Lisa LaFlamme’s dismissal highlights Canadian TV’s secretive nature

Lisa LaFlamme poses with her Canadian Screen Award for Best News Anchor, National in Toronto on Aug. 17.George Pimentel/The Canadian Press

When CTV announced last week that it had pushed out its award-winning chief news anchor Lisa LaFlamme, the company said the move was “a business decision” based on “changing viewer habits.”

It seemed an odd rationale, especially if you’d ever tuned into the network and heard the repeated boast that LaFlamme’s show, CTV National News, was “Canada’s most-watched nightly newscast.”

Sure enough, as The Globe reported after her exit, last winter the show regularly pulled in more than one million viewers per night: enough to land it in the weekly top 10 of all English-language TV broadcasts. But beyond that shred of information, it’s very difficult to figure out how much viewing habits are actually changing in this country. That’s because, as the LaFlamme episode has highlighted, Canadians know very little about which TV shows we watch.

Weirdly, the Canadian TV industry seems to like things that way. And things are about to get even weirder.

In other countries, TV ratings are the stuff of news and conversation. Even those who aren’t in the industry – politicians, academics, radio hosts, anyone interested in pop culture – recognize ratings are a meaningful daily indicator of people’s interests and the mood of the populace.

Ratings show Lisa LaFlamme’s CTV newscast one of Canada’s most popular, raising questions over Bell Media’s decision to end contract

Even now, amid the chaos induced by PVRs and streaming services, the “overnights” issued each day by the U.S. ratings agency Nielsen are breaking news. That’s how everyone knew by this past Monday afternoon that the House of the Dragon premiere on Sunday night had drawn 10 million viewers on HBO and HBO Max.

Meanwhile, here in Canada, as is our way with many such matters of public life, TV ratings are treated like bowls of gruel in a Charles Dickens workhouse: ladled out slowly, with the assumption that we’ll be deeply grateful for the meagre portions we’re given.

Every Tuesday, the Canadian media ratings agency Numeris publishes a pair of Top 30 weekly TV lists – one each for the national English-language market and francophone Quebec – measuring the seven-day period that ended a full nine days earlier. So this past Tuesday, Aug. 23, for example, we received the ratings for Aug. 8 to 14, and divined therein that the episode of CTV’s The Amazing Race Canada which had aired 14 days earlier, on Aug. 9, had been that week’s No. 1 show.

Real breaking news, that.

If you’d hoped to get a deeper understanding of what Canadians are watching, forget it: The public gets access to the top 30, and that’s it.

Canadian broadcasters do get overnight ratings information (as do other clients of Numeris, including ad agencies), and they are permitted to share it – which they sometimes do, if they can spin the numbers to tell an upbeat story. But there’s no way to fact-check the cherry-picked data they publish, or put it in context, because everyone else keeps mum. So it’s impossible to get a comprehensive picture of the country’s taste in TV. That’s one reason Canadian TV shows have always had a harder time getting attention: The entertainment industry hype machines that exist in other countries feed off information; in its absence, they break down.

And as domestic broadcasters continue to lose viewership to foreign streaming services such as Netflix and Disney+, which have no use for Numeris, the viewership picture is getting fuzzier.

Earlier this year, Numeris made it even harder to get a handle on how viewership is changing, scrubbing years’ worth of the weekly Top 30 lists from the archives on its website. All that was left were the ratings for the current TV season, making it impossible to track year-to-year changes. So, sure, we could see that CTV’s The Rookie pulled in 1.61 million viewers when it aired on April 10, 2022. But unless you’d already downloaded last year’s ratings, you wouldn’t be able to figure out that was down 12 per cent from the same week in 2021.

Then this week Numeris quietly announced on its website that it will stop publishing even those meagre scraps of information. Beginning with the new TV season, which starts on Monday, the company will no longer make the Top 30 lists available to the public.

For an organization that depends on the willingness of thousands of Canadians to share reams of personal information, Numeris is oddly secretive about revealing anything of its own practices. When I discovered some months ago that the company had removed the archival data, I asked a spokesperson about the rationale for the change.

“The collection of data has never been more important or valuable as it is today,” wrote Karen McDonald, in an e-mail.

When I pointed out in a follow-up e-mail that that seemed like an odd justification to expunge historical information it had already published, she replied, “Numeris is a not-for-profit organization,” adding that its operations are funded by clients. I briefly felt guilty: She’d made it sound as if Numeris were the Red Cross or the Girl Guides of Canada.

But the company serves an industry that is a massively influential for-profit undertaking. And even if it’s in a chaotic swoon, the industry is still raking in billions of dollars in revenue each year.

Still, she was right about one thing: The company was created in the 1940s by the Canadian Association of Broadcasters, and it continues to take its orders from broadcasters. So, if the TV industry doesn’t want anyone to know how much its viewership has shrunk over the past few years, it can order Numeris to throw its old ratings down the memory hole.

This week, I followed up with an e-mail to Numeris asking why it would no longer be making any TV ratings public. The company didn’t respond to my queries by deadline. Which, yeah, seems pretty fitting.

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