All posts by Rachel

Rachel Langer is a TV writer based in Vancouver, BC. She is currently writing for Partners in Motion, as well as producing her first short film. She is an avid tweeter and social media junkie. Follow her on twitter: twitter.com/rachlanger

An interview with CBC’s scripted exec Sally Catto

SallyCattoAt the CBC 2013/14 Season Preview in Vancouver, TV, eh?’s Rachel Langer had the chance to interview Sally Catto, CBC’s executive in charge of scripted programming. She had lots to say about CBC’s 2013/14 slate, what’s in store in the future, and how big a role ratings actually play.

OK, so let’s get the scary money question out of the way first. What role did the budget cuts play in the upcoming season?

In the big picture you will see that we have a lot of returning hits. That’s two-fold. We’re so lucky that we have these returning hits. I was just thinking about the fact that years ago, and I’m not just talking about the CBC but the entire industry, we just didn’t have this many Canadian hits. To me it’s a tremendous success that we have (Republic of ) Doyle going into its fifth season, Heartland going into its seventh season, etc.

At the same time you don’t see a lot of new additions and I would say that’s because we’ve had a lot of success, but we just do not have the money to add a lot of new series to our slate, particularly scripted series. I think it’s very much a strategy of building and holding on to our successes. Fortunately we have them, but the impact is in scripted that we can’t add a new series to the slate — we do not have the money to do that. We’ve added an acquisition to the slate, and that financially completely works for us and we love the show. That is the most obvious impact.

Crossing Lines is the acquisition, correct? Can you talk to me a little bit about that?

Crossing Lines is a French-German co-production. We do look for shows that are out there internationally; we are not trying to be an American network. Ironically, Crossing Lines will be airing on NBC, but I can honestly say our interest in Crossing Lines preceded interest in that deal happening. Our acquisitions team were looking at it before that happened. When that happened it didn’t change our interest in it. As you will see we’re not simulcasting it, we’re not changing our Canadian schedule, and we think it will really compliment our schedule.

We are really happy with it and we love that Donald Sutherland, a great Canadian star, is in it. We think that it’s something our audiences will really love and it’s on that global playing field.

The new shows that are coming to the slate are movies, miniseries, that sort of thing.

Yes, Best Laid Plans is based on Terry Fallis’ wonderful book [as well as Still Life, based on Louise Penny’s book]. I think you’ll see in terms of our strategy, we really like to use those movies and miniseries to showcase our Canadian culture in a different way. Our ongoing series do it in one way, but I think when you have a literary adaptation, that will speak to Canadians.

Do you see a possibility for projects like that to spin off into a series or a larger project than initially planned?

I think it’s always possible. Neither of those were developed with that in mind. Certainly there are a number of Louise Penny books and looking at and reading the scripts for Best Laid Plans I can see the potential, so it’s a juggling act for us. It comes down to how many slots do we have, what’s our breadth of programming, does it tell a story about Canadians that we don’t feel is being told by any of our other shows. So there are many variables that go into it, how does it do, how will it perform, so it’s early to say. There is the potential in both of those [to expand], unlike a biopic, but we do have a number of strong projects being developed so at this point it’s just hard to say.

We have a very strong cop show presence in Canada — do you see that trend continuing?

You know I think for us, we have Cracked and again, because we really want to represent the different programming — and we have Crossing Lines now — I wouldn’t prioritize another cop show. We have a great cop show. We have a couple of detective series, as you know, and I think our competitors also do it really well, so trying to differentiate ourselves we would be more interested in continuing to diversify.

Can you tell us anything about what you have in the development pipeline?

We have some really exciting projects in development. We have a project in development with Joseph Boyden, who is a Giller Prize winner, and a beautiful, beautiful writer. It’s an original series in development, so that is stunning and remarkable so I feel honored to be working with him. We have another wonderful project in development with Laurie Finstad who did Durham County — a beautiful period western. We have a sweeping story about the Klondike based on Pierre Berton’s book, written by Ted Mann. I hesitate to say because we have so many.

I don’t want anyone to feel like “oh you’ve left us out because we’re not a priority” so that’s why we generally don’t have those conversations, but at the same time I’m so proud of what we’re doing. We’re working with incredible writers. I could go on and on and on, so anyone I’ve left out, forgive me because we love you all.

