A remark by John Doyle in The Globe and Mail this week got me thinking about the value of promotion to the success or failure of a television program. Doyle was knocking CBC and Global for the poor job they do in promoting their content, especially Canadian content. Global for failing to even mention anything Canadian and CBC for its general inability to promote shows, he points out an episode of The Republic of Doyle that starred Gordon Pinsent and the CBC failed to mention Mr. Pinsent in any of their promotional material.
It never ceases to amaze me how well a strong promotional campaign can work wonders with audience numbers. I have seen shows literally double their audience size with strong ad campaigns. CTV are the masters of this. I produced a doc on Sale and Pelletier for them a few years ago. The on air ads were excellent. The number of ads astounded me. The great result: at seven pm on a Saturday night opposite Hockey Night in Canada we scored 1.5 million viewers (that was before the new rating system went in, so today it might be 2.1 million adding the 40% that most CTV programs have risen since the changeover).
Of course the best advertising cannot save a poor show. You may attract millions to see the first episode of a particularly boring series but the folks are not coming back to see the rest if you turn them off in episodes one and two. The proof for this is the CBC’s Canada: A People’s History. One of the most expensive ad campaigns in CBC history drew over 2 million viewers to the first program. A huge success that is touted to this day. Unfortunately, the series was not very compelling. I would call it a politically correct waste of money and air time that failed to capture the imagination of the viewing public. The series went on to average about 200,000 viewers per episode. I believe a test pattern would garner 200,000 viewers on CBC, CTV or Global. Perhaps a test pattern would be less irritating; it would surely be a lot less expensive.
This leads me to a conversation with a former head of documentary production at CBC. I sat there in his office while he lamented that Canadians have no interest in documentaries. His proof: whenever he puts a documentary on CBC the audience doesn’t watch. He said he has trouble getting 400,000 viewers and he sometimes feels he is wasting his time and the CBC’s money. I was astounded. With that attitude how could he do his job? In fact he was there a good long time.
I tried to reason with him. First I explained that CTV was getting over a million viewers the rare times they aired documentaries. Then I pointed out the recent successes of documentaries in the theaters. People were paying 25 dollars a couple to see what he said Canadians wouldn’t watch for free on his network. I asked if he ever saw Harlan County, March of the Penguins, An Inconvenient Truth, Roger and Me and The Thin Blue Line. Of course he had, but it was easier to blame the audience for his and the CBC’s failures.
I told him that first of all CTV was not as chintzy with their money. While he was handing out about 300,000 dollars for an hour, CTV was offering up well over half a million. I know money isn’t everything, but it sure helps to get the best research, the best camera people, the best editors and the best directors, oh, and to give them the time to do their jobs well. But more important still I pointed out a far simpler fact: the CBC never promotes documentaries. I dare anyone to try to find a documentary on CBC or CBCNN. It’s not that they are not produced or aired by the “Corpse”, it’s that the CBC prefers to sneak them onto the air with the least possible fanfare. When was the last time you saw an ad for a documentary on CBC? Sure, Mark Starowicz gets some of his shows promoted, but what about the rest? You can’t go ten minutes on air at CBC without seeing promos for their dramas and comedy shows. Reality shows are well promoted. It wouldn’t surprise me if someone told me that CBC doesn’t produce documentaries any more. How could they know?
Some very fine documentary filmmakers do some excellent work for CBC. It’s a pity that CBC doesn’t understand or appreciate this. Documentaries are relatively inexpensive, costing as much as 75% less than a drama for an hour. CTV has proven that documentaries can be ratings winners. Heck movie theaters wouldn’t display them if there was no audience. The Cove and anything by Michael Moore do far too well to ignore.
And it’s not just CBC, Omni makes documentaries, Vision TV makes documentaries, History and Discovery make documentary series and one-offs. I wonder if their documentary buyers and producers feel the same way as that guy at CBC? Do they produce them as a CRTC obligation? Do they care? If so it isn’t showing up in their ad campaigns and promotion. Fewer and fewer docs are being produced for TV in Canada at a time when they have never been more popular in the theaters. There’s an obvious disconnect here. At least it’s obvious to all but the TV honchos who decide where to spend their money and what to promote.