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Canadian network show buyers to vie for content for 2014-15 season at Upfronts

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Starting Monday, the U.S. networks will host lavish stage shows in New York where they will announce lineups for the 2014-15 season. This spring ritual is known as the Upfronts, with US$9 billion in TV advertising revenue at stake.

Sitting out front among all the young ad agency reps will be Canadian network show buyers. They fly down every spring, head straight to private Hollywood screenings and — after a frenzied day of show bidding — come home with what they hope will be schedules full of new imported hits. The cost? Somewhere between US$700 million and $800 million.

"I come from a sports background so I look at it as being draft day and free agent day all rolled into one," says Phil King, CTV's president of sports and entertainment programming. "I tell my sports guys, imagine if you had to reset your team within eight hours? That's kind of how it works — the gun goes off, you start buying shows at 10 a.m., and by 4 o'clock there's basically nothing left."

Is this the year, however, that the game changes? King and his private network rivals — Barbara Williams, Shaw's senior vice-president of content, and Hayden Mindell, Rogers' vice-president of television programming and content — face five new challenges in what has always been a risky business.

Changing viewing habits: More Canadians are streaming or using PVRs to view content on demand. Is simulcasting — the practice of scheduling an imported series in Canada at the same hour as it airs in the U.S. — really that vital anymore?

"It's more important than ever," says King. None of the private networks wants to give up on lumping their viewers in with U.S. affiliate viewers in order to arrive at the highest possible total. While television remains the main media player, maximizing ratings gets more vital as ad revenues continue to migrate over to digital media.

As King points out, advertising remains the only revenue stream open to Canadian broadcasters. Adds Williams: "Who wants to lose any audience that you don't have to?"

Rogers' NHL power play: As Mindell says, "We've already made a commitment to the biggest show that's going to be produced next year — and it's PVR proof — and it's hockey." Rogers' $5.2-billion, 12-year deal with the NHL means Sundays will become a new hockey night in Canada across City stations. Sundays are TV's biggest battleground, crowded with competition. With NHL games, Mindell vaults his network into the mix — without spending a dime on U.S. network fare.

Naturally his rivals don't see it that way.

"We're not worried about that at all," says King, whose company lost out on the bidding over NHL rights. King sees hockey burnout in homes where games will already be watched on Friday and Saturday nights. Even in sports-mad households, City will be competing with "Sunday Night Football" in the fall as well as the Super Bowl, Grey Cup and NFL playoffs. Unless the Leafs move a lot of games to Sunday, he feels, the night is already overcrowded with options to make a significant impact.

"We actually see that as a good thing for us," he says. "There's less noise from a CTV point of view from City and any other shows they can get."

Williams agrees. "We're in the entertainment business, and we are powerfully there," she says. "There is a sports business I've heard out there somewhere."

Shorter runs: U.S. networks are downsizing their show orders. Instead of 22 episodes, some shows, such as Fox's "The Following" and "24" or CBS's "Under the Dome" are down to 12 to 15. Viewers used to bingeing a Netflix season in one weekend don't seem to mind.

The problem is fitting the square pegs into the round holes of a Canadian schedule.

Williams understands why U.S. networks are switching to shorter runs to keep viewers engaged, but she and her Canadian colleagues do wonder "how messy this might get." If you're not firmly aligned with a U.S. network — and thus able to plug in what they plug in — "you could find yourself in a bit of a spot."

There might be a silver lining here, however, for Canadian producers. With U.S. runs shrinking down to the size of a typical Canadian run, a season of "Remedy," for example, might fit neatly between two imported runs over the course of a season. Williams points to how "Bomb Girls" was hammocked between two seasons of "Survivor."

Bubble show trouble: U.S. networks may cling to more low-rated shows this year, leaving fewer new entries for Canadians to choose from. Fox has already renewed "The Mindy Project," for example, despite ratings that would have killed it in the past. The reason: a series with a small but loyal audience can now be sold to Netflix or Hulu while still gathering episodes in first-run.

Mindell doesn't see this as too big a trap. "I honestly don't think there'll be a large variation between what's available this year versus other years," he says.

Besides, he'd take another season of CBS's Robin Williams' comedy "The Crazy Ones" because it does better on his stations in Canada.

King, likewise, hopes "The Mentalist" remains on CBS's schedule. "We don't want that one to go away," he says.

The drought: In a soft U.S. broadcast season, Global drafted two of the top imports last May — "The Blacklist" and "Sleepy Hollow." The last two U.S. upfront seasons, however, have yielded no new comedy hits despite a swing back to sitcoms. Are Canadian show buyers worried the import well has run dry?

In a word, no. Mindell cites a source putting last year's failure rate at 78 per cent. The average, since the '50s, has always been 80 per cent.

Williams, whose top import dramas are CBS's two "NCIS" hours, will be gunning for "NCIS: New Orleans," a spinoff starring Scott Bakula.

King has had great success with superhero imports, including "Arrow" and "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." He notes there are at least four new ones among the U.S. rookies, including Fox's "Gotham" (a "Batman" prequel), "The Flash" from The CW and ABC's "Agent Carter."

"They're being extremely secretive about it, much like 'S.H.I.E.L.D.,'" says King of the latter. "I don't know a lot about it, but I'll find out next week."


Bill Brioux is a freelance TV columnist based in Brampton, Ont.

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