When Jana Sinyor hatched the idea for Being Erica – a series about a plucky but flailing young woman who travels back in time to fix past mistakes – she expected a decent run on the CBC.
Five years later, the show is on television screens in 160 countries – from South America, Africa, Russia and South Korea to Iceland – and the producers have sold the rights for remakes to ABC and the BBC. All that makes Being Erica, which stars Alberta-born Erin Karpluk in the title role, one of Canada’s bestselling television exports ever.
Other Canadian shows have certainly crossed borders: Degrassi, Flashpoint, The Listener, Murdoch Mysteries. But those were dramas, or police procedurals or medical soaps – all generally easier international sells. What makes Being Erica an anomaly is its hybrid nature: it’s both drama and comedy.
And a show about a single woman time travelling?
“What’s wild is the feedback we get from international broadcasters, who all say pretty much the same thing,” says Ivan Schneeberg, one of the executive producers of Being Erica at Toronto’s Temple Street Productions. “Everyone talks about the accessibility and universality of the show. They see Erica’s issues as their issues, her problems as their problems.”
Sinyor – who discovered last week that even Grey’s Anatomy creator Shonda Rhimes is a fan of the show – says she came up with the concept for Being Erica when she was in her late twenties and surrounded by friends feeling the same pressure to accomplish more with their lives.
“I was looking around and noticing that a lot of my smart, educated, attractive friends were feeling a lot of pressure as they approached their thirties to have things sorted out in their lives – whether that was marriage, careers, kids,” recalls Sinyor. “They weren’t hitting the milestones they expected to be hitting, and they were feeling bad about themselves. Erica Strange is relatable to lots of people, and people at all stages of life, who are rough on themselves about where they’re at in their journey.”
Relatable to lots of people, certainly, but particularly women 18 to 54. Sarah Doole, director of drama for BBC Worldwide (which distributes the show internationally), says it’s Erica’s girl-next-door quality that has made the program its most-distributed scripted drama – ahead even of Doctor Who.
“We all know someone like her, or we are her deep down on some level. We have parents who argue, feel insecure about our looks, have fallouts with friends and broken relationships,” she says. “All these issues that Erica grapples with are relevant to viewers, whether they’re in Canada, Australia, South Korea or Mexico.”
In Japan, the show gets a top Saturday slot on Lala TV, the country’s No. 1 women’s channel, with seven million subscribers. Their tagline for the show: “Fantastic romantic comedy for women who never give up.”
“Our audience loves Erica’s lifestyle, the fashion and interior design,” says Chiyo Yanagita, the channel’s general manager. “They see themselves in Erica, and her shyness matches Japanese culture.”
At home, meanwhile, the series is heading into its fourth season and waiting on a green light for a fifth. The audience has dropped about 200,000 since its debut in 2009, when it averaged 500,000 to 700,000. But Being Erica’s website is one of the most-viewed sites on the CBC, and delivers the coveted younger female demographic that the public broadcaster has been targeting in recent years.
Whatever happens in Canada, BBC’s Doole says she plans to “stick with the show.”
Adds Doole, “If I’m being honest, I have to say it’s been a lovely surprise. It’s one of our top-selling shows around the world.”