What the hell was CBC thinking with The One?

The One?

Well that was quick. This Friday, ABC announced through its website that the quest for “The One,” America’s next big singing talent, is over. The winner? No one. After a mere two weeks, ABC pulled the plug on the show due to its disastrous ratings. According to the stats, it was the lowest-rated reality debut of all time (i.e. since reality shows became popular). Hell, I think my BLOG gets a bigger audience share.

Under normal circumstances, I’m sure few would shed a tear or give it a second thought. Shows get cancelled left and right in the harsh American television market and networks are increasingly unwilling to let shows find their footing or grow into an audience. So why is this worthy of this valuable real estate in my blog (and, by extension, my thought process)? Because of the CBC.

For those who missed out on the story, CBC had high hopes on The One. It’s the first major American series that they have simulcast in a long time (I can’t think of any others). Their own semi-almost-credible George Stroumboulopoulos was the host. And most important of all, they were banking on high ratings to lead into their own version of The One (which is based off a British show, like so many others) still set to debut later this fall.

Turns out they picked one hell of a dud to place their bets on. Anyone who watched the show for even a few minutes could tell that its chances of success were slim at best. The show boasted cheesy production values, fluff content, boring contestants, and Stroumboulopoulos felt neutered as host. It was a black hole, sucking all the drama and intrigue from its surroundings.

And the funny thing is: ABC knew it, too. During the TV Critics expo, which was occurring the same week as The One launched, there was almost no promotion or attention drawn to the show, just a single press release – notable for a week where most new and returning shows get lavish presentations with star power to convince critics to pay attention. ABC clearly had no confidence in the show to begin with.

So why in the hell did the CBC? I seriously want to know what the higher-ups were thinking. Even though they had no idea how bad the show would turn out, on concept alone it’s a terrible idea. The first rule of trying to sell a product is to give the buyer a reason to give a damn – usually, this is only accomplished by making your product different enough from competing products to be worthy of attention. All the advertising in the world cannot compensate for a shitty ripoff (for more on the shortcomings of advertising, I highly recommend The Fall of Advertising and the Rise of PR, by Al and Laura Ries. Actually, I don’t recommend reading it – like many business books it’s written so repetitively and simply that a five-year-old could understand it – but it’s definitely worth a good academic skim).

At a fundamental product level, The One gave no one a reason to care. There was almost nothing different from its two chief singing-show competitors, Rock Star and American/Canadian Idol. These two shows can co-exist on the dial because they feature completely different music and are completely different in format (one featuring veteran performers learning the music industry, the other part-exploitation, part-Star Search). The One was nothing more than an awkward hybrid, emphasizing both the flash of the Idol franchaise and the music industry side of Rock Star. It gave no one a reason to care. Putting it on directly opposite Rock Star – especially in Canada where thanks to J.D. Fortune the show gets very respectable ratings – was suicide.

If anything, the good that’s come out of this failure is a serious re-evaluation of the CBC’s mandate. Some of the more radically fascinating ideas being tossed around are an ad-free CBC (not unlike PBS in the States) or at the very least, a CBC that gives up trying to compete with Global and CTV. Frankly, if the CBC ever wanted to compete head-on with the commercial networks, that ship sailed from the harbour eons ago. The purpose of a crown corporation in a progressive capitalist society (perhaps a bit of an oxymoron, but I’m strugging to best define our economic system) is not necessarily to compete directly with the private sector, but to provide services that are either unavailable or unsatisfactorily managed by the private sector when the profit margin gets in the way (i.e. health care, education, power utilities…all things that free-market fanatics want privatized, but that’s a topic for another post). Let’s face it: the “C” in “CTV” is borderline ironic by this point, and is that really the direction the CBC wants to go?

I guess it comes back to product differentiation: if someone else is providing the exact same product or service as you, what reason can you give the customer to switch? If that reason is as shitty as The One, then perhaps it’s time to start back at square one.

For more on this, Kate Taylor’s Globe and Mail article “And now, no word from our sponsors” is a good place to start, along with her subsequent online chat.

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