On the MiC with Canwest’s Barb Williams: Striking writers, approaching upfronts – and what about the fall?

The ongoing writers' strike causes an interesting dilemma, not just a scary one, for broadcasters in Canada, says Canwest Broadcasting's SVP of programming and production.

Major US studios have now reportedly cancelled dozens of contracts with writers and producers due to the ongoing writers’ strike – giving lots of media a good reason to deem it a sign that the current television season can’t be saved. The picket lines south of the border still threaten to see the Academy Awards suffer next month – much like we all suffered watching the Golden Globes get pared down to a pitiful version of its former glamour.

As the strike and the potential for a lack of new pilots continue to raise questions about what will happen when the upfronts roll around, MiC attempted to get bigwigs at CTV and Global to talk about what plans are being prepared for the spring and fall. . . just in case this strike goes on and on and on some more.

CTV told us it may be premature to comment at this time, but CTV president of creative, content and channels Susanne Boyce provided this statement: ‘Our approach to the strike remains the same – to continue to plan for future scenarios, while acting quickly on opportunities for our viewers and advertisers. More than ever, the so-called television season is now a year-round endeavour, and our schedule reflects that, as evidenced by more than a dozen series launching on CTV over the next few months.’

Over at Global Television, Canwest Broadcasting SVP programming and production Barb Williams had more to say about issues related to the writers’ strike.

You must be watching the headlines daily as the writers’ strike continues. Are you concerned about the recent news that major studios have terminated deals with writers and producers?

Williams: ‘The fact that some of the development deals are being cancelled is not a big statement in itself. There’s a point of view that some of those are deals that the studios would have been happy to get out of anyway, and this is just a good excuse. When the writers’ strike ends, whenever that is, the good writers will be working again instantly.’

Do you think the upfronts in the US will be cancelled? What’s the likelihood that Canadian upfront presentations will happen if there turns out to be a lack of new pilots?

Williams: ‘I don’t know. Nobody knows. I think there is some talk now that we need to think about it maybe not happening in exactly the same way at exactly the same time as it always has – whether that means it might still happen later, or without as complete a known fall schedule as we have had in the past.

‘But as long as there’s television on the air – interesting, different television – I believe people will watch it, and advertisers will want to be there. So we may go at it a little differently, but I don’t think the business is in jeopardy.

‘If there aren’t pilots there in May, then we won’t do what we’ve traditionally done. But we’ll do something else. Maybe they’ll come a little bit later, or all at once. We’ll have to wait and see what there is. In some ways, it gives us all a shorter window. You worry about next week, but there’s not a lot of point worrying about May right now, because there’s not too much you can do about it. You just try to keep your eyes wide open and your ear to the ground.’

Is the writers’ strike causing Global to consider plans for fall TV – options such as more home-grown shows or prime-time programming sourced from the UK, for example?

Williams: ‘I would imagine all broadcasters are paying a little more attention to alternative programming than we would have at this time last year. It’s not that I think we have our heads in the sand or anything. It’s just hard to plan for something that you don’t know anything about.

‘It’s causing broadcasters in Canada and the US, and I’m sure around the world, to rethink their strategies. Many broadcasters around the world depend on American product – probably us more than anybody – but it is a worldwide story. In some ways, it’s forcing broadcasters to be a little more creative and far-reaching in their ideas.

‘And sometimes ‘far-reaching’ means looking closer to home, not farther away. All the broadcasters are looking at what this does as an opportunity for Canadian content – whether it will stand out more in the midst of less fresh American product. CBC is doing that, and we’re very excited about the launch of The Guard on January 22. It is possible that it will get additional sampling because it’s fresh content on TV, and there’s just not as much of that to compete with. So the strike causes an interesting dilemma, not just a scary dilemma.’

The strike has brought a lot of speculation in the media about whether audiences will drop if or when the scripted programming runs dry – and, in some cases, whether the effect of that drop will last longer than the effect of the strike itself. Are you worried about this?

Williams: ‘We’re not seeing that. In fact, Prison Break came back with new episodes this week, and it launched strongly, so we have a great run of Prison Break ahead. We are trying, in small ways, some different things than we would typically do, and they seem to be working too. Out of Prison Break, we ran a movie on Monday night that did extraordinarily well.

‘So I think people are still coming to their televisions, and when you give them interesting stuff to watch, they’ll watch it, even if it’s not exactly what they expected or would have had. As long as you give them interesting and fun entertainment, they’ll be there.’

Any new acquisitions to report?

Williams: ‘No, ha ha, I can’t hint at that stuff. But of course we’re doing our own due diligence on what some of the alternatives are and how we might use best them. And we’re seeing great success in the shows coming back this winter. The new Celebrity Apprentice is doing very well. Cashmere Mafia launched very strongly. We’re quite excited about the next run of Big Brother, as we think it will probably do very well in a winter run. And we have another season of Survivor coming back. There’s lots of great new television still, so I don’t think there is this sort of panic that we going to go to black.’