CBC: Not dead yet

One of my frequent criticisms of Canadian conventional networks is that they’re so risk averse, they would rather create shows generic enough to sell overseas than stand out with anything that hasn’t worked in the American market — or at least, worked there five years ago. And one of my most frequent criticisms of the CBC has been that they were so busy pursuing the same kind of shows as the private networks, they gave me little reason to find solace in our public broadcaster.

Then came a regime change. And a declaration that they were changing direction to pursue more cable-like series. And some rolling of eyes as some of us recalled the low-rated and swiftly cancelled cable-like Michael: Tuesdays and Thursdays and Intelligence. I could almost hear them say “honest, babe, this time it’ll be different.”

It’s early days in their attempt to shift direction, and a shift can only be judged over time. But with The Book of Negroes and Schitt’s Creek, they’re finally getting rewarded with ratings as well as the critical acclaim of their first bold new-direction show, Strange Empire.

Schitt’s Creek provides the welcome return of Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara, so comedically comfortable together, into our homes each week, in a show that mercifully isn’t trying to be either Corner Gas or a Chuck Lorre production.

In an unusual partnership, CBC will air ex-Kid in the Hall Bruce McCulloch’s comedy Young Drunk Punk this fall after its season airs on City, making CBC the new home of edgy comedies from nostalgic favourites.

But it’s the dramas that reveal what the public broadcaster should be able to do but hasn’t done in a while: reveal to Canadians through entertainment a history we often sanitize, from the birth of our country steeped in violence and the sex trade — not just a national railroad — to our unsavory role in the slave trade — not just the underground railroad.  Soon will come X Company, centred around Canada’s little-known role in WWII espionage.

There’s innovation with money too. With The Book of Negroes, the risk to their limited budget was mitigated by partnering with BET for the expensive co-production — not an unusual solution, to be sure. But the partnership with City (which will also have Mr. D air on that Rogers-owned network) gives them more programming for less money.

And given that the CBC debate usually circles around whether they should be chasing ratings or edgier fare, it’s a relief to see their risk rewarded both ways this winter. Schitt’s Creek premiered to 1.3 million viewers, while The Book of Negroes bowed to 1.7, dipping to a still-great 1.4 for the second episode.

In a year where it’s been hard to cheer for our public broadcaster, that’s good news for CBC, for the audience, and for a Canadian industry that could use some incentive to take more risks.


8 thoughts on “CBC: Not dead yet”

  1. I love what CBC’s been doing the last few years. For me, the CBC’s job is to tell Canadian stories or stories from the Canadian spirit (meaning not shows that try to blend in so Americans on the oft chance might like them) and with Strange Empire, X Company, Book of Negroes, Ascension and Schitt’s Creek, they’ve had shows that you really wouldn’t see on American networks but which we can actually be proud of because of the quality. They’ve fullfilled a niche that many people have been drawn to. CBC, rather than trying to compete with American tv, is going in the direction of BBC in the U.K., especially in regards to the 6-part miniseries. What’s good about this year’s crop of show is that they have some meat to them. Now, I liked Arctic Air, Republic of Doyle and I like Murdoch Mysteries and Heartland, but what kept any of them from becoming shows I love is the amount of meat or depth of storylines and characters if you can understand what I mean. Both Arctic Air and Republic of Doyle had the potential but they were bound so much by the procedural aspects of the shows and Heartland and Murdoch are bound by their target audiences.

    1. That’s a good way to define it – I keep trying to praise the new direction without slamming the older shows that do what they do very well. It’s what everyone means when we try to praise as more cable-like I guess — there’s a weight to some of the newer ones that I’m cheering.

