The success of shows such as Mr. D has proven the CBC right about its gamble on all-Canadian programming. CBC
By Scott Stinson February 1, 2012
Kirstine Stewart, the CBC’s executive vice-president of English services, has a word for the success of the public broadcaster’s winter season: proof.
It is proof, that is, that the broadcaster’s move a few seasons back toward a schedule that would include all-Canadian programming was the correct one. And it is proof, she says, that Canadian-made television can compete against the high-profile Goliaths of the United States.
The CBC launched several new series in January. None have flopped. Some of the new series, the drama Arctic Air and the comedy Mr. D in particular, have repeatedly flirted with the one-million-viewers mark. Returning shows such as Republic of Doyle and Dragons’ Den have also pulled in strong ratings. The sum of all these parts, Stewart says, is “a better launch than any in recorded history at the CBC.”
“I think it’s proof that when you have the right environment for [Canadian programming], which treats it like first-class entertainment, it can fly on its own.”
There are some background reasons for the CBC’s strong January. One of Stewart’s first moves when she joined the network was to recognize that the winter season was an opportunity to be exploited. Major U.S. broadcasters throw most of their resources into flashy fall schedules, which means there is less to compete against in January. “There’s a lot of noise in the fall,” Stewart says. “If you have a show like Mr. D going up against the launch of a 2 Broke Girls and a New Girl, shows that occupy some of the same headspace, it just makes sense to get it out of the way of shows like that.”
Mr. D, which stars comedian Gerry Dee and is a vaguely autobiographical look at his experiences as a teacher, was two years in development and went through two pilots. It was a show that the CBC didn’t want to throw to the wolves. With heavy promotion and a launch as part of the winter schedule, it has been a hit from the start, drawing more than one million viewers in its debut and still managing more than 900,000 in early returns for Monday’s fourth episode. (Promotion isn’t everything: The show is funny, sometimes wickedly so.)
With Arctic Air, Stewart says she was confident they had a hit on their hands from the beginning. The story of a family-run Yellowknife-based airline, with film veteran Adam Beach attached to the project, was ordered for a 10-episode run without a pilot even being filmed. It was drawing on the popularity of reality shows such as Ice Pilots, it had star power in Beach, and followed the CBC script of using a region of the country as a character in the drama, like St. John’s with Republic of Doyle and Alberta ranchland with Heartland.
“It was a package that was neatly sewn up together,” Stewart says. “I just said, ‘No pilot needed, let’s just do a full series order.’ ”
It has delivered on that gamble, with more than one million viewers a night through three weeks, and even an uptick from Episode 2 to 3. The broadcaster has called it its highest-rated drama debut in two decades.
January’s wins stand out all the more against a fall CBC schedule that had much less ratings success, though Stewart says that was partly by design. A series such as Michael: Tuesdays & Thursdays, a dark comedy that drew critical raves (including from this critic), struggled to crack 200,000 viewers. Even returning shows such as the Rick Mercer Report sagged.
Stewart says the fall schedule, up against the big guns of the U.S. networks, was the place for a series like Michael: Tuesdays & Thursdays, which was not presumed to be a huge ratings winner. “Those expectations weren’t there,” she says. “As a broadcaster, you have to know which shows will be a hit and which will get you acclaim in other ways. If our mandate was to get blockbuster ratings for every show we did, then we’d be in a whole other business.”
All of this, the tepid fall and the boffo winter, has taken place against the backdrop of looming budget cuts at the CBC, as the federal government seeks wide savings in all departments. Reports have suggested the broadcaster is poised to take a 10% haircut to its $1.1-billion subsidy, though the Conservatives haven’t confirmed that to be the case. And no one at the CBC will speculate on what such a cut would mean in terms of television production and programming. The broadcaster has many tentacles across several mediums, so it’s unclear how much of the prime-time TV schedule would take a hit.
“We have to figure that out before we can make any promises,” Stewart says. “We’re just waiting to hear that number.” It’s a process the CBC does every year, with season-to-season renewals the standard and funding always up to the whim of Parliament, even though this year it is more uncertain than most. No decisions about upcoming schedules have been made, Stewart says. “But at some point there will be the ‘have to haves’ vs. the ‘nice to haves.’ ”
For now, the CBC can stick with its made-in-Canada plan, and even take comfort in the fact that homegrown series on other networks have done well on their winter schedules. Global’s Bomb Girls, for example, is still above one million viewers a week, four episodes in.
“When I see something like Bomb Girls do well, this is good because our community that makes this programming needs support from more than just CBC,” Stewart says. “It’s a Canadian story, and it presents the place as the place, it doesn’t try to disguise it.” Kind of like how the CBC likes to do it.