Canadian upfronts

The presentations, the strategies, the buzz, the crucial B-list programming...

CBC

Upfront review: Alex Trebek was the only buzz maker at the first upfront, a low-key affair held in the atrium of the Ceeb’s headquarters in Toronto. The host of Jeopardy! was promoting the game show’s move to CBC this fall, along with Wheel of Fortune. But that was it for new and noteworthy.

Familiar faces from This Hour Has 22 Minutes, Little Mosque on the Prairie and The Border were also in attendance to plug their shows’ return to the pubcaster. The languid presentation delivered some laughs for a clip in which 22 Minutes’s Gavin Crawford, dressed as Maria von Trapp, twirled about on a patch of grass next to a Toronto highway, in a nod to the net’s How Do You Solve A Problem Like Maria?

Context: ‘We’ve probably had our best year in a decade,’ says Richard Stursberg, CBC EVP of English services, pointing to the success of shows like Heartland and Dragons’ Den. The pubcaster had some help from the U.S. writers’ strike, benefiting the mid-season debuts of The Border and Sophie – both promoted to fall – though it didn’t save MVP or jPod. In all, CBC’s prime time sked required little tweaking.

2008/09 prime-time strategy: The network is putting its confidence in a tried and true lineup with the focus on comedy, followed by drama and news. It scaled back on reality, only offering Dragons’ Den on Mondays in the fall, leading into action drama The Border. Dragon will be hard-pressed to retain its audience against CTV’s Dancing with the Stars. Last year’s other reality, No Opportunity Wasted, was cancelled. The sophomore season of The Tudors headlines a solid prime-time Tuesday, preceded by Rick Mercer and 22 Minutes. Little Mosque and Sophie settle into their Wednesday slot, while Heartland will continue to headline family hour on Sundays. Other returning shows include the fifth estate and The Nature of Things with David Suzuki.

Media buyer’s take: ‘CBC is sticking with what works,’ says Florence Ng of Toronto-based ZenithOptimedia, who thinks Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy! will be good for the network. ‘These are in line with CBC’s demographic, which skews slightly older.’

Jeopardy! also provides an alternative to entertainment shows in the 7:30p.m. time slot. Ng says time will tell if the game show will grow viewership for Rick Mercer and Mosque. ‘These are shows with built-in audiences,’ she says. ‘Hopefully the strong lead-in will give them a boost.’

CANWEST

Upfront review: It took Fran Capo, the world’s fastest-talking female, just two minutes to list 155 titles featured on Canwest’s channels in a unique opening for the network’s upfront, held at Toronto’s Elgin Theatre.

ET Canada hosts Cheryl Hickey and Rick Campanelli then introduced celebs ranging from home reno king Mike Holmes (Holmes on Homes) and Steve Bacic (The Guard) to Canadian Shenae Grimes and Rob Estes (90210). The real star of the show was KITT, the car from the new version of Knight Rider, which came roaring in at the end, accompanied by heartthrob-in-the-making Justin Bruening.

Context: The year got off to a good start, as Heroes, Prison Break and House made strong comebacks – the latter scoring the highest debut of the fall season. But the U.S. writers’ strike quickly soured things, cutting short Heroes while action series 24 never launched at all. CBC even got the better of Global, boasting a higher prime-time share for the period Oct. 1-Apr. 6, for the first time since 1995. The good news is that the majority of Canwest’s strong shows are back, with only a few spots to fill after series including Cane, Back to You and Journeyman were axed.

2008/9 prime-time strategy: Like its main competitor, Canwest is looking to raise the stakes on E! by running more upper-tier shows on the secondary network, including buzzed-about comedy Worst Week, My Name is Earl, 24 and Knight Rider. On the main network, Canwest is putting a big push behind 90210, which nabbed the best time slot, Tuesdays after House.

Prison Break and Heroes kick off a solid Monday, leading into the Christian Slater-led My Own Worst Enemy at 10p.m. The net will look to Bones, NCIS and The Guard to boost Wednesdays, traditionally a weaker night due to stiff competition from Criminal Minds and CSI: NY.

Canwest president Kathy Dore talked up the ability of Global and E!’s skeds to connect with the 18-49 demographic. ‘Others focus on 2+ [viewers]…we concentrate on the audience that really matters,’ she said.

Media buyer’s take: 90210 should perform well after House, says Michael Walker of the Oakville, Ont.-based Walker Media Group, though don’t count on the medical drama’s audience to stick around too long, he warns. ‘They may tune in for curiosity, but I think the House audience has grown up to a point that high-school drama is not quite what they want to watch,’ he says.

