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What makes a successful TV show? The right values

In the aftermath of the federal election, great acres of punditry have been devoted to analyzing the results achieved by the Conservative Party, the emergence of the NDP as Official Opposition and the failure of the Liberal Party to connect with many Canadian voters.

In this punditry, one running theme is the ability of a political party to align itself with the "values" of voters as a large mass and groups of voters inside that mass. The meaning of "values" is nebulous. On the day I write this, Bob Rae has started his tenure as interim Liberal Leader and in his remarks he said, "The values of the Liberal Party are deeply ingrained in the fabric of our life as a country." The election results would counter that lofty, generalizing assertion.

But, in the main, "values" in this context means key, specific convictions. Darrell Bricker of the polling firm Ipsos Reid recently told The Toronto Star that the typical values of a Stephen Harper Conservative voter are "smaller government, law and order, pro-military, pro-trade, pro-U.S., economically focused and fiscally prudent." What's interesting about this list is the "law and order, pro-military" part and, further, what is not on the list. Issues that resonate with the young - the protection of gays and lesbians, the environment, access to education - are missing.

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The assertion of values as a core component in connecting with voters is essentially a marketing matter. Find something the public connects with instinctively and stick to that. The same principles apply to the selling of television programs. Every hit show reflects one set of values in the viewer's convictions and therefore has deep resonance.

What's interesting in the U.S. network TV world is that different hit shows reflect and celebrate different sets of values. The values of Glee are very different from those of Criminal Minds, House, Grey's Anatomy or The Big Bang Theory.

Glee asserts that celebrating difference is a good thing. The high-school freaks, weirdos, geeks, gays and disabled are the stars. The conformist, difference-hating football team is the epitome of failure. Creativity is good; conformity is boring and equals underachieving.

Such dramas as CSI, Criminal Minds and Law & Order assert that conformity is everything. Non-conformists are the suspects in any crime.

There are also other differences, which assert different sets of values. On Glee, there are many scenes taking place in the school, but also in other settings. Yet you almost never see a car being used. On the crime dramas, everybody has a gas-guzzling car or SUV, and the use of cars is fetishized. Nobody ever, ever mentions the environment.

Even on The Big Bang Theory, which is about young people, a very different set of values from those on Glee is evident. The male characters, all very bright and much educated, are figures of fun. They're endearing, yes, but their multiple university degrees make them ridiculous. Their skills and education make them different, and they're self-conscious about it. Contrast that with Kurt, the openly gay character on Glee, saying, "I'm proud to be different. It's the best thing about me."

What's also interesting is this question: "What values are embodied in Canadian TV shows?" Think of Corner Gas, perhaps the most popular Canadian show in recent years, and ponder its values. In the past, I've speculated that Corner Gas captured a Canada of the mind, encapsulating all the values that we tend to associate with our country, and that the setting, the fictional Dog River, Sask., is Canada as we would like it to be. Not much happens. No fighting, no gung-ho stuff about heroes and guns and mayhem. People swap low-key jokes and get excited about what's on the menu at the local diner. The cops are a bit incompetent and crime is non-existent.

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You have to wonder if Corner Gas would succeed if it was launched today. After all, it's a bit distant from the values that apparently connected voters to the Conservative Party in the recent election. Is Little Mosque on the Prairie in the same category? Maybe it is, reflecting values that are out-of-date, as this country devolves into one that elects a majority Conservative government.

Let's say all those pundits are correct that values-based marketing works. If it can sell a political party, it can sell anything. The future in Canadian TV, then, must be shows about these values: "smaller government, law and order, pro-military, pro-trade, pro-U.S., economically focused and fiscally prudent."


So You Think You Can Dance (Fox, CTV, 8 p.m.) is back. As soon as American Idol ends, the dance show returns. (The Canadian version returns this summer.) The first true sign of summer is not sustained sunshine, warmth and flowers blooming. It's the sound of host Cat Deeley saying "choreography" in her odd but charming Birmingham, England, accent.

Check local listings.

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About the Author
Television critic

John Doyle is The Globe and Mail's television critic. His column appears in the Review section Monday to Thursday and on Saturday. He has been the paper's critic since 2000. More

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