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Do Canadian Shows Need American Partners?
...ratings for Rookie Blue, Flashpoint, Combat Hospital and others


Musing over the recent Canadian TV landscape I find myself pondering a question: do Canadian programs need American partners to win audiences?

Curiously, it’s not a question that gets debated often -- at least, that I’ve come across.

Sure -- pundits and critics will often discuss the notion of Canadian identity in Canadian programs. For years the accepted wisdom was that in order for a Canadian program to succeed, it needed to pretend it wasn’t Canadian, usually pretending it was set in America, with American characters. I’ve tackled this issue often in my essays -- usually because people keep coming back at me to say it’s so. Some I think argue this because they do, genuinely, believe it’s true…but a lot seem to argue it because they want to believe it’s true, for some reason. They are essentially self-hating Canadians. Explaining to them there’s nothing wrong with being Canadian, or in making stories set in Canada, I imagine, would’ve been like explaining to the late Michael Jackson that black is beautiful. Given that for the first time in, well, ever, Canadian series are being shown on American network prime time (essentially the equivalent to being drafted to an NHL team) and they all admit they are Canadian, while Canadian series that pretend they are American generally only find slots on small US cable stations and syndication (languishing in the minor leagues) would suggest that being “set in Canada” is hardly a liability.

But that’s not what I want to talk about today. Let’s put aside content for a moment and whether a series is or isn’t set in Canada.

What has happened recently is that a lot of Canadian series seem to be garnering pretty impressive ratings within Canada -- when just a few years ago the ratings for almost all Canadian series were a joke. But series like Flashpoint, Rookie Blue and Combat Hospital are all enjoying America style numbers, often trouncing the big American series they are programmed opposite.

Yet a lot of other Canadian series are still struggling, too. And I wonder if we’re seeing an indication of something at work -- something problematic, but worth considering (‘cause you can’t deal with a problem until you admit it exists).

You see, Flashpoint, Rookie Blue and Combat Hospital are all American co-productions -- even though they feature Canadian characters and/or Canadian settings. And you wonder, is it the fact that there is the American connection that’s bolstering the interest in these series in Canada? Does it “legitimize” them in the minds of viewers, making the audience more willing to give them a chance when they otherwise might not have even tried them? Or is it simply that being on a US network raised the series’ profile, garnering more articles and interviews than they would have received had they been simply home grown? In other words, it isn’t that the audience assigns a greater value to the Hollywood connection, but the Canadian press certainly does, publicizing these series in a way they don’t for Canadian series without a US partner? Obviously, the argument could be made that these are simply good series, winning their audience through merit. But that gets into the subjective area -- not that these aren’t good series, but that there are other “good” Canadian series that don’t enjoy audience support. Series like the CBC’s ratings challenged spy-spoof InSecurity are, to my mind, quite funny.

Besides, it isn’t simply that they have built a loyal audience…but they usually premier with strong numbers.

And consider: The Listener was also an American co-production, but failed to generate enough US viewers and so was dropped by its American network after one season -- yet its Canadian ratings remain quite strong. So even though it lost its American support, was the fact that it started out as a US co-production enough to get Canadians to tune in, decide they liked it, and so stick with it now even though it doesn’t have that American window?

Now, obviously, it’s hard to say anything definite. Certainly we can go back a few years and point to the phenomenal success of Corner Gas which was achieved without any American notice whatsoever (the series had been successful for a number of years before there was talk of American syndication). And current CBC dramas like Heartland and The Republic of Doyle enjoy solid numbers despite a lack of American partners. Even the Victorian detective series, Murdoch Mysteries, has proven a solid performer over time. But they still aren’t Flashpoint/Rookie Blue/Combat Hospital type numbers.

Consider Little Mosque on the Prairie -- even though its ratings have slumped over time, it certainly enjoyed good numbers for its first few years. And although it never had an American partner, it did enjoy an unprecedented amount of international press when it premiered due to its novel and timely subject matter.

I’m not saying that having a US partner (or international notice) artificially boosts a series ratings, or that the Canadian public are fickle sheep, brainwashed by the glory of the stars n’ stripes. But I do wonder if having that extra push from the US publicity -- or the Canadian press playing up the US angle -- maybe puts these series more firmly in the public’s eye than a simple home grown series.

The irony is, the American and Canadian markets can respond differently to these series. As mentioned, the Listener was cancelled in the US, but continues to enjoy success in Canada. Combat Hospital is an indisputable success in Canada…but its US ratings are more tepid. Now some of that might be a reflection of what is kind of my point here -- these series are enjoying a hometown hero mystique in Canada (landing US network spots) that they lack in the US. But that, perhaps, does a disservice to the shows…and to Canadians. After all, The Listener’s audience continues to stick with it, implying that even if they tuned in because of the chic value of the US connection…they’ve stuck with it because they like it. And there have always been situations where series perform differently in Canada and the US…the two countries, as much as some like to argue otherwise, are different cultures. British funnyman John Cleese once claimed comedy troupe Monty Python enjoyed success in Canada long before Americans quite knew what to make of the group. The West Wing was more successful in Canada than it was in the US (at least at first). Heck, long ago, when the CBC simulcast US series just like CTV and Global, they ended up helping to finance the last season or two of the US sitcom Too Close for Comfort after it was cancelled by its US network…because its Canadian ratings were still good.

