Combat Hospital, KIA…and the “war” for Canadian content

So…a funny thing happened on the way to a successful Canadian TV industry. The industry, such as it is, said: No Thanks.

News came down a few weeks ago that Global TV’s military-medical drama, Combat Hospital, has been cancelled. So what? you ask. Series get cancelled all the time. Too bad and maybe they can do better next time — right?

Wherein lies the proverbial rub. According to some reports, Combat Hospital was bringing in even better ratings than other bona fide Canadian hits like Flashpoint and Rookie Blue, with numbers easily on a par with, and often trouncing, the big American series Canadian networks treat as the jewels in the crowns of their programming schedules. You really couldn’t hope to do much better than Combat Hospital.

As well, though a series about a multinational field hospital featuring a multi-national cast, Combat Hospital was also unusually, unapologetically, Canadian — with many characters featuring Canadian flags on their shoulders and even occasionally (well, very occasionally) doing episodes that actually used that Canadianness for story ideas (like one where a conflict arises among the characters because of the differing policies the Canadian and American armed forces employ).

But despite all that, Global blinked and said, “Nyah, nevermind.”

Why? Well, obviously the story is little complicated (as these things always are). Combat Hospital was a co-production with the American network ABC, which was putting up some of the production money. And though the Canadian ratings for Combat Hospital were great…the U.S. ratings were more tepid (not necessarily horrendous…but not strong enough that ABC felt it was worth continuing). The why of the different ratings — well, who knows? Critics of the series might argue Canadians viewed the series with a hometown hero mystique that left the American viewers unaffected. Fans of the series might argue it was just a little too raw for an American audience more comfortable with who’s going to walk down the aisle of the Bachelorette than in seeing a drama set amid a conflict many people would just as soon pretend wasn’t happening. Contemporary conflict dramas have proven a tough sell in the past.

ABC decided to pull out for reasons that seemed appropriate for them and Global decided to follow suit…for reasons that would seem highly detrimental to them and any claims they would make to having a commitment to producing successful, Canadian programming.

Granted, the decision may not have been that quick and easy. Possibly there was some effort made to line up an alternate partner — perhaps a U.S. cable network. An effort that failed. Though if so, I wonder how hard they looked, given how quickly Global announced the series’ cancellation after ABC. I mean, with all those zillions of cable stations and networks…they couldn’t even get a nibble?

Combat Hospital was doubtless an expensive series to make. Series have been cancelled before, not so much because of bad ratings, but because it was a money losing endeavour even with good audience numbers. Although I can’t help wondering whether Combat Hospital could have had its budget trimmed with little discernible impact on the stories. I mean, the initial start up costs (building the standing sets, casting, etc.) had already been done. As well, there were certainly extraneous shots and scenes that could have been left out of later episodes. Shots of helicopters or jets flying through the air, or even the big panorama crane shots showing the whole camp — all rather extraneous to a medical drama where most of the real action and character development takes place on in door sets.

And, admittedly, there might have been cast problems. Actors who might see committing to a big budget American TV series as a hole-in-one, career-wise, might have considered it a professional sand trap to stick around in a Canadian series that would no longer be seen in America by Hollywood producers and casting agents. This might be particulary true of series stars like Michelle Borth and Luke Mably, American and British respectively, with no particular ties to, or desire to be incorporated into, the Canadian entertainment industry. Even Canadians like Elias Koteas and Deborah Kara Unger (both film actors “slumming” in TV) might have lost their enthusiasm a bit. I say “might”, because equally they might not — after all, at a relatively short 13 episodes season (half the length of an American season) one could star in it and still have time to take on other projects. But for that matter — Combat Hospital was an ensemble and could probably have weathered a cast shake up or two (look at the cast changes ER, Grey’s Anatomy, and CSI have undergone). Borth was an appealing, nominal lead…but even if she had chosen not to stay with a smaller, more Canadian series…that wouldn’t have necessarily been a fatal blow, narrative-wise.

