'Flashpoint,' other series find success

MONTREAL As recently as last year, the Canuck industry was rife with grumbling about how the production biz had fewer primetime dramas on the air in Canada and lower ratings than five years earlier.

But then the Americans stepped in and started buying Canadian shows, and despite some Yank critics’ carping, auds on both sides of the border have embraced series from the Great White North.

The highest-profile Canadian entry in the U.S. television sweepstakes so far is “Flashpoint,” a Toronto-set crime drama that made its bow on CBS and on CTV in Canada July 11. The series about an emergency response police unit met with mixed reviews in the U.S., with many Stateside critics suggesting it was a not-so-inspired Canadian rip-off of a well-worn American format — the cop procedural.

But American TV viewers seem to have fewer issues than do critics of the show — and its Canadian roots. The first episode of “Flashpoint” was the most watched show of the night in the U.S., with 8.1 million viewers and 1.9/6 in 18-49. It has continued to win its timeslot every week since then, and in a show of confidence, CBS moved “Flashpoint” to Thursdays at 10 p.m., after “CSI,” beginning July 24 where it did well again. On July 31, the show won its timeslot with 7.68 million total viewers and 1.9/6 among adults 18-49.

“It felt to me like there was some resistance to ‘Flashpoint’ going into the CBS primetime schedule and that seemed to be written between the lines of some of the reviews,” says “Flashpoint” exec producer Bill Mustos. “But I feel that’s going away because audiences in North America seem to be responding to the show.”

Still on the bubble is “18 to Life,” a sitcom about a pair of 18-year-olds who shock their parents by getting married. Starring Stacey Farber (“Degrassi: The Next Generation”) and Michael Seater (“Life With Derek”), the pilot for “18 to Life” was shot in Montreal earlier this summer, and ABC and CBC are considering whether to order more episodes. “Degrassi: The Next Generation” and “Life With Derek” are two more Canuck shows that have proved successful on the N and Disney Channel, respectively.

Other Canadian shows headed to the smallscreen in the U.S. include “The Listener,” a drama about a Toronto paramedic with telepathic powers, coming to NBC next season; and Montreal-shot sitcom “Sophie,” the tale of a single mom, skedded for a preem on ABC Family early in ’09.

The slow-paced gentle sitcom “Corner Gas,” set in the tiny fictional town of Dog River in rural Saskatchewan, made its U.S. debut last fall on WGN, and “Kenny vs. Spenny,” a comic reality show where two guys engage in absurd competitions, began airing on Comedy Central late last year.

Arnie Gelbart, president of Galafilm, the Montreal-based company producing “18 to Life,” says the Canadian shows are proliferating south of the border in part because Canada has better writers, directors and showrunners than it did 10 years ago. But he is the first to admit that it’s also because the American networks save money by picking up series that have been developed by Canadian producers and networks.

“It’s a great deal for the American broadcasters,” Gelbart says. “It certainly makes financial sense. They suddenly realized — why not work with Canada. There’s no language issue and it’s right next door.”

Gelbart notes that in a case like “18 to Life,” pubcaster CBC and the rest of the Canadian financing system is putting up the bulk of the coin, so it makes for an attractive proposition for a U.S. network.

“Flashpoint” exec producer Mustos, who used to head the drama division at leading Canuck network CTV, says the boom is part of a happy coincidence where networks on both sides of the border were simultaneously contemplating developing shows that would work in the two markets. A network like CTV is trying to back Canadian series that will fly in the U.S., and the American networks are more open to collaborating with foreign producers and networks, as evidenced by imported formats like “The Office” and “Ugly Betty.”

Some say the Canadian boom comes thanks to the recent Writers Guild of America strike, but Mustos doesn’t buy that argument.

“When we talked to the folks at CBS about ‘Flashpoint,’ they said they’d been talking about finding a new model for making television, and they said they’d be talking to us about ‘Flashpoint’ whether or not there was a strike,” Mustos says.

And to think that just before these U.S. sales the Canuck biz was depressed about how production was allegedly on the road to ruin.

“It’s the shot-in-the-arm that the Canadian production community needed,” Mustos says. “It really might be the dawning of a new era. There was a real doom-and-gloom attitude, but it really does feel like this last year has given people hope that they can play on the world stage.”

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