CBC programming ‘reset’ heralds sizzle-free winter season

CBC programming ‘reset’ heralds sizzle-free winter season

The Singh Family in Bollywed.JOEL GALE/CBC

How best to describe the CBC’s programming “reset?” Well, to hear it from the broadcaster himself, “It’s a Canada thing.” That homey mantra, repeated with enthusiasm during the CBC’s splashy winter 2023 preview event held at Toronto’s Massey Hall on Wednesday, underscored what executive vice-president of English-language services Barbara Williams called a “reintroduction” of the institution’s entertainment philosophy.

“It’s about representing the under-represented and giving everyone a voice,” Williams told the crowd. “It’s for everyone, everywhere. It’s a Canadian thing.”

In a way, those words felt sincere, as the community-building vibe in the room stood in direct contrast to the CBC’s last in-person industry event, the Upfront sales presentation in May, 2019, in which CBC/Radio-Canada president Catherine Tait pledged a future built on the growth of commercial revenue. Yet if its winter lineup is intended to herald a bold new CBC era, then “It’s a Canadian thing” – a line cooked up with advertising agency Juniper Park and sold to Wednesday’s audience with a video featuring a handful of not-so-recognizable networks celebrities – felt more like, “It’s a familiar thing.”

While the forthcoming miniseries Essex County (based on Jeff Lemire’s graphic novel about small-town secrets) and Bones of Crows (Marie Clements’s residential school drama) showcased impressive trailers, much of the event embraced earnest, middling sensibilities. Returning dramas SkyMed and Pretty Hard Cases got sizzle reels with little actual sizzle, while the comedy slate was derailed by a painful bit featuring Mark Critch and Andrew Phung that didn’t exactly whet appetites for new seasons of their respective sitcoms, Son of a Critch and Run the Burbs.

There was as much a focus on scripted TV as reality fare, or “factual” programming as the industry calls it, including shoulder-shrugging previews of push (about an “unlikely group of friends and wheelchair users”), Bollywed (basically Say Yes to the Dress in Toronto’s Little India), and Canada’s Ultimate Challenge (The Amazing Race meets American Ninja Warriors). Given the fact that scripted Canadian TV at private broadcasters is going the way of the penny, there is a nagging sense that reality is cheap, drama and comedy need investment, and the CBC isn’t in the mood to spend wisely.

“I don’t know that we’re looking for a 50/50 split on factual and narrative, but we’re looking for a balance,” Williams said in a post-event interview. “We’re enjoying a bit of a resurgence in factual interest with the younger generation.”

It is that audience – “a whole generation of people who don’t know anything about the CBC, which is not a great thing to say out loud,” Williams added – that the broadcaster desperately needs to move the dial.

For its 2021-2022 broadcast season, the CBC’s prime-time share of Canadian audiences watching linear TV at any given moment was 4.9 per cent excluding the Beijing Olympics – a figure down 9 per cent year over year for viewers aged 2 to 24, and down 7 per cent for the 25 to 54 demographic.

“Do ratings matter on television? Having audience matter,” Williams said when pressed on the numbers, which were only provided to The Globe and Mail after her interview, in order to allow Williams an opportunity to “provide context.”

“You cannot find a TV channel that’s not shrinking, but it’s not the nightmare that some people thought it was going to be,” Williams added. “I don’t want to debate with you whether the share is good or the share is bad, that’s not the point. If we’re doing our job it isn’t because of ratings in prime time. It’s about more Canadians connecting with CBC content than ever before.”

Meredith MacNeill and Adrienne C. Moore in Pretty Hard Cases.Brendan Adam Zwelling/CBC

Asked whether the dip in prime-time share is being commensurately made up on its digital platforms, the CBC Audience Research team responded that while there were increases in key metrics on streamer Gem year over year, there is currently no harmonized measurement service allowing Canadian content creators to understand the relationship between a traditional linear TV audience and a streaming video audience. Data companies Numerical and Comscore are set to introduce a “Video Audience Measurement” tool in Canada, but not until 2024.

Although linear TV audiences may not be the only metric that the CBC brass care about, it is still a metric that they set for themselves – and it is one that they are currently failing to meet. In its 2020-2021 annual report, the CBC set a prime-time share target of 6.6 per cent for 2021-2022 but delivered 4.9 per cent (5.8 per cent including the Olympics).

“We do our best to set realistic targets and we do our best to hit them but given the constantly evolving media landscape, there are many factors, including fragmentation, that ultimately influence where we land,” Williams said in a follow-up statement.

One thing that might help turn the tide: regaining the broadcast rights to the NHL once the Rogers deal expires after the 2025-2026 season.

“We’re obviously noodling that to see where Rogers is at, to see what we think it means to us and Canadians,” Williams said. “The important thing beyond hockey is the Olympics, because that’s what Canadians are really connecting with.”

Olympics over hockey? I guess “It’s a Canadian thing.”