L.A. Screenings a multimillion-dollar gamble
"Anybody who doesn't enjoy this should not be in television."
That's Malcolm Dunlop's take on the annual TV show buying spree known as the L.A. Screenings.
Dunlop is executive vice-president, programming, at Rogers Communications. He heads a team of programming executives out to find their next big import hit. The annual show buying junket begins in less than two weeks, but the run-up started in February when pilots were shot and the trips back and forth to L.A. commenced.
Team Rogers/City will be ducking in and out of studio screening rooms, hotels and network venues. As soon as their cars pull out, Team Bell/CTV (led by programming president Phil King) and Team Shaw/Global (led by senior vice-president of content Barbara Williams) will be right behind or right in front.
As a group, the three major Canadian private broadcasters spend somewhere between $600 million and $800 million acquiring rights to foreign TV programs at the L.A. screenings. The goal is to fill troubled timeslots with the next big hit from Warners, Fox, Sony, CBS/Paramount, NBC/Universal, ABC/Disney and others.
Hobnobbing with some of the star studio players, such as Warner Brothers Television chief executive Peter Roth, is part of the fun, says Dunlop. Over steaks at fancy restaurants, Roth and others share pilot scripts, casting news and other tantalizing tidbits.
What's the early word?
"They're all their kids at this point," says King of the studio hype. "You know -- you love all your children equally -- so it's really hard to tell right now."
Nobody sees any actual pilots until later this month at the "Upfront" screenings in New York. Even then, show buyers have to play hunches based on timeslots and track records, basically judging a book by its cover with only a pilot and promises to go on.
It's an annual multimillion-dollar gamble.
"This whole thing should be in Vegas, really, not L.A.," says King, whose background is in sports programming. "Most people know the odds are not in anyone's favour grabbing a hit. It's the way it works. You have to grab 10 to get two that works."
Often you can't see a hit coming. Canadian programmers weren't blown away by "The Big Bang Theory" at the pilot stage. A last-minute grab by CTV, it has stood for years as Canada's most-watched series.
Doing tons of homework doesn't always help. King recalls the year he read the scripts for every single pilot under consideration in the U.S. When he got to L.A. for the screenings, he discovered more than half of them weren't even produced.
All agree that the landscape is getting more competitive.
"The whole conventional television market has changed and I think people are probably more prudent than they were before," says Dunlop. It would seem that the era of overbuying and playing "keep away" -- played aggressively for years at CTV -- are over.
Besides, there is new competition to fight off. Network programmers now have to cope with the likes of Netflix, where entire series runs have been dumped in one day, to increased cable competition from series such as AMC's "The Walking Dead," an impact player on Sunday nights.
"Thank God they only make 13 episodes," says King.
In the past, the Canadian private networks have tried to blunt cable competition by snapping up rights. CTV aired HBO's "The Sopranos" and MTV's "The Osbournes" on its prime-time schedule and briefly tried the same gambit with AMC's "Mad Men."
"The Walking Dead," however, is off the table, according to Barbara Williams, senior vice-president of content at Global and the veteran among Canada's current show buyers. …