comedy

The Unlikely Rise of Schitt’s Creek

Photo: PopTV

Schitt’s Creek is a Peak TV rarity: Instead of steadily shrinking over time, the Canadian-produced comedy from co-creators/stars Eugene and Dan Levy has actually gotten bigger with age. Since launching on cable’s Pop network in 2015, the show has seen its linear ratings more than double and its overall audience soar past 3 million viewers. Word of mouth around the series has also exploded, fueled by critical acclaim and a 2017 deal which put past seasons of the show on Netflix. But Schitt’s didn’t just happen overnight. It’s been a slow-rolling success, blowing up at a point in its run when most other shows would just be starting to wind down. Ahead of Wednesday’s season-five premiere on Pop, Vulture called up the Levys, as well as execs at two of their network partners, for the inside story on just how the Rose family blossomed into an American beauty.

TV history is filled with examples of great shows gone too soon because they ended up in the wrong home. Freaks and Geeks, for example, might have lasted more than one season had it had been bought by the young-skewing WB Network instead of NBC. The Levys were well aware of this when they were pitching their idea for Schitt’s Creek to both American and Canadian networks in 2014. The duo envisioned their show as a series that would be “a bit niche, to say the least,” as the younger Levy puts it. (In case you’ve missed out on Schitt’s mania, the show imagines what would happen if a superrich family of socialite royalty — think the Kardashians — suddenly found themselves nearly penniless and living out of a motel room in the middle of nowhere.) While the elder Levy says he and son “kind of knew this was not gonna be a network show,” they took it to some broadcast outlets in both countries anyway. A meeting at one such outlet here — Eugene Levy thinks it was ABC — went well: “[They] seemed to react very positively to it,” he says. “I remember one executive saying, ‘We can’t wait to get our hands on this.’” This did not make Levy happy, however. “I remember hearing that and kinda feeling a little nervous,” he says, alluding to broadcast TV’s historic penchant for micromanaging showrunners. The father and son also pitched some major American cable networks, but with less success. “HBO and Showtime did not respond to it,” Eugene Levy says.

The response was much warmer when the duo took the show to a leading broadcast network in their home country, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. The CBC, like ABC in America, is a somewhat broad-skewing, over-the-air broadcast network. That might have ruled them out as a potential home, given the Levys desire to go somewhere more amenable to a “niche” idea. But right around the time the Levys were pitching Schitt’s Creek, the Canadian TV powerhouse was undergoing a bit of a metamorphosis in its comedy development philosophy. “In 2014, we made a decision to prioritize half-hour, single-camera comedies with a unique point of view and authentic, character-driven storytelling,” says Sally Catto, general manager for programming at CBC. Or, as Eugene Levy puts it, “They were heading in more of a cable direction for their comedies. The timing was right.” The CBC was very interested in Schitt’s Creek, both because they liked its off-center sensibility and because Eugene Levy and co-star Catherine O’Hara are comedic royalty in Canada. The Levys agreed to sell it to the CBC, which underscored its commitment to the program by renewing it for a second season even before the first episode aired.

While the CBC deal covered a big chunk of the production cost, the Levys needed to find international partners for the rest — specifically, an American home. As it turned out, Dan Levy had an in with Brad Schwartz, a fellow Canadian who had recently taken over as the head of entertainment at TV Guide Network, a midsize cable network which was in the process of rebranding itself as Pop. In a previous life, Schwartz had run programming for MTV Canada, where he had hired Levy to host a (very successful) weekly after-show for The Hills. “He and his dad brought it to us and said, ‘We’re doing this show with the CBC. Here’s the concept. Here’s some scripts. We’ve got so much of the budget covered so far. We need X to finish it off,’” Schwartz recalls. At the time, TVGN and its co-owners, CBS Corp. and Lionsgate, were looking for a scripted series to help kick off the 2015 relaunch as Pop TV. Having CBC and Europe’s ITV Studios Global Entertainment as partners allowed the new network a cost-effective way to do just that. “We said yes and off we went,” Schwartz said.

On paper, the nascent Pop network might not have seemed like the most ideal choice for an American home. While the network had a decent subscription base of around 80 million homes in 2015, its ratings as TVGN had been pretty paltry and was mostly known as a home for unscripted shows or reruns of the CBS soap The Young and the Restless. But Eugene Levy says TVGN’s hunger to rebrand itself, along with CBC’s desire to chart a new comedy path, actually made the combination appealing. “It was like two fledgling entities starting to spread their wings together a little bit,” he says. “It seemed to make a lot of sense.”

Indeed, because of how important the show was to their respective goals, CBC and Pop both put a ton of marketing and promotion behind the early 2015 launch of Schitt’s Creek. In Canada, audiences responded immediately, with just under 1.4 million Canadian viewers watching the first two episodes — making it the top-rated comedy the night it premiered. And the show has remained popular ever since. Schitt’s Creek “has ranked as the No. 1 scripted Canadian comedy on prime-time television in Canada since it launched in 2015,” Catto says. But things started more slowly on Pop: Season one was seen by an average audience of 263,000 viewers, including folks who watched via DVR. That wasn’t all that bad by Pop/TVGN standards, but Eugene Levy admits the first couple of years on Pop were “a bit of a struggle” to get noticed. “Not everybody knew how to get Pop,” he says. “So the awareness factor in the States was not, I would say, extremely high. In fact, I wouldn’t say it was high at all. In fact, I would say it was kinda low.” He doesn’t blame the cable network; quite the opposite. “We got a great marketing push from Pop, here in L.A. and New York, getting key billboards and buses and bus shelters,” he says. “They did an excellent job getting the word out. But the problem was people had to be able to find Pop on the dial.”

