Report for MIP-TV – Size doesn’t matter (market, that is)

TVO's ratings from January 1997 until press time...
April 1, 1998

TVO’s ratings from January 1997 until press time


1. Warrendale (TVFH)/Allan King/Wednesday 10:00 p.m./101/200,000/8

2. Unveiled (TVFH)/Maureen Judge/Wednesday 10:00 p.m./55/125,000/6

3. Invisible Nation (TVFH)/Lindalee Tracey/Wednesday 10:00 p.m./55/125,000/5

4. Breasts (HE)/Meema Spadola/Wednesday 10:00 p.m./60 100,000/4

5. Project Grizzly (TVFH)/Peter Lynch/Wednesday 10:00 p.m./75/75,000/3

6. Blue Eyed (HE)/Bertram Verhaag/Wednesday 10:00 p.m./93/75,000/3

7. Gigi, Monica and Bianca (HE)/B. Dervaux & Y. Abdellaoui/Wednesday 10:00 p.m./84/50,000/2

8. Paradise Lost (HE) J. Berlinger & B. Sinofsky/Wednesday 10:00 p.m./149/50,000/2

9. Yo Yo Ma, Inspired by Bach (6-part series)/Rhombus Media/Wednesday 9:00 p.m./60/50,000/2

10. Licensed to Kill (HE)/Arthur Dong/Wednesday 10:00 p.m./80/25,000/1

*Share numbers, as well as the audience number for the top-rated show, were provided by tvo. Audience numbers for the others were calculated by RealScreen based on share information. Audience numbers are provided for comparison only. TVFH – The View From Here: winter strand consisting of Canadian-produced projects. HE – Human Edge: Fall strand consisting of internationally produced projects.

Broadcasting solely in the province of Ontario, tvo isn’t the largest public broadcaster on the Canadian dial, but it has gained an international reputation for doc programming that outstrips its size. It’s hard to compare numbers when you look at tvo; as a public broadcaster in a small market, it doesn’t rank in the same league as Discovery or Channel 4 – and tvo doesn’t pretend to try.

‘You learn the rules of the broadcast game quite easily,’ says Rudy Buttignol, tvo’s head of documentaries, independent productions and science. ‘You can buy the numbers if you need them.’ Packing as much sex and violence as possible into an hour isn’t what tvo is looking to do, although they’re not shy about ruffling feathers. ‘Half the time the filmmakers drive me nuts. But, that’s the challenge – to say yes to them anyway. I’m not supposed to agree with them, they’ve just got to make a valuable contribution.’

The largest audience captured by a doc last year on tvo was by Warrendale, a 101-minute film run on The View From Here strand. The consequential film by filmmaker Allan King was commissioned by the cbc in 1967, but was banned for its strong and disturbing content. The doc was the first look into a home for emotionally disturbed children. Intimately shot, with no voice-over, it was an embryonic foray into the world of cinema veritž, deemed too much of a revelation for the sensibilities of the Canadian tv-watching public in the 60s.

Other than a few brief theatrical appearances in the u.k., u.s. and Canada, the film sat in the cbc archives until Buttignol acquired it and gave it its television premier. As might be expected given the film’s history, the press build-up accompanying the broadcast was incredible. However, as Buttignol comments, ‘the press is good to get people to the show, but in the end, the show has to carry it.’ King’s film appeared to be equal to the hype. While the slot carries an average audience of around 70,000 viewers, Warrendale pulled in and held 200,000.

tvo has the luxury of not having to depend on commercial income for survival, but ratings still have their place. ‘We’re not ratings-driven for the sake of getting large numbers. We use ratings as a measure of whether we’re reaching the audience that we’re targeting. Sometimes we do really important work that we know won’t reach a large audience, but it’s important to know that it is getting an audience.’

tvo puts more stock in audience response than ratings, and often follows its more controversial docs with hour-long audience feedback shows. Buttignal offers Blue Eyed by Bertram Verhaag as an example of the problem with relying strictly on audience numbers.

Blue Eyed was an experiment in social relations. The filmmaker separated groups of people in an office, based on the colour of their eyes. The blue-eyed (i.e. predominantly white) were subjected to abuse and ill-treatment, while their brown-eyed co-workers enjoyed better treatment and rewards. At 3%, the doc received only a slightly-above-average market share, but elicited 200 calls the following day alone, mostly from viewers who wanted information on purchasing their own copy of the film.

Part of tvo’s success with documentaries is also the stability it has offered the genre. As Buttignol observes, ‘most television is habit,’ and the Wednesday-night doc slot has been around for some time.

tvo doesn’t see cablecasters, aside from CBC Newsworld, as competition since there are few outlets interested in the same documentary style. The main competition revolves around talent, and even in this Buttignol sees a bright side. ‘The good thing about the specialty channels is that they provide a lot of industrial-level work for filmmakers, and that’s good – as long as they keep some of their time aside for their own work.’

Guide to Frontrunners:

-Ratings & Overview

-Discovery: Success with nautical disaster

-Raging success on C4

-Canal+: Non-fiction hits home first

About The Author
Barry Walsh is editor and content director for realscreen, and has served as editor of the publication since 2009. With a career in entertainment media that spans two decades, prior to realscreen, he held the associate editor post for now defunct sister publication Boards, which focused on the advertising and commercial production industries. Before Boards, he served as editor of Canadian Music Network, a weekly music industry trade, and as music editor for As content director, he also oversees the development of content for the brand's market-leading events, the Realscreen Summit and Realscreen West, as well as new content initiatives.