We also have upcoming another adaptation of the Book of Negroes that Clement Virgo is doing with the book’s author Lawrence Hill, so that will be going into production later this year.

How important are ratings to the CBC?

It’s a really great question. Ratings are very important to us. Should they be? I think we should care very much about whether Canadians are watching our shows, because if they aren’t, we aren’t connecting, we aren’t reaching them. I personally believe audience is extremely important, however I believe that there should be a balance. Not every show should be held to the same bar and the decisions shouldn’t be based on “is this going to bring in the broadest audience.” As a public broadcaster I think it’s a factor and I think it should be weighed very heavily for some of our shows.

Do I think it should govern every decision? No, and I don’t think it does. However, I think that often when there are comments made about the CBC — are you doing what a public broadcaster should be doing? I would argue yes and I can give you all the reasons, but I think what people don’t always remember is that, especially with our cuts, we’re incredibly dependant on and grateful for the Canadian Media Fund.

55% percent of our envelope is determined by eyeballs on the screen, so we are actually held to the same standard as a private broadcaster. That makes it imperative for us to consider ratings. If we don’t, our envelope goes down. That’s just a fact. I have mixed feelings about that — I think that’s just the way it is, though. We absolutely have to be cognisant of that and we’ve struck an amazing balance of providing shows you wouldn’t see on other networks and still bringing in amazing audiences.

Can you talk to me about some of the digital components that you’ve been bringing in? Could you see the CBC focusing at all on original digital content or web content, or more additional content to accompany the scripted shows that you have?

In terms of original content, would we love to? Yes, but it’s a monetary issue. I find it fascinating to be at a modern public broadcaster at this time of incredible change, because it’s all just content, and how are we showcasing it? That seems to be changing every year.

I look at Republic of Doyle and we had a second screen app for that this year, and that was so amazing to do that. I do feel like we tend to lead the charge on the digital front. Our Facebook game for Heartland Ranch won the very coveted Social TV Award, and it was up against shows from the States, and big Warner Brothers shows. I feel very proud of that. I think now, our [digital] content is primarily tied into our original programming that you’ve seen on the network. Will that change in the future? I think it’s entirely possible, but financially it’s hard. Just the way it’s all evolving, we won’t even see the distinction.

What is your favorite part of working with the CBC?

I really believe in the public broadcaster. I really believe in telling Canadian stories. I love where it all starts with the talent, with the writers. That’s where it all starts. I think you all see the shows in front of you and I feel very lucky that I get to see what happens behind the scenes. It’s the writers. I love working with our actors, and that the CBC has built a true star system and that we get to work with these great stars, but I also love our unsung heroes — I’m a big fan of those writers.

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Less Than Kind’s Kim Coghill on her WGC Award

Kim Coghill WGC pic 2013

Last week the Writers Guild of Canada handed out their screenwriting awards, including the TV Comedy award to Kim Coghill for the “Jerk Chicken” episode of Less Than Kind. TV, eh?‘s Rachel Langer quizzed her on the award, the episode and lessons learned.

What does the WGC Award win mean to you? 

I’m honoured that my fellow writers have judged me not only funny enough, but also strong enough to lift this award, which I believe weighs 175 pounds. Because a lighter award wouldn’t mean nearly as much. I mean, you could actually kill someone with this thing. I’m not saying anyone did. Or would. Or thought about it. I’m just saying you could. It’s just a fact. Facts aren’t illegal.

What was it like to be nominated alongside your then-fiance, now-husband Denis McGrath (Congrats!) and the showrunner of LTK, Mark McKinney? Did that change the experience of winning for you? 

I was thrilled to be nominated, but not really sure how they’d take it when I won. Denis seems fine so far – he cries, but mostly at night. Mark sends hate mail scrawled on old Slings & Arrows scripts, but that’s cool too, because it’s kinda like being threatened by Shakespeare, which is pretty flattering… So, um, I think they’re fine with it.

Tell us about your episode of Less Than Kind, and what the best and worst parts of writing it were? 

In this episode, Sheldon, the awkward teenaged son, tries to turn himself into one of the “jocks,” best friend Miriam tries being a coquette, and pal Danny wonders why everyone’s turning into someone else. It all spirals out of control when Sheldon throws a jock party, and Danny and Miriam crash with a vengeance.

