (At the end of its run on the CBC, the show had a weekly audience of 260,000 to 385,000).
Things are looking up, too, for Intelligence, which Thunderbird already sells in 143 territories. Recently Fox was reported to be eyeing a remake of Chris Haddock's crime series for the American market, and has ordered a pilot from the Vancouver-based creator and his partner, John Wells.
Shaftesbury's Life With Derek, which is broadcast in the United States on the Disney Channel, often is in the top 10 shows among viewers age 9 to 14, the only Canadian show to regularly rank above such Disney originals as the hugely popular Hannah Montana. Disney has also just picked up Shaftesbury's newest live-action kids' show. With the working title High Court, it goes into production in December.
Arnie Gelbart, whose Montreal-based company Galafilm produces shows such as the teen drama 15/Love, says Canadian programs are increasingly popular with international TV buyers because such shows are typically cheaper than American ones, but still have that "American feel about them." Adds Gelbart, "The bottom line is, we've just become better at producing shows that people want to buy or look at."
If there is one hitch to the salability of Canadian TV around the world, Blueprint's Morayniss says, it's that most Canadian programs are still being sold by foreign distributors. "There is no strong Canadian international sales company currently," he notes, adding that Alliance Atlantis used to fill that role.
"I'm seeing this growth in the number of [international]buyers and this continuing strength of Canadian programming, but we're missing a strong Canadian-based international sales company that thinks first and foremost about Canada, and can get these shows placed in key markets, keeping the profit and programming momentum here. Wouldn't the industry benefit from a distributor who has a huge built-in loyalty to Canadian infrastructure and programming?"
Morayniss adds that such a missing link motivated Blueprint, with offices in Toronto and Vancouver, to acquire a majority stake in Toronto's Oasis International, a global distributor of film and TV since 1991. Oasis's library includes over 3,000 hours of programming, including ReGenesis, Kenny vs. Spenny and Iggy Arbuckle.
Shaftesbury's Jennings says she's also heard many complaints from broadcasters who are tired of forking over big dough for highly touted new American shows, only to see U.S. broadcasters cancel a series after three or four episodes. "That's not to say people aren't still massively interested in what the Americans are making and doing, but they're being more cautious," she says. As for whether another Due South could be around the corner, Jennings notes that "the world is changing, and it's changing for the [U.S. broadcasters]too. As producers, we're actually starting to see more openness to a discussion about getting involved in a Canadian series early on. Even if the writers' strike settles next week, I don't think the opportunity is gone."
A worldwide web
A sample of Canadian-made shows that have an impressive infiltration in the international broadcast marketplace.
Life with Derek: sold in 138
Naturally, Sadie: sold in 90
Instant Star: sold in 110
Intelligence: in 143
ReGenesis: in 110
Degrassi: The Next Generation:
The Best Years: in 40
Little Mosque on the Prairie: in 80
Corner Gas: in 28