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Ratings, Ratings -- Who's Got the Ratings?
...and who's to blame?


I was going to do a piece just taking an overview of some of the recent Canadian TV series, and offer some comments on what works and what doesn't -- and maybe I will. But first I decided to consider some of the more broader questions raised by the recent crop of Canadian shows...

Canadian series, which have traditionally had a lot of trouble finding audiences, seem to be in a particularly bad rut these days. The CBC unleashed a bunch of new series -- all of which have scored less than stellar ratings (some even hitting record lows) and the news isn't much better over at CTV and CanWest-Global. Sure, Corner Gas is still the little engine that could, some weeks placing in the top 10, beating even most imported American series, but it remains one of the exceptions. And of the new series premiered on the private networks this year...well, things could be rosier.

Much has been made of the CBC's dismal ratings this fall, and they are, although one can't help wondering who has scored the greatest failures. After all, the CBC has no big American series on its schedule, so it has no way of luring viewers to its new shows with commercials aired during peak viewing hours. Whereas CTV and CanWest-Global broadcast almost nothing but imported American series. You kind of wonder if you look at the spread between their shows -- compare the numbers for CBC's top rated series with the numbers for its lower rated series, and then compare, say, the numbers CTV boasts for, say, CSI with the numbers it registered for, say, Whistler or Jeff, Ltd. and you wonder, comparatively speaking, who's registering the worst numbers for its lower rated shows. Yeah, okay, that's a math/statistics question, I'm just making a point.

I'm not here to make excuse for the poor ratings. Is it the audience's fault, brainwashed into only watching American shows? Or are the shows just not very good? After all, Corner Gas would seem to disprove the notion that there's an inherent rejection of anything Canadian. Or are they being marketed wrong?

More on that in a sec.

Unfortunately, a problem facing Canadian series is a lack, not of quality, but of quantity. I'm not saying quality isn't important, but I'm saying to compare the Canadian situation to the American situation is kind of enlightening.

After all, America makes hit series -- ratings juggernauts that become must see viewings, discussed weekly around office water coolers. At least, that's the perception. But Hollywood also produces a lot -- a staggering lot -- of failures. Consider the current fall season. Looking at the Canadian ratings for one week, only two -- TWO -- of the new U.S. series made it into the top thirty shows (and none into the top ten). We've already seen much anticipated, much hyped, and in many cases critically praised U.S. series get cancelled, sometimes after just four or five episodes. And they can cancel these series because they've got other series ready and waiting in the wings to take their place, like a sports team that always has more players waiting on the bench than they have on the ice. And for every series that makes it to air, there were others that were greenlighted for pilot episodes, but went no further than that. And for every pilot made, there were dozens of series that were "developed", but then never got that final okay to go before the camera.

Hollywood is less a well oiled hit machine than it is simply analogous to tossing a bowl of spaghetti noodles at the wall and hoping one or two stick.

In Canada, there is no bowl of noodles. Programmers only have one or two noodles to toss at the wall, and if they don't stick -- that's it. There's nothing left in the pot to toss. That's why Canadian series almost never get cancelled in mid-season (unlike American series) and why it's actually rare for a Canadian series to get cancelled after only one season, no matter how dismal the ratings. Because they just don't have anything to replace it with.

This isn't to excuse the failures or short comings of Canadian series, not at all. But it does maybe make you sympathize with the programmers and producers a little more. It's not that Americans make hit series and Canadians don't...it's that Americans have a greater luxury to fail.

With that being said, there's also the whole marketing question, too. As other people have recently noted, cost cutting has led the CBC's promotion department to largely cease to exist. Its poor ratings, some have argued, are as much a result of the fact that potential viewers don't know the shows even exist, as it is of any rejection of the shows. But even within the programming schedule, I wonder if the CBC has kind of fumbled the ball. After all, one way to try and boost a series' ratings/profile, is to place it following a hit series, and hope the viewers will follow from the one show to the next.

The CBC's current schedule is shy of "hits", but everyone seems to feel its Tuesday political sketch comedies, The Rick Mercer Report and This Hour has 22 Minutes, are doing okay. And, at least last season, the claim was that the British sci-fi adventure series, Doctor Who, was also doing well (haven't seen ratings for this year, but let's assume they're still holding -- and they should, 'cause this season is even better than last season). So what has the CBC done? It's scheduled the true crime documentary series,. 72 Hours, followed by the urban comedy, Rumours, after Doctor Who, and the crime drama Intelligence after the sketch comedies.

Hmmm. Not what I'd call choice pairings, eh?

Me, I'd follow the adventure-drama, Doctor Who, either with a suspense-drama, like Intelligence or October 1970, or the medical drama Jozi-H. Personally, I'd go with Jozi-H. Strange as it sounds, I think you might find a crossover audience between the techno-jargon of a sci-fi show and the techno-jargon of a medical show. Plus, the audience watching Doctor Who is obviously comfortable watching actors with accents, making the switch to Jozi-H more seamless. Plus, both have a kind of pulpy-entertainment vibe that, say, the more cerebral Intelligence doesn't, and appeal to younger viewers.

And I'd follow the sketch comedies with Rumours -- another comedy! (And run 72 Hours after Rumours). Or, since the sketch comedies deal with Canadiana and politics, maybe slip October 1970 on after them on the theory that the audience keen for political satire might be keen for political drama.

Looking at CTV, I would've thought scheduling its fledgling comedy Alice I Think after Corner Gas would probably have made sense. And I didn't see the logic in putting Whistler, a drama hoping for a teen audience, at Sundays at 10:00 (of course, they started jumping Whistler all over the schedule anyway, often with little or no notification).

Of course, programmers have their preferences right from the get go, like parents who have a favourite child. Clearly the CBC brass has pegged Intelligence as the jewel in its crown. Borrowing a trick from the cable networks, it shows the same episode of Intelligence three times a week, hoping to pick up viewers in odd time slots -- but it hasn't done the same for its other series like Jozi-H, October 1970 and Rumours. But if you're trying to build an audience, those series surely also deserve a little extra exposure -- particularly October 1970 and Jozi-H which have been getting, I believe, generally decent reviews.

That's all for now,
The Masked Movie Critic

December 12, 2006

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