Canadian Upfronts ’24: A Retrenching Moment?

Canadian television and digital media in 2023-24 saw the Writers Guild of America strike rejig Canadian broadcast and streaming plans, while the eventually averted threat of a Writers Guild of Canada strike threatened to rejig 2024-25 as well. Amid the streaming market maturing, a main question this year is how to navigate a video media landscape where the ad dollars and attention both move along with the audience. Canadian media executives at Bell Media, CBC, and Corus Entertainment talk to Now & Next through a series of interviews about their English-language strategies in both existing and emerging platforms for 2024-25.

Rogers Sports and Media was not available to contribute to this article.

What do you currently look for from Canadian creators? What importance do the markets both in and outside of Canada play in what you green light, particularly as regards co-productions and pre-sales?

Carlyn Klebuc, General Manager of Original Programming, Bell Media: We're looking for stories that resonate with Canadians, with unique Canadian stories and a Canadian perspective. It's important for us that those stories resonate with our Canadian viewers, but we want them to travel as well to markets outside of Canada. We commission for Canadian audiences first, with a view to having them travel internationally. There's momentum and interest in Canadian content in the global market, and we continue to expand collaborative working relationships with international partners such as World of Wonder who we produce Canada's Drag Race, Canada's Drag Race: Canada vs. the World and Slaycation with.

US rights for some of our key Crave Original series were picked up by Hulu (Letterkenny, Shoresy) and PBS (Little Bird), while the hit CTV Original Sullivan's Crossing is available on The CW. We also teamed up with Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation (NRK) on the international co-production So Long, Marianne, which comes to Crave later this year.

Carlyn Klebuc
Carlyn Klebuc, General Manager of Original Programming, Bell Media

Justin Stockman, Vice President, Content Development & Programming, Bell Media: The CW shows (such as Sullivan's Crossing), those are more a sale where we're able to sell shows that we finance, they come in and for subsequent seasons there might be more involvement, but they're still led by us.

Sally Catto, General Manager, Entertainment, Factual and Sports, CBC: Our focus is on telling Canadian stories to Canadians. We don't commission series by prioritizing an international audience. We want to speak to Canadians and tell stories by Canadians. Having said that, all of our shows, certainly in scripted, require a partner to be fully financed. We don't finance any of our series a hundred percent on our own, so often our shows have to resonate with audiences in another country in order to have a foreign financing partner actually come on board and allow the series to be produced in its entirety. Many of our stories have a universal appeal, about issues and characters and themes that will resonate outside Canada.

Rachel Nelson, Vice President, Original Programming and Head of Corus Studios, Corus: Corus continues to look for original Canadian content that aligns with our channels, enhances our programming lineup, and drives domestic audiences. Ongoing collaboration with our independent production partners ensures we deliver premium original programming to our channels, whether it’s scripted procedural series or lifestyle series, and documentaries in the unscripted space. As our programming needs to evolve, we are looking to partner-led commissioning which includes co-production models. This is a strategy that we have done over the years both as co-ventures with the US or in partnership once the show is made.

Rachel Nelson
Rachel Nelson, Vice President, Original Programming and Head of Corus Studios, Corus

How do you plan to build up your free ad-supported streaming television (FAST) channel strategy in terms of original content?

Justin Stockman (Bell Media): With FAST right now, there are some originals out there, Highway Thru Hell and some of our other Discovery originals, the Mary Berg series we've done, there's an entire Corner Gas channel. We're dipping a toe in FAST, and we know this is a growing market, but it's still nascent and everyone in the FAST business will tell you that. We think it's the future but it's not necessarily the present. We're being prudent about how we lead in. We're not going to be commissioning expensive originals specifically for FAST at this point, but we're figuring out where FAST fits into our overall windowing strategy. As FAST grows, it'll probably move up in that windowing strategy cycle.

Most of the Crave Originals we reserve for Crave because we obviously want subscribers to get value when they subscribe to Crave. Could I see a future where we're doing FAST originals? Maybe, I just think the audience would have to grow more for that. We would be open potentially to taking some of our Crave originals that would be older that we could then put into FAST if we feel like the value has been achieved from subscribers, but we haven't decided to do that yet. The Corner Gas channel is doing quite well, and it's a great way we can access a library we have the rights to, and it can find a new audience in a new space.

Barbara Williams, Executive Vice President, CBC: The streaming strategy on the entertainment side is actually an opportunity not to create new content but to deliver existing content in a place that people might find it that they otherwise wouldn't. We have a CBC Comedy streaming channel that is a collection of all the best of CBC comedy, and that's up on Roku and LG and Samsung and on Gem so that lots of people can find that content if they didn't in the traditional ways. On the news side where we have launched a couple of streaming channels and we're about to launch twelve more, it's about “how do we take the morning radio program and turn it into a visual experience to put it onto a streaming channel? How do we take the live breaking news that might only be on a lunchtime news program and put it also on the streaming channel?” So much CBC content is only in one place for one audience and we're trying to make as much CBC content as possible available in more places for more audiences, so that we have a better chance of more people connecting with our content.

