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Weathering the Axe:
The CBC cancels half its shows!


Yet another cry of alarm has gone up in the Canadian entertainment biz.

A few years ago there was much concern because Canadian television production had dropped off, and the regulatory body, the CRTC, was even allowing networks to pass off cheap infomercials as “drama”, further driving the nail in the coffin of TV fiction. But then, despite the doom and gloom, the industry seemed to bounce back, if only a little. But it seems to’ve been a remission more than a cure.

The CBC, in one fell swoop, has announced the axing of three of its shows (or more than half its fiction/narrative series) -- This is Wonderland, The Tournament, and DaVinci’s City Hall (a spin-off of DaVinci’s Inquest).

This decision raises more than a few questions and controversies. So let’s look at a few of them…

The CBC’s decision was based on the fact that, though critically well-regarded, none of the series were doing well, ratings-wise. Which, crass as it may be, is a legitimate reason to bring down the axe. But I’m not sure the poor ratings were exactly a new development -- so why now? And why in this way?

One argument is that there’s been a regime change at the CBC, and a new crew wants to clean house before putting their own mark on the network -- a tendency one hears about with Hollywood studios, and is contemptible if true. Cancel if cancelling is warranted -- not because you're jealous of someone else’s baby. But after an ill-handled contract dispute last year, which saw the CBC brass lose its audience and its respect because of its bullish handling of the matter, no one’s quite sure what the thinkers at the CBC are, well, thinking these days.

If the CBC felt it needed to cut some chaff, fine, but given that it’s not obvious what they have waiting in the wings (more on that in a moment) some moderation might be called for, such as cutting two of the shows, and granting a reprieve for one, just so it wouldn’t look like an indiscriminate scorch n’ burn policy. Granted, that would be a tough choice, rather like the Biblical parable about the father who had to make a choice between his children (or, uh, am I thinking of The X-Files?) -- anyhow…

Personally, if I’d have granted a reprieve, purely for technical reasons, it would’ve been to This is Wonderland. Why? Well, the Tournament gets cut right off -- sorry, but if we’re talking about saving a “flagship” show for PR reasons, the hour long dramas get priority (the CBC has other half-hour comedies on its schedule). Then of DaVinci’s City Hall and This is Wonderland -- well, DaVinci is just an extension of DaVinci’s Inquest. In other words, it’s had an admirable run, already. Time to move on. Particularly as the CBC has committed to producing a series spun-off from DaVinci creators’ TV movie Intelligence. And you don’t really want a network that only airs a handful of shows -- and most are by the same people.

No, really -- YOU DON’T!

Another controversy is that, when objecting to the cancellations, some lobby groups (The Friends of Canadian Broadcasting and ACTRA) claimed private network CTV was showing more Canadian programs than CBC already. Uh…what? some might ask. CTV is currently airing Corner Gas, Degrassi: TNG, and Robson Arms -- an hour and a half a week (two hours as they show two episodes of Robson Arms), while the CBC (prior to the Olympic pre-emptions) was showing three and a half hours (including Getting Along Famously and Hatching, Matching & Dispatching) -- four and a half if you count the sketch comedies. Turns out, CTV got the leg up because the lobbyists counted Sue Thomas, F.B.Eye -- an American-set series about the very American F.B.I. One can debate whether an organization called Friends of Canadian Broadcasting should be trumpeting a series designed to undermine and marginalize the very culture they’re fighting for, but more to the point: Sue Thomas has been cancelled and CTV is just showing reruns. In other words, it’s not exactly providing work and opportunities for Canadian talent anymore.

One editorialist objected to the cancellation of DaVinci by pointing out it was sold all over the world and had recently been sold in syndication to the U.S. That’s fine…but does the CBC see any of that syndication money? I’m asking, because I don’t know. If DaVinci is bringing in dollars to the CBC, then there’s an argument for keeping it. But if the CBC is losing money on it, while the show’s producers rake in the syndication bucks from non-domestic sales then, no, the CBC shouldn’t really be obligated to keep it around.

And then that gets to the other, long contentious point. Should the CBC even care how well something does elsewhere? If the CBC’s mandate is to provide Canadian entertainment for Canadian audiences, then even if DaVinci is pummelling CSI in Poughkeepsie (which it isn‘t), that doesn’t change the fact that it isn’t wowing them in Wawa.

But should ratings matter? That’s long been a debate in Canadian TV -- particularly as high ratings are so hard to come by. Surely culture trumps ratings? some argue. Better to have a low-rated Canadian show than no Canadian show at all. And, to be honest, that’s true. Particularly if these shows, as they are with the CBC, are often supposed to be a little bit off-beat, and a little edgier, than what CTV and Global offer, and wouldn‘t be expected to bring in big numbers anyway. But the hard truth is, it’s better to have a Canadian show and good ratings.

No, wait, it’s not just better -- IT’S IMPERATIVE. Making TV shows no one’s watching and calling it culture is like the medical joke about the operation being successful, but the patient died. Or as a MuchMusic VJ used to say to the audience: “If you aren’t out there, it’d be silly for me to be in here.”

I want to keep this relatively brief today, so I’ll wrap up now. But next time, since its apropos, I think we’ll take a look at the cancelled shows, and the shows still on, and ask whether there’s maybe a reason such series suffer from anaemic ratings, or whether it can be all blamed on Gremlins, as most in the industry seem to think.

Maybe the CBC was right to cancel these three shows. But not all at once, and not so brusquely, and not without telling us what they’ve got waiting in the wings. Or, to paraphrase a line from the British sitcom, Yes, Minister -- “If they were going to do this damn silly thing, they shouldn’t have done it in this damn silly way.”

That's all for now,
The Masked Movie Critic

Feb. 25, 2006

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