Buyers forced to fly blind in LA

Thanks to the writers' strike, there'll be few completed pilots to view next week before Canadian broadcast strategists play Let's Make a Deal with the studio suppliers.

Buy what? That’s the question occupying Canadian broadcasters as they shift this week from the New York upfronts to Hollywood for Los Angeles screenings unlike any they’ve ever known.

They expect to view few pilots. Instead, it’ll be mostly presentation reels, trailers, scripts and pitches from series showrunners and writers before they play Let’s Make a Deal with their studio suppliers.

‘I don’t like to go behind door number two. I like a calculated risk,’ says CTV boss Susanne Boyce of the prospect of chasing, and possibly writing cheques for, new US series sight unseen. She concedes that pilots are not always indicative of an eventual series. Rival Canwest bought Bionic Woman last year for its E! channel on the strength of its buzz, but NBC eventually cancelled the rookie series.

But Boyce will trust her eyes more than her ears at a TV market in LA that promises to be more tonal than visual. ‘I like to make judgments based on the creative,’ she says. ‘It’s not better, but I feel more comfortable.’

That said, the business model of simulcasting means Canadians will inevitably have to buy new US shows next week without seeing them, and only a contingency plan that pilots will be seen some time in the future to gauge whether their creative works or not. The prospect of post-screenings with Hollywood suppliers in Toronto this summer or fall is being considered so finished pilots can be viewed.

‘It will be an evolving process where things will be picked up as Rogers, CTV and Canwest Global decide what they want,’ says Don Gaudet, GM of programming at Sun TV.

Canwest is similarly not expecting a full-court press in LA typical of past screenings. ‘We’re not going to screen very much,’ says EVP of content Barbara Williams. ‘We will not be watching hours and hours of television the way we traditionally have.’ That said, Williams insists her network will need to give as full a picture as possible to Canadian advertisers about the 2008/09 season for Global Television and E! so they can make decisions on advertising purchases.

Going into the annual TV bazaar, Canwest picked up five new NBC Universal series, including the Knight Rider remake, after NBC got a jump on its competition and unveiled its 2008/09 schedule in early April.

CTV’s Boyce says she passed on two NBC comedies, Kath and Kim and My Own Worst Enemy, two straight-to-series orders that landed with Canwest. Rogers Media, which will step up its game at the LA screenings this year to program its newly acquired five Citytv stations, picked up NBC’s Crusoe.

Complicating the buying decisions for the Canadians in LA is a series of six-episode orders, well short of the 13- or even 22-episode orders typical of past years. Why should Canadian networks wager on a rookie show if a US network is hedging its own bets with a six-episode order?

On the other side, package deals available to the Canadians via output deals are making buying decisions easier at the screenings. Canwest has already done bulk-buying with NBC Universal, and is expected to come away with a raft of product from CBS Paramount, 20th Century Fox and Sony Pictures Television when all the dealing and wheeling is done next week. Canadian ratings leader CTV will lean heavily on supply deals with Disney/ABC and Warner Bros.

Only CTV, Canwest and Rogers will receive individual presentations from the major studio suppliers. The rest of the Canadian contingent in Los Angeles will screen new series as part of the independents group.

From Playback Daily