Where is Canada's Breaking Bad?

By Gary Francoeur

A chemistry teacher turned meth kingpin; a New York advertising executive with a shady past; and noble families scheming to rule the mythical kingdom of Westeros. Thanks to critically acclaimed shows like Breaking Bad, Mad Men and Game of Thrones, it’s an exciting time for television junkies.

Since The Sopranos premiered in 1999, we’ve seen an unprecedented surge of plot-heavy, sophisticated dramas for viewers to discover, ushering in what many believe to be a new Golden Age of TV. But what has been Canada’s contribution to great programming during this era?

Not nearly enough, according to Jean-Pierre Blais, BCL’84, LLB’84, chairman of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunication Commission (CRTC). In a recent interview, Blais criticized Canadian TV producers and broadcasters for not taking enough creative risks when making original content. Globe and Mail TV critic John Doyle recently offered his own harsh assessment, stating that “In this Golden Age of TV Canada has offered almost nothing” and that the “Canadian TV industry should be truly ashamed.”

Is Canadian TV doomed to being perpetually second-rate? Why can’t Canada create its own Breaking Bad? The McGill News contacted two well-placed McGill graduates in the Canadian TV industry to weigh in on this controversial issue.

The view from the clone zone

If you’re not watching Orphan Black, you’ve surely at least heard about the show. The brain-bending sci-fi thriller, which delves into the controversial sphere of human cloning, has become a massive hit, resonating with audiences in Canada and around the world. The subject of a recent cover story in Entertainment Weekly, Orphan Black is the show that defenders of Canadian TV cite most frequently as evidence that this country can produce terrific television.

Playing a pivotal behind-the-scenes role on the series is executive producer David Fortier, BA’94, co-president of Temple Street Productions. Together with co-president Ivan Schneeberg, Fortier has made his mark in the industry by producing some of the country’s most recognized programming, including Being Erica, Recipe to Riches and Canada’s Next Top Model.

With Season 2 of Orphan Black slated to premiere later this month, Fortier spoke to us about the current state of Canadian TV and what makes his show such a success.

Blais and Doyle have both pushed Canadian producers and broadcasters to be more innovative in creating content. Is this criticism fair, and why?

I suspect their comments relate to the fact that there is edgy programming in the U.S. that is making great headway, lots of news and is not particularly expensive by the looks of it. The natural inclination is to think you can just produce that type of programming up in Canada, because it’s not like it is a multi-million-dollar-per-episode production due to special effects or anything else. It’s just very good storytelling.

On that basis, you could say why aren’t we competing in that way, but [when you consider] how long it takes to develop a show, the kind of leadership it needs, and the amount of money it takes – because these shows are not cheap – I think there is a lot more to it than that.

We do have the ability to tell stories here in Canada, and though we may not get the same traction from a publicity or media point-of-view as the shows in the U.S., that doesn’t mean the programming can’t compete.

We’ve seen countless procedural police and medical shows introduced over the years, but audiences seem to increasingly flock towards shows like Breaking Bad and Mad Men. Do Canadian TV producers and broadcasters need to rethink traditional assumptions about the industry?

The thing to note is that every broadcaster has a different business model to a certain extent. We hear a lot about [niche cable programming] in the press because it is more fun to write and to read about, so the people who read these newspapers are going to be more inclined to watch Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Homeland and the rest. But if you look at the numbers, procedural-style television – whether it is medical procedural, crime procedural or what have you – is still raking in way more viewership than those shows. They just don’t merit the same kind of attention in the eyes of the media.

It comes down to dollars and cents, and on a purely numbers basis, more people watch crime procedurals than they do niche cable programming, notwithstanding the fact that niche cable programming might be fantastic storytelling. The people paying for the programming always have an eye to making money and making sure they can sell advertisements on the back of the shows, and that’s not always possible with niche storytelling.

There seems to be a certain negative perception towards Canadian TV, even among Canadians themselves. Do viewers react differently to a show when they know it is Canadian-made?

I think it’s not as much the case today as it was a few years ago and obviously many years before that. As Canadians, we live alongside the United States and we have access to all of their programming. Their programming is much more expensive, the production values are higher, and in the past the quality of the acting and writing – not in every instance, but across the board – resulted in better looking programming. It is very easy for someone who has watched TV since they were a child to determine that something has high production values or low production values. When you’re going to take time out of your day to watch TV, you are going to want to watch something that you feel is of a higher quality rather than a lower quality. That’s just human nature.

