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October 8, 2015

When it comes to tween TV production, Canada comes of age


Jeremy Dickson / Kidscreen

Oh Canada. It’s the celebrated home of maple syrup, hockey and Degrassi-star-turned-rapper Drake. Within the global kids entertainment biz, the country is gaining a reputation as a burgeoning breeding ground for high-quality TV sitcoms and dramas that target tweens and teens.

This is not surprising to anyone who can trace Canada’s worldwide success in the genre back to the 1980s origins of long-running series Degrassi. Or perhaps, more recently, to 2011, when YTV-commissioned multi-cam sitcom Mr. Young from Vancouver-based Thunderbird Films and Corus Entertainment’s Nelvana Enterprises began its three-season run.

With favorable tax credits, accomplished studios and strong support from organizations such as the Canada Media Fund, the Bell Fund and the Shaw Rocket Fund, Canada has become another option beyond the US, Europe or Australia as a go-to territory for co-pro opportunities in primetime sitcoms and dramas for kids.

Corus Entertainment-owned YTV has been a market leader in live-action scripted sitcoms and scripted comedies produced in Canada.The aforementioned 52 x half-hour series Mr. Young quickly rose to become one of the network’s top-rated shows after it premiered in March 2011.

Created by prolific Canadian TV producer/writer Dan Signer, the showrunner behind a number of popular Disney sitcoms including The Suite Life of Zack and Cody and A.N.T. Farm, Mr. Young also struck a chord with audiences outside Canada when Disney XD picked it up for channels in the US, the UK, Spain, Portugal, Italy, the Netherlands, Central and Eastern Europe, the Middle East, Africa, Australia and New Zealand.

Following the program’s international success, and the launch of another hit sitcom, Life with Boys from Hannah Montana co-creator Michael Poryes, YTV chose to work with Thunderbird Films again in 2013 on a brand-new homegrown series created by Signer and Mr. Young executive producer Howard Nemitz called Some Assembly Required.

Like Mr. Young, the live-action comedy series was shot in front of a studio audience in Burnaby, British Columbia, and it has been a ratings driver for YTV since it debuted last year.

YTV and Thunderbird also just announced a third season, and Netflix picked up the show for streaming this year in all territories except Canada, where it will debut in 2016.

The series follows the adventures of 14-year-old Jarvis Raines (The Next Step’s Kolton Stewart), who runs a toy company with six of his best friends.

Some Assembly Required is 100% Canadian. It’s beating all the other sitcoms on the network and has done so consistently now,” says Corus Kids director of content Jamie Piekarz. “We knew we had to do something different, so it’s interesting that the show is set at a toy factory,” she notes. “In fact, one of the great things about our sitcoms is that almost none of them take place in a school, which is usually the trope with sitcoms for this demo.”

One of YTV’s newest original hits is Max & Shred. The co-production with Nickelodeon and Toronto’s Breakthrough Entertainment takes advantage of the colder Canadian climate for its story about an unlikely friendship between a celebrity snowboarder, Max Asher (Annedroid‘s Jonny Gray), and a science whiz kid, Alvin “Shred” Ackerman (Life with Boys‘ Jake Goodman).

“We heard right away from our audience that they loved the program’s snow-based environment. They hadn’t seen that before in a lot of shows,” says Bronwen O’Keefe, Nick SVP of content strategy, who oversees scripted series including Max & Shred and Make It Pop from Canada’s DHX Media.

O’Keefe notes that Make It Pop has been a consistent top-ranked show since the K-Pop inspired, single-cam tween sitcom launched on Nick US in April.

“There’s amazing talent in Canada on every front. For Make It Pop, the look and feel is very different from anything seen by a US audience. Production designer Stephen Stanley, who worked on Degrassi for years, was able to give the school environment a whole new twist,” she says.

The series, which is produced out of DHX Media’s Toronto-based Epitome Studio, was picked up by Nick for a second season just a month after its TV debut, and it will also launch on YTV in Canada on September 9.

For Max & Shred, American showrunner George Doty IV (iCarly, Victorious, Drake & Josh) was brought on to lead production, and the series premiered on YTV and Nick US last October. It’s since become a success on Nick’s international channels in countries including Africa, Australia, Colombia, Italy, Portugal, Russia and the UK.

