Link: Can the dark Strange Empire ever touch the cozy success of Murdoch Mysteries?

From Kate Taylor:

Those British TV shows in which Miss Marple solves the case or Inspector Morse fingers the wrong guy are often known as cozies. Even when set in the present, they are nostalgic productions with bucolic settings from which a few not-too-gruesome examples of violence are eventually expelled. Gore, corruption and ambivalence rarely intrude. Continue reading.

 

Greg David
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Greg David

Prior to becoming a television critic and partner at TV, Eh?, Greg David was a critic for TV Guide Canada, the country's most trusted source for TV news. He has interviewed television actors, actresses and behind-the-scenes folks from countless programs. Survivor winners, Donald Trump, Jerry Bruckheimer ... he has interviewed (literally) hundreds of TV people over the course of his career. He is a past member of the Television Critics Association.
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11 thoughts on “Link: Can the dark Strange Empire ever touch the cozy success of Murdoch Mysteries?”

  1. I find pieces like this one by Taylor frustrating. When a Canadian series starts out with poor numbers and drops from there it’s a good time for some analysis of the marketing, audience expectations and, yes, problems with the show itself. Instead, too often fans just say: the show is great and everyone who disagrees is dumb (or ratings don’t matter, as John Doyle argued in another piece). But that doesn’t point to how to improve ratings (fans’ll be the first to complain if it gets cancelled) nor offer much hope any lessons will be learned for the next series down the line. There are a lot of ways to describe Strange Empire — good and bad — but too “complex” isn’t a phrase that comes to mind. And when will people realize that inferring intelligence based on a favourite TV show is only slightly more sensible than using phrenology?

    I wrote a piece for Huffington Post (I’ve provided a link though that’s probably a bit gauche) deliberately coming at the matter from a more pragmatic/critical angle (including considering the early promotion). And so far the only comment was a snide one suggesting I wait till I’ve seen the whole series before commenting.

    Canadian TV (and film) doesn’t need blind cheerleaders, nor chronic naysayers, but people willing to look at and to debate the bad and the good and strive for something sustainable.

    1. Hey D.K., thanks so much for replying. You bring up some very valid points. Sorry I missed posting your story when it first came out. I’m going to post it on the site today.

  2. As I posted elsewhere…

    Whatever you think of Strange Empire, we’re never going to get anywhere so long as we expect difficult, dark, complex dramas to get ratings like CSI. 300K in Canada = 3 million viewers in the USA. Most American cable shows that are praised get in that range. 3 million.

    The well reviewed Olive Kitteridge on HBO? Based on its US ratings if that was a Canadian show it would have garnered 55 000 viewers.

    Strange Empire is a western (limited viewers) – or has Hell on Wheels & Deadwood & Copper done numbers I’m unaware of?
    And it’s a female western, which is another limiting factor. But it’s crazy ambitious. Who says it needs to be “fixed?”
    The public needn’t learn numeracy in ratings. Why should they care? But those of us in TV should stop setting unattainable goals and asking “how come that Bad Brains album didn’t sell Taylor Swift numbers?”

    1. In my Huff Post piece (which Greg kindly linked to elsewhere on this site) I do address the marketing and audience expectations. But the ratings-or-not-ratings is a chronic dilemma — and one I’ve been criticized for before (and will be again). My position is with Canadian TV struggling with perception and funding cuts, I think to blithely — even smugly — insist winning an audience is unimportant is suicidal. Besides if you like Strange Empire you want it to continue, so considering ways to boost its ratings is enlightened self-interest.

      Ever notice how people insist ratings are unimportant — when it’s a show they personally like? You think Strange Empire is a great series (claiming it as “difficult.”, “complex” and “crazy ambitious”) — fine. I don’t particularly agree — which is also fine. Hence why ratings can be an objective criteria (I’m guessing you wouldn’t want to live in a world where low-rated series continued simply because I, personally, was a fan).

