Monday, June 08, 2009



I’ve been ragging on the domestic television scene a lot of late. It’s an easy target. In many ways, CTV and CanWest are the always reliable Clinton/Lewinsky one-two punch of the Tonight Show writers room.

But there are times when calling out the idiocies and arrogances of our private broadcasters starts depressing even me. So I’ve been thinking about what might get us through the regulatory swamp and around all the levels of greed and mismanagement to the kind of future Canadian viewers and their artists deserve.

I’m talking about a place where there’s some structure and reliability, where our work has a chance to be seen and the audience that funds us and whom we’re supposed to be telling our stories to can more easily find and perhaps embrace us.

Imagining that kind of warmth and light reminded me of Summer. And Summer might be one solution to our industry ills.


The first time I became aware that TV had two seasons was when Canadian comics Wayne & Shuster replaced “The Jack Benny Show” one summer in an American series called “Holiday Lodge”. It was a show about two guys running a – uh – holiday lodge.

I was only a kid and don’t remember much about the show other than it was pretty funny. But I think the seed was planted that Summer might be the secret back door to the American market.

According to the broadcasters, they need Prime Time American shows to drive their bottom lines. And according to the ratings, most Canadian viewers still prefer an American TV show over a Canadian one whenever they have the option.

Those of us making television here know we can compete with foreign offerings on an artistic level and our technical expertise is universally acknowledged. Fully 1/3 of those working on American television series, both before and behind the cameras, are Canadian.

But at home, we fly under the radar. We don’t get marketing support for our efforts from the broadcasters, who also often relegate our work to dead time slots or nights when viewers are virtually non-existent, further diminishing our chances of bringing a mass audience into the tent.

To the broadcasters, their choices are purely economic. It makes no sense to program a Canadian series in the prim-est Prime Time slots where they earn more for shows they pay less to purchase in LA.

Let’s put aside what we know and feel about that kind of BS for the moment and look at losing that battle to win the war.

Why don’t we let them have Prime Time –- as much as they want -- for nine months of the year. If they want to be indistinguishable from American affiliates, let them.

But in return, for three months, the summer months, their schedules have to be 100% Canadian. And instead of them branding us, we can be the ones individualizing them.

That pretty much gives our broadcasters everything they seem to want while ensuring our artists a real opportunity to step to the forefront.

And stop thinking of the Summer as some sort of straw hat, “Hey, my dad’s got a barn” option. Because summer isn’t like that anymore. But it also isn’t the time when the BIG shows with the BIG PR budgets are vying for everybody’s attention.

Since most series produced here are 13 episode orders, it would be possible to give Canadian audiences three solid months of original programming through summers where the bulk of the major network American competition now features repeat programming and a steady diet of decidedly low rent Reality that stars “celebrities” who, in another time, wouldn’t have been considered talented enough to be in an Ed Wood movie.


Recently, CBC programmed an entire new season of original material into the television wasteland created by the WGA strike, finding far larger audiences than it had anticipated. That would seem to suggest that the Audience will be there when given a choice between original drama and comedy and repeats or cheap, non-scripted programming.

Those of us who watched that launch of new programs also noted that the “It looks like a Canadian show” carping dropped in volume. They “didn’t look Canadian” because most of our stuff doesn’t anymore and when a $1 million budget show isn’t sandwiched between two $5 million budget shows, most people can’t spot the differences.

Now, seeking the favorite show-less audience isn’t an original strategy. It’s one that has been followed by many lesser players in carving out a niche for their programming and developing an audience that has made them bigger players. And it has resulted in a great number of shows which went on to enormous success.

What do iconic series like “The Avengers”, “The Prisoner”, “Northern Exposure”, “Dukes of Hazzard” and “Seinfeld” have in common? All were summer replacement series which found an audience large enough to carry them into regular season Prime Time success.

It’s a process I’ve personally experienced twice.

My first series, “Adderly” was on the CBS late night slate, part of a stable that included “Night Heat”, “Hot Shots”, “Diamonds” and others scheduled to counter-program the wee hours talk shows.

At the end of our first season, we’d done well enough that we were given a summer prime time slot on CBS, along with bigger budgets for those episodes and better known guest stars. That exposure increased our audiences enough to garner a full season order from the network when we went back to our regular slot.

Increasing audience is the Holy Grail in television and everybody benefits when it happens.

Similarly, “Top Cops” debuted as a summer series along with “Northern Exposure”, “911: Emergency” and something called “Walker: Texas Ranger”. All went on to huge success and each ended up anchoring a night of the CBS schedule for years to come.

It’s hard for broadcast executives on either side of the border to ignore positive ratings and given a rediscovered openness to scheduling Canadian produced shows on American Prime Time, a Canadian series with respectable audience numbers here becomes quite attractive and offers increased security to an American network needing its own mid-season (or earlier) replacements.

Shows down there would no longer need to be rushed into production or bounced around to patch leaks. And shows up here would not have to be designed or realigned prior to shooting to fit an American network’s needs.

It’s quite conceivable that instead of Canadian shows hanging in limbo (as a few are now), wondering if they will find a place on the American network that helped launch them and therefore retain their spot on the Canadian dial -- we could have series which through local success alone know if they’re being renewed or not, providing the local industry with much needed stability.

In addition, by remaining producible on locally acceptable budgets – but also holding the possibility of becoming very profitable in the American after-market or even seeing their initial runs extended into the Fall and Winter seasons; these shows are better placed to recoup their costs and realize quicker profits.

As a side benefit, Canadian nets will also have a fresh menu of alternative programming to offer online, providing those platforms with both product that their competition doesn’t have and the assurance there will be something on their site when the US shows they purchased are canned after 3-4 episodes.

TV has always been and will continue to be governed by audience numbers and no Executive here is going to trade a Canadian series with good numbers for a simulcast that doesn’t deliver as well.

Summer is also not the small audience ghetto it once was. Indeed, it is the time when viewers go looking for something different and smaller players have fed that appetite with such series as “Burn Notice”, “The Closer”, “Saving Grace” and “Mad Men”, all of whom have benefitted from not having to go up against the meat of the order nor compete with budgets many times their own.

There is a potential win-win here for everybody -- accompanied by the fact that we could all be on hiatus during the dead of winter perhaps with enough cash in our pockets to escape to Summer elsewhere.

Mull it over. Having a summer job might mean we all get more work in the long run.


deborah Nathan said...

Sounds logical and sensical to me. Ergo, not so much to network people. Not to mention that Canadian series are always thought of as "the cost of doing business" - like Marley dragging his chains with him, bemoaning his plight to Scrooge. Maybe if we pointed out it would make them all much more like HBO...

Cunningham said...

I like the "13 episodes and we're out for the winter" concept.

It's serial television...

It's "event" or "destination" television...

It's great for a DVD set which can come out in the winter right before the new summer season...

It's good for international buyers who like that model (Britain, Germany)...

It encourages innovation and can be planned out so that production costs can be amortized more effectively.