“I didn’t know what I was going to find [in Canada] because I had never worked outside of Los Angeles,” says Doty IV. “It’s interesting because there are a lot of places outside of L.A. where you can shoot, but the creative still comes from L.A. What I found is that Toronto has an entire creative community as well. Everyone on Max & Shred was Canadian, and our team was as good as any I’ve worked with before.”

A number of Canadian production companies are leading the charge on the tween and teen drama side of the business, too, including DHX Media, Temple Street Productions, Fresh TV and marblemedia. And while there have been a number of exciting new series announcements this summer, including Temple Street Productions’ and DHX Television’s reality-style tween drama Lost and Found Music Studios from The Next Step creator Frank van Keeken, nothing was perhaps more dramatic than when US net TeenNick and Bell Media’s MTV Canada pulled the plug on beloved series Degrassi after 14 years on the air.

Less shocking, however, was Netflix’s move. Together with DHX TV’s Family Channel, the SVOD swooped in and greenlit a brand-new Epitome Pictures reboot, Degrassi: Next Class, just five days after the June 4 cancellation.

The situation further reinforces the ongoing transition of teen audiences away from traditional TV towards SVOD services.

According to executive producer Stephen Stohn, Epitome Pictures had hatched a reboot plan months before the Netflix deal even materialized.

“In January, [Degrassi co-creator Linda Schuyler] and I got together with the writers and said, ‘We need to rethink what we’re doing and break new boundaries,’” says Stohn. “We told them to write their stories for the season, but pretend the show would be on Netflix and watched by Generation Z. It was a shorthand way of saying, ‘Forget any preconceptions of what any particular linear broadcaster wants.’ The writers were delighted with the challenge and came back with an entire pitch, which was ultimately Next Class.”

In an attempt to age up its post-8 p.m. lineup, Family Channel has a first-run window on the series, which will bow in January 2016, followed by a global rollout on Netflix. Beyond the challenge of serializing the stories differently for binge-watching, Stohn says another issue will be the number of episodes expected to be released at once. “With Netflix being in so many countries, we have to deliver the content in a lot of different languages right from the start. This adds more pressure on us from a dubbing and subtitling perspective,” he says.

While Degrassi moves forward for a new generation, the future of another high-stakes teen drama produced by Epitome Pictures, in association with Toronto’s marblemedia, is more uncertain.

Open Heart, which debuted in January and follows the story of a rebellious teen out to solve the mystery of her father’s disappearance, resonated with TeenNick’s US audience, but failed to hit a home run on YTV in Canada.

“We felt good about the US numbers, and the online engagement was incredible with a couple hundred thousand app downloads, but in Canada it was a little bit of a disappointment,” says Stohn, who executive produced along with Schuyler, showrunner Ramona Barckert, and marblemedia’s Matt Hornburg and Mark Bishop.

Piekarz says YTV commissioned the show in response to viewers’ requests for drama on the channel—recognizing the fact that more kids are watching conventional dramas—and because the channel had some room to experiment in its lineup. “It’s a fantastic show with a dedicated fan base on social media, but we learned it’s hard to change a brand. The promise of YTV is comedy. We knew all of this going in, but nothing ventured, nothing gained,” she says, noting that the show is now on ABC Spark to give it another life.

Embracing the music and dance sensibilities of its core tween demographic, DHX TV’s Family Channel continues to excel when it comes to commissioning Canadian-made dramas. It recently picked up Temple Street Productions’ reality-style series The Next Step for a fourth season, announced a second partnership with the Toronto prodco for Lost and Found Music Studios and joined forces with Fresh TV for a third music- and dance-themed series, Backstage.

“Drama in North America feels new on the tween side, and it’s nice when your audience embraces something new. It’s been interesting to watch kids talk about serialized TV so much,” says DHX TV programming head Michael Goldsmith.
“Ratings are great, and it’s definitely something we’re going to do more of. The idea of building around event programming—something that HBO and AMC are doing such a good job with—there is no reason why we can’t do it for kids.”

