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TWIDW Supplement - The Howard Da Silva Story

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  • Benjamin F. Elliott
    (The following article was originally published in the August 24, 2001 edition of This Week In Doctor Who - Vol 4, No 34.) The Howard Da Silva Story by
    Message 1 of 2 , Jul 31, 2002
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      (The following article was originally published in the August 24, 2001
      edition of This Week In Doctor Who - Vol 4, No 34.)

      The Howard Da Silva Story
      by Benjamin F. Elliott
      with TJ Lubinsky

      Warner Video is releasing "The Robots Of Death" on DVD in September 2001.
      All the extras from the BBC release are included. But an extra bit of
      mastering has been done, and an additional extra (for North America only)
      will be on the disc - Howard Da Silva's Introductions at the beginning and
      end of the episodes.will be on the "featurette", along with the unedited BBC
      half-hour versions (or as the American Dr. Who syndicators call them
      "mini-series"). The Howard Da Silva segments for Robots Of Death will be
      digitally preserved on the discs.

      Howard Da Silva? Who on Earth is Howard Da Silva?

      Doctor Who fans who did not live in the United States and parts of Canada,
      or didn't discover the series until the late 1980s or later usually have no
      idea who Howard Da Silva is. Personally, I grew up with no knowledge of him.
      As I write this piece in August 2001, I have never seen a complete example
      of his narrative Doctor Who work. The obvious reaction to the news that his
      introductions will be included on the US DVDs is - who is he, and why should
      I care? Almost by definition, an extra is something you can skip completely
      if you don't want to see it, so it's better to have extras for those who
      want to see them. But
      why Howard Da Silva's introductions??

      I spoke with the producer of the Da Silva DVD bonus material on The Robots
      Of Death (TJ Lubinsky) to find out the story behind Howard Da Silva, the
      narrated versions of Doctor Who in the USA, and Da Silva's segments getting
      onto this DVD.

      Well, Howard Da Silva lived from 1909 to 1986. (For perspective, William
      Hartnell was born in 1908.) He was a veteran American character actor and
      voiceover artist. One of those people who you heard all the time but never
      knew the person's name. In 1978, events would cause him to get involved in
      the world of Doctor Who in a small way ...

      In June 1978, the head of the syndication department of Time/Life television
      chose 3 TV shows to syndicate in the US for fall 1978 from a list of
      possibilities. Two of the were BBC productions, per their contract via
      Time/Life Films:
      1) Monty Python
      2) Dave Allen At Large
      3) Great American Dream Machine (non-BBC one)

      And they needed a show with 98 episodes to round out the "syndication strip
      package". Doctor Who (the first 98 Tom Baker episodes) was thrown in the mix
      to fill out the first-run syndication offer.

      Doctor Who was deemed to be a show that could have commercial syndication
      potential for the fall 1978 multi-show package launch.

      The Hand Of Fear was quickly shipped over and "test marketed" as a preview
      story to acquaint potential stations to purchase Doctor Who. It aired in
      movie format in June 1978 on WOR 9 New York, NY (a superstation then
      available in many US cable households) and WPTV 5 West Palm Beach, FL, an
      NBC station. The Hand Of Fear test garnered good ratings, and 92 stations
      (commercial and PBS) had cleared the package by early August for a late
      September/early October launch. But there were problems. The biggies:

      1) Some viewers and many station programmers were confused by the nature of
      the show. Who is this alien? What is that telephone booth? Why did the
      assistant leave at the end of the story? Some of the British characteristics
      apparently
      confused station managers as well.

      2) Episodes were too long. The show's being sold on a cash basis - stations
      have to sell the commercial time themselves. Enough commercial time to
      justify the show's expense, and generate profit revenues.

      3) Where's the first 11 seasons of the show? Where's the backstory for the
      characters? Why are we picking up with Year 12?

      4) It's less than 2 months before the show goes on the air, and not all the
      episodes have been standard converted for editing and distribution for the
      US yet. Satellite systems are not yet commonly available to send episodes to
      stations in 1978, so episodes must be dubbed are shipped to 92 stations on
      bulky 2" quad tape.

