Falling auds a part of CBC original plan

Pubcaster stays course with Canadian fare

TORONTO — The fall season was supposed to be CBC’s big reveal, ushering in a new, audience-friendly era, but the Canuck pubcaster is limping out of the gates.

No matter, say CBC brass. It’s all going according to plan.

Homegrown fare rarely pulls in the kind of numbers that U.S. simulcasts such as “CSI” and “Desperate Housewives” routinely boast. A million viewers is a big deal in the Great White North.

Still, preems of pubcaster shows such as the sitcom “Rumours,” the South African-set co-production “Jozi-H” and eight-part historical drama “October 1970” are nothing short of dismal, with numbers ranging from 100,000 to 200,000.

Network brass is unrepentant. They say that it takes time to turn around a ship the size of the Canadian Broadcasting Corp., and they’re staying the course.

Early this year CBC executives announced that the pubcaster was refocusing its mandate “to make more Canadian programming that more Canadians actually want to watch,” as executive VP of English-language TV Richard Stursberg put it recently.

To that end, the CBC nixed its emphasis on specials and miniseries in favor of series; upped the number of entertainment programming hours from 150 to 191, with a goal of 250 in two years; topped it with a regrouped executive team that includes new hires Kirstine Layfield and Fred Fuchs and retreads Julie Bristow and Mark Starowicz; and sent the troupe off on a cross-country tour to hype the new CBC to producers.

There are always going to be disappointments, concedes Layfield, who is executive director of network programming, but she’s satisfied with the numbers so far.

“We have shows that are performing and timeslots that are performing better this year than last year, and that’s what we want to see,” she says.

Layfield pointed to Chris Haddock’s “Intelligence,” which bowed to a respectable 443,000 viewers on Oct. 10; George Stroumboulopoulos-hosted “The Hour,” which pulls in about 125,000; and new daytime talkshow “Gill Deacon,” which launched last week to about 100,000.

These numbers are satisfactory, she says, given the shows are in new programming formats and timeslots.

In a twist on the art of ratings spin, the pubcaster has recently begun quoting week-end totals of multiple broadcasts. For instance, in the week of Nov. 6, the entrepreneur reality show “Dragon’s Den” pulled in a cumulative total of 731,000 (over two broadcasts,) making it the fastest-growing show on the network.

Layfield also trumpeted pairings such as “The Rick Mercer Report” with “This Hour Has 22 Minutes,” which have brought in more than 900,000 and 743,000 viewers, respectively, and beat their U.S. competition.

She argues that people’s perspective on CBC numbers is skewed by a tendency to compare them to those for U.S. shows rather than to Canadian fare. She also points to a mistaken belief (based on a February speech by CBC helmer Stursberg at a producers’ conference) that the bar is set at 1 million viewers, instantly and for all shows.

“It’s ridiculous. We know that successful shows can reach a million viewers,” Layfield says. ” ‘Rick Mercer’ does it. ‘Corner Gas’ does it. Would we like more of our shows to reach a million viewers? Yes. Will they all reach a million? No.”

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