Blame Canada?

A longtime friend of mine who recently departed the CW passed along a lengthy piece that recently dropped on DECIDER lamenting what is now clearly the end of an era.  The Alex Zalben-authored piece was an emotional eulogy to a network that was a champion of diversity, stability and storytelling. led for most of its run by the highly respected Mark Pedowitz, a rare executive equally admired by the business colleagues he cut his career teeth with and the creatives he ultimately embraced and grew during his lengthy run at the top.

His de facto replacement, Brad Schwartz, was front and center at his first upfront presentation yesterday, where he unveiled a 2023-24 schedule that, unlike at least two of his competitors’, promises to at least include three nights of scripted programming.  But two of them will feature series that–gasp–weren’t originally produced for the United States.  And that figures, considering where and how Schwartz built his own career path, as was detailed by Business Wire when he got the gig last fall:

Schwartz served as General Manager of a portfolio of eight music and pop culture networks in Canada, including MTV Canada and MuchMusic, where his team produced the Gemini-winning “MTV Live,” the North American-wide hit “The Hills After Show” (hosted by a young Dan Levy), the highest rated non-sports cable program on television “The MuchMusic Video Awards,” Emmy-nominated and Peabody-winning “Degrassi,” and produced Martin Gero’s first TV show “The L.A. Complex” (which was licensed to The CW)….and began his career working for Lorne Michaels at “Saturday Night Live.”  Schwartz also launched and led VEVO in Canada (and) was named one of “Canada’s Top 40 Under 40” executives.

It was that connection to Levy that gave Schwartz perhaps his greatest U.S. accomplishment with the successful importing of SCHITT’S CREEK to the Pop network he previously ran, delivering outsized audience to a network otherwise dependent upon ancient library product from its Paramount parent.  And as the Yahoo release reminds, it was the culmination of Schwartz’ ability to take a broken business and eventually turn it into something both culturally significant and fiscally responsible:

Schwartz spearheaded the highly-successful award-winning re-brand of the TV Guide Network to Pop TV. As President of the network, Schwartz oversaw both creative and business operations and by instilling nimble, entrepreneurial and opportunistic programming and marketing strategies, the Pop TV team grew audience and revenue for six consecutive years.

Schwartz was responsible for landing Pop TV’s flagship original series, “Schitt’s Creek,” which received four Emmy nominations in 2019, making Pop TV only the second basic cable network in history with a Best Comedy Series Emmy nomination. In 2020, “Schitt’s Creek” won more Emmys than any comedy series in history and between “Schitt’s Creek” and “One Day at a Time,” Pop TV won the third-highest total of Emmys in the industry. In 2020, Pop TV was the fastest growing non-news network in all of television.

Having crossed paths with Schwartz both in the evolution of TVGN, a network I had some opportunity to work with when it was under the News Corporation banner and could not find either a series or a strategy that actually worked, and on the Sony side when he at least attempted to save ONE DAY AT A TIME (only to have those ambitious plans undone by the inability to produce a full season order thanks to the pandemic) , I can speak with some authority that Schwartz knows what he’s doing, and I know he knows way more about the viability and cross-border potential of Canadian content than I do.

I had the good fortune to work on two game shows in the late 1980s that were produced in Vancouver and were successfully exported.  The most successful of them was a show called TALKABOUT, which was hosted by who we had hoped was Vancouver’s answer to Pat Sajak, a young, good-looking weatherman.  Naturally, his exaggerated accemt had him frequently pronouncing its title as “Talk-A-Boot”.  With Alex Trebek established in the U.S. at that point, we felt the emcee would be forgiven, but the contestants, not so much.  We had to bus in many people from nearby Seattle to compete.  It was a lose-lose proposition that helped to hasten the show’s demise.  I know the Levy family at least controlled their accents.

So I understand the ambivalence that Zalben offers that this iteration of the CW portends to be:

(O)n the scripted side, you’ll still get to see stalwarts like One Tree Hill and Riverdale ex-pat Chad Michael Murray, but on cheaply licensed imports that have already aired in Canada. The licensed shows bit was something that was already happening under the previous stewardship, but with Nexstar, it’s arguable The CW now stands for “Canadians Watched (first).”  It’s entirely possible these shows are good. A light-hearted procedural starring Lea Thompson as a novelist who teams up with her daughter to solve mysteries titled The Spencer Sisters? Sounds fun to me! A show based on the writings of the same author as Netflix hit Virgin River? Sure, why not!

And I’ve also seen first-hand how Canadian scripted series can be both financially responsible and appealing.  I’ve worked with producers of the series HAVEN, which enjoyed a lengthy run on Syfy, and PRIVATE EYES, which ran several seasons on ION.  I’ve worked extensively on their numbers and deeply analyzed their popularity.  Their audiences on both sides of the border didn’t notice a thing.

And bear in mind Schwartz now works for a company, Nexstar, that inherited a failed strategy from WGN America and brought in into alignment by acquiring several far lower-cost series, many from Canada, including one Sony had developed, Jerry O’Connell’s CARTER.  CARTER worked as well as anything else did for that transitional period.  (Ironically, the CW presentation occurred on the same day that the mercurial billionaire that destroyed Tribune Media and, in part, WGN America, Sam Zell, met his own demise).

Dave Grohl struck a nerve with his with his Crown Royal Super Bowl spot that celebrated Canadian imports.

So if Brad Schwartz says SON OF A CRITCH or THE SPENCER SISTERS are possibly as appealing as peanut butter, Celine Dion and football, I’m willing to give them a shot.

If you feel differently, you can always join Kyle’s mom on the picket line.  But I have a hunch there are other causes more worthy of picketing in the coming months.

You can blame technology, Wall Street, fractionalization and aging for why the CW you may have loved is a memory.  But don’t blame Canada.  And certainly don’t blame Brad Schwartz.

Until next time….

Leave a Comment