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Canadian Upfronts: Programming Execs on Acquisition Strategies

As the newly emerging Golden Age of Television continues, navigating the increasing amounts of content has become more than a full-time job for many in the industry. In Canada, however, there’s a larger picture to consider as network executives populate their schedules with a slew of acquisition programming and government-mandated content, pulling together lineups that include series from across all of the major U.S. production houses.

Simulcasting, renewals, licensing contracts and targeted audiences all play into the annual pickup announcements made in late May and early June in the weeks following U.S. upfronts, as the four broadcasters — Bell Media, Corus, Rogers Media and public broadcaster CBC—hold their own upfront presentations for advertisers.

In the case of the three privately held companies, presenting a robust network schedule is further complicated by their ever-evolving slate of specialty channels and OTT services, which are comprised of even more targeted audiences and specialized viewer needs. Balancing content for their main channels (CTV, Global and Citytv) with these evolving products can be a juggling act, to say the least. Look no further than Citytv’s decision to drop “Modern Family” after 10 seasons (it landed on Global), Global’s release of Dick Wolf’s “Chicago” franchise (now on Citytv), or CTV picking up the Rob Lowe-fronted “9-1-1 Lonestar” spinoff despite the original airing on Global, as proof.

On the heels of the Canadian upfronts in Toronto, Variety caught up with Mike Cosentino, Bell Media’s president of content and programming; Daniel Eves, senior vice president of TV networks at Corus; and Hayden Mindell, vice president of TV programming and content at Rogers Media. Here the trio discuss evolving strategies, streaming, and selling American programming at home.

What was your overall strategy heading into the LA screenings?

Mindell: Traditionally we have a female-heavy demo that’s slightly younger than our competitors. That’s where we have been strongest. We have a desire to hold that core and build on it and grow it and establish new audiences and draw new viewers in, both regionally and demographically, by altering the mix.

Eves: We were really coming in with a position of strength. We had a number of long-running, returning hits. So it’s not like we had any hits that ended or we were trying to fill those kinds of holes. We had a really good season last year with the fall schedule. It was up 70% in the adult demo. “New Amsterdam” was the No. 1 new drama. So we’d had a fresh new show on there as well, along with “FBI.” So going into the screenings it’s sort of an envious place to be. At that point it was looking at if we’re doing that well in this area, how do we grow the audience that’s already coming to the schedule?

Cosentino: It was targeting and coming home with great dramas and, in particular, great dramas with heart and emotion. I was hoping for dramas that would feature strong female leads and storylines, and we ended up seeing three great dramas with exceptional leading ladies in those roles. “Stumptown” is the poster child of what we were looking for. It is exactly the kind of show with exactly the kind of star we want in Cobie Smulders. Three years ago we talked about rolling out a new CTV and a new vision for CTV when we made a strategic call to move into more aspirational drama and away from other kinds of drama. “This Is Us” started the trend along with “The Good Doctor” and “Young Sheldon.” So we came away with, we think the best three dramas, “All Rise,” “Emergence,” “Almost Family.”

How have OTT providers and binge-watching impacted the type of content you’re buying for network?

Mindell: We recognize that there’s a change in the kind of content people are consuming on linear platforms. The type of content that works well on a linear platform is changing from the kind of content that works well on nonlinear platforms and that is created for nonlinear audiences. The platforms necessitate different types of content. There is a good piece of television where viewers and audiences want something that’s reliable, entertaining, rich stories, but don’t always ask for a large investment of their time all at once. They want to be able to come in, watch the show, be entertained and leave happier and more satisfied.

Eves: The way people watch programming has changed, but what they watch is still the same. Whether it’s streaming, whether it’s catch-up, whether it’s binge… if you can’t get content that works for people, then it doesn’t matter how you offer it. It still has to be the right type of show. At the end of the day you have to start with the quality of the shows that you think are going to resonate. Our first filter is still content that’s going to work for our audience because we can figure out how to get it to them later. If you don’t have the right kind of show that resonates with an audience then the platform isn’t going to matter.

Cosentino: I don’t think it has other than the increased number of exceptional programming that is available as a result of some streaming services green-lighting new content that is available for licensing in Canada. “The Handmaid’s Tale” is a perfect example of that, as is “Castle Rock.” We have been gravitating towards Hulu shows; they have great taste. Where the nuance is, is around some of the super-serialization of some of the streaming shows, and that may not necessarily pay off for a traditional linear model. But we are scheduling our programming as big events and we have streaming platforms so we’re looking at it as delivering the best content that fits our brands. It hasn’t really changed our buying behavior other than opening up the door to more content for consideration.

Which acquisition is the crowning jewel of your schedule?

Mindell: “Bluff City Law.” It feels like a powerful drama that will resonate with Canadians. And then on the comedy side, “Perfect Harmony” is great and it’s different than a lot of what we’re seeing in comedies. It’s a relatively mature comedy. It’s not millennial, it’s not angsty. I think that’s a comedy that could break now.

