It’s the week where the Canadian broadcasters announce their upcoming season (known as an “upfront” because advertisers are then able to buy commercial airtime ahead of time or “up front”), and ACTRA isn’t very happy.
The Canadian actors’ union is angry that domestic networks are spending a record $688-million on foreign programming (2006) instead of investing in new Canadian dramatic programming. Currently, the most successful Canadian shows are expensive franchises like Canadian Idol, Entertainment Tonight and Canada’s Next Top Model. A show like Idol—which CTV bills as “original programming”—runs on multiple nights in prime time broadcast time which ACTRA feels should be populated with Canadian-produced dramas.
While the American upfronts happened at the end of last month, this week brought domestic announcements in lavish ceremonies around the city, and today’s picket line outside Massey Hall at Global’s soirée had executives on the defensive. Most of the shows on Canadian networks are licensed from the U.S., and ACTRA says the simulcasts dictate the programming of domestic shows and leave underfunded Canadian dramatic content in the wasteland of leftover timeslots.
“Last year, [the networks] spent twelve times more on buying foreign programming than they did all year on Canadian drama,” says ACTRA’s National Executive Director, Stephen Waddell. The union wants to mandate that at least 7% of advertising revenue be spent on Canadian English-language dramatic programming, and that at least two hours of this programming be broadcast in prime time slots.
Obviously, the networks are in a quandary since the U.S. shows, which cost vastly more to produce and which bring big-name stars, are the ones that bring in advertising revenue. Domestic media empires, which are obviously accountable primarily to their shareholders, are finding themselves in an unusual landscape. Canadians are watching American shows. A CanWest or CTV can’t afford the digital rights to big-name U.S. shows either (hence no shows on iTunes), and Rogers surprised CanWest when it inked a deal with CBS to offer Survivor directly on its video-on-demand channel, bypassing the broadcasters entirely. Most online programs available from Canadian broadcasters are domestic, like Robson Arms and Degrassi: The Next Generation.
And then there is the issue of competition. CTVglobemedia is now airing 16 of the top 20 shows, with CanWest (Global; TVTropolis, the upcoming E! Canada) a distant second. CTV is in talks to acquire CHUM, while CanWest is about to buy Alliance Atlantis—a move that will make both entities enormously more powerful, but greatly lessen competition. South of the border, most new TV shows actually fail overall, but the pockets are deeper (and successes more lucrative).
The Canadian networks say they are investing significantly in domestic shows, pointing to Painkiller Jane (SciFi Channel), The Jon Dore Show (Comedy Network), Little Mosque on the Prairie (CBC), Corner Gas (CTV) and the upcoming ‘Da Kink In My Hair (Global). CTV didn’t announce any new Canadian programming at Monday’s upfront. Global also recently launched the first season of The Best Years, through the show’s Yanna McIntosh, who plays school counsellor Ms. Dymond, was on the picket line. Actors Wendy Crewson, Gordon Pinsent and Colin Mochire also participated in the ACTRA protest.
While The Jane Show and Whistler return for new seasons (albeit on life support), CTV announced the cancellation of the abysmally unfunny Jeff Ltd. and last year brought the shuttering of high-profile CBC dramas Da Vinci’s City Hall and This Is Wonderland, as well as Global’s Falcon Beach. Internationally-successful Canadian productions like ReGenesis and Kenny vs. Spenny air in hundreds of countries, though movie networks like TMN haven’t been able to fund any programming with HBO-like success. The cable-only networks also fall under stricter regulation and have to actually produce more dramatic programming, yet they get penalized under the Canadian Television Fund, which grants funding based on performance criteria.
ACTRA, however, points their finger at domestic broadcasters because they can’t really draw attention to another hand that feeds: the United States. Fewer American series are being shot in Canada and are therefore not employing Canadian talent. With the Canadian dollar almost at par with the American one and pressure from U.S. actors’ unions, it’s not as lucrative to shoot in Canada as it once was.
For the Canadian broadcasters, they will continue to take the path of least resistance and the most business sense: cheap news and entertainment programming and licensing established American franchises like Deal or No Deal and Project Runway Canada. ACTRA can only get their wish if Canada starts producing more sellable programming, Canadians support domestic shows, and a few courageous executives take some very dangerous chances. And less Ben Mulroney, please.