Copycat reality shows are an easy sell for Canada’s networks
When looking at the 2013 spring/summer primetime television schedule, two things stood out: How to Live With Your Parents (For the Rest of Your Life) is a really long and awkward name for a sitcom that hits a little too close to home (just me?) and two big-name reality competition franchises that have been adapted for the Canadian marketplace.
Big Brother Canada (on Shaw’s Slice) and Amazing Race Canada (CTV) are the latest additions to the list of spin-offs that have planted their flags in the Canadian television landscape through the years. Both shows have generated a healthy amount of buzz on social media sites and attracted big-name sponsors.
Reality television is, of course, not a new phenomenon, but more than ever holds an allure for broadcasters hoping to attract new audiences and new sources of revenue as technology continues to chip away at eyeballs and ad dollars for traditional fare.
And so, in theory, it makes sense that Canadian broadcasters continue to tinker with it. Canadian Idol, Canada’s Next Top Model, Project Runway Canada and Canada’s Got Talent have all been adapted for the domestic market to varying degrees of success. Some lasted only two or three cycles until audience erosion signalled to broadcasters that it was time to call it a day (though the U.S. versions continue to thrive), while others struggled to find a following from day one. So why haven’t Canadian broadcasters snuffed the torch on reality television remakes?
Purchasing licensing fees for hits like Big Brother and Amazing Race is a way for broadcasters to draw in advertisers looking for product placement and branded content opportunities. And the appetite is there.
“We’ve been asked more and more and more by our advertisers to come up with programs where they can integrate into and really get their brands displayed in a way other than a 30-second commercial,” says Phil King, president, CTV programming and sports.
CTV Brand Partnerships is working with four brands – Air Canada, BlackBerry, Chevrolet and Interac – on product integration, customized activations and original branded content for Amazing Race Canada, which will anchor the summer schedule. “We were overwhelmed by the enthusiastic response from the industry about Amazing Race Canada coming to CTV,” said Mary Kreuk, vice-president, brand partnerships at Bell Media.
The business case for adapting U.S. reality television shows that have proven track records, brand awareness and brand loyalty seems strong (to say nothing of the advantage of contributing to CanCon requirements with a twist). Amazing Race was a top three series last fall on CTV and draws an average audience of 2.7 million viewers, according to the broadcaster. And Big Brother is “the number one show in the summer every year in Canada,” says Barb Williams, senior vice-president, content at Shaw Media, which counts The Brick, Chevrolet and Ramada Worldwide among its sponsors for the Canadian version.
Media buyers are also enthusiastic for these shows and the branding entertainment opportunities they afford their clients. With U.S. programming dominating Canadian airwaves, there are a limited number of properties marketers can latch on to. Even with a strong stable of scripted homegrown content to choose from, it’s much easier to embed a product into an episode of reality television than it is a scripted drama or comedy series. Reality television is nimble—negotiations with producers, writers and broadcasters don’t require long lead times—and it appeals to a much broader audience, says Robert DaSilva, managing director, trading and activation at Mindshare Canada.
Mindshare Canada worked with Ford on episodes of CBC’s Being Erica. It was a huge success, he says, but it took some time to build. “Although Being Erica was a top show, it was also a niche property. It targeted women. It’s not like Amazing Race that targets adults 25 to 54—a bigger universe,” says DaSilva.
While Ford and Mindshare may have been pleased with the efforts, not everyone was convinced. National Post editor Jessica Leigh Johnston said she broke up with her TV BFF “because she tried way too hard to sell me a car.” “Being Erica, unfortunately, does not have the advantage of being a cynical comedy or an action show where product placement heightens the camp (oh hello there, Jack Bauer),” wrote Johnston in a 2011 column about product integration.
The reality viewer is a little more tolerant of branded content. Watching teams of two hop on an Air Canada flight to arrive at the next pit stop to avoid elimination is more palatable than weaving a product into a scripted storyline.
Product integration allows advertisers to insert their brand into engaging content that targets a specific type of audience that watches the show, says Sheri Metcalfe, VP, co-managing director at Jungle Media. Jungle Media and Mediavest worked with Kraft’s Dentyne gum brand on multiplatform sponsorships for City’s The Bachelor Canada. “It was a great way to draft off that core creative idea that Dentyne is the gum you consume right before you’re going to make out with someone,” says Metcalfe.
Reality television also shifts audiences from on-demand viewing back to appointment viewing, which is another reason advertisers like it so much, says Max Valiquette, managing director of strategy at Bensimon Byrne in Toronto. The end of a reality show usually involves a result or an elimination—something you want to experience with the rest of the viewing audience to maintain that element of surprise. “It allows [advertisers] to have a Canadian-made show that they can advertise either in or on that they know people are going to be watching in the moment,” says Valiquette. “I think for advertisers it’s a complete no-brainer.”
John Doyle, television critic for The Globe and Mail, takes a more cynical view of the latest reality television onslaught. While he understands it from a business perspective, he feels “the number of these shows arriving almost simultaneously speaks to the poverty of imagination in Canadian broadcasting,” he says. “It speaks to a lack of thought, I think, about what the Canadian viewer will tolerate in terms of original programming. I think in general it’s too easy.”
Sometimes pleasing the Canadian TV audience is that simple. “It’s a horrible stereotype, but there is something Canadian and inherently about us Canadians that we like to see things that have somehow been adapted or customized to our market,” says Valiquette.
