A modest proposal: How to get Canadians to watch Canadian television


The news that Canadian network executives will be speaking on an Academy of Canadian Cinema and Television panel on how to get Canadians watching Canadian TV gave me a flashback to the Canadian Media Production Association’s proposal that caused me to be more enraged than engaged.

I’ll be interested to hear the Academy webcast and from people attending the session — the panelists are smart people who’ve worked in the industry for ages — but first here’s my modest proposal for them (non-Swiftian version). Consider it a checklist for networks before they ponder more transmedia extravaganzas, online games that gamers would ridicule, sharing more effing “success stories,” or putting the responsibility of basic promotion onto the audience.

The Basics

  • Make more shows. Why are Canadian networks full of American shows we can watch on another channel? Most shows — American, Canadian or Ukrainian — fail, so if you’re only making a couple a year, odds are good you’ll only get a hit every several years.
  • Invest more in their quality. This means you, broadcasters, not the funding agencies. More writers than executives? Higher production values? More marketing? Consequences to continued failure?
  • Schedule regularly and well. The Listener is the rare show that’s managed to find a large, steady audience despite being bounced around from timeslot to timeslot, and with long, unpredictable gaps between seasons. And consider the compatibility of lead-ins and timeslot competition, unlike City and its beleagured Seed.
  • Create exciting promos to launch the series. See the striking difference between ABC’s jazzy Motive promo and CTV’s sedate promo for example.
    • Promos is plural – don’t play the same one over and over and over and over again or audiences will flee from it over and over and over again.
    • If it’s a comedy, make the promo funny. Actually funny. If it’s a drama, make it dramatic. This applies to the shows too, by the way.
    • Put the promos online and make them embeddable so other websites can help do your marketing for you. Show promotion shouldn’t be treated like a state secret.
  • Create episode-specific promos
    • See above – exciting, embeddable.
  • Have episode-specific photos available to media and fans. How many times do we have to use the same group cast shot, with all of them standing and staring at the camera?
  • Populate the show’s website well up front, and keep it updated.
    • At a minimum, I should be able to easily tell when the next episode will air and what’s exciting about it.
    • Use your promos, make all other content you do embeddable or copy and paste-able (I can’t tell you how many times I’ve tried to grab an epsiode description only to have it be Flash or part of an image and therefore not grabbable).
  • Make sure the show’s IMDb page and Wikipedia page are updated.
  • Social media the hell out of your show… but not in a spammy or smarmy marketing way.
    • Teach everyone involved with the show the mores of the social media channels they’re using.
    • Get your cast and key creatives (showrunner, director, whoever) to not just live-tweet shows but respond to fans – set up a search for the name of the show and the star and respond to comments and questions.
    • Find out where your audience is and go there. Think beyond your own official channels. Tumblr? Pinterest? A Facebook page other than the official one? Forums? Fansites?
  • Research before getting interactive. See what your fans do online, or fans of similar shows … especially before you try to make them do something else. Are they making videos, or fan art, or discussing issues? Tap into that. Go where they are, and support them in doing what they do. Tap into a competitive spirit or a desire for recognition.
  • Cut the BS. Don’t get ridiculous parsing the ratings, or call everything a hit.
  • Respond quickly to journalists on deadlines. Treat credible bloggers like online journalists. Offer actual stars for interviews.
  • The usual marketing suspects: ads, billboards, bus ads, banner ads on the network’s family of sites and other targeted websites, etc.

The rest

  • Get creative, think outside the box, be the first to do something new and shiny, and I’ll cheer you on. But first make sure you’ve got the basics covered. Few Canadian shows do.

I’m sure I’m missing some basics – any others you can add?


21 thoughts on “A modest proposal: How to get Canadians to watch Canadian television”

    1. CTV didn’t exactly cancel it – the showrunners wanted to end on their own terms. And CTV was smart to replace it with a similar show in Motive, and (eventually) put it in the same timeslot.

  1. Lol. There’s been commentary like this for years. I, for one, think that Canadian scripted television is currently the best quality that it’s been in years. The other day, on a different forum, people were giving their top 10 currently-airing tv shows list and I was SHOCKED that 5 of my top 10 favourite currently airing shows (Continuum, Vikings, Orphan Black, Arctic Air and Blackstone) were Canadian. I don’t think that’s ever happened because in past years I’ve watched Canadian tv shows more out of loyalty than anything else. Oh, and what shocked me even more was that OTHER PEOPLE actually had Canadian shows in their top 10. That floored me. It makes me wonder if the quality of American network television has just gone down in general. I know that there’s quality cable shows made south of the border but I’ve heard from a lot of people that though these shows are viewed as top-knotch they aren’t thought of as must-see. In Canada, cable shows are getting sharper (particularly the sci-fi genre) and there are less network and cable shows trying to be generic in their settings so that’s a step in the right direction. Maybe I’m just optimistic but when I think back to ten or even five years ago, the Canadian television landscape seems better.

