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"Intelligence" and the Ratings:
...Conspiracies or fickle fate?


Recently in the news there’s been some ink spilled over the CBC crime drama, Intelligence, a series about the uneasy collaboration between a Vancouver crime lord and the local intelligence chief. Critically acclaimed, it’s into its second season and still suffering from anaemic ratings. Expectations are that Intelligence won’t be back next year.

And this has the show’s creator and principal writer, Chris Haddock, talking to the press, complaining the CBC is trying to kill the show and have failed to market it and promote it. The CBC has responded, essentially, “Nuts to you…we have so.” Scriptwriter, blogger, and (pop) cultural commentator Denis McGrath has suggested such public feuding doesn’t exactly help the biz -- like mommy and daddy arguing in front of the kids -- whereas others say Haddock is right to air his grievances.

So the thing is, is Haddock right or wrong? Well, probably both.

For the last couple of years people have complained the CBC has made a hash of its marketing department, without enough staff or loonies to do the job. And for just as long, there have been chilly whispers throughout the industry about changing attitudes and philosophy at the Mother Corp, a new regime that isn’t entirely friendly to the projects green lit by the old regime. So in that respect Haddock is probably not entirely paranoid.

At the same time: no one likes to see their show, their baby, get cancelled. And no fan of a show likes to see it end, particularly with the vaguely ignominious justification that it had bad ratings. But that hardly makes Haddock special, either in Canada…or in the much vaunted “Promised Land” of Hollywood.

One of Haddock’s comments was to basically suggest that he may have to turn south if he doesn’t get more respect in Canada, the inference being Hollywood knows how to treat shows right. In fact, he’s already in the process of prepping an Americanized version of Intelligence. What, of course, Haddock and his supporters fail to point out is that Hollywood is actually a far more ruthless market than Canada. Intelligence may be cancelled after two years of poor ratings in Canada, but in the U.S., series can get cancelled after two episodes! In fact Haddock’s previous attempt at Hollywood glory -- The Handler -- was axed in mid-season.

And, as I say, Haddock’s claims of unfriendly executives and bad promotion are uttered every year by Hollywood producers, too. Usually with far more justification. Intelligence did get commercials -- I saw ‘em. Nor was it pre-empted a lot, or bounced around the schedule -- two of the usual complaints levelled by producers when a show gets cancelled. In fact, in its first season, the CBC actually repeated the same episode a couple of times in the week, in an effort to snag viewers. Clearly, it didn’t work.

As I say, these complaints are not unusual, but Canadian filmmakers seem -- sometimes -- to operate from a position of assumed privilege. A “how dare they cancel ME!” attitude. I remember, years ago, an actor bitterly complaining that his series had been cancelled after three seasons, just as it was really starting to come together. Uh…? The network gave it three years to find its legs, and he complains they didn’t support it enough? Or fans of the drama Traders frequently cite it as a televised masterpiece that was killed by network bungling, pointing out it was up against the Thursday night juggernaut that was ER…conveniently forgetting that it was also given shots in much comfier timeslots on Mondays and Fridays, and still presumably failed to win an audience. The further joke is that Traders ran five seasons, and fans still complain about lack of network support!!!

Another common tactic in Canada is to argue that the show is a hit…if you just look at the numbers through the right kaleidoscope. Or to argue the show is a big hit…in foreign markets, as supporters of Intelligence have done. But the question I’ve asked before is: how much can a Canadian network, with the mandate to provide Canadian shows for Canadian viewers, really concern itself with foreign success? It’s a pleasant plus, sure, but enough to justify its continued production and occupation of a choice primetime time slot?

And there’s always the question -- cynic that I am -- of wondering just how real are these foreign successes? (I remember years ago watching David Letterman sarcastically interviewing an editor of the National Enquirer and pointing out how many of their outrageous stories of aliens and two-headed babies seemed to take place in obscure European villages that were kind of hard to fact-check). Much press was made of Haddock’s earlier CBC series, Da Vinci’s Inquest, having been sold in syndication to the U.S. and, sure enough, the series cropped up on a local U.S. station I got…except when I tuned in a month or two later, Da Vinci was gone, replaced by Without a Trace reruns*. Now I freely admit this is just a single, isolated example…but I do wonder, after the initial press proclaiming Da Vinci had conquered the U.S. market, did many journalists bother to check back and see if the ratings were holding? It’s like how entertainment headlines were made about the Trailer Park Boys going down to Hollywood to ink a deal with HBO -- yea, the Canadian invasion had begun! But…considerably less coverage was given to the boys’ return to Canada having signed a deal -- not with heavyweight HBO -- but with…BBC America. Even less mention was made of the fact that, apparently, BBC America dropped the series a few months later.

(*Okay, after posting this editorial I realized the station is still showing DaVinci -- they just moved it back an hour to midnight. Sooo...you can either dismiss my comment as just plain wrong. Period. Or you can still say there's some significance to it having been bumped to an even later time slot. Either way, I figured I should be up front about my unintentional mis-statemment.)

The problem in Canada is that when the network forces are with them, renewing poorly-rated or poorly-reviewed series, Canadian TV people tell you how wonderful and nurturing Canada is…and when things don’t go their way, they throw a fit and threaten to take their marbles home. American-born actor Jeff Seymour was happily singing the praises of CTV at the start of the second season of his sitcom, Jeff, Ltd., freely admitting he wouldn’t be given the opportunity and freedom to do the show in the U.S….then, when CTV cancelled the series later that season, he lost no opportunity to publicly lambaste CTV for its creative myopia.

Don’t misunderstand: I sympathize with Haddock, Seymour and all the others. They sweat, they break their backs, they finally get their foot in the door…only to discover there’s no such thing as tenure in the entertainment biz. And as hungry as they are for that success, there are dozens of other guys behind them, each just as hungry, each just as convinced of their own genius, and the genius of their show, and each knowing they’ll never get their shot unless the guy ahead stumbles -- and then: watch out!

The point is, television is littered with the bones of cancelled series that had good reviews and loyal followings. There are series I saw years ago that can still make me pause melancholic, thinking “if only…” But you don’t necessarily have to conjure up images of sinister conspiracies and hidden agendas to explain the cancellation. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, and tepid ratings are just tepid ratings.

Ironically, if anyone has a right to grouse, surely it’s the makers of the CBC sitcom Little Mosque on the Prairie . Though it’s still bringing in solid numbers, it has nonetheless seen a drop in viewers since its first season -- despite the fact that most critics (even those who didn’t like it at first) seem to agree it’s better, more polished, and just funnier this season. In its first season (if memory serves) it was shown Tuesdays, on the CBC’s “comedy” night, paired up with other humour-oriented series like the Rick Mercer Report. Whereas this season it’s been moved to Wednesdays where it’s basically buddied up with reality series and the newsmagazine The Fifth Estate. Might that be a reason for the loss of some viewers and, if so, couldn’t the Little Mosque crowd claim the CBC is trying to kill them, too?

I think I’ll stop here, ‘cause some of my previous essays have run on a bit. But I’m not done. Next time, I’m going to try and do something a little more contentious…and ask, does Intelligence even deserve its acclaim?

That's all for now,
The Masked Movie Critic

Dec. 30, 2007

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