The girls have tied back their hair, rolled up their sleeves, and got out the cordite: Fans of the TV series Bomb Girls are now fighting its cancellation with online petitions and social-media campaigns in an attempt to save the drama set in a Canadian munitions factory during the Second World War.
"Please do not cancel Bomb Girls! My grandmother was a real bomb girl back then and I love this show!" writes American viewer Wendy Bright on the show's Facebook page.
"Why can't we ever keep a decent show in Canada?" asks Canadian Judi Michaud. "I love Bomb Girls! Hate hate hate all that reality garbage that continues to be on."
Like fan campaigns before it, this one is unlikely to change the minds of network executives. But the cancellation this week illuminates how the harsh realities of the broadcasting system discriminate against Canadian content. The show's producers say its Season 2 ratings dropped after it had to take a six-week break to make way on Global's schedule for the CBS series Survivor. Despite a loyal fan base, decent ratings and a critical reputation as a strong Canadian series, Bomb Girls lost out to a business model driven by simulcasts of American shows.
When it launched as a six-part miniseries on Global in January, 2012, Bomb Girls got mixed reviews, but it quickly caught the attention of viewers and critics for its content. Depicting the lives of female munitions workers played by Meg Tilly and a group of younger actors, it has covered such issues as sexual harassment, infidelity, abortion and lesbianism. This year, Bomb Girls won the best-drama category at the Gracie Awards, the prizes for women's television in the U.S., where the show runs on the digital cable channel Reelz. It also airs on more than 40 countries in Latin America and Europe. At home, industry insiders gave points to Global, a network with a feeble track record of producing successful Canadian content, for illuminating an unusual chapter in Canadian history.
In part, the show owes its success to the way it fits into two increasingly popular genres: the period drama, represented by Mad Men and Downton Abbey; and female-centric shows such as Girls. Its social-media presence reveals a strong following among young women charmed and intrigued by the story of how their grandmothers fought to get jobs and respect. Initial ratings in Canada were very strong for a Canadian series: The first episodes drew well over a million viewers to Global.
The second season, which concludes Monday, also started well: 1.1 million watched the premiere. Bomb Girls' producers add that the show reached another 200,000 to 300,000 viewers who recorded it to watch later. Ratings remained in the 800,000-to-900,000 range, they said, until the show got bumped off the schedule in February. "We lost 25 per cent of our audience between February and March," says executive producer Michael Prupas. Even in the 600,000-to-700,000, range, the show would be competitive with many dramas in CBC's predominantly Canadian lineup.
Getting the right spot on a crowded schedule is a tricky proposition for any show in any market, but Canadian series are at a significant disadvantage. The reason: Canadian broadcasters maximize ad revenues by accommodating popular U.S. programming first. (Under Canadian regulations, a broadcaster can require the cable and satellite operators to drop Canadian ads into a competing U.S. signal when the broadcaster airs a show at exactly the same time as the U.S. network.) Simulcasting means that commercial Canadian TV schedules are largely determined in Los Angeles, and Bomb Girls was the unusual Canadian show that won a weeknight, wintertime spot. Global airs its other prime-time Canadian drama, the cop show Rookie Blue, in the summer, when U.S. dramas are on hiatus.
Ironically, when Bomb Girls returned to a new Monday-night spot in late March it was up against not only the U.S. shows The Following and Two Broke Girls but also the CBC's Murdoch Mysteries. The competition between two rather similar Canadian shows might not have been the wisest use of tax dollars: It is not only the CBC that uses public money to make Canadian TV. Typical of Canadian dramas, Bomb Girls depends on the Canadian Media Fund for 25 per cent of its budget, while another 30 per cent is covered by government tax credits.
Seeing how successful Murdoch has been since it moved from CITY-TV to the CBC in January, some observers have speculated that the public broadcaster could rescue Bomb Girls. They have received, however, scant encouragement. "Our schedule for next season is set and … there's no room to pick anything else up," says Kirstine Stewart, head of English-language services at the CBC. "Fans of Bomb Girls should talk to Global."
But Global says it backed Bomb Girls to the hilt, and had always intended to program it in six-week arcs, like a miniseries. "We put massive support behind the show," says Barb Williams, senior vice-president for content at Shaw Media. "When it returned from hiatus, Bomb Girls was scheduled between heavy hitters like Bones and Hawaii Five-O and we put more marketing and publicity support behind it than any other Global show – in the hopes that the audience would grow over these successive story arcs."
The broadcaster is now talking to the producers about creating a two-hour special next winter to wrap up the storylines. The producers want to proceed with that project – which Global unveiled this week in a press release that disguised the cancellation as an announcement of the special – but point out it has to be done in a way that leaves the door open.
"What we are trying to do, going ahead with this movie, is to ensconce Bomb Girls as an iconic show, so hopefully we can come back to the characters at some later stage," Prupas says, pointing to British shows like Prime Suspect that have been revived after a long break. "Keeping the title alive is important to us. We hope it will have a future."