Playboy bunnies! Matthew Morrison! Anderson Cooper! Canada's TV networks unveiled their fall seasons last week with much fanfare and a smattering of Hollywood flash. The annual upfronts get the press salivating over big-budget American dramas while the largely unheralded schedule that will play out on your screen in the next weeks features lots of repeats, lots of reality shows - and, increasingly, lots of Canadian content.
Unlike fall schedules driven by the likes of The Big Bang Theory and Glee, the summer of 2011 is starting to resemble something like a prime-time schedule established in Toronto rather than Los Angeles. There are cops: Flashpoint and Rookie Blue return June 17 and June 23 respectively. There are medics: June 21, Global unveils Combat Hospital, its new medical drama set amidst the Canadian personnel and their international colleagues in the Kandahar military hospital. There are detectives: Murdoch Mysteries returned for a fourth season on Tuesday. And, of course, there are funny people: Hiccups is up and running; Dan for Mayor made its debut Sunday night.
"The thing I'd like to stress is that the UV from all that summer sunshine is bad for you, so people should stay indoors and watch Dan for Mayor," quipped executive producer Paul Mather when asked how he felt about CTV's decision to shift the show from the mid-season spot where it launched in 2010 to the summer schedule.
Joking aside, summer used to be seen as a dead zone of reruns where Canadian networks, which have the whole calendar year to honour their Canadian content requirements, off-loaded the domestic shows they were less enthusiastic about. In recent years, though, it's emerged as a season where smaller shows can attract attention, raising the possibility that summer is no longer a Cancon dumping ground but fertile soil in which to nurture new audiences for domestic shows.
"The explosion of cable meant there was fresh content for viewers and that made the networks pay attention," explains Barbara Williams, senior vice-president of content for Shaw Media, which owns Global.
First it was all reality shows, she says. But then came Mad Men. It proved that while the channel surfers might be out catching a real wave in July and August, the appointment-TV audience was still very willing to stay inside - if the offering was interesting enough.
Cable shows with cult potential - True Blood and Big Love out of the United States or Misfits from Britain - have been particularly successful, winning both viewers and critical attention. And with the ongoing ease of on-demand viewing and the possibility of building audiences through secondary platforms including the Internet and DVDs, the summer is now at best a time for innovative programming experiments and, at the least, no longer a season that can be ignored.
"Here is the choice: Launch Hiccups or Dan for Mayor in a cluttered mid-season schedule amidst the noise ... or run them in the summer when there is less competition," says Mike Cosentino, senior vice-president of programming at CTV, who argues that the summer can provide strategic opportunities for Canadian programming because there are fewer new shows, as well as less jostling for promotional spots to advertise the network's shows.
There is a challenge here, however - that summer shows are absent for at least nine months of the year. Dan for Mayor and Hiccups, for example, have not been seen since last June when the two shows developed by Corner Gas alumni completed a run that started with boffo ratings for a debut heavily promoted during the 2010 Olympics but then "came down to earth" in Cosentino's words. After their first week, both shows dropped off the list of the top 30 shows in Canada, where Corner Gas was once a fixture. Hiccups returned for its second season on May 30 with an initial audience of 574,000 - a merely respectable showing for a Canadian comedy - and joins Dan for Mayor on Sundays later this month. So can these comedies really win back audiences in a nice Sunday-night spot in the summertime where they don't have to compete against fresh episodes of House?
"I would much rather launch in the summer than in the fall especially for a new show," Mather says. "The fall launch is extremely difficult. I can't think of Canadian shows that have had success there. Mid-season is the alternative, and now summer is the new thing. It would great if there were two slots where Canadian shows could sneak in and get attention. It would be great if there were some new stomping ground."
Look, for example, at Rookie Blue, the cop show set and produced in Toronto that begins its second season later this month on Global and ABC. It was a major success with Canadian audiences last summer, routinely ranking in the top five or six shows in the country and, once the final numbers including time-shifted viewing were in, had averaged 1.8 million viewers for its 12-week run. Those are very strong ratings for a Canadian drama at any time of year: Canadian taxpayers, who contribute to shows such as Rookie Blue through various government funds and tax credits, cannot complain their investment was squandered when nobody was watching.
Still, the overall summer audience is about a third smaller than the fall-winter audience - a No. 1 show could draw more than three million Canadians on a rainy November night; the top-rated summer shows might draw two million - and Rookie Blue is unlikely to be moved to a fall spot as long as ABC is simulcasting the show.
"For a Canadian broadcaster to have a [U.S.]network show is the ultimate win but it means you have to work with the U.S. schedule," Williams says.
The reverse simulcasting model established by the successful CTV police drama Flashpoint, which got picked up by CBS in the midst of the U.S. screenwriters' strike in 2008, provides cheap summer programming for the U.S. networks, which pay a fraction of what they would for a new drama of their own. American TV critics have been receptive to Flashpoint, but also routinely describe it as low-budget.
"You do get this opportunity to get Canadian content seen in the U.S.," observes Jinder Oujla-Chalmers, the co-creator of Combat Hospital, which will be simulcast on Global and ABC. She crafted the show, about a Canadian trauma surgeon and her American and British colleagues in Afghanistan, with international audiences in mind. "But has there ever been a case where they loved it so much they bumped it up to fall? ... Of course, everybody wants a fall launch."
Ironically, Flashpoint will get that coveted fall spot on CTV this year because CBS has not committed to carrying the show beyond this summer, freeing CTV from the American schedule.
And there's the sad truth: Summer may no longer be a dead zone, but it remains the also-ran season in many minds.
"Look at the upfronts," said Maureen Parker, executive director of the Writers Guild of Canada, which advocates for the Canadian programming created by its members. "The things [the networks]are most engaged and excited by are the fall releases. ... The summer spot can work for some shows but it has to be done strategically. As a universal policy, no thanks."
Note to readers This story has been modified to reflect the following print correction: Hiccups returned for its second season on May 30. Incorrect information appeared on Wednesday.