It was weird attending the CTV upfront Thursday without mom and dad in the house. It felt like Egypt after Mubarak, Libya without Ghadaffi, Two and a Half Men sans Charlie Sheen. In other words, time to PAR-TAY!
Even minus power players Ivan Fecan and Susanne Boyce, CTV’s 2011 upfront felt like the biggest of this week’s three ad markets in Toronto. A great venue (The Sony Centre, same place Shaw had their shindig two days earlier, just tarted up LA chic), plenty of high priced imports (16 new series spread over CTV and CTV Two) and a Pan Am plane load of big name talent flown in for the annual ad schmooze (including Anderson Cooper, Christina Ricci, Debra Messing, Whitney Cummings, the four Big Bang supporting players).
Not that there weren’t any jitters in the joint. Every once in a while somebody with wavy white hair would be spotted in the crowded grand lobby and the blood would suddenly drain out of a publicist’s face. Then it would turn out to be just some dad there to pick up one of the teenage ad buyers, and it was straight back to the sliders and booze.
One veteran industry player used a phrase I hadn’t heard before to characterize the young ad industry crowd: “25/25/25.” In that they’re all 25 years old, handle $25 million in advertising accounts and make around $25,000 a year. So next time you’re wondering why there are so many rom-coms on the air about struggling twentysomethings and their hard-partying friends, think of the characters on those shows as ad buyers and it will all start to make sense.
|The Sony Centre gets a CTV makeover|
CTV kept their press conferences and their upfront presentation separate and that made life much easier for working scribes. The day began early, with a corporate breakfast up on the fifth floor boardroom of the old CHUM/City building on Queen St. West, CTV’s downtown bunker. In the old Moses days, the place smelled like an Alice Cooper concert. Nowadays it is a whole other trip. It was disorienting getting off the tiny elevator and stepping into this white-and-glass, antiseptic corporate environment. The hippie has been completely scrubbed out of the place.Critics who make the 8 a.m. breakfast got a hot plate of eggs and a chance to meet the top Bell brain trust. President Kevin Crull seems friendly and down to earth, like the dad with the BlackBerry you might sit next to at your kid’s soccer game. Last month was his first LA screenings and Thursday was his first upfront and the honeymoon is still on. Being a Bell guy, he sees things in platforms and amplification; shows on CTV Two next season, for example, will get the full marketing push over on CTV. That’s because, Crull explained, CTV has the bigger megaphone.
Like me, he really likes Smash, the mid-season Broadway-based drama starring Messing and American Idol sensation Katharine McPhee. He seems to like all his new imports, and that showed in the Thursday late afternoon upfront presentation. Crull worked that stage like it was Open Mike night and might still be there singing “Mammy” if programming president Phil King hadn’t bumped him off stage.
|None of these people are on the new CTV import Pan Am|
While Crull might be new to showbiz, he’s been quick to grasp showbiz math. PVR’s, he noted, count for less than 4% of total viewing in Canada (which has roughly a 32% PVR penetration, now just slightly behind the States). Social media, like Twitter and Facebook, are spiking first run broadcast numbers. TV is still about networks and new, timeslots and content.
Crull has some TV power players on his team. Rick Brace, a veteran of the TSN wars, runs CTV specialty. SVP programming Mike Cosentino is a holdover from the Fecan regime and ran the war room strategies leading into the LA screenings, targeting possible buys and mapping out half a dozen strategies depending on who broke what when on the U.S. scheduling side. If the Shaw team thought they were heading into LA with the more experienced buying bench, they were played. There’s every reason to believe persistent rumblings that they had their bell rung by Bell and were rogered by Rogers.
In any event, kudos to CTV for the bright idea of breakkie with the big wigs. I learned more about the business of television talking to sales head Rita Fabian for 10 minutes than I get out of most 90-minutes upfront presentations, including this interesting fact: upfronts in Canada, like our banking system, are far more conservative than they are in the States. The Can nets rake in about 30% of their annual ad tally this time of year, compared to the 75% or 80% Am nets declare. (Although, as Fabian explained, even that is a bit of a half truth due to quick cancellations and give-backs.)
|Pan Am fly girls Ricci, Robbie, Garner and Vanasse|
The breakfast was followed by a well organized series of press conferences with the talent CTV brought north. The four women who star in the new ‘60s stewardess series Pan Am all look ready for takeoff. Christina Ricci is just a wee thing, all big eyes and wide smile. The French Canadian in the cast, Karine Vanasse, is tres formidable.
Whitney Cummings (star of the new comedy Whitney) came out and gave us a taste of her frisky stand up shtick. Cummings blurted something about her “camel toe” and then wondered if that phrase was even used in Canada. I started to wander, thinking beaver might be more appropriate if a little ’70s. Other thoughts followed, but by the time I had zoned back into the session Cummings had goings.
Four members of the cast of The Big Bang Theory followed: Simon Hedberg, Kunal Nayyar, Melissa Rauch and Mayim Bialik. Bialik was asked by welcome press presence Eric Kohanik if it was tough getting her tongue around those physicist phrases. No, she replied, because she actually is a neuroscientist, obtaining her degree at UCLA after her early success as a teen on Blossom. You almost have to be a neuroscientist to get your head around that!
|Big Bang happy gang Helberg, Rauch, Nayyar and Bialik|
Spoke one-on-one with Nayyar later. Lovely man, very humble about his success. Asked him if he had gone out and splurged one something big like a Porsche with all his TV money. He laughed and said, “Yes…a Porsche!”
