Are some shows just too smart or challenging for the mass audiences that sustain broadcast TV? Take Michael: Tuesdays & Thursdays, as I do in a feature up on the wire for The Canadian Press this week. You can read the full story here.
Michael: Tuesdays & Thursdays airs its final episode of the season Tuesday at 9 p.m. on CBC. It hasn’t been canceled, yet, but the ratings have been so low any other network in North America would have shed the series weeks ago. Keeping it on the air have been some rave reviews, including from this corner. This is a smart, touching, unblinking, well-crafted comedy. If it was on HBO there would be no talk of cancellation, only praise. Expectations are different there and numbers not so naked. As it is, the series is averaging in the low 200,000s, about half the population of Brampton, Ont. The Debaters, a show that comes right after it–and costs a fraction of what Michael or any other show on TV costs–does about as well each week.
You have to go back nearly 25 years to find a parallel predicament. Frank’s Place, a fondly remembered CBS series which aired in 1987-88, was also brilliant, ahead of its time. Set in a New Orleans cafe, it starred Tim Reid from WKRP in Cincinnati along side his real life wife, Daphne Maxwell Reid.
The series stood out in the ’80s as a one-camera comedy without a laugh track. Like a handful of other shows at the time, including The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd, it helped coin the term “dramedy” in that it was a half hour comedy with plenty of drama. (The term is almost a kiss of death for people pitching shows to networks today.) It also dealt with race and class is ways that have seldom been explored on TV with such honesty before or since.
Both of those shows could probably have run for years on HBO, but that service was new at the time and known more for boxing and stand-up comedy specials than for great TV series. It would be another decade before The Sopranos. If CBS was pitched it today, they likely would have slid it over to their premium brand, Showtime.
Like Michael, they were shows some people would have been happy to pay for to keep on the air. Enough people? As outlined in the article, CBC is exploring their options with their shrink series, but there is a model for transitioning an impressive Canadian comedy from network to pay-TV. Winnipeg-based Less Than Kind, which was launched on City, begins its third season on HBO Canada on January 15.