Still, maybe all these things were considered, maybe numbers were crunched, the cast polled (to see who would and wouldn’t want to stick around) and it was finally, with great lamenting and melancholy, decided continuing Combat Hospital without ABC just was impossible.

Maybe.

But the optics are bad. Given all the braying from the political right about how the CBC should be shut down because the private networks like Global can do the job, Global’s cancelling of a hit Canadian series like Combat Hospital just makes such claims embarrassing. It looks bad because Global had next to no Canadian programs on its schedule anyway! It looks bad because with Combat Hospital fallen on the battlefield, Global’s next big series (slatted to premiere this January) is The Firm. Based on the long ago novel by American John Grisham (and the decade and a half old Hollywood movie), it’s set in the United States, and will star some American actors (and some Canadians, too, of course). Not exactly a stellar example of a commitment to “Canadian” programming. To be fair, Global is also priming Bomb Girls, which is Canadian-set…but it’s being promoted as simply a one-time mini-series, not an on going series.

For that matter, The Firm is also a U.S. co-production! So if Combat Hospital is any example, if once again Global is faced with hit Canadian ratings and poor American ratings, it will no doubt cancel The Firm, as well. (Cynically, I doubt it’ll be an issue — the commercials for The Firm look uninspiring, and I’m dubious it’ll be a hit either side of the 49th parallel…though I’m the first to acknowledge commercials can be misleading, so we’ll see).

Now this issue has arisen before — the co-production dilemma is a two-edged sword. On one hand, it means bigger budgets and better publicity (if only because the Canadian press treats American involvement as a “legitimizing” stamp of approval) on the other, it means handing a great deal of control for a Canadian series over to an American partner. And it means that if the American partner pulls out (and takes their money with them) the Canadian producers are left with a hemorrhaging hole in the side of their production.

Another, albeit less significant example, was the CBC’s Camelot — in this case, it was announced it had been cancelled even before it aired in Canada! I say it was less “significant” because Canada was only a junior partner in its production, making it only nominally a “Canadian” series, anyway…and its Canadian ratings weren’t as spectacular as Combat Hospital.

Still, Due South was a Canada-U.S. co-production and when CBS pulled out after the second season…the Canadian producers toughed it out, cobbled together some new production partners, and got another season out of it (though American co-star David Marciano was no longer involved). Likewise The Listener lost its U.S. network partner but, after a hiatus to rally the finances, it too came back without a U.S. network partner. Flashpoint was kept on tenterhooks for four seasons, with American CBS keeping it around, renewing it…but often kind of grudgingly and last minute, the series clearly having few champions among CBS executives (according to some reports, Flashpoint had good U.S. ratings…just not of the key demographics networks like to shop to advertisers). Yet even with the recent, definitive announcement that CBS is finally pulling out…Flashpoint has lined up a U.S. cable partner and promises to keep going. So it can be done, and has been done. I suppose it depends on whether you can find new partners to fill the gap, whether the cast and crew are enthusiastic enough to fight for their show…and whether the Canadian network programmers are committed to making it work.

Things that clearly didn’t happen for Combat Hospital.

And just as Combat Hospital is an example of a series killed despite stellar domestic ratings, there are also the reverse examples. Canadian series that stay in production, that networks keep on their schedule for multiple seasons even though the ratings are poor…because they do well enough for their American co-producer in the American market. In other words, at least when it comes to certain series, the Canadian audience has little say in whether a show gets renewed or cancelled.

And that doesn’t bode well for Canadian TV in general.

This entry was posted in Canadian film and TV and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Combat Hospital, KIA…and the “war” for Canadian content

  1. Mark says:

    For a blog that’s promoting Canadian productions, you can seem pretty negative. The Firm was a big hit as a movie and could do equally well on TV.

    • Administrator says:

      I don’t think I see my “job” (such as it were) as being to promote any particular production. At best, I’m promoting the idea of Canadian entertainment and culture — in general. But in general I’m just reflecting on the industry and the programs as I see ’em. For good or ill. Being a blind cheerleader is no more productive or constructive than being a kneejerk naysayer.