Vancouver’s Emerging Reality TV Empire

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?

Louise Clark, Lark Productions, Real Housewives of Vancouver | BCBusiness
Louise Clark is rolling out Vancouver’s new wave of TV, starting with Real Housewives of Vancouver.

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.


Image: Clinton Hussey
Force Four’s John Ritchie.

Vancouver’s wealth of unscripted TV shows

Another Vancouver company riding the growth of unscripted TV is Force Four Entertainment Inc. It has its share of scripted dramas in its catalogue, but its reality show Cupcake Girls and formatted reality show The Bachelor Canada have industry tongues wagging. (For the ­uninitiated, “formatted” programming is a replicate of an already existing show, such as American Idol, Top Chef or in this case, The Bachelor franchise, now in its 16th season.) Cupcake Girls is sold in 90 markets worldwide, and real-life owners of the cupcake bakeries, Lori Joyce and Heather White, can routinely be seen somewhere on South American television speaking in Spanish. Who would have thought the mundane workings of a cupcake business would have such universal appeal? 

“The global market is looking more at Canada than they ever have,” says co-owner John Ritchie, who’s been with Force Four since 1990. He bought the company with partners Rob Bromley and Gillian Lowrey about six years ago. The company founders are Hugh and Debra Beard, who’d carved a respected niche for themselves with dramatic productions, including the acclaimed miniseries Human Cargo, starring Kate Nelligan. When Ritchie and partners took over, they had around 20 employees. Today, despite the fact they’ve moved into a bigger office, around 50 people are vying for space. “We are currently busier than we’ve been in 25 years,” says Ritchie. “People are sitting in areas of the office that were never intended to have desks.”

A relative newcomer to the Vancouver TV production industry, Worldwide Bag Media Inc. was founded in 2008 by Anna Wallner and Kristina Matisic, who rose to fame as stars of the TV series The Shopping Bags. Heather Hawthorn-Doyle, another veteran of Vancouver’s TV industry, switched jobs last year from Vancouver-based Omni Film Productions Ltd. to become head of development and executive producer for Worldwide Bag Media. Her role is to help the company delve further into lifestyle and unscripted programming, which is her forté. Wallner and Matisic, who still host their self-produced shows, Beauty Call on the W Network and Grocery Bag on Oprah Winfrey’s OWN network in Canada and the U.S., are expanding their independent operation to include programming that does not feature their well-known faces.

From left: Kristina Matisic (left) and Anna Wallner of The Shopping Bags; B.C.’s own Cupcake Girls; The Bachelor (U.S.).

Worldwide Bag Media is already expanding inside its beautifully old-world Gastown office building. Seated at her desk, Hawthorn-Doyle cites a figure she heard while attending the Realscreen Summit non-fiction film and television conference in Washington, D.C., last year: that about 80 per cent of all television programming is unscripted. “Real people are fascinating to us right now,” says Hawthorn-Doyle. “And it’s all about worlds you don’t know, or people that are doing things in worlds you don’t know.” 

Meanwhile, Omni Film has managed to spin its own unscripted success into a drama series. Current president and executive producer Michael Chechik is a renowned producer of environmental and wildlife documentaries who in 1977 received worldwide acclaim for his documentary Greenpeace: Voyages to Save the Whales. Last year, the CBC commissioned Omni’s drama series Arctic Air, which grew directly out of the success of the unscripted show Ice Pilots NWT, currently in production for its fourth season. The weekly Ice Pilots NWT draws about 400,000 Canadian viewers. “The key is create original content, hold on to the rights and distribute it every way you can,” says vice-president and executive producer Gabriela Schonbach, who has been with Omni since 1995. 


From Top: Food Network hit show Eat St.;
foodie Bob Blumer.

Vancouver makes for great reality TV

David Paperny started Paperny Entertainment Inc. with his wife Audrey Mehler in 1994. He had produced the 1980s CBC series The Dr. Peter Diaries about a Vancouver doctor dying of AIDS, which was repackaged as an HBO series and nominated for an Academy Award in 1994. “I’m still milking that one,” Paperny jokes, adding that his and his wife’s background in documentary filmmaking transfers well to factual programming, because it still involves storytelling. That said, Paperny still finds himself working late into the night on one-hour documentaries that are sure to make less money than a show like his Food Network hit, Eat St., which is sold in roughly 70 countries.

