Web not Cancon savior

The year winds down following plenty of heated talk from broadcasters, cablers and the production community, each pleading its case at the over-the-air TV hearing in Gatineau. The CRTC, meanwhile, is left to mull over a number of decisions of great consequence to the industry in 2007 and for years to come.

The year winds down following plenty of heated talk from broadcasters, cablers and the production community, each pleading its case at the over-the-air TV hearing in Gatineau. The CRTC, meanwhile, is left to mull over a number of decisions of great consequence to the industry in 2007 and for years to come.

Conventional broadcasters have lost market share to specialties in recent years, and so want to recover these lost revenues in the form of fees-for-carriage from cablecos. They also want fewer restrictions on ad time and product placement, and certainly no more regulation regarding their commitment to Canadian drama programming.

Reps for talent and technicians, on the other hand, are calling for a reversal of the CRTC’s 1999 Television Policy, which removed Cancon expenditure requirements on the private broadcasters. That decision, they argue, is the cause of the precipitous decline in drama production, which has left the industry in tatters. It’s been hard times for this sector, with many merely scraping by or seeking new careers altogether.

Right now, however, the mood in Ottawa is one of ‘let the market decide,’ which puts Canadian production in a very precarious place.

Earlier this year, it looked like advances in digital distribution might drive Canadian broadcasters to revive a stronger partnership with domestic producers.

Plenty of Hollywood content has become available via the Internet. CBS, for example, now offers U.S. viewers episodes of top shows including CSI and Survivor for free online streaming with ads. Americans can also download commercial-free episodes of Lost, Prison Break or 24 for $1.99 a pop on iTunes. How this would affect the likes of CTV and Global, which air these shows in Canada, was not immediately clear.

The silence coming, say, from CTV regarding its online strategy was deafening. The profit-generating advantage it has enjoyed airing U.S. product would be severely undermined if Canadian viewers could go to iTunes or CBS.com for their programs. Perhaps, with online downloads becoming more popular, the U.S. networks would cut out the Canadian nets altogether.

Thus, facing a highly uncertain future in broadcasting American shows, Canuck casters would have to work with local producers to develop more properties they could call their own, and which they could exploit in all platforms.

Well, it was a nice theory.

A few months ago, a senior exec at a U.S. studio that supplies more than half a dozen hit series to Canadian nets told Playback that his company had no intention of leaving its Canuck partners in the lurch. And this seems to be the general sentiment out of Hollywood, with Global having now brokered a deal to stream Deal or No Deal and Survivor on its site, and CTV offering up Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, Smith and The O.C. More deals are likely to be announced in the coming months. What this means is that, for now, the Internet is not going to shake up the longstanding model of the nets making good money off U.S. shows while putting a questionable commitment behind Canadian product.

Global’s Cancon record is spotty, but it does have some irons in the fire – including promising shows The Best Years and Da Kink in My Hair – just in time to tell the CRTC ‘Hey, we’re doing our part – we don’t need more regulation.’

CTV, meanwhile, has achieved admirable success with Corner Gas, Degrassi: The Next Generation, and a number of well-promoted MOWs, but we don’t know what things would be like if not for the benefits package ordered when BCE bought CTV – further proof that Cancon on private nets lives or dies by regulation. Of course, there will be another benefits package if and when the CRTC gives the go-ahead to Bell Globemedia’s purchase of CHUM.

Playback’s Person of the Year, Bell Globemedia head and CTV CEO Ivan Fecan – unquestionably the sharpest dealmaker on the Canadian broadcasting scene – tells us in an interview in this issue that he subscribes to quality over quantity. In other words, do fewer Canadian shows, but do them better.

It’s odd that Fecan should see it this way. For all its fabulous achievements, CTV knows that you have to throw a lot of shows against the wall for anything to stick. This fall, CTV came out with a bunch of new U.S. dramas – including Smith, The Nine and Studio 60 – that met the quality criteria, but, for whatever reason, did not really catch on with viewers. It’s hard to define why certain shows become hits. Most don’t, and expectations should be no different for Canadian programs.

Offering up a couple of quality Canuck dramas does not guarantee networks any hits – look at the CBC’s struggles with Intelligence and Jozi-H. It’s a crap shoot, and to win, the nets have to simply put more domestic shows out there. And they don’t have to be expensive – think Trailer Park Boys – just fresh.

But the broadcasters – which continue to see the acquisition of U.S. shows as the safer bet, especially now that they know they won’t be hindered by those series’ online availability – are not going to embrace this approach on their own. They need a little push.

The ball’s in your court, CRTC.

Note: Our next issue date is January 8. Until then, all the best for the holiday season and in the New Year.