Canadian Upfronts ’23: A pivotal moment?

The last time Now & Next published an article about Canadian upfronts in 2021, the landscape for content was quite different. This year, American networks/program services and their corresponding media conglomerates are dealing with the 2023 Writers Guild of America and SAG-AFTRA strikes. The current US trend is to spend less on streaming content as said market enters a consolidation period. Program service The CW sees majority ownership shift to Nexstar, leading to higher visibility for Canadian originals as they comprise more of The CW's prime-time programming.

Amid this and other media shifts, executives at Bell Media, CBC, and Corus talk to the CMF-FMC through a series of interviews about how they plan to do business in an interesting upcoming Canadian broadcast season. 

What do you look for from current Canadian creators? How many shows do you want in development at any given time, and what's the ideal scripted/unscripted balance?

Carlyn Klebuc, General Manager of Original Programming, Bell Media: We're always looking for high-quality, Canadian and Indigenous stories told by fresh voices and perspectives that need to be amplified. Powerful and diverse stories that reflect all Canadians are also extremely important to us, because we know Canadians have a desire to see their own lives reflected in the content they consume. We recently announced ninety-six titles totalling more than a thousand hours of bilingual original content which are currently in production or development, which we're extremely proud of. 

Unscripted content plays a significant role in our original programming strategy because it's extremely popular across our platforms. For example, true crime docuseries Billionaire Murders is now the #1 most-watched Canadian series launch on Crave. Canada's Drag Race continues to be a top performer on Crave. The Amazing Race Canada was the top Canadian program for the full 2021-22 broadcast year on CTV, and Farming for Love on CTV is currently the top Canadian reality show this summer.

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Carlyn Klebuc, General Manager of Original Programming, Bell Media

Barbara Williams, Executive Vice President, CBC: All of our audiences are supremely interested in drama and comedy, so it's a significant piece of what we try to do. We have our Gem platform in mind when we are creating this content, and we know that it also needs to live on lots of other platforms - linear, websites, YouTube channels - so we're conscious of the reach that this content has to have. We know that our unique brand proposition here is to be Canadian, to reflect contemporary Canada, to speak to the diversity of what is Canada today, not only in the stories we tell but in who tells them. A lot of what ultimately drives [CBC's] decisions is to be sure at the end of the day that we are talking to who and where Canada is today, in an effort to make CBC as relevant as possible.

Sally Catto, General Manager, Entertainment, Factual and Sports, CBC: It's exciting for us [at CBC] because that still leaves an incredible range of stories that we are interested in, in both the scripted and unscripted worlds, with authentic storytelling, a very clear point of view – ideally, stories that we have not heard before and that will appeal to a wide variety of audiences. Not all of our content seeks to achieve the same goal. Some of our content we will commission for a very broad audience, other content might be more niche but we believe will target a specific part of our audience, a specific demographic. It really comes down to that authentic voice and reflecting the country. There is a cycle of development that is ongoing for us, so it's difficult to say at any given time what that number is. We want enough of a range that we feel we have a strong slate to choose from in terms of what we commission. I think we're very selective in that we also want to move as quickly as possible with what we're not interested in, while some projects require much longer development periods than others. There is no magic number. It will depend every year on what shows are returning, how many new shows we intend to commission.

Lisa Godfrey, Senior Vice President of Original Programming and Corus Studios, Corus: We don't have specific requirements on the number of series in development, and instead are focused on ideas that will move the dial both domestically and have potential for international sale through Corus Studios. The balance of content in our portfolio is fairly weighted between unscripted (lifestyle and factual), kids, scripted dramas, and big tent-pole reality series like Top Chef Canada and Big Brother Canada.

How important is it now for original content to straddle existing and newer methods of content delivery, as Canada moves toward combined linear and digital advertising models?

Justin Stockman, Vice President, Content Development & Programming, Bell Media: It's important to us to make our content available on the platform of our viewers' choice. For example, some will watch Transplant live on our linear network, and some will catch up on the CTV app. Reaching our audiences where they are provides flexibility not just for viewers, but for clients as well. 

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Justin Stockman, Vice President, Content Development & Programming, Bell Media

Barbara Williams (CBC): We very much understand that audience behaviours and audience patterns are changing, and have been changing for a long time. We have to be sure that we are distributing our content to the places and in the ways and means that the audience we're after can find us. One of the relatively newer distribution opportunities is connected TV, which constitutes a huge opportunity for us to reach an audience that may no longer have a cable subscription. We want Gem to be front and centre when they turn on their connected TV, and make CBC content through Gem easily discoverable. One of our key distribution opportunities is to be continuously developing Gem to be available on more platforms, whether it's on LG, Samsung or Roku. We need to be on all of them and we're aggressively working to be on them all. We're really trying to reach that thirty-to-fifty year old audience, which is by definition hugely diverse in Canada. It's an audience that is made up of people who have been born and raised in Canada, but also lots of newcomers and immigrants, so a huge variety of backgrounds, cultures and ethnicities. We're very conscious that making a connection with that audience doesn't happen on linear the way it used to. It's much more likely to happen on Gem, on connected TV or on YouTube. It's much more likely to happen in a lot of other places where we need to be if we're going to be able to reach them successfully. 