      13 Jon Pertwee stories had been syndicated in movie format to PBS stations
      by Time-Life in 1976-1977, and they had seen what happened before when the
      questions had not been resolved (the show performed badly and virtually all
      the stations dropped it). There was no reason to believe that a similar fate
      would not befall Tom Baker now, unless the episodes could be packaged to win
      over the station ad execs and more accessible to an audience unfamiliar with
      the show.

      Given the time constraints of the series launch, several hard choices were
      made:

      To help the show make sense, a "name valued" narrator would be hired to
      introduce and close each episode. To fit in the narration segments, 70's
      style tv syndication packaging elements, and get the shows within commercial
      guidelines circa 1978, all episodes over 23 minutes, 56 seconds long were
      cut as close to to that length as possible.

      Though mostly the cuts were mostly minor incidental establishing shots,
      sometimes dialog was trimmed ... sometimes whole scenes had to be cut (Tom
      Baker trying on outfits in Robot 1), sometimes establishing shots without
      dialogue, sometimes British aspects that they thought would not translate
      well. The effort was made in what time they had to try to keep the episodes
      from being hacked beyond recognition. However, the goal was to "Americanize"
      the episodes for the broadcast potential commercial audience possible.

      Each episode would now begin with opening credits, followed by an "American
      named" narrator teasing key scenes and storylines for the upcoming episode
      (for episode 1). This was designed to get typically short attention mass
      commercial audiences hooked, to stay through the first 2:02 commercial
      break, or in the case of continuing storylines (Episodes 2 and on) recapping
      what the viewer may have missed if they didn't see the previous episode(s).

      After the first commercial break, the original episode would begin (For Part
      1) or continue (Episodes 2 and On).

      There were 2 additional commercial breaks in the middle. When the
      cliffhanger came up, the closing theme would begin, with the Dr.Who logo
      flying down the vortex from the opening sequence and fading to back just
      before revealing the story title.

      After the final internal commercial break, the American narrator would
      preview the following episode, followed by the closing credits. The ending
      credits would also have to be modified to credit the American actor/narrator
      in accordance with U.S. Talent Union guild guidelines.

      The closing preview would hopefully tease the viewer to see the next
      episode. (Keeping them tuned in and coming back from week-to-week) Final
      episodes of the story would not need a full preview of the next episode, so
      less to nothing would have to be cut from those episodes. Robot had extra
      narration through the episodes to explain to viewers the concepts of
      regeneration, the TARDIS, etc. The Sontaran Experiment, Genesis Of The
      Daleks, and Revenge Of The Cybermen had a few
      extra bits of voiceover material after the first commercial break to try to
      clarify the Ark In Space story arc. The break formatting would be
      standardized, 4 internal breaks per episode, with the exception of the
      concluding episode of a story arc or "mini-series", where there would be no
      ending tease added (meaning the storiy-arc's or individual 23 mini-series
      could stand alone - in theory - even out of order). Given the need to
      bicycle tapes and dub copies from station to station, the likelihood of
      episodes getting unsequenced was reduced by not forward promoting the next
      "mini-series" or stoy arc.

      It's August 1978. Less than 2 months till the episodes have to be available
      to 92 stations. Not all the episodes are over here in America to be cut yet.
      Narrations have been put together using notes the BBC provided on the
      stories. (Note the similarities between the description on the back of The
      Robots Of Death DVD and Howard's scripts from 23 years ago).

      One afternoon the people at Time/Life call in Howard Da Silva, who was in
      town promoting stage performances after the movie release of 1776 (Howard
      played Ben Franklin in the famed musical), Under contract and in-session to
      voice some documentaries for Time/Life Films - Howard agreed to voice the
      narrations for all 98 episodes (over 200 voice-overs) in just 4 hours, the
      time remaining on the recording session.

      With no pictures, videos or clips provided or available to work with, or
      review for inspiration..... Just a script. Howard was annoyed that there was
      no pronunciation guide, which could help him at least avoid embarrassing
      gaffes. (Think about it, how many non Dr. Who fans can pronounce Mandragora,
      Sontaran or Dalek - but amazingly, with no coaching he did, perfectly.)

      As it was, in the 98 episodes he recorded "blind" in 4 hours there were only
      two pronounciation goofs - Styggron got pronounced "STI-gron" and Doctor
      Solon became Doctor Salon.