He also confirms co-star Kaley Cuoco (Penny) really did snap her leg at the start of last season, the result of a horse riding injury. No more horsing around for her.
|Hangin’ with Mr. Cooper|
Went one-on-one with Anderson Cooper later in the day. AC was in town to promote the pickup of his upcoming afternoon show Anderson. CTV has bumped Dr. Oz into Oprah’s old slot and put Anderson on at 5 p.m. next fall.
Smart, self effacing, he gives you ten genuine minutes. He looks like money, all Ivy League, and those blue peepers—they sear right through you. We talked about what makes a broadcaster, about Twitter and Royal Wedding, got some insight into CNN. When the wrap-it-up signal came from a publicist I apologised for not asking more about Anderson. “Nah, screw it,” he said with a handshake. Cool dude.
Later, he was just as impressive on stage at the upfront, winging it without a teleprompter.
The press half of the day went so well the actual upfront presentation seemed anticlimactic. The thousand or so ad kids in the auditorium may have been previewed out after three upfronts in four nights but, for whatever reason, the show clips were mostly met with nothing more than polite applause. While the programmers on stage boasted their new buys brought diversity to their schedule, aside from stand outs Pan Am, Smash and maybe Whitney, all I saw was repetition. Three big talent circus’s, Idol, X Factor and Saturday’s The Sing-Off, seemed like at least one too many. Fantasy hours Grimm and Once Upon a Time looked different, but there was one pilot starring Ally Walker as a LAPD detective I swear I saw in 1997. CTV has thrown the remake of Charlie’s Angels into a 7 p.m. slot, suggesting they doubt it has legs (although, as former Toronto Star critic Jim Bawden keeps reminding me, they were just as unsure at the launch of Desperate Housewives, sneaking it onto Sunday afternoons).
Mid-season soap C.G.B. has a great cast (Leslie Bibb, Kristin Chenoweth, Annie Potts) and looks like it could appeal to Housewives viewers.
There were no video “sorry I couldn’t be there in person” shout outs from Hollywood stars, no fun little film reel of network execs. Fecan and Boyce used to ham it up in the past, popping onto TV soundstages like Canadian tourists who wandered off the Universal Studio tour tram.
|Canada’s Least Trusted meets Canada’s Most Trusted|
The warmest greeting from the crowd was saved for the most trusted man in the room—CTV anchor Lloyd Robertson. After an incredible 60 years in TV news, he’s retiring Sept. 1, with Lisa Laflamme taking over Sept. 5. Robertson told me after the presentation that a documentary is in the works that may air prior to his Sept. 1 newscast.
Finally, I almost forget—Canadian content. CTV almost forgot about it too. Like Rogers and Shaw, scripted, Canadian-made comedy or drama is brazenly absent from their schedule. A fifth season of Flashpoint is penciled in for Tuesdays at 8 p.m. next season and that’s it for fall. Eighteen episodes have been ordered. Still to be determined, however, is whether CBS might still want in on that deal. If they walk, and a similar partner can’t be found, CTV’s dollars alone likely won’t stretch over that entire episode order, meaning less than 18 will be made, or Hugh Dillon will have to shoot Enrico Colantoni, or shoot two of the producers, three or four writers and a boom operator as well as the entire craft services team.
|Dan for Mayor’s Bates, Ewanuick, EP Paul Mather, Ayres and Ashton|
Beyond that, not a peep from the Sony stage about future Can-con. Not even Canadian crickets chirping. The casts of both Hiccups and Dan for Mayor, two long-delayed Canadian shows starting summer runs (Dan starts Sunday at 7:30, Hiccups returned last Monday), gamely worked the after party. Dan’s Fred Ewanuick, a big Canucks fan, had his playoff beard on. I did hear that a third season of The Listener goes into production in the fall but nobody seemed to know for sure when the three episodes still unseen from this season will air. Degrassi is cranking out another 44 episodes as a daily MuchMusic teen soap. Marilyn Denis was in the room and back on CTV’s fall morning and afternoon schedule.
|Hiccups Robertson, PR boss Henderson|
Here’s what else is back on CTV Two’s schedule this fall: The Littlest Hobo. Seriously. In 2011, back-to-back Hobo at 9. Monday to Friday. Talk about Dog-grassi.
Here’s the most sobering thing I heard at the CTV upfront: for three Tuesdays in a row this winter the network was doing surprisingly well with The Listener, pulling over a million a week despite a long lag between first run episodes. Then CBS suddenly decided to plug Flashpoint in where their mid-season hour CHAOS had failed. CTV, not wanting to miss a simulcast opportunity, followed suit, yanking new Listener episodes for Flashpoint.
And thus a Canadian show being added to an American schedule led to a Canadian show being taken off a Canadian schedule.
This is untenable. Before another upfront rolls around, the CRTC and the networks have to get this sorted out.