Canadians favor Hocky over Sitcoms
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Canada’s commercial broadcasters held their annual upfront presentations last week to promote their lineups of new U.S. skeins bought at last month’s L.A. Screenings, as well as to show off their new domestic shows, but it was clear that scripted programming had already been cross-checked months earlier by Rogers Communications’ landmark deal for rights to National Hockey League games.

Rogers, also a major TV service provider, is betting that live-event programming is the key to growth in a Canadian market that, like the U.S. market, is seeing its subscription numbers level off.

According to Convergence Consulting Group, which publishes the oft-quoted annual “Battle for the North American Couch Potato” report, only 2,000 net new Canadian TV subscribers signed up in 2013 — as opposed to more than 200,000 annually just a couple of years ago.

The 12-year, $5.2 billion deal inked by Rogers with the NHL in November for exclusive domestic broadcast and digital rights pried loose content that, for decades, had been held by pubcaster CBC as part of its top-rated “Hockey Night in Canada” brand.

Rogers’ upfront presentation unveiled a hockey-heavy sked that offers Canuck viewers more games than ever, running across multiple platforms and all its media brands, including flagship City network’s weekend primetime blocks.

“We have (DVR)-proofed Saturday and Sunday nights on City to become must-see TV for all Canadians,” said Rogers VP of television programming and content Hayden Mindell.

Partly as a result of its live-programming strategy, City’s fall schedule includes just four new series — dramas “Scorpion,” “Black-ish” and “Backstrom,” and reality series “Utopia” — compared with 16 shows last fall.

City’s pullback from its reliance on U.S. programming means that, despite what Canadian buyers agreed was a strong year in terms of the quality and execution of pilots, several promising U.S. shows were left unsold in Canada after the Screenings — a change from the past few years, according to CTV programming chief Phil King.

Bell Media’s CTV, Canada’s top-ranked commercial broadcaster, picked up 11 new U.S. series: dramas “Gotham,” “Forever,” “The Flash,” “How to Get Away With Mur-der,” “Marvel’s Agent Carter,” “American Crime,” “Secrets and Lies,” “CSI: Cyber” and “The Mysteries of Laura”; and laffers “The McCarthys” and “The Odd Couple.”

King said this year’s strategy was for short orders, event series and midseason replacements.

“Everyone is interested in getting repeats out of the schedule, because they don’t stand up, given all the catch-up options,” he noted in advance of CTV’s upfront. That type of strategy also increases the odds of finding a hit, he said, but makes scheduling trickier for Canadian nets, which rely on the government-mandated practice of simultaneous substitution or simsubbing, in which a Canadian signal replaces the U.S. one when two stations are airing identical programming simultaneously, to maximize ad revenue.

“Theoretically, what if my competitor grabs the other short-run show in the second half of the season?” King said, noting that his network would have to scramble to fill a slot with new programming. “CTV’s schedule lined up cleanly this year in terms of (such substitutions), which we absolutely need considering the razor-thin margins, but as this idea continues, scheduling could become increasingly difficult.”

Meanwhile, Shaw Media’s Global picked up U.S. shows “Constantine,” “Stalker,” “Madam Secretary,” “Gracepoint,” “State of Affairs,” “NCIS: New Orleans,” “Heroes Reborn” and miniseries “The Dovekeepers”; and comedies “Partners,” “A to Z,” “Marry Me,” “Bad Judge” and “Mulaney.”

Still, Shaw’s Phil Piazza, VP of content acquisition and Global scheduling, said that the Canadian industry was hesitant to pick up series that hadn’t been road-tested on U.S. networks.

“The scheduling and development cycles are now 12 months a year, so we’re buying year-round,” he said. “We’ll sit back and see if some of the available shows pop up (on U.S. schedules).”

The upfronts temporarily muffled the reverberations still sounding from pubcaster CBC’s announcement in April that it was slashing $130 million from its budget and cutting 657 jobs — partly a consequence of losing the revenue-generating engine of hockey — and a report from federal regulator the CRTC that it was proposing that multichannel video program distributors offer a la carte pricing options to subscribers. The report is part of a consultation process with auds and the industry begun last fall. Public hearings will be held in September.

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