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Canadian Invasion

With production costs sky-high and audience levels low, some in Hollywood are looking over the border for fresh Canadian programming they can acquire economically and then sell at reasonable prices.

This summer on Friday nights, CBS has programmed Flashpoint, a co-production of CBS and Canadian network CTV that is airing concurrently on both networks. The deal marked the first sale of a Canadian drama to a U.S. broadcast network in 14 years. NBC also has picked up a Canadian drama, The Listener, which is produced by Toronto-based Shaftesbury Films and will run on CTV and NBC.

But that strategy is old news to Program Partners. Five years ago, the Los Angeles-based company launched its new syndication business by acquiring Canadian program Animal Miracles With Alan Thicke. The company, founded by principals Ritch Colbert and Josh Raphaelson, sold the show to the Pax network and then to Animal Planet.

“We felt there was a need for fresh first-run shows in the U.S. that could be done on new economies,” Raphaelson says. “We would bring in international partners, advertisers, talent agencies, and develop new models of acquiring and producing programming.”

Program Partners teamed with Canadian company Thunderbird Films, run by Tim Gamble and Michael Shepard. Gamble and Raphaelson had been friends for 20 years and were looking to collaborate.

Canadian rights procurement is complicated. Much of the production is financed through a government-sponsored agency, so many parties are involved. “There is no shortage of regulations we have to look at,” Shepard says. “There are different distributors, different rights situations, different finance situations—that's what we spend our time on.”

The first show Program Partners brought across the border to sell to stations was Da Vinci's Inquest, starring Nicholas Campbell, now going into its fourth season in weekend syndication.

“There are 93 episodes of that show that cost $1 million each. That's $100 million invested in a show that had never been shown in the U.S.,” Shepard says. After that, the partners imported other dramas—Cold Squad and ReGenesis—entering their third and second seasons in syndication, respectively.

The shows are sold to stations on an all-barter basis, mainly for late-night runs on weekends. While they're profitable enough for Program Partners/Thunderbird, stations like them because they fill time slots with quality programs for which they don't have to pay.

“The model for stations right now for weekend programming is barter or cheap,” says one station manager. “I don't know anyone who is paying much money for weekend shows.”

For large syndicators, those transactions aren't big enough. leaving it all to Program Partners. “If you can find a show and sell it for $10,000 an episode, for example, that's a $1 million,” says one studio executive. “That can be a lot of money to a small operation. But the reason a big studio runs an expansive operation is to maximize profitability. The game we want to be in is distributing shows that have a very high profitability associated with them.”

That's fine with Program Partners, which is chugging along with programs including a talk show with Marie Osmond in 2009, which Thunderbird will distribute in Canada, and The Listener, which Raphaelson set up at NBC while keeping the syndication rights. Program Partners is also importing two more shows from Canada that it just started selling: Style by Jury, Canada's most popular cable show, and game show Inside the Box.

“There are a lot of great opportunities for cross-border productions and interactions,” Raphaelson says. “I think Americans have been enjoying the craft of Canadians for many years without even knowing it.”

Paige Albiniak
Paige Albiniak

Contributing editor Paige Albiniak has been covering the business of television for nearly 25 years. She is a longtime contributor to Next TV, Broadcasting + Cable and Multichannel News. She concurrently serves as editorial director for entertainment marketing association Promax. She has written for such publications as TVNewsCheck, The New York Post, Variety, CBS Watch and more. Albiniak was B+C’s Los Angeles bureau chief from September 2002 to 2004, and an associate editor covering Congress and lobbying for the magazine in Washington, D.C., from January 1997-September 2002.