It is something of a cruel joke that the most hyped new show slated to premiere on CBC Television is a sitcom called Schitt’s Creek.
The 13-part series sees a wounded and increasingly risk-averse CBC doubling down on the past. It stars SCTV alumni Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara as members of a once wealthy family that’s broke and faced with a humiliating exercise in downsizing.
The symbolism is rich: like the Rose family in the sitcom, CBC seems to be up the proverbial creek as it adjusts to a brutal fiscal reality following the loss of Hockey Night in Canada revenue and a $115 million budget cut.
The public broadcaster, which will release its fall network schedule May 29, has a sizeable programming hole to fill.
The cupboard has become increasingly bare, and Heather Conway, the CBC’s new head of English services, is under the gun to deliver fresh content.
The current lineup, after all, has become something of an embarrassment. Reruns of Dragons’ Den and Murdoch Mysteries dominate. Cheaply made reality shows such as Four Rooms take prominence on the primetime schedule, buffered with imported filler such as the BBC’s Coronation Street.
The CBC would argue that Canadians are getting bang for the buck. In 2013, the public broadcaster spent $1.1 billion on its TV operations, more than four times as much as the $273 million it spends on radio. But a study of 18 democracies showed the CBC was third from the bottom in per capita funding. Only New Zealand and the United States paid less for public broadcasting.
The CBC also has to provide services in English, French and eight aboriginal languages, in six different time zones. The BBC, by contrast, has six times the budget and airs in just one language and time zone.
The network is bound by the Broadcasting Act, which requires it to “reflect Canada and its regions to national and regional audiences, while serving the special needs of those regions.”
It’s a noble mission. But that diversity means it ends up trying to spread the wealth with shows such as Heartland in Alberta, Republic of Doyle in Newfoundland and Arctic Air (since cancelled) in the Northwest Territories.
It’s a tough balancing act for any programmer and it doesn’t always make for great television.
As CBC president Hubert Lacroix acknowledges: “If you have to watch Big Bang Theory against Arctic Air, what will you watch? The production value of CBS against the production value of the CBC show? That’s the challenge we have.”
The inability to produce acclaimed programming that viewers want to watch is not unique to the CBC: in this golden age of television, all Canadian broadcasters have failed to consistently create offerings that resonate internationally.
Things are changing, but so far no one, including private sector players such as Shaw, Rogers and Bell Media, has found the magic to produce the next Game of Thrones or Downton Abbey.
For the CBC in particular, original, scripted series are a major weakness: Its most watched show, the solid but long in the tooth Murdoch Mysteries, started life at CityTV before moving to the CBC in its sixth season.
And the problem becomes more acute over time. After the contract for hockey broadcasting expires in four years, Conway and her team will have more than 300 hours to fill. But with what?
The hard work begins now. But before the CBC begins to assess the future, it has to look at the present. So the Star binge-watched every CBC-produced program on the current schedule (excluding news and sports) that will be returning in the fall, to give readers a sense of where their dollars are going. What’s worth keeping, what’s worth tossing and — more importantly — is this money well spent?
Fall Season: 9
The CBC says: Each week, see entrepreneurs brave a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to face five multimillionaires who have the cash and the know-how to catapult companies to commercial success.
The Star says:Dragons’ Den is a bona fide hit and one of Canada’s most watched non-scripted shows. (Although it says something about the bankruptcy of ideas when your top hit originated as a Japanese game show.) But trouble is afoot. The new season has to make do without Kevin O’Leary, the nasty, condescending dragon. Every panel needs a Simon Cowell and O’Leary was right out of central casting. Fellow dragon Bruce Coxon is also leaving. They’ll be replaced by tech investor Michael Wekerle and restaurateur Vikram Vij. Will the new season be a victim of Canadian politeness?
Verdict: Keep, for now. The dragons have been mighty but sharks are circling. Two former dragons (Robert Herjavec and O’Leary) have relocated to ABC’s Shark Tank.
The CBC says: Heartlandis a sprawling multi-generational saga about a family getting through life together in both happy and trying times, set against the glorious backdrop of the foothills of Alberta.
The Star says: Think of Heartland Ranch as a western version of Green Gables and Amber Marshall as the new Megan Follows. (It’s no coincidence veteran producer Heather Conkie used to write for Road to Avonlea.) Based on the Heartland books by Lauren Brooke (with their Virginia setting changed), Heartland’s family bonds are strong and wholesome, and everyone eats organic. This family-friendly show started off slow but has gained a loyal following over the years.
Verdict: Cut. Disney Channel and Reform Party-worthy fare that moves at a plodding pace. No, we’re not being Toronto-centric. We just like good TV.
The CBC says:Mr. D follows inexperienced and smug teacher Gerry Duncan at prestigious private school Xavier Academy, where he works to land his dream job as gym teacher.
The Star says: Gerry Dee plays the most inept, self-centred high school teacher on the planet and he does it pretty well. You can’t help but admire and root for Mr. D to succeed with his ill-fated schemes, whether it’s getting out of a PTA meeting or butting in line at an autograph session by saying his student is dying.
Verdict: Cut. May be too one-dimensional for some, and Mr. D had better improve his grades with viewers if he wants to stick around.
The CBC says: Set in Toronto in the early 1900s, Murdoch Mysteries explores the world of William Murdoch (Yannick Bisson), a dashing detective who uses inventive forensic techniques to solve some of the city’s most gruesome crimes.
The Star says: For a show moving into an eighth season, Murdoch is still one of the best things on Canadian TV. Writers have kept the characters fresh, although questionably pushing the envelope with twists such as zombies. (Thankfully, no vampires yet.) Ratings haven’t plunged, proving the durability of the concept.
