Recently it was announced there will be an industry seminar asking the all-important question: how to get people watching Canadian TV shows?
I was actually all set to launch into some wild screed on the subject, but then came upon this post by Diane Wild at TV, Eh? -- TV, Eh?, it's probably safe to say, having established itself as the "go-to" site for articles on Canadian TV. Wild basically says most of what needs to be said. Go ahead, pop over there. I'll wait.
OK -- you back?
Fine, so I'll just take time to emphasize a few points (and, as should be obvious, this is a look at English-Canadian TV, not French-Canadian TV, which is a whole other topic). And I'll be up front that I'm going by memory, and some ratings numbers may be a bit off.
The problem with discussing what's wrong with Canadian TV is first even defining the criteria. And perhaps looking at the issue as a glass half full vs. a glass half empty.
Detractors (and villifiers) of Canadian TV programs are often quick to point out that usually only one or two (scripted) Canadian TV series make it into the weekly top 20 or 30 (more if you count news, specials, and hockey). That's the glass half empty.
Glass half full? An astonishing number of Canadian series are doing OK. Recent Canadian scripted series that either bring in a million (more or less) viewers per episode, or have at least had periods, or individual episodes, that have peaked around there include Saving Hope, Flashpoint, Republic of Doyle, Arctic Air, Rookie Blue, Combat Hospital, Bomb Girls, The Listener, Motive, Heartland, and Continuum. Why do I describe that as "astonishing" when the common wisdom is that Canadian TV is a disaster? Because, proportionate to the number of Canadian series that are actually made, the number that are doing "OK" (if not always great) is quite amazing.
America produces a lot of hit series, no doubt about it. It also produces a lot of misfires and failures. U.S. networks regularly greenlight more series than they have room for on their schedule because they are assuming they will be cancelling some even before they air. Indeed, just as an aside, it's ironic that fans and TV producers will lambaste network programmers for cancelling their show...when the only reason their show got broadcast in the first place was because some other show got cancelled and opened up a time slot!
Even failures in Canadian TV can have some bragging rights.
The CBC comedy Michael: Tuesdays & Thursdays was cancelled after one season due to low ratings. Yet it was receiving generally great reviews. Critics were calling it Canada's Arrested Development. Not in terms of style or tone (Michael more empathetic and humanist) but simply in being a "smart" comedy that was failing to woo a big audience. Many reviews were calling it the best comedy of the season -- not the best Canadian comedy, but the best even compared to the imported American shows.
So does Canadian TV have mountains to climb and hurdles to, um, hurdle? You betcha. But part of the obstacle is one of terms and mentality. Canadian TV should definitely strive to do better -- that's what we all do in every aspect of our lives -- but it's worth acknowledging where it's at. Given how few Canadian TV shows are made, if you have even one or two on your "weekly watch" list mixed in with your American picks (and maybe a few British choices) it's notable. And -- although this is purely anecdotal -- I get the impression an awful lot of people do. Even people who will swear up and down that they 100 per cent hate Canadian TV often admit to being regular viewers of Heartland, or Call Me Fitz, or The Lost Girl, or something.
Yet the pervasive mentality is always one of "exception." A good Canadian series is the exception to the rule of Canadian mediocrity, while a good American series is seen as representative of American quality...no matter how many mediocre American series you channel surfed by to get to it!
Consider your own personal viewing habits. How many TV series do you consider part of your weekly "must see" schedule? Now compare that to the number of series actually being broadcast in a week.
Most TV is crap most of the time. That's just life. It's also entirely subjective. What I like, you might hate, what you like, I might hate. The important thing is to separate personal biases ("I hate this show, therefore Canada makes terrible shows") from the objective ("I hate this show...but a million people a week seem to like it so, huh, go figure, eh?") Some of the Canadian shows whose solid ratings I applaud I, personally, might not think are very good.
All this is just to say that before we can seriously look at how to improve and strengthen homegrown Canadian TV, one first has to fairly acknowledge where it's actually at.
With that said, if network executives want to ask what's wrong with Canadian TV, maybe they need to first look in a mirror. More on that next time.