Awards season and the rise of specialty

From our print issue: a rapidly changing Canadian television industry is driving new rivalries at the 2014 Canadian Screen Awards.
Call me Fitz

The social media outrage directed at the Emmys last summer for snubbing Orphan Black offered a telltale signpost as to where TV audiences are found these days.

Fortunately for the growing legions of fans of specialty fare, the Canadian Screen Awards (CSAs) recognized the Space clone drama with a field-leading 14 nominations.

That followed the Academy of Canadian Cinema and Television introducing a number of key changes at the CSAs to reduce the number of categories and better align jury selection with the popular tastes of Canadians, pitting specialty against conventional – like in the real world.

“With some changes to the jury process and a significant re-alignment of categories, the Academy has made great progress in positioning the Canadian Screen Awards as representative of the Canadian television landscape,” says Scott Henderson, VP of communications at Bell Media, which goes into the annual awards with a commanding 157 CSA nominations for its shows.

The result is a competition that spotlights the growing appeal of homegrown specialty and pay TV series in Canadian primetime.

That striking evolution is evidenced by pay TV shows like HBO Canada’s Less Than Kind grabbing 12 nominations and Call Me Fitz taking another eight, including for best comedy.

Bell Media’s The Movie Network netted 25 CSA nominations in all, and Corus Entertainment’s Movie Central pulled in 24 noms – the same amount as Rogers Media managed for shows on all of its conventional and specialty channels.

Sure, CTV, Global and CBC series still get bigger audiences on the dial. But they grabbed fewer nominations from the Screenies this year when accounting for audience, with CTV’s Flashpoint netting eight noms, including best drama, Global Television’s Rookie Blue with seven nominations, and CTV’s blockbuster summer show Amazing Race Canada snagging only two noms, for writing and photography in a reality show.

For Bell Media’s Henderson, the omission of Amazing Race Canada from the reality competition category amounts to, in sports terms, an own goal (or scoring into your own net) for the industry awards show.

“There is clearly some additional work to be done by the Academy. That one of the most successful Canadian TV programs ever produced and the most-watched television program in the country in 2013 is not recognized in this category is very disconcerting,” Henderson says.

All of which leaves specialty channels like Bravo, Showcase and History Canada as likely big winners at the upcoming Canadian film, TV and digital media awards.

Here contenders include Bravo’s The Borgias with seven nominations, History Canada’s Vikings with six, and APTN’s Blackstone with another five noms, pointing the way to a new frontier for Canadian TV.

“It’s a very competitive category and everyone should be really proud,” Ron E. Scott, creator, writer and director of Blackstone, says of a best TV drama category at the CSAs that blurs the line between conventional and specialty.

In the best drama category, the CTV crime dramas Motive and Flashpoint and Global’s Bomb Girls will compete with APTN’s Blackstone and Orphan Black, which is also a breakout hit on BBC America stateside.

As so often happens in business, with the decline of one sector and the rise of another, specialty’s strong showing illustrates increased Canadian-content expenditures by private broadcasters.

“It’s great to see Orphan Black and Blackstone getting some profile and some nominations and that’s terrific for the industry,” CBC English services head Heather Conway says of what she sees as a maturing Canadian business where a rising tide lifts all boats.

To be sure, the Academy of Canadian Cinema and Television ring-fencing glossy, epic shows like The Borgias and Vikings in the best international drama category after complaints other Canadian series were at a disadvantage will limit the ascendancy coproductions once enjoyed at the former Geminis.

But the continued showing for elaborately produced shows like Shaw Media’s World Without End, which netted five nominations, and Museum Secrets with its four noms, show Canadian specialty series made with foreign partners can still muscle their way into the CSA’s limelight.

It’s the same story in the comedy category, which pits conventional and pay TV shows against one another.

Here City’s Seed with eight noms and the CBC’s Mr. D and Gavin Crawford’s Wild West go up against pay TV series Call Me Fitz on TMN and Movie Central and Super Channel’s Tiny Plastic Men.

“Eight nominations [for Seed] is fantastic. It’s kind of the sleeper show,” says Nataline Rodrigues, director of original programming at Rogers Media.

