New Faces in Syndie: Program Partners SYndicates CanAdian ‘Crime Watch’ Block

Apr 17, 2006  •  Post A Comment

A Canadian crime wave is about to invade the United States. On television, that is.

For the second season in a row, the Venice, Calif.-based distributor Program Partners is syndicating one-hour dramas that were originally produced for prime-time broadcast in Canada.

U.S. audiences will be familiar with the crop of domestic off-network hours debuting this fall for weekend runs in syndication, including CBS procedurals “Without a Trace” and “CSI: Miami” and FX’s “The Shield.” But Program Partners’ syndicated “Crime Watch” block of two Canadian procedural dramas, CTV’s “Cold Squad” and CBC’s “Stone Undercover,” is programming the vast majority of American viewers have never seen before.

Bringing Canadian programming to the U.S. market was a natural progression, said Josh Raphaelson, a principal for Program Partners, considering the current marketplace has been affected by the death of the first-run action hour and cable’s continued interest in acquiring off-network programming.

“Stations were really drying out for something original,” he said.

“Cold Squad” is a one-hour procedural that features a female central character, police Sgt. Ali McCormick, played by Julie Stewart, who leads a team of forensic investigators and pathologists who solve long-abandoned cases. With 98 produced episodes, Program Partners considers the series, which debuted in Canada in 1998, a forerunner of CBS’s Sunday night drama “Cold Case.”

“Stone Undercover” is a “Moonlighting”-like detective series that pairs ex-cop and ex-con Tom Stone (Chris Martin) with a no-nonsense boss, Cpl. Marina De Luzio (Janet Kidder). The show, which has 26 produced episodes and has been running in Canada since 2002 under the title “Tom Stone,” profiles the two partners’ working relationship as they go after influential and wealthy criminals who think they are above the law.

“Crime Watch” has been cleared in about 70 percent of the U.S. for the 2006-07 season as of the end of March.

If this season’s success of Program Partners’ syndication rookie “Da Vinci’s Inquest” is any indication, “Crime Watch” is likely to be accepted by American audiences. Season to date through March 26, “Da Vinci’s” has scored a 1.9 national household rating in syndication, according to Nielsen Media Research. That’s above the season averages for rival first-year off-net hours “Smallville,” “Stargate: Atlantis” and “Star Trek: Enterprise.” Though “Da Vinci’s” has been outperformed in the ratings by fellow syndication rookies “Alias” and “24” (both 2.2 for the season), those two shows are down from their September debut week ratings performances, while “Da Vinci’s” is up 36 percent.

Part of “Da Vinci’s” success was the strategy of pitching stations that already were running the successful “CSI” in syndication and convincing them the show would be a good companion, Mr. Raphaelson said.

“We say nothing succeeds like success,” he said, noting that for the upcoming season, the goal was to have a complete block available for stations. “The creative solution was to take the solution and provide it again.”

“Crime Watch” did offer a bonus as part of its sales pitch that “Da Vinci’s” could only dream of, Mr. Raphaelson said.

“A funny thing happened on the way to NATPE,” he said of the annual convention of the National Association of Television Program Executives, held in January, which coincided with the surprise announcement that UPN and The WB were merging to create a single fifth network, The CW. That announcement caught many local station managers by surprise, leaving WB and UPN affiliates to wonder what exactly they would need to fill their schedules come fall.

“We knew at the time we were the only syndicator with a block of programming that was produced on network budgets, specifically for a prime-time play, that had not been seen in the market before,” Mr. Raphaelson said.

With “ER” and other weekly off-network syndicated veterans going away, there are also some opportunities on traditional affiliates for “Crime Watch.”

The block has been scheduled for “late-night on news affiliates and in prime time and late-night on MyNetworkTV and The CW affiliates,” Mr. Raphaelson said.

While Program Partners’ series are fresh for the U.S. audience, there was concern that shows shot in Canada for a Canadian audience might not do well with American viewers, who are more used to domestic adaptations when it comes to off-network syndicated fare.

“There was some trepidation,” Mr. Raphaelson said. “Some industry watchers thought there might be a difficult translation.”

In the case of “Da Vinci’s,” fears were laid to rest fairly quickly, he said.

“The audience has just really perceived the values of the writing and the finely drawn characters and the style in which it is shot,” he said. “In some ways ‘Da Vinci’s’ is a difficult show because it doesn’t have neat endings.”

In terms of procedurals, where details about the law and the process of prosecution drive story lines, differences between Canadian and U.S. jurisprudence have also not been an issue. If anything, those differences have added to the storytelling, Mr. Raphaelson said. For “Da Vinci’s,” the main character is the coroner for the city of Vancouver, British Columbia, a position that in Canada is prosecutorial as well as forensic.

“Under the law the coroner not only determines the cause of death but also investigates [because he] is charged with protecting the public,” he said, noting that coroners in Canada tend to come out of the police detective ranks. “That is literally foreign to our system, but it has the effect of setting up a courtroom drama that is very interesting.”

Some reformatting does take place, however.

“There are different broadcast standards there than here, so we do have to be mindful of language,” Mr. Raphaelson said.