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Bell Media’s upcoming slate puts Canuck scripted originals back into primetime

Transplant from Sphere Media returns to CTV next season

Toronto-based broadcaster Bell Media is putting Canadian scripted originals – and lots of them – back in primetime for its 2022/23 broadcast season, with 10 new commissions for its main broadcast network CTV.

The broadcast group revealed the new shows at its Upfront presentation at the end of last week, alongside 12 new commissions for its SVoD service Crave.

After enduring two challenging years during the pandemic, coupled with one of the most shocking executive shake-ups in the history of Canadian broadcasting, the new programming team has finally been able to reveal its biggest slate of Canadian originals in years.

“We’ve been talking about this for a couple of years now – we really wanted to ramp up our Canadian slate,” said Justin Stockman, VP of content development and programming. “It takes longer than you’d hope but you’re starting to see the fruits of those labours this year.”

Justin Stockman

Historically, English-language Canadian content (aka Cancon) has been somewhat dwarfed by US programming, which has the benefit of more recognisable stars and much bigger production and marketing budgets. For that reason, Canada’s private broadcasters lean heavily on imported US programming to fill out their primetime schedules.

However, with shows like Bell Media’s comedy Letterkenny and CBC’s Schitt’s Creek and Kim’s Convenience making waves globally, the reputation of Canadian content is growing around the world.

With its new slate of originals for CTV, Bell Media execs said they want to begin placing more domestic programming in primetime alongside imported US fare.

“[These new shows] are going to be in primetime because we feel they are equal to any US show, and they have to compete,” said Pat DiVittorio, VP of programming, CTV and specialty.

Among the green lights for CTV are Sight Unseen, coproduced by Sisters Troubetzkoy Productions and Blink49 Studios, about a former homicide detective who, after losing her vision, is haunted by the unsolved cases she left behind.

The drama marks the first commission for Blink49 Studios, the Endeavor Content-backed outfit launched by former Entertainment One (eOne) TV head John Morayniss last year.

CTV also ordered eOne drama The Spencer Sisters, about a police officer who quits her job and ends up forming a private detective agency with her best-selling mystery-novelist mother, and Toronto-set workplace comedy Shelved (produced by Counterfeit Pictures) from Anthony Q Farrell.

Pat DiVittorio

Furthermore, the free-to-air network ordered drama Little Bird (Rezolution Pictures, APTN, OP Little Bird) and hour-long romantic drama Sullivan’s Crossing (Reel World Management in association with CTV and Fremantle).

That’s in addition to returning Canadian originals Children Ruin Everything (New Metric Media) and Transplant (Sphere Media).

Meanwhile, on the unscripted side, CTV ordered factual format adaptation Farming For Love (Lark Productions in collaboration with Fremantle, based on The Farmer Wants a Wife) and Cross Country Cake Off (Proper Television), an original competition series celebrating the creativity of Canadian cake makers.

Bell Media also took the rare step of commissioning a gameshow in the form of 20×60’ original quiz format Battle of the Generations (Bell Media Studios, Motion Content Group), which sees contestants from different generations battle it out to see who is more knowledgeable.

Canadian broadcasters have typically shied away from producing gameshows as they are not eligible to receive financing through the Canada Media Fund, a private/public agency that forms the financial backbone of Canadian content production.

However, the company is embracing experimentation and breaking with tradition this year to greenlight Battle of the Generations. Motion Content Group is a UK production company that is part of WPP-owned GroupM Entertainment.

The co-viewing show is “different than anything we’ve done, as far as I can remember,” said DiVittorio, with Stockman adding that the company found a business model that “made sense – otherwise we wouldn’t have done it.”

In years gone by, Canadian shows have sometimes attempted to look and feel American in order to attract broader domestic audiences and secure international sales. That is a practice that is far less common today than it was, with Stockman emphasising Canadian content is now core to Bell Media’s strategy.

“We’re not trying to disguise Canadian programming as American, which perhaps used to be the strategy at other networks for years, in order to meet their [programming] obligations. That’s not how we view Canadian [programming] now – it’s part of our business strategy,” he said.

Like many, Bell Media’s programming execs were in California last month for the LA Screenings, coming home with titles including CBS police drama East New York and ABC’s The Rookie spin-off The Rookie: Feds and Hilary Swank-led drama Alaska.

While much of the talk at the LA Screenings focused on there being less programming on offer than in prior years, Stockman said this was partly down to the fact that the delivery of some pilot episodes was delayed due to Covid-related factors. “We got a pretty good view of the pipeline and there’s a lot coming,” he said.

DiVittorio added that the “lines are less blurred” between traditional network shows and series created for SVoD platforms. “Network TV realised cable was coming and all these streaming services were overtaking, and they forgot who they were,” she said.

This was not the case at this year’s LA Screenings, with the networks introducing shows that felt like a return to their roots.

“People still tune in to a certain time slot. Yes, if they miss it there are opportunities [to catch up] on other platforms, but they tune in for the half-hour or the hour and then they can walk away. They’re there for that time and they know what to expect,” she said.

It’s been almost 18 months since a raft of Bell Media’s most long-tenured programming execs were let go as part of a sweeping restructuring of its programming department.

Following the departure of former president Randy Lennox, incoming head Wade Oosterman made sweeping changes. These resulted in the departures of president of content and programming Mike Cosentino, president of distribution and pay Tracey Pearce, senior VP of original programming Corrie Coe and VP of Bell Media Studios Nanci MacLean, among many others. Long-serving Bell Media execs Stockman and DiVittorio were elevated to new roles as a result of the restructure.

Under the new structure, the previously separate CTV and Crave programming teams became one.

“Having the content team in one group has been very beneficial to us. Part of the reason we’re able to clearly see each platform is because we work together under Justin [Stockman] and we all talk,” said DiVittorio.

“The team is smaller and we’re working together in a different way to make sure we’re really aligned in all of our strategies,” added Stockman.


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