BYLINE: Gord McLaughlin
Four years ago, producer Linda Schuyler wasn’t confident that she could saddle up her Degrassi franchise for yet another series, recalls CTV president of programming Susanne Boyce.
What helped to light Schuyler’s fire, Boyce reveals, was a declaration by CTV CEO Ivan Fecan. “I miss Joey,” he said, referring to one of Degrassi Junior High’s most beloved characters, the joker Joey Jeremiah (Pat Mastroianni). Fecan was a longtime franchise fan – in fact, he was the programmer at the CBC who elevated the original Kids of Degrassi Street to primetime.
Now that Degrassi: The Next Generation ranks as CTV’s top-rated homegrown drama, pulling in around 660,000 viewers per week, everyone is grateful that Fecan missed Joey.
Boyce recalls the pivotal pitch meeting back in 2001. Schuyler and Stephen Stohn, the wife-and-husband team behind prodco Epitome Pictures, were keen on selling a soap to CTV.
“After I heard the pitch,” says Boyce, “I said, ‘You’re not finished with Degrassi. You’ve got something more in there.’ When Linda spoke about Degrassi, she was so impassioned, but she wasn’t so sure there was audience interest.”
Now there’s no doubt, as this fall’s heavily promoted Degrassi “back-to-school” merchandise can attest to. As an equity partner, CTV gets a cut of every binder and notebook sold. Boyce says the expansion of the Degrassi brand exemplifies the entrepreneurial vision behind Epitome.
“They look beyond the 30 minutes of the TV show,” says Boyce. “They’re very focused in a business and a creative way. That’s really unusual.”
For example, Boyce believes that Epitome pioneered the use of websites – in partnership with Toronto’s Snap Media – to promote and develop followings for series characters.
CTV’s relationship with Epitome expanded last season when it picked up the prodco’s Instant Star series. Stohn, who is counsel for CTV’s Canadian Idol and a songwriter in his own right, conceived of the teen drama about the winner of an Idol-type contest.
Schuyler explains that the relationship between CTV and Epitome has been bolstered by regulatory conditions placed on the merger that created CTV parent Bell Globemedia. CTV had promised to make extra money available to extend the number of episodes per season for some Canadian series – in this case from the normal 13 to an extraordinary 22.
“That has allowed CTV to come in as an equity partner on episodes 14 to 22,” says Schuyler. “And because the show has done well internationally, it’s wonderful for us to be able to write cheques to people and say, ‘Thank you for believing.'”