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Bell Media Opens Door to Working With Streaming Giants to Co-Produce TV Shows

Bell Media CEO Sean Cohan, the veteran American TV exec newly-hired to lead Canada’s top-rated broadcaster and local streamer Crave, says he’s open to working with American streaming giants to produce TV shows.

Asked whether Bell Media would consider taking the Canadian rights to an indie series that Netflix or other major American streamers may launch stateside and in other international territories, Cohan told The Hollywood Reporter he’d be open to such cost-saving partnerships.

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“Whether we would collaborate with the streamers to take Canadian rights to their rest-of-world, it’s a scenario I’m not aware whether Bell has undertaken before now, but it’s something we absolutely have to consider. I don’t know why we wouldn’t consider such a scenario if the story was right,” Cohan said.

The veteran American TV executive spent 15 years at A+E Networks, including as president of international and digital media, and completed a stint as chief growth officer and president at global measurement and data analytics company Nielsen before becoming head of Toronto-based Bell Media in Nov. 2023.

That hands Cohan control of Bell Media’s top-rated CTV television network, a slate of specialty cable channels and the Crave streaming platform. And as the digital age has allowed U.S. studio dramas and comedies that traditionally reached Canadians via local pay TV providers like CTV to now be streamed directly into homes via Disney+, Paramount+ and Netflix, Bell Media is looking to Cohan and his global market expertise to help ensure future profits will come more from channel subscriptions than advertising, including for its local Crave streaming platform, and monetizing expanding digital content offerings.

“We are in the business of delivery, sometimes making, sometime acquiring, the best stories and where consumers want it to monetize an audience we know well … We have a scale. We have a reach and we have our ability to cultivate like-minded partnerships with U.S.-based and other global studios,” Cohan told THR.

His hire also coincided with U.S. streaming giants like Netflix and Prime Video facing first-time spending obligations to support the production of homegrown movies and TV series after Bill C-11 — which aimed to update the federal Broadcasting Act for the digital age — passed into law. Just how much cash the Americans will give local indie producers – on whom CTV and Crave depends for a supply of local TV series – will be set after recent regulatory hearings held by the CRTC, the country’s TV and telecoms regulator, produces a decision.

Cohan is hoping the CRTC — which will also hammer out a new “Canadian content” definition for homegrown TV shows as part of a separate regulatory process — will allow Bell Media and other local media players to better compete against American digital behemoths as Canadians increasingly shift to streaming platforms and away from traditional cable TV subscriptions in an unfolding digital age.

“We believe in the even playing field. We hope the folks in regulatory positions will move fast to ensure that playing field is even for the local interests,” Cohan said. Netflix and the CBC, Canada’s public broadcaster, earlier partnered on local TV series like the Anne drama based on the Anne of Green Gables novels, and Alias Grace, which adapted the Margaret Atwood novel of the same name.

And Netflix is currently backing the CBC and APTN comedy North of North, which has started production in Nunavut in northern Canada. Rival Canadian media giant Rogers Communications a decade ago partnered with Netflix to co-produce the homegrown sci-fi series Between for its short-lived Shomi streaming platform.

But for the most part, private broadcasters have stayed away from splitting programming rights with U.S. streamers, leaving that to the CBC as it streams locally-hatched series in Canada, while Netflix or another U.S. streamer takes the rest-of-the-world rights.

An indie producer may negotiate with a Canadian broadcaster to offer a share of the format rights, non-exclusive streaming rights for certain international territories or for a longer license term. But for the most part, such deals see a Canadian broadcaster limited to exploiting local TV rights.

Cohan cautions Bell Media would need to ensure a series’ concept and creative would resonate with CTV and Crave subscribers, but “we’d have to be open to it,” he added. The Bell Media boss also argued fast-changing TV viewer habits as Canadians pivot to streaming platforms, and a stubbornly soft advertising market impacting linear TV channels, has Bell Media having to shift with the times.

“We cannot do things the way we used to do them … We have to transform how we do things and transform from a legacy broadcaster in many ways to a content leader and a digital media leader,” Cohan argued. That’s in a Canadian TV industry that has long depended on Hollywood to make dramas and comedies that dominate prime time schedules offered up by private broadcasters and the cable and streaming technologies by which they are viewed — while the Canadians do the rest.

The rest includes Canadian actors, creatives and crews increasingly helping make American TV series like The Handmaid’s Tale, The Boys and Star Trek: Discovery that TV viewers binge on north of the border at Hollywood production hubs in Toronto and Vancouver.

But a legacy Canadian TV business where CTV and other private broadcasters bought new and returning U.S. primetime series on the spot at the Los Angeles Screenings each May before rushing home to unveil their shopping basket to domestic advertisers has broken down in the streaming era where Netflix and Prime Video now dominate the Canadian TV space and Bell Media and other local media players look to keep pace.

That explains in part why Bell Media chose Cohan to take the helm less for his ability to twist arms at the CRTC or on Parliament Hill in Ottawa and more for his world-facing industry expertise to be harnessed for use by the Canadian media player. “Gone are the days where Hollywood has a monopoly on being ambitious with creative ideas. To date and for the foreseeable future, we’ve been able to strike these very symbiotic and creatively-enriching partnerships with the big global players and it seems like everybody wins so far,” he said.

At the same time, Cohan’s bid by Bell Media to keep making compelling TV content amid competition from U.S. streamers and other global digital players did hit a speed bump last month when a visibly-disappointed Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau during a tense press conference called the latest round of layoffs by parent Bell Canada a “garbage decision.”

“I will simply say, three months in, it was a welcome to Canada,” Cohan said as he expressed his own disappointment Bell Canada was singled out for criticism over job cuts happening across the global entertainment industry.

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