“The payoff in terms of the ad revenue those audiences can bring in can actually be really big,” explains Paperny. “A lot of factual programs are highly repeatable, like Eat St. It’s become really huge, and partly because episodes can be played again and again. The broadcaster can get a lot of mileage out of it.” Paperny currently has a couple hundred contract workers, with 20 full-time staff and 20 editing suites busy with shows including Bob Blumer’s World’s Weirdest Restaurants, which employs about 15 to 20 people. He even opened a New York office last fall. He needs American producers who can “speak American,” he says, because not all Canadian programming translates to audiences south of the border.

Paperny, who owns the building housing the company’s offices on Quebec Street, stops inside an edit suite to watch a writer sift through raw footage from the new Bob Blumer show, due out in spring. Blumer is in Germany, in a bathtub filled with beer, and the usually upbeat host doesn’t look at all pleased. “There are very few Canadian reality shows that really mess with people and destroy them, as part of that train wreck that’s part of American TV,” notes Paperny. “American buyers sometimes find Canadian shows slow,” he adds, chuckling, “and a little dull, a little earnest.”

The differences between Canadian and American programming may be more obvious than the subtle differences between Toronto- and Vancouver-made content. But Vancouver’s newly popular look and feel is part of the reason for the local industry’s newfound growth. Vancouverites know too well that if there’s a foreign-looking blue mailbox on the sidewalk, a film crew is in the vicinity. However, on one of those never-ending Vancouver days last summer, when sky, ocean and sailboats were saturated in crayon colours, False Creek itself played the backdrop for the taping of a new Force Four formatted production, Family Cook Off. The show paired two families against each other with a live audience, and featured Food Network judges Trish Magwood and Anthony Sedlak.

And Lark’s Gastown Gamble is about real-life Vancouver restaurateur Mark Brand and his day-to-day operations at the Save On Meats diner in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. As far as standard-fare reality TV goes, it’s hardly sensational, especially compared to American shows like Hardcore Pawn, which shows down-and-out Americans routinely getting into fisticuffs with staff.

Worldwide Bag Media’s Grocery Bag airs in more than 60 markets, and recently got picked up on OWN in the U.S. “I’ve heard from broadcasters that they love the sensibility of shows coming out of Vancouver because we have a bit more of a dramatic flair,” says Worldwide’s Hawthorn-Doyle. “We understand how to do shows that have a different feel than shows out of Toronto. We have a different vibe. . . . I think Toronto is more corporate to a certain extent, and we’re a bit more arty.”

Another reason for Vancouver’s success in generating unscripted TV production is that for decades the city has been a hotbed of feature film and TV drama production, which developed a lot of experienced crews, writers, producers and directors. “There’s been a lot of transition,” says Lark’s Haskett. “One of our producers on Real Housewives came from 14 years of Stargate. And a lot of our production staff came from that team on Stargate, because Stargate went down and there weren’t any scripted shows going on in town. It made sense for them transition-wise. And they are getting a longer run, and experience.”

Toronto-based Vibika Bianchi is a Corus Entertainment Inc. vice-president who is in charge of lifestyle and reality original programming. The broadcaster owns both W Network and OWN Canada, and Bianchi has been increasingly looking toward Vancouver for content. OWN Canada has bought six new shows from Vancouver, including Worldwide Bag Media’s health show Buy.o.logic, which premiers in April, and Force Four’s Aldergrove-based Million Dollar Neighbourhood, which aired January 23. Force Four’s Cupcake Girls will do its third season on the W Network. “There is a ton of opportunity here,” says Bianchi. “The talent is growing and maturing, and getting to the level of real talent, real expertise there. I can think of people in Vancouver who are probably the best in the business.”


From top: The hosts from Aldergrove-based show
Million Dollar Neighbourhood; the Saskatchewan-
filmed hit sitcom
Corner Gas, created by comedian
Brent Butt (with gas pump, right).

