Vancouver has become the darling of the TV world for production of reality, or unscripted, TV shows, attracting the likes of Oprah Winfrey as well as Canada’s biggest TV producers. But can the local industry outlast the flavour of the day?
It caused a bit of a stir last year when it was announced that there’d be a Real Housewives of Vancouver. Shot in Vancouver, starring real Vancouver ladies, set to air at the end of March or in early April this year, it is our very own version of the hugely popular Bravo docu-soap franchise. That means it’s fully loaded with the stock-in-trade of such shows: acrylic nails, long flaxen weaves, cantaloupe breasts, dresses as tight as Saran Wrap and forked tongues, all served up with a shameful loss of humility.
It gave Vancouverites pause. We are Canadians, after all. That sort of thing is the preoccupation of the Angelenos down south who invented it. What affluent local woman would dare admit to occupying the surgically enhanced and cat-fighting world of ladies who do lunch? It just seemed so thoroughly unCanadian.
Or is it so unCanadian after all? Vancouver producer Louise Clark, who has a demeanor as unassuming as her name, is the woman who brought Real Housewives to Canada. She is the antithesis of the show, a picture of Zen-like serenity cradling her coffee mug with her Cairn terrier at her feet, in a stylish boardroom that used to be part of the Lululemon yoga empire. If anyone sums up Vancouver’s newfound status as a spawning ground for unscripted television, also known as reality, factual or lifestyle programming, it is Clark. The TV veteran from Toronto knew a good thing when Michael Edelstein, president of NBC’s international TV production arm, approached her with the idea more than a year ago. She left her job at CTV, formed her own company, Lark Productions Inc. and hired Erin Haskett as her vice-president of development. They launched in a 650-square-foot startup office, but after only a couple of months expanded into the 8,500-square-foot space on Clark Drive, with offices for half a dozen staff. In the past year, about 150 contract employees have gone through the door.
Clark is a respected industry veteran who spent 20 years in Toronto, where she headed development and production for the CTV network nationally before moving to Vancouver. She is among the few in Canada who have the skills and connections to start a new production company from scratch, and she knew that unscripted was a safe bet that wasn’t going away anytime soon.
“It wasn’t handed to us on a platter,” Clark says of the deal, which came as a result of her long working relationship with Edelstein. Once Edelstein was ensconced in NBCUniversal LLC’s London office, she reports, he searched the globe for television partners and wanted her for Canada. “We got first shot at it,” Clark explains, “and we knew the non-scripted stuff would get us going.”
Since pioneering British producer Mark Burnett brought the world Survivor back in 2000, the unscripted genre has continued to morph into sub-genres that swing wildly from the horribly crass and unreal, to harmless infotainment, such as decorating cupcakes or rolling balls of cheese down a hill. Although Vancouver usually leans toward the not-so-crass, it so happens that unscripted is a style of programming that local companies such as Lark Productions have proven exceptionally good at, and our knack for it has made Vancouver less an outpost than a major player.