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'You only get one launch': Why CBC bumped 'Kim's Convenience' to avoid the Jays

Last Updated Oct 5, 2016 at 2:40 pm MDT

Albert Schultz, left to right, Ins Choi, Ivan Fecan and Kevin White, co producers and co-creators of the show "Kim's Convenience" pose during the CBC season preview event in Toronto in a May 26, 2016, file photo. Some last-minute manoeuvring that spared the new CBC comedy series "Kim's Convenience" from going up against the Toronto Blue Jays' American League wild card game means the well-reviewed show will now get a fair crack at winning over TV viewers. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Eduardo Lima

TORONTO – The Toronto Blue Jays weren’t the only winners on Tuesday night as they beat the Baltimore Orioles in the thrilling American League wild-card game.

Some last-minute manoeuvring that spared the new CBC comedy series “Kim’s Convenience” from going up against the extra-innings ball game means the well-reviewed show will now get a fair crack at winning over TV viewers.

After all, as Ivan Fecan — formerly CTV’s powerful CEO and now the hands-on executive producer of the show — knows all too well about television: “You only get one launch.”

CBC’s general manager of programming, Sally Catto, had no way of knowing that the new series would face some incredibly stiff competition when her network put its full promotional muscle behind the launch, papering bus shelters and billboards across Canada and buying radio and TV ads promoting the Oct. 4 premiere date.

But as the Jays — coming off their most-watched season ever on Sportsnet — edged closer to a playoff berth and appeared destined to play in the wild-card game, CBC had a big decision to make: move the new series or face opening opposite the win-or-go-home big game.

It’s hard enough to launch a show with big-name stars, or a spinoff of a well-known movie franchise. It’s even more challenging to try to persuade viewers to sample a new series about a Korean-Canadian family running a convenience store in downtown Toronto.

There are no Eugene Levys or Catherine O’Haras in this cast as there were when “Schitt’s Creek” opened to 1.6 million viewers two seasons ago on CBC, or a Kevin James who helped drive 1.6 million to sample the premiere of “Kevin Can Wait” last month on Global. The star of “Kim’s Convenience” is Paul Sun-Hyung Lee, who plays store owner Mr. Kim. He’s perfect for the role but, at this point, not a star.

CBC did had good reasons to have faith in Mr. Kim. Created by playwright Ins Choi, the series had been nurtured for five years as a stage production through Toronto’s Soulpepper Theatre.

But Fecan could see the Blue Jays freight train heading straight for his series. He knew that “everybody in Toronto is going to be watching the game.” As it turned out, the overnight estimated audience for the game was 4,017,000 viewers.

In his years as a programmer, he was known as a wily — and often ruthless — competitor. When late night talk show host Mike Bullard bolted his network for Global, CTV countered by acquiring “The Daily Show” and slotting it five minutes earlier, which chased Bullard from the air before long. CTV also once blunted CBC’s Winter Olympic ratings by airing a daily hit of then red-hot cable series “The Sopranos.”

Still, switching shows around schedules is no longer his call. That decision rested with Catto.

“As soon as the wild card became a possibility,” says Catto, “we looked at our options.”

Considered was the fact that so many Canadians can “bank” or record a program now on a PVR and watch it later. That wasn’t the case eight years ago when CBC did not move the series premiere of “Being Erica” away from the final game of the world junior hockey championships. The result was 3.7 million tuned into the hockey game, leaving just a little over half a million to sample “Being Erica,” a disappointing number.

Even in the PVR age, conventional wisdom suggests ducking conflicts with major live TV events.

Marc Berman, editor-in-chief of The Programming Insider, says when “American Idol” was at its peak, “everybody ran from it for years.” Rival U.S. networks, he notes, routinely schedule repeats opposite the Oscars, the Grammys or the Super Bowl.

By the middle of last week, Catto began considering moving “Kim’s Convenience,” as well as Tuesday’s season premieres of both the “Rick Mercer Report” and “This Hour Has 22 Minutes.” Talks were held with producers of those two shows and they all agreed the time-sensitive nature of satire meant they should air as scheduled. Also in play was the sixth-season premiere of “Mr. D,” which was ultimately bumped back to Oct 18.

Communications and marketing executive director Bonnie Brownlee and her team were tasked with getting the word out on a possible date change. An idea emerged to have Mr. Kim, or “Appa” as his family call him, put on a Blue Jays uniform and cheer on Toronto’s baseball team. Producer/writers Choi and Kevin White came up with a script. A 30-second spot was shot last Thursday in front of a pop-up version of Kim’s store set up in the atrium of CBC’s broadcast centre.

For his part, Fecan gives full credit to Catto, knowing she spent “much of Sunday night agonizing over whether to pull the trigger or not.”

Word that “Kim’s Convenience” was being bumped back a week went out Monday morning. CBC bought airtime during Tuesday’s wild-card broadcast on Sportsnet for their “Meet Mr. Kim” teaser spot. Best of all, the Jays won — and their American League Division Series with the Texas Rangers will not conflict next Tuesday with the launch of “Kim’s Convenience.”

— Bill Brioux is a freelance TV columnist based in Brampton, Ont.