Worst part: reliving my adolescence.

Best part: reliving my adolescence through these incredibly complex and funny characters, especially with a show set in my hometown of Winnipeg.

If you had to share the award with one other person, who would it be and why? 

Just one? All the other writers on LTK, rolled into one enormous aggregate individual containing tiny pieces of each person’s funniest bits. And if I couldn’t do that, I’d share it with my new husband, because he already has one, so now we have matching bookends.

If you could pick one lesson from working on LTK to bring with you to your next writing room, what would it be?

That “comedy” and “drama” aren’t opposites; a show doesn’t have to be one or the other. Good comedy is most powerful when it plays out against real emotions – anger, sadness, fear – because that’s how we experience humour in real life.

Also, when you need a cheap laugh, there’s nothing like the word “boogers.”

Speaking of your next project, could you tell us a little bit about what you’re working on now? 

I’m writing a couple of new pilots that are in that ‘comedy-with-drama’ vein.

If you could step into the writers room on any past Canadian Comedy, what would it be, and why? 
My smart-ass side would pick Made in Canada, because it was so wonderfully snarky. But my playful side would pick SCTV – I adored those characters, ever since I was a kid. There’s nothing like watching a great character, written and performed with love.

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Flashpoint’s Mark Ellis & Stephanie Morgenstern on Winning the WGC Showrunner Award

Flashpoint
On Monday, the Writers Guild of Canada held their annual awards ceremony and handed the prestigious Showrunner Award to Flashpoint creators Mark Ellis and Stephanie Morgenstern.

What does winning the Showrunner Award mean to you, coming off the heels of Flashpoint’s final season?

Five years of working on a show you love, that’s like five giant scoops of ice cream.  Having the luxury of ending a show on your own creative terms, that’s like getting whipped cream on top.  Seeing so many colleagues rewarded with nominations and awards for the bar-raising work they did on the show – work that made the rest of us look great just by association – that’s covering the whole thing in sprinkles.  And we couldn’t imagine a sweeter cherry on top than this very unexpected award … the most prestigious thing a TV writer can hope for.

When you started Flashpoint, did you ever think the series would get to the level it did, and find the audience reach that it ended up with?
Not at all.  Especially as the show was originally a two-hour MOW about a sniper dealing with the traumatic aftermath of his first kill … a very different project than the 75-hour episodic series it turned into.

From the beginning, we aspired to the white-knuckle suspense of 24 and the succulent, saturated production values of CSI Miami – which we explicitly referenced when we first pitched our ideas to CTV.  But the transformation from the slightly darker original premise into a more commercial “action procedural”‘ happened fast and smoothly, once CTV reconsidered it as a series.  That groundwork was laid in intense creative collaboration with EPs Anne Marie La Traverse and Bill Mustos, as well as our original executives from CTV – and when CBS joined up early in the process, they obviously brought a lot to the table as well, based on their strong track record in sustaining procedurals over many years.  What emerged from this was a formula that we hoped would welcome new viewers every week with a self-contained story, while rewarding the more committed fans with “loyalty points” – those story moments that add up to the more complex, slow-burn, (ideally) addictive character arcs where you have to keep coming back to find out what happens next.

We had ambitious hopes of course, but from where we stood, the level of success the show eventually hit wasn’t even on the landscape of realistic possibility at that time.  Especially for a show so firmly resolved not to pretend to be American.  But these were (and are) changing times in TV.  And the mountains that our EPs moved to make it happen, the way they pushed for the highest standards from every technical and artistic department, and the awesome, visionary talent of our signature director David Frazee launched the show with a level of polish and unapologetic swagger we didn’t often see then on homegrown shows.  US and international audiences aside, what we’re proudest of is that Canadians watched it in serious numbers, and (from what we hear from the fans) that they felt it was theirs.

What was the biggest challenge that you faced as showrunners in making this series?

When the pressure hits – and pressure is pretty much a constant on a speeding train like a TV show – it can feel overwhelming.  There’s so much time-sensitive business to stay on top of.  The toughest thing to remember, even in the darkest times – when you’re sure this is the episode that’s going to break you, when you literally don’t know how you’re going to keep breathing – is that it’s just a show.  It’s just TV.