      The afternoon session was the only time Howard Da Silva would ever be
      involved with Doctor Who, apart from one time he and his wife saw "Robot"
      Part 1 on WOR, and thought the excessive narration was..."too much".

      The episodes premiered in fall 1978 on a mixture of commercial and PBS
      stations. The most prominent commercial station was WOR 9 New York, which
      aired 2 episodes every Saturday at 10AM Eastern Time for several years in
      much of the country. (WOR liked to air episodes "off-cycle" - ex: ep 4 of
      one story followed by ep 1 of another, to keep people coming back for more.)
      WPBT 2 in Miami, FL and WGBH 2 in Boston, MA were prominent early PBS
      stations on board with Doctor Who. PBS stations in this period usually ran
      promos for other PBS shows (like Nova) in the breaks provided for
      commercials, though sometimes they would just go to a slide for the :15
      second black spaces included every 7 minutes or so intended for commercial
      insertions. Also, commercial stations were likely to run 1 or 2 episodes a
      week, while PBS stations often ran the show weekdays in the early evening.
      (This was before the Newshour was one hour long, when it was the 30 minute
      McNeil/Lehrer report.)

      It was very common for PBS stations to air commercial shows in the late 70s,
      and still occurs on occasion these days. Star Trek: The Next Generation,
      Little House On The Prairie, St. Elsewhere, and I Spy have aired on
      individual PBS stations in recent years. Commercial shows could and were
      pledged like any other shows.

      Time/Life was not given certain information that might have made it easier
      to air the package. For instance, the BBC didn't tell them the proper
      episode order - they only had alpha codes.

      Time/Life aired the show in production order in lieu of information. Season
      12, for instance, went Robot, The Sontaran Experiment, The Ark In Space,
      Revenge Of The Cybermen, Genesis Of The Daleks - which must have made the
      stories and Howard's extra narrations on the story arc a tad confusing.
      Seasons 13 and 15 also had stories out of order due to the airing order, but
      fortunately there were no story arcs there to confuse. (Except K9 appearing
      in Image Of The Fendahl, then being introduced in The Invisible Enemy. This
      was presumably a misreading of the codes in some manner, since even in
      production order K9's first story comes before any other K9 stories.) Must
      have been a very different way to experience Doctor Who.

      By early 1981, Time/Life noticed that their plan to launch Doctor Who on
      commercial TV was only semi-successful. Howard's narrations and the previews
      had succeeded in helping build a fanbase and commercial base. New viewers,
      with no previous history with the series accepted them as a part of the
      show, with virtually no clue that they were not part of the original
      episodes. But the show only performed so-so on most commercial stations
      airing it. Ratings were below expectations. On the other hand, it was a
      large pledge success, pulling in money hand over fist to PBS stations that
      ran it.

      So the new potential PBS market was exploited by the Time/Life sales staff,
      with an agressive marketing plan to re-launch Tom's first 98 "now with
      "extra material" previously unbroadcast in the U.S. and uninterrupted by
      commercial break "stopdowns and recues". The complete versions of the 98
      Baker episodes were brought over for the use of PBS stations, while the
      versions narrated by Howard Da Silva continued on commercial TV.

      Fans were surprised to suddenly see new footage from episodes they knew very
      well, and shocked to find out that Howard's narrations were not part of the
      original episodes. There was a bit of a negative reaction to the Da Silva
      narrated material, now that uncut installments were available. But with the
      challenge of so many new PBS stations airing the show, the multiple 2" quad
      tapes that were being "bicycled" from station to station nationwide often
      got mixed together. Wackiness would ensue from this. Ex: one PBS station ran
      an uncut Robots Of Death Part 1 & 2, follwed by an odd Da Silva mixed in on
      Part 3, and then an uncut Part 4. Depending on the station's run of the
      episode and how often they got tapes shipped in, the next time they aired
      the story, they may all have been complete or all commercial versions - luck
      of the draw with so many tapes floating around marked with the same episode
      titles.

      In 1982, with the formation of HBO, Time/Life television is forced to
      break-up and dissolves. Many of the employees get together to create a
      partnership and form the new Lionheart Television International to do the
      same job. Lionheart is partly owned by the BBC. It's virtually the same
      staff, in the same roles - all the same offices, and the same videotapes
      were
      puchased with the formation of the new company (Ah-ha, and that's why we
      still see the Time/Life logo on BBC shows to this day).

