Banff fest flies U.S. flag in windy TV biz

Attenborough awarded lifetime kudo

TORONTO — The Banff Television Festival will kick off Sunday with a loaded slate, against a background of continued U.S. moans about runaway production, local fears over the cash-strapped TV industry and Toronto’s outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome.

All this is underlined by the fest’s salute to the neighbor to the south. “We made this (U.S. tribute) decision some time back, but I think it’s absolutely the right time to do it,” Banff Television Foundation prexy-CEO Pat Ferns told Daily Variety.

Ferns noted that the U.S. is Canada’s major trading partner and that Hollywood is thickly populated with ex-pat Canucks. “American productions are going to continue to produce in Canada, even if the Canadian dollar continues to go up.”

The tribute will include the award of excellence for “The Sopranos” creator David Chase and lifetime achievement awards for sitcom veteran James Burrows (“Cheers,” “Frasier,” “Friends”), HBO’s Sheila Nevins and PBS’ Peter McGhee.

British filmmaker, producer, broadcaster and host David Attenborough is skedded to receive a special lifetime kudo, Banff’s highest honor, which has only been awarded four times in its 24 years.

In the race

U.S. producers and broadcasters lead the pack with 18 nominations in the Banff Rockie TV Awards. HBO received nine, including mentions for “Curb Your Enthusiasm” in comedy, and “Oz,” “Sopranos,” and “Six Feet Under” in drama. PBS’ WGBH took four noms, including “Daniel Deronda” (produced with BBC) for miniseries and “Nova” and “Secrets of the Dead 3” (both U.K. co-productions) in the science and natural history category.

The industry south of the border is traditionally well represented at Banff, with Americans making up about 10% of the six-day fest’s 1,800 delegates, and Ferns predicted the U.S. tribute will bring a wider range of American industryites to this picturesque town in the Rocky Mountains.

Also on the slate at Banff is a 50th anniversary celebration for Japan’s NHK, which will include a live high-def feed from Antarctica; a 60th anniversary shindig for actors union the Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Arts; and an outstanding achievement award for German pubcaster ZDF.

Ferns said that attendance numbers are similar to last year. Concerns over SARS prompted some delegates to fly to Banff through Montreal instead of Toronto, where the outbreak is confined primarily to hospitals, and a delegation from Singapore and two from China have canceled.

Between economic fallout from the war on Iraq and concerns about SARS, “it’s been a tough year,” Ferns said. “We’ve seen a lot of large events that have had drop-offs, so we’re quite relieved to be doing really well.”