Canadian network shifts ‘reality’

CBC prefers 'factual entertainment' phrase

MONTREAL — Reality is the hot thing at Canuck pubcaster CBC. Just don’t use the dreaded R word around execs at CBC’s Toronto headquarters.

That’s because they prefer to call reality fare “factual entertainment” to differentiate their shows from the “Survivors” and “Apprentices” of the commercial TV world.

Still, whatever you call them, these shows are doing boffo biz for CBC.

The most recent episode of “Dragon’s Den,” where real-life business folks judge entrepreneurs’ ideas, pulled in better than one million viewers. That makes the show, based on a Japanese format and now in its third season, one of the top-rated programs on CBC this fall.

CBC also had success last season with its version of the BBC format “The Week the Women Went,” in which the distaff members of a small rural community leave the men to fend for themselves for seven scary days. “The Week” will be back on CBC early next year, this time set in a fishing village in New Brunswick.

The pubcaster also did well with “Canada’s Next Great Prime Minister,” an original CBC format in which former Canadian prime ministers participate in a contest to find someone who might be suitable to lead the nation in the future.

The BBC has bought the format, and the pubcaster will be doing a British version. Meanwhile, it will be back on CBC in March.

All these shows are products of CBC’s 3-year-old factual entertainment department, run by Julie Bristow.

“I think we’ve defined what reality is for us, and it’s quite different from what it is on other networks,” CBC executive director of network programming Kirstine Layfield says. “They’re not U.S. formats, so they have a different sensibility than U.S. shows. There’s a little less of people embarrassing themselves. It’s a little more thoughtful. But it’s not current affairs.”

The pubcaster has left the more populist formats to commercial rival CTV, which has had success with local versions of international reality contests including “Canadian Idol” and “So You Think You Can Dance Canada.”

Things weren’t always so rosy for reality shows on CBC. In summer 2006, CBC bought ABC talent contest “The One” and bumped its flagship nightly newscast “The National” in order to air the show.

The pubcaster was blasted by critics who said it had no business airing reality fare, and should be concentrating on news and public affairs programming.

When the ABC show was cancelled after two weeks, it created a major embarrassment for the CBC. A planned Canadian version of “The One” never was produced, and many wondered if the factual entertainment department would ever recover.

Now CBC wants to develop more of its own original formats, like “Canada’s Next Great Prime Minister,” to sell globally.

Partly thanks to “Dragon’s Den” — and with a little help from perennial favorites including “The Rick Mercer Report” and “The Royal Canadian Air Farce” — CBC’s overall market share has gone up to 8.6 from 7.8, comparing fall to fall.

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