Barbara Williams
Barbara Williams, Executive Vice President, CBC

Troy Reeb, Co-Chief Executive Officer, Corus: Whenever we commission original content we always look towards the needs of our platforms across linear, streaming and FAST through our partnership with Pluto TV. Corus provides a robust library of Canadian content to Pluto TV, with branded FAST channels such as Leave It to Bryan and Income Property, allowing audiences to engage with our storytelling wherever and whenever they are watching.

What is your current strategy in the children's and youth genres, in terms of reaching screens where they are and engaging with the relevant audiences?

Justin Stockman (Bell Media): On the English side, we have some youth services, and we do have some original content that might skew a little younger. We haven't ever played actively in the kids' space in English except with our kids' collection on Crave where we obviously have a great selection of family movies, and we have picked up some series. We have a little bit more in French. As far as originals go, we're not doing a lot there.

Sally Catto (CBC): Our children's strategy definitely prioritizes preschool programming. Certainly, that is more of a linear play for weekday mornings and on Gem. We do have school-age content. Some of it is acquired, some of it is original. I think what's exciting in the kids' area right now is the work that our team is doing with our kids' news because that is kind of our original short-form content that we know a lot of schools are using, that kids are accessing.

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

Troy Reeb (Corus): We’re proud that Corus’ kids’ networks account for over ninety percent of kids’ specialty viewing in Canada, with Treehouse as the number-one overall kids’ specialty network with kids 2-5, and YTV is the number-one commercial kids specialty network with kids 2-5 and kids 6-11. All content from our kids’ networks is available to stream on STACKTV, and Canadians can stream their favourite kids’ shows on TELETOON+ anytime, anywhere, commercial- free with episodes fully downloadable. We are pleased to work with both our own children’s studio Nelvana as well as independent producers to commission content for both our networks, and short-form platforms like YouTube.

How challenging is it to deliver content in an increasingly fragmented media landscape?

Justin Stockman (Bell Media): I think Bell Media is well-positioned. We have so many different assets, whether it's our streaming platform, our specialty channels, our over-the-air networks, FAST, our [CTV] AVOD. Whether we're acquiring or commissioning, we're trying to think about where to put things first or if we're putting things in multiple places at the same time where we will maximize the opportunity for audiences to find the content. Fragmented audiences are a fact, but we're trying to use it to our advantage because we have something available in almost all these different places. Even though audiences are shrinking in traditional spaces, they're growing in digital spaces, so we're trying to look at the overall audiences and how we can capture the same number of eyeballs we did before or more. We have to put things in a few places now to get to them.

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

Barb Williams (CBC): I think the hardest part is actually getting people to discover your content and to find it. The challenge is really in the marketing of the content. We still have so many great creators that are pitching their projects to us and we have lots of great ideas coming our way, so there's lots of great content to make and we're trying to make as much of it as we can. The challenge is to be sure that, in the noise of a very fragmented market that you're cutting through, that you're somehow getting through to people that there is some content that we think they would enjoy if they only could find it. I think the biggest challenge in a very fragmented market is the marketing of content and to make sure people can discover it.

Troy Reeb (Corus): Corus reaches engaged audiences and builds fandom through our unparalleled content portfolio, boasting 25,000 hours of first-run original premiering content every year, rivalling any major streamer. We deliver that roster of premium content across our dynamic streaming portfolio through maximized streaming rights for STACKTV and the Global TV app and connecting with audiences through the Global News OTT channels, TELETOON+ and Pluto TV.

Troy Reeb
Troy Reeb, Co-Chief Executive Officer, Corus

What roles do you see artificial intelligence play in your present and future content strategies?

Justin Stockman (Bell Media): In our apps, we still have humans curating a lot of the collections, and we have great programmers who really understand the content and come up with interesting ways to surface library content that viewers or subscribers might have forgotten about. We also do have tools in our apps in Crave. There will be collections that are selected for you, and those are actually generated by AI using your own behaviour in the app previously. We're trying to bridge both where there is a use for this type of technology, but at the same time, we haven't found that it can replace the value of our programmers who understand our audience and can surface things that maybe AI wouldn't think about. As far as the creative space, we haven't bridged that yet, and most of the producers we're working with are still using a fully human production crew for everything. App curation is the one place I've seen it.

Barb Williams (CBC): I think we're being responsible. That's the first word I would use around any of the AI experimenting that we're doing. We, like all organizations, are acknowledging that AI is going to be a force but it's about understanding its role, experimenting with it carefully, being clear with audiences if content is being generated by AI in some way so that we're not fooling anyone into thinking that this content is made by a person, if in fact it's made through an AI platform.

On the entertainment side, we're not touching AI at the moment. There's no content being created, no scripts being written, no characters being created. On the news side, we are experimenting carefully with the possibility of some AI influence, with the number one thing being that we're always being totally upfront with audiences.

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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