      Pop entertainment is a struggle for the artist to tell the story they want to tell, but in a way that connects with an audience. Simon & Garfunkel’s folk version of “The Sounds of Silence” tanked — but reorchestrated for rock it became a hit. Was that a sell-out, or simply finding the balance between art and commerce?

      Besides, nothing is so good that it can’t be improved — as a professioal writer you should know that better than anyone.

      I’ve rambled on, but I’ll finish with this: my concern is not that Strange Empire is doing poorly in the ratings, my concern is that too many people in the business don’t seem to care.

  3. First of all, DK, I think I should start by recognizing the writing you’ve been doing on Canadian TV from years. You write frequently on the topic, from a place of thoughtful, consumer/critical (not insider) consideration, and you frequently bring historical consideration of older shows into the work. It’s a thoughtful and reasoned consideration of Canadian TV…it’s appreciated and noticed. I don’t always agree with your conclusions or your points, but that’s fine. Fostering critical consideration & discussion means that sometimes people disagree.

    Second, a lot of the points you make in the article you reference above are completely valid. To pick one, your contention that they don’t seem to really know what to do with Cat. To draw a parallel, Seth Bullock in DEADWOOD was the reluctant leader who didn’t want the badge from the beginning, and that thread informed just about everything else he did in the course of the drama — including coloring the affair he had with Molly Parker’s character.

    But what I want to confine my comments to right now is this ratings debate.

    The truth is that we can’t have an honest discussion about ratings in Canada because the bar is constantly moving and is not consistent. This comes down, in a way to what I call, “Original Sin (Canadian TV edition).” I’ll get down to defining that in a minute.

    But first, here’s a survey of where we are:

    Ratings, especially for CBC, are tied up in a political argument. Each side is constantly using them to support their position, pro or con. Because of this, the ratings for every single show become a referendum on CBC itself. There is no real analogue for this Stateside, or even in the UK. Nobody would, for instance, point to the poor performance of SELFIE and declare that, in total, it represents a failure of ABC to reach an audience.

    Ratings are also selectively reported, and reported without an eye to true analysis. There is always an asterisk to be had because of Simsub. CTV or Global indeed crush numbers you see for domestic TV shows. And why wouldn’t they? They take advantage of massive USA based PR pushing the date and time, coverage in magazines, late night talk shows, an entire huge PR mechanism — and then they’re on TWO spots on your dial — the Canadian Net and the Simsubbed US net. If I’m betting the roulette wheel, I like those odds.

    We also don’t have a mechanism by which the people who understand the statistical side — Nielsen, etc, offer context for those numbers. What we have for the most part is Bill Brioux, who broke the dam and started reporting the Canadian overnights. He gets those numbers because someone leaks them to him. But he’s a journalist, not a wonk. And what doesn’t get leaked is the complete picture, or the follow up – how many viewers are added once you add in the Live plus 3 or whatever they’re counting as PVR numbers these days.

    There is no person like Marc Berman, who can immediately tell you not just what the slot did previously, or what the breakdown of the demos means, or even where the dips happened at the half hour point – but can also help you parse the spin — what the networks are saying about the performance of the show in that timeslot and whether it’s real or BS, and by how much.

    Without that critical voice, what we’re left with is Networks who put out their spin when the numbers sound good, and say they don’t matter when they don’t. And that’s all. Add to that bloggers who confidently say they mean this and that, when really? They don’t know, because without understanding the full context of the data, you’re by necessity putting out an incomplete picture. All numbers and timeslots are not equal. But we only ever see numbers reported here as blunt instruments.

    By the way, I don’t hold myself up as an expert in this stuff either — I’ve just done enough reading and know enough about the smell of bullshit to know that we have nothing like a data-driven environment for judging how ratings performance works in Canada. Not even a little bit.

    Now, to the Original Sin.

    The Olden Days in Canadian TV is when the ratings were never reported. Email made cut-and-paste forwarding of the overnights easy within organizations — so that it wasn’t only the tens of thousands of dollars that got you “inside the bubble.”