Reality TV brings jobs to Vancouver

The growth in unscripted production has opened doors in the labour force, and companies are looking farther afield to fill jobs, most of which are contract. (Which is not uncommon in TV: Hawthorn-Doyle, for example, says she’s worked on contract her entire career.) The demand has translated into work for unlikely TV writers, such as comedian and Vancouver Special author Charles Demers, who wrote for Force Four’s Million Dollar Neighbourhood last year. It has also meant newly created executive positions, such as head of factual entertainment at Force Four for Sean De Vries, who was previously director of development at Force Four. “Unscripted has been treated as the poor cousin to scripted, but it’s not,” says De Vries. “It’s the bread and butter of the industry, and it’s not steady enough in the scripted world.”

Still, not everybody makes the transition to unscripted with ease, notes Hawthorn-Doyle. Referring to writers in particular, she says, “Some are successful, some not. You can’t make real people say that great four-word phrase you wrote. You just can’t.”

Growing pains aside, unscripted programming provides a stable foundation for Vancouver’s TV production industry for other reasons. Obviously, unscripted is cheaper to create because it doesn’t require special effects and professional actors’ fees. Less cost means less risk than scripted. It’s also a speedier process from blue-sky meeting to air date. “I can pitch a factual show, develop it, and shoot it in the time it takes scripted to get through development,” says De Vries.

Another big draw is the proliferation of channels that need to be fed a steady stream of content, including the Food Network, Discovery Channel, OWN, Cosmo TV, W Network, HGTV, Showcase and History Channel. Besides, the hits are fewer and farther between in the scripted world, says Clark: “If you hit the jackpot, sure, but for the most part, there’s the sheer volume of non-scripted, and the appetite in the world market for it.”

The biggest challenge for Vancouver’s nascent industry in unscripted TV production is that it’s at the mercy of such unpredictable forces as government regulations, corporate consolidation, the economy, culture trends, and new technology. For example, when the 2008 recession struck, the industry was hit hard. Paperny Entertainment had to lay off one-third of its staff. The Discovery Channel stopped ordering content for about 18 months, says Paperny. Force Four’s Ritchie adds that during that period it was strictly survival of the fittest. By the time the economy picked up, those companies that had kept working were in good shape. And post-recession, those survivors received a major shot in the arm when Shaw Media’s purchase of the Canwest Global assets last year meant a sudden resurgence of orders for Canadian content. 

The consolidation, however, only underlines the industry’s uncertainty. “It’s very volatile,” says Paperny. “There are only three broadcasters in Canada today: Shaw, Bell and Rogers. That’s it. If any one of those companies is in trouble, or shifting their vision or priorities, it dramatically affects us.”

The playing field is littered with hard-bitten veterans who’ve learned a few survival techniques along the way. Not surprisingly, the major players in Vancouver who’ve survived to talk about the ups and downs each have at least 20 years’ television experience. And they all agree that diversity, not merely following trends, is key to survival. Unscripted TV may be the bread-and-butter genre right now, but Vancouver hasn’t lost its foothold on dramatic television. And a successful drama series is still the ultimate prize for most producers, including Clark, who intends to tackle drama again, having developed successful shows such as Corner Gas and Defying Gravity. 

The shift toward unscripted has repercussions for the industry at large. Now that production of drama television is significantly down, overall spending on domestic productions in B.C. has seen a drop from around $407 million in 2007 to $243 million in 2010, according to B.C. Film Commission statistics. 

Salaries are generally lower in unscripted than in drama, explains Liz Shorten, managing vice-president of the B.C. chapter of the Canadian Media Production Association, and she’d like to see more balance between the two. “It’s a big difference,” she notes. “While we welcome lifestyle stuff, we would like to see a full complement of projects, including drama, lifestyle and documentary.” She adds that original content is essential for long-term economic growth, pointing out that because companies hold on to intellectual property rights, global sales bring profits back to B.C. and companies reinvest in other shows. When it’s a U.S. production, the local industry only gets a service fee, but never sees the revenue.

Diversity, and adaptability, says Paperny, are synonymous with survival. “I’m happiest when we are doing one or two docs and one or two doc series, and we are doing a reality show, and a lifestyle show and a food show, because it keeps us sharp,” he says. “At first, we had some growing pains, because it’s a different style. But it’s change or die. If you can’t change it up, especially way out here in this raincloud on the edge, you’re dead.”