      The final 3 seasons of Tom Baker are finally brought over. At this time the
      decision is made to offer stories in 4 versions - 1) uncut PBS "mini-series"
      for PBS syndiction, 2) edited for commercial TV or "commercial versions", 3)
      in "movie format", and 4) "commercial movie versions". All of Tom Baker's
      stories are turned into movies at WHYY 12 in Philadelphia, PA. For
      thecommercial edits of the last 3 Baker seasons (which were cut to 21:30
      this time, apparently), Howard (now 73) is not asked back, and an editor in
      a hurry cuts in commercial breaks every 7 minutes with little effort to keep
      the story coherent. The "commercial movie versions" are for stations like
      WGPR in Detroit, a religious broadcaster airing commercials.

      Lionheart focuses more and more on PBS stations, though a handful of
      commercial and religious stations (looking for family programming before the
      days of The Family Channel) stick with the show for years beyond that point.

      By 1986, when Howard Da Silva died and both Peter Davison and Jon Pertwee
      episodes were starting to appear in the US, 300 PBS, commercial, and
      religious stations were airing Doctor Who.

      As the stations almost all became PBS, and more and more stations went to
      movie format as well (because two 1" tapes were cheaper to ship than 4
      reels - meaning the Lionheart sales staff could make price breaks for long
      term packages), the Da Silva tapes fell out of use - other than when too
      many copies of a story were shipped out, and these were the only versions
      available. The last commercial stations stopped airing these tapes in early
      1987.

      Howard's involvement in the show's syndication was largely forgotten,
      overlooked or disliked. The history and timeline for these events has never
      been shared until now. T.J. Lubinsky's unique experience in the U.S.
      syndication and distribution of Doctor Who has been gathered over two
      decades of personal phone interviews with the original sales people,
      editors,
      producers and writers , tv programmers and sales staff for the various
      incarnations of the U.S. syndication offers of "Doctor Who" in the U.S. As a
      PBS fundraising producer, TJ also has the history, experience and advantages
      of being "on the inside looking out" at the business of tv programming,
      production and distribution. Lubinsky jokes "you know, it's
      funny - I can remember being 12 years old with a Beta 1 machine in my living
      room, being frustrated because I didn't know how to edit Howard's narrations
      "out" of my home tapes. It's being exposed to all these different versions
      of the show that taught me about editing and how to edit videotape, and
      ultimately got me my first job at a PBS station because of answering
      phones for - you guessed it - Doctor Who." Ironically, for the past ten
      years it's been my sincere desire to make sure the talents of Howard and the
      78' syndication team aren't forgotten and erased from our American Dr. Who
      history," says Lubinsky.

      In 1987, a purge was done in Lionheart to remove excess prints of the Tom
      Baker stories during a conversion from 2" Quad to 1" videotape... The Da
      Silva narrated versions of the episodes were "lost" from the U.S. library
      since, at that time, there was no commercial syndication sales for the
      series. There was no reason to keep these versions in circulation - they
      just created problems for PBS stations. And the conversion staff did not
      know that these tapes only existed in America. So,
      it's really no one's fault - it was an accident that all these tapes were
      "wiped, wiped out of existance".

      Of the US broadcast masters, only Pyramids Of Mars episode 1 and the 4
      episodes of The Brain Of Morbius still exist in the Da Silva narrated form
      (in those episodes the full US versions of the episodes were wiped by
      mistake).

      The American spin on Doctor Who that won it an audience here was essentially
      destroyed. In a bad bit of irony, most of the poorly edited episodes from
      Tom Baker's last 3 seasons survived the purge while the complete US versions
      of those episodes did not, as fans who've seen Tom Baker's later seasons on
      US TV have discovered in recent years.

      Da Silva's narrations survive these days only on VCR recordings from the
      late 70s/early 80s and on audio tape recordings.

      Howard Da Silva's one rough August afternoon doing voice work may well be
      responsible for Doctor Who succeeding in the USA. His clear voice helped
      explain the more confusing elements of the show to the new US public in a
      time when Doctor Who was a mystery. Fans and commercial advertisers got
      comfortable enough with the episodes he narrated for Time/Life and Lionheart
      to eventually send over the real episodes.

