Article | Why Strange Empire doesn’t need to “save the CBC”

With Strange Empire, Laurie Finstad-Knizhnik’s new CBC Television show, two narratives dominate the show’s current publicity – the woman-oriented western angle, and the drama that’s “more substantial” than CBC’s other homegrown dramatic fare. With this in mind, Strange Empire’s debut earned 319,000 viewers on October 6, 2014. Its second episode earned 312,000 viewers on October 13, 2014. That’s not a good start for the latest show that’s allegedly too “un-CBC” for CBC.

Even though I don’t pay attention to promotion as much as I used to, I do notice the lack of putting Finstad-Knizhnik’s name upfront in the promotion to Strange Empire, trailer-wise. CBC has other avenues in which to publicize Finstad-Knizhnik’s involvement with Strange Empire, but not in the commercials and trailers themselves. Durham County – which Finstad-Knizhnik co-created – is as much about suburban decay, and a character study about people trying to deal with their personal issues, as it is a crime drama. Similarly, Strange Empire is more complex than “women in a late-1860s Western Canada bordertown”, which at least this Dork Shelf piece understands. Perhaps CBC wants the television audience to focus on the show’s concept, and not the creator’s previous achievements. I don’t know.

If Durham County had a unique selling point in first run, it was Hugh Dillon’s role as homicide detective Mike Sweeney. Dillon is the lead singer for The Headstones, and a decent actor. He became a marketable name in Canadian television through Durham County and CTV’s Flashpoint. By comparison, CBC Revenue Group first sells Strange Empire on the merits of Cara Gee, Melissa Farman, and Tattiawna Jones, before mentioning Finstad-Knizhnik. While Jones is a familiar face on Canadian television, and Gee comes off a Canadian Screen Award nomination for 2013 film Empire of Dirt, it is Finstad-Knizhnik with the highest television profile, as Durham County lasted three seasons on The Movie Network and HBO Canada, and aired in a second window on Global. Durham County also had a United States run on minor program service Ion.

The media narrative of Strange Empire as the latest show too “un-CBC” for CBC baffles me. CBC Television sometimes has a show or two a season that doesn’t fit neatly with the majority of its schedule – jPod, Wild Roses, What It’s Like Being Alone, Michael: Tuesdays and Thursdays, Being Erica. The main problem with the “un-CBC” narrative is that it reduces CBC programming to an us-vs.-them scenario, dovetailing into one of CBC’s persistent false binaries – either the CBC goes completely highbrow/news-oriented/niche etc. and stops competing with private program services like CTV, CTV Two, Global, and City, or it reaches for that mass audience and stops being “special”. In reality, the failure of one of CBC’s first-season shows is seldom anything more than that, whether the show is “edgy” or not. If anything is a punch in the face to CBC this season, it’s the loss of Hockey Night in Canada’s advertising revenue, which directly affects CBC long-term.

Strange Empire is an experiment for CBC in 2014-15. My worry with Strange Empire is that it wasn’t initially promoted well enough to the audience of Durham County fans that might appreciate it. Granted, Strange Empire is a much harder sell than new seasons of a proven commodity like Murdoch Mysteries and The Rick Mercer Report. In addition, Strange Empire competes against City’s Scorpion, CTV’s Forever, CTV Two’s The Voice, and Global’s Sleepy Hollow. Monday at 9:00 PM is a tough time-slot, with two new American imports, and two well-established American imports. One thing that might help Strange Empire, assuming CBC doesn’t move the show, is if ABC cancels Forever before it finishes its first season.

CBC Television is not so flimsy that the poor initial performance of one of its edgier dramas is enough to call CBC’s entire 2014-15 primetime schedule into question. It’s not like CBC hasn’t aired “non-CBC” shows before; aside from Being Erica (which enjoyed a respectable four-season run, despite perpetual on-the-bubble CBC ratings), the odder fits are forgotten about, along with “safer” bets like Men with Brooms and The Debaters. Broadcast television is its own strange empire.

Cameron Archer

Cameron Archer

Owner/Writer at Gloryosky
Cameron Archer runs this site, and is a freelance arts writer. He has contributed to Canadian Screenwriter since 2011. He is a CMG Freelance member.
Cameron Archer