Your blank computer screen may not fill fast enough, you could fail to find a brilliant yet diplomatic compromise between all the creative voices needing to be heard, you could disappoint everyone and never work again.  But there are human beings out there who risk a heck of a lot more every day than a missed deadline, some who are busy facing life-threatening danger in fact, not in fiction.  So you get over yourself and get back to work.

We learned the best way to do that is to step back, breathe deeply, and remember why you love what you do.  Re-read your original pitch document, the one that was so full of passion and ambition.  Remember that your dream to have a shot at making a show actually came true.  The risk of a long-running show is that in the chaos and storm of its practical demands, you forget why you began, the fire you once had to push this boulder up the hill.  In our own case, every time we reconnected with the real people from our fictional world, every time we dipped back into research, the inspiration came back stronger than ever, which made the struggle feel manageable and (ultimately) worthwhile.

Tell us about the experience of being honored in front of your friends and peers at the WGC Awards.

We were very, very moved hearing Larry’s heartfelt introduction, and Denis McGrath’s fiery followup.  It meant the world to us to be embraced this warmly by the community – especially given that we’re relative newcomers who’ve been blessed with a nearly obscene amount of good fortune.

We’ve heard that you may have a new series in development – is that correct, and if so what can you tell us about that?

We actually have two – one with CBC, one with CTV, both dramas – and we wish we could tell you more but we’re going to have to wait…

If you could step in to a “guest showrunning” position, past or present, on any Canadian show, which one would it be and why? 

There are definitely shows whose writing rooms we’d have loved to hang out in and observe from the inside – not as “guest showrunners,” more for the great company, and to watch and learn.  Like The Eleventh Hour for the dazzling convergence of talent in the room.  Bomb Girls for the great female-fuelled stories set in a fascinating time.  Slings and Arrows because of its smart and subversive take on classical theatre, a world we’ve both known from up close as actors.  Among the shows in the works right now … the rooms of Orphan Black and Played have some Flashpoint alums on their staff and both sound like a lot of fun.

In the meantime, we’ve been many reading scripts from emerging TV writers and we’re struck and inspired by what a huge wave of great material is coming down the pipes …

What are you watching these days? 

We try to keep up with all our Canadian shows.  Orphan Black is audacious and exciting.  Our daughter likes Modern Family, Stephen Fry’s QI and The Office, so we watch those shows with her.  LovingHomeland, Downton Abbey and The Walking Dead.  Also … a ton of spy-themed films, docs and series.
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Lost Girl Season 3 Finale and Mobile App

lostgirlseason4.jpg

For all you scifi fans out there, the season finale of Lost Girl aired Sunday night on Showcase. Now in its third season, this Canadian scifi drama explores the world of a succubus named Bo who embarks on a quest to find her origins and winds up embroiled in the world of the Fae, a race of creatures known mainly to folklore and kept secret from humans.

If you’re a fan of Lost Girl, you’ll love this action packed season finale. Bo, caught between the dark Fae and the light Fae, is on a quest to save Dyson (a werewolf) from a sociopathic scientist. Bo risks enlisting the help of the Valkyrie Tamsen, whose loyalties are in question. When Bo and Tamsen “storm the castle” they find a little more than they bargained for, and struggle to keep up with the twists and turns that are thrown at them.

The finale kept me interested from start to finish with lots of twists and turns. The setup for the story points made sense, and the payoffs throughout the episode didn’t fall flat. The one thing that struck me a bit odd was the confusion in tone. The moments of hard emotion came through on the heels of a light-hearted joke. The stormy backdrop would give way to light, bright scenes, leaving me uncertain of how I was supposed to feel. It seemed as though the viewer wasn’t given enough time to digest the weight of any heartfelt emotion from Bo before she turned her frown upside down and headed into a new emotional state. That being said, I haven’t been an avid watcher of every episode so perhaps this tonal setup has been a staple of the show that the established fan base finds no fault with.

The main reason I watched this week’s finale (out of order) was so I could try out the accompanying game. The Lost Girl App was released for iOS and Android devices for fans of the show to enjoy some additional content.

