My answer to … risk-averse networks

Are network executives responsible for failures in Canadian TV? Only if you believe making shows is their job.

Because I enjoy talking about the Canadian TV industry, sometimes I’m asked questions about it. I have no solid answers but a lot of opinions, so in this irregular column I’ll share some of them.

Here’s an email I received just before we re-launched the site:

The failure (or lack of success) of comedies is widely apparent and so is the blame everyone heaps on writers, creators, actors, etc. But no one seems to attribute some blame on the network executives who are green lighting these shows.

In the blame-game that is Canadian TV, network execs are getting off scott free, and it’s frustrating. They are the ones choosing the shows that get made. It is an integral part of the system, yet it has no checks or balances, no feedback, consequence or review. And it shows.

If you played a drinking game for every time Anthony Marco and I brought up the issue of risk-averse networks on the podcast, you’d have consumed at least a few beverages over the last couple of years.

What you’d lack in drunkenness you’d make up for in shared frustration that there’s no easy solution like pointing out the problem and ranting energetically about it. Believe me, we’ve tried.

I actually rarely hear actors and writers blamed for a show’s lack of success in Canada. In my world it’s just a generic “why aren’t Canadian shows very good?” (I have an answer for a whole other column, which will begin with “you aren’t watching the right ones.”)

It seems particularly unfair in a business where most shows fail that because we make so few of them in Canada, each failure is taken as an indictment of  the industry. Is our batting average worse than the US? Maybe, maybe not.

Anyway, the issue at hand isn’t limited to comedies. Canada’s export economy seems to consist entirely of crime procedurals that US networks can use as cheap summer filler. Some catch on, some don’t, but no network exec is going to get fired by greenlighting yet another one, no matter how bland or derivative. If it sells overseas, great, If not, who can blame them for trying.

What pays the bills?

There will be no change to the lack of accountability as long as the core business of a Canadian network is buying American programming and simulcasting it at the same time as the US network. In that model, the Canadian company gets the advertising dollars even for those viewers watching the US channel. (One of the biggest complaints to the CRTC? No US Superbowl ads in Canada.)

The costs and risks of development have already been absorbed by the US networks, who winnow down what they’ve put into development to choose what to shoot as pilots, and from there which pilots to take to series. Then the Canadians cut a check for the rights to air those series. If NBC or ABC or CBS or FOX cancel it? Oh well. Slot in another acquisition or maybe even a Canadian show if they don’t own the rights for something else they can simulcast.

Being a good shopper is a key competency for a Canadian network executive. Developing successful scripted series themselves? Not so much.

What is this “success” you speak of? 

They do develop shows — in conjunction with independent production companies — and I know they want them to succeed. Though not always so much that they’ll give them a consistent timeslot between compatible shows.

And they sometimes seem to define success more as “sell to another country” than “get lots of Canadian eyeballs on it.”  (I started TV, eh? partly as a reaction to discovering that to some network executives, Canadians were not the primary audience for Canadian series.)

Networks have Canadian content requirements to fulfill as a condition of their license, and money to spend on original programming as a condition of all the buyouts and media conglomerating going on, though success rarely seems to be measured as “fulfilling our legal requirements,” That accounting isn’t made public so  we have to have faith in that compliance as we look at one network’s fall schedule devoid of primetime Canadian series.

But has a network executive ever been fired because of unsuccessful original programming? How many years would it take to evaluate their track record? The private broadcast networks usually air at most one original scripted show per network at a time, often changing timeslots to move out of the way of those lucrative simulcasts, often using the same show to count toward their CanCon requirements across multiple channels.

Often a low-rated show is renewed because a) the network has faith in it or b) the network doesn’t care  much what the ratings are for a Canadian show or c) mysterious reasons.

Sometimes a well-rated show is cancelled because a) it’s too expensive or b) they have another Canadian show to fill their lone Canadian TV slot c) mysterious reasons.

Think Seed and Spun Out in the first category and Murdoch Mysteries on City and The Listener in the second.

CBC is a different story — original programming is their core.  But their goal is a moving target: are they competing with the private networks for ratings, or aiming for an audience not served by those, or, as it often seems, either, neither or both depending on what carrot or stick we need to make our point.

