It’s the beginning of 2013, as Canadian broadcasters build their original series foundations for the 2013-14 season. CTV currently pins its hopes on Tim McAuliffe sitcom Satisfaction (pictured above) and “edgy” cop drama Played. Eva Longoria stars in adult cartoon Mother Up!, for CityTV. These are the high-profile greenlights, which TV, eh? has mentioned before. Less reported-on are the failed pilots that Canadian broadcasters want shod of.
In 2010-11, Bell Media announced a couple of high-profile pilots – Borealis for Space, and Stay with Me for CTV. Stay with Me was announced at the same time as Saving Hope and Highland Gardens (later The L.A. Complex.) According to CTV/CTV Two Communications Manager Jim Quan, Stay with Me aired on CTV Northern Ontario. The pilot can currently be seen at watch.ctv.ca.
Borealis, a sci-fi pilot centred around a frontier town in the Arctic region of 2045, airs today — Friday, January 11, 2013, at 9:00 PM ET. SPACE eventually greenlit Borealis as a two-hour, backdoor pilot. Borealis has received a bit of press, mainly West Coast coverage.
Three of CBC’s 2011-era unsold pilots – Wish List, Gavin Crawford’s Wild West, and Great Scott – don’t currently have air dates as far as I know. All three shows appear in the Canada Media Fund’s 2011-12 list of funded projects (PDF). Usually, CBC’s unsold pilots air in the summer or as filler on nights between Stanley Cup Playoff games.
I generally like unsold television pilots. A full-fledged television series can throw its promotional weight on you from every angle – billboards, print and online ads, social media, webisodes, word of mouth both organic and astro-turfed. Unsold Canadian pilots are generally aired once, with as little fanfare as possible, and done with. Even Ron James went through this process with Almost There.
I can’t blame CTV for picking the shows with American sales. Saving Hope was picked up by NBC, while The L.A. Complex earned a shot on The CW; Stay with Me got lost in the shuffle. SPACE’s current Canadian content includes Being Human (US) and Primeval: New World, with Orphan Black and Bitten on the way. In Canada, science fiction television is competitive, as Showcase has Lost Girl and Continuum. Borealis was initially announced as a one-hour pilot, so its current status as a backdoor pilot makes it more marketable.
There is one main difference between an unsold Canadian pilot and a unsold American pilot. Most Canadian pilots get their money through public funds, like the Canada Media Fund. Current CMF Performance Envelope guidelines require most CMF-funded pilots to be aired within 18 months of their completion and delivery of their production (PDF), and must be aired between 7:00-11:00 PM, unless the broadcaster and producer(s) mutually agree that the pilot should not be broadcast.
By airing Stay with Me in Northern Ontario, CTV – as a national program service – technically fulfills its agreement with the CMF. There’s no specific rule that the pilot has to be nationally broadcast, which allows CTV wiggle room. It can be argued that satellite services, like Shaw Direct and Bell TV, allow a local broadcast to be televised nationally. In any case, Stay with Me is better served on CTV’s video site, although Twitter posts like this make up the brunt of the promotion.
There are exceptions to the unspoken, get-it-on-and-off strategy. APTN is usually democratic about its pilots, airing them in prime-time slots before some of them make series. APTN does this to fill schedule holes – it’s one of two by-definition Canadian national networks serving an aboriginal Canadian audience.
Of note, APTN floated the Pick a Pilot competition in 2009, which pitted Blackstone against The Time Traveler. Blackstone and The Time Traveler reaired in 2010, in keeping with APTN’s treatment of pilots.
In 2007, Teletoon launched the Teletoon Detour Pilot Project. Ten pilots were floated on the web in 2009, and nine aired as part of a 2010-11 anthology series. The initiative took three years to fully implement. By the time the Pilot Project debuted on television, Teletoon Detour gave way to Teletoon at Night. Fugget About It is, to date, the Pilot Project’s only “graduate.”
In the 2000s, CBC floated viewer-response polls for eight pilots. Rideau Hall and An American in Canada aired on January 18, 2002. For three consecutive Mondays in January 2005, Walter Ego, Hatching, Matching and Dispatching, and Getting Along Famously were floated as possible series. Only Walter Ego remained a pilot.
The viewer-response initiative hasn’t been tried since 2006. On January 3 and 4, 2006, Cheap Draft, Bad Language, Fast Cars, Women and a Video Camera (yes, that was the full title); Rabbittown; and This Space for Rent were floated as possible series. This Space for Rent lasted four episodes and that was it. To date, the longest-running show from CBC’s viewer-response initiatives is An American in Canada, which lasted two seasons.
Of the three approaches to airing prospective pilots, I respected only APTN’s. Pick a Pilot had a sense of finality – Blackstone and The Time Traveler were pitted against each other, and Blackstone survived. CBC’s viewer-response polls didn’t yield any successful, long-running shows on the level of Corner Gas, or even Little Mosque on the Prairie. I still don’t understand what the Teletoon Detour/at Night Pilot Project meant to accomplish. To be fair, Teletoon heavily promoted the online part of the Pilot Project in the fall of 2009.
With the three aforementioned initiatives, I’m not strictly writing about unsold pilots. Obviously, Blackstone sold, as did Fugget About It, and a few pilots from CBC’s viewer-response initiatives. Would the series orders have changed due to audience “influence?” I doubt it. At the end of the day, television executives have the final say in which shows become series. APTN, a non-profit that accepts advertising, has to weigh its aboriginal mandate against the realities of commercial television.
I won’t argue that unsold pilots should be promoted the same as series. A network/program service/cable channel goes with the shows that will, supposedly, make it the most money. At the same time, pilots sometimes fail due to factors outside their overall quality – lack of overseas sales, executive shuffles, not being a good “fit,” overall cost, etc. The American television system beats Canada on unsold pilot quantity, and it’s a rare occurrence these days when an American pilot is shown on its channel of origin.
CTV talks about Spun Out now. If the pilot doesn’t evolve into a series, will CTV still talk about it? Of course not. Spun Out is where Stay with Me was a couple of years ago, and Satisfaction no longer is.
It’s dumb to pretend unsold pilots don’t exist in Canada, especially in a Netflix/Hulu world. The trick is for the Canadian broadcaster to make the most money off its pilots, before content control reverts to the production companies. Sadly, few Canadian broadcasters want to discover that trick.
As an aside, whatever happened to Showcase’s Rave Squad?