Monday, June 04, 2007


One of the best and most dependable resources on the American television scene is The Futon Critic, a site which regularly posts not only overnight ratings, but press releases from each network as they "spin the numbers" to calm panicked advertisers and assuage corporate egos.

In network speak, you're only in fourth place until numbers are spun to make the outcome far better than it first appears. "We only had 100,000 viewers but they all bought a Lexus during the last commercial break so our sponsor is EC-STATIC!!!"

In American television, success is relative. In Canadian television, it's apparently only our relatives who are still watching...

This is the first of three posts on who's not watching Canadian television and my opinion(s) as to why that's happening. I don't know the final solutions. But I do know that finding them means changing the way we think about the industry.

This week, CBC launched their Fall Season with Kirstin Layfield, Executive Director of Programming, stating that the network had its best prime-time ratings in five years.

I caught that "Good News" nugget while driving and it struck me as odd. Time was CBC had shows that attracted 2-3 Million viewers on a regular basis. "Beachcombers", "Avonlea", "The National" and "Hockey Night in Canada" to name a few.

Given audience fragmentation, those numbers don't exist much anymore. But now the CBC only has a couple of half hours that regularly break a million -- "Little Mosque" and "Mercer"; and the sports talk show the CBC news item interrupted had been bemoaning the lowest ratings in years for the NHL Playoffs.

So, if CBC's numbers were the best in five years, I couldn't imagine how bad it was over there at the lowest ebb.

Well, according to Barry Kiefl, president of Canadian Media Research Inc., the season was actually the WORST in the public broadcaster's 55-year history.

Kiefl, director of research at CBC from 1983 to 2001, (I cannot imagine how exciting that job must've been) says CBC audience share in prime time is 7.5 per cent from October through March - down slightly from the previous year's 7.6 per cent.

And according to Kiefl the CBC prime-time schedule only hung in like it did because the network aired more hockey than ever before. Indeed, literally 48 per cent of the CBC prime-time audience was generated with sports.

No other network comes anywhere close to that in North America.

Which would clearly indicate that the audience for their other programming had not grown -- at all...


Okay, so CBC spins the numbers like everybody else. Is that really a big deal?

I tend to think so. Because "everybody else" finances what they do privately, not through an annual Billion dollar cheque from the Canadian Taxpayer.

And if fewer of those taxpayers have an interest in watching what their tax dollars are buying, that would seem to indicate a shift in programming be seriously considered -- or that said tax money be spent elsewhere.

And before you get all "The CBC's our Cultural Lifeline" on me. Think about a world without the CBC but that $1 Billion still being spent on Canadian programming.

Certainly not something anybody working at or for the CBC want to see happen.

But the 2007 CBC season that's just been announced doesn't appear any different from the one which preceded it. If they weren't getting a bigger audience -- why do the same thing?

Globe & Mail columnist John Doyle, recently spoke to the Writers Guild of Canada's National Forum on the subject of one hour drama, stating that viewers are hungry for that type of television and his read of G&M readers was that they want compelling, provocative, adult drama that "they can attach themselves to."

Just an aside, but I really appreciate big-time newspaper columnists who speak like real people and end the occasional sentence with a preposition....

Anyway, Mr. Doyle went on to say that the lack of Canadian drama has less to do with the audience than the Broadcasters, who don't want to pay for it and are reluctant to acknowledge how sophisticated their audience really is.

Hmmm...number two...

So this would seem to indicate CBC's number spinning is an attempt to justify a concerted effort NOT to give the audience what they want, but rather what the CBC's executives would either prefer to produce -- or -- only know how to produce.

Drama's hard. Not as hard as Comedy but close. And to be fair, CBC is promising up to seven new ones in January.

But there is only one on its Fall schedule, "Heartland". I have no idea of the show's quality and I'm not certain if it will still have that name when it debuts in October, since TNT launches a series entitled "Heartland" next week which stars Treat Williams and may have already been picked up by another Canadian broadcaster.

The other announced dramas are "The Tudors" and "Torchwood", two Euro-productions the CBC invested some money in and "St. Urbain's Horsemen", a mini-series.

