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Canada turns to cable for original TV

Astral, Corus channels give hope to Canucks

MONTREAL — Folks in the Canuck TV biz complain about the crisis in local drama production without enough coin for quality homegrown fare.

But there is one place where high-end Canuck drama is thriving: on the country’s two main pay channels, Astral Media’s Movie Network, which serves Eastern Canada, and Corus Entertainment’s Movie Central in Western Canada.

Over the past few years, the pair have taken a page from HBO and commissioned a slew of Canadian drama series, many of which have scored with critics and audiences. The sci-fi series “ReGenesis” has just gone into production on its fourth and final season for the two channels and the Shaftesbury Films production has sold to more than 100 countries.

The channels also did well with “Slings & Arrows,” a drama set at a Stratford-like Shakespeare festival that aired on the Sundance Channel in the U.S. and ran for three seasons in Canada.

Now the channels are starting to make their mark with more edgy fare, like serial-killer skein “Durham County” and just-announced eight-part series “The Weight,” a drama from writers George F. Walker and Dani Romain about a pair of unhinged cops in Toronto.

The other new series on the way is “ZOS: Zone of Separation,” a wild rock ‘n’ roll take on the life of Canadian peacekeepers in a fictional Sarajevo-like town somewhere in Europe. Skein shot in Bosnia earlier this summer and is now lensing in Toronto. It stars Colm Meaney, Lolita Davidovich and Michelle Nolden.

The core of the channels’ programming, as their names imply, is features. But the Movie Network and Movie Central are also the Canadian home for most HBO programming — shows like “The Sopranos,” “Six Feet Under” and “Deadwood” are among the channels’ top-rated content.

A few years back, execs at the two Canuck pay-channels came up with a new plan. “We were having success with HBO original programming and we said — ‘Why can’t we do this sort of original programming here?’ ” says Michelle Marion, head of Canadian independent production at the Movie Network. “We’ve got this great talent pool here and, frankly, it’s being under-exploited in terms of the types of shows the other networks are doing. So why can’t we do interesting Canadian pay TV-style drama?”

Marion admits it was a problem finding good material at the beginning because “what we got were shows that (pubcaster) CBC and (commercial broadcaster) CTV had passed on, with some swear words and nudity thrown in.”

But that doesn’t happen anymore. Instead Marion and her colleagues are deluged with smart, challenging projects that would never make it on to the local over-the-air networks.

The Movie Network and Movie Central each have around 1 million subscribers and because the viewers are paying, Marion believes the channels have to keep the quality high.

“When they see a TV series on the network, as opposed to a feature film, they need to know why they’re paying for it,” Marion says. “It can’t look like a show they’d see on conventional television. So we’re attracted to themes that are a little more out-there and concepts that push things further.

“We’re not making broad-appeal shows. We don’t have commercials. We don’t have to please advertisers by trying to go for the biggest, broadest demographic. We’re appealing to a discretionary audience that pays for us.”

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