Stephen Harper’s cameo on ‘Murdoch Mysteries’ rides a Canadian TV drama renaissance

Stephen Harper poses with the cast.Citytv has placed a bet on the July 20 episode of "Murdoch Mysteries," which will feature a cameo appearance from a fan of the show, Stephen Harper.

The prime minister's small part as a bumbling desk sergeant has gained a new round of attention for the fourth season of the series, set amidst the murderous climate of late 1890s Toronto, even if it was hardly a secret when it was filmed last October.

Since then, Harper helped steer the Conservatives to a majority government that seemed elusive at the time. Now, it seems more ironic his hockey fan character doesn't recognize Liberal prime minister Wilfrid Laurier when he walks into the police station.

Canadian drama has never been more popular with TV viewers. The three most popular scripted shows in the country last week were all shot in Toronto.

But the popularity of "Combat Hospital," "Rookie Blue" and "Flashpoint" has a lot to do with the fact the better-viewed U.S. shows are in summer reruns. Each show has also benefitted from the promotion and perception that has come with being broadcast on both sides of the border.

So, can a show that doesn't have the validation of a major U.S. network draw as many eyeballs? Citytv thinks so.

The historical angle has distinguished "Murdoch Mysteries" from the more typical cop and doctor dramas in prime-time, although those shows no sign of waning in popularity.

"Combat Hospital" drew more than 1.5 viewers to Global in its third week of airing on the Canadian network along with ABC. "Rookie Blue" has earned similar numbers under the same arrangement.

The first show to benefit from this wave of deals with the U.S. networks, "Flashpoint," wasn't able to sustain the same simulcast symmetry with CBS. Still, the affirmation helped sustain its viewership in Canada for its fourth season premiere.

As the Harper government has given word the CBC could face a five per cent funding cut next year, the development of popular domestic drama has become less of a priority for the public broadcaster, in favour of unscripted shows like "Battle of the Blades" and "Dragons' Den."

With his appearance on a series produced for Rogers Media-owned Citytv, then, Harper has affirmed his belief private companies should attempt to cash in with homegrown creativity.

But ratings for next week's "Murdoch Mysteries" might also reveal the limitations when Canadian networks are forced to fend for themselves.

(CP Photo)