      Howard's work provided the bridge from no Who to real Who, and then he wound
      up forgotten. TJ Lubinsky has spent the last ten years trying to recover the
      missing pieces.

      Until the Robots Of Death US DVD release, at least.

      Unlike TV broadcasts or VHS releases, the DVD format lends itself to having
      both the narrations "featurette" without effecting the real episodes, which
      remain complete and unmolested.

      Since The Robots Of Death was not a story where the broadcast versions of Da
      Silva's segments survived, the Da Silva segments had to be "reconstructed"
      for use on the DVD.

      The producer of this extra DVD segment spoke to Ruth Newald, the original
      editor from 1978, to find out how the editing had been done.

      With audio from a WOR 9, and personal copies of U.S. syndication broadcast
      1" tapes, the segments were reconstructed frame by frame, with efforts to
      match all the effects of the original 1978 broadcast, in spite of the
      difference in format speeds. Slightly more difficult than peeling a potato.
      Several years ago, while working at a PBS station in South Florida that had
      Doctor Who under license, TJ Lubinsky personally and privately funded an
      all-night edit session at a now defunct commercial tv station in Hollywood,
      Florida to use their "grass valley 1600 switcher" - the same switcher Ruith
      Newald used to generate the very distinct wipe patterns used to transition
      the preview effects scene-to-scene back in 1978. This is when TJ first met
      The Da Silva family, who gave him permission to use Howard's voice tracks on
      PBS stations, and encouragement to seek copies of Howard's work, as his
      family wished they had recorded them when they first aired.

      TJ jokingly adds, "the only thing I'm missing in this new restoration is the
      2" tape scratching/banding that always happened when Channel 9 re-started
      the segments after their APEX TECH/STUCKO commercial breaks. Man I'm just
      glad I kept a work reel from those replicated effects to be re-used for the
      DVD restoration.....(sawtooth and venetian blind wipes effect wipes with
      distinct pattern modulation is not easy to come by in todays world of tv).
      These are the exact same patterns Ruth used back in the 70's when she edited
      these the first time around. I even matched the same font used to credit
      'Introduced by Howard DaSilva' at the end of the episode, in exactly the
      same way the original was formatted."

      Beyond the technical problem of reconstructing the segments, there were
      clearance issues. The Robots Of Death DVD's contents had already been
      cleared once. To include the Howard Da Silva bits, clearance had to be
      gotten from Howard's widow and sons (who generously agreed) for his voice
      segments to be rerecorded and reedited for the DVD.

      The people at BBC Video who work on the DVDs are Doctor Who fans, and would
      like to try more features like this in the future. Besides Da Silva, Doctor
      Who's been around in the US for over 20 years, and there are US extra ideas
      available for many stories. But US materials are unlikely to be included in
      the main UK releases due to overseas clearance restrictions. To get the Da
      Silva and other segments on US releases, they will have to go through extra
      mastering costs and work.

      The better the public reaction to having the option of seeing this material
      or not, and the better the DVDs do in sales, the better the chance that
      Warner will spare the money, facilities, resources and time to try US extras
      again, on top of what the Brits provide in extras.

      And obviously, the reverse is true. Bad reaction or bad sales, and North
      American DVD buyers will just get what the UK gets on DVDs, saving the folks
      at Warner a fair amount of time and money.

      The Robots Of Death DVD comes out with The Five Doctors Special Edition DVD
      and the Spearhead From Space DVD in the US and Canada on September 11, 2001.
      The best way we can say thanks to the BBC folks, is to support the DVD sales
      - reserve your copy now :)

      One final comment from TJ Lubinsky:
      "Without naming names, I can share that two individuals at BBC Video really
      deserve the credit for making this project a reality. They are fans, and
      care about the proper presentation of our favorite show. They took a risk in
      trying to make this happen - and I can't thank them enough for the
      opportunity and extra resouces they put into this project. BBCWA home video
      rocks - and their staff, along with Steve Roberts and co. in the U.K. are
      the absolute best."

      Doctor Who is a BBC Trademark. Copyright 2001.
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