On the broadcast front, Shaw Media and Bell Media dominate the field for the Screenies this year because their vast stable of specialty channels offset an increasingly challenging position for Canadian conventionals.

Bell Media, which bulked up after the recent acquisition of Astral Media, raked in a field-leading 157 nominations, including 12 nominations for CTV News.

“Our nominations are a testament to the talent that currently exists in Canadian television and, for the most part, reflective of industry trends,” Bell Media’s Henderson argues.

Rival Shaw Media, which has also greatly expanded with the consolidation of Canada’s private sector broadcasters by major telecom players, also emerges as a major force at the CSAs this year.

“We’re extremely proud of Shaw Media’s 92 nominations, which reflect the outstanding Canadian programming and talent across our channels,” Barbara Williams, SVP of content at Shaw Media, tells Playback.

Shaw Media’s CSA haul was just behind the CBC, which received 95 nominations, down from years past when the public broadcaster routinely dominated the Geminis owing to its sizeable lineup of Canadian shows, compared to private broadcasters.

“That’s less and less true, as the regulations have encouraged more Cancon creation and there’s a great appetite among audiences. That’s a positive and wonderful development,” the CBC’s Conway says.

The strong showing for specialty and pay TV dramas and comedies this year reflects a shift in Canadian content spending after the CRTC in 2011 gave Bell Media, Corus Entertainment and Shaw Media flexibility to shift money between conventional and niche services to meet spending requirements.

The net impact has seen Global and CTV shift part of their required Canadian content spending to big budget format shows and specialty channels acquired in recent years by parent companies as part of an industry consolidation.

Many of those specialty channels in turn have proved highly profitable owing to subscriber fees, while conventional networks continue to fight back as audiences and ad dollars continue to shift to niche channels and the internet.

The CRTC’s regulatory move to a ground-based licensing regime, underpinned by minimum expenditures, followed criticism that private broadcasters were spending too much on Hollywood programming and too little on homegrown shows.

Conway adds the reduced number of CSA categories means broadcasters have to be more selective in which shows they place into possible competition.

“The Academy has done a lot of work with the industry to get the number of categories down to a meaningful level. And that’s encouraged the industry to be more rigorous in how it goes about putting things forward for nominations.”

On the film side, the CSAs promises to be yet another promotional opportunity in Toronto for Quebec filmmakers.

Denis Villeneuve, who is eyeing a long career in Hollywood, saw Enemy pull in 10 nominations, including best picture, best director and best actor for Jake Gyllenhaal.

Xavier Dolan’s Tom á la ferme (Tom at the Farm) followed with eight noms, Louise Archambault’s Gabrielle snagged six nods, including best actress for Gabrielle Marion-Rivard, and Michel Poulette’s Maïna, will compete in six categories.

There’s nothing new in Quebec directors dominating Canada’s film awards.

That those same auteurs like Villeneuve, Philippe Falardeau, Ken Scott and Jean-Marc Vallée are becoming hot properties in Hollywood signals a likely generational change at the CSAs this year.

Already, the acting categories at the CSAs are heavily influenced by foreign talent, as Jake Gyllenhaal competes in the best actor competition with Enemy against The F Word‘s Daniel Radcliffe, The Grand Seduction‘s Brendan Gleeson, Rajesh Tailang of Siddharth and Gabriel Arcand for Le démantèlement (The Dismantlement), the lone Canadian actor in the competition.

Canadians do better in the best actress and best supporting actress categories this year, with Maslany contending for best film actress for her star turn in Cas & Dylan, against Empire of Dirt‘s Cara Gee and Gabrielle Marion-Rivard of Gabrielle.

And Sarah Gadon, Canadian film’s latest “It” girl, will challenge in the best supporting actress competition for her dramatic role in Enemy, challenging Jennifer Podemski of Empire of Dirt, Tom at the Farm‘s Evelyne Brochu and Mackenzie Davis from The F Word.

The rivalries may be fierce, but the breadth of talent in these categories suggests a win for the industry overall.