  2. I worry the CBC is following the money at the expense of what was supposed to be its point: a place for Canadian stories. I realize co-productions are a quick fix, but some of these shows seem more generic, not less. In interviews for Schitt’s Creek they were boasting you won’t be able to tell where it’s set (even a Toronto Star article referred to it as “anytown, USA”) — the series is already pre-sold to a U.S. cable station. While Ascension (which admittedly, even the CBC isn’t pushing too hard as “Canadian”) has American flags draped over every scene – literally! And not to quibble, but even The Book of Negroes, according to those who are familiar with the full story (I’ve only seen the episodes aired), will only have a minority of scenes in Canada (which would be fine, save when you consider it in the context of Schitt’s Creek and Ascension). And there is a definite American flavour to existing series, such as Mr. D (in which in the few episodes I saw, they seemed to teach American history in the classes!) or even Strange Empire with its southern American drawls and nary a Scot, Francophone, or Ukrainian in the lot (though maybe Ukrainians came later). Strange Empire at least admits it’s in Canada, but it’s obvious the filmmakers are having trouble shaking off the clichés of American westerns.
    And I know I’m going to get it in the neck for this, but I have to say: does anyone else find the Schitt’s Creek numbers a bit…odd? Not so much the 1.3 mill premiere (though you get a rather different perspective if you see the comments at its IMDB page!) but that it supposedly held those into episode two. Don’t all series lose numbers (x number of people tune in out of curiosity, but surely some decide it’s not their thing)? Maybe I’ve just become too cynical (or feel the CBC has had so many scandals lately its credibility is tenuous) but I’m wondering where these numbers are coming from. I know a few years ago entertainment reporters complained it was hard to get objective ratings data in Canada, but things may have changed since then.

    1. I’m not really into conspiracy theories when it comes to ratings – BBM provides them and while they’re like all ratings, based on too-small sample sizes, at least it’s apples to apples. It’s not unusual for a show to hold its audience or grow – just kind of unusual with Canadian TV lately.

      And I don’t think “Canadian” needs to mean draped in the Canadian flag, and CBC’s money woes haven’t gone away so we’ll always get minority copros like Ascension and some foreign filler like Honourable Woman. Book of Negroes is a new Canlit classic so quibbling with its relative Canadianness feels like looking for an issue to bash CBC with to me. Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara are Canadian comedy royalty and it’s not the kind of series CBS is going to make any time soon. The US network you refer to is Pop. Had you heard of it before? And with Strange Empire we’re obviously watching a different show and looking at a different point in history and geography, so I won’t even go there.

  3. I dont disagree with what D.K. said, especially in regards to Strange Empire. One of my biggest quibbles with that show is that the writers failed to portray the actual culture and history of the place at that time. The railway didnt even come through there until the 1880s so in the late 1860s there would have been no Chinatown and men like Cornelius Slotter who were building the railway wouldn’t have been there yet and John wouldn’t have been able to transport it. The pilot started off well with a Metis woman and her Scottish husband arriving in search of land for themselves to farm but then the Slotter storylines bogged the show down with inaccuracy

    1. The writer has actually done an incredible amount of research – it’s just not the stuff we learn in school. There were settlements of Chinese in the west because of the Fraser Canyon Gold Rush of 1858. I don’t know where Cornelius is based but it’s not Janestown. John came west to make his fortune and presumably escape his father.

      1. The Fraser Canyon Gold Rush was in BC. You wouldn’t have seen a Chinese settlement in Southern Alberta until the 1880s at the earliest. And I understand that writers have to take liberties but the historical inaccuracies in the show do bog things down at times. I have a degree in Canadian Studies and I’ve taken many classes on Western Canadian history (the history of Western settlement and Metis history are big interests of mine). I’ve learned a lot of history that you wouldn’t find in the textbooks, and I’ve read and researched a lot of history just for fun so I do have a bit of problem with the show’s stories in regards to the culture and setting. However, I still like the show and will continue to watch it. I get that certain things have to be altered to appeal to an American audience just in case it gets picked up there.

        1. In 1870 about 10% of Montana’s population was Chinese. It’s not inconceivable that they would settle just north of the territory where a — yes, fictional — mine was being built.

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