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.