    They kept the numbers secret because they thought, rightly, that when put up against US numbers, Canadian numbers would sound paltry and small, and very unimpressive most of the time. And they do. A big sitcom getting 3 million sounds ok, but a show getting 200 000 sounds terrible – even though a Platinum record is now 80 000 downloads, and a Bestselling book in Canada is 5000 copies.

    And that’s before you get into the distinction of how many homes, etc. have CBC versus how many have Cable channel X which is on the most common cable tier, versus how many have Channel Y which is on the MeTV tier, etc, etc. For one channel, 200 000 might be a huge hit. For another, 800 000 is under performing, for a Monday at 9pm.

    Somewhere in the mists of recent time, when Canadian ratings were crashing and going down because of fragmentation in the same way US ratings were, Richard Stursberg came up with the number of “1 million” as a benchmark that meant something was doing well. 1 million is an entirely arbitrary number. It’s also a number that most CBC shows had trouble reaching when he said it.

    But whatever, that became the number. But then a funny thing happened. That number started being met.

    Not by all Canadian TV programs, of course. But a few, then a few more. Flashpoint, Corner Gas, Murdoch, Mercer, 22, Heartland, The Listener, Rookie Blue all flirted with either side of that number, give or take.

    Now. What happened in the quarters where politics meant “bash the CBC” or “bash ‘taxpayer supported’ Canadian tv?” Well, without a breath suddenly the failure number was revised UPWARD. Now those shows were failures because they weren’t close to the 3 million watching Big Bang Theory, or the 4 million watching a big Hockey game.

    This is what’s known as a classic “no win” situation.

    What you never read about? How CORNER GAS was moved 5 or 6 times around the dial, bumped for a US import sitcom. The audience inevitably found GAS again, and GAS kicked the shit out of those US sitcoms, because people wanted to watch it.

    THE LISTENER was a show that you couldn’t kill with a silver bullet. They moved that thing a million times and took it on and off the schedule, and yet that million audience found it.

    MURDOCH’s success since moving to CBC is well documented. It’s CBC’s highest rated drama. Its fans are super loyal.

    FLASHPOINT grew its ratings in its last two seasons, — when it was out of simulcast. That NEVER happens.

    ROOKIE BLUE goes on and on and on and people keep watching.

    Every two or three months, it seems, someone notices that HEARTLAND is still on, and a lot of people watch it. And isn’t that surprising?

    Er. Well. No. It’s not. Or at least, it shouldn’t be, if you gave a shit about context and reported ratings in any way that took in historical trends.

    Let’s draw an analogy to Baseball. Baseball is a game of statistics. You look at performance across a variety of situations, from season to season, and base the metrics on the aggregate of that data.

    But in Canadian TV, whenever a show comes up to bat, if it hits a home run, then it gets reported (unchallenged) that it’s a hit. Like, forever. The lucky player who gets a hit their first time up gets to pretend they have a .1000 batting average for way longer than they should. Because nobody checks, or understands what came before.

    What’s more, through the last few years we have had many shows where people tuned in for the first episode — PLAYED, etc. and then didn’t stay around. So we can, when properly promoted, open a show. Keeping them around is a matter of maintaining quality, continuing to connect with the audience.

    I’m not going to name shows, because I try to be positive when I boost Canadian TV…but there are cases in the recent past of shows that were described and covered like they were ‘hits’ for their entire run even though over the two or three or four seasons they were on, they lost 75% of the audience. In that case, the numbers didn’t matter –because they were on for different political reasons. There are shows that lose more than 60% of their huge-rating lead ins, without comment.

    Now how does that relate to STRANGE EMPIRE?

    Well, the above cases are concerning. Or should be. A show that loses 3/4 of its audience over a run of seasons, or even during the broadcast…a show that burns through and loses its lead in, that should be a concern. That should maybe signal that a change should be made.

    We all know what it means when a show’s ratings go up. Yay. Happy.

    But it’s all those in-between cases that you simply can’t judge if you don’t have the context. Which we never really have in Canadian TV.

