Canadian shows make US inroads

CBS, NBC acquire 'Listener', 'Flashpoint'

MONTREAL Just as major cable boss Jim Shaw was complaining that the Canadian TV funding system produces a bunch of shows no one watches, events proved him wrong.

Over the past two weeks, CBS and NBC snapped up a pair of Canadian dramas, something that hasn’t happened in years. The last time a made-in-Canada series played in primetime on a major U.S. network was way back in 1994 with Mounties tale “Due South.”

In addition, ABC Family has acquired all 13 episodes of the “Ally McBeal”-esque comedy series “Sophie,” which recently bowed to strong ratings on Canuck pubcaster CBC. At least two networks are also in talks to buy “The Border,” a “24”-like drama about a border security force in Toronto that has also been garnering strong numbers following its January debut on CBC.

These sales seem to indicate that the Canadian TV biz is doing better than it ever has.

“Over the last three to five years, I think we’ve learned a lot,” says Christina Jennings, exec producer of “The Listener,” a drama about a Toronto paramedic with telepathic powers that has been bought by NBC. “So when the Americans look at our programming now, it has the look. It’s being done the way they do things, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Canadian creators are very resourceful.”

Both “The Listener” and “Flashpoint” — a drama about an elite police unit that was sold to CBS — are the product of a new development process recently put in place by Canadian network CTV, which will air both series. CTV ordered pilots for both shows last year, something that is almost never done in Canada, and then ordered 13 episodes of each drama in the fall. After that, the Canadian producers successfully pitched the projects to the American networks.

Just as the sales started rolling in, hearings about the future of the Canadian Television Fund, the main financing tool for the local industry, began last week in Ottawa.

The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission hearings were sparked by complaints from Shaw Communications and fellow cable operator Videotron that the fund was badly managed and failed to make enough commercial shows.

The cable titans want the fund to loosen the rules for Canadian content on productions and allow producers to bring in more American talent on both sides of the camera to increase the sales potential of the shows.

But all the Canuck film and TV unions have lined up to protest allowing more Americans to participate in Canadian shows.

“At the end of the day, I think our shows have to be more commercial and they have to make money for their investors,” says Jennings, whose company, Shaftesbury Films, produces “ReGenesis” and “Murdoch Mysteries.” “But they have to be inherently Canadian and they have to be competitive.”

The Writers Guild of America strike clearly helped put these Canadian shows on the radar for the American network execs, who are desperate for primetime fare.

“The strike accelerated the deals, but American networks are creating a new business model,” says CTV president of creative Susanne Boyce.

The Yank networks are looking for partners outside the U.S. to help finance their shows, and many north of the border believe Canada is a natural ally because — unlike the U.K. or Australia — there is no major accent difference between the two.

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