Fall brings more choice to TV dial

The following is Part 2 (of 3) of Playback’s overview of major Canadian announcements by broadcasters during Fall Launch week, June 4-8, in Toronto.

As broadcast ownership contracts in the Canadian marketplace, and with the fresh news that the CRTC will let cablecos buy analog specialty channels, Corus Entertainment is busting the niche channel world wide open with its wildly varied slate of digi-specialties set to launch this fall.

Corus, which recently bought kid prodco Nelvana, used to emphasize its strengths as being music on radio, music on TV, as in CMT, and kid specialties, as in YTV and Treehouse. But as Paul Robertson, president of television at Corus, noted during the launch, ‘there’s no one particular area of expertise at Corus now.’ However, he agrees the kids franchises ‘will likely give us more international exposure’ in the sense that Corus could export kids channels around the world more easily than a doc channel, for instance, since factual channels are already everywhere.

Corus’ five new digi-channels include two Category 1s, with guaranteed carriage: the Documentary Channel (partners are CBC, NFB and four indie producers); and Land & Sea (with CBC). The three Category 2s, carriage to be arranged, are: Discovery Kids (50% owned by Discovery Communications Inc.); Edge TV (music and entertainment for young adults); and SCREAM (horror and thriller movies, series and magazine shows).

Although Corus CEO John Cassaday has said it’s a mistake to force cablecos to carry five unaffiliated services for each affiliated service carried, he maintains he is ‘very optimistic about the future of the digital environment.’ For his part, Robertson says the company expects initial return-on-investment to come ‘three or four years down the road. It’s a very long-term investment in order to stake out long-term (channel) real estate.’

Corus says the Documentary Channel will spend at least 50% of its annual acquisitions budget on indie production and will commission at least 26 hours of new programming each year from independent producers, worth almost $5 million during the first licence term, not including programming from its partners. At Land & Sea, the first year will see 1,400 hours of Canadian programming. In the second year, the channel commits to spend a yearly minimum of 51% of gross revenues on Canadian programming. As for SCREAM and Edge TV, Corus notes that spending on ‘programming’ will increase over the licence term, but declines to provide more detail.

But at the launch, Corus did provide several high-octane special guests, including filmmakers Norman Jewison and Shelley Saywell, singer Adam Gregory, and Pat Kelly, host of The Zone on YTV.

More Canadian toons from Astral networks

ASTRAL Television Networks, as you might expect, highlighted its diverse slate of programming in announcing its fall lineups for Family Channel, Teletoon and pay channel TMN-The Movie Network.

The TMN press conference had a mournful theme, complete with coffins and wreaths, all to promote Six Feet Under. TMN is hoping the HBO drama series, which follows a family that runs a funeral parlor, will develop into a Sopranos-scale hit.

TMN also has the six-part Canadian miniseries Dice set for the fall. Shooting in Montreal, Dice is described as ‘a dark, investigative miniseries that explores the gambling psyche.’ A copro between Cite-Amerique and Box TV, its international cast includes Canadians Martin Cummins, Brendan Fletcher and Mark McKinney.

TMN also supports Canadian independent productions through its equity investments, pre-buys and licence fees, as well as the Harold Greenberg Fund, which promotes the growth of Canadian film through script development and equity investments.

Meanwhile, downstairs at the bright green, pink and orange balloon-infested room for the children’s and animation network launches, the battle cry was ‘More Canadian toons!’

John Riley, president of Teletoon, says the animation station has pumped $13 million into 225 new half-hour TV episodes produced in Canada. Since 1997, the network has spent a total of $56 million on 98 new Canadian series.

‘We were trying to commission two more to say ’100,’ but that didn’t happen,’ Riley kidded.

Teletoon says it plans to raise the number of Canadian productions on its schedule from its present total of 55% to 60% by 2002. It says last year 40% of its revenue went toward Canadian programming.

‘I don’t think any other broadcaster has contributed so much, so well, so fast,’ added Madeleine Levesque, Teletoon director original production.

Domestic series returning with new episodes include the cut-and-paste Angela Anaconda and the school-set The Kids from Room 402. New Canuck programs include Braceface, featuring the voice of Alicia Silverstone, What’s with Andy?, about a practical joker, Redwall: Martin the Warrior, which follows the adventures of a medieval mouse, and the 18+ underGrads.

