Playback’s Specialty Show of the Year: Orphan Black


This story originally appeared in Playback’s Winter 2014 issue. Since the issue was published, Orphan Black has also earned the distinction of being named to TIME Magazine’s “Top 10 TV shows of 2013” list, a notable achievement for a Canadian-made dramatic series. 

Breaking through with primetime dramas has never been more difficult. So when, in 2013, Bell Media’s Space channel found itself with a hit on its hands in Orphan Black, the victory was something to savour.

Produced by Toronto-based Temple Street Productions in association with Space and BBC America, Orphan Black, which has an estimated budget of $24 million, has been the Canadian specialty channel scripted success story of the year. Premiering to an AMA (average minute audience) of 513,000 viewers – a record for an original Space program – the 10-episode series went on to earn an average viewership of 328,000 per episode. In the U.S., more than a million viewers tuned in to the show’s debut on BBC America, according to Nielsen.

The solid ratings earned Orphan Black both a second-season greenlight and an encore run on CTV, bumping up its per-episode viewership to 523,000 and ranking second in its Friday 9 p.m. timeslot against Hawaii Five-O on Global (BBM Canada data from Aug. 16-Oct. 18). On the heels of the renewal, BBC Three in the U.K. also picked up the first season for a September premiere.

Part-mystery, part-thriller, Orphan Black follows a young woman, played by Tatiana Maslany, who discovers that not only is she a clone, but that she and her six duplicates are being hunted down and eliminated by an unknown assassin. Portraying the seven different characters earned Maslany international acclaim and two critics awards in addition to positive reviews in its broadcast markets.

The universality of the storytelling and Maslany’s captivating performance have been successful in reaching a broader audience than Space programming typically garners, notes Corrie Coe, SVP, independent production, Bell Media.

“I think the whole world that Graeme [Manson] and John [Fawcett] created is just so interesting,” says Coe of the series and its co-showrunners, whose previous supernatural-suspense screen credits include Cube (Manson) and Lost Girl (Fawcett). “It’s grounded in reality enough that it’s very relatable for audiences, but it moves at such an incredible pace and there are these mysterious genre elements that work in there, just enough to feel tantalizing, and riveting – but not so much to be unappealing to a broader audience.”

The series’ first-season success is now translating into international sales, bringing it to new audiences ahead of its second-season premiere in 2014. Temple Street co-presidents David Fortier and Ivan Schneeberg note that distributor BBC Worldwide has been “an incredible ally” in sales to the U.K. and Australia, among a number of other territories.

“By the time season two airs in North America, a large part of the world will have experienced season one, building on the social media buzz for the series online,” Fortier says. “So in a way, momentum for season two is in full force and growing each day.”