Canadians arrive for L.A. screenings

Studios nervous as CanWest flirts with bankruptcy

Arriving a week earlier than usual, Canadian broadcasters are already hunkered down at studio backlots across town as the L.A. Screenings are unofficially under way.

Buyers for CTV and Rogers were in Los Angeles on Wednesday to scope out what could possibly be their next batch of primetime hits. CanWest Global will be here Thursday.

The Canadians are traditionally the biggest international spenders during the L.A. Screenings, but there is a good chance they’ll be shelling out less this year.

The two main broadcasters — CTVglobemedia-owned CTV and CanWest-owned Global — are both facing a major financial crunch as a result of the economic downturn and the crisis facing the broadcast biz. Both have financial woes, but CanWest’s are more acute. The Winnipeg-based broadcaster has spent the past two months in negotiations with its lenders in an effort to avoid seeking bankruptcy protection.

In addition, CanWest will be buying only for Global this year because it has put its E! Network on the sales block in an effort to reduce its debt.

Canuck execs expect the prices to either hold steady or perhaps even dip a little as a result of the tough economic times.

“I don’t think it’s just Canadian buyers,” said Barbara Williams, exec VP of content at CanWest Broadcasting. “I think buyers from all over the world, as they come to L.A. this year, will be coming with a sense of responsibility about how much product we really need and what’s a reasonable price point for it given the revenue return we can expect in an economically challenged time.”

One studio source familiar with past Canadian negotiations said prices will be “firm and more cautious than in year’s past.” Among the new shows expected to generate some heat among overseas buyers are CBS’ remake of “Melrose Place” and Disney’s sci-fi thriller “Flash Forward.”

That can’t be good news to the studios, which count heavily on Canadian coin and the bidding wars that often take place. Canucks don’t have time to watch, go home and decide what’s worth buying. With their upfronts set for the first week in June, they need to have their lineups — with new American product — set to show off to potential advertisers.

The Canuck broadcasters are breathing a sigh of relief this week because broadcast regulator the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) last week backed away from a proposed plan to curtail the networks’ spending in Hollywood.

Earlier this year, the CRTC had said it was warming up to the idea of forcing the Canadian nets to bring in a one-to-one ratio between its Canadian and American programming expenditures. But the broadcasters protested, and the regulator agreed to drop the idea, at least for this year. Such a rule would have likely radically reduced the amount of Canadian spending in L.A.

Williams said her network will be looking for a replacement for hit “Prison Break,” which isn’t coming back, but has a strong lineup of returning shows, including “House,” “Heroes,” “NCIS,” “Survivor” and “Bones.” Rogers, which owns the City-tv stations, will be buying more aggressively this year, as it continues its move from a movie-based schedule at City-tv to a sked based around dramas and sitcoms, just like CTV and Global.

“It will be a completely different City-tv,” said Leslie Sole, CEO of Rogers Media Television.

Rogers-owned City-tv’s top shows are laffers “30 Rock” and “Parks and Recreation” as well as the “Bachelor” franchise.

CTV execs were more tight-lipped about their plans and will likely be buying more selectively given that the net is already the ratings leader in Canada and has a slew of hot shows returning, including the “CSI” and “Law and Order” franchises, “American Idol” and “Grey’s Anatomy.”