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Canadian TV Shows Are Slowly Creeping on to American Networks

06/06/2014 12:30 EDT | Updated 06/16/2017 01:03 EDT
ABC

Perspective can be a funny thing.

In recent years there has been a slight, but noteworthy, incursion of Canadian TV series onto American TV. Cable series like Bitten and Orphan Black and even primetime network programs like Rookie Blue and Motive.

What was seen as the game changer was the cop-drama, Flashpoint (2008-2012), which managed I think four seasons on CBS (and a fifth bumped to an American cable network).

Flashpoint was successful in America -- but problematic. It sometimes even won its time slot (albeit as a summer program) but with an audience that skewed older than the demographic that advertisers wanted. Still, in the bums-on-seats category, it had nothing to apologize for.

Rookie Blue, likewise, is a summer series and enjoys a respectable and loyal American audience.

But there has been grumbling about these and other shows. Some critics (in America but even in the Canadian press) quick to stigmatize them as "cheap" productions that the U.S. networks are only airing because they can get them for a song.

Motive apparently had middling ratings in its first season, yet ABC is airing its second season simply because the low cost off-sets the low ratings.

Now before we get too far, let me just comment on Motive. A crime-mystery series, Motive's gimmick is that the audience (though not the detective heroes) are shown who the killer is in the opening scene -- the plot slowly revealing the "why," rather than the "who."

Motive has a couple of things squarely in its "plus" column. One is its two stars. I've been smitten with Kristin Lehman ever since a short-lived U.S. series called Strange World. And I've been a fan of Louis Ferreira since before his Urban Angel days -- back when he was still going by the name Justin Louis. They're charismatic actors and their characters have a warm on-screen (platonic) camaraderie. Another plus -- if you enjoy watching actors act -- is that Motive is more character-driven than many detective series and the guest stars actually get meaty scenes to play.

With that said, Motive is a slick, well made but, admittedly, unexceptional series. I can't imagine anyone actively hating the series, even as it's what I think of as a good syndication series -- y'know, the sort of show that you might not make regular viewing, but easily kills an hour and you could see tuning into from time to time.

Motive is struggling to land a big U.S. audience, yet it's enjoying a second season on ABC (it's already been renewed for season three in Canada, but no word yet on its American fate).

Of course the paradox is that even as these series are often dismissed by American detractors as being generic, American fans of these series often seem to detect a slightly different vibe about them in style and philosophy. They don't necessarily like them in spite of being Canadian -- they like them because they are Canadian.

Still, critics sneer theses shows only secure their slots because of their low price tags. A curious complaint since ratings vs. cost has always been a factor, even for American series -- an expensive series gets cancelled while a cheaper series gets renewed with the same ratings.

There might even be political factors motivating the criticism, too. A U.S. network executive once was quoted acknowledging the only reason his network was airing these shows (I think Rookie Blue was the topic) was because they were cheap. I mean -- think about that for a moment. Wasn't his job to promote the shows, to encourage viewers? Instead, he's dissing his own network's show (and belittling the fans who are watching)! So was he just being atypically frank -- or was he motivated by patriotic stirrings, unwilling to admit that another country was producing shows just as competently as Hollywood?

Still, one can certainly sympathize with Americans fearing an invasion of foreign TV programs. I mean -- omigod! -- networks foregoing expensive homegrown productions simply because it's cheaper to buy up series from another country! Good lord! Can you imagine such a scenario?

Oh, wait -- you probably can. Because that's pretty much the fate of most other countries in the world already.

In Canada, most of the TV programs airing are actually American -- and it's no secret that the Canadian broadcasters get these shows for a lot cheaper than it costs to make their own. And though many of these shows do well in the ratings, Canadian television has had successful Canadian series get cancelled by the Canadian networks while they continue to air lower-rated American series simply because they're cheaper.

Canadian networks can acquire these shows so cheap sometimes they buy more than they need, some years burning off first run American series in after school and late night time slots! There's also a thing called simulcasting that means Canadian networks will give choice time slots to American series (in order to boost their ratings) while bumping homegrown series to less popular hours. As well, the American networks not only produce these series, but they market the hell out of them, and so all the Canadian networks have to do is put them on the air and wait for the ad revenue to roll in.

Canadian broadcasters make money hand over fist by programming cheap, imported American series in lieu of expensive-to-produce Canadian series. Partly it's greed (well, a lot of it's greed!) but partly it's the argument that they just couldn't afford to produce an entire schedule of Canadian programs.

Nor is Canada in anyway unique in this regard. If you travel throughout the world and channel surf, you're going to find a lot of cheaply acquired U.S. series on TV.

And just as a side point, one wonders how much such global sales affects the viability of American TV series -- even in America. If countries throughout the world suddenly stopped buying American series, would American viewers suddenly discover that Grey's Anatomy and The Walking Dead were no longer financially viable just made for the U.S. market? Does the exportation of these series help keep them on the air even in the United States?

There is a certain irony in American critics grumbling about a tiny minority of cheap Canadian imports muscling their way onto American primetime, because that's only a fraction of what other nations experience. I mean, if the cheapness by which a broadcaster can acquire a program de-legitimizes its creative worth -- doesn't that cut both ways?

Or maybe the influx of cheap Canadian shows onto American airwaves is simply a way of saying: "Welcome to the Global Village."

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