Debating the demise of CBC’s The Debaters

Steve Patterson, host of The Debaters: still on CBC Radio One

Should The Debaters have been among the shows axed by CBC?

At first glance, the public broadcaster’s decision to lose the comedic point-counter-point series, hosted by Steve Patterson, doesn’t seem debatable when you look at the numbers it was drawing—roughly 250,000 viewers per episode across Canada. It was often paired with critically acclaimed Michael: Tuesdays & Thursdays last fall which pulled the same low audience levels.
But, as Debatersexecutive producer Brian Roberts argues (or, perhaps, debates), other CBC shows delivered low numbers at a much higher cost. For a network desperate for cost efficient programming at a time of deep budget cuts, The Debaters was a steal, he says.
“I feel for the CBC, I really do,” says Roberts, an American-born producer-director now living in Canada. A 25 year veteran of the TV business, his credits range from directing episodes of Everybody Loves Raymond and The Drew Carey Show to Little Mosque and Dan for Mayor. “They are a little like Brad Pitt’s character inMoneyball,” he says of CBC programming executives. How are you going to compete in a fierce marketplace with a budget that is a fraction of what your competitors have to spend? You can try and beat your head against the wall chasing star players that you can’t afford or you can take a different approach and look at the game in a new and innovative way.”
Roberts feels that the cost effective model of The Debaters was designed to address not only what the CBC is facing, but broadcasters all through North America: declining viewership, declining revenue and soaring production costs.
Roberts says each episode of The Debaters cost just $75,000 to produce. Producers are generally reluctant to talk costs, but a figure ten times that amount– or $750,000–is usually seen as the minimum cost-per-episode of a half hour, one-camera comedy in Canada. In the U.S. it’s much higher; Bill Lawrence, executive producer of Cougar Town, told me in January his show costs $2 million per episode.
(Matt Watts, who wrote and starred on Michael: Tuesdays & Thursdays, tells Toronto Star TV columnist Rob Salem his show was a bargain, too; read more on that in tomorrow’s Toronto Star.)
Another saving, says Roberts, is that his series cost CBC nothing in promotion because it didn’t get any.
That’s a lament often heard from Canadian television producers, and not just at CBC. In Roberts’ case, however, he actually means NO promotion. CBC prioritizes its promotional budget, and while shows like Michael, Arctic Air and Mr. D were always designated “1A” top of the list, Roberts knew all along his series would have to rely on word of mouth.
Continuing the Moneyballanalogy, Roberts figures his show, averaging 250,000 viewers on the season, cost CBC roughly 30 cents per viewer. Mr. D, which averaged around 600,000 viewers, came in at a two bucks per viewer clip—before you factor in the additional promotional cost. The Debaters delivered fewer viewers, but there was far less pressure on maintaining ad revenue, he states.
“That is how the show was sold to the network, and just like in Moneyball, the vertically integrated production model represented a real paradigm shift in the CBC’s approach to programming,” he believes. “Though the network opted not to continue our show, I strongly believe The Debaters still offers a lesson in how the network might stay competitive in this challenging new environment.”
He also points out that The Debaters was a multi-platform show. “It was groundbreaking in that we recorded the radio show and the television show at the same time, saving CBC radio money and providing online streaming for the show that are usually only available for purchase on iTunes.”
There were other reasons why The Debaters was a good buy, he argues, especially during this current CBC fiscal squeeze: About a quarter of The Debaters total annual budget of $2 million went to CBC’s Vancouver plant, to their mobile trucks and to the costs of the CBC radio version of the series—in other words, back into CBC’s pocket.
The series shone a spotlight on up and coming Canadian talent–a window that is less open than ever in Canada since the demise of the Bullard show and cut backs at Comedy.
The series debated Canadian issues, ticked all the purported mandate boxes for regionally and picked up a comedy nomination this year at Banff.
Would it have made sense to keep it around as a bench player? Roberts obviously thinks so, and was prepared to accept a reduced order. He’s been shopping the format Stateside, where polarized political views would likely stoke the show’s satirical debating format.
The good news is that the series does survive on CBC Radio One.
Roberts adds he’s “thankful to the network for the opportunity to try and bring The Debaters to television.” He has moved on to a new, American style multi-camera comedy sitting at another Canadian network. He hopes it will get picked up in the next few weeks.

Follow @BillBriouxTV

Leave a Reply