Eves: It’s amazing to be able to support the final season of “Modern Family,” but it’s a toss-up between the two new dramas. “Prodigal Son” is the sort of serial-killer crime thriller that people know well, but it’s done in a dark, straightforward way with a slightly comedic undertone. It’s very different and it’s what Fox does really well. And then what’s great about “Evil” is that it’s by the Kings, the creators of “The Good Wife,” so you get these brilliant writers taking on a subject matter that’s very different than what they’ve done before. You have the elements of a procedural that, in terms of type of content, CBS does very, very well. Then there are other elements layered into it in a very smart way, and the show succeeds because it really is a balance of all those elements.

Cosentino: Other than the dramas, the real find for us was “The Masked Singer,” which is a complete TV phenomenon. That one, It’s super co-viewing, hits all of the checks, all of the boxes for us. But I also think the story of the year could be midseason’s “For Life.” What a story. This one tested higher than “The Good Doctor” for Sony. It scored super high with them, especially with women. It could be a real homerun.

How much does the ability to simulcast weigh on your decision-making?

Mindell: What makes Canada a unique market when it comes to acquiring TV rights is that while simulcasting is not the sole concern when determining our schedule, there are significant benefits to both our audience and advertisers. Simulcasting allows Citytv to maximize the reach of a program, giving advertisers a larger platform to market their products and brands and provides Rogers Media a larger platform to promote other shows we believe would be of interest to that specific audience.

Eves: The ultimate goal is to get these shows in simulcast because of the way our system is set up. That’s roughly about a 20% audience boost when you have it in simulcast. You’ll lose a lot of volume if you go post the US network because the main U.S. networks come into Canada. So we can get a post, there is flexibility, but it’s always a hit on the ratings to go post. Pre is harder. There is some case where they’ll allow it, but if you’re getting a pre in the Toronto market it means you’re going ahead of the US broadcast. That happens and we do get permission for that. If it’s an hour or two then it’s usually okay. But it’s a case-by-case ask.

Cosentino: The biggest challenge remains investing in a series and risking being a second run in your own market. The only way to prevent being the second run in your own market is to air it at the same time. Even if you aired it first, a day before or an hour or two before (which is better than second), you are still splitting an audience. The rest of the country can watch the spill network. The rest of the audience can still show up at the next time slot, when you’re not running your commercials and investing in that program. The simulcast has been described as a big benefit to broadcasts like CTV but in fact it’s the only way to retain our investment. So it does come into play when we consider programs, but our first goal is to bring home the best show.

In what kind of a position does having the ability to purchase higher-budget network shows for specialty, targeted brands put you?

Mindell: We do not need to rely on U.S. programming for specialty networks. And then through our incredible partnership with FX, we have an exclusive supply of premium, landmark shows that Canadians love, such as “Atlanta,” “Fargo,” “Mayans,” “What We Do In The Shadows,” “Legion,” “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” and “American Horror Story.”

Eves: What’s interesting about the L.A. screenings in general, a number of years ago you went and bought a conventional product that was the ABC product or the CBS product and that’s what was sort of pitched to you in the screening. But more and more as the US companies have consolidated and brought different strategies together, the options have also expanded. Instead of just a CBS product you now have CW products, you now have conversations about things from their streaming services or cable services. There are actually a lot more one-hour products that are coming up in the LA screenings.

Cosentino: One hundred percent. So we knew that we would be rebranding four of our services in the fall [CTV Life, CTV Drama, CTV Comedy and CTV Sci-Fi]. In launching those new services we wanted to double down on programming and come home with anchors for each of the four newly branded CTV services so that we could demonstrate today how we are creating unique schedules. This is why we brought home “Star Trek Picard” and “Resident Alien.” That’s exactly why we wanted to focus on an expanded Canadian movie production strategy and partner with Harlequin Studios to drive the Harlequin brand on CTV Drama and really super serve the female audience there. On Comedy we’re bringing in the reboot of “Mad About You” as a flagship, and we made a big announcement about Mike Holmes and his new series “Holmes Family Rescue” for CTV Life.

How do you use American acquisition programming to bolster original Canadian content?

Mindell: There’s no better promotional vehicle than our own schedule to drive viewers to sample a show, whether it’s promotion within our acquired shows or using highly-rated acquisitions as a lead-in to a new Canadian drama or comedy. Of course, original Canadian programs like “Hockey Night In Canada” stand on their own legendary status.

Eves: We can say that it’s American shows, but really what it is, is your hit shows — the shows that are established and people know. That’s how you can launch any new show, Canadian or American. In particular with Canadian shows, it does help a lot to have an established show and a block. With all of the talk about streaming, it’s amazing how much still just having something as a lead-in or lead-out still matters. It may not matter as much but it’s still a great way to introduce products. And so with the Canadian shows, the most important thing for us is finding the right spot and the right time to make the show as successful as possible. A lot of that involves finding where our hits are going to be. We roll out the fall schedule, find out what works, and we’re able to see what makes the most sense following fall launch.

Cosentino: We have historically put one or two Canadian shows in the fall and nested them with one or two great Hollywood shows and parked them shoulder-to-shoulder. The reason it didn’t happen this particular fall is really because we have only one drama ready to go, which is the final season of “Cardinal.” We want to give that a midseason burst because we feel that we can give it a better launch away from all the marketing dollars of the new shows. We are not shy about launching Canadian programs on the fall, and we feel great about [incoming Sphère Média Plus series] “Transplant” and where we want to launch it. We would forego a great Hollywood show in favor of launching an original.

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