Reality Sites: Filling windows on Canada’s neophyte niche channels.

A firestorm of start-up cable channels is blowing open new windows for non-fiction programming in the Canadian marketplace. At RealScreen press time, the lineup for the October 17th launch of a new package of niche broadcasters had yet to be finalized,...
September 1, 1997

A firestorm of start-up cable channels is blowing open new windows for non-fiction programming in the Canadian marketplace. At RealScreen press time, the lineup for the October 17th launch of a new package of niche broadcasters had yet to be finalized, but a minimum of ten new Canadian specialty services – seven English-language, three French – are about to grace black boxes from Nova Scotia to British Columbia, alongside a healthy pack of American cable channels just granted access to the Canadian market by its regulator the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission.

Of particular note for marketers of non-fiction programming is the start-up of History Television in English-speaking Canada and Quebec-based Canal Vie for the French-speaking community.

History Television, 88% owned by Alliance Communications, Canada’s largest production company, and 12% by national broadcaster CTV Network, is lining up an eclectic mix of documentaries, films and original historical programming from Canada and around the world. Its schedule for year one is made up of 70% foreign content, currently being pursued by two of the most established programming execs in the Canadian television industry, Norm Bolen and Arthur Weinthal.

Bolen, vp of programming, is the former head of current affairs and the documentary department at the CBC, Canada’s public broadcaster. He is the international president of input, an organization which hosts screening conferences for tv producers around the world.

As CTV’s head of programming for 35 years and chairman of the internationally renowned Banff Television Festival, Weinthal is senior programming consultant to Alliance Broadcasting, which owns both History and Canadian specialty Showcase Television.

In Quebec, lifestyle-programming-centric Canal Vie is 100% owned by Radiomutuel, one of the largest broadcasting groups in the province. Its mandate is entertainment and information programming on life (interpersonal relationships and lifestyle themes/issues from cooking to morals), physical and mental health, and outdoor activities.

Canal Vie’s schedule will be 60% Canadian-produced programs, leaving John Kuyk, director of acquisitions and special projects, scanning the international market for the remaining 40%. At press time, Kuyk was looking to MIPCOM to sandbag the remaining 130 hours of documentary and lifestyle programming (sans magazines) to reach the 700 hours necessary to fill Canal Vie’s first year.

As for other services heavy on nonfiction programming in the lineup, two have program supply arrangements with u.s. cable channels which may inhibit the volume of international product they’re seeking in the marketplace.

Home & Garden Television Canada, 80.2% owned by Canada’s second-largest production company Atlantis Communications, has a program supply agreement with hgtv in the States. Its parent company, Scripps Howard Broadcasting, is 19.8% owner of the Canadian channel.

Outdoor Life, owned by Baton Broadcasting, Rogers and 20% by Outdoor Life in the u.s., has a similar arrangement.

Although the 75% foreign-programming quotient of chum-owned Space: The Imagination Station is built largely on fiction product (X-Files, Star Trek), a daily documentary slot, The Unexplained, is being carved into primetime to be filled with the best paranormal-issues docs the international market has to offer.

Since foreign-programming outlets have, until now, been scarce in the heavily regulated Canadian environment, the vast majority of what History, Canal Vie, HGTV-Canada, Outdoor Life and Space are acquiring is first window into the market. All are seeking long-term contracts, ranging from three to five years, with distributors, although Outdoor Life programming head Suzanne Steeves says the channel is inking two- to three-year deals because adventure activities evolve with equipment upgrades, so the shelf-life for some product may be shorter than others.

In terms of number of plays, best-case scenario for the group as a whole is ‘as many as possible,’ as History’s Bolen says. Steeves and Canal Vie’s Kuyk are bargaining for an unlimited number, which Kuyk says only makes sense given the number of channels existing in the Canadian market.

‘A few years ago, we looked for mostly two years and a finite number of passes, but with this much available for people to watch and all these new channels for them to find and learn to like, you see that two years is a very short time, and three years is much more comfortable. Your audience has time to be comfortable. Besides, it’s less paperwork. More freedom and happiness.’

