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Does Canadian TV Need Hollywood Approval?

03/02/2015 12:06 EST | Updated 05/01/2015 05:59 EDT

A funny thing happened on the way to Canadian Screen Awards. A controversy!

Actor Enrico Colantoni, headliner of Global's medical drama, Remedy, complained Orphan Black was unfairly positioned because of its international co-production status.

As far as celebrity trash talk goes this is pretty minor (Colantoni even compliments Orphan Black). Though there's something quintessentially Canadian about grumbling about funding! Still, I think the English-Canadian entertainment biz can use a little controversy, public feuding and odd behaviour. (Look how much mileage the press got out of John Travolta being "handsy" at the Oscars!)

Colantoni's complaint can seem a bit wide-of-the-mark, though. Orphan Black receives money from a foreign cable network, BBC America, but it also receives money from Canadian partners, and in all other artistic respects (writers, directors, most of the actors) is Canadian.

But is it any wonder Colantoni might be a bit confused about how "Canadian" Orphan Black is when so much press has been spent on emphasizing BBC America? Depending on what you read, you might barely be aware that the series is Canadian at all (a confusion not exactly dispelled by the fact the producers admit it's set in "Generica" and deliberately mixes up Canadian and American characteristics).

Part of this "how Canadian" is something can relate a bit to how much a viewer likes/dislikes the program in question and how much they love/hate Canada. A person who likes Orphan Black but hates Canada will insist it's a BBC America series (watch the comments section below and see if any of the usual haters crop up -- though now that I've written this, they'll probably shy away). But you can equally have American series filmed in Canada which Canadian fans like to claim as "Canadian."

And if Colantoni's complaint is about unfair advantages, that same argument could be made even with domestic productions. The Best Drama series category is conspicuously dominated by big budget series while smaller budgeted series were shut out -- including Blackstone and Hard Rock Medical.

But this brings us to an issue I've brooded about for a while.

Let's look at two Canadian medical dramas: the aforementioned Remedy and CTV's Saving Hope. Both are slick, set at a big city hospital, featuring some Canadian stars with an international profile, mixing soap opera-y threads with medical crises of the week.

Saving Hope premiered to an impressive million plus viewers -- it opened with those numbers. Whereas Remedy, I believe, premiered with under a million (though still respectable numbers).

Personally, I think Remedy is the better series. With its Upstairs/Downstairs approach to the hospital microcosm and the focusing on an extended family, it's more original than Saving Hope (despite the latter's "I see ghosts" thread). I find the pacing snappier, the characters more interesting, the acting (overall) a little stronger, and so on. Obviously, that's subjective -- but it makes the point that Remedy and Saving Hope are playing in the same league.

There's any number of reasons why one series might do better than another. Saving Hope premiered first. Maybe Colantoni (Veronica Mars) fronting some familiar faces (Sara Canning, etc.) couldn't match the combined cult fandom brought by Erica Durance (Smallville), Michael Shanks (StarGate SG-1) and Daniel Gillies (The Vampire Diaries). Maybe audiences just felt Saving Hope is better.

But it's not about viewers turning off, it's about them not tuning in to begin with. Because what sticks out for me is those opening numbers -- people tuning in, sight unseen. The one major difference between the series is that Saving Hope was marketed as an American co-production. It was dropped in mid-season by the American network, so that doesn't necessarily say anything about its relative quality to Remedy.

Was the PR value associated with American "approval" enough to give it the leg up? At least encouraging people to tune in to see if they liked it (Saving Hope continues to enjoy strong Canadian numbers) -- whereas those same people won't even try Remedy because it's "just" Canadian?

This goes back to the crime-drama Flashpoint (which, ironically, starred Colantoni) which was the first major Canadian series (since Due South) to land a big American window -- and it was a hit in Canada. And this seems to apply to other series, such as Rookie Blue. Or The Listener (which, like Saving Hope, didn't even last a full season on American network), or even Motive which I believe enjoys bigger numbers in Canada than the U.S. Yet Played didn't muster strong ratings -- and didn't have an American window. Just recently the CBC boasted astonishing opening numbers for The Book of Negroes and Schitt's Creek (though the latter's numbers dropped) -- both series hyped for their American co-production status. Whereas X Company, from the creators of Flashpoint, premiered to solid, but unsplashy numbers -- and it has no American partner.

(A notable exception is Murdoch Mysteries -- but it built its audience over many years).

Is there a cachet value to an American association beyond any question of quality? (Some of these Canadian series don't even do well in the U.S.). Do some Canadian viewers turn their noses up at a series that is "only" Canadian -- but on perceiving an American stamp of approval they happily give it a try? Or is it journalists that have that bias? Or is there more money put behind promotion? Or is it that in the on-line world of the internet, a Canadian series with an American window is more likely to be noticed by Canadians who get their entertainment news from Variety or the IMDB rather than The Toronto Star or TV, Eh? (Consider the ratings boost The Republic of Doyle enjoyed from Russell Crowe as a guest star).

If true, the immediate solution isn't necessarily clear. Strive to land an American partner -- even if it's a cable network? That can compromise the artistic vision (Saving Hope is set in Generica, like Orphan Black). Get the Canadian media to work harder to give equal time to wholly domestic series? Maybe viewers need to look at their own prejudices and realize that if you love Saving Hope, Orphan Black and Motive then it's the same talent pool producing Remedy, 19-2 and X Company.

If you don't like 'em -- fine. But don't refuse to even try them simply because they decided to go it without Hollywood approval.

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