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The Real World: how Toronto is cashing in on the reality TV boom

Reality television is booming in Toronto; nearly 100 shows are made here every year—some of them drawing more viewers than (gasp) hockey. Call it an affront to good taste or appointment TV, it’s the future of Canadian entertainment

The Real World
Every Wednesday last fall, a friend of mine invited a bunch of us over to her Front Street apartment to watch The Bachelor Canada. The star was Brad Smith, a broad-shouldered himbo tasked with choosing a wife from a harem of 25 tanned, bleach-toothed beauties, including a former Playboy bunny and a Miss Universe contestant. We rated the questionable appeal of the contenders and cringed as they performed awkward cabaret routines or competed in lumber­jack competitions to prove their marriage potential. During the solemn rose ceremonies, when Brad sent home our favourites, we shouted expletives at the TV. My friend also hosts parties for a handful of other reality series. We consume these shows the way sports fans watch Leafs games—screaming “Oh my god!” in glorious, cathartic unison.

In this era of downloading, streaming and TV-on-demand, reality shows have become appointment television, and Toronto is cashing in. Nearly 100 of them were made here last year, collectively targeting every conceivable TV pleasure centre: sleaze (Big Brother Canada, with its lecherous housemates and salacious showmances), camp (Golden Gays, a Slice series about gay retirees in Palm Springs) and schadenfreude (shelter shows like Property Virgins, in which couples with tiny budgets scour the Toronto housing market).

In the 2011-2012 TV season, the genre poured $297 million into the Canadian economy, up 30 per cent from the previous year. The vast majority of that revenue was generated here in the city by three production companies—Insight, Cineflix and Proper Television—that develop both original programming and Canadian versions of established U.S. shows, like the homegrown edition of The Amazing Race. Produced by Insight, The Amazing Race Canada debuted in July to the largest audience in the history of Canadian television: three million people—one in three English-speaking Canadians—tuned in.

For production companies and networks, these shows are profit machines: they’re cheap to produce and almost guarantee huge ratings. An episode of Buying and Selling, a popular house-hunting show on the W Network, for example, costs just $230,000 per episode and draws 2.8 million viewers. The average hour of scripted television, meanwhile, costs around $1.5 million. And sometimes a lot more: The Borgias—a Canadian co-produced Renaissance drama starring Jeremy Irons and featuring enough brocade and candlelit nudity to populate a museum’s worth of Botticelli frescoes—came in at roughly $5 million per episode. Yet only 500,000 people watched each week. And, in a CanCon coup certain to have fiscal conservatives crying gravy, reality production companies in Ontario can get tax credits for 35 per cent of their labour costs under the Ontario Media Development Corporation, which makes Toronto a particularly affordable place to produce reality TV. Plus, the city happens to be home to hundreds of talented, well-trained documentary filmmakers struggling in a shrinking industry. Reality TV is their honey pot—they’re mastering the dark arts of faux-candid footage, commercial-break cliffhangers and tearful exit interviews.

Through means both noble and nefarious, TV watchers have been downloading their favourite shows for years, yet it’s only recently that their numbers have become traceable. Social media analytics companies like Trendrr and Canada’s Seevibes have started measuring the success of shows in terms of social engagement. They calibrate what they call second-screen activity—every tweet, Facebook like and Downton Abbeyoncé Tumblr post—in order to quantify that amorphous alchemy known as buzz. In 2012, Trendrr reported that reality TV and sports were the subjects of half of all online conversations about TV. And of the top 10 most buzzed-about shows, five were reality series: The X-Factor, The Voice, American Idol, Love and Hip Hop: Atlanta (about a clique of rappers’ girlfriends) and The Bad Girls Club (in which seven women of questionable psychological stability are locked in a house together for optimal cat-fighting).

The shift toward social TV is saving an industry in crisis. In the 2010-2011 season, Canadian private broadcasters such as Global, CityTV and CTV made $152 million in advertising revenue. A year later, that number plummeted to $23 million. Advertisers that used to buy up 30-second spots for $30,000 are now moving those dollars into social media campaigns and online video. The networks are scrambling to capture and leverage that online audience. In June, both Bell Media (which owns CTV, MuchMusic, TSN and Discovery Canada) and Shaw (which owns Global, Slice, Showcase, History Canada and Food Network Canada) partnered with Twitter, so that when a brand buys a TV spot, the sponsorship also pops up each time someone tweets a clip of the show.