Globally speaking, English Canadian television dramas are often best known for their capacity to imitate the grammar and aesthetics of American series. In somewhat disparaging terms, television critics have long railed against “industry” or “generic” productions that increase their international sales value through disguising their “Canadianness” by setting stories in American cities despite being actually shot in Toronto or Vancouver. In many respects, the recent continental success of CTV’s police drama Flashpoint can be seen as a coming of age story for English Canadian television production.
Flashpoint, which draws on the ‘true stories’ of Toronto’s Strategic Response Unit (SRU — equivalent of the American SWAT), was initially produced for CTV but was subsequently purchased by the CBS broadcast network as an insurance policy during last year’s WGA strike in the United States. CBS eventually ran the series as a summer replacement series simultaneous to the show’s premiere in Canada. Flashpoint took both national industries by surprise when it handily won its night in both network markets. The series also made domestic broadcast history by being the first series set in an actual Canadian city to air in prime time on an American broadcast network. Consequently, to address the current economic crisis in the industry, CBS and NBC have both purchased more Canadian crime dramas for the 2009-10 season.
A qualification is in order here. Although the series is set in Toronto, the city is not deliberately invoked (although it is not erased). In fact, the producers claimed to have downplayed the location so that it did not “scream” Canadian and was better able to speak to the universal themes of any large urban center. Thus Flashpoint’s American success may be attributed to its ability to anticipate audience expectations of conventional Hollywood police dramas “despite” its location. In an interesting example of what Jonathan Gray describes as the ‘extratextual,’ this clip illustrates CBS’s objective to seamlessly integrate/domesticate Flashpoint with another crime procedural Numb3rs in the Friday night “kiss of death” timeslot.
Flashpoint presents an interesting conundrum for Canadian television. First, Canadian producers are no different from domestic audiences — they are fully immersed in the world of American televisual storytelling and this will, undoubtedly, inform their craft. Second, Flashpoint plays into the objectives of the recent CRTC recommendation to split the Canadian Television Fund (CTV) into private and public streams whereby the former will require a “hit factor.” The questions remain: what defines a hit? in which market? Can a ‘hit’ be defined solely in domestic terms or must it sell globally (read continentally)?