By Graeme Stewart
Shaw Media’s 2013/14 slates includes a robust line-up of both new and original Canadian series for the upcoming broadcast year. What’s become abundantly clear over the last few years is that Canadian television is embracing reality content in a big way. Obvious renewals for shows like Big Brother Canada and Top Chef Canada rounded out a list that also included several auction shows and some new scripted series. Bell has ordered Masterchef Canada. While it’s great to see a healthy amount of Canadian shows getting the green light, I can’t help feeling a little underwhelmed by the orders.
The slew of reality television set to hit Canadian airwaves this year is understandable – the selected shows are low-cost, high-reward concepts that can easily translate across international borders. The problem, however, is that this focus takes us away from where we should be as a country that prides itself on our culture. Furthermore, it compounds the Canadian television industry’s reputation as significantly risk-averse.
The merits of reality television have been debated in the North American media since Survivor, itself a Swedish import, debuted in 1997 on CBS. I can’t argue against the economic choice to develop a higher reality slate. Import or otherwise these programs have a proven ability to draw in audiences, advertising, and are cheaply produced. I can also see the narrative value inherent in a cross country collection of characters of ranging absurdity. It can be a pleasure to step out of your respective province and watch a young Montreal chef competing against the best of the country in Top Chef Canada, or a Calgary cowboy playing Godfather against a Nova Scotian schoolteacher and Toronto drag-queen in Big Brother Canada. The entertainment value is high, and we’ve proven that Canadian reality TV can be just as exciting and engaging as the content produced by our Southern neighbours.
These shows have proven themselves as guaranteed hits time and time again across all borders. The problem, then, lies in the lack of new ideas and concepts we see from our Canadian broadcasters. With international co-productions like Orphan Black and Vikings adding a heightened level of production value, writing, and acting to Canadian line-ups, is there anyone seriously asking for Storage Wars Canada?
Every show can’t be a hit. The bottled lightning combination of Orphan Black‘s international success, high-concept creativity, and critical acclaim, for instance, is rare and difficult to match. Shows like this should inspire confidence and the willingness to pursue a raised bar. They should stand in stark defiance of the easy to produce reality imports that are, at their worst, now serving as crutches to round out Canadian content.
The Golden Age of Television has largely bypassed the Canadian market, but unnecessarily so. I hope that with next year’s network slates the bar is raised a little higher than a collection of low-concept reality shows, and that the original content we can look forward to is slightly elevated beyond hospital, legal, and cop procedurals. It’s time we take ownership of the storytelling potential our nation holds in great reserves, and to translate that potential into shows that demand attention and can join the upper echelon of television production.