Advertising Supplement: Maclean Hunter Television Fund 5th Anniversary: A Boost To Canadian Television: MHTVFund takes pride in helping to make projects happen

[This article appeared as part of an advertising supplement in Playback.]...

[This article appeared as part of an advertising supplement in Playback.]

The people behind the MHTVFund would never suggest they are responsible for the advances that have been made in Canadian dramatic television over the last five years. But they will say the fund has injected a much-needed spark in a business that’s growing up fast. And they’re proud to have been a part of making it happen over their first five years of operation.

‘When you stop and think about Canadian programming as it was five years ago, there was very little drama being aired on private networks,’ says MHTVFund vice-president Robert Roy. ‘In fact, there was more financing money than production in the industry.’

All that has changed, of course, as the proliferation of Canadian drama continues to transform the spectrum of choices available to TV viewers in prime time. ‘There is a diversity and quality to Canadian drama and children’s series that’s earning the praise of viewers not only in this country but around the world,’ Robert says.

‘Our contribution to that is a drop in an ocean of contributors, but still, it’s gratifying to know we’ve helped support a significant number of quality series.’

Celebrating five years of achievement

As it marks a fifth anniversary this year, the MHTVFund has reason to celebrate. Fifty-eight series, 16 pilots and 97 special projects have benefited from its assistance since the fund was established in 1991. Its total five-year investment in the industry topped $15.6 million in 1995.

Michel Tremblay is one of the six MHTVFund board members responsible for assessing applications for funding.

‘Increased demand for funding has meant that we have had to be increasingly cautious where we apply our investment dollars,’ he says. ‘And the decision-making process can be quite a challenge given the rising numbers of worthwhile projects. ‘

Each year, the MHTVFund evaluates approximately 40 applications from Canadian independent producers with a first window license commitment from a private broadcaster.

Of that block of proposals, 12 series and three pilots will receive the $3 million available for investment annually.

In addition, the MHTVFund disburses grants from a special $250,000 fund to non-profit organizations which help to enhance the quality and availability of Canadian drama.

Business-driven decisions

Working with limited resources and ambitious objectives, MHTVFund board members allocate funds on the four occasions they meet and assess applications each year. The calibre of applications has never been higher, and the competition for financing is intense.

Trying to make the best possible use of a finite amount of investment money has sharpened the focus on recoupment as a funding requirement.

Since all of its recouped earnings are immediately reinvested in the industry, the MHTVFund evaluates a project’s exportable value as part of the eligibility criteria for financing.

As Tremblay says, ‘It’s a matter of balancing a project’s overall cultural value with its potential for recoupment through international sales.’

The international appeal of many Canadian television series has meant that high quality programming and its potential for export often go hand in hand.

‘The Canadian industry is filled with wonderful craftspeople who create stories that are universal,’ Tremblay says.

High profile drama

Steve Ord is vice-president and general manager of Atlantis Films Ltd., the makers of Traders, a slick new entry in prime-time drama broadcast on CanWest Global. ‘The MHTVFund financed about 4% of our budget on Traders,’ Ord says.

‘It may not sound like a large amount, but in fact, it was a significant contribution to an expensive, high-profile series.’

As Traders moves into a second season, Ord is confident the series will sell well internationally based on its success in Canada. ‘Global is thrilled with the results,’ Ord says. ‘It’s one of their highest-rated shows.’

Keeping the project alive

The MHTVFund’s ongoing support of Groundling Marsh, a widely acclaimed series broadcast on YTV for children aged three to eight, is consistent with the objectives of the fund on many levels.

The series follows the comic misadventures of a community of Groundling creatures who live in a marsh where they learn about respecting their neighbours and the environment.

‘Groundling Marsh deals with universal themes through a combined use of animation, music and drama,’ explains John Delmage, the show’s executive producer. ‘It’s a well-produced, well-written half-hour drama for kids that understands its audience is no less important than a prime-time adult audience.’

The success of Groundling Marsh over four seasons in Canada recently paved the way to the U.S market where Delmage is finalizing the details of licensing with a U.S. broadcaster.

Delmage says it was the avid support of the MHTVFund and broadcaster YTV which made the series a viable, exportable project in the first place.

‘The MHTVFund was instrumental not only in production, but in the ongoing growth of Groundling Marsh,’ he says. ‘One season doesn’t a series make, and it doesn’t get any easier in the second, third and fourth season. Their continued investment really kept the project alive.’

Instilling investor confidence

Early investments that launch and then help sustain a series often provide the stimulus other investors need before committing to a project, says Rob Mills, co-producer of The Big Comfy Couch, another recipient of support from the MHTVFund. ‘The Couch would have never got on the air had it not been for their support,’ he says.

‘That kind of early funding is absolutely essential. ‘

Four seasons later, the quirky preschooler series is a Gemini award winner, and has managed to augment its financing from other private investors.

‘But their confidence wouldn’t have been as strong without The Couch having been established and on the air,’ Mills emphasizes.

The Big Comfy Couch is broadcast on YTV in Canada and on PBS affiliates in over 70% of the U.S. market.

Dedication to French programming

In Quebec, the MHTVFund invests 30% to 40% of its budget in a diversity of francophone programs.

The producers of Radio Enfer, a half-hour sitcom for teenagers, say the smallness of the Quebec market and diminishing sources of public financing underline the importance of contributions from private funds.

‘We couldn’t have done the first season without their help,’ says Radio Enfer’s producer Claudio Luca at Les Productions Tžlž-Action Inc. ‘Their contribution was even more important in the second season as public funds were pulled out.’

His comments are echoed by Lucy Veillet, vice president of marketing and communications at Tžlžfiction in Montreal.

‘We wouldn’t have been able to achieve the same level of quality,’ she says, referring to two of the company’s successful mini series: Alys Robi and 10-07.

Established and emerging producers

A good script backed by a serious producer, director and writer all with track records in the business are classic elements of a series supported by the MHTVFund.

But in its increasing role as a catalyst for breaking the log jam of investment in new Canadian series, the MHTVFund is also taking risks. Established and emerging producers have benefited from its support.

‘The private funds are so vital to the industry,’ says Rob Mills.

‘At a time when politicians are making noise about how it’s time for the private sector to step in… the MHTVFund is a prime example of that. It’s a stable source of financing that stands on its own.’