CBC upfront: hellos, goodbyes and ‘new directions’

copied from streamdaily - cbcphotoThe news broke on Twitter hours earlier via TV critic Bill Brioux, but it still caused a stir when Republic of Doyle‘s Allan Hawco took the stage at the CBC upfront to announce that the long-running series would be ending after its upcoming sixth season.

While a six-season run for any series is more than respectable, the end of Doyle comes as the CBC grapples with both a budget crisis and the PR challenges that accompany it: programming cuts, layoffs and the inevitable talent bleed.

“As you know, there’s not much going on at the CBC these days,” CBC head of English Services Heather Conway joked as she took the stage. “We just wanted to have you guys over for coffee.”

However, doom and gloom was not the picture CBC was looking to paint at its 2014 upfront presentation. The intimate presentation space was dwarfed by giant screens, flashy sizzle reels, and a parade of talent and executives extolling the pubcaster’s commitment to Canadian storytelling.

Conway issued what would then become a common refrain through the presentation, that the fall-winter lineup across mediums “speaks to a change in direction” for the beleaguered broadcaster.

That change in direction on TV will see two new one-hour original dramas debut on the channel this fall: Camp X (mid-season), a WWII spy series from Temple Street Productions and showrunning power duo Stephanie Morgenstern and Mark Ellis, and Strange Empire (fall, Mondays at 9 p.m.), a frontier period drama from showrunner Laurie Finstad.

Also debuting mid-season are the previously announced half-hour comedy Schitt’s Creek, six-part international co-pro Book of Negroes and Pirate’s Passage, an animated feature produced and written by Donald Sutherland.

On the unscripted side, the CBC revealed that the host of the expanded Canada’s Smartest Person (Sundays, 8 p.m., fall) will be Jessie Cruikshank, formerly of MTV, and Murdoch‘s Jonny Harris introduced his new show, an adapted format called Of All Places for mid-season. (In an interview following the upfront, unscripted topper Jennifer Dettman told Playback that CSP, an original format, has already been sold into Turkey for local adaptation.)

On the acquisition side, CBC is airing Maggie Gyllenhaal-starrer The Honourable Woman this fall and this summer, Secrets and Lies, a six-part miniseries from BBC Worldwide and Australian prodco Hoodlum. It’s also introducing a new one-hour block on Sunday nights called CBC Selects, which will feature programming from other public broadcasters from around the world.

The CBC also announced it is dipping its toe into digital waters, soft-launching a new online comedy portal called Punchline. While Dettman and scripted boss Sally Catto were coy regarding content details, the duo confirmed that user-generated content, web shorts and stand-up are all possible directions the portal will head in once it passes its beta stage. Currently, the portal features CBC comedic talent under the banner “Punchline Studio,” with content from the “22 Minutes Writers’ Room” and other web shorts based on broadcast properties.

Regarding the new directions promised by Conway, Catto and Dettman, a common theme that emerged speaking with the programmers was an increased focus on serialized scripted programming. This, each argued, will form part of the CBC’s new mandate to differentiate itself as much as possible from “the privates.”

“Part of our strategy that’s distinct from our competitors, distinct from the privates, is programming that’s more serialized; the novelization of storytelling,” explained Catto. “Public broadcasting really allows for a different kind of in-depth, character driven, series like Strange Empire, like Camp X – series that are embedded in our history, are incredibly well-researched but presented in an entertaining way.

“I think what we see more in the privates is that episodic light drama – that has its value and place, but we need and want to distinguish ourselves and there really is a vacuum for that,” she continued. “And it allows us to work with talent that [wants to push limits]. So many talented writers in this country feel boxed in and constrained by the episodic model – they want to arc out the season in a different way.”

As for the end of cult favourite Doyle, Catto said she agreed that the time was right to say goodbye.

“I think that it’s the right decision. I believe on going out on a high – you know, leaving a party at midnight instead of 2 a.m. The cast and writers have taken it to some amazing places. I don’t think it will be the end of our relationship with Allan and his team – we see this as more of a continuation.”