Slippery success

An interesting side effect of the WGA strike is that it’s functioning as an experiment on audience behaviour. We’re both loyal and fickle beings, us audience members. Fickle in that the industry never really knows what’s going to appeal to us until it does, as we reject what seems cloned from what we loved the year before, and embrace what we’d previously rejected in another guise. Loyal in that we miss our favourites and don’t easily replace them with others, as the strike is proving.

There are fewer new episodes of scripted shows, yet mid-season replacements aren’t seeing a ratings surge. Even American Idol is down from last year.

Which goes to show we won’t watch just anything. It’s easy to be snide about the taste of the general public in looking at the ratings charts, but the fact remains: we make conscious choices with our remote controls. We don’t just consume whatever the TV industry wants to throw at us, even when it happens to be the only new thing on the air that doesn’t involve dancing celebrities, Donald Trump, or Simon Cowell.

The Wire, in its fifth and final acclaimed season, was off to a slow start in the ratings, and they’re falling each week. October Road, which debuted well last year, is registering dismal ratings now. Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, dropped to 8.6 million last week after its football-stoked debut of 18 million.

8.6 million is bordering on failure for an American network drama. Translate that to the Canadian population and it works out to about 800,000. And during this US writers strike that started with Canadian producers crowing about how American networks were showing interest in buying their series, and continues with them pointing out that they stand to benefit from the lack of competition on US networks, Canadian dramas are faring no better, proportionally speaking.

January is the first time in my (short) memory that we’ve had anything approaching a Canadian television season, with more than a show or two sprinkled randomly around the schedule. Besides shows like Heartland and Da Kink in My Hair that launched in the fall and were still airing new episodes, we had CBC with four new scripted shows: The Border, jPod, Sophie, and MVP; Citytv’s premiere of Murdoch Mysteries; and Global presenting The Guard.

The Guard is the ratings champion so far at 800,000 for its series premiere. Global sent out a media release trumpeting its win over the more-ballyhooed CBC slate, which was a refreshing change from them sending a Canadian TV website a media release trumpeting the fact that House squashed Intelligence in the ratings. So bragging about 800,000 viewers for its Canadian show is a good start for a Canadian network, I guess.

But those ratings are not good. In fact, they are bad. These are new, expensive, well-publicized shows airing in primetime, in prime television-watching season against very little competition thanks to that writers strike. I hope positive word of mouth builds and turns some of them into hits, but they’re not there yet, no matter how much the networks try to spin it that way.

CBC at one point floated 1 million viewers as their target for a hit show, and it’s not as arbitrary a figure as some would say. 1 million viewers would put a show at the low end of the top 30 programs in Canada. Top 30 is not an unreasonable measure for a hit. The current crop of shows, the great white northern hopes, have not managed to crack that list.

What does not making the top 30 mean? None of these supposedly successful new Canadian shows managed to beat Dr. Phil, Jeopardy and Access Hollywood, The Ghost Whisperer, Las Vegas, or the on-life-support ER, never mind repeats of certified hits like CSI.

They have, however, managed to beat Intelligence, The Jane Show, and Whistler. So this is how we define Canadian ratings success: not sucking as much as the last crop of Canadian shows.

Some will blame the audience for not giving anything Canadian a chance, ignoring the fact that they have, and do, and three current shows are proof of that. Corner Gas and the Rick Mercer Report regularly make the top 20, and Little Mosque on the Prairie occasionally peeks its head into the top 30. These are shows that scream Canadiana and don’t seem to frighten the Canadians.

But finger pointing is easier than looking in a mirror.

Jim Henshaw holds that mirror up in his latest post. He’s got a lot to say about what’s wrong with the industry, that makes it hold mediocrity up as success. He’s talking about quality rather than ratings, mostly, but our points are similar. If this is what the Canadian audience is being sold as success, no wonder we’re hugely skeptical that our industry is even capable of recognizing excellence, never mind creating it. It’s good enough seems to be their motto.

How do you achieve success when you don’t have the guts to define it? There’s something wrong with an industry that sets the bar for success at 1 million then is smugly satisfied with fewer than 800,000. There’s something wrong with a public broadcaster that can’t decide whether to nurture low-rated but quality shows like Intelligence or abandon them for higher-rated shows that are still neither critical darlings nor popularly successful by their own measure.

I can’t speak to exactly what’s wrong with the industry. I can only speak for what’s wrong with the audience: we haven’t seen anything to take our minds off the lack of our favourite shows yet. The industry can raise its voice in explanation, but the audience will be too busy speaking with our remotes to listen.

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8 Responses to Slippery success

  1. jimhenshaw says:

    Hey Diane,

    Thanks for the mention and the link. And I think we’re both coming from the same place in approaching the problem.

    Creating Television is maddeningly complex and yet frighteningly simple — “It’s about the audience, stupid!”

  2. Frank "Dolly" Dillon says:

    what is also sort of interesting in a geeky kind of way is that taking a look at an sfu research paper on canadian viewing patterns for one season — 1999/2000 — is that back before this current “renaisance”(sic) nine canadian tv movies brought in audiences of one million of more and three tv series averaged more than 650,000 viewers per ep (all with share numbers between 8 and 10). even series that were not well regarded (the city and power play) at the time were averaging half a million viewers.

    we really haven’t hit it out of the park yet.

  3. Frank "Dolly" Dillon says:

    this is also only the numbers for scripted one hour dramas — air farce and this hour sat well over a million on a regular basis.

  4. Diane Kristine says:

    They don’t according to BBM Nielsen, not for the last year and a half at least. They do better than most of these shows, though, and of course they’re much cheaper to produce than a one-hour drama.

  5. Frank "Dolly" Dillon says:

    no, not any more. i meant during the 99/00 season. sorry for the misunderstanding

  6. Diane Kristine says:

    Ah, sorry, that’s me being thick! I see the past tense there now.

  7. Cunningham says:

    As far as yardsticks go in measuring audience response, I’ve always held that the “water cooler /coffee pot” test is most effective:

    Did you watch suchandsuch last night?

    No. Tell me about it…

    I’ve had critics blast my movies to high heavens – deservedly so in many cases – but it’s the chat rooms and forums where I can see if the show “worked.”

    These days, people miss shows because they can — thank goodness for the internet and TiVo — but they will go back and watch if some one refers them back. Then, they’ll check out the discussion forums.

    The shows that are worthwhile get the buzz, and not necessarily the calculable ratings.

    So, if nothing is buzzing about in Canada, you have a real problem…

  8. Diane Kristine says:

    Yeah, I alluded to that in an earlier post – I’d tried to find fan activity for ReGenesis and there was none to be found. That’s true of most Canadian shows – these are not cult favourites we’re taking about. Reminds me of a West Wing quote taken way out of context – “if no one on the Internet wants a piece of this, just how far from the pack have you strayed?”

    The awareness of the new shows was huge. I know people who were excited about a couple of them … until they saw them. But from the media and the bloggers, you’d think these were huge triumphs. Just as long as you don’t ask the audience, I guess, or can dismiss them by calling them haters. But if we’re really lucky, maybe France will buy a couple of our shows to play at 3 am …

    And there’s a rant for another time.

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