    STRANGE EMPIRE premiered “low” to 300 000 viewers. There are two weird things about that number though. First, it seems to be holding, which suggests that maybe that’s the audience for that show.

    Second, there’s the strange fact that when they rerun it, it seems to do as well as the first broadcast. I don’t know what that means. Could mean it premieres on the wrong night. See, if we WERE data driven, some Canadian Marc Berman could look at the slot, see what was there last year, calculate if it’s over or under-performing, look at what programs like it were doing, look at what else was on, and maybe decide if it was plugged into the wrong place, or maybe if it had just found its natural level.

    What I do know is that when INTELLIGENCE — the last difficult homegrown Canadian drama — was canceled, it was pulling numbers a little lower than STRANGE EMPIRE is now.

    What I also know is that that kind of smart, data-driven analysis at Canadian networks seems to be lacking. The example I can best remember is that CTV tried showing MAD MEN in its first season, after AMC, because AMC wasn’t available in too many places in Canada. They’d done the same thing with the first two seasons of THE SOPRANOS, and did well with it.

    The gossip I heard was that CTV was expecting the “buzz show” to do gangbusters. And was quite shocked to find out that it was doing 100 000, 150 000, coast to coast.

    Now, I don’t know why that should be a surprise. MAD MEN is, was, a difficult show. It doesn’t do 20 million viewers in the USA. In fact, many of the shows that Canadians praise and say they want more of — the BREAKING BADs (at least for its first 4 seasons) do Canadian TV numbers in the US, with 10 times the population.

    As I said in my last post — we shouldn’t expect viewers to have numeracy when it comes to ratings. But at the same time, cherry picking ratings arguments to support things when the numbers are something you like, and pooh poohing them when they’re disappointing, is no way to have a logical discussion.

    Anyone who thought a female led-western on the CBC in 2014 was going to draw a million plus was kidding themselves from the beginning.

    The danger is that having set one course, numbers now play a part in doing a herky-jerky pivot or 180 to something else. CBC has played that game too much in the last few years. “We want female shows…Oh shit too many of those…now we want male shows…we want dark and difficult, but we want 2 million viewers…”

    And we want every show to be a referendum on the entire Canadian TV business.

    It’s muddle-headed and counterproductive. There’s that expression, “even the Devil can quote scripture for his purposes.” Well, beware anyone quoting ratings in Canadian TV. Chances are they’ll be arguing the opposite thing next week, because there isn’t nearly enough critical analysis of what it actually means. Instead, “ratings analysis” in Canada usually begins and ends with duelling press releases. And that doesn’t help anyone.

    1. One thing that complicates things is CBC’s increasing reliance on business deals with other broadcasters. Ratings are just one part of how a Canadian television series gets and/or stays on air. For instance, Mr. D has a second window at Rogers. The Book of Negroes is a co-pro between CBC and BET. Syfy calls the shots on Ascension; CBC acquired Canadian broadcast rights. It depends on whether the other broadcaster is satisfied with the show’s performance. For instance, Mr. D‘s third-season ratings weren’t great, but neither are the ratings for Package Deal in its second season, so there’s less risk in having something that originated on another network. Murdoch Mysteries rebounded on CBC, despite its fifth season airing on City in summer 2012, and CBC in fall 2012.

      I’m not sure moving Strange Empire to a new night will do anything to its rating. I think Strange Empire‘s current level of performance is what it’s going to manage right now, no matter where it goes. One thing I don’t see mentioned is CBC’s foreign dramas, The Honourable Woman and Janet King, currently pulling similar or worse ratings than Strange Empire. Right now, “edgier” dramas just aren’t performing for CBC right now. I don’t know what that means, exactly.

    2. That opening paragraph is making me blush! And I don’t want to keep coming back at you (narcissist as I am, I’m sincere when I say it’s more important for others to debate this stuff than for me to blather on).

      I will say:

      Valid points, from what do ratings mean to the old “is the CBC a mainstream network, or more akin to a cable/PBS network”? But simply from a public perception POV it’s hard to argue 1 000 000 is an arbitrary goal just at a time when quite a number of Canadian series have (even if only for a few episodes) hit that particular bell.

