Comedy awards panelists talk Canuck industry challenges

Canadian Comedy Awards

Things got serious on Saturday during the Canadian Comedy Awards and Festival in Toronto, as a panel of TV series creators shared the harrowing details behind developing a niche show and keeping it running in a tough Canadian television market.

According to Scott Vrooman (pictured middle), a writer and star of the recently cancelled sketch series Picnicface, which aired on Bell Media’s The Comedy Network, much of the problem is the size of the national market.

“It’s hard to have a niche program in Canada because of the market realities and the fact that we have 10 per cent of the population of the U.S.,” he said.

Given this, and a Canadian audience that is content to watch imported American shows, Canadian niche programs face further audience fragmentation and a steep uphill battle to stay on the air.

The internet, he added, only makes it harder for sketch comedy shows like Picnicface to thrive on network television.

“You can’t make money on sketch TV shows because you can watch short-form comedy on the internet. It’s so easy to fit into that [internet] format and its so cheap,” he explained.

Indeed, the internet and YouTube were where Picnicface built much of its audience prior to the show’s launch on the Comedy Network.

But because distributors are still experimenting with ways to monetize online series, said Vrooman, Picnicface ended up being “geoblocked,” meaning it was prevented from posting episodes on YouTube, cutting off any shot at growing an international audience, while international viewers were blocked from watching episodes online at The Comedy Network’s website.

Though he was able to secure distribution to the American network FEARnet, the market nuclear-mass problem was much the same for Craig David Wallace (pictured right), creator of the Space series Todd and the Book of Pure Evil, which was also not renewed  this year.

While primetime programs such as Flashpoint and Rookie Blue have been picked up stateside, Wallace says it’s much more difficult for niche programs.

“We were trying to sell Toddd to MTV at one point, and MTV just wanted to buy the rights for a remake,” he added, explaining that this has been a consistent strategy for American networks.  

A lack of marketing, both agreed, poses another challenge to embattled niche TV series domestically.

“There’s no mandate for [the amount of] Canadian marketing, so [broadcasters] don’t have to spend that particular money, because they’d rather spend it on shows they know will get higher ratings,” said Vrooman.

In Wallace’s case, for instance, the only advertising push Todd received during its two seasons was trailers on Space itself, because the show didn’t fit the network’s target demographic.

The solution according to Wallace: do what most industry professionals have to do to be considered a success domestically, and look stateside. It’s a pattern that has cropped up recently, with L.A.-based Canuck screenwriters being tapped for upcoming TV show pilots, series and films – case in point Katie Ford, who is penning the CBC’s Leilah and Jen pilot, Megan Martin on The Right Kind of Wrong (formerly titled Sex and Sunsets), Tim McAuliffe for CTV’s Satisfaction, and other upcoming CBC pilots Port Hope, 19-2 and The Khouris.

“What we’re going to see a lot of is Canadian writers who go down to the states, get credits on American shows and then be able to pitch co-venture shows in the U.S. and Canada,” he said.

If you work in the U.S. you’re a lot more hirable in Canada,” he added.

Indeed, Wallace has already been pitching in the states.

Meanwhile, after working on This Hour Has 22 Minutes this year, Vrooman plans to seek out writing gigs south of the border.

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