TORONTO – It’s hard to stifle the collective groan that’s emitted whenever a Canadian TV network announces its own version of a well-established U.S. reality series.
How could it possibly match the slick production and over-the-top drama of its big-budget inspiration?
That’s the big question as Slice prepares to unroll its version of “Big Brother” — the granddaddy of sensational reality shows — and as CTV embarks on a Canuck-based take on the adventure juggernaut, “The Amazing Race.”
For reality show junkies like “The Bachelorette” star Jillian Harris, the mere fact Canada is tackling such ambitious productions is cause for celebration.
“I just think it’s time — I think Canada’s getting smart with their programming, I think it’s getting a little more edgy,” says the Alberta-bred Harris, adding that she loved Citytv’s fall series “The Bachelor Canada.”
“We used to be a little bit soft and behind-the-times and I think we’re getting back up there. And the bottom line is people love reality, they just do.”
There’s no question that slick productions from the Unites States do well north of the border — “The Amazing Race” is a perennial Top 5 performer and actually has a bigger per capita audience in Canada than anywhere else in the world, says CTV executive Phil King.
And when Harris brought a little Maple Leaf flavour to Season 5 of ABC’s “The Bachelorette,” compatriots weren’t so much interested in the guy she picked as they were in scouring each broadcast for little nods to her northern roots — all those Lululemon and Aritzia threads, group dates amid the majestic Rockies and the kooky way she pronounces “about.”
Harris says she suspects her appearance on the U.S. show tapped into a latent feeling among Canuck reality fans that they weren’t seeing enough of themselves onscreen.
“So many times people come up to me and say, ‘I feel like you’re my best friend,’ and to me that’s the biggest compliment,” says Harris, who can soon be seen on the realty series “Love it Or List It Vancouver” on W Network.
Socialite-turned reality star Ronnie Negus of “The Real Housewives of Vancouver” agrees, noting Canadians are passionate about homegrown personalities and like to see they’re just as exciting as their over-the-top U.S. counterparts.
Last spring’s debut season of “Real Housewives” is considered the highest rated series in Slice’s history.
“I think the Canadians liked it that they had their own girls, right?” says Negus, widely credited with igniting much of the drama on the spinoff, about the opulent lives of wealthy Vancouver women.
“They didn’t have to watch the United States (series), it was like: ‘These are our girls.’ And they all tuned in and they embraced it.”
Of course, it’s no surprise that TV execs are hungry for any way to translate the big ratings of U.S. imports into big ratings for homegrown productions.
Shaw Media’s content boss Barb Williams, who oversees programming for Global and 18 specialty channels, says talks are always ongoing over which hot property should get a Canadian spin for a Canadian audience.
“We’ve talked about ‘Survivor’ for years,” Williams notes.
“We’ve talked about ‘Apprentice.’ We’ve talked about all of them…. When you have a hit like (‘Big Brother’) you’re always talking about: How do I exploit that?”
Franchised reality fare in Canada certainly isn’t new — the past decade has seen slick incarnations including “Canadian Idol,” “So You Think You Can Dance Canada,” “Project Runway Canada” and “Canada’s Got Talent.”
But those were skills-based series while today’s batch of shows are part of a different, more ambitious breed, says King.
“Typically there are singing, dancing, dating or food shows. That tends to take care of about 90 per cent of, I guess, reality programming. And then you have shows like ‘Amazing Race’ and ‘Survivor,'” says King, president of CTV programming and sports.
“These are not inexpensive shows to produce. Still, we’ve obviously spent a lot of time looking at budgets, looking at how we can do it smartly, but still keep that big feel, that big production feel.”
Part of the reason it’s taken so long for these mammoth formats to cross the border is the expertise needed to pull them off successfully, suggests Williams, whose networks include History, Slice, Food Network Canada and HGTV Canada.
“Over the years we’ve all — and when I say all of us, I include my competitors here in Canada — we’ve all gotten better at doing these really big competition-based reality shows,” she says.