Verdict: Keep. Picked up by the Ovation network in the U.S., the CBC’s top drama has found a second wind.
Steven and Chris
The CBC says:Steven and Chris is the destination for all things lifestyle. From decor and nutrition to the latest in health care, beauty, natural medicine, food, parenting, relationships and everything in between.
The Star says: Steven Sabados and Chris Hyndman are your gay BFFs, whether giving guests a makeover or dispensing interior design tips, which is their forte. The playful chemistry between this real-life couple works and they have forged a real connection with their audience. The viewership looks woeful, but this is daytime TV. Competitor Cityline averages 124,000 viewers and Marilyn Denis is top dog at 222,000.
The verdict: Keep. Daytime talk is dominated by the Ellen DeGenereses of the world, making it hard for Canadian product to compete. But the duo has become a formidable branding machine, selling rugs, lamps and even wine. Maybe taxpayers should get a cut.
Republic of Doyle
The CBC says: Allan Hawco is detective Jake Doyle, who struggles daily to navigate the complications of running the family PI business while keeping his very volatile private life in check.
The Star says: The charismatic Hawco wears a lot of hats as creator, writer and star of the Newfoundland-shot series. Many of the cheesy action scenes look like the B-roll from a 1970s Starsky & Hutch episode. You can’t help but wonder what Hawco could do with a real budget. CBC has dismissed rumours that the show will be cancelled.
Verdict: Pay up or cut. Hawco is a genuine star in need of a MacGyver-sized dowry from the CBC to truly appeal to international audiences.
Rick Mercer Report
The CBC says: Follow Canada’s No. 1 political satirist as he delivers a weekly dose.
The Star says: Mercer is our Jon Stewart. And few are as adept at skewering politicians while also neatly providing a running travelogue of the country. Think of him as equal parts Stewart and Al Roker, the travelling weatherman. An alumnus of This Hour Has 22 Minutes, the comedian is unafraid to take digs at the rich and powerful. But there is a fine line between humour and preachy rant. Mercer’s monologue frequently dissolves into overblown pontification.
Verdict: Cut. Mercer is equal parts cheesy and annoying. Still, as the unofficial opposition to the sitting government he is frequently more effective. And the show is cheap to produce while reflecting Canada. But you have to get past the cheesy and annoying part. I’m obviously in the minority. Close to a million people watch every week.
This Hour Has 22 Minutes
The CBC says: Guest-starring Canada’s most popular and unpopular politicians, 22 Minutes mixes news satire, sketch and ambush comedy to deliver a hilarious take on Canadian politics and culture.
The Star says: The format is familiar to late-night addicts: news anchors skewer the week’s political activities. The writing is frequently sharper than Saturday Night Live’s legendary “Weekend Update” (also, incidentally, produced by a Canadian), remarkable considering the bare-bones sketch show doesn’t have NBC’s legion of writers. The premiere included a series of skits that envisioned Al Pacino playing Pamela Wallin taking out her American Express card: “Say hello to my little friend.”
Verdict: Keep. The CBC’s great strength is talented writers who understand news and current affairs. If you like your Timbits with a double double, pair this with Rick Mercer Report.
The fifth estate
The CBC says: The show has been a leader in cross-platform programming, digging deep into issues and subjects of public significance.
The Star says: With CBS’s flagship 60 Minutes now descending into celebrity journalism froth and softer news, the fifth estate remains a flag bearer for thoughtful magazine-style TV journalism.
Verdict: Keep. Although the vital show will be diminished without the eloquence of reporter Linden MacIntyre, who says he’s leaving at the end of the summer to help save jobs for younger journalists.
The CBC says: The flagship documentary series of CBC Television. Documentaries come from the front lines of the world’s news.
The Star says: Depending on whom you talk to, narrator Ann-Marie MacDonald has the most soothing voice on TV or is the most irritating person on the planet. What is not in doubt is that the series is a thought-provoking smorgasbord of some of the best documentaries available, from looking at falling glass in Toronto condos to why we live in a counterfeit culture.
Verdict: Keep. It’s like having your own personally curated Hot Docs festival.
The CBC says: Canada’s No. 1 consumer watchdog show uses investigative reporting, independent testing and, where warranted, hidden cameras to create a unique programming stamp.
The Star says: A great example of the CBC at its best. Consumer shows don’t get love from private networks afraid to offend advertisers, and unbiased consumer reporting in mainstream media these days is a rare bird. The team can get a little over the top in its efforts to deliver TV visuals, but it’s a small price to pay for figuring out why your cellphone bill is so high.
Verdict: Keep. A consumer show that gets stellar ratings and puts the bad guys on notice? Sign me up.
The Nature of Things
The CBC says: The Nature of Things With David Suzuki is CBC Television’s longest-running multi-award-winning series. Documentaries illuminate the way for a greater understanding of the increasingly complex world in which we live.
The Star says: David Suzuki was green before people thought it was hip to charge your Tesla on the driveway. The man has also been controversial, no more so than today when science and politics have become increasingly polarized. His gift has been to translate complex science for regular folk. Suzuki remains relevant but now has to compete with the mainstreaming of the subject, including celebrity environmentalism (Years of Living Dangerously) and big-budget documentaries (An Inconvenient Truth). By contrast, the show’s production values sometimes remind you of the documentaries you used to watch in your Grade 8 science class.
Verdict: Keep, as long as Suzuki’s around to host. The CBC doesn’t seem to have a Jay Leno-type succession plan in the works.