News broke last night, in Variety (reported by Radio Free Scaro) that the five Doctor Who specials are finally scheduled to air in America, and that they will premiere on BBC America. There had been some frustration among American Doctor Who fans about the wait for these new episodes, the first of which, "The Next Doctor", aired in the UK on Christmas day and the second of which, "Planet of the Dead" aired on the day before Easter. My friend Chip, of the Two Minute Timelord podcast, has been vocal in his criticism of the failure of the US TV companies to pick up (the first two of) these five specials in a timely fashion, not least because it effectively encourages the fans to access them "by other means". He first commented in Planet of the Delayed and then guested on the Whocast 118 in the first of two programmes they devoted to gathering the assembled hordes of Doctor Who podcasts to get their impressions on the lack of Who in America, continuing with Whocast 119.
Friday, 29 May 2009
I share the frustration of other Doctor Who fans in America. The technology is available to broadcast things in close proximity in different regions, and this is now the norm with films, which often premiere on the same day in the US and the UK. One of the difficulties, I think, with the scheduling and marketing of Doctor Who in America is that the habits and traditions of American TV viewing are quite different from those of British TV viewing. In the UK, there is an old tradition, which people like me grew up with, of Saturday night family viewing, when everyone gathers around the telly. My Saturday evening as a child began with Basil Brush, went on with Doctor Who and continued with The Generation Game and The Two Ronnies. Saturday night was the big night for TV and everyone I knew was watching. I don't know that there has ever been a tradition like this in the US, though it may just be that I am ignorant. One of the great things about new Who is that it recaptured the Saturday night family-viewing slot, with anything between 6 and 10 million viewers, but there is no equivalent family viewing Saturday night slot in the US, and the US cable companies have struggled to know quite where to schedule it. Sci-Fi channel, who have been the first to air each of the recent series, from 2005 to the present, settled on the Friday night geek slot, about 8pm, just before Battlestar Galactica. But this already nudges Doctor Who towards a particular niche audience, people like me, 30-40 something family types who might be in on a Friday night, and it does not target Doctor Who's natural family audience.
There is a related problem when it comes to what they call event TV. The biggest TV audiences in the US now gather for Superbowl Sunday. In contrast to the UK, the major holidays do not provide opportunities for major new TV drama. Whereas in the UK, Christmas Day TV is some of the best TV of the year, in America there is little new programming and only repeats and films. This explains, in part, the problem that Who has found in getting its five "specials" scheduled. There is no special TV Christmas tradition into which a Doctor Who Christmas special like "The Next Doctor" could be slotted. Still more so with Easter. "Planet of the Dead", the second of the specials, got an excellent audience in the UK on the Saturday before Easter, but this kind of scheduling would make no sense in the US where there is no similar tradition of Easter TV.
From my limited experience of American TV in the four years we have lived here, it seems that a lot is invested in gaining momentum. A series is given a particular, regular slot and there are tons of episodes (21 to 24) stretched across the key season time of September to April. It is difficult enough to strecth a Doctor Who series of 13 or 14 episodes into this schedule, but still worse to fit in five "specials" separated by months.
What I think is happening, however, is a steady, slight reawakening of interest in Who in America. SciFi were getting a million or so viewers for the new episodes in series 4, and the series has then popped up on BBC America, and then PBS channels. If the rumours of an American film ever come to anything, I supsect that there is an audience out there who could be interested -- many remember the PBS showings of the classic series in the 1970s and 1980s, and several of the SciFi fans are already enjoying the new series.
There is just one thing I really want to beg from BBC America as they premiere the new specials. Please don't cut them! Last year, Voyage of the Damned, the 2007 Christmas special, was massacred on its BBC America outing, with more than 20 minutes cut, including the Murray Gold song, "Stowaway". SciFi were often the same -- material trimmed here and there in order to squeeze it into an American TV hour. I think viewers won't mind to have scheduling outside of the hour in order that they can see the whole episode.