Where to Find a Summer Hit on U.S. TV? Canada

'Rookie Blue,' Other Shows With Northern Exposure Draw Decent-Size Audiences for Lower Cost

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Since debuting June 24, ABC's "Rookie Blue" has captured between 6.2 million and 7.2 million viewers -- hardly the breakout hit of the season. Even canceled programs such as "FlashForward," "Three Rivers" and "Ghost Whisperer" have turned in better performances against hardier competition. Yet "Rookie Blue" is being renewed for a second season, and the network is touting the workmanlike police drama the Los Angeles Times called "modest and plain" as a hot commodity.

'Rookie Blue'
'Rookie Blue' Credit: ABC
Shows such as "Rookie Blue" are becoming more common, and the broadcast networks want more of it despite the middle-of-the-road ratings . For several years, the broadcast networks have tried to use outlandish reality shows to fend off popular cable summer dramas including TNT's "The Closer" or USA's "White Collar," but they haven't really done the job.

"Sports and reality really drive" the broadcast schedule in summer, said Barbara DiMaria, senior VP-director of national broadcast at Ingenuity Media, part of Interpublic Group of Cos.' Martin Agency. But the broadcast outlets "have to compete with the cable networks, who are programming originals."

The solution is to test out more scripted fare such as "Rookie Blue," which costs ABC less because it was created by Canadian production concerns and airs simultaneously on Canadian TV. Saving money becomes more important when TV networks know they can't get the audience levels in the summer they might get in the fall or spring.

"There are opportunities at all levels in the U.S., because the networks are sort of more open" to the idea of picking up programming crafted for an international viewership, said John Morayniss, one of the executive producers of "Rookie Blue" and also CEO of E1 Television, one of the show's production companies. Produced in Toronto, the drama is "going to be really heavily financed through Canadian licensees and other incentives and subsidies in Canada," he said.

More scripted fare with a decidedly northern exposure appears to be on the way. The CW network recently announced it would air Canadian comedy series "18 to Life" starting in August. CBS recently began airing episodes of another Canadian police drama, "The Bridge."

As for "Rookie Blue," ABC is touting it as the breakout hit of the summer. This despite the fact that the recent episode of Discovery's "Deadliest Catch," highlighting the death of the show's hero, Capt. Phil Harris, delivered 8.5 million viewers. And even though "Rookie Blue" is airing in the ABC time slot normally reserved for powerhouse medical drama "Grey's Anatomy," this newbie isn't coming close to delivering that hit show's average of nearly 14.8 million viewers, according to Nielsen.

But generally speaking, "Rookie Blue" appears to be faring better than regular scripted series on cable. Original airings of TNT's "Memphis Beat" and an episode of A&E's "The Glades" both snared almost 3.6 million viewers the week ended July 11, according to Nielsen, while an original airing of HBO's "True Blood" captured nearly 4.7 million. Of course, these shows often air multiple times over a week, while broadcast shows typically run once, sometimes twice.

Perhaps it's easy to praise this show's performance when expectations are mild. "The bar is certainly set lower in summer than any other time. Providing original content with safe, familiar themes ('Grey's Anatomy' -- with cops!) certainly has the advantage over lukewarm reruns that don't deliver strong audiences no matter what time of the year it is," Don Seaman, VP-director of communications analysis at Havas media-buying firm MPG, said in an e-mail message. "The networks are content with discovering a show that either outperforms the repeats it replaced, or with a show that is outpacing the competitive content available at the time," he added. "'Rookie Blue' covers both of those."

"Rookie Blue" nevertheless feels like a proper member of the ABC lineup, which tends to skew slightly female and features heavily emotional, sometimes mawkish, plotlines. ABC's programming includes "Private Practice," "Desperate Housewives" and "Cougar Town."

And the people responsible for the drama deliberately crafted it to fit with that sensibility. "The idea was, 'Let's figure out and develop a series that would work for ABC,'" Mr. Morayniss said. "Rookie Blue" was pitched with the idea that it would feature a group of young officers facing personal and professional challenges in the vein of "Grey's Anatomy," he added.

Yet the show's ABC siblings continue to attract far greater number of viewers, albeit with more episodes to show and more weeks to build momentum: "Modern Family" has season to date through July 11 won nearly an average of nearly 8.9 million viewers, according to Nielsen, while "Brothers & Sisters" has nabbed 10.4 million, "Castle" a little less than 10.7 million and even "V," aired in stutter-stop fashion this past season, has captured at least 11.5 million.

The formula is one that's becoming well established. In 2008, for example, CBS announced its intention to run "Flashpoint," a police drama produced first by Canada's CTV, then brought to CBS for consideration. Broadcast networks can avoid the costs of producing a pilot and likely pay less per episode than they might with shows that don't have Canadian backing, explained Mr. Morayniss. "Flashpoint" recently began its third season on CBS, starting in early June. According to Nielsen, the cop show has attracted an average of about 6.8 million viewers through July 11.

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