TORONTO — The three major private Canadian broadcast networks unveiled previews of upcoming new shows this week in Toronto and once again, the big news revolved around the acquisitions of American-produced content.
There’s a remake of “Hawaii Five-0,” new Jerry Bruckheimer action dramas, and the return of familiar faces such as Tom Selleck, William Shatner and Jim Belushi.
In other words: same old, same old.
While Canwest, Rogers (which owns TV stations including Citytv and Omni) and CTV have all invested millions of dollars on original content, there are precious few new original Canadian dramas coming soon.
That was bad news for Canadians in the industry, who had hoped the networks might finally be ready to air more homegrown content.
They included protesters with the Canadian acting union ACTRA, who picketed outside Canwest’s press conference Tuesday. They were looking for balance after decades of seemingly limitless U.S. content acquisitions. But they left discouraged.
“Frankly, I don’t see a door opening, not even a little bit,” said Leah Pinsent (“Made in Canada”), daughter of Canadian acting icon Gordon Pinsent, who was among the protesters.
The optics of Global’s fall schedule — where one lone Canadian scripted series is listed, the new drama “Shattered,” starring Callum Keith Rennie and Molly Parker — brings little comfort for cultural nationalists and those struggling in the Canadian television industry.
But the ultra competitive business of television relies on U.S. programming, said Canwest executive vice president Barbara Williams.
“To be honest, the priority for everybody in the fall is to get the American shows launched,” said Williams, who has been her network’s top scheduler for five seasons.
Williams points out that all the broadcasters are still required to annually provide at least 50 per cent Canadian content in their prime-time schedules — although the CRTC allows prime time to be defined as 6 p.m. to midnight, a loose definition that allows newscasts and red carpet shows to earn Cancon points.
Williams said it’s vital for Global to use the U.S. shows to build the biggest possible audience.
“I don’t make an apology for that,” she said. “These are the things that ultimately support the ’Shattered”s of the world.“
Williams has directed the bulk of her Canadian content spending — an estimated $170 million — toward Canwest’s highly profitable specialty brands. A new Canadian version of the reality series “Wipeout” is coming to TVTropolis. Production is underway in Halifax on new Showcase series “Haven,” a co-venture with the U.S. cable network Syfy and a comedy from the actors behind “Trailer Park Boys,” “Drunk and On Drugs Happy Funtime Hour.” Another upcoming Showcase/Syfy series, “Lost Girl,” is shooting in Hamilton.
CTV announced Thursday that it is standing behind two Canadian comedies that faded after fast starts — “Hiccups” and “Dan For Mayor” — as well as rookie drama “The Bridge,” a Toronto-based police drama developed with CBS, which has found a consistent audience for CTV on Friday nights. All will be back for second seasons, along with more episodes of “The Listener” and “Flashpoint.” It will also air the new Canadian co-production “The Borgias,” starring the likes of Colm Feore, Jeremy Irons and Francois Arnaud.
While Citytv’s fall schedule is all red, white and blue Monday through Thursday, weekend offerings open up slots for Canadian-made unscripted shows such as “Mantracker” and “Survivorman.” The drama “Murdoch Mysteries” is also back for a fourth season, which is about all the scripted fare the station can afford right now, according to vice president of specialty and development Alain Strati.
Rogers at this point has a much smaller Canadian Media Fund budget than CTV or Canwest, he said. While a few other shows are in early development, “we basically have enough money to do one scripted series, which right now is Murdoch,” he added.
Reliance on government agencies and national media funds may be part of what is holding domestic production back, according to David James Elliott, a Canadian-born actor who has found success in the U.S.
The Milton, Ont.-native has enjoyed long-running success on both sides of the border in shows such as “Street Legal” and “JAG.” This summer, he co-stars opposite Virginia Madsen in the ABC romantic crime drama “Scoundrels.”
“The rest of the world seems to be adjusting to the model of commercialism,” said Elliott, who sees international co-production as perhaps the most promising path out of the Canadian TV quagmire.
Bill Brioux is a freelance TV columnist based in Brampton, Ont.