      My issue isn’t with low-rated series, but ratings should still be a concern (otherwise filmmakers end up fulfilling the very “wine-drinking, elitest snobs” stereotype detractors try to paint them as). Strange Empire might seem a tough sell in some ways, but comparing it to previous low-rated series maybe shouldn’t be an excuse for its troubles — rather those series could be learning experiences. (If I were to open a restaurant in a neighbourhood where previous restaurants had failed, people would assume I had a plan). That’s why, even when I write critical reviews, I try — however imperfectly — to be constructively critical. If I dislike (or like) something, I try to articulate why.

      What’s that old saying about there are no problems just solutions to be discovered?

      I know I annoy some people when I harp on ratings (and the joke is, personally, many of my favourite series only survive two or three seasons!) but whether you regard Canadian TV as a commercial enterprise, or a cultural one, I think bums in seats has to be at least one of the priorities.

  4. I have always thought that ‘bums in seats’ or ‘the audience’ has to be part of the enterprise. When I’m breaking story, I always take a holistic step back with the group I’m in and ask the same question:

    “Who is the audience here?”

    “What are they getting out of this, right now? What are we expecting them to feel at this point? What is the mechanism in this drama (comedy) that is engaging them at this moment, and where are we taking them next?”

    It’s an incredibly useful (and sadly, rare) thing for a writer-producer to be able to sit down with the detailed minute-by-minute ratings and watch your episode with that in front of you. You see where you engage and start to lose people. I truly believe it’s part of the compact we make with the audience. Our primary purpose is to entertain them & engage them. But it’s also an interactive process. You want to evoke emotion, curiousity, get them thinking about your story and charcacters and grafting meaning from their own lives onto the fictional stories presented to them.

    I am not arguing for ratings information being irrelevant.

    What I am pointing out is that — in the USA, where the science is more solid and dispassionate, there is a vigorous debate going on about how to retain the metrics as reflective of new viewing habits. That’s why you add in PVR’ing live plus 3 data. It’s why they want to push for live plus seven. There are certain shows that I would never watch live. SCANDAL I’m always hitting the rewind because it moves so damn fast. That’s just one example.

    The problem I point out is that we’re not honest about ratings here. They matter when the person wanting to support their argument say they matter, and they don’t when they don’t. A show can go multiple seasons bleeding ratings, while a consistent (but lower numbered) performer gets the axe and they blame ratings.

    To use your analogy, yeah, if someone opens a restaurant in a space where six other restaurant fails, one assumes that hopefully they’re smart enough to have a plan to do something different so that they’re not number seven.

    But instead what we do in Canadian TV is open the restaurant in that place, and some people wonder why it’s not getting the same traffic as the restaurant beside the busy highway in a prime location. And others would really like that nouvelle cuisine restaurant to serve as many people as the burger restaurant they passed on the way to work this morning.

    I believe in audience engagement. And I think that in Canadian TV ratings are poorly deployed to bolster or counter that argument. The politics (corporate, social, governmental, cultural, regional) are still entirely more powerful than the data. So the data is very often used dishonestly.

    Re: Cameron’s point about the British Dramas and The Honourable Woman.

    Here’s another great example where herky-jerky 180 degree reaction will hurt Canadian TV. The experiment, the idea, that Canada shows world dramas on one night is not an idea that is fully distributed through the country yet. People aren’t watching because they don’t know they are there. No one expects CBC to be showing the best of dramas from around the world. And the main place impoverished CBC is making that known is through promos on CBC which fewer people are watching.

    Do you see the vicious circle there?

    It doesn’t matter what the quality of the Drama they put there is. They’re going to eat bad ratings for at least a year because no one knows that CBC is airing that kind of stuff now. Masterpiece Theater on PBS is a comfortable brand that built over 30+ years. If you don’t have promotional muscle, it takes a long time for people to find you.