For the third season of The Next Step, Family Channel aired one new episode per night over a three-week period, and according to Numeris data provided by DHX, the stunt attracted 479,000 unique viewers each weeknight.
Goldsmith says Family will continue to do monthly stunts on an occasional basis, but it’s most important strategy will be week to week. “As successful as it was running all the episodes out in March for season three of The Next Step, it’s difficult to sustain that in terms of purchasing and building enough content,” he says.

As Canadian kidscasters and prodcos extend their hot streak in sitcoms and dramas for tweens and teens, Piekarz says the budgets and the quality of programs will continue to go up, and additional financing will always be welcome.
“The Canadian funding system has great opportunities, but our biggest opportunity is to do more co-productions,” she says.

Canadian nonprofit Shaw Rocket Fund, which its president and CEO Agnes Augustin says has always been very proactive in ensuring there is content for tween and teens, has to date invested US$170 million in Canadian children’s programming in every kids and family genre. And since 2010, the Canada Media Fund has contributed more than US$300 million in funding to 406 children’s and youth productions, generating US$1.2 billion in production budgets.
Despite the support, Augustin notes that it’s still not easy to fund multi-cam productions in Canada, but she foresees more opportunities based on the global successes of partnerships à la YTV and Nick. “Sitcoms always do quite well and kids around the world are watching Canadian shows however they can; this will continue and so will the Fund’s intent to create Canadian kids content,” says Augustin.

For Epitome’s Stephen Stohn, Canada’s knack for securing funding from multiple sources has always been one of the biggest strengths of its TV production industry. “It’s been our forté. Take the US, for example. A kids and family broadcaster in the US can’t pay as much and has two choices—one, an American producer who is used to having a show funded by the broadcaster, or two, a Canadian producer who is used to looking for funding from multiple sources,” he says. “Suddenly Canadian productions look very attractive.”

There’s also the speed factor. According to American showrunner and Max & Shred executive producer George Doty IV, who works with co-producers Nickelodeon and Toronto’s Breakthrough Entertainment, the main difference between shooting a sitcom in the US versus Canada is speed.

“In the States, we would make three episodes a month, but in Canada we make about five. Max & Shred was pretty relentless, but we were all up to the challenge. It’s nice to work at this pace,” Doty IV says. “The model for how sitcoms are made in the US is pricey and time-consuming. If a couple of days can be shaved off, then good.”

Programming head for Canada’s DHX TV Michael Goldsmith says the biggest challenge in producing the company’s original tween dramas—like popular reality-style dance series The Next Step, upcoming series Lost and Found Music Studios, as well as Family Channel’s newly greenlit and highly anticipated teen series Degrassi: Next Class—is maintaining a high-quality sheen without going over budget.

“It’s trying to make a show look like it’s super-high-budget while knowing that you have to be budget conscious because you need to deliver volume,” Goldsmith says. “This is where we really appreciate both DHX’s commitment to making shows, but also the efforts of our production partners who have been very resourceful putting shows together—finding ways to film more and make it look great without cutting corners on writing, music, dance or casting.”

Meanwhile, Degrassi: Next Class executive producer Stohn agrees that DHX Media-owned Epitome Pictures must be prepared to be leaner and faster.

“Every year we have to increase quality, but also keep costs where they were and even figure out how to reduce them,” Stohn says. “Luckily, the technology is there. There is so much we can do now with rear-screen projection and computer-generated fixes that we can make shows look better without too many additional costs.” He adds that Degrassi has always been shot fairly quickly in blocks of four half-hours over 11 days, or two and three quarter shooting days per episode.

“I’ve looked at getting it down to 10 days, or just being more productive in the 11 days by finding savings elsewhere through new post-production techniques or delivering electronically rather than physically. It’s a daily challenge,” he says.

Another efficiency-driver for Canadian producers when dealing with budgets is the bank show, or when portions of another episode are shot during a regular shooting week.

“It’s not a nice thing for producers, but Canadian producers are masterful in the way they rise to these challenges,” says Corus Kids director of content Jamie Piekarz.

According to Doty IV, who’s never done bank shows in the US, the bank show model wasn’t deployed for Max & Shred because they didn’t want to disrupt the creative flow of the production.

This feature originally appeared in Kidscreen’s September 2015 issue.

Read more: http://kidscreen.com/2015/10/08/when-it-comes-to-tween-tv-production-canada-comes-of-age/#ixzz3o025nJ45