Filling windows

After a year of pounding the proverbial pavement, the majority of History’s ’97/98 schedule is locked up. The U.K. is first among producers and distributors of foreign programming feeding the channel (including a bulk deal with the BBC), followed by the U.S., Australia, France, Scandinavia and Russia. Bolen is freefloating 20 to 30 hours of the schedule and a piece of the budget for ‘pleasant surprises.’

Distributors have been relentless in excavating historically relevant programming he hasn’t seen before, says Bolen. Other discovery tactics include beating the bushes at the major markets, catalogues, and input, where lurks undiscovered gems.

Parts of History’s schedule through the year 2000 are also in process via presale arrangements. Bolen admits it’s difficult for start-up specialties to compete for rights against the likes of PBS. ‘They can take us out. But then we take second window and rejig the release timing on our schedule. Inevitably, it works.’ With an eye to increased leverage down the line, History is talking with Discovery Canada and TVOntario, the Ontario provincial public broadcaster, about sharing presale opportunities for the Canadian market.

At Canal Vie, Kuyk is cherry-picking French-language documentary programming from France, primarily, followed by Switzerland and Belgium. Language is the thing, since dubbing costs, ranging from $5,000 to $10,000 per half-hour, take away from what Kuyk admits is a minimal acquisition budget for year one.

‘Since it’s a start-up we don’t have the same budget this year we’ll have for next year. What I’m looking for are favors, which producers and distributors understand. We’ll have more money to spend next year and more as time goes on.’

To date, the health programming category of Canal Vie’s mandate is proving the most difficult to fill. Much of what Kuyk has screened has been ‘in English and boring.’ In pursuit of more options, Kuyk has packed the mips, France Screenings ’97 and Sunny Side of the Doc into his travel itinerary.

HGTV Canada will run do-it-yourself-information-type programming on five central themes: building and remodeling; decorating and interior design; gardening and landscaping; crafts and hobbies; and special interest. Forty percent of the foreign programming (50% of the broadcast day) will be swallowed up by HGTV U.S. with the remaining 10% coming via outside sources, says Janice Platt, senior vp programming for hgtv and its sister station Life Network.

About 80% of Outdoor Life’s schedule for the first quarter is wrapped up. Outdoor Life in the U.S. will account for most of the 70% foreign content that takes up the year one schedule. Eight key themes make up Outdoor’s program mix: exploration and adventure; marine recreation; winter recreation; conservation; nature enthusiasts; anglers; outdoor chefs; and hunting.

Space: The Imagination Station, has named Isme Bennie director of programming and acquisitions. Having received the licence for Space at the 11th hour in August, Bennie is mip-bound with ample windows to fill before a whole new world of niche programming unleashes itself on the Canadian marketplace next month.

The following services round out the list of Canadian broadcasters launching in October:

The Comedy Network

Owned by Baton Broadcasting System, Shaw Communications, Astral Broadcasting Group and the Just for Laughs comedy festival group, The Comedy Channel is setting up as the voice of the Canadian comedy community with a mix of live performances, signature strips and original production as its programming cornerstone.

CTV News-1

The CTV Network owns this 24-hour, English-language, headline-news service which will provide continuous updated news, weather, sports, business, regional and lifestyle information.


Owned by Canadian broadcasters Family Channel and YTV and Canadian production companies Cinar Films and Nelvana, teletoon is an all-animation station.

Le Canal Nouvelles

Quebec broadcaster Télé-Métropole owns this 24-hour regional Quebec French-language headline-news service.


Owned by CHUM and Radiomutuel, this Montreal-based French-language service is a Quebec regional music-concept channel for adults 35 to 54, divided into four broad sections: contemporary pop; rock oldies and French classics; country; jazz and classical. Programming includes music clips, concerts, magazine and interview segments, documentaries and specials, and musical films.

About The Author
Managing editor with realscreen publication, an international print and online magazine that covers the non-fiction film and television industries. Darah is an award-winning journalist who has spent over two decades covering a wide range of issues from real estate and urban development to immigration, politics and human rights, primarily with The Vancouver Sun. Prior to joining realscreen, she was editor of Stream Daily, realscreen's sister publication covering the dynamic global digital video industry. She also served a stint as a war reporter in Afghanistan for television and print, and was a national business blogger with Yahoo Canada.