Any discussion I’ve ever been in about the CBC boils down to: “It can’t be everything to everyone. It has to be everything to everyone.”

When it’s a mystery to me what the goals are, it’s hard to know if CBC’s executive have achieved them. They’ve taken risks with shows like Intelligence and Michael: Tuesdays and Thursdays, shows a private network likely wouldn’t consider, and then cancelled them because of low ratings amid the ratings-chasing fare surrounding them.

With recent changes at the top and drastic budget slashing,  my impression is that CBC’s executives have to survive the politics of their time more than the unsuccessful scheduling of shows.

Beyond the broadcast networks

Some of the specialty networks are doing some of the riskiest and — no coincidence — most rewarding television in Canada. But when even a moderately successful network show can fly under the radar, a specialty’s minuscule ratings means their shows rarely enter into the discussion unless they happen to be sci-fi, especially sci-fi that also airs in the US.

APTN has Blackstone (early seasons coproduced with Showcase) and Hard Rock Medical (with TVOntario), plus Mohawk Girls, for example. HBO Canada and The Movie Network/Movie Central have given us Call Me Fitz and Durham County. Love them or hate them, they’re originals in every sense of the word.

What’s the solution? 

Back the the original question from way back at the top  … Remember in the US several years ago when “comedy was dead”? It came back.

Some day we’ll stop marketing new Canadian sitcoms as this newfangled thing called a multicam and market them (ideally truthfully) as funny. Some day we’ll get another … name your flavour of comedy: Corner Gas, Trailer Park Boys,  SCTV.

We might have to make a lot of not-so-great to get to more good because of the law of averages and because of the concept of nurturing talent to stay in Canada and not flee to the much bigger US industry.

That’s the glass half full view. The other half of the glass — network executive accountability to homegrown successes or failures — means shifting their core business to be about creating hits instead of selling ads on American ones.

And that will only happen if they’re forced into it by the CRTC or by a changing television landscape that makes owning great content the only way to survive. I’m not hopeful either scenario will happen in the near future, but I think the last one is inevitable in the long term.

Think I’m way off base? Let me know. 


9 thoughts on “My answer to … risk-averse networks”

  1. I’m as hard on Canadian executives as anyone, but to be fair to them, they’re in a system that is built for mediocrity: No Consequence, No Reward.

    In the U.S. if you pass on a show that goes on to become a hit with someone else, there’s a good chance you’ll loose your job. In Canada if you pass on a show that does well on another network, you have a funny story to tell at parties.

    Conversely, if a U.S. exec green lights a hit, riches abound. Here, on the other hand… you get nothing. So, with no consequence and no reward all we’re left with is mediocrity.

    Is it time to start asking the hard question: Are we really just chasing our tails in this country? Are we (at best) just the Minor League to the American Majors? A training ground for something better?

  2. The biggest Canadian TV success story at the moment, Orphan Black, was only picked up by a Canadian network when BBC America came on board. And even then, the original Canadian network involved bailed. But yeah, no exec jobs are on the line for those decisions.

    Re: Minor Leagues … I think the US industry will always have more money, more eyeballs and more consequences, so it depends what you think the goal is of creating our own content. I really do have a future post on that soon but as an audience member, I want to see shows I won’t get from the US that reflect my own country. If I worked in the industry I think I’d be looking at my own motivations for sticking it out, not those of the networks :)

    We’ll never be Hollywood, but we could be the country that produces more Slings & Arrows, SCTV, Mercer, 22 Minutes, Corner Gas, etc.

    1. Of course my motivations for sticking it out have to be separate from those of the networks, but I also can’t ignore/not be concerned with the motivations of the networks – and that’s where the problem lies.

      For creators, I think it’s obvious – to create shows that people will watch and enjoy, and earn a living doing so. Where I get concerned is network goals. In the US it’s simple: to make money – and they can (and do). In Canada, I just don’t know that we’re set up for networks to make money off of original content – even if they’re successful. That’s not a statement, it’s a question: can Canadian networks make money (real money) off original content? We all know that a successful show in the states can help float a network for years, but is that the same here? Again, I don’t know, I’m just asking.

