With ‘Schitt’s Creek’ and ‘Kim’s Covenience’ Over, Can Canada Deliver Its Next Global Hit?
All eyes will be on the Canadian TV industry over the next month as major players such as public broadcaster CBC, Bell Media, Rogers and Corus unveil their 2021-22 upfront plans. But this year, in the wake of heavy hitters like “Schitt’s Creek” and “Kim’s Convenience” coming to an end, the pressure for networks to find the next global-facing series is palpable.
Upfront season follows one of the most tumultuous years for Canadian television in recent memory. In September, the final season of “Schitt’s Creek” made history at the Emmys by sweeping all major comedy categories, solidifying its place as one of the most successful CBC shows of all time.
Three months later, the public broadcaster was on its knees as allegations that filmmaker Michelle Latimer, the producer and director of one of its most exciting new offerings, “Trickster,” was not of Indigenous descent, as she had claimed. The series, which had begun airing on The CW, was canned at the end of January despite an earlier Season 2 renewal.
Then there’s the “Kim’s Convenience” of it all. The CBC series was poised to become the country’s most beloved export with continued second-run success on Netflix and the casting of its lead, Simu Liu, in Marvel’s upcoming “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.” But the show was abruptly canceled midway through its fifth season as exec producers announced they were moving on to new projects.
Add in the recent cancellations of fellow CBC exports “Frankie Drake Mysteries,” “Burden of Truth” and sketch comedy “The Baroness Von Sketch Show,” and the slate over at CBC — the broadcaster that airs the most Canadian content of any Canadian channel — has some gaping holes to fill.
The question of where Canada’s next big global export will originate, however, is complex. The Canadian film and television industry is fueled by grants and public funding as opposed to the private studio system, which makes it harder for projects to get greenlit.
Adding to the degree of difficulty: rules by regulator Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission and limited slots on major networks that are anchored by American acquisitions. With Netflix and Amazon Prime setting up shop in the Great North for future content, and a sea of new series and movies hitting streaming services every day, it’s easy to be cynical about the next chapter of Canadian programming.
Happily, Canada has always had a penchant for niche content with a strong point of view that also happens to feel universal. According to some, that may be key when contemplating the next international success story.
Shows like “Schitt’s Creek” and “Kim’s Convenience” jibe with international audiences because “they are so incredibly relatable yet different,” says New Metric Media president Mark Montefiore, whose hit comedy “Letterkenny,” about the residents of a rural Ontario community, which streams on Hulu, is similarly on its way to achieving international stardom.
“They are equally broad as they are niche, and that’s the necessary chemistry for international and domestic success,” Montefiore says.
Adds Beth Janson, CEO of the Academy of Canadian Cinema & Television: “Canada has always punched above our weight in niche content. One of the major impacts of the internet is the ability to reach niche audiences and entertainment. It can be a core business model, and it’s really changing the industry in Canada a lot because people are realizing that we do create content that can resonate globally.”
Janson reveals that Canadian producers should look toward the internet and other social media spaces to recruit fresh talent in the coming years, particularly where creators are taking control of their own content and putting it out there in unconventional ways.
“That’s the genius of this,” Janson says, citing Ontario-born Lilly Singh, one of YouTube’s top stars, who broke into mainstream TV with NBC’s “A Little Late With Lilly Singh,” as a recent example. Janson also pointed to some of the programming being tested on CBC Gem, CBC’s tragically unacknowledged streaming service. “These creators who are writing the next big shows, they’re trying to be noticed online, so it’s not that difficult to find them.”
Gregory Taylor, an associate professor at the University of Calgary’s Department of Communication, Media and Film, points out that you can’t discuss the success of shows like “Kim’s Convenience,” which was adapted from a play, or “Trickster,” based on Eden Robinson’s book, without looking at the wider Canadian arts communities, including theater and publishing, where such projects have established fanbases.
“None of these areas work in isolation,” Taylor says. “It’s part of a wider arts ecosystem in Canada, and in a lot of ways, these shows are the evidence that these different sectors feed into and fuel each other. And occasionally, we get a really solid hit out of it. But you can never guarantee these things.”
Tara Woodbury, VP of development at Sphère Média, is optimistic about that talent and what it means for future Canadian projects, specifically in BIPOC communities. Woodbury believes viewers are in the market for shows with heart, something she says Sphère’s medical drama “Transplant,” about a Syrian refugee doctor starting a new life at a Canadian hospital, has in abundance. The show was renewed for a second season at NBC late last year.
“There’s a big new wave coming out of Canada,” Woodbury says. “The advocacy work BIPOC TV & Film has been doing is incredible. To use ‘Transplant’ as an example: To have a Muslim in a network show I just don’t think would have happened a while ago. But the data speaks for itself, and the audience is there. We’re going to be seeing different viewpoints like that at the heart of these future shows.”
Given that, the optics behind CBC’s upcoming “Kim’s Convenience” spinoff “Strays,” starring the show’s white character Shannon Ross (Nicole Power) and helmed by one of the original series’ white producers (Kevin White), aren’t great. However, “Strays” had been in development before “Kim’s Convenience” creator Ins Choi stepped away, quashing the broadcaster’s plans to introduce the spinoff through the mothership program. The broadcaster was also sure to reveal it had picked up “Run the Burbs,” a half-hour original comedy starring “Kim’s Convenience” star Andrew Phung, at the same time it announced “Strays.” A representative from CBC was not available for an interview at press time.
“Kim’s Convenience is a big loss for the CBC,” says Taylor, who notes the broadcaster has been instrumental in the success of shows, developing and sticking with many of its series in early seasons — well before viewers catch on following pickups by streaming giants like Netflix: “There’s no doubt they had a hit. It’s one they developed and it’s gone. So they have to hope that they have something to replace it.”
Says Woodbury: “We all need to be thinking, ‘Are the shows we’re working on going to cut through?’ We all need to strive for excellence and strong, memorable television. It starts even earlier than development: It starts with making sure there’s access within our industry for everyone, and breaking down those barriers so that everyone who has a story to share feels like they can get in the door.”
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