The budgets of Canadian shows have risen significantly, especially over the last seven or eight years. In certain instances, Canadian shows compete on a production-value level with many of the shows that are out there. And a lot of the programming that is getting attention now doesn’t necessarily rely on super high production values, but rather on very strong storytelling, acting and direction. The Canadian industry has matured over the years and we have a very strong stable of writers, directors and actors that producers like me can work with to make programming that, in certain instances, can compare with shows from anywhere in the world.

The Canadian series Orphan Black is championed by many TV
critics as one of the best shows on television.

Orphan Black is, I think, an example of the maturation of the Canadian TV industry. It is a higher-budgeted show than most of the ones that have ever come out of the country. The quality of the acting on the show is superb, and that is because the acting community here is not necessarily flocking down to L.A. anymore as there is good work to be had in Canada.

The writing on the show is superb as well, and that is a product of Canada having more money in the system. Writers are being trained on higher-quality shows and cutting their teeth in the U.S., but are then coming back to Canada. They see value in returning as there is a real industry here for writers.

And, obviously, there is the quality of the direction on the show. Across the board, when you have money and talented people, and you come across a great idea and everything seems to work, that is what happens. If you start taking pieces of that puzzle away, you can still end up with a good show but you’re playing a risky game.

A bolder, edgier CBC?

Katrina Onstad, BA’94, is probably best known for her work as a journalist and novelist (her most recent book, Everybody has Everything, was longlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize), but she is quickly making a name for herself in the Canadian TV industry.

A former movie critic and culture writer, Onstad is the new executive in charge of production for scripted prime time drama at CBC. In this role, which she started last September, she works closely with independent producers and writers to guide the TV network’s creative content from initial pitch to final launch.

Onstad spoke to us about the challenges faced by Canadian producers and broadcasters, and what the CBC is doing to attract more viewers.

What is your reaction to comments from Blais and Doyle that the Canadian TV industry needs to take more risks?

This is a moment for Canadian TV to take more risks, and I don’t think anyone would really dispute that. I can only speak to CBC’s projects, but I think what we’ve done really well in the last few years is reaching a mass Canadian audience – which is part of our mandate – through strong episodic TV like Republic of Doyle and Heartland.

But I think there is room now to take some risks. This is a fantastic moment in TV all around the world, and Canada should absolutely be claiming our space.

Audiences have been drawn to ‘edgier’ shows like The Walking Dead, Dexter and Breaking Bad. What, if anything, should Canadian TV producers and broadcasters be doing differently to tap into this market?

Trends tend to move kind of slowly, but I think we’re going to see a reflection of that in Canada. We are already starting to see it with shows like Orphan Black, for instance, which feels very-of-this-moment.

Making TV in this country is a complicated process because we are so tethered to the Canada Media Fund [which provides financial support to the country’s television industry]. At the CBC, 55 per cent of our CMF envelope is related to how many viewers we get, so we really need to reach as large an audience as possible. Those kinds of things are really in the heads and hearts of the producers and people who make TV content.

We have so much talent in Canada, including fantastic writers, directors and producers all across this country, but maybe it is time to be a little more assertive and to take more risks. We have a few shows coming at the CBC that are really exciting, more serialized, a little bit darker, and different from what we have done over the last five years. It is happening, but it takes a while to make shows, so we are probably going to start to see those ripples over the next few years.

Though it received awards and critical praise, the CBC series
Michael: Tuesdays and Thursdays struggled to find an
audience before being cancelled.

I don’t know if people necessarily react differently to Canadian content, but I think it is harder for Canadian shows to get seen, particularly in this market. Though PVR viewing and new delivery platforms like Netflix means there is now access to more TV than there ever has been before, American broadcasters still have so much more money to promote their shows.

All Canadian cultural products face this challenge – and it’s the same in film and in music. We are next to this behemoth that is a lot louder than we are, which makes it that much more important that we have places that are telling Canadian stories and outlets that aren’t completely subsumed by the massive American industry next door.

I don’t think people encountering Canadian TV would have lower expectations, but it is our challenge is to make sure they know what we do have to offer.

What are some of the great Canadian shows out there – both on the CBC and elsewhere – that are not finding their audience?

There is certainly some good Canadian TV out there right now. I think CBC made a good show called Michael: Tuesdays and Thursdays that I wish more people had discovered. I think that Blackstone is a really good show that is under seen. Durham County, which was made a couple of years ago, was a fantastic Canadian serialized drama.

The thing with Canadian TV is that we’ve focused on episodic, closed-end dramas for the past few years, while what everyone loves in these great American and British shows is how serialized they are. You can just sort of dive in and immerse yourself in those worlds. The Wire is, I think, the great American novel of the last decade.

We are working on a show that I think will be the CBC’s big step into the Golden Age of TV. So there’s good stuff out there now and there’s a lot of stuff coming. I really think Canadians are going to be excited about the next few years.