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Are U.S. networks messing with our shows? by Gayle MacDonald

May 1, 2008

Source : Globe & Mail

Last summer, CTV, Canada's ratings leader, took an unusual risk in commercial Canadian television.

It gave the green light to not one, but four big-budget dramatic pilots - one about a telepathic young paramedic called The Listener; one about an elite cop squad titled Flashpoint; a family mystery set in Alberta called Sabbatical; and Sold, a frothy drama about the wheeling-dealing world of Toronto real estate.

The first two were picked up as 13-part episodic dramas; shooting is now under way in Toronto on Pink Sky/Avamar Entertainment's Flashpoint, and kicks off in June on The Listener, from Shaftesbury Films. More exciting for both shows' producers, however, is the fact that the slick, polished pilots (made for more than $2-million each) so impressed two U.S. networks that CBS and NBC bought the U.S. rights during the writers strike in January to broadcast the pair of Canadian-made dramas.

Both are landmark deals that have not occurred since 1994, when CBS partnered with Alliance Communications to simulcast in prime time the popular Mountie show Due South.

But no sooner had the ink dried on the licence agreements, when many in the close-knit production industry began to twitter that creative friction between the various factions would be inevitable. With so many cooks in the kitchen, Shaftesbury's Christina Jennings, Pink Sky's Anne Marie La Traverse and Avamar's Bill Mustos, admit that they, too, worried it would get tricky keeping all the parties - in this ego-ridden business - happy.

So far, however, so good. Both producers say while the U.S.-Canadian partnership is definitely more complicated and more intense than a show with just one master, it has been productive and relatively stress-free.

"Sure it feels like we need to be in three places at the same time, 24 hours a day," says Mustos, CTV's former head of dramatic programming. "And there's no question it's more complicated than when you're just doing a show for a Canadian network. But I have to say it's been surprisingly smooth to date. And I believe that's because Anne Marie and I have a very clear vision of the show, which we sold to CTV first and, within a matter of weeks, to CBS.

"Both those networks are really buying into that vision. They both want the same show. Having worked on the network side [at CTV] - and been involved in a show where there is a U.S. cable network - it can be tough because often the cable channel can have a very different audience in mind. And a very different set of needs for the creative. With Flashpoint, we're talking about two networks with the same commercial and creative taste."

At Shaftesbury, Jennings agrees that while she clears everything with CTV (first) and NBC (second), the Americans haven't been pushy.

"Shaftesbury sold the series to NBC and to CTV. In this model, we're considered the studio. CTV put up the lion's share of the money, and NBC and Shaftesbury are bringing in the rest. ... We sit in the middle.

"We are making sure that CTV's interests are represented. They are the lead broadcaster and we go to them first for comments on scripts, the directors, hiring of all the key crew. NBC has those same approvals. We have to talk to all of them. ... And what's what I stickhandle."

La Traverse is emphatic that Flashpoint is, first and foremost, a CTV show. "CTV is the primary network, and we've been sending our scripts to both networks at the same time," she says. "We've been getting very quick response from both networks, who usually get back to us in the next day or two. About nine or 10 CBS employees work on our show on the creative side, but they speak with one voice. ... Our opinion is that if the networks' notes are constructive, it's like having more brains."

While the working relationships may so far be amiable, Jennings, Mustos and La Traverse all readily admit that they feel pressure, on a daily basis, to make sure The Listener and Flashpoint perform well in the United States, the world's toughest TV market. Not to mention, the most fickle and cutthroat.

"A lot is riding on this," Jennings says. "But if we succeed in the States, the door will be open to more Canadian producers to pitch their shows there.

"We were going for the gold ring. We set our sights high. This is a Canadian series, set in a Canadian city, that is fully recognized as a Canadian city. We're not going to have to worry about making Toronto look generic. It is new ground. And in the case of NBC, they're embracing it. Sure, the [writers] strike helped, but NBC made it clear more of the shows it wants to license are going to be partnerships"

Mustos said that, like The Listener, their pilot for Flashpoint - shot over 10 days last July - features Toronto very prominently. "When we went to L.A. to pitch the series," La Traverse adds, "CBS said to us that they actually like the idea of a fresh locale for one of their series.

"Most Americans know of Toronto, some have visited. It was close enough to home [for a U.S. audience] that it feels accessible and relatable. At the same time, CBS felt the pilot had a slightly exotic quality to it because it's across the border. From a place of respect, CBS knew the show was specifically designed and modelled after the real Toronto. We want to show Toronto as this big, sophisticated, urban market that is glamorous. The way the CSI shows portray Miami and New York."

Each week, a guest star will be pushed to the "flashpoint," the point at which things go terribly wrong. Asked whether the guest stars will always be Canadian, Mustos responded carefully. "We have stated our preference that everybody be Canadian. So far, everyone is happy with that. No one has suggested that it isn't a good idea. We would like to be able to showcase a purely Canadian show. And we haven't had a conversation otherwise."

CBS will simulcast Flashpoint with CTV, beginning Friday, July 11 (10 to 11 p.m. ET). NBC has scheduled The Listener to air in the summer of 2009, on Thursdays at 10 p.m.

Last week, Shaftesbury also announced that it has signed an overseas distribution deal for The Listener with ShineReveille International. Fox International will retain cable and satellite rights to the show in Europe, Latin America, Asia and the Middle East.

Germany's Tele Muenchen Gruppe and Los Angeles-based Alchemy Television have teamed up to handle international distribution (excluding North America) of Flashpoint.

La Traverse says that having the "privilege of being able to make a pilot" was an "incredible gift. It's not something we've done in this country and it has really helped us sharpen the vision for Flashpoint."

Jennings agrees that the pilot for The Listener was an "incredible sales tool for selling distributors in the international marketplace." She adds that partnering with Shaftesbury and CTV represents a win for NBC, "who won't have to put up all the money to get a good show. It works for everyone."

Mustos is also convinced that Flashpoint is a "really good fit" for CBS.

"They kept telling us we were in their 'wheelhouse,' " he chuckles. "Anne Marie and I don't really know what that means. But we guess it's a good thing."

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