Why did two of the January CBC start ups succeed and two others fail?
It is a very Canadian question. Six weeks from now one will ask why Fox dumped three of the four shows they are launching this month. Most prime time network shows fail--in fact, historically, only 20% succeed.
So, two out of four, 50%--that's a miracle in television.
As for the notion, put forward by one of the jPod producers, that the shows didn't get enough promotion, well, PLEASE. These shows were promoted so heavily I began to think they might be American shows on CTV.
The fact CBC decided so quickly to move on from MVP and jPod, whatever you think of the merits of those shows, indicates that CBC is finally in the network television business. How many CBC shows in the past, from Tom Stone to, yes, Intelligence, limped into a second season when it was crystal clear after four or five weeks that it would not and could not connect with enough viewers to be sustained on a broadcast network?
Clearly, quality is not much of a factor in determining hits, or Intelligence would run for a decade. (It might yet: John Doyle reported in yesterday's Globe and Mail that producer Chris Haddock--together with John Wells--is versioning the series as a pilot at Fox. Try FX or HBO). Other smart shows that should have run forever are Arrested Development and The Wire (which ends its five-year-run tonight on The Movie Network/Movie Central). Some shows are just the best shows ever--for people who don't normally watch television.
MVP was slick and sassy out of the gate--and maybe it never should have opened on a Friday--but all that sizzle provided very little heat. Canadians just weren't interested in the secret lives of hockey wives. Maybe they were just too busy this winter shoveling snow.
Denis McGrath makes several good points on this subject over at Dead Things ON Sticks, starting with a shout out to Mary Leckie, one of the executive producers on MVP. He refers to a quote from Leckie in that same Globe and Mail piece where she dusts herself off and says, "this is a tough business and I can't slam anyone. We move on."
It is a bloody tough business and Leckie is a total pro, she will move on. She's built a solid rep making TV-movies about such all-Canadian stories as the Halifax harbour explosion or the Avro Arrow. Those were both monster hits, drawing over 2 million viewers each, American idol numbers.
Odd then, that when she tried to take the ultimate Canadian theme--hockey--and turn it into an American-style soap opera--it got slammed into the boards. It is almost as if, as a publicist remarked to me a week or so after all four new CBC shows launched, that Canadians simply do not want to watch Canadian-produced shows that ape American-produced shows.
It is the classic Canadian TV conundrum--give them what they want, which is CSI, House, Desperate Housewives. But do it for a quarter the budget AFTER you go through the already complicated enough government funding padiwacks.
Or do what ultimately works best in the States--give somebody with passion and vision a shot, leave them alone, and see what they can do on a Canadian dime--like Mike Clattenburg (Trailer Park Boys), Brent Butt (Corner Gas) or the ultimate do it yourselfer, Steve Smith (The Red Green Show).
So many factors, including plain dumb luck, go into making a hit TV show. If anyone tells you they know the formula, don't make eye contact, keep your head down and slowly back out of the room.
But some conclusions can be drawn from looking at the fate of the four January start ups:
- The Border may have benefited the most from the gap in U.S. action fare due to the writers strike. There was no new episodes of 24 at all this season. The big budget police procedurals, the CSI's, Without a Trace, NCIS, Bones--all shelved. If you wanted your cop fix, hey, what about this new show? Isn't that the CN Tower? Cool. Reviews? Promotion? Doyle wasn't a fan, but most critics recommended it, including me. If you watched CBC this winter or rode a bus, subway or streetcar, you couldn't help but be aware of it. It helped that when you did watch it, aside from the paint-by-numbers pilot, it was pretty damn good. It was also incredibly timely, seemingly ripping stories about organ harvesting and terrorism off the headlines the week they were breaking.
- Sophie did not get great reviews, certainly not from me, but something about Natalie Brown seemed to vault this thing into the winner's list. It may be the ultimate Canadian TV series--it looks American (there's a Sex and the City vibe happening), its based on a proven hit somewhere else (Quebec, which, trust me, in TV terms is somewhere else), has been picked up by an American network (ABC Family) ands it stars a no-name star who is nevertheless is an instantly recognizable face. The thing that often distinguishes Canadian talent from Americans is that the Canucks have worked everything from Stratford to Second City to the Sponge Bob show at Canada's Wonderland just to make a living. Primarily through her luscious Bailey's spots, Brown has one of those faces that is remote control proof. She's beautiful, she arrests you with those eyes, but she also comes pre-sold, even though viewers do not know her name. In a country without a star system, the no-name star is Queen.
- I Liked the pilot for jPod more than any of these pilots. I sat and watched it with my son, who is 15 and buried in his Nintendo den at this writing playing the game he tells me he was born to play, Super Smash Bros. Brawl. I don't expect him to emerge until March 17, when school resumes. So he was hooked at the start by the jPod promos and keen to see the series. he loved the pilot, although we both agreed it went on to long. He kept watching--and liking the series. I never watched a full episode again. It's often a bad sign when I like a series anyway. Critics burn out on same old formats that tend to click with mass audiences. I never watch CSI or Grey's Anatomy, I think I saw Friends twice. I'm bored easily, so I'm always looking for that blast of original. I love shows like Wonderfalls, Keen Eddie and Arrested Development. Like those shows, jPod may have been too different for the mass network audience. Cut it in half and cut the zany parents out of it (as fun as it was to see Alan Thicke and Sherry Miller strut so wild, it was part of another show) It could have been the highest-rated show ever, for example, on YTV. It was an original little show on the wrong network.
- I've written about what didn't work on MVP before. The other point I'll make is this: MVP, more than any of the others, needed a star, a big name TV headliner, to bring viewers to the party. Not to take anything away from a strong and attractive cast, but in a large, sexy ensemble, even a U.S. soap needs a Heather Locklear or a Teri Hatcher to spark a few tabloids into a cover frenzy. The one area CBC really needs to work on moving forward is creating and promoting its stars. You rarely see names attached to promos for Intelligence or The Border and while it is great that the industry embraces and salutes and knows all these people, if you pulled 100 Canadians out of lines at supermarket check outs, 100 could not name any of the stars from those shows. You can't have a show called MVP and not have a most valuable player.