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When Canadians Talk, PBS Stations Listen

US border telecasters get funding from their northern neighbors - who have a say in what ends up on the air

By Fred LanganSpecial to the Christian Science Monitor / October 10, 1990


CANADIAN television viewers are not only tuning to American Public Television; they are chipping in with sizable donations. Public Television stations along the border get as much as 60 percent of their viewer funding from Canadians. Because of that, Canadians have a say in what some Americans are watching on TV.

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``Canadians tend to look to PBS for the best in British programming, both drama and comedy,'' says Bill Nemtin, who runs the Toronto office of WTVS, a Detroit PBS station. He did the same job in Vancouver for KCTS, the Seattle PBS outlet.

There are 11 PBS stations near the Canadian border, from Seattle, Wa., to Orono, Me. One reason they have such a large audience is that 90 percent of Canada's population lives within 100 miles of the United States, a kind of sideways Chile draped along the northern United States.

The Border Station Consortium, a loose association, meets once a year to share information. Part of what they talk about is how to keep Canadian audiences happy, although that appears to be a pretty straightforward job.

Just beam ``Mystery'' and ``Masterpiece Theatre'' north, and Canadians will watch.

``Canadians want `Mystery,''' says Walter Parsons, senior vice-president of KCTS in Seattle. ``We had an annual meeting in Vancouver and invited Ray Marsden [the actor who plays Inspector Dalgliesh in the series] and [mystery writer] P.D. James. We had a hall for 550, and we filled it twice over.''

Victoria, the capital of British Columbia, gives the highest support per capita to PBS, maybe the highest in all of North America. ``It's great when we hold our Canadian meeting in Victoria,'' says Parsons of KCTS. ``People up there just like us so much.''

Canada has its own public television network, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, and many provinces have government-supported stations. But the CBC carries advertising, and, while it airs programs the commercial American networks would never carry, it does have the usual sports and sitcoms, though not game shows.

``The CBC has to serve too many different audiences with its programming,'' says Parsons.

Buffalo, N.Y., has the largest Canadian audience, being across Lake Ontario from Toronto and southwestern Ontario, Canada's largest and richest English-speaking area. WNED estimates - from Nielson ratings - that 1.3-million Canadians tune in to its programs at least once a week.

Of the more than 3,000 PBS viewing areas in the United States, Buffalo ranks 33rd in size of audience using justAmerican viewers. But add in the Canadians, and it jumps to No. 6. Its viewer support is more than 60 percent Canadian. But ``that figure can be misleading,'' warns J. Michael Collins, president of the WNED. ``Only 14 percent of our total income comes from Canada, the rest is from corporate and government donations as well as from American viewers.''

The No. 1 show for Canadian viewers? ``Mystery,'' of course. ``All Creatures Great and Small,'' the program about the British veterinarian is No. 4 on the top-10 list for the Canadian audience.

``Americans watch the same programs, but the top 10 is in a different order,'' says Collins. ``We buy British programming for our Canadian audience, but Americans like it as well.''