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Canadian Series on U.S. Networks:
Aberration…Wave of the Future…or Slippery Slope?


There’s been an interesting happening in Canadian-produced television that’s received more than a bit of press, though whether it’s a permanent change or just a fleeting blip, a seismic shift or just a minor tremor, only time will tell. What’s happened is that a few Canadian-made series are cracking the US market, on major networks, and in prime time, beginning with “Flashpoint“, followed by “The Listener“, and with at least three other series in production for airing later. (And joining the current wave has been syndicated reruns of series like “DaVinci’s Inquest” and “Corner Gas”).

This has almost never happened before -- other than “Due South” over a decade ago, and a brief period where already airing late night shows like “Night Heat” and “Adderly” were given a primetime tryout a few years before that. Generally, the US network/primetime market was seen as almost impenetrable -- not just by Canada, but England, etc. Not surprising, since the US is more than capable of filling up time slots with domestic productions.

What begat the shift was a US writers’ strike that had US networks looking elsewhere for programming (Canadian writers belonging to a different union) and what cemented it a bit was the solid ratings “Flashpoint” delivered for CBS.

Another contributing factor might have been the success of US series like “Lost” and “Heroes” which feature multinational characters…perhaps suggesting to US programmers that their audience was less insular and parochial than was long assumed.

Because what makes this new breed of Canadian series most remarkable is the fact that they are actually set in Canada!

Though American television has been no stranger to Canadian-made productions, usually on cable stations or in first run syndication, they almost always pretended they were American, with Toronto (or wherever) disguised as New York, and an American actor or two brought up to headline. Other than “Due South”, the vampire cop series “Forever Knight” and the western “Border Town”, the exceptions were pretty rare -- a few ensemble cast series where a token Canadian could be shuffled in as part of an international group, such as “Counterstrike”, “Lighting Force” and more recently, “Stargate: Atlantis”.

And of those, only “Due South” made it to the Promised Land of a prime time US network slot. And though “Due South” was about as in-your-face with its “Canadianness” as you could get, featuring a Mountie living out of the Canadian consulate, it was still set in the US, with most of the rest of the characters American, and tending to pepper the scripts with mainly American references and trivia (the joke was the Mountie knew more about American history than the American characters) while Canada was a decidedly mythic construct of arctic landscapes, Mounties and Indian shamans.

“Flashpoint”, “The Listener” and the other new series are set in a far less romanticized (and fantasized) Canada, nor is there much effort made to include American aspects. These are Canadian set series about Canadians…airing in US network prime time.

And given how for so many years I’ve been writing about this very topic, sounding not unlike a broken record skipping back and forth over the same argument, maybe my constant braying had some influence on the modern crop of creators… Hey, it’s not, y’know, completely beyond the realm of possibility. (Allow me some self-aggrandizing delusions).

So now that we are seeing Canadian TV series cracking the US market without feeling a need to hide their Canadianness, what does it mean and what does it portend?

Well, for one thing, it depends a bit on how well these series do. “The Listener”, for example -- well, I’m afraid I find myself gravitating to the naysayers, so far finding it a rather generic concept papered over wafer thin plots. Only time, and a few more episodes, will tell whether these are just teething pains, or endemic. Even the basic concept (about a guy who can read minds) doesn’t really seem as though the creators have brought anything new to the table (in the way that you can watch three different vampire TV series and get three different interpretations of the mythology). Even “Flashpoint” is in a curious position. There’s no disputing the series has consistently won its time slot. But CBS is holding back its next season for a mid-season replacement apparently because, though it brings in solid audience numbers, it’s not the “right” kind of audience (which puts me in mind of the scene in “Manhattan” where Diane Keaton says she had an orgasm once but her therapist told her it was the wrong kind). Apparently “Flashpoint” was drawing an older audience, but networks like ’em young, rich and easily manipulated by commercials.

Still, Canadian producers have at least proven Canadian-set shows can hold their own with American ones (no matter how you spin it, “Flashpoint” bested every other US show in its time slot). That should at least level the playing field, right? Well, maybe yes, maybe no. Because these are still “Canadian” -- ie: foreign -- shows. And it might well be that they must prove not just equal to American shows, but demonstrably better to pave the way for any future such shows on the US schedules.

There’s also an inherent danger for Canadian productions being too eager to pursue US partnerships. And no less a figure than Paul Gross -- one time star of “Due South” itself -- has publicly cautioned against blindly pursuing this trend. Why? Well, a number of these shows, I believe, started out just intended for the Canadian market, but were happy to be swept off their feet when the US networks came a-courting. After all, it means bigger budgets, and more publicity. So what’s the danger?

Well, for one, obviously, is that the creators have to surrender a degree of creative control. But even that’s not necessarily the biggest pitfall. All series have to wrestle with various executives and production partners wanting a say in the content -- a US partner may add another voice, but it’s not like an all-Canadian production somehow means the creators are given free rein. And for that matter, a lot of “Canadian” series already have US partners -- just not usually major networks. Creative control depends a lot on the fortitude and commitment of the creators -- how willing they are to stand up for their vision, to argue, to negotiate, to not automatically fold like a lawn chair the moment a US partner quibbles about a Canadian-centric reference. But that has less to do with the US partner and more to do with the character of the Canadians involved. The people behind “Flashpoint” seem to have that fortitude and commitment -- a lot of Canadian producers don’t.

The biggest pitfall, arguably, is raised expectations.

For instance, “Due South” did well enough on CBS, eking out two seasons on the network, but its decent-but-middling ratings led CBS to cancel it…except “Due South”, by that point, was a huge success in Canada. So what happens when you’ve got an American partner…who pulls out? In the case of “Due South” they managed to cobble together a third season with some new international partners (including American ones…just not a big network) but had to call it a day after that…this despite the fact that it continued to be a ratings winner for the Canadian network. So what about “Flashpoint”? American CBS is talking about holding it back for mid-season -- yet its Canadian ratings for CTV have been strong enough that only a nutbar programmer wouldn’t keep it on the schedule. So will CTV air “Flashpoint” next season ahead of CBS -- or hold it back until CBS deigns to show it, so it can simulcast it, which tends to be the rule with Canadian networks?

And what if an American network decides to cancel a Canadian series that is still a ratings success for the Canadian network? Would the Canadian network press on…or would it cancel it too, now that its series has lost the sexy lustre of American approval? Logic would say the Canadian network would persevere. Cynicism tells us they’d probably cancel it to make room on the schedule for whatever American series the American network was replacing it with -- even if that American series brings in lower ratings.

And the flip side is also possible. A Canadian series kept on a Canadian network, despite poor ratings, because the America numbers are still good. (The claim is CTV continues to air “Degrassi: The Next Generation” long after its numbers have dropped below the “do not resuscitate” level, because the American cable partner is still happy with its US numbers).

Canadian TV series made primarily for the Canadian market sink or swim on the strength of their Canadian viewers. But if these US-Canada co-productions become not just the neat exception, but the new business model for Canadian TV shows, the result could be a Canadian schedule, and Canadian TV industry, in which, once again, the Canadian audience has little influence over what airs and what doesn’t on Canadian TVs.

That's all for now,
The Masked Movie Critic

June 17, 2009

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