Best of the Year: Murdoch Mysteries

Almost retired at 65 (episodes), but now in the prime of life, Shaftesbury's globe-trotting Canadian success story is Playback's TV Show of the Year.

Shaftesbury chairman and CEO Christina Jennings walked out of the Rogers Media offices at 9:30 a.m. one September morning in 2011, having just learnt that the prodco’s flagship drama, Murdoch Mysteries, was being cancelled after its fifth season. Disappointed but resolute, Jennings picked up the phone and called the CBC. Within two days, a deal was done – Murdoch was moving to CBC and the stage was set for one of Canadian TV’s great comebacks.

Now over 130 episodes in, its first Christmas movie on the way, sales into 110 territories globally (distributed by Shaftesbury and ITV), and deals with Netflix Canada, Netflix U.S., Hulu and Acorn TV, Murdoch shows no signs of slowing down.

Produced by Julie Lacey and Stephen Montgomery and executive produced by Jennings, Yannick Bisson, Scott Garvie and Peter Mitchell (who also showruns), Murdoch landed on CBC in fall 2012. Its fifth season drew an average audience of 718,000, which wasn’t bad, but it was the next season where it began to really gain traction.

Season six saw the series leap to an average audience of 1.16 million viewers, followed by a series-high season average of 1.295 million the next year. Season eight saw a slight drop to 1.229 million, but all 18 episodes drew an average audience of more than one million, reaching 23% of Canadians. (All ratings 2+; Numeris data via CBC).

Adapted from a series of detective novels by Canadian author Maureen Jennings (no relation), Shaftesbury first optioned the books 14 years ago. However, the tone of the show in its early incarnations was nearly very different.

William Murdoch’s first appearances on camera came in the form of three MOWs (released in Canada 2004 and 2005, with Peter Outerbridge in the lead role), which were far darker than the show audiences have come to know. In 2008, with the first season only a couple of weeks from going to camera – with Yannick Bisson now cast as Murdoch – Jennings threw the brakes on.

“I don’t want to do a dark, edgy, turn-of-the-century series. I want it to be more accessible, I want it to have more humour,’” Jennings recalls telling the season-one writers. And so the lighter, family-friendly Murdoch was born – a direction Jennings believes has been key to both its audience and international sales success.

“One of the things we learned from Murdoch was that you can take an hour-long show, you can put it on primetime, repeat it in the day time, or access time, or even late night and it works right across the schedule. These shows aren’t being made in the States as much as they used to be, so the international buyers…are looking elsewhere,” she explains.

In terms of its reach and cross-generational appeal, “Murdoch is its own entity,” notes Sally Catto, GM, programming for CBC English television. And nowhere was that more apparent than in November 2014, when a line of more than 1,000 fans stretched around CBC headquarters in Toronto for the celebratory airing of the series’ 100th episode, “Holy Matrimony Murdoch.”

It was that day that both CBC and Shaftesbury realized the full potential of Murdoch‘s fervent fan following, Jennings says, sparking the spring 2015 launch of Murdoch Mysteries: The Infernal Device.

The six-week global interactive event tour saw fans invited to historically themed “crime scenes” in five major cities to help solve a global conspiracy. Each event had on and offline components (including being live-streamed on Periscope), attracting 1,500 people in Toronto and 1,300 in London. And in August 2015, the series held its most popular fan day to date, attracting 2,500 fans and requiring the scheduling of a second date after the first sold out in 15 minutes.

It even pulled off one of the most clever brand integrations on Canadian TV this year, partnering with SickKids for A Merry Murdoch Christmas. The special episode will feature a Children’s Hospital benefit in its storyline, a perfect match with the show’s historic setting and SickKids 140-year-old legacy.

At the heart of all this success is Murdoch‘s feel-good, wide appeal and episodic structure, an increasingly rare commodity in the often darker drama landscape.

“The thing with Murdoch is it doesn’t matter if you’ve missed five episodes or if you just saw a re-run of season three against season eight,” says Jennings. “We all love binge-watching and serialised shows, but sometimes it’s really nice to…just put your feet up and watch TV.”

This article originally appeared in Playback’s Winter 2015-2016 edition