Canada waits before it watches

U.S. rookies start slow as series often 'pop' in sophomore frames

Rookie U.S. network series might be generating marketing hype on Canadian TV this fall, but it's the returning series that are getting the ratings.

While there is a healthy sampling of U.S. freshman dramas and comedies, Canadian TV viewers are embracing such established hits as CBS' "Survivor" and "CSI" franchises, ABC's "Grey's Anatomy" and Fox's "Prison Break."

"It really takes Canadian viewers a little longer to warm up to a show," said Florence Ng, vp broadcast at media buyer ZenithOptimedia. "We tend to rally behind shows that have a good track record."

So far this fall, new U.S. series have barely cracked the top 20 in Canadian primetime.

ABC's "Grey's" spinoff "Private Practice" on CTV is the best new drama with an outing of 1.6 million viewers, according to BBM Nielsen Media Research. Fox's "Back to You," starring Kelsey Grammer and Patricia Heaton, on rival Global Television is the best new comedy with about 1 million viewers.

But top of the heap for the week ending Sept. 30 in the key adults 18-49 demographic was Fox's "House" on Global with 1.9 million viewers; followed by the season premiere of "Grey's" on CTV with 1.4 million in the demo; "Survivor: China" on Global with 1.3 million; and NBC's "Heroes," also on Global, with 1.1 million.

Barb Williams, senior vp programming and production at CanWest MediaWorks, said Canadians favor returning U.S. shows in part because rookie series too often stumble out of the gate, then get canceled.

Mike Cosentino, senior vp program scheduling at CTV, agreed that getting Canadians who are hooked on existing U.S. series to embrace new actors and story lines is a persistent challenge.

"Despite big buzz campaigns for new titles, Canadians are waiting to make their appointment with returning programs," he said.

Not surprisingly, popular U.S. series here mostly popped during their sophomore season, when viewers overcame early reticence. That earns breakout hits for first-time simulcasts — or the same primetime slot in Canada as a series has south of the border — to maximize newfound ratings and ad revenue.

For example, CTV last year aired CBS' "Criminal Minds" on Tuesdays at 9 p.m., 24 hours before its U.S. airtime.

CTV is simulcasting "Criminal Minds" this season. That, in turn, forced a prerelease for "Private Practice" on Wednesdays at 8 p.m. — an hour ahead of its U.S. primetime slot.

"House" also broke out in its sophomore year. The medical drama bowed modestly on Global before averaging 1.9 million viewers to get into the top 20 for its second season. "House" went on to become the top-rated show for Global in its fourth-season premiere Sept. 25.

"Grey's," "Heroes" and ABC's "Dancing With the Stars" all followed a similar trajectory by becoming top-rated shows in Canada in their sophomore seasons.

Cosentino said the best strategy is to schedule and promote new U.S. shows around popular returning series — and then be patient.

"You can foster an incubation period where the show is promoted and you build buzz. And if it takes a full cycle to pop, you've done your job," he said.