In Canada, where the thirst for content is truly unquenchable, independent distributors play a key role.

Take The Handmaid’s Tale, set to return for a second season in April. Here was a Hulu original shot in and around Toronto and based on a cherished novel by revered Canadian author Margaret Atwood.

When the series was shopped around at MIPCOM in October of 2016, Chris Ottinger — president, Worldwide Television Sales and Acquisitions, MGM Studios — had no doubt he’d have strong interest from Canadian broadcasters. Surprisingly, however, a deal took several months to close.

In the words of one Canadian network executive, “times have changed.” Network buyers must now face competition from counterparts both foreign and domestic, as well as from streaming services such as Amazon and Netflix.

For Mike Cosentino, president of Content and Programming for Bell Media’s suite of broadcast and specialty channels, the challenge today in acquisitions is not just fending off rival buyers, but also finding the best fit for a series among a growing stable of options. At Bell, The Handmaid’s Tale found the perfect home on its Canadian specialty network Bravo, as well as streaming service, CraveTV.

“I described it internally as a turnaround show at Bravo,” said Cosentino, who resisted internal calls to place it on the main CTV network. “That show was the first brick in the new foundation of Bravo’s schedule.”

It didn’t hurt, of course, that The Handmaid’s Tale went on to win the coveted Outstanding Drama Series prize at the Emmy Awards, a distinction that helped spike subscriptions for CraveTV.

Little wonder then that Cosentino and others in Canada — including rival private media companies Corus Entertainment and Rogers Media, as well as public broadcaster CBC — are increasingly looking at independent distributors to provide the next jolt to their schedules, seemingly with the message, “Canada is closer than you think.”

And they’re not just looking south of the border. Bell Media recently licensed Hard Sun, a pre-apocalyptic crime series set in contemporary London, scheduled to launch early this year on Bravo, and eventually CraveTV. The six-episode series, written by Luther creator Neil Cross, stars Jim Sturgess (Across the Universe) and Agyness Deyn (Sunset Song) as police partners who stumble on a terrible secret — that the world is facing certain destruction within the next five years.

Hard Sun is produced by Euston Films and distributed by FremantleMedia International. Amazon also has it, but Bell managed to carve out the Canadian rights. The series will also be seen on the BBC in the U.K., on ZDF in Germany, and on Hulu in the U.S.

Bell Media previously licensed the FremantleMedia drama Deutschland 83 — the first original German-language drama broadcast on American TV — for CraveTV. They’ve also acquired the highly anticipated re-imagining of Picnic at Hanging Rock, an Australian drama also from Fremantle and licensed outside Canada by Amazon. British actress Natalie Dormer (Game of Thrones) stars.

Cosentino said he looks to super indies such as MGM and Endemol Shine when searching for product for Bell’s many cable/specialty channels. They include Bravo, Comedy, MTV, Much, Gusto and Space.

With the success of The Handmaid’s Tale, another series of interest to Bell was Top of the Lake, also starring Elisabeth Moss. In Canada however, that series was eventually licensed by public broadcaster CBC, which acquired it, along with the sequel, Top of the Lake: China Girl, from BBC Worldwide.

“We’re mandated to offer Canadians a unique viewing experience, and thus less inclined to pick up U.S. content,” said CBC’s senior director, Acquisitions, Jenna Bourdeau. Unlike at Canada’s private broadcasters, acquisitions at CBC account for a small fraction of overall programming. Still, Bourdeau has to provide content across several linear and non-linear platforms in a wide range of genres, including children’s, news, sports, documentary, and unscripted.

When she does seek to acquire scripted content, Bourdeau tends to look at U.K. and, on occasion, Australian providers. Besides Top of the Lake, recent CBC acquisitions include The Loch (from distributor ITV), The Durrells (BBC Worldwide), and The Great British Baking Show (Love Productions, distributed by Sky Vision). In addition, old, reliable Coronation Street (BBC) has been a staple of CBC’s early prime schedule for decades.

Said Bourdeau, “We also remain open to experimenting with acquired foreign-language programming on our OTT service, where we can offer a curated selection of additional content.”

At Corus Entertainment — home to Canada’s largest portfolio of specialty services — buyers have cast a wide net among worldwide distributors for years. Senior vice president, Global Entertainment & Content Acquisitions, Maria Hale counts on independent sources to fill schedules for Corus’ stable of 45 specialty brands.

She pointed to deals with Lionsgate to license Nashville for Corus’ female-skewing W Network, as well as the pick-up of Worst Cooks in America from All3media, shown on Food Network Canada.

Among Corus’ key specialty networks are several children’s platforms, including the pre-school service Treehouse. That’s where Canadian tots find The Wiggles, licensed from ABC Commercial of Australia.

In addition, Endemol Shine provides Big Brother Canada, a format Hale describes as “our juggernaut.” The reality series continues to be a popular addition to Corus’ main broadcast network, Global, which also draws on content from eOne, MGM, ITV, Juma Productions, Alfred Haber Distribution and IMG Media.

Corus’ specialty channels find their lifestyle, drama and kids needs from some of these same distributors, as well as Scripps Networks, Crown Media, BBC Worldwide, A+E Networks, Zodiak Kids, TwoFour International, Electus International and Fremantle.

Tasked with finding the right content fit at Rogers Media is Hayden Mindell, vice president of Television Programming and Content. Rogers owns the City and OMNI Television networks, as well as Canada’s number one sports channel, Sportsnet. Other specialty services, such as OLN and G4, also fall under the Rogers banner.

“OMNI buys thousands of hours of programming a year from producers in India, China, Portugal, Pakistan and Italy,” said Mindell. Other major acquisitions include The Tunnel from Endemol Shine, Hell’s Kitchen from ITV and the number one show on City, America’s Got Talent, from Fremantle.

The Canadian specialty channel and on-demand movie service Hollywood Suite gets most of its European titles from the major studios. Co-founder and president David Kines said some content, however, is acquired from independent distributors. One such pick-up was a director profile series from Prime in Paris.

“The challenge we find with European distributors is that they don’t usually have the Canadian broadcast rights to films that we are interested in,” said Kines.

“We always prefer to deal with distributors who know and work within the Canadian market,” said Ellen Baine, Hollywood Suite’s vice president of Programming. “It makes my life much easier.”

As far as licensing fees were concerned, no one in Canada would talk prices. Proprietary, they claimed. Nobody wanted to surrender a competitive advantage, even though among themselves, prices are known. It is speculated that license fees have gone up as the OTTs got into the bidding process.

One Canadian buyer backed off American Gods once Amazon got involved because it was “out of their range,” reported an industry player. “American Gods was just not worth what it was going to take to pull that one in,” he added. According to some U.S. distributors, prices from indies (for non-simulcast shows) can reach the Canadian equivalent of U.S.$15,000 per hour.

(by Bill Brioux)

Bill Brioux, one of the leading voices on the Canadian media and television scene. Besides contributing weekly to The Canadian Press, his stories appear in The Toronto Star, Hello! Canada and Movie Entertainment magazine. His career began at the Canadian edition of TV Guide, where he served as Los Angeles bureau chief. Later, as a daily television columnist for The Toronto Sun, his humorous take on television garnered three consecutive Edward A. Dunlop Awards for critical writing.

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