Less money and less hockey are driving the CBC to take some programming risks that content boss Sally Catto admits could turn off some traditional viewers.
But she says a shift towards darker, edgier fare is ultimately geared towards preserving the public broadcaster’s mandate to stay relevant and connected with Canadians.
Chief among its plans for the 2014-2015 season is the dark period western Strange Empire, a serialized saga set in the 1860s that Catto likens to the type of material found on the subscription-based Netflix or U.S. premium channel AMC.
“There will be violence, there will be sex, there’s a brothel in the town – it’s very, very raw,” says Catto, who oversees drama, comedy, children and documentary programming.
“If you look at what Netflix is doing, what AMC is doing, the point is that there seems to be an incredible appetite for serialized programming. And audiences are sophisticated and I think they’re craving it… As part of our strategy going forward, we’re really looking at our programming through the lens of: Is it distinctly Canadian? Is it going to engage Canadian audiences? And is it programming that you would only see in Canada on the CBC?”
Strange Empire comes from Durham County co-creator Laurie Finstad, and takes place after the men in a westward-bound caravan disappear, leaving the women stranded and alone. The women are forced to build new lives in a frontier town run by a “nefarious fellow” who may have had something to do with the disappearances.
“Laurie tends to explore more darker, layered worlds and that was really appealing to us,” Catto says of the series, which is slated to shoot in British Columbia this spring and summer.
“It marks a shift in direction for us, going in that more darker and a very bold, serialized route. You’ll see more of that in the years to come.”
Strange Empire, along with the provocatively titled comedy Schitt’s Creek, are so far the only two new scripted series announced for the upcoming fall and winter seasons. Two factual programs were also greenlit – the game show Canada’s Smartest Person and the roving series Of All Places, hosted by Jonny Harris of Murdoch Mysteries.
But they follow a slew of recent cancellations including the northern drama Arctic Air, the mental-health crime series Cracked, the cooking shows Best Recipes Ever and In the Kitchen with Stefano Faita and as well as George Stroumboulopoulos Tonight and The Ron James Show.
Catto says company-wide funding woes are taking their toll.
Even though several CBC hits are returning – among them Murdoch Mysteries, Dragons’ Den, Republic of Doyle and Heartland – there may be fewer fresh episodes on offer, she admits.
“Budgets are tight across the board. It’s no secret we’ve had significant financial cuts and that will have an impact on us for sure,” she says, noting that ordering fewer episodes is one way “to make sure that we stay on our budget.”
“But we’re doing everything we can to preserve our content, to put our content first.”
She adds that not all series will be trimmed, noting that Murdoch Mysteries and Heartland are expected to return with 18 episodes each.