'Little Mosque' eyes hoped-for U.S. broadcast deal as series winds down

Arlene Duncan (from left to right) (Fatima), Neil Crone, (Fred), Debra McGrath (Mayor Popowicz), Derek McGrath (Reverend Magee), Zaib Shaikh (Amaar), Sheila McCarthy (Sarah), Carlo Rota (Yasir), Sitara Hewitt (Rayyan), Aliza Vellani (Layla) and Manoj Sood (Baber) of the hit show Little Mosque on the Prairie pose for a photo. Despite having audiences in 92 countries around the world, executive producer Mary Darling notes the gentle comedy has never been able to secure a broadcaster in the United States, where a lighthearted look at culture clash would arguably have its deepest resonance.THE CANADIAN PRESS/ HO- CBC
Cassandra Szklarski, The Canadian Press
TORONTO - Of all the barriers CBC's groundbreaking sitcom "Little Mosque on the Prairie" has managed to cross with its multifaith humour, one surprising wall remains: the U.S. border.
Despite having audiences in 92 countries around the world, executive producer Mary Darling notes the gentle comedy has never been able to secure a broadcaster in the United States, where a lighthearted look at culture clash would arguably have its deepest resonance.
Now that the gentle comedy is winding down its six-season run, Darling says talks are underway to finally land a U.S. broadcast deal.
"All these conversations are in play and I'm assuming that at some point we'll be able to make a U.S. announcement," says Darling, refusing to say more.
In some ways, little has changed since "Little Mosque" first hit Canadian television with a never-before-seen look at small-town Muslim life on the Prairies, says show creator Zarqa Nawaz.
Nawaz blames "a lot of fear, a lot of paranoia" in the United States for keeping the show off the air there.
"9-11 happened in the United States and there's still a lot of problems because of it in terms of perceptions of Muslims," says Nawaz.
"Look at (President) Barack Obama. I mean, his biggest liability was that people thought he was Muslim, right? I don't think we can underestimate those feelings. They're very, very strong in the United States."
Nawaz points to the recent uproar over the TLC series "All-American Muslim" as a prime example of lingering misconceptions.
The reality show chronicled the lives of five Muslim American families in smalltown Michigan. It found itself at the centre of a religious and political uproar when an evangelical group complained its everyday storylines whitewashed Islamic radicalism.
Major sponsors including the hardware giant Lowe's withdrew their support, spurring a backlash that had celebrity critics Jon Stewart and Russell Simmons lauding the show for challenging stereotypes.
"That is the thinking right now in the United States," Nawaz says of the firestorm, which was followed by the show's cancellation. TLC blamed the cut on low ratings.
"All these mainstream advertisers pulled out of a show about Muslims because it was about normal people."
Darling says the backlash proves "not all Americans are completely insane."
"There is a population in the States that's ready for our show," says Darling, who blamed the inability of "Little Mosque" to get a deal earlier on revenue-conscious TV executives.
"I think the American people are ready for the show and that the gatekeepers at the broadcaster, they're nervous. They're nervous because heads roll very quickly if something's not a success."
"Little Mosque" was an immediate sensation when it debuted on CBC-TV on Jan. 9, 2007. More than two million viewers tuned in to the premiere a smash by Canadian standards, with numbers that rivalled the viewership of star-packed U.S. imports.
At the time, it was hard not to be roused by the novel premise a young big-city lawyer ditches a lucrative profession to move to a small Prairie town and become an imam.
The plot managed to hit all the hot social, political and religious buttons at a time when emotions were still raw from the 9-11 terrorist attacks.
And it debuted just one year after controversial Danish cartoons depicted the Muslim prophet Muhammad as a terrorist, sparking violent protests around the world.
CBC executive vice-president Kirstine Stewart recalls being told she was crazy to go ahead with the series.
"I had a lot of colleagues who, at the time when I was launching 'Little Mosque,' said: 'Are you crazy? You're going to get a jihad on your head by doing this,' " says Stewart, who was head of programming at the time.
Of course when "Little Mosque" finally debuted, its lighthearted look at small town Muslim life proved to be more quirky than provocative, drawing mixed reviews from critics and viewers who nevertheless celebrated its unique point of view.
High profile media coverage from the New York Times, CNN and the BBC put the series in a global spotlight and helped raise much-needed discussion about hurtful stereotypes and societal stigmas.
"It touched so many people on so many different levels, in so many different demographics that you wouldn't have imagined these diverse groups came together because of this one show," says Nawaz.
And the show's impact lingers, says star Zaib Shaikh, who credits the series with helping to broaden the CBC's audience and ease the way for more homegrown crowd-pleasers including "Being Erica," "Republic of Doyle," "Dragons' Den" and "Battle of the Blades."
Stewart says it marked a new era at the public broadcaster, which was hungry for a mainstream hit.
"People kind of felt like we couldn't really do much of anything right," she says of CBC's darker days.
"The old rumour used to be that 'Corner Gas' was turned down by the CBC which I've learned afterwards is an urban myth and never did happen. But people would say, 'Well, if "Corner Gas" was even made by CBC, people still wouldn't watch it. CTV's got it all over CBC in that regard.'"
"Little Mosque" ratings fell sharply after that first episode but the show averaged an impressive 1.2 million viewers through the rest of the season. CBC says viewers dwindled in following years to an average of 469,000 over the current season.
Shaikh says "Little Mosque" has made an impact in the U.S. even without a broadcaster, noting that international acclaim has brought in a curious American following.
"People love the show, they have DVDs of it. People are watching it even if it's not on the airwaves," says Shaikh, who suggests the sitcom encouraged U.S. TV execs to diversify their programming.
"'Aliens in America' came after us, those characters on 'Community' (and) 'Outsourced' came after 'Little Mosque,'" says Shaikh, referring to sitcoms with South Asian actors.
"You see more people of diversity, diverse colours and accents and characteristics and ethnicities ... whether it's on American or Canadian television. But really, 'Little Mosque' was one of the first."
"Little Mosque on the Prairie" kicks off a two-part finale Monday on CBC-TV. The final episode of "Little Mosque" airs April 2.
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Last changed: March 25. 2012 4:00AM