Super Channel @ 15: What a long, strange trip it’s been

The Edmonton-headquartered network reflects on a bumpy 15 years of operations, culminating in what it touts as its best year ever.

Anniversaries are a time for well wishes and celebrations — and, sometimes, they’re a chance to reflect on the road you had to travel to get where you are.

For Super Channel, a network with four brands and nation-wide reach, its first 15 years have been nothing if not dramatic, including twice having to seek CCAA creditor protection. It’s a journey reminiscent of that iconic but rueful Grateful Dead refrain: “what a long, strange trip it’s been.”

When Super Channel launched on Nov. 2, 2007, it had high hopes of competing with its contemporaries – national pay services The Movie Network (TMN) in Eastern Canada and Movie Central in the West.

Owned by Edmonton’s Allarco Entertainment, Super Channel was initially granted Category A must-carry status, which meant that all BDUs had to carry it. But, as president and CEO Donald McDonald (pictured right) observed to Playback, “just because you have must-carry status, it’s not a must-sell status.” ksi_9204_lr

People weren’t picking up the service in enough numbers to make the fledgling company sustainable. “I was brought in to help the previous VP of finance sort through all the contracts and exit out of the [first] CCAA,” says McDonald.

Super Channel was in CCAA from June 2009 to September 2010, but emerged with positive subscriber growth. The outlet’s rocky road seemed to smooth out a little from 2010 to 2016, but the potholes returned when Bell Media took over the national scene, paying Corus to end Movie Central while taking over TMN (eventually rebranded as Crave).

“We were just overpriced to compete,” recalls McDonald. “There wasn’t enough room for both of us… So we had substantial churn. Our spending went out of control. That led us to the second CCAA in May of 2016. “We had a tough choice. We either had to go into CCAA and make some really hard decisions, or we were going to go under. With a lot of suppliers, we had to disclaim contracts. We had to get our programming costs to a level that we could sustain based on our revenues. The good news is that we’re here today, celebrating 15 years come November, six years since CCAA. We are coming off our very best year ever.”

Finding its way

One of the biggest moves McDonald has made post-CCAA was to rationalize the channel offerings. Each needed to clearly serve a different role, and their individual value had to be clearer to viewers. For its part, Fuse features fresh content, including a high percentage of Cancon; Heart & Home is feel-good fare; Vault has older feature films; and GINX includes e-sports and gaming lifestyle programming.

Says McDonald: “We will never compete against Crave. We want to be the companion channel to Netflix, to all of the big guys.”

One thing that is clear, McDonald has brought his passion for Canadian film to Super Channel. “When we got our licence,” he recalls of the days after the second CCAA, “I told my staff that we’re committing to the Canadian industry and its filmmakers.”

Two years ago as the pandemic hit, he was able to demonstrate that philosophy through Super Channel’s sponsorship of the Canadian Film Festival (CFF). McDonald recalls Vortex Media VP Justin Rebelo asking him to help out the CFF after the pandemic forced its cancellation in March 2020. McDonald agreed and suggested making it a national, virtual festival.

ashleigh rainsSo, Rebelo rallied the troops – including Bern Euler and Ashleigh Rains (pictured left) of the CFF – and the team worked to an ambitious timeline. Already into March, they intended to run over three weekends in May.

“I think we were really the first true virtual festival,” says McDonald. “I wanted to have everything that they would do in the theatre, but on broadcast TV – the intros, the shorts and the features. We even offered to give the features a broadcast licence.”

The CFF’s Rains says McDonald’s sponsorship of the festival saved it. “With Super Channel, we reached a subscriber base across the country,” she recalls. “With the online events and the word of mouth that was generated through this new format, we have had people tuning in to our live events from England and America. we're all in this together

This year’s CFF broadcast, which ran from March 22 to April 2, featured two high-profile Canadian actors making their directorial premieres: 2013 Playback 10 to watch pick Katie Boland with We’re All in This Together (pictured right), and Valerie Buhagiar with Carmen (pictured above).

Getting creative

Jackie Pardy, Super Channel’s chief content officer (pictured left), feels the company plays an important role in the health of the business.

jackiepardy“This industry needs Super Channel to be around,” she says, “just like it needs all the independents to be around, because we need more doors for producers to knock on and more screens for Canadian content to be exhibited on. We all took a hit when Super Channel was in CCAA, but now we’re back. We’re not the biggest broadcaster out there, but we play an important role in the whole ecosystem of Canadian production.”

Pardy’s break-out commission for Super Channel has come from Toronto producer Daniel Oron, whose company Go Button Media offered Phantom Signals. The popular six-parter was followed by The Animal Within, Colossal Machines (pictured right) and Mysteries of the Ancient Dead. All include a modicum of science (what Pardy and Oron call “mystery history”) and archaeology. colm_101_vfx_550_02

“I don’t think our body of work in the last few years would be the same without the partnership from Super Channel,” says Oron. And it turns out that Go Button’s financing model – to look to multiple international partners before turning to the Canadian market – perfectly lined up with Super Channel’s needs.

“We were in a pandemic and there wasn’t a lot coming down the pipeline in terms of productions,” says Pardy. “Daniel came with the secret sauce for me, which is when I hear producers say: ‘I’ve sold this in other territories, I just need to place it in Canada to recruit my tax credit.’ So, now you’re saying to me that we can fill an important role for you without doing the heavy lifting.”

It’s a good fit, she says: Canadian, not expensive, but with fine production values. She’s found a Prairies equivalent to Go Button with Winnipeg’s Farpoint Films.

Farpoint has produced such unique works as the rock documentary The Sheepdogs Have at It and the Joe Pantoliano comedy From the Vine. Lately they’ve been scoring with such factual true crime series as Cruise Ship Killers and Heartland Homicide.

Like Go Button’s shows, these series use voice-over, recreations and expert witnesses in tightly edited formats, which can be dubbed into foreign languages for other markets.

While it’s been a bumpy ride getting here, Super Channel is firing on all cylinders now. McDonald sums it up well: “We have a great focus on the Canadian production community and buying a lot of Canadian content. I’m very happy with that.”

This article originally appeared in Playback’s Spring 2022 issue