Carol Cummings, director of TV services at Media Experts, says there’s a desire among Canadians to see their fellow citizens on screen. “It reinforces your patriotism a little bit,” she says.
And as Canadians, we like to see that broadcasters haven’t diluted the homegrown edition of the original U.S. version we’ve grown accustomed to, says Valiquette, who uses Big Brother as an example. “I think all we really want to see is that you’ve managed to keep the format there, but populate it with people from our country.”
But here’s the reality check: purchasing the rights to—and putting a Canadian spin on—a popular reality franchise doesn’t guarantee an audience. It’s a constant roll of the dice. City primped, preened and promoted the hell out of its show pony Canada’s Got Talent in 2012. It was a big moment for the Toronto-based broadcaster, after all. City was using the show to give its brand the national boost it needed to compete with the big three—CTV, Global and CBC—and managed to secure big-name sponsors like Tim Hortons and BlackBerry.
Though the premiere of Canada’s Got Talent drew a respectable 1.5 million viewers, ratings dwindled and the show failed to maintain a strong foothold on the spring 2012 schedule, forcing Rogers to pull the plug on a second season. “After careful consideration of all factors, including the current economic climate, Citytv has refocused its programming strategy and will not be producing Canada’s Got Talent for the 2012-13 season,” Scott Moore, Rogers Media’s president of broadcast, said in a statement.
Production and talent costs are extremely high for competition programs like this, says DaSilva. Networks are often challenged to keep these programs on air after a couple of years when audience numbers typically decline. This impacts the ad revenue, he says, making it difficult to keep the program on air.
Asked directly why Rogers didn’t want to commit to a second season, Malcolm Dunlop, executive vice-president of programming and operations for Rogers Media, insists the company was happy with the results of the show. “I think to do a show like that it’s a big undertaking. We were very proud of the ratings we got. We were very proud of the talent that came out and I think it was a very good thing for us to do,” he says. As for The Bachelor Canada, Dunlop says City is “looking at a potential second season” for 2014.
Despite the sizeable promotional push across Rogers’ various platforms and properties, Canada’s Got Talent failed to resonate with audiences.
The production was seemingly slick and up to par with the American version that has been a ratings hit with Canadian viewers since City added it to the primetime schedule in 2010.
So what was it about the Canadian version that just didn’t click with audiences?
National Post columnist Scott Stinson covered the press screening for Canada’s Got Talent and described it as a “ carpet-bombing of superlatives.” Performances were described by City as “incredible, amazing, mind-blowing and jaw-dropping, and sometimes in combination,” Stinson wrote. While the acts may have been all these things (we’ll let you be the judge), at the end of the day the show was sugar and spice and way too nice. Canada’s Got Talent missed one of the most important ingredients: snark. Judges Martin Short, Measha Brueggergosman and Stephan Moccio showed too much love for the contestants and too much love for each other. They were too nice. They were too… Canadian.
“I don’t think there was enough friction between the judges and the host,” says DaSilva. “I just don’t think the synergy of it worked well to keep the audience coming back.”
Maybe Canadian viewers have hit their limit. Maybe we’re suffering from talent show fatigue. There are only so many hours in a day. And maybe loyal viewers aren’t willing to give up on The Voice, American Idol and America’s Got Talent. With these talent shows, you’re asking people to watch something they’ve seen several times, says Valiquette. “And you’re hoping that the fact that it’s in Canada is going to be enough to push another one of those shows out of their circle,” he says. And at the end of the day, there are only so many juggling acts one person can watch.
Marketing‘s 2013 Mid-Season TV Report looks at all four of Canada’s major television networks, weighing successes and failures in primetime. Here’s a sneak peek at what’s in store for Marketing subscribers:
It’s been a tough year for our national broadcaster. Government cuts and a hockey strike took their toll on programing, so the Ceeb turned to the Wizard of Oz, the Titanic and Murdoch Mysteries to keep advertisers interested.
How’d they do?
• Over the Rainbow – 8-weeks series
• Titanic: Blood and Steel – 12-part series
• Murdoch Mysteries
With a few locally produced shows getting ready for their debuts, much of the Rogers-owned network’s schedule is built around strong comedies from below the border. Will their upfront picks survive cancelation?
How’d they do?
Ben & Kate
• The Mindy Projects
• Malibu Country
666 Park Avenue
The TV gods (and Charlie Sheen) have certainly been been smiling on CTV over the years thanks to bankable hits like Big Bang Theory, Grey’s Anoatomy, C.S.I. and Two and a Half Men. And only two of the seven news shows it picked up last year (including Sheen’s Anger Management) have failed to resonate with viewers.
How’d they do?
The Mob Doctor
• Anger Management
• The New Normal
Emily Owens MD
• The Neighbors
Barb Williams, SVP of content at Shaw Media, told Marketing that “the great success of a conventional primetime schedule is to have a little bit of everything in terms of procedural dramas, serialized dramas, comedy and reality.” Global’s lineup fits that bill, but comedy seems to be a weak point.
How’d they do?
• Chicago Fire
Made In Jersey
• Go On
• Guys with Kids
To read the full assessment of our networks’ mid-season statuses, check out the April 4 issue of Marketing in print or on the iPad newsstand.