I gamely (yep, I said it) downloaded the app to my iPad and launched into personal Fae-Dom … for about 20 minutes. When I had to leave the game for a time, I couldn’t get it to reopen on my iPad. Certainly this could be an Apple issue, but I left it, shut the game down and have yet to have success getting it to operate again.

What I did experience in my limited playtime was a puzzle/search game tacking on some pseudo role-playing elements. Though the advertisements say “interaction” with characters from the show, I would classify it more as listening to what they tell you, and continuing on in your objective, which primarily involves sussing out items that adorn the wall of the first level (the bar).

Though the moments of searching for items is enjoyable and certainly belongs to the type of mobile game that would be easy to get addicted to, the long loading screens and lack of instructions make it less worth the wait. The great thing about Fruit Ninja is that you spend 90% of your play time slicing through watermelons. I spent the majority of my play time waiting here on loading screens and trying to figure out how to get to the next puzzle.

While it was cool to start my own Fae character and customize it (mine is a Succubus named Pax) the atmosphere of the game didn’t match the play style. Then again, who knows, maybe once you get more than 20 minutes in, things pick up.

The show certainly did its job in making me want to get caught up right quick, and overall it wasn’t the worst effort I’ve seen from bonus content in app form, but I’d prefer to see shows able to use this money in a way that truly benefits them. If the show demands a mobile game app – great, but maybe it’s not a bandaid to be used on every show. Wouldn’t it be great to have a working customized digital plan that fits each individual show and caters to what the show and audience demands? I’m no stranger to the importance of a digital strategy, but with the extremely high caliber of games that exist today you really have to nut up or shut up when it comes to a mobile app and game content, even if it is in a really cool universe where I get to be a succubus. Or you know, they could just let them use the cash to make more content.

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Todd & The Book of Pure Evil’s Ian Malone on his WGC Screenwriting Award Nomination

IanMaloneThis year’s Writers Guild of Canada Screenwriting Award winners will be announced on April 22. We’ve been catching up with many of the writers nominated in the comedy and drama categories. Todd and the Book of Pure Evil‘s Ian Malone is nominated (along with Craig David Wallace and Charles Picco) for their episode “B.Y.O.B.O.P.E.”

Can you describe the episode “B.Y.O.B.O.P.E.” and how it fit into the Todd & the Book of Pure Evil season?

The episode started out as a chance to see what our heroes are like after hours.  What do they like to do when they’re not fighting monsters?  How do they relax?  We thought a great place to take them (a quintessentially high school place) would be a house party.  I think this was the longest period of time we got to see our kids outside of the high school, so it was exciting if you were a fan of the show.  It opened up the world a bit.  We also knew that this was always going to be a mythology-heavy episode, with some big answers to lingering questions, so that stuff was serviced.  Those reveals launched the story toward the events of the finale (an awesome episode written & directed by Craig).

What was the biggest triumph in this particular episode?

On top of getting all the mythology stuff into the story and making it surprising and satisfying, it’s an episode about a house party, and a house party needs to look and feel like jam-packed non-stop good times. Usually it’s one kid a week using the book, but we thought, “If the house is packed, let’s have a million kids use the book!” That’s hyperbole. But we did end up having the book fall into three or four different hands. I’m particularly proud of how we kept the various story threads intertwined. There’s everything going on with our gang, and everything going on with the kids at the party, and all the stuff with Atticus pretending that he’s a teenager named Scooter. And it all tracks! I hope.

What does this recognition mean to you?

It means a lot to me. A couple years ago I was a sweaty, nervous story coordinator trying to find the courage to pitch lines in a story room. Now I’m a sweaty, nervous WGC Award nominee for my second produced script ever! It’s nice to be recognized by other writers, and if nothing else it’s a pat on the back that says, “Hey you, you’re alright.”

If there was one Canadian show that is no longer on the air that you could see honoured at this year’s awards, what would it be? (If you have a specific episode, even better).

How about a show that’s still on the air? Degrassi has been running for thirteen seasons and they’re still finding compelling character-driven stories to tell. I think people probably take it for granted because it’s been on for so long, but they shouldn’t. Ramona Barckert wrote two amazing episodes in season twelve (“Bitter Sweet Symphony” 1 & 2) that are up there with the most riveting hours of drama.

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