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

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.

``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.''

It isn't just the big cities such as Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver which support PBS. Small towns in the Maritimes and prairie hamlets send in Canadian dollars to pay Americans for the kind of British programming they can't watch elsewhere.

KFME of Fargo, N.D., gets about half of its viewer funding from Manitoba, just over the line. In appreciation it spends money hiring freelance film crews in Winnipeg. Manitoba's biggest city has a population of more than 600,000, about the same as all of North Dakota. KFME even produced and aired a documentary on Winnipeg.

``Our American viewers watched it too,'' said Dennis Falk, the station manager in Fargo. ``Winnipeg is a big tourist attraction for people from North Dakota.'' That documentary, by the way, won an award in Winnipeg for best ``local'' programming.

Vermont ETV found out what a difference the Canadian connection can make. The Burlington-based PBS station had to fire four employees when it was dropped by a Montreal cable company in January of this year. Half of its viewer support had come from Canada.

The change ``has the potential to take $400,000 out of our budget,'' says Ann Curran of Vermont ETV. ``We still don't know how many supporters we will lose.'' Vermont ETV is carried on a secondary cable system, and some Canadians can receive it with their antennas. The cable company dropped the Burlington station because of a legal change which redefined Burlington as a ``distant'' rather than ``local'' station. Continuing to carry it might have cost the cable firm as much as half a million dollars. It switched.

Bad new for Vermont ETV was good news for WCFE of Plattsburg, N.Y., 90 miles south of Montreal. It replaced the Burlington station on the Montreal cable system. The first thing it did was get a post office box just over the border and start saying a few words in French during the on-air fund-raising campaigns. It was already seen in Quebec, but when it went on cable it gained a potential 600,000 extra viewers.

``Our Canadian support was at 50 percent a year ago, but today it is at 65 percent,'' says Diana Hawksby, membership manager of WCFE. Programming changes? ``Movies, movies, movies,'' says Hawksby. Although the Montreal and rural Quebec viewers enjoy British programming, they also like classic American movies, which were on the Burlington station but not the new one. Last April, Plattsburg started an ``Almost Midnight Movie'' series. Money flowed south, or at least as far as the post office box in Lacolle, Quebec, right on the border.

There are parts of Canada which are not reached by American public television, usually because they are far away from the border or don't have cable television. Canada is the most cabled country in the world. Some 90 percent of urban households have cable, and it is available even in small towns. The reason is simple: Canadians want clear pictures of American TV stations.

While Buffalo, N.Y., may have the largest audience, Detroit wins the prize for wide-area coverage. WTVS broadcasts by satellite. It is on the air everywhere from Saskatchewan to the remote Yukon and Northwest Territories.

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