      1. And I really don’t know, but I’ve heard a couple of sort-of conflicting things that I don’t know are true or not: that ads on Canadian shows are sold for less than for ads on a US show with similar ratings, and that the return on investment in a Canadian show is actually on average greater than acquisitions. (that seems hard for me to believe but maybe that includes economic benefits apart from the network itself).

        I guess what I’m saying about motivations is to the point about minor leagues … I don’t think the system will change anytime soon. It hasn’t in the time I’ve been watching it, anyway. So maybe the choice is either to consider it a training ground or to consider that working here despite the flaws offers benefits that outweigh the frustrations. And keep discussing and trying to do great work and hope the needle moves further. Did I mention I have no answers? :)

        1. Re: “… that the return on investment in a Canadian show is actually on average greater than acquisitions. ” I also find this hard to believe. Networks have one job – to make money – so if this were true, wouldn’t they be tripping over themselves to find/make a hit Canadian show?

          Is there anyone who does have an answer to this?

          1. I wonder if the WGC or CMPA or any of the industry groups have that kind of info – economic benefit of Canadian shows. I can ask the question to those two at least. But I do think what I’d heard probably isn’t profit to networks but benefit to the economy in general. And it was Will Dixon who mentioned the ad sales but at least at the time I heard him ponder he wasn’t sure it was true, it was something he heard.

  3. I’m not even sure that the U.S. does have a better track record when it comes to new shows. Over two-thirds of shows in the U.S. never make it beyond two seasons and that’s about the same as in Canada, despite the fact that the U.S. puts tons more money into development. The U.S. networks order a ton of pilots then weed out what they consider the bad ones. The Canadian networks most often pick up the majority or all of their shows that make it to pilot.

    Do I have griefs with the Canadian private networks? For sure I do. But I think creating an original drama or comedy that will get enough eyeballs domestically is a challenge. The nets must make shows that sell well internationally. Unfortunately, they seem to believe that making their shows too Canadian is a turn-off and I think shows that seem Canadian don’t get picked up over shows that look like they’ll blend in better. The trouble is, that makes for a boring show.

    I think, also, that Canadian networks have too high of expectations. We have only 35 million people to the U.S.’s 314 million people and our networks consistently get better numbers than the U.S.’s smallest network, The CW gets for its shows. Consider that 1 million Canadians is equal to about 10 million Americans in terms of viewers yet American network shows usually aren’t cancelled (except on CBS) unless they have numbers far south of that. Shows like The Mindy Project and Parks and Rec barely manage 2 million people at times–thats equivalent to a Canadian network getting 200,000 viewers. Canadian networks cancel their original shows that can’t reach the million mark.

    My biggest beef with Canadian networks is that they make shows with American audiences in mind rather than making it for Canadian audiences. I absolutely hate when a setting on a show is generic so it can be passed off as either American or Canadian. This, in my opinion, downgrades a show’s quality because the setting is of utmost importance to a story. Interestingly enough, the Canadian series that tend to do the best in Canada don’t shy from their Canadian setting such as Republic of Doyle, Heartland, Trailer Park Boys, Corner Gas, Road to Avonlea, North of 60, The Beachcombers, etc. Notice how all the shows I just mentioned are set in rural areas? Canada’s population is largely urban though and there have been very few urban-set shows that have done well here. I think its because most urban-set shows tend to try to be too generic and therein they have less of a personality.

  4. “Is our batting average worse than the US?”
    The proportions are so out of whack, it’s impossible to answer. Most U.S. networks (major & minor) commission more pilots each season than Cdn networks combined. The majority of those pilots never see the light of day & many of those that do are cancelled before the 1st season is finished.
    As I understand it, in Cda, to get a pilot made, the producer must have a network license fee as part of their funding, so that means everything produced is aired at least once. Should some of those shows stay hidden? – probably, but that’s the system we have & I don’t see it changing anytime soon.
    But if Cdn network execs have such a small pool of experience developing shows how can they NOT be risk averse?

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