In January 1982 MacLean’s cover story read “The CBC’s Daring New Gamble,” and described the biggest programming risk a Canadian TV network has taken in the past 30 years. CBC decided to move its national news to 10 o’clock and follow it with The Journal, an in-depth current affairs segment.
CBC legends Peter Herrndorf, Mark Starowicz, Trina McQueen and
Tony Burman designed the revolutionary concept around hosts Barbara Frum, Knowlton Nash and Mary Lou Finlay. The move had to be finessed through the CBC’s Board of Directors and when presented an audience forecast predicting the audience would increase significantly, Herrndorf said to bury it, since he had already convinced the Board that increased service to the public was worth losing audience. The audience for the 10 o’clock hour increased by over 50 per cent and may have saved CBC or at least bought it another decade or two.
Not every gamble pays off, especially ones that ignore the odds. With bureaucrats in control of CBC a decade later, The National was moved to 9 o’clock with disastrous results. That mistake lasted one season.
Ever since, CBC has steered away from taking risks and today builds its prime time schedule around programs that have been around for 40 years or longer: NHL hockey, local and national news, fifth estate, Nature of Things, Marketplace, Disney, Coronation Street, Hollywood movies, holiday specials and safe, middle-of-the-road entertainment reminiscent of programs the network aired in the 1970’s. Renewing 22 minutes for a 20th season or purchasing the rights to a proven series like Murdoch Mysteries or the Lang/O’Leary show are the riskiest programming moves CBC takes. Perhaps that is why CBC TV made little fuss about its 60th anniversary last September, which coincidentally was also the 60th anniversary of Canadian TV. Instead the network celebrated the 60th anniversary of Hockey Night in
Why are Canadian broadcasters so reluctant to take risks? Does it explain why Canadian drama and comedy programs virtually never make the top 10?
These questions have perplexed some very smart, creative people in Canadian TV for decades. In the late 1970’s it led CBC to study trends in Canadian program audiences. One of the findings that surfaced shocked senior management: the audience to Canadian programs had lagged
U.S. programs since the beginning of TV in , when CBC TV was essentially the only channel available to most Canadians. Canada
Further analysis revealed that in the 1950’s CBC TV relied heavily on shows like Ed Sullivan, Father Knows Best, Perry Como and I Love Lucy. These American shows attracted huge audiences with ratings of 20%, 30% or even 40%, numbers unheard of today, when a show with rating of 2% is considered a success.
Here’s a snapshot from an old report showing that even in 1960, prior to the launch of
programs captured roughly two-thirds of Canadian viewing (6pm-midnight). The 2:1 ratio remained constant through the 60’s, 70’s, 80’s and 90’s and is unchanged to this day, despite 60 years of trying. Over the years these efforts included the launch of dozens of new Canadian channels, the shift from free over-the air TV to pay TV, the creation of new funding sources, new funding agencies, tax incentives, billions of tax dollars provided to CBC and other broadcasters, regulatory incentives by the CRTC and numerous other measures. CTV, U.S.
Of course, all the Canadian stations, including CBC, also carry foreign programs, usually giving them prime time slots. CTV, CITY and Global prime time schedules are mostly American programs, scheduled to broadcast simultaneously with the
Here’s another chart that Al Johnson presented to Parliament over 30 years ago. It shows the correlation between the amount of foreign programming in English TV and its audience share. Overall, some 67 per cent of programming available was foreign, so no wonder it captured a large audience share. Note that what is true today was true then: in news, public affairs and sports, Canadian programming accounted for a majority of the programming available and an even greater share of viewing in those genres. We have always been good at news, public affairs and sports and people watch in large numbers, being interested in what affects them directly. That was a key factor in the success of The National and The Journal.
However, in drama and other entertainment we not only produced much less, we drew a ridiculously small share of the viewing audience in 1979 and that remains true today, as I have documented and confirmed annually in CRTC and CMF trending reports. Because drama and entertainment account for much more viewing than other genres, foreign programming continues to predominate. But it still leaves the question, why can’t we produce top 10 hits?
