TORONTO (CP) _ There’s little doubt Canada can produce quality television as creative as any in the world. There’s just one problem: very few Canadians are watching it.
Only one Canadian-made show was in the Top 30 for the week of Sept. 18 to Sept. 24, according to BBM Canada _ CTV News, at the No. 14 spot. The rest of the list was dominated by American shows like "CSI," "House" and "Desperate Housewives."
While compelling Canadians to tune into homegrown fare has always been a struggle, one Canadian TV producer says it’s even more difficult now to compete against the tidal wave of American magazines, websites, advertising and so-called infotainment shows that celebrate U.S. television on both sides of the border.
"The Americans operate the best propaganda machine in the world," says Chris Haddock, the man behind "Da Vinci’s Inquest" and the new CBC show, "Intelligence," premiering Oct. 10 and already getting rave reviews from critics.
"Nobody understands the value of publicity and marketing better than the Americans. They will throw tens of millions of dollars at promoting not just a movie, but a new television show. It’s not the quality we lack here _ it’s the money and the marketing machine."
Television blogger Diane Wild agrees.
"For Canadians to compete against the deep pockets of an American network is almost impossible," says Wild, whose blog, "TV, Eh?" (http://canadiantv.wordpress.com), charts developments in Canadian television.
"We do have quality shows. We’ve got ‘Degrassi’ and ‘Corner Gas’ and ‘Trailer Park Boys,’ to name just a few. Canadians will watch Canadian TV, but it has to be something that grabs their interest, and most importantly, something that they actually know about. Part of the problem is the publicity and the marketing of these shows. I started up my site because I just wasn’t hearing about Canadian shows."
The CBC is currently in crisis mode over the low ratings for some of the productions the public broadcaster had high hopes for, most notably "Hockey: A People’s History."
Just slightly more than 500,000 viewers tuned in to watch the miniseries in mid-September. On the third night, when the show was up against the popular American reality show "Amazing Race," it lost more than 200,000 viewers. Kirstine Layfield, executive director of programming for CBC-TV, agrees that trying to get Canadians to choose made-in-Canada programming is a constant battle.
"There is certainly something very difficult about living next to the huge cultural icon that is the United States," Layfield concedes.
As well, says Layfield, the network is at a disadvantage because it doesn’t have the huge American mega-hits like "House," "Grey’s Anatomy" and "Lost" that are also carried by rivals CTV and Global.
"CTV has three million viewers tuning in to watch ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ and they can use their own airwaves to promote their own shows to those millions of viewers in a way that we can’t," she says.
"What we’re doing now is finding the specific audiences for a show. With the limited money that we have, we’re trying to be clever about targeting the right audiences."
But Haddock says the problem is much bigger than just marketing _ stringent Canadian content rules have to be applied to television just as they are to music.
"It should be mandated that for every opportunity the private broadcasters give an American show, they have to be willing to kick a little bit back, for free, to Canadian productions," Haddock says. "They have to use the money they’re making from these American shows and plow it back into Canadian content."
The Writers Guild of Canada made a submission last week to the CRTC, pointing out that spending by broadcasters on Canadian programming over the past five years has dropped from 27 per cent to 25 per cent of advertising revenue. During the same time period, spending on American shows increased from 27 per cent to 35 per cent.
"To make matters worse," the Writers Guild said, "this happened while advertising revenues rose more than 15 per cent over the same period. That means that during the past five years as over-the-air broadcasters were making more money, they were spending less on Canadian programming."
Wild agrees that a lack of marketing is playing a significant role in why Canadians are failing to tune into home-grown shows, but she adds that Canadian networks are still often missing the mark when it comes to creating shows that Canada wants to watch.
"There’s still stuff out there that doesn’t seem to be capturing the public’s interest," she says. "There are a lot of shows that have been focus-grouped to death and then they spend forever tweaking the pilot."
Simply imitating American shows and setting them in Canadian cities "doesn’t work for us," Wild says.
"We have a talented group of creators in Canada who have their own ideas and their own passion for the shows that they want to produce and we need to tap into that and see what actually inspires Canadians to watch those shows _ I don’t think it’s going to be ‘CSI’ knockoffs that people want to watch."
Scheduling, too, is something Canadian networks can do better, Wild says. She points to the CTV night-time soap "Whistler," which aired in the summer _ a period when very few people are watching television. She also questions the CBC’s wisdom in airing "Intelligence" opposite "House" on Tuesday nights. The network will re-run "Intelligence" on Friday nights at 11 p.m.
"Is that really the best place to put that?" Wild asks. "Canadian shows have enough of a handicap in terms of being visible to the public. If you put them on against powerhouse shows … I mean, that’s part of the problem right there."