    All the Canadian networks play the same game: they promo the hell out of a new show in Season 1, and then if it survives, they saw it off and kick it out into the ocean on an ice floe without so much as a bus shelter or billboard in Season 2. And even people who would LOVE to watch that show don’t, because THEY DON’T KNOW IT’S ON.

    My job is exactly the same whether I’m doing it in Los Angeles, Toronto, Vancouver or London. But there are many, many other sectors involved in Canadian TV who cannot say the same thing.

    We DO NOT use ratings data consistently and responsibly.
    We DO NOT deploy advertising and promotional support for Canadian shows effectively.

    To the latter point — study Flashpoint. CTV made a commitment to that show and never flagged. There were billboards, transit, outside promotion, ads every year. And the ratings went up in the last two seasons.

    The problem is people saying things like, “Canadian TV fails” or “why can’t we make Canadian TV succeed more” when we are not even doing the things that we know will work to make it so.

    As an audience member, that’s a thing to be angry about. The quality has come up. There are (for the moment) talented people doing things that haven’t given up and gone south yet.

    Why do I have to fight so hard to find out when a Canadian show is on?

    Why do number seem to matter one minute and not the next?

    There will be no “Danish style” rich, wonderful dramas here until some of the contradictions above are dealt with. And until decisions are made from something other than fear.

    Strange Empire is not a show greenlit from a place of fear. Simply for that reason — even if it’s not your taste — we should celebrate it. If you want something to watch other than photocopies of U.S. formats done for less money.

  5. Wow, everyone here has made some very good points. I am one person who did expect better ratings prior to the series premiering. However, after watching the first two episodes and having the people I had talked into watching it drop like flies, I began watching the show with a much more critical eye, but an eye which viewed the show in terms of why the show failed to appeal to people, rather than an eye to artistry, if you can understand what I mean. I liked Denis`McGrath`s question `What is the mechanism in this drama (comedy) that is engaging them at this moment, and where are we taking them next?” After watching five episodes of Strange Empire, I still am not sure exactly where the characters are all going and at this point I`m not sure what I`m hoping for the characters. The title `Strange Empire“ doesn`t fit well either and give the audience anything to go on except that this show is “strange`, not a word you want potential viewers to zero in on. That all being said, I hesitated before criticizing the show because it feels somewhat traitorous. I want the show to succeed and I see so much potential but the poor ratings have made me start to criticize it This is a lot like how I felt about the now-cancelled drama, Revolution, which was a favourite of mine last year but just kept going down paths that irked me. I complained more about Revolution than any other show but it was just because I saw all the potential and was constantly left disappointed.

  6. the lack of a strong narrative drive over the course of a season or an episode had condemned many a strong idea. TV, network or cable, has no room for Kathy Acker

  7. I just wanted to throw in a comment about the obsession TV reviewers have with comparing Strange Empire with Murdoch Mysteries. The first issue any supporter of the CBC and Canadian TV in general should have with this is that such comparisons always make one show look good at the other show’s expense: if we want both show’s to do well on CBC, what is constructive about this “comparison” approach?

    Second, every single article that has attempted this has gotten Murdoch Mysteries wrong. The Globe and Mail article at least bothered to do some research first, but it still misidentifies Murdoch Mysteries as a “cozy”. It occurs to me that this ham-handed comparison operation also involves a form of radical reductionism in order to create the “strawman” for the perfect comparison. The reason why this is failing in such an epic way with Murdoch Mysteries is this a show that crosses genres so much that you might have to start reciting the decimal digits of pi to keep track. Ever wonder *why* Murdoch Mysteries has a fairly substantial audience? By bringing together a bunch of genres, Murdoch Mysteries came up with something “quirky” and “hybrid” and “cultish”. People use a whole lot of compound terms to describe it. But the point is, there is something in Murdoch Mysteries that “crosses over” for many audience segments, so it’s a ridiculous exercise to try to reduce it to some over-simplified strawman just for the same of comparing Strange Empire. All of these articles just makes it look like the reviewers don’t know what they are talking about to the over 1 million viewers who actually do watch Murdoch Mysteries every week.

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