Introducing the Canadian originals

While Canada's spring upfronts often emphasize broadcasters' prime-time U.S. acquisitions, their original series present unique opportunities.

This article appears in the Summer 2016 issue of strategy.


If you’re playing a millennial drinking game, prepare to take some shots. After going more general with its programming to match the audience that came along with the NHL hockey rights two years ago, Rogers Media is looking to reach a younger crowd with its City schedule this fall, according to execs at its upfront presentation.

That strategy is evident through two original programs: Second Jen and Nirvanna The Band The Show (pictured above).

Colette Watson, VP of broadcast and TV operations at Rogers Media, said the company purposefully put in short season orders for the new originals, picking shows with between six and 12 episodes to create the destination TV element that keeps viewers tuning in because of the tighter storylines.

The new show most honed in on millennials is Second Jen. The 30-minute comedy created by and starring Samantha Wan is about two second-generation millennials (Chinese-Canadian and Filipino-Canadian) who move into a rundown triplex to prove to their families, and to themselves, that they can make it on their own.

The show is taking a different tack, running online first and moving to broadcast later in the fall, on Thursday nights at 8:30 p.m. when NFL games have wrapped on the channel. It is also set to air on OMNI.

Hayden Mindell, Rogers Media’s VP of television and content, says the online-first strategy for Second Jen is similar to the one that The Mindy Project takes in the U.S., with the buzz on Hulu leading to bigger audiences for the show on City.

The digital launch strategy also opens doors to more integrated brand opportunities. Janice Smith, VP of media sales at Rogers Media, says integrations into the show range from behind-the-scenes access on digital and TV to product and script integrations and long-form vignettes.

Also aiming for that coveted millennial audience is Nirvanna The Band The Show, which is being jointly produced by City and the millennial-focused Viceland. The show originated as a Toronto-based web series that ended in 2009, and was created by The Dirties’ Matt Johnson and Jay McCarrol. It follows an indie band that’s trying to find success in the Toronto music scene, and will air in City’s Sunday night block of younger-focused programming, which also includes Family Guy and Last Man on Earth.

letterkennyBell Media

If Bell Media’s programming strategy is any indication of the content millennials want, the conclusion would be that they want it short, they want it funny, and they want it now.

During its upfront, Bell announced Pier 21′s The Beaverton, a half-hour satirical news show with a media twist. Not only will the Canadian-produced show air on traditional TV via The Comedy Network, but also as bite-size, real-time content on Bell’s new mobile app, called Snackable TV.

Randy Lennox, Bell’s newly appointed president of entertainment production and broadcasting, said The Beaverton is one of the best examples of the company’s new “content knows no boundaries” approach. The series is being released as a mobile-first product, a marked break from the past, when it would have most likely gone straight to TV, with mobile as an afterthought.

“If there’s an [incident] that happens on a Wednesday night in Vancouver, we want to echo that online within 24 hours with The Beaverton, not the following September on television,” he said. “It’s what I call ‘real time echoing.’”

“The notion that we have a digital strategy around real-time news and comedy is really important to us.”

Not only is the broadcaster going short and comedic on digital, it’s also keeping things brief for millennial attention spans on air. The shiny new jewel of its original comedy line-up, Russell Peters is the Indian Detective, was ordered as a four-part fish-out-of-water series for CTV and Bell’s VOD platform CraveTV. It’s also not the first short-order series for Bell: the fast-paced, dialogue-packed Letterkenny (pictured) previously launched on Crave as a six-episode series.

Lennox argues that the recent rash of short-order TV seasons is less about mitigating risk – as some broadcasters have framed it – and more about meeting viewer tolerance and keeping programming “A-plus.”

Short-order series were also a priority for Bell Media’s originals for a more general audience, with three of the five new scripted shows coming to the media co’s channels next year – Cardinal, The Disappearance and Frontier – all six-episode dramas.

Created by Rob and Peter Blackie, Frontier is a series for Discovery that was green-lit last November, alongside a deal that saw Netflix board the series for its international markets. Starring Game of Thrones‘ Jason Momoa, it’s about the struggle to control wealth and power in the late 18th-century North American fur trade.

It’s produced by Take the Shot Productions (Republic of Doyle) and Factory Backwards, and directed by Brad Peyton (San Andreas).