The decades-long stranglehold
An example: when a disaster strikes in the States, such as 911 or the Boston Marathon bombing, English Canadians flock to CNN. Ratings for Canadian news channels increase too but nothing compared to the CNN audience. For several weeks in September 2001 CNN was the number one network in
One response has been to find excuses, arguments and rationales for the condition. A favourite tactic is to point out that there are many
When all is said and done, the fact is that only rarely does a Canadian show, other than news and sports, crack the top 10 program rankings issued week after week by the ratings agencies. There have been exceptions, such as Corner Gas or the first few weeks of Little Mosque on the Prairie but they are exceptions. Canadian TV doesn’t produce hit drama or comedy programs.
I have never watched a bad Canadian TV program. Canadians have produced some of the highest quality television in the world and there is much to be celebrated. We have the talent, witnessed by the many actors, directors, etc. in
The real reason that we don’t have our own hits is not talked about publicly. That is because producers and others employed in Canadian TV are reluctant to point the finger at the obvious reason.
TV is a collective endeavour requiring writers, producers, actors, directors, cameramen, broadcasters, lawyers, accountants and many others. It is a complex business. But the best TV usually starts with one creative individual, be it a producer or a writer, someone with a creative idea for a series. In the
The funding agencies have incredibly complex guidelines and rules to determine who gets what share of the funds; they employ hundreds of people to administer the byzantine funding system. The money comes from taxpayers and cable/satellite subscribers, so the government, cable and media companies have an elaborate governance system that sets policy to distribute funds on a quota basis to ensure English and French, different regions, different media and different broadcasters receive funds. A good idea for a TV series is as likely as not to receive funding.
The financing system is not only complicated and bureaucratic, it is geared to eschew risk. To get approval a producer needs pre-approval from a broadcaster and “envelopes” of funding are set aside based on historical factors including past audience performance, track records of the producer and the broadcaster. In other words, new producers are at a disadvantage and producers and broadcasters are encouraged to do what has worked previously, which means copying past formulas, using the same writers, actors, etc. Innovation is discouraged by the system; the programs that result are often good but not great.
Change for a sixty year-old system is not easy and not welcomed by those who administer the system. I suspect that unless the system is changed to encourage risk taking, we will never achieve what Al Johnson wanted.
Currently the funding required to make TV programs is held captive by the funding agencies and their bureaucracies. The solution to this might be a lot simpler than one might think. TV programs appear on TV networks. If the funds were provided directly to the networks, who after all should be good at spotting and developing talent, the need for the agencies would all but be eliminated and more efforts to innovate and take risk would result.
There’s one problem. The reason that Telefilm and ultimately the CMF were created is that decades ago, even before the time MacLean’s published its article on The National/Journal, the government felt CBC had too much control of the TV industry and wanted to encourage independent producers, so it created Telefilm to provide funds to independents. CBC, whose budget was cut to fund Telefilm, didn’t want to be left out, so to access these funds, CBC agreed to broadcast a minimum percentage of independent production.
Somewhat later cable companies were required to set aside 5% of all subscription revenue for another production fund and the government agreed to basically match these funds. The cable companies despised the notion of giving some of this funding to CBC and even withdrew funding at one point; reluctantly, CBC is given access to this fund today.
So the government is providing two streams of revenue for independent TV production and cable/satellite companies provide another. The logical solution is for a portion of the government funding to go directly to CBC, exclusively for independent production and matched by internal CBC funds. The rest of the government funding and the 5% cable fund should be provided directly to the private TV networks, for use by independent producers, and matched by private networks. Conveniently, all the private networks happen to be owned by cable/satellite companies. The government’s only role would be to audit the system.
No bet is a sure thing but removing the bureaucratic funding agencies and providing production funds directly to networks would increase the appetite for risk, put the decision making in the hands of programmers, ensure all the funds go to programming and maybe create some hits of our own. The CBC might even take a few chances.