With Netflix, Paramount and Prime Video, Canadian TV Is Having a Moment, but It’s Still Tough Going

From the outside, Canadian television is having a moment. Over the past 18 months, major streaming services — Netflix, Prime Video, Paramount+, Disney+ and Apple TV+ — have established Northern presences via offices, execs or PR teams.

Canadian broadcasters are also stepping up. During upfronts and a series of meetings in Toronto last week, public broadcaster CBC boasted more than 4,000 hours of new programming. Bell Media confirmed an additional 210 hours of English and French-language original content, bolstering its original library to more than 1,000 hours. Corus Entertainment announced 25 new and returning series across its brands.

Even Rogers Sports & Media, which has historically commissioned fewer hours of originals than its competitors, confirmed original programming for the OMNI channel and the return of “Canada’s Got Talent” and “Hudson & Rex” while announcing the upcoming “Law & Order Toronto: Criminal Intent.”

According to Canadian producers however, getting a TV series off the ground in Canada is harder than ever. There are few buyers, more competition for resources given the influx of service production, and the need to create global content on stitched-together financing models that have only grown more challenging with inflation.

“It’s a tough time, everybody is trying to curtail costs,” says Glen Salzman, co-founder and CEO of Cineflix. “Starting a company now is really tough for young producers. The networks are more risk adverse. Money’s tighter.”

“The financial anxiety feels like it has been growing over some time,” says Pier 21 Films co-CEO Nicole Butler. “It’s not only a challenge from a budgetary point of view, but it becomes a challenge from all sides. You need to become more industrious as to how you approach production and what you’re going to do. There’s pressure all around.”

As a result, many Canadian production companies are diversifying and adapting through expansion, within their libraries, and by approaching new financing and rights ownership models. While there are some tax benefits and national money to apply for, Canadian producers have long searched for partners outside the country to complete missing pieces. Now, they’re also willing to team up within the border in new ways.

“Rights ownership and financial models are really case dependant,” says Pier 21 Films co-CEO Vanessa Steinmetz. “Everyone knows rights is a huge issue, the ability for platforms to have rights worldwide so they can disseminate it to all territories and countries is critical to that model. So it’s about finding ways to work within all that.”

Lately, Steinmetz has seen a breakup of that model, however, as a result of the downward pressure from larger companies and big studios looking for co-financing and ways to support production. In turn, there are new opportunities, particularly for small and mid-sized production companies. It’s a shift Jennifer Kawaja, president of scripted content at Sphere Media, has also noted.

“Models will emerge where streamers won’t take all the territories or, where they leave territories for us to sell and to fill out the financing with… We’re all trying to figure out how to get the balance right,” she says.

Salzman, whose company brought unscripted franchises like “Property Brothers” and “Mayday: Air Disaster” to the world, admits part of Cineflix’s recent push into scripted fare is that in his experience, Canadian networks are less willing to insist on distribution rights in scripted because of the higher deficits.

“When we did ‘Property Brothers,’ they licensed the show, we brought the tax credits as producers and we owned the rest of the world. We went and sold it to the U.S. and the U.K. to make up our deficit,” he explains.

“Now if you take a show to a Canadian network they might commission the show, but they’re going to want a huge piece of the backend. They’re going to insist on using their own, in-house distribution company. As a producer you don’t make the backend anymore. The network is taking such a big piece—75% in some cases,” he continues. “The producers get their production fee and a small backend, which you usually don’t see because they don’t sell the show well. It’s not a great model for building a company.”

Still, there aren’t many options for Canadian producers selling shows at home to networks that are dealing with their own financial struggles. Viewer habits, inflation and increased competition from streamers have forced everyone to pivot.

In February, CBC confirmed it is prioritizing digital in response to current consumer trends. To that effect, last week the broadcaster announced two additional FAST channels, CBC Comedy and CBC News BC, following the December launch of CBC News Explore.

“It’s important for us to go where the audiences are and not wait for them to come to us,” says Sally Catto, CBC’s general manager of entertainment, factual and sports. “FAST is rapidly growing and audiences are wanting that lean-back experience, in addition to their many other choices.”

At its upfront presentation, Bell Media revealed its streamer, Crave, is launching ad-supported tiers this summer. Rogers Sports & Media confirmed exclusive acquisitions to program its streaming channel, Citytv+. And at the end of 2022, Corus Entertainment partnered with Paramount to launch Pluto TV.

“There’s the cost of inflation, the union fees are rising every year, the cost of talent is certainly increasing,” lists Catto. “It’s across the board. We’ve talked about seeing [an estimated] 12% increase in the cost of our productions year over year. The costs are significantly going up and that is definitely a challenge.”

Barbara Williams, executive vice president of CBC, agrees that every project is different when it comes to piecing together financing.

“Every project will also be creatively better suited to some partners,” she adds. “The streamers can be good partners. We’re not turning down anybody’s money. But we really are thoughtful in each case about the projects we want to do and the projects that drive the agenda here at the public broadcaster.”

There is also the sheer number of pitches coming in to consider, which can make it challenging for companies trying to find their next hit.

“Our development team gets about 1,000 pitches a year,” reveals Carlyn Klebuc, Bell Media’s general manager of original programming. “They’re a very small team, and they have massive volume. Not only do they have that volume coming in, they are constantly looking for who’s up and coming, who’s had a short, or an opportunity in a room, and they are targeting and trying to work with them as well.”

As for the newly established Canadian streamers, they appear to be taking a wait-and-see approach as the industry awaits policy drafting on the new streaming law. Bill C-11 passed in senate in April, but what obligations that brings to these new offices remains unclear.

Disney and Apple have yet to announce any Canadian commissions. Paramount+ waited until the Banff World Media Festival to reveal its first-ever Canadian development slate and current Canadian content. As for their streaming competitors? Many agree the Cancon hasn’t been overwhelming.

In 2020, Netflix put out a call for Canadian film and TV pitches. Thousands submitted, yet to-date there have been no commissions from those meetings. Netflix has commissioned a pair of original Canadian scripted series (“Tall Pines” with Objective Fiction and Sphere Media, and an untitled Inuit comedy in partnership with CBC and APTN), as well as a French-language stand-up special and a three-year deal with “Just for Laughs.”

Prime Video has been the most active in Canada with a revamp of “Kids in the Hall,” adaptations of “LOL: Last One Standing,” comedy “The Lake,” an adult animation series called “Gary and His Demons,” and an upcoming comedy drama series, “The Sticky.” (Its recently canceled “Three Pines” is considered Canadian in some circles, but it was produced by Sony Pictures Television-owned Left Bank Pictures, proving the need to define what actually constitutes Canadian content.)

“We’re looking to make shows that Canadians will watch based on the research and the amount of data,” Brent Haynes, the studio’s head of originals in Canada, said last September at Content Canada. “It has to hit a bar and that bar is really, really high. We know most Prime customers sign up for their free package delivery. But there’s still an expectation that they’re paying for this service. There has to be some sort of premium element to it.”

The question remains, who will pay for it.

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