Maybe Combat Hospital’s different ratings in the two countries simply says something about the two cultures, and their attitude to the war.

Now consider the recent mini-series Pillars of the Earth. It’s an intriguing case, because though a Canadian co-production, you wouldn’t really know that to look at it -- few of the actors were Canadian, and it was set in England in the 11th or 12th Century, and was not written nor directed by Canadians. It was based on a famous novel by best seller Ken Follett and the mini-series itself has enjoyed good -- even great -- reviews. Yet the min-series, when it aired on the CBC -- basically tanked. So for those who gleefully like to blame a Canadian setting for the failure of Canadian programs -- that doesn’t apply. Nor can one simply shrug it off as a mediocre production, as it was well reviewed by those that saw it. Yet, curiously, in a recent (albeit minor) survey I did -- few people seemed to have heard of it. Even people who had loved the book were unaware a mini-series had been made based on it!

Now what’s interesting about Pillars of the Earth is the one thing that it seemed to lack was a strong American partner. It may well have had one, but it wasn’t as obvious. Unlike The Borgias and The Tudors (the latter, at least, enjoying better Canadian ratings than Pillars of the Earth) whose American broadcast partners were heavily hyped in Canadian articles. And it seems to me The Borgias and The Tudors enjoyed considerably more press coverage in the Canadian media (articles, interviews with the actors, etc.) than did Pillars of the Earth.

So what’s my point? Clearly, Canadian programs can claw out a bit of the marketplace on their own -- as Corner Gas, Heartland, Republic of Doyle have proved. But there does seem to be some evidence that a Canadian series with a US connection gets an instant leg up on the competition. Yet unlike what has been the common -- arguably unthinking -- “wisdom” for decades, it actually has nothing to do with setting. A Canadian setting with a Canadian cast can do just fine. But maybe more attention has to be paid to publicity and marketing.

Now, obviously -- I don’t want to ignore quality. The fact of the matter is, I do regard Flashpoint, Rookie Blue and Combat Hospital as good series -- better than, say, The Guard, Global’s coast guard series that had no big American partner and failed to sustain an audience (though premiered well). Indeed, I consider Flashpoint et al better than, say, The Border. So maybe that’s all there is to it -- the better series get the better ratings. Period. But I also have to step back enough to recognize that my opinion about what’s the better series is just my opinion -- hence why I’m asking are there other factors at play (particularly when, as mentioned, most of the these co-productions had large numbers right out of the gate). I would argue Showcase’s crime drama, King, is equally as good as Flashpoint and the others and King has fairly minor audience numbers (at the same time, it is on a cable station as opposed to a big network). Certainly having US partners maybe allows these series to have a slicker, more expensive look than strictly Canadian series and maybe the audience responds to that.

But I can’t help seeing a pattern when a disproportionate number of Canadian series on US networks boast stellar Canadian ratings -- even in situations where the US ratings aren’t so great.

It’s possible that having US network slots boosted the profile of these series…but it’s equally possible having a US network slot boosted the willingness on the part of Canadian reporters and entertainment publications to write about them, therefore bringing them more clearly into the public eye. Is the problem with the programs…or with the publicity machine behind them? Lord knows I’ve read pieces by Canadian reporters trying to cover Canadian entertainment -- who want to write about it -- complaining how hard it is, networks and production companies not arranging interviews, or too busy promoting their US programs to waste any effort on publicizing their Canadian shows. I’ve seen people claim that such-and-such a Canadian program was publicized within an inch of its life and still bombed (as “proof” that Canadian programs can’t succeed) when I myself had never even seen a single ad or article about the program in question!

Global airs its daily news-entertainment series Entertainment Tonight Canada -- supposedly as a forum to publicize Canadian productions. And I’m sure it does -- a bit. But honestly, the few times I’ve tuned in, most of its coverage seems to be of American celebrities, or Canadian celebrities working in the States, or of Canadian productions with a US connection like Rookie Blue.

So what’s my point? I dunno. Maybe that there is a value in partnering with a US co-producer, but as Flashpoint, Rookie Blue and others have proven, that doesn’t mean selling out your culture and identity. Make a good show and the Americans will come on board…even if a Canadian flag is waving in the background.

And possibly there will be a trickle down benefit to this. As I’ve often said before, if people (even Canadians) are reluctant to watch Canadian programs, it has less to do with the fact that they are “Canadian” in identity…than that Canadian programs have acquired a negative reputation over the years, from too many movies and TV shows that are bad, or maybe good…but non-commercial. So perhaps, in time -- not right away, but in time -- if people are tuning in to Rookie Blue, Flashpoint, Combat Hospital and others, seeing Canadian actors and Canadian flags in a show they find entertaining…they might be willing to give a chance to other Canadian series, even those that don’t have US network approval.

But more to the point -- is the true villain here the publicity machine, ranging from the publicists hired to promote Canadian programs who are asleep on the job, or Canadian reporters and newspapers who only seem to feel a Canadian show is worth writing about if it has an American partner? We’ve already seen decades of simulcast programming -- where Canadian networks air American programs in the same time slots as the American networks. But is there also simulcast journalism -- where Canadian newspapers only bother to cover a Canadian program if the Americans are covering it too?

That's all for now,
The Masked Movie Critic

August 24, 2011

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