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Canada looks to sell its TV shows to the world at MIPCOM in Cannes


CANNES, France – Two weeks ago, a terrible storm whipped this Mediterranean seaside resort town. Several people drowned, cars were tossed sideways and power was cut throughout the south of France.

The storm struck right on the eve of MIPCOM, the annual international television marketplace, but the show did go on.

For the studio executives, producers and distributors — who made expensive investments in lavish pavilions, billboards and other marketing hoopla — it was just another sign that some things are beyond their control. The world can be turned upside down just like that.

Such is the state of the international TV business. There is a tsunami of change on the horizon and cool heads will be needed to navigate an uncertain future.

In many ways, Canada is at the centre of this storm.

There is a strong Canadian presence at MIPCOM, with pavilions representing both Canada and Quebec leaving large footprints on the floor of the multi-level convention centre. Popular shows such as “Murdoch Mysteries,” “Just for Laughs” and “Rookie Blue” are competing with the best the world has to offer. The new CBC drama “The Romeo Section” was hyped on a giant billboard right across from the marketplace.

Helping to champion these shows and Canadian television in general at MIPCOM was Valerie Creighton, president and CEO of the Canada Media Fund (CMF). The Saskatchewan-native is bullish on the Canadian TV industry.

“The perception at home, that it is a small business, isn’t accurate,” she says, pointing out that TV and film productions employ over twice as many Canadians as the banking industry.

The CMF’s main function is funding, but Creighton also embraces her role as a cheerleader. She feels her agency must “do something to take the story of what this sector is to the public.”

“What keeps me up at night,” she says, “is how to get good Canadian stories to be accessible and visible in this massive content market.”

This year at MIPCOM, the CMF mounted a campaign to promote two Canadian sci-fi shows: “Killjoys” and “Between.” Producers and cast members, including Aaron Ashmore (previously on “Smallville”), took questions at Cannes. According to Creighton, both series beat their respective station averages last season on Space and City. The two Ontario-based series head back into production later this year.

At MIPCOM, they were being sold as the type of escapist fare that a) connects with millennials and b) sells well internationally. Their success suggests the path for producers seeking berths on Canadian TV schedules may be to first conquer space and then conquer the world.

The CMF faces the same challenges the rest of the Canadian TV industry faces: how to survive in a world where consumers can leap past broadcasters and regulators by going straight to over-the-top content providers such as Netflix for content. Plus, what happens when the CRTC starts implementing plans to force the unbundling of specialty channels?

The CMF gets a third of its funding through the federal government and two-thirds mainly from the big five media companies: Shaw, Rogers, Cogeco, Quebecor and Bell. If some of their specialty channels disappear — as expected once pick ‘n’ pay kicks in — reduced funding levels may be part of the collateral damage.

Creighton feels new formulas will have to be envisioned in order to continue to support Canadian TV production.

“We will have to respond to whatever is happening in the market,” she says.

The CMF started shifting some of its revenue “envelopes” to digital productions five years ago. That move is paying dividends in international co-production and distribution agreements today, including a just-reached deal with New Zealand.

She also points to Netflix’s participation in “Between” as a game-changer. The series was originally commissioned by Rogers. Once that broadcast license was obtained, CMF funds were accessed. Netflix then got involved and ultimately partnered on the deal — the first time a foreign-owned, over-the-top content provider has teamed with a Canadian broadcaster.

It is a very “Between” deal. Netflix doesn’t pay tax and doesn’t contribute to Canadian funding agencies such as CMF. Rogers does. Creighton can live with the arrangement. She’s happy the “Between” producers get a bigger budget to tell stories she can help showcase to the world.

The bottom line, she says, is, “How are we going to finance these shows?”

The challenge for Creighton and others ahead will be to fit domestic funding strategies into what is becoming more and more a borderless business.

— Bill Brioux is a freelance TV columnist based in Brampton, Ont. While in Cannes, Brioux was a guest of Telefilm Canada.

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