Behind the scenes, Schwartz and his team had a multipronged plan to woo audiences to Schitt’s Creek. As Levy noted, there was a heavy marketing budget (at least for a network Pop’s size) as well as a relentless effort to get media coverage for the show. The star power of the older Levy and O’Hara certainly helped, allowing the duo to book TV appearances on morning news and late-night talk shows that might otherwise have been out of reach for a show on an upstart cable channel. But because Schitt’s Creek is Pop TV’s signature show, “it gets marketing campaign and press campaign every single year,” Schwartz says. “Most shows, once they hit season four, the network’s not marketing them anymore. They’ve got other priorities. We just keep doubling down on the marketing. Every single year, we’re pushing all of the late-night shows and press outlets and morning shows, booking the talent on Corden and Fallon and Colbert.” From the start, Pop also recognized it needed to let audiences watch the show on as many platforms as possible, and as easily as possible. Instead of limited on-demand streaming of the show to the five most recent episodes — as many cable networks still do — Pop lets its subscribers watch every episode of the series, going back to season one.

Pop’s efforts to promote Schitt’s Creek paid off almost immediately. In 2016, ratings for season two jumped 26 percent (to 331,000 linear viewers) over the show’s freshman outing. While admittedly a small number, it was still double-digit growth at a time when ratings declines have become standard in TV, even for hit shows. And then, in January 2017, came a development Dan Levy calls “game changing”: Schitt’s Creek debuted on Netflix, starting with the first two seasons (and followed by season three in December). The impact on linear ratings was immediate: Season three’s Pop audience surged 28 percent (to 423,000 viewers), while season four’s audience jumped another 11 percent to a best-yet 470,000 weekly viewers. Counting nonlinear viewers, Pop estimates Schitt’s Creek reached 3.3 million viewers on the network’s various platforms last season. While none of these figures include folks who watch the show on Netflix — which as a rule, declines to share how many people watch individual shows on the service — a source at the streamer tells Vulture the series is very much a hit on the company’s various social-media feeds. “We’ve seen a high volume of social conversation on our Netflix channels about the show, and find that the majority of people engaging with our social content are discovering Schitt’s Creek for the first time on Netflix,” the company insider says.

The Levys also think the Netflix bump is undeniable, and goes beyond ratings. “When we got on Netflix, there was a noticeable improvement in awareness of the show,” Eugene Levy says. “I would notice when I’m traveling, at an airport or just on the street, people would [say], ‘Hey, Schitt’s Creek — great show.’ And I was hearing the name Schitt’s Creek more than, ‘Hey, you’ve got two normal feet,’ or American Pie. It really seemed to explode in terms of awareness … and also in terms of how the show’s being written up by the press. I’m feeling like the show is finally getting its nose above the surface of the water.”

Dan Levy says having exposure on both Pop and Netflix has turned out to be “a wonderful alchemy,” allowing the show a much bigger viewership here than if it existed on only one platform. “I definitely think that the combination of airing on Pop early in the new year and then re-airing in Netflix in the fall — it’s kept the conversations happening around the watercoolers in a way,” he says. Because Netflix’s subscriber base includes a number of younger cord-cutting viewers who don’t have a cable subscription (and thus no access to Pop), Levy theorizes a portion of the show’s fan base considers its fall launch on Netflix as a season premiere. “Whenever the season drops [on Netflix], it feels like we’ve just relaunched. We see a lot of social-media activity,” he says. “To have two different premieres in a way, in a single year, is an opportunity that few shows get. As someone who wants the show to be seen by as many people as possible, that kind of opportunity is wild.”

Schitt’s Creek isn’t the first, or only, cable show to experience a boost from Netflix. Most famously, AMC’s Breaking Bad saw its ratings surge a couple years after it hit the streamer in 2011. More recently, the CW’s Riverdale exploded between season one and two after launching on Netflix, while the Greg Berlanti–produced thriller You is suddenly everywhere in the pop culture since moving from Lifetime to a new forever home on Netflix. For Pop TV’s Schwartz, it’s no doubt a bit annoying that a series he and his team have championed for years has gotten so much more attention since landing a second home on Netflix (though it helps that Pop gets a big financial boost from selling the show to the streamer). He even admits that “there are a lot of people out there that think it’s a Netflix show.”

But Schwartz ultimately is fine with losing a bit of brand exclusivity if it means Schitt’s Creek reaches more eyeballs. “We are passionate enough about the show that we go about our jobs every day trying to do what’s best for the show, because what’s best for the show will ultimately be best for Pop,” he says. “Our marketing challenge is to recruit those viewers who have found it on Netflix and who also have cable and get Pop, and try and figure out how to let those people know that, ‘Hey, there’s a new season, it’s on Pop, all four seasons are on demand, you don’t have to wait six months [to see it on Netflix]. You wish everyone was watching it on Pop, but the fact that the show has grown year after year after year after year means our strategy has paid off.”

The Unlikely Rise of Schitt’s Creek