Perhaps the most anticipated new series is The Ripping Friends, the latest offering from Canadian animator John Kricfalusi, of Ren and Stimpy fame. ‘John K.’ himself was on hand to sketch the show’s main characters, a bunch of macho, politically incorrect crimefighters. ‘I’m going to raise a generation of real men,’ Kricfalusi said of his TV audience.

Canadian animation production shops that contribute to Teletoon’s schedule include Cambium Entertainment, Bardel Animation, Cuppa Coffee, Funbag and Infopreneur.

Teletoon says it’s the third most popular Canadian specialty network, and the second most popular network for children including regular broadcast. Family Channel is the most popular specialty with the under-12 demographic, and the fifth most popular network overall with teens. Family reports it spends 30% of its gross revenue on Canadian productions, with 5% of that going to development of new Canadian programming.

Kevin Wright, Family’s VP programming, said the network will broadcast a slate of ‘family-sized movies’ in the 9 p.m. timeslot, ‘a large percentage of which will be uniquely Canadian.’ Amberwood Productions’ Katie and Orbie and Hoze Houndz, both animated series narrated by Leslie Nielsen, will return with new episodes. Premiering in the fall will be Jett Jackson: The Movie, based on the successful Alliance Atlantis teen adventure series. The film is a co-production of AAC Kids in association with Disney Channel and Family.

Along with a slate of Disney programs, Family is heavily promoting the return of Mentors, the first season of which was produced in 1998 by Anaid Productions and Minds Eye Pictures in Edmonton. Mentors revolves around a 15-year-old computer genius who can zap famous figures into the present for 36 hours. Guest stars on the new episodes will include Margot Kidder, Dave Thomas, Joe Flaherty and Gordon Pinsent.

Family will also be the first network to air the animated Franklin and the Green Knight feature, coproduced by Nelvana.

Meanwhile, Family announced the launch of Click Club, a Web initiative tied in to its programming that is hosted by three anime kids trapped in cyberspace. Click Club is still under construction and should launch in July.

Astral is 100% owner of Family, having purchased 50% from Corus Entertainment earlier this year. Family is the managing partner of Teletoon, which has as its other shareholders YTV, Nelvana and Cinar. Astral owns and operates TMN.

ALLIANCE Atlantis Broadcasting hit the AA Beaches Cinema in Toronto with news of eight (or perhaps nine) new AAB digi-specialties to catch channel surfers this fall, and announcements of new Canadian fare for existing analog services.

New Canadian produced series premiering on the established AAB specialties include Chef at Large (from producers Ocean Entertainment and Cellar Door Productions) and Christine Cushing Live (produced by Krista Look, with the production company yet to be incorporated) on Food Network Canada, and Antiques Roadshow and Love By Design (which will air in 2002) on HGTV.

History Television will offer premieres of the series Quest for the Bay (Frantic Films) and Growing Up Canadian (GAPC). Life Network will feature Tall Ship Chronicles (Topsail Entertainment), Taking It Off (Anaid Productions), and Animal Miracles (Peace Arch Entertainment) come fall. Showcase will feature Further Tales of the City (BBR Productions) and Paradise Falls (Breakthrough Films).

AAB’s only locked in Category 1 channel is Health Network Canada, wholly owned by Alliance Atlantis. Its first year Canadian content requirement is 60%, and it will be required to broadcast 70% by its seventh year of broadcast. The CRTC requires Health to spend 51% of its gross revenue on Canadian content. Another Category 1 for AA could be The Independent Film Channel, pending approval from the CRTC regarding transfer of control from Salter Street Films. For its first two years, IFCC will be required to exhibit 40% Canadian content and is expected to spend 37% of its gross revenue on CanCon.

Alliance Atlantis Category 2 channels include BBC Canada, BBC Kids, DIY (Do-It-Yourself) Canada, National Geographic Channel, and three Showcase movie channels, known as Showcase Romance, Showcase Action and Showcase Classics. All Category 2 channels are required to have a minimum of 35% Canadian content.

During the event, AAC president, CEO Michael MacMillan produced a statistic revealing that four of every five Canadians between the ages 25 and 54 who watch specialty TV already tune in to one of AAB’s existing channels. *

With files from Dustin Dinoff