While Walker says this is not the year Canwest will overtake CTV, he notes the more interesting battle will be between E! and A. ‘They’re more on equal footing,’ he explains. ‘It’s going to come down to who’s got the best B-list programming.’

CTV

Upfront review: CTV showed more restraint versus 2007′s glitzy, celeb-filled presentation. The net focused much of its 90-minute show, held at the Four Seasons Centre, on its Canadian programming, trotting out stars from The Listener, Flashpoint and So You Think You Can Dance Canada, including slightly annoying guest judge Mary Murphy.

The most talked-about bit was the re-branding of the former A-Channel as A, with a sound schedule that includes the second season of rookie hit Private Practice. The most memorable moment went to the gang from Corner Gas, who took an emotional final bow on stage. The comedy is currently filming its final season.

Context: The number-one network still holds pole position in the battle for eyeballs, retaining Top 20 shows like CSI, Dancing with the Stars, Grey’s Anatomy and Desperate Housewives. As such, its prime-time schedule remains intact, with only four new shows (The Listener, Flashpoint, So You Think You Can Dance Canada and Star Wars: The Clone Wars) joining the lineup. ‘Frankly, you don’t mess with success,’ said CTVglobemedia president and CEO Ivan Fecan.

2008/09 prime-time strategy: All eyes will be on CTV’s aspirations to move the second-tier A network into second place among Canadian broadcasters. ‘You have to dream big,’ said CTV programming boss Susanne Boyce. A’s got the goods, boasting three of the season’s most talked-about new series – J.J. Abrams’s Fringe, drama Eleventh Hour and detective series The Mentalist – plus Private Practice and quirky comedy Pushing Daisies, illustrating CTV’s push to revamp the channel.

Media buyer’s take: ‘There’s no question [CTV] will be number one,’ says Michael Walker, adding that the stability of the schedule is the net’s biggest strength. Walker likes the chances of Toronto-set paranormal drama The Listener in the plum post-Housewives slot. ‘It looks like it’s got good female appeal,’ he says.

A’s new lineup will give advertisers a different opportunity to run with top-flight programming, according to Walker, who says The Practice, Eli Stone and Two and a Half Men will draw out a wider demographic.

ROGERS

Context: It was a year of transition for the five Citytv stations, which fell under the Rogers Media umbrella last year following the buyout of CHUM by CTVglobemedia. For the first time, Rogers execs went buying for the Citys in L.A., looking to acquire more scripted comedy and drama while scaling back on reality. ‘We felt that more scripted programming would be beneficial to us,’ says EVP of programming Malcolm Dunlop.

Citytv parted ways with America’s Next Top Model, which landed on CTV, but grabbed the family drama Crusoe, CW’s Easy Money and competition show Glam God, hosted by Vivica A. Fox. Dependable comedies Ugly Betty and Everybody Hates Chris return for their third and fourth seasons respectively.

2008/9 prime-time strategy: Rogers execs desired a more consistent sked for the Citys in prime time, doing away with weekday movies while acquiring a host of fresh and new-to-City programming. The broadcaster announced (there was no formal presentation) that it had obtained 10 new series for fall (four more than last year), including two shows produced in Canada: the new Winnipeg-shot comedy Less Than Kind and rock-star drama Kaya, which has already aired in the U.S. Also new is adventure series Crusoe, airing in simulcast with NBC on Fridays at 9p.m., while fashion-themed Wednesdays will kick off with reality series Stylista and Glam God, followed by Lipstick Jungle, from Sex and the City’s Candace Bushnell.

Among established shows in the lineup are Curb Your Enthusiasm and Nip/Tuck, while spy comedy Chuck returns for its second season, settling into the tough Monday 9p.m. slot opposite Heroes on Global and Dancing with the Stars on CTV.

‘We feel this schedule will grow [its audience],’ says Dunlop. ‘We’re very optimistic.’

Media buyer’s take: ‘They’re trying to make the station lighter, in terms of programming that is not so sci-fi-themed,’ says Valerie McMorran, SVP, investment director at Starcom Mediavest. She notes that the lineup skews more female, citing Lipstick Jungle, Nip/Tuck and Ugly Betty as titles that will draw women. The consistency of the schedule bodes well for Citytv, enabling it to compete against E! and A, according to McMorran.