  2. This is Television 101, Diane. Self-evident to people like you who care about Canadian TV and most of the creatives in the industry. Hopefully, your network readers will take it to heart. Thanks for posting.

  3. That’s exactly it, Ally – Canadians *do* watch Canadian television. Whatever the networks think the problem is, it’s not audience receptiveness.

    Thanks Jim – yeah, I’m not saying anything that isn’t just common sense. Which is why it’s so frustrating that networks don’t do it, and then wring their hands in public about “the audience.”

  4. I am not Canadian (American) but I do watch a LOT of Canadian TV and the real issue really comes down to getting good shows out. The two biggest shows that I thought would work well in the US and Canada were Intelligence and Endgame. Good shows that could have both run for years.

    1. I think there’s a major sea change happening right now on the Canadian television landscape. Specialty channels like Showcase and Space are really stepping it up a knotch by producing good-quality shows that appeal to an international audience but without trying to copy American shows. CBC is doing it too–maybe that’s because they have to but they deserve kudos for putting a focus on telling Canadian-set stories (Republic of Doyle in Newfoundland, Arctic Air in Northwest Territories and Heartland in Alberta). CTV and Global (sigh) on the other hand look at Canadian scripted fare as second-tier–CTV goes the generic procedural route via shows like Motive, Saving Hope and Flashpoint and Global does absolutely as little as possible–I can only think of one Canadian drama, Bomb Girls, on their docket–how is that even allowed?

      1. In my opinion, Canada’s history with televised science fiction is more distinguished than with other types of scripted drama/comedy. If I remember correctly, Canadian sci-fi isn’t expected to hew to “is this set in Canada” guidelines as stringently as other subgenres of scripted drama/comedy, due to the speculative nature of the subgenre.

        SPACE has the format protection on science fiction, while Showcase’s science fiction shows enjoy a better ROI than shows like Cra$h & Burn, King, Endgame etc. I think the successes of the Stargate franchise and Sanctuary built a foundation for the better-quality SF coming out of Canada.

        Part of the problem with CTV and Global’s lack of CanCon is that Bell Media and Shaw Media look at their scripted dramas/comedies through group-based spending terms. A specialty show can get a second window on “conventional” television, and vice versa. For Bell Media, Canadian scripted dramas/comedies are mostly tagged for CTV, SPACE, Bravo, The Comedy Network, and maybe MuchMusic. Shaw Media’s scripted CanCon mainly goes to Showcase, Global, and History. Rogers Media only has City, OMNI and FX Canada to place scripted dramas/comedies in, but that didn’t (still doesn’t?) stop Murdoch Mysteries reruns on FX Canada.

        Basic promotion? Sometimes, broadcasters don’t even practice basic programming, like when a show is tagged for second and/or third windows on channels the broadcaster owns – Sanctuary and Degrassi reruns on CTV2, for instance. I understand the broadcasters need to recoup the costs for these shows, but it’s obvious when broadcasters are patching holes in their schedules with Canadian content. It risks burning out the audiences for these shows. Bean counters aren’t usually the best entertainers.

    1. Oh yes. I did forget about Rookie Blue, another generic procedural. Speaking of Rookie though, it has gotten a fair bit of buzz in the past year–there are a lot of people who really like it for its love stories. I don’t watch it myself, seeing as there’s nothing really original about it but that’s Global and CTV of late. I guess they think they have to go that route because unlike specialty channels, they are ratings-focussed, and really, it is a business. Look at CBS–they are way on top of the ratings and most of their dramas are all procedurals so appeal to a wider audience. I guess my gripe with TV in general is that seldom am I part of that wider audience. My favourite shows either get cancelled quickly or remain on the bubble for their entirety.

    1. I’d like to re-phrase your comment by saying “Let the creatives produce better shows”.
      Over the years, I’ve read any number of comments from creatives which leave me with the impression that broadcasters interfere far too much in the creative process. Let the writers write, directors direct, producers produce & stay out of the way!

  5. Non-simultaneous substitution could help. Right now Canadian broadcasters programme and shift shows to match US schedule in order to maximize ad revenues via simultaneous substitution. Non-SS would allow broadcasters to still protect rights and associated ad revenues but keep Canadian shows in a fixed slot on the schedule

    1. Agree completely – I think the CRTC should get rid of simsub. Canadian networks’ primary business model should be making money off Canadian shows. Right now there’s little incentive.

      1. Does simsub even work? I, for one, rarely watch shows live, but even when I do, I don’t always watch them on my local affiliate. I arrange my TV schedule using the various channels from various timezones.

  6. Thanks for starting this discussion. It’s incredibly frustrating to want to watch a Canadian show and find that the broadcaster doesn’t have it on their site. Case in point, the pilot for Orphan Black. This is a serialized show folks – no fun to start at ep 2. Don’t take it off the site unless you provide an alternative place to view it – like itunes.

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