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Why TV Shows Do "Crossover" Episodes

11/28/2013 05:21 EST | Updated 01/28/2014 05:59 EST

This week saw an unusual occurrence on CBC TV's The Murdoch Mysteries -- a crossover "event" with The Republic of Doyle star, Allan Hawco, guest starring as his character's ancestor (apparently in a few weeks, Murdoch's Yannick Bisson will appear on The Republic of Doyle). It's something that has rarely been done before in Canada -- and I think never to this degree (occasionally real personalities popped up on Corner Gas or what-have-you, playing themselves).

A "crossover" is when characters from one series/property appear in an unrelated series/property. In comic books, the "shared universe" idea is so intrinsic, characters regularly guest star in each other's magazines.

TV has never been quite so ambitious -- thankfully (the shared universe and incessant crossover stories having helped, arguably, to make comic books an insular medium accessible to only the most devoted fans).

There are different reasons for doing a TV crossover.

The first is just for the fun of it.

The second is to grab a bit of press coverage. When a series has been going a few years, the press tends to ignore it, so "gimmick" episodes (celebrity guest stars, "very special episodes," and crossovers) are a way of convincing the press to write about you for that week.

The third is even more pragmatic -- to win new viewers by getting fans of one series to try the other and, with luck, decide they like it and so stick around for future episodes.

The Murdoch Mysteries episode satisfied either of the first two goals. It was a sprightly, enjoyable enough episode in the series' usual unpretentious, unsubtle way -- the characters' visit to "the colony of Newfoundland" appealing (particularly the scene where Const. Crabtree ingratiates himself with some locals by slipping into the regional patois). Though, in truth, Allan Hawco's participation was more a glorified, if recurring, cameo.

But it's the third -- and arguably more important -- goal that is worth some ink.

At this point, I believe, Murdoch is the ratings leader of the two so, in a sense, it's Doyle that might be hoping to win a few extra fans with the crossover. Yet as series, both Murdoch and Doyle are well into middle-age, by TV standards, with Doyle in its fifth season. What's more, I believe its ratings peaked a couple of seasons ago. I don't mean that in a critical or pejorative way -- Doyle still has a few more Wheaties in its bowl. But if one is looking to boost ratings with such an event, it normally would involve pairing a seasoned series with a new series. Or, at least a series that's still hoping to grow its audience. With Doyle having been on TV for a number of years and on the downswing of its ratings curve, I doubt there's much of an untapped well of potential fans who just haven't come upon it yet.

And I suspect Murdoch and Doyle already share a fan base. They are similar enough in tone (detective series with a light-hearted vibe) and sensibility (both among the most archly Canadian series around, so appealing to cultural aficionados) that I suspect most Murdoch fans have already at least sampled Doyle -- and vice versa.

Now you wouldn't necessarily want to crossover incompatible genres ("Tune in tonight as the residents of Blackstone get a visit from the wacky gang of Package Deal while later, in a very special Package Deal, the gang are exposed first hand to the poverty and despair afflicting the First Nations!" -- yeah, don't think so).

But surely part of the goal is to tempt viewers into trying something they otherwise might not. Perhaps a Murdoch Mystery/Cracked crossover. Maybe the psych crimes unit of Cracked find themselves dealing with a rare mental illness, the only previous record being a case study written a hundred years previous by Murdoch's Dr. Julia Ogden and the story could cut between past and present. And Cracked (which, so I understand, needs a ratings boost more than Doyle does) could benefit from the association.

And maybe Jake Doyle could pursue an investigation that takes him to the NWT and chartering a plane from the Arctic Air crew.

And what about network crossovers?

If you've read any of my previous posts, you know I'm a "big picture" kind of guy. When I write, and pontificate, and rant, about Canadian film and TV, it's often in terms of the "industry," and "national culture," and the "greater good." My suspicion is that too many people in Canadian film & TV are primarily focused on themselves, their own successes and failures, and everyone else can go jump. That sometimes makes me odd man out, and is why I can write what I think is a passionate piece about the industry -- and then I'll get angry responses from people saying I'm not doing "my part" simply because I didn't throw my unswerving support behind a particular program or movie. No doubt I'll be criticized for writing that Doyle's ratings have plateaued -- when, to my mind, I'm supporting Doyle (and other series) simply by writing about them, period.

All this is to say that there's a lot of bitchiness and Cold War rivalry between Canadian networks. I suspect executives at all the networks have cherished fantasies where they wake up one morning and find their network is the only one still on the air. But when it comes to Canadian culture the truth is, if the networks don't hang together, they'll hang separately. What helps one helps all.

And crossovers might provide a bigger audience boost, tapping into new fandoms, if they crossed over network lines. If we had a Republic of Doyle/Played crossover. Or a Lost Girl/The Listener crossover (the Lost Girl's Bo could mistake The Listener's Toby for one of the Faerie folk -- heck, given one actor, Kris Holden-Ried, appears in both series, there's a ready made story idea involving mistaken identities!) Or even a French/English crossover (a surgeon from Trauma could be called in for a consultation on Saving Hope).

What about pairing largely Canadian series with Canadian-made international co-productions with their bigger PR engines and international marketing? Maybe an Orphan Black/Beauty & The Beast crossover. Or a Degrassi/Reign crossover -- um, OK, yeah, even I'm not sure how that one would work.

But I bet the press would write about it.

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