That's the menu, a not-at-all-Canadian Period Drama, a not-at-all-Canadian Dr. Who spinoff and a Canadian literary classic that'll play over two evenings.

Good thing there's still hockey.

The rest of the schedule is made up of returning sketch comedy, more episodes of "Little Mosque" and a lot more of the "Greatest Canadian (insert concept here)" style of reality programming. It's all programming which seems to garner numbers the corporation finds acceptable, but clearly isn't connecting with Canadians in significant numbers.

Much as I hope "Triple Sensation" lives up to its hype of finding the next great Musical star, it seems pointless when CBC doesn't appear to be interested in finding a venue to exploit that talent on its schedule and canceled the only program it still had which programmed legit musical theatre.

Given that the Canadian TV dial is loaded with options for accessing reality programming, foreign niche programming and lifestyle shows, it feels like the CBC would be best serving the audience they are mandated to serve by giving them one hour dramas that acknowledge their sophisticated tastes.

At the very least, it would set them apart from the local competition and better positioned to justify that annual government cheque by not looking (and programming) exactly like the guys who are doing it without direct Taxpayer support.

Mr. Kiefl seems to share that opinion.

"I would think CBC would want to be very careful - while the standing committee on Canadian heritage continues its review of CBC/Radio-Canada's mandate - to be as open and accountable as possible. CBC has acknowledged many times the shortage of funding it faces. If they ever wanted to plead a case for more money, they should do it when there are serious weaknesses that need to be fixed in its schedule."

Repeat after me, CBC: "Without the audience, there ain't no show"

I don't expect you to know those lyrics -- after all they're by a Canadian band.


Bill Cunningham said...

Okay, as one of the few Americans (which means by default that I am a capitalist swine of some sort) reading in these parts, let me say this:

Television, like radio, newspapers,theater and magazines before it expanded because it fulfilled the mandate of "selling stuff." That's right, TV as we know it is here to sell us stuff. Even HBO, which sells itself.

If your station or network doesn't produce programming that sells, and makes you stand out in the pack then what's the point?

Set your own personal taste aside because the audience ain't buying...

Anonymous said...

The question is: Do we compete, or don't we? If we're chasing numbers we're competing. But no matter what we do, every single Canadian show is going to run against a simulcast American show. We have no choice but to compete, which means we have to look at the numbers.

I agree, we should just be doing stuff where the numbers don't matter. Both in film and television.

The Gil Deacon show is a perfect example of where Canadian Television's logic fails. Just because a "woman in daytime" works in the US doesn't mean we have any idea of how to replicate that type of programming.

Canada should be doing programming driven by creators and writers, and whatever works, works.

Notice that wherever Stursburg goes, the attempt to "compete" follows.

Stursburg should be cast out of the Canadian entertainment industry.

Eleanor said...

Total aside here... (U.K. perspective)

A little bird told me (I don't know how true it is, but I suspect that it is horrifically true) that, Doctor Who is being cancelled and Torchwood is being picked up.

If Canada is responsible for this tragedy, all I can say is ...


I can't say anything. I'm too busy crying.

Grrrrr! Not even slightly happy.

CAROLINE said...

Gill Deacon doesn't work for a lot of reasons. She's too damn preachy about being green for one thing. And it's really hard to have convincing food segments with a vegetarian host who won't eat meat. I never liked her on Daily Planet, either. She's got a smugness that's irritating to apparently not just me. What CBC should have done was focus tested her as a personality BEFORE they greenlit the show, and not waited until halfway through the first season, when they found out the biggest thing people didn't like about the show was it's namesake. Ooops. There's lots of people who you could have built a show around. Liza Fromer. Hell, I'd even watch Brent Bambury. My dog coulda told you Gill Deacon wasn't going to fly with a CBC daytime audience.

My only comment on the competition is this: taking my working in the industry out of the equation, I as a TAXPAYER resent the hell out of the CBC trying to outbid private broadcasters for things like the Olympics with my tax dollars. I also don't think CBC has any business airing movies like HAPPY GILMORE. No disrespect to Adam Sandler, I love the movie. But is it something for the public broadcaster? I would argue no.

What we need to do is define clearly what CBC's role is ... I'd rather see them get lower ratings but actually show Canadian programming.