What were the challenges in announcing original content during an economic downturn, as well as the 2023 Writers Guild of America and SAG-AFTRA strikes? How did it affect linear schedules, new commissions, and renewals?

Justin Stockman (Bell Media): The past three years have been challenging, but our commitment to and investment in original content has not wavered. This is of course a very different fall season with impacts from the [WGA] strike in the US, but we have full confidence in our schedules. Bell Media continues to be well-positioned to navigate through this period of uncertainty, no matter what curve-balls the writers’ strike might throw our way. 

Until we see the US network schedules, we cannot confirm our own. We are continuing to monitor US networks' strike contingency planning and believe changes to US schedules will result in even more programming moving into the fall than currently planned, which will only improve on our already strong lineup.

Barbara Williams (CBC): We're happy with the deals that we've done with [The CW], and we hope that our content resonates well on that network for them. We are not as affected as the private networks [by the economic downturn] because we aren't as dependent on ad revenue as they are. Ad revenue is still an important piece of our overall revenue picture, and it does impact our programming budget so we are not oblivious to the challenges of trying to continue to have a good strong slate, even with pressures on budget.

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Barbara Williams, Executive Vice President, CBC

Sally Catto (CBC): Part of our financing always involves partners. Our partners are in place. Our partners have not pulled out and they're usually just the distributors or other broadcasters, and so there's been no impact there yet. At this point, it's been business as usual for us.

The [WGA] strike has had very little impact on us, because we do work with Canadian talent who are primarily living in Canada. While there might be a couple of exceptions to that, we've been able to try to work around it fairly easily. It certainly has not impacted the progress of any of our productions. The [SAG-AFTRA] strike is also not having a significant impact on our productions, certainly not with any of our leads, our casting. Perhaps in guest-starring roles, it might.

Lisa Godfrey (Corus): At our upfront, we announced twenty-five premium original titles to premiere across our lifestyle and factual networks, including eleven titles from Corus Studios, to air over the next broadcast year. With the strike ongoing, it's reasonable to expect there will be an impact to the timing of US scripted shows, which will affect competing streaming services as well as broadcast networks like Global. As such, Corus has been working hard with our US partners on a plan to give audiences a compelling lineup this fall, while also delivering viewers the roster of Canadian original content they've come to expect from us across our portfolio of networks.

How important are international formats to your overall content strategy? How do you keep the Canadian versions in line, quality-wise, with the original and foreign versions?

Justin Stockman (Bell Media): We pride ourselves on the collaborative working relationships we've developed with international partners. We're always looking to provide a Canadian spin that our viewers will connect with, while keeping the integrity of a franchise that fans around the world have come to love. This is why international format series do well for us and continue to be an important part of our overall original programming strategy.

For example, Drag Race format creators World of Wonder are co-producers on Canada's Drag Race, and RuPaul is executive producer. The Amazing Race Canada continues to be a bona fide hit, and although based on a successful format, it highlights so many distinctly Canadian stories that have resonated with viewers across the country for nine wonderful seasons. Farming for Love is based on Fremantle's long standing successful format The Farmer Wants A Wife, and we have worked closely with our partners at Fremantle and Lark Productions on recreating the format for the Canadian market. Looking ahead, another series we are beyond excited to bring to Canada are the English and French versions of The Traitors, with The Traitors: Canada beginning production very soon and set to anchor CTV's fall schedule.

Sally Catto (CBC): We're very thoughtful about how we stay within the confines and the rules of the format, but absolutely make sure that we are doing it in a way that is true to Canada and reflects Canadians. Family Feud Canada is a great example. We've really scoured the country to make sure we're finding families that really reflect not only regions from across Canada, but also from different cultural backgrounds. Even on our sets, we're reflecting Canada. We have Canadian hosts. In every aspect of the production, we are very mindful about how to make sure it will speak to our audiences.

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Sally Catto, General Manager, Entertainment, Factual and Sports, CBC

Lisa Godfrey (Corus): We are deliberate with the formats we choose to focus on, and have continually delivered formats that are ratings drivers and have huge audience engagement across the country. Big Brother Canada, Top Chef Canada and ET Canada are the three series that we invest in. That investment has translated into elevated Canadian versions of these brands – you don't have to look any further than social to see the online engagement pointing to Canada doing some of the strongest versions of these shows. We just announced new seasons of Big Brother Canada and Top Chef Canada at our upfront, and we're excited to deliver audiences more episodes of these shows.

What are the challenges in programming shorter-form content versus TV-and-feature-length content? How important will content length be in the future in terms of both linear and on-demand programming?

