Fall launches: the battle begins

Nothing like a frenzied week of pitching fall TV skeds to tight-fisted media buyers to bring network competitive white noise to a Waco-esque fever pitch.

If they made a verite doc about ‘The Canadian Television Press Tour,’ our version of the Upfront Markets/May Screenings, they could call it Five Bloody Days in June.

Leading up to Fall Launch Week, domestic network executives have commented repeatedly, ‘By our Canadianness shall ye know us.’

CBC has been ‘Canadianizing’ its schedule for several years and is in year two of its plan to transform its on-air identity. Slawko Klymkiw, executive director of network programming, says the 2001/02 sked will show not only that CBC has ‘made Canadian our brand, but now we want to make Canadian public television our brand.’ In other words, CBC is not state TV, and it’s not PBS.

‘Eighteen of the top 20 Canadian entertainment programs this year were on CBC Television,’ he says, adding that the Corp’s plan to group programs into theme nights should build audiences. Research by U.S. marketer/ branding expert Lee Hunt shows viewers prefer to watch blocks of programs rather than searching across a schedule for certain types of shows. ‘You need to improve the predictability of programming,’ says Klymkiw.

Sunday/Monday on CBC will feature high-impact specials and drama including the eight-hour miniseries Random Passage from Cite-Amerique and 13 hours of Tom Stone from Alberta Filmworks, beginning in January. Tuesday/Wednesday are information nights, with Tuesday showcasing the new, magazine-style investigative program CBC News: Disclosure at 9 p.m. and Wednesday featuring stalwart the fifth estate with full-edition docs at 9 p.m., preceded by Witness at 8 p.m. Thursday offers performing arts, including a two-hour omnibus block starting at 8 p.m. entitled ‘Opening Night.’ Friday is comedy and Saturday, of course, is sports.

Two of the most startling changes are: the move of Barna-Alper’s Da Vinci’s Inquest from Tuesdays at 9 p.m. to Sunday at 9 p.m., with the second season of Canada: A People’s History as lead-in; and the move of This Hour Has 22 Minutes and Made In Canada (both from Salter Street) from 8 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. on Mondays to the same times on Fridays.

Won’t the move to Sundays pit Nick Campbell and the Da Vinci gang against stellar U.S. and Canadian MOWs? ‘It’s a strong program. It’s got a strong lead-in with A People’s History,’ says Klymkiw. ‘[Da Vinci] is our most important drama.’

As for Fridays, Klymkiw says the comedy franchise already there – Air Farce at 9 p.m. and Red Green at 9:30 – is strong, with Farce averaging 1.2 million viewers and Red Green at ‘nearly a million.’ Also, ‘we think the numbers will increase with 22 Minutes and Made In Canada moving to Fridays. Their numbers have gone down on Monday night because there’s so much competition for that demographic.’

Audience research also prompted CBC to add another element to primetime and do what such casters as YTV and TVOntario have already done after school – introduce live ‘block hosts,’ as yet unnamed, to guide viewers from one show to the next, evenings between 8 p.m. and 10 p.m.

‘Surveys on people’s attitudes show they love the news organization, but found us distant and aloof and a little arrogant, which can happen to public broadcasters. So how do you deal with that?

‘The new hosts are going to be very new media-friendly. They’re going to be the intermediary between old media and new media. The cross-promotion opportunities are huge.’

Sopranos a high note at CTV

Its promos may pronounce that it is ‘Canadian television,’ but most of the talk at CTV’s fall launch centred on The Sopranos, the HBO mob drama phenom CTV is bringing back. The network will rebroadcast the show’s first season, uncut, in July, and the second season in the fall. Subscribers to TMN-The Movie Network have just finished following the third season of the travails of Tony Soprano as he deals with his home family and his work ‘family,’ but CTV still expects big numbers for season two.

‘Even if [TMN] multiplied its subscription base by a factor of 10, it wouldn’t reach one-quarter of the audience of CTV,’ network president and COO says Trina McQueen.

So where does this leave Canadian drama?

Cold Squad, the Keatley Macleod/ Alliance Atlantis drama will return for its fifth season but is being moved from its Friday 9 p.m. time slot to face off with CBC’s venerable Hockey Night in Canada at 8 p.m. on Saturday. The Lions Gate Television production Mysterious Ways will follow at 9 p.m.

The network’s most-ballyhooed Canadian series from last year, the legal fledglings drama The Associates, produced by AAC, is being shifted from its Tuesday 9 p.m. spot to Friday at the same time. These seem unenviable time slots in each case.

