When CBC drama “Diggstown” hit Canadian airwaves in 2019, star Vinessa Antoine became the first Black Canadian woman to lead a prime-time drama on network television. And while plenty of ink was spilled over that stat at the beginning, when the Floyd Kane-created series wraps its fourth and final season on Nov. 16, it does so not with a media bang, but a whimper.
So what happened?
“Diggstown” revolves around a corporate lawyer named Marcie Diggs (Antoine) who begins working at a legal-aid office after her aunt takes her own life. Over its 26-episode run, the drama tackled real inequities that exist in the Canadian legal system as well as sensitive themes including mental health in the Black community, Indian Day Schools, queer rights and queer representation. For the first three seasons, those stories took place in North Preston, Nova Scotia, home to Canada’s largest Black community by population — one that dates back to slavery in Canada.
However, despite mostly positive critical reviews by Canadian press, five Canadian Screen Award nominations, and a Season 3 storyline about the practice of birth alerts that helped manifest real change, the series never caught fire like the public broadcaster’s more notable titles like “Schitt’s Creek” or “Kim’s Convenience.”
Behind-the-scenes, Kane always believed the series needed a larger episode order per season to properly build an audience. Six episodic installments simply weren’t enough to service the large cast of regulars. When CBC increased its Season 3 order to eight episodes, Kane believes the story improved and would up being the best installment they’d done.
When the creative initially began plotting out Season 4, he had hoped to secure another eight-episode order. However, following conversations with Sally Catto, CBC’s general manager for entertainment, factual & sports, and Trish Williams, CBC executive director of scripted content, everyone came to a mutual decision to end the series with six final episodes.
On CBC’s end, the Numeris ratings — Canada’s version of Nielsen — just weren’t there. The first season premiere only raked in 338,000 viewers in the 25-54 demo. By the third season premiere, only 206,000 tuned in. While BET+ had swooped for U.S. streaming rights in 2020, distributor Entertainment One sold the show to Fox in 2021. But “Diggstown” never aired on the network because eOne withdrew from the show. Americans who did catch it did so only on BET+.
“The truth is, I didn’t want to leave this character. I mean, we ended the last season with [Marcie Diggs] lying in a pool of blood. There was no way I was going to end the show like that,” Kane tells Variety. “Would we have done more? As a producer, sure. If they wanted more, I would have made more. But what we did is we made the show more serialized for the final season and moved it to PEI. That umbrella story carried us through to the end of the season.”
That storyline included the introduction of the Clawford family, a fictional crew headed up by a patriarch named Ewan Clawford who communicates through American Sign Language. Looking forward, Kane is interested in a potential spinoff focusing on that family and embracing more serialized elements and stories about the abuses that happen to migrant workers on farms.
Here, Variety speaks with Kane about the potential spinoff, the need for race-based data collection in making a show like “Diggstown,” and why it’s “extremely hard” to fund a show about a Black woman in Canada.
Early on in the show’s run, you said Black women would come up to you and reveal they’d never heard of “Diggstown.” Did that ever improve or was it a continued frustration?
It’s still a thing. It’s not a CBC thing though. First of all, there’s a huge issue with respect to how ratings are accounted for or how television viewing is measured in Canada. It feels extremely unsophisticated. When you look to the south and you see what Nielsen does, Nielsen has reports on every single type of viewer. They know the Top 10 shows Indigenous people are watching, that Black people are watching, that Latino people are watching, that white people are watching. It’s broken down. Numeris doesn’t do that. And frankly, I don’t even know the number of BIPOC families that Numeris has and if it matches the Canadian population. No one does. Why is that a secret, when all four Canadian broadcasters (Bell Media, Rogers Media, Corus Entertainment and CBC) have a seat on the Numeris board?
In order to have a conversation about ratings and who’s watching what, you have to know what ingredients go into the stew. And we don’t know that. So to have any kind of discussion about ratings, especially when it comes to shows with Black leads or BIPOC leads, we just can’t have a sophisticated conversation about it. For whatever reason, the whole process is shrouded in secrecy.
Do you think Canada is ready to have more conversations about race-based data collection?
In my experience, I don’t think so. I’m sure you’ve heard that whole thing about how Canadian network programmers program for Susie in Saskatchewan. If I’m being honest, I don’t think Susie is a woman of color. I don’t know if, at the end of the day, the folks who are responsible for what happens within that measurement company care to have that data.
Do you think having a show like “Diggstown” was some kind of start?
I think “Diggstown” was able to introduce more new writers of color into the system, some of whom are running their own shows. We were able to introduce certain directors who are now directing U.S. primetime dramas. “Diggstown” was the first show that not only had a Black female lead but also a Black showrunner who had ownership in it. I don’t take credit for this, but people saw we could make TV that people would want to watch. So, from that perspective I’m hopeful the industry will be more open and diverse. The tent was never big enough, and now the tent is getting bigger. And that’s a good thing for our industry.