Carlyn Klebuc (Bell Media): We're not looking for content that's delivered in any specific length. Our mandate is high-quality Canadian and Indigenous content that reflects all Canadians. Additionally, with Crave, we are not locked into standard linear run times which gives us added flexibility.

Barbara Williams (CBC): Audiences have a much broader interest in lots of different formats of their content. There's a huge interest in short form content that didn't used to be the case ten or twenty years ago. Sometimes Sally [Catto]'s team will commission short-form series for Gem with episodes that are ten or fifteen minutes long. They can be scripted or unscripted, but they don't feel obliged to stick to the traditional formats. Even more extreme, a program like Street Cents now shows up only on TikTok in very short-form bits of two minutes, and that's what that audience wants on that platform.

We take other things that might be done in a very traditional-first way, like BlackBerry as a feature film, and we think 'how else could that content be used, what other formats could it show up in, what other platforms might it be successful on'. BlackBerry was turned into a three-part TV series that is a bit different from the film, although it's all rooted in the same content. What we've learned as creators is that we need to be very wide and open in our thinking about what format matters for what, how is a format best suited to tell the story you're trying to tell and reach the audience you're trying to reach on the platform you're trying to be on, and there's lots of variety in that.

Lisa Godfrey (Corus): Corus pursues original content based on the best content ideas, with the ability to deliver content at various lengths across our suite of linear, on-demand and streaming platforms like STACKTV, from multi-episode scripted series like Robyn Hood on Global, short-form hosted segments on W Network, big reality formats like Big Brother Canada, and new lifestyle series like Bryan's All In.

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Lisa Godfrey, Senior Vice President of Original Programming and Corus Studios, Corus

How do you plan to maintain and increase accurate representation, diversity of voices, and inclusive storylines, both on-screen and behind the camera? How do co-productions figure into this strategy?

Justin Stockman (Bell Media): Amplifying diverse voices is at the core of our original programming strategy – more than forty-five percent of Bell Media's original projects for 2023/2024 are led by diverse community creatives, and with more announcements slated for the remainder of this year, this number will actually surpass fifty percent.

Co-productions are certainly attractive as they give us the opportunity to work with other broadcasters to reach broader and more diverse audiences, so it's definitely something we're looking to do more of. Little Bird is a great example where we worked in lockstep with our production partners at APTN to deliver Crave's first-ever original drama series. We also look forward to the upcoming Crave/APTN Indigenous-led original comedy series Don't Even from Amber-Sekowan Daniels, which just went into production. We're also excited about our upcoming original content slate that celebrates the diversity of Canada, with titles including Bria Mack Gets a Life from Sasha Leigh Henry, Late Bloomer, created by and starring Jasmeet Singh Raina, and the still-in-development Festivale, Canada's first bilingual anthology series in partnership with the Black Screen Office.

Sally Catto (CBC): That is something we think about every single day and in every decision that we make. We have made a number of changes internally within the CBC to our development and production teams to make sure that we have people involved in developing projects and being part of the decision-making process around projects that truly reflect the country, so part of it is internal. We've made a number of commitments that we are standing by, [like] our commitment that we've already made in 2021 that requires at least thirty percent of all key creative roles on new CBC original scripted and unscripted series commissioned from independent producers must be held by those who self-identify as Indigenous, Black and/or people of colour, or persons with disabilities. We really need to support our new talent in this country, and to guide them and work with them as they rise up in the industry, so it's twofold. We're really excited about our slate this year and you can see it through Bones of Crows, Black Life, Allegiance, One More Time and Bollywed. We really are making the effort. It's essential for us.

Lisa Godfrey (Corus): As broadcasters, we have a responsibility to commission content and stories that reflect all Canadians, and Corus is committed to taking the necessary steps to ensure representation is a reality within our stories. We are proud to have titles as part of our Corus Studios slate including Hoarder House Flippers, Gut Job, Styled, Deadman's Curse, Fire Masters and The Big Bake that underscore our continued commitment to showcasing diversity in front of and behind the camera. History Canada spotlights a diversity of under-represented voices with its slate of six new and returning factual and documentary titles this year, including True Story, Our War, Sounds Black, Deadman's Curse, and Backroad Truckers. We're also looking forward to new scripted series Robyn Hood, debuting this fall on Global.

Cameron Archer
Cameron is a freelance writer currently based in Central Ontario. He contributed to the website TV, eh? from 2012 to 2013, and to the Writers Guild of Canada's print magazine Canadian Screenwriter from 2011 to 2020. As a regular fixture of Canadian Screenwriter's W File section, he interviewed screenwriters and showrunners including Floyd Kane (Diggstown), Evany Rosen and Kayla Lorette (New Eden), Marsha Greene (Mary Kills People) and Sami Khan (Transplant). Cameron has a Bachelor of Arts, Film Studies from Carleton University, and is always interested in Canadian television/media history.
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