‘We play our shows every night of the week, and we do it without cynicism,’ said Susanne Boyce, senior VP of programming, CTV/The Comedy Network. As to the likelihood of a show’s succeeding on a weekend evening, she said, ‘There is no safe place,’ and suggested they were good times to ‘incubate a show,’ as was the case with the NBC family drama Providence.

Boyce says many logistical factors determine a series’ final destination, including the lead-in and lead-out. Following the season-two run of the reality-based The Mole, The Associates will be preceded by Warner Bros. Television’s Thieves, starring Full House’s John Stamos. Boyce believes viewers will be drawn to Thieves and will stick around for The Associates.

‘We try very hard to put our Canadian shows in the best spot considering all the balls we’re juggling, and we take a lot of criticism for it,’ she says. ‘[The Canadian programs] are big investments for us and there is no desire but to do the best by them that we can.’

CTV’s two new Canadian evening series are Degrassi: The Next Generation, which picks up where the popular teen series left off a decade ago, and Degrassi.tv. The latter half-hour program, which follows DTNG at 7:30 p.m. on Sundays, will feature a documentary on the kind of topics the dramatic series will address, such as dating, sex, technology, money and racism. CTV says the interactive program will draw on viewers’ visual and written contributions.

DTNG also comes with an online initiative. Its companion website, developed with Toronto interactive entertainment company Snap Media, will enable ‘viewsers’ to communicate with the cast and creators. The viewser can enroll as a student of the school and cruise the halls, interacting with characters, some of whom will be Web-only. The promotion of this type of convergent entertainment is a natural move for CTV following its purchase by media giant BCE.

In explaining why the Degrassi franchise jumped from CBC to CTV, co-creator/producer Linda Schuyler says: ‘[CTV] was the only network able to see this as a total package. They’ve supported both the TV and the online side.’

CTV also announced several Canadian MOWs, including Shaftesbury Films’ Torso, The Evelyn Dick Story, Muse Entertainment’s and Voice Pictures’ The Investigation, AAC’s and Little Bird’s AKA: The Albert Walker Story, Galafilm’s and Alberta Filmworks’ Agent of Influence and the ImagiNation Film and Television and Sextant Entertainment production 100 Days in the Jungle.

News makes news at Global

Toronto-based CanWest Global confirmed many of its current Canadian programs would be back next fall.

The big news of the launch event, however, was news. Global has hired journalist Kevin Newman to serve as executive editor and anchor of Global National News. GNN (our term, not Global’s) will air nationwide in the early evening from Vancouver and is to cover off both national and regional issues. The newscast will launch in the fall.

According to Loren Mawhinney, Global’s VP, Canadian production, the network’s penchant for half-hour television programs will continue this season, as will its lucrative lean toward reality-based programming.

Based on the success of the Lone Eagle Entertainment reality show Popstars, Mawhinney foretells of Popstars II, again from Lone Eagle. The twist will be that the producers will look for female and male talents this time.

Also from Lone Eagle is the new eight-part series Supermodel, a reality show focusing on Canadian girls.

Another new reality show from Survivor’s Canadian home is No Boundaries, 13 episodes from Lions Gate. Mawhinney calls it a ‘Survivor meets Eco-Challenge’ where 15 contestants compete against each other in the B.C. wilderness.

Global will also air the new action series Mutant X, produced by Fireworks Entertainment. As for returning Canadian series, Peace Arch Entertainment’s Big Sound has been renewed for 18 episodes, with director/exec producer David Steinberg at the helm. Salter Street’s Blackfly, Barna-Alper’s Blue Murder and Nelvana’s Bob and Margaret will also be back.

Global’s home-grown action series from AAC, The Outer Limits, will also be returning with 22 new eps, as will Gene Roddenberry’s Andromeda from Fireworks.

Responding to questions about how well Canadian shows will fare opposite strong U.S. entries – such as pitting Blue Murder against a new Law & Order spinoff – Global’s senior VP of programming and promotions, Doug Hoover, says: ‘In every hour in primetime there is a strong U.S. program. It’s an incredibly competitive world out there and there are no safe time periods.’

The bulk of what’s new at Global-owned CH (formerly CHCH) was sourced at the L.A. Screenings, including CBS dramas Citizen Baines and The Education of Max Bickford, NBC dramas UC: Undercover and Crossing Jordan, and Fox drama 24. From Canada comes the Sextant Entertainment miniseries Voyage of the Unicorn, starring Beau Bridges. *