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Is Canadian TV Doing Better Than We Want to Admit?

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PhotoAlto/Ale Ventura via Getty Images
PhotoAlto/Ale Ventura via Getty Images

People maybe should be talking about Canadian TV drama more.

I know that's a strange opening statement given blogs are a-buzz over the CRTC's new rules and regulations overhauling television broadcasting. And I might formulate an opinion on that in a bit (but it's hard to sift through all the opinions given network executives, producers, writers, actors, etc. all view the issue through the myopic perspective of "How will this affect ME?!") But quotas and points systems and funding is all well and good, but the main goal is getting shows on the air and eyeballs glued to those shows.

And there are recent occurrences that warrant a bit of analysis.

The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation has been boasting about some pretty interesting ratings for its shows with a steady stream of million, or million-plus, performers (like The Book of Negroes, Ascension, Schitt's Creek, and X Company) when it seemed like just a few months ago the CBC was the kid on the playground who was always the last picked for Red Rover. With the exception of Murdoch Mysteries and Heartland, their numbers were soft-to-terrible. But now it seems like they're hitting it into the net with every slapshot.

Even if we allow for spin-doctoring of the numbers (Schitt's Creek's numbers were couched in terms of an "average" which glosses over its sizeable drop in viewers) it's pretty good. I'm cynical enough to want to question some of those numbers (only because I've seen how wildly rating can get quoted over the years -- and re-defined -- depending on who's doing the telling) but my cynicism isn't enough to base an opinion on.

So let's take 'em, more or less, at face value.

And let's add them to the numbers the other networks are bragging about for series like CTV's Saving Hope and Motive, Global's Rookie Blue, and strong numbers (proportionately speaking) for cable series like Orphan Black.

Half the time you read anything about Canadian TV the columnists are ringing the death knell. "No one's watching," they lament, "and the shows are mediocre."

But there's never been another time in the history of television when so many Canadian series were boasting such numbers. No other time when you could claim over a million English-Canadians were watching so many different and varied domestic scripted series in a week (I'm assuming these numbers are mostly reflective of English-speaking viewers).

So why? And how can this be built upon?

Maybe it's gradually been building to a kind of critical mass. Back in the day when you could only point to one or two "hit" Canadian series at a time (Street Legal, North of 60, Due South) there was little momentum. So maybe we're just seeing a slow acclimation of viewers' tastes, maybe beginning with Corner Gas and Flashpoint.

People who used to say "All Canadian TV sucks except the one show I like," are now saying "Hey, if I like one or two Canadian shows, maybe there are others that are pretty good, too."

Maybe there's truth to the old adage that there's no such thing as "bad" publicity. Maybe the public scandal of the Jian Ghomeshi business (and other, less sordid controversies surrounding Amanda Lang and others) has simply put the CBC on the radar of people who otherwise didn't pay much attention to it. So that when ads for The Book of Negroes and the like came along, viewers were keyed to pay attention to the CBC logo.

But it's worth talking about.

When a show or movie doesn't do well it's worth engaging in a post-game analysis to ask how it could've been made better (rather than the artists and their fans simply throwing a tantrum and insisting the audience is stupid). So, equally, if things are doing well it's worth asking if there are lessons to be learned.

Consider the CBC's airing of Ascension, a science fiction drama and a co-production with American partners (it's more an American production with Canadians joining in). Declaring my biases up front: I think Ascension is fairly mediocre -- not horrible, but bland (and it doesn't help that it was marketed as a "mini-series" but doesn't resolve much by the end of its six episode run). But what I think is unimportant.

What is important is that even Ascension is supposedly posting a million plus viewers.

But science fiction series are notoriously bad at getting mainstream ratings. Most American sci-fi is relegated to cable and syndication, and most network speculative fiction is geared toward fantasy, the supernatural or, at best, "soft" sci-fi. Network hard SF tends to tank.

So what's going on? Maybe Ascension is scoring solid numbers because Canadians are more comfortable with science fiction than Americans. That's possible. Though if so, Canadian networks have been woefully remiss over the last few decades in not commissioning more Canadian science fiction.

But that's where analysis comes in. What were the relative Canada/U.S. numbers a few years ago for Defying Gravity (a previous Canada-U.S. SF series)? I know at one point the CBC was airing Doctor Who and Torchwood (but the CBC dropped them after a season or two, so I'm not sure how well they performed).

Who is tuning into Ascension and why? Is there just a big fan base for actors like Tricia Helfer, Brian Van Holt and Gil Bellows? Maybe the "1960s in space" theme appealed to Mad Men fans jonesing for that particular milieu. Did the commercials just look bitchin' cool? I've written before that quite a number of these recent hit English-Canadian series are heavily promoted for their American connection, and asked whether there's a "chic" factor to such partnerships.

There's also a question that most critics would shudder to ask: but does mediocrity sell? Consider how often you'll see editorials by TV critics lambasting Canadian TV for being timid and bland even as it's these timid, bland shows that are winning viewers.

There's probably no one-size-fits-all explanation. The viewers tuning into Ascension might not be the same people who tuned into The Book of Negroes or who watch Motive. And those that are might be motivated by different impulses for each show.

But since the goal isn't just to produce a successful series, but to produce a bunch of them, and to keep producing them into the future, it's probably worth asking the question. If more Canadian series are scoring higher ratings -- then why? And why now?

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