Friends of Canadian Broadcasting


June 25, 2002

Falling off the dial

The roster of homegrown television dramas became even shorter after CTV's cancellation of The Associates, which became another symptom of the Canadian TV industry's ills

by Kate MacNamara

When CTV announced last month it was cancelling The Associates, it might have seemed like the end of the dream for the two young lawyers who shelved their legal careers to write a series about people just like themselves.

Steve Blackman and Greg Ball, two young Alberta associates, became media darlings for a time after they wrote a proposal, pitched their idea to anyone who would listen at the 1999 Banff Television Festival and, to their happy amazement, found a buyer.

When CTV and Alliance Atlantis Communications Inc. agreed to produce and air The Associates, it seemed that raw talent, audacity and a bit of luck had won the day.

Now, just two seasons later, the show is gone – in part a victim, its creators say, of the brutal economics of Canadian television.

In the United States, Messrs. Blackman and Ball point out, quality drama series have a budget of US$4-million to US$6-million per episode. The Associates, by way of contrast, had a budget of just over $1-million per episode – generous by Canadian standards, but nothing like those of the U.S. shows it had to compete against.

And the inability to compete is a problem the whole industry is worried about.

Despite a pricey regulatory regime and funding system conceived in Ottawa to encourage the production of Canadian television content, most observers say that Canadian-made TV drama is dying.

"This is genre in real jeopardy," says Elizabeth McDonald, president and chief executive of the Canadian Film and Television Production Association.

Sheila Copps, the Heritage Minister, has also sounded a warning, telling a gathering in Banff that she would probe why Canada is producing fewer homegrown dramas. Heritage officials report that Ms. Copps' remarks in Banff were prompted by an aggregate slide in drama offerings on Canadian networks – CBC, CTV and Global Television.

For the upcoming season, the Canadian networks are offering just five dramas that meet the most stringent criteria for Canadian cultural relevance and popularity. Da Vinci's Inquest and Tom Stone on CBC; Cold Squad and The Eleventh Hour on CTV. And Blue Murder on Global. Last year's count was six.

For Greg Ball and Steve Blackman, that means only one thing. The two have a new idea idea for a one-hour drama – they won't disclose its theme – but this time they didn't bother to shop it at the Banff festival, which wrapped up this month.

"We're taking it to the U.S.," says Mr. Blackman.

It wasn't just economics that sunk The Associates, say the two creators. There were also the more traditional artistic differences.

Unlike in the United States, and more notably in Britain – where television drama features writing that is "raw and edgy and dark and rings true," says Mr. Blackman – Canadian broadcasters and production companies won't allow writers sufficient autonomy to tackle contentious subjects.

Mr. Blackman illustrates his point with a rewritten episode of The Associates: "There was an episode about a pedophile rapist, raping young girls," he says. But those who call the shots – Mr. Blackman is unsure whether it was the producer or the broadcaster – quashed the idea.

"The call came in and it was, 'Hey, you guys don't have to change this too much, but something about a child rapist might offend people. Make it a story about a guy raping adult women. You can make them look young.' "

That kind of timidity renders Canada "a dying market for drama," says Mr. Blackman.

CTV has a somewhat different version of events. "If anything, we asked them for harder-hitting subject matter, especially in the second season," says Bill Mustos, senior vice-president of programming.

He does agree, however, that British drama is more compelling: "The emphasis on the written word is king in the U.K. And they take some real risks – on subject matter, on nudity, on language, their writers are more willing to go for it, and reflect real life." But even artistic differences become entangled in economic realities.

The Associates was an expensive enterprise for CTV and Alliance Atlantis. Canadian drama is typically funded equally by the producer, the broadcaster and the government, largely through the Canadian Television Fund.

The hope is that the cost is recouped in advertising dollars and licensing fees.

According to CTV, The Associates started off strong at more than a million viewers, then declined – and never recovered. At the low points in the first season, the show was pulling in little over 400,000 viewers a week. Though the popularity rallied a little in the second season, interest never recovered much beyond 500,000 viewers. Respectable, but still well short of the 600,000 to 700,000 and above range, which makes a successful drama.

According to Mr. Ball, the more money that Canadians invest in a show, the more tentative they are about addressing controversial subject matter: "I think there's this sense that, God, we've put so much money into this we just can't risk it – and then we end up making it safe and boring."

The Associates, with its expensive set, which recreated the labyrinth of rooms and corridors of a big law practice, complete with plush leather chairs, was doomed.

Today, Mr. Blackman and Mr. Ball are managed by California-based Handprint Entertainment. Their agent is Beverly Hills-based Creative Artists Agency.

Early next month, they will pitch their new idea at individual meetings with the likes of ABC, NBC and CBS. Even Alyson Feltes – the seasoned writer brought in to work on The Associates – with whom the newbies had so much friction in the first year of working together on the show – is looking for work in the United States.

They'll face more competition than they did in Banff. Each year, thousands of hopefuls turn up to sell their ideas to U.S. networks. Even if there is interest in their drama, there are more hurdles ahead. Once a script is chosen, its creators must write another "single-spec pilot script." If interest continues, a pilot is made. And just a small fraction of pilots ever make it to production.

For them, it is a risky business with only one certainty. They'll never, ever practice law: "The divorce and family law I left behind was a soul destroying enterprise; I'd rather sell coffee on a street corner," says Mr. Blackman.

National Post


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