CTV picked up The Disappearance, a serialized murder mystery drama that follows the disappearance of a young boy. The event series, executive produced by Joanne Forgues and Jean-Marc Casanova of Productions Casablanca (Les invincibles, Série noire), will begin shooting in 4k this fall around the Montreal area and will air mid-season.

Bowing mid-season on CTV, six-part one-hour crime drama Cardinal, starring Billy Campbell (Bram Stoker’s Dracula) and Karinne Vanasse (Midnight in Paris, Polytechnique), is based on the book Forty Words for Sorrow from the John Cardinal Mysteries series by Ontario author Giles Blunt. The show is executive produced by Aubrey Nealon (Orphan Black, Saving Hope).

CarolineCorus Entertainment

Global Television might give CBC a run for its money on Canadian stories if Barbara Williams, EVP and COO at Corus Entertainment, has her way. She says her team has selected a slate of original dramas for Global that reflect conversations going on in Canadian homes and reach its core demo of adults 25 to 54.

Williams has timed the new shows, Mary Kills People and Ransom, which she describes as “ripped from the headlines,” to go live mid-season so as to catch the attention of viewers otherwise distracted by the new U.S. shows in the fall.

Mary Kills People, starring Hannibal‘s Caroline Dhavernas (pictured right), is a six-episode series that follows a single mother and emergency doctor who moonlights as an angel of death for terminally ill patients. The show is executive produced by Tassie Cameron (Rookie Blue) and written by newcomer Tara Armstrong, a winner of the 2015 Shaw Media Writer’s Apprentice Program.

Suspense drama Ransom stars Game of Thrones‘ Luke Roberts, and tells the story of real-life crisis negotiators Laurent Combalbert and Marwan Mery, who help government agencies and multinational corporations resolve conflicts. The 13-episode series is co-created by David Vainola (Diamonds, Combat Hospital) and executive produced by Emmy nominated screenwriter Frank Spotnitz (The X-Files, The Man in the High Castle).

“Both Mary Kills People and Ransom are good examples of why we love making Canadian dramas,” says Williams. “They allow us to craft powerful stories that resonate with Canadian audiences in a timely way. The right to die, the dilemma to pay a ransom or not, these are topics making headlines and on the minds of audiences right now.”

Soulpepper's Kim's ConvenienceCBC

From a Korean immigrant family (Kim’s Convenience, pictured left) to Mennonites in the drug trade (Pure) to student life on the West Coast (This is High School), the CBC has also ordered a slate of original series that reflect the country in all its diverse glory, but at a much more granular level.

In a broadcast climate on the brink of deep re-examination, EVP of English services Heather Conway was quick to emphasize the CBC’s still-gestating new programming strategy as one committed to telling Canadian stories in ambitious formats.

“What you’re seeing is a commitment to Canadian creators, a willingness to take more creative risks, a recognition that our distinctiveness and our relevance is around our Canadian-ness,” she said at the pubcaster’s upfronts. “I think sometimes people forget [that with] a broadcaster, the word broad actually means something.”

Based on the award-winning play of the same name from Ins Choi, Kim’s Convenience (from Thunderbird Films, in association with Soulpepper Theatre Company) is the story of a Korean-Canadian family running a convenience store in Toronto. It’s nestled in the CBC comedy block between This Hour and Mr. D, also airing opposite a drama-heavy slate on Tuesday night at 9 p.m., with new relationship drama This is Us on CTV and Bull on Global.

Targeting mothers is Workin’ Moms, a brash, 13-episode mid-season comedy from Groundlings improv group and Black-ish star graduate Catherine Reitman. The half-hour series from Wolf & Rabbit Entertainment begins production in August and will feature four mothers juggling jobs, families and life.

This is High School, a new unscripted series from Paperny Entertainment (The Boneyard, Carver Kings), is about life in a B.C. high school. Fortuitously, the new teen reality show will get Heartland as a lead-in on Sunday nights at 8 p.m.

Pure, from Big Motion Pictures (Trudeau), is a six-episode scripted miniseries about a Mennonite mob in the drug trade.

CBC also has a new, unnamed daytime lifestyle show. Steven and Chris‘ Steven Sabados and Canada’s Smartest Person‘s Jessi Cruickshank will host, with others to be announced before the Oct. 3 premiere.

With files from Katie Bailey