What did the sale to Fox mean to you?
What it meant for me was that our distributor got to recoup their distribution advance and their expenses and make some money. And that’s about it. BET has been a great partner. BET+ really came to bat for us on Season 3 and we were really lucky to have their support financially. I don’t think we could have made Season 3 without it.
Our distributor basically, six weeks before we started official prep, they told us [they were withdrawing from] the show. So my partner, Amos Adetuyi, and I went to BET directly and had to negotiate a deal with them to pay us more than what they had originally purchased the show for. Essentially, my partner and I put our producer fees into the financing of the show in hopes we’d be able to come to a close with BET+ regarding Season 3 of the show. We secured the deal while we were deep in prep. We were probably a week away from shooting.
So that was a huge personal gamble.
Yeah, it was. Here’s the thing. CBC and Sally Catto have always been tremendously supportive of the show. But this was when we were shooting during the height of COVID. Without having that BET money there…we knew it was a risk. We knew that. At worst, we knew what we’d be losing. And at best we knew what we would gain. So we just decided to do it.
Why do you suppose the show didn’t air on Fox?
The show wasn’t made for Fox. It’s a CBC show. We always thought of it as being maybe Lifetime or OWN. But it’s not a network show and we knew that going into it. So, the Fox deal was really about allowing the distributor to get its advance that it put in the first two seasons, recoup that, and recoup expenses and to get commitment on a massive commission. So, at the end of the day, the Fox deal didn’t mean anything for us other than there was a press release [out there saying they’d picked up the show]. The show never aired. We would have preferred to have gotten a U.S. [network] partner — and apparently there were other people in the mix who wanted to buy the show who would have been better partners for the show down there — but we don’t control that.
Heading into Season 3, the two options were essentially cut the budget or don’t make the show?
Those were the two options. But don’t make the show was never on the table. In Season 1 we were making the show for less than $2 million per episode. The typical hourlong drama in Canada is probably closer to $2.5 or $3 million. If you compare that with the U.S., which is about $7 million on the low end…we’re the kind of producers who try to figure it out because we want to make a show.
You cannot take this stuff personally. Even as frustrating as it may feel at the time, you do have to recognize that this is a business decision. The people you’re dealing with aren’t the villains.
What were some of the biggest budget challenges you faced?
In Canada the budgets are so tight. So if there’s anything that’s not “normal” there’s a lot of pushback. I can’t tell you how many conversations we’ve had about Marcie’s hair and how many hairstyles she could have over the season. We don’t shoot in order, so if we have to change our hair midday, that’s a two-hour change depending on what the style is. These are constant conversations. When you go back 10 years and look at most North American TV with Black female leads, typically their hair is straight. Or it’s a wig. What it means is we had to build more time into our day to make it work. And that’s up to the producers to say, “Make it work, because this is what we’re doing.”
Could these characters live on in a future project?
If the CBC said, “Hey, can we do a movie?” Sure. Let’s do it. Let’s check in with Marcie Diggs and see what she’s doing. I think Vinessa has great things in store for her, as do the other cast members. It’s tough though because “Diggstown” was its own vibe. Where we leave her and the team is really fantastic. The end of the show does the show justice, which I’m really proud of.
One of the things I am working on, that won’t be for CBC at the moment, is a soap built around this Clawford family that we’ve introduced. We’re going to be taking that out to market because I think it’s a great world in which to build a show. I love the dynamics that exist within the family we created.
Will ASL be a part of it?
One hundred per cent. One of the things I’ve been wanting to do for a very long time is to have a deaf actor on the show, and have American Sign Language be part of it. I wanted to figure out a way to do it so that it didn’t feel like what you would typically see on TV. I liked the idea of a character who is a very powerful and material person who has a scorched-earth way of dealing with their children. I’ve never seen that before. And I wanted to incorporate that into the show this season.
Is there anything you’d like to add?
In Canada, it is extremely hard to finance a show — I’ll say it for my purposes — with a Black female lead. The reality is, the broadcasters have limited resources. They can’t fully finance everything. You have to go to the international marketplace. And if the Americans don’t want it, then you’re kind of screwed. Because internationally, when you look at the content, the inclusive content, the Black content that is being produced internationally, it’s about the lives of Black Londoners in London [or] Black Italians or immigrants in Italy. It’s not about Black North Americans.
We’d like to believe that, around the world, the industry is opening their arms for Black content made in North America. And it’s simply not true. We can pull a bunch of examples from U.S. studios. But we also know the way that the U.S. studios have always worked in terms of selling their shows internationally, [where they sell shows packaged together]. There’s a sense in the industry that things have changed, because of what happened with George Floyd, with him being murdered. And I don’t think that’s actually true.