CBC-TV touts shift towards darker, edgier fare in upcoming lineup

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Jonny Harris gets own shown, 'Republic of Doyle' returns

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’s 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” 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.

There will be 13 episodes of the new sitcom “Schitt’s Creek,” created by comedy veteran Eugene Levy and his son, Dan Levy. Levy’s former “SCTV” partner Catherine O’Hara co-stars with U.S. comic Chris Elliott (“How I Met Your Mother,” “Late Show with David Letterman”).

It’s about a very wealthy family who find themselves bankrupt and move to a small town in the middle of nowhere called Schitt’s Creek.

Catto admits the crude reference in the title could dissuade some viewers from tuning in, but says that’s a chance they are willing to take.

“There were conversations about it, for sure, but we really support the show, we support the creators’ vision and again it should be a real indication that we are prepared to take risks. We are signalling that this is a place that’s going to do bold and irreverent and innovative programming,” says Catto, noting that the mayor of the town — played by Elliott — is named Roland Schitt.

“It’s not a name that’s going to go away in this series, so we’ve just embraced it.”

Organizations: CBC, Strange Empire, Netflix

Geographic location: U.S., Canada, Durham County British Columbia Arctic

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Recent comments

  • David Benson
    April 08, 2014 - 09:45

    Is there anything on CBC TV that isn't a cheap knockoff of American programmes?

    • Glenn Stockley
      April 08, 2014 - 13:49

      not that i've checked recently, Dave, but no there isn't…..