Every year Canadian television networks roll out their new lineups at glitzy events designed to highlight the breadth of their programming and persuade advertisers to spend money during their shows.
This year was no exception. Shaw Media, Bell Media and Rogers Media each spent a day promoting the shows they bought in Los Angeles a few weeks ago and assuring everyone they will be huge giant hits that will change the history of television.
Most of the shows won't be mainstream hits, but that's not the point. In June, everything looks like a winner.
But something was different this year. There was as much talk about what's happening away from the screen as what's going to happen on the screen. The networks are waking up to social media, and trying to figure out how to use popular services such as Twitter to build the buzz needed to vault an obscure show into the mainstream.
Shaw was first out of the gate this week, announcing it had joined Twitter's Amplify program. This will allow the network to embed clips from its shows right into tweets. It could also see them share more information with fans while a show is airing, something particular useful for reality television shows because viewers typically hold their smartphones in their hands and self-righteously tweet about whichever bad behaviour they are watching.
The networks haven't been part of this conversation, but would like to take advantage of the conversations built around their programming.
That's why Bell Media stepped up the next day and announced it would partner with Twitter to better understand how users are using their phones and laptops while watching television, and develop ways to measure that activity. All of the networks acknowledge that "second screen viewing," by which viewers use other devices to complement traditional television, is increasingly popular, but they are unsure what effect it could have on viewership and advertising.
Rogers didn't bother mentioning any social media at its upfront. The broadcaster understands that viewership habits are changing, but is leery about giving media such as Twitter and Facebook the free publicity that comes with partnerships and online campaigns.
Here's what the networks hope their viewers will be talking about this time next year.
Shaw, which owns Global and 19 specialty channels, will introduce 60 new shows to complement the 90 series it is bringing back.
The broadcaster that brought you Big Brother Canada also said it would create a new channel called DTOUR, a "lifestyle" channel with a series featuring Poison front man Bret Michaels fancying up Winnebagos in a show called Rock My RV.
Lifestyle is code for "reality," and much of the speciality programming featured by Shaw will follow the "ordinary" lives of "regular people" just trying to get by as the television cameras roll. Some of their new shows include Cutthroat Kitchen ("taking the average cooking competition further than it's ever gone before") and Guy & Rachael's Kids Cook-Off ("starring Guy Fieri, Rachael Ray and the most adorable competitors ever").
Bell's biggest announcement was that it would make Bravo available in real-time online and on mobile devices to anyone who subscribes to the channel, and make its broader CTV programming available in the fall. It's a big deal, and the network hopes it will help keep subscribers from cutting their cords and switching to services such as Netflix.
Bell went a little easier on the programming this year, saying that because it already has so many big-deal shows (Hello, Big Bang Theory!), it didn't need to go on a spending bender next season. It focused on loading Tuesday nights with new shows, including Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., and The Goldbergs (a 1980s-themed comedy that relies on fake film footage and has lines such as "The only one who understands me is Flavor Flav!").
Bell prefers to call its reality programming "unscripted drama," and will add Masterchef Canada to its lineup. If it sounds familiar, that's because the Canadian Masterchef series will become the 42nd regional variation of the hit format.
Rogers spent most of its time landing shows for its recently expanded City network. Like the other networks, reality television is a cornerstone of its new lineup. Unlike the other networks, it embraces the format and calls it what it is. It even acknowledges that its hit Bachelor Canada, which was renewed for a second oddly uncomfortable season, is a "guilty pleasure for all women."
New guilty pleasures include Storage Wars Canada, The Project: Guatemala (rich kids are flown to an exotic location thinking they are part of an adventure show, but are forced to build a house for poor people), and Meet the Family (a show that has couples introduce their partners to their fake parents who are actually actors surrounded by 30 hidden cameras).
It also secured rights to the ultimate reality show, announcing it would broadcast the Grammys.