“We certainly had great success with ‘Deal or No Deal Canada’ years ago, we’ve had success with ‘Top Chef’ and others, but ‘Big Brother”s the biggest of them and you need to be sure as a broadcaster you’re ready to tackle it. You need to be sure as a broadcaster you have the resources and the wherewithal to launch a big show like that successfully and you need to be sure you have the capability and the production sector to pull it off.”
Veteran TV producer John Brunton — whose Toronto-based company Insight Productions oversaw a slew of shows including “Canadian Idol,” “Top Chef Canada” and “Are You Smarter Than a Canadian 5th Grader?” — says “The Amazing Race Canada” will be particularly challenging to pull off, even though it will be entirely set within our borders.
“It’s an enormous production,” says Brunton, who expects shooting to begin in May.
“It’s run-and-gun television. You are literally chasing people all over the country.”
Notwithstanding all those hurdles, there’s no denying it has taken a long time for some of these big reality shows to make it to Canada.
South of the border, “Big Brother” has been a summer staple for 14 seasons while “The Amazing Race” will be on its 22nd season when it returns in February.
But King says “The Amazing Race” is still hot and that it’s not too late to jump on the bandwagon.
“When a show gets in its 10th or 11th year what you’re clearly doing is you’re not just holding on to your existing audience, you’re growing it,” he says, arguing that a younger generation is discovering the show for the first time.
“It’s funny because when you do look at it you go: Have you missed the boat, so to speak? Should you have done this five years ago? But the show has not peaked in Canada…. It’s still just as popular and it reinvents itself twice a year. So we know the format is one that lends itself to that longevity.”
Williams says the advent of social media has helped extend the lives of these series even further. Reality fans are some of the Internet’s most ardent TV bloggers, tweeters and commentators.
“A few years ago, one might have thought some of these shows like ‘Big Brother’ might have been on the wane but you see ‘Big Brother’ and ‘Survivor,’ they just are getting bigger and bigger and bigger and I think that’s a lot about capitalizing on the multiplatform aspect of our business.”
Then there’s the longstanding impression that Canadians by nature are not as interesting or sensational as U.S. exhibitionists.
Brunton scoffs at this stereotype, noting that roughly 10,000 people turned up at auditions for “Big Brother Canada.”
“You know this thing where we’re polite and we’re shy? It’s (crap),” he says, noting some wannabe stars tried flashing the judges in a bid to get on the show.
“The casting on that show is going to blow people’s mind. We just have some of the most fantastic individuals that want to get in that house so bad and we’ve gone through a really, really exhaustive casting process.”
Outlandish behaviour was certainly on display on the first season of “The Real Housewives of Vancouver,” which returns to Slice with more catty exchanges Feb. 5.
Three new housewives will replace departing martial arts aficionado Reiko Mackenzie and self-described gold-digger Christina Kiesel, and returning housewife Mary Zilba says they bring plenty of drama to Season 2.
“It doesn’t disappoint, it certainly stays in tune with what the ‘Real Housewives’ franchise is all about,” says Zilba, whose off-camera ventures include her own cosmetics line, Buff Beauty.
Nevertheless, fellow housewife Jody Claman — who seemed to make it her mission to torment Zilba in Season 1 — suggested that some of the catfights are exaggerated for the cameras.
“At the end of the day it’s a show and we want to entertain you,” says Claman. “It is what it is and it was greatly received. And I personally loved it.”
The drama queen says she’s enjoyed being on the series overall, noting it has boosted her off-camera career as an entrepreneur.
“It’s been a blessing for me, personally. I’ve had huge opportunities and I’m very grateful,” says Claman, whose ventures include a new food emporium in Vancouver and plans for a clothing store in Toronto.
Canada deserves a big platform to showcase everything it has to offer, and reality series can do that in a very unique way, says Brunton.
“We’re going to be travelling coast-to-coast-to-coast in Canada and we’re really going to wrap ourselves in the flag,” he says of “The Amazing Race Canada.”
“We certainly want to take advantage of that, take advantage of what I think is one of the most beautiful countries in the world.”