This Week In Doctor Who Special Supplement:
Published: April 19, 2009
An Open Letter To TV Broadcasters Around The World:
How To Neutralize The Effects Of Internet Downloading
For 11 years, I have put out a weekly guide to Doctor Who programming (and various spinoffs thereof) called This Week In Doctor Who. I have tried my hardest to let people know when Doctor Who is being televised or on the radio *anywhere*. To the best of my ability, I have hyped it all. The PBS stations. BBC One. BBC Prime. UKTV Australia. UK Gold. SPACE (1997 to 2000). SPACE (2009-onwards). If I could get the information, I have put it out, as accurately as possible, week by week. I like Doctor Who (classic and modern). I think it deserves to be seen and grow as large an audience as possible in as much of the world as possible. Any broadcaster airing Doctor Who that has ever heard of me ought to think of me as a net positive, because I have tried my hardest to help this show grow, and hence help you.
For every show that has a devoted audience, there are people who make efforts not completely unlike my own. Due South had a page helping people find the syndicated season. Babylon 5, Star Trek spinoffs, Earth: Final Conflict, Hercules, Xena, Cleopatra 2525 - you name it, individuals and groups worked hard trying to keep track of where the shows were airing.
And it seems we are all obsolete. And so are you networks. Because the public is online now, and so are the shows. When a new episode of Doctor Who, or Dollhouse, or House, or American Idol, or Survivor, or Robot Chicken - name the show. People want to talk about the shows they are interested in. They want to see the shows before their friends tell them the outcome. If everyone else has figured out how to communicate with each other, why haven't TV show makers? Why are shows delayed so much in various parts of the world? Never shown? Shown with bits chopped out? We know what you did to that TV show. So the fans take it into their own hands and find their own way to watch the programs they want. And often, that way does not involve you.
Now, if people are watching their TV without you, then you lose revenue and you stop buying the shows. Very bad for you over the loss of revenue. In the long run, bad for the fans when the shows do not get made because the sales dropped off. Minor inconvenience for me because I would not have anything to write about any more - I will survive just fine. Still, I have not seen anyone come up with a workable solution to this situation yet, so here I am.
Networks of the world - you can get most of your audiences back. You can get the eyeballs watching your shows. You can get many of them watching your commercials (at least the better made commercials). It is all a matter of working smarter, not harder. Get people to want to watch the TV shows on your stations.
You do not have to prosecute a single programming pirate, talk to an internet service provider, or do any legal proceeding at all. Indeed - legal proceedings will drive the viewers away faster. Take away someone's ability to watch shows how they want, and that will guarantee that they never watch you. You've given them something much more compelling than a TV drama - the story of what a (expletitve deleted) you are.
So, if you are ready - here are some options that will help you regain your TV audiences. Given my experience with Doctor Who, most of my examples will be related to that show. But they apply perfectly well from N.C.I.S. to The Chaser's War On Everything.
1) Air your shows in a timely manner.
The latest Doctor Who episode - Planet Of The Dead - aired in the UK on Saturday 11 April 2009. *One* international broadcaster so far - SPACE in Canada - has announced that they are airing the episode. They have given it an airdate - Saturday 20 June 2009 at 9:30PM Eastern. 11 week delay, and they have a shot of being the first non-UK based network to air the episode.
If a Doctor Who fan is trying to decide whether to download a show or wait for the broadcast, and have an 11 week delay, the fan is going to download if he/she can. If the fan has to wait one month for broadcast and has the choice, the fan is going to download. One week - the fan is probably going to download if he/she wants to take part in any online discussion/commentary, but there is at least a chance the fan will wait. Most of the audience that Planet Of The Dead will lose from downloading - it has already lost. And a fair percentage of the people who will watch on SPACE, SciFi, ABC Australia, Prime, KBS2, etc will be watching what to them is a repeat. They may watch out of loyalty (I'm watching - it'd be a bit silly to put out my column if I didn't). But the excitement of a fresh episode has been over time. If you hope they will get their friends to tune in to this hot new show - they probably got their friends to catch the download some time earlier.
However, If Doctor Who (or another show) is available on your network faster than it can be downloaded from its home network, then all those fans are going to watch your local version first, because they want to see the show as soon as it is available. Some will be satisfied by seeing it now and will not download. Some of them will download the show anyway because they believe the version in the home country is superior to your broadcast for various reasons, but those people are not going to wait for the download when the show is ready from YOU on the TV or a DVR recording now.
Air an episode of a show on the same day as the original broadcaster's airing, or at least within 24 hours, and it is going to be much easier to watch your local version first. If the show is downloaded after it was already watched on your network, then who cares? You already got the ratings. Your advertisers already got their exposure. Downloading now becomes irrelevant if your version of the show is half-way decent.
The technology to transmit information across the globe instantly has been around for some time. Remember the first Gulf War in 1991, when we all got video back from Baghdad instantly as the war progressed. 1994 - CBS has their mini-series Scarlett (sequel to Gone With The Wind), proudly annoucning that it is airing in dozens of countries at the same time. 15 years ago, a drama program was available all over the world simultaneously. American Idol airs internationally within 24 hours in various countries now, including the UK. The BBC is trying to get the new Torchwood series aired simultaneously in multiple countries, and claims that BBC America will air the episodes the same night as the UK broadcasts. And of course - many movies manage to premiere around the world on the same day with no complications. We have the technology to air stuff around the world at once. Networks just have to do it.
Their are only 4 reasons not to get the episodes of an established show as soon as they become available - 1) the original broadcaster delays when you can air them, 2) there is a price structure involved where delaying a broadcast reduces the cost, 3) another broadcaster in your country gets the show ahead of you, and 4) you dub the show for the local language. As to 1) - home broadcasters need to get a bit less precious on their programming. You don't need to let international networks air your stuff first, but your audience will not care if the rest of the world gets to see their shows at the same time or almost immediately afterwards. Probably be a relief for people who want to talk about shows - everybody is on the same page. You want to sell your shows. And you can work together on the shows you sell to each other to get more same day programming. Point 2) - well, obviously you should pay less if you wait longer. The show is not worth as much now. The die hards have watched it and the casual viewers won't get drawn in by the die hards. You have at least partially poisoned the show's chance in your country. The show will not reach the level of success it could have in your country. Brilliant. If points 3) or 4) apply to you, you can't really air the show as early as other broadcasters. Fair point. You can do some of the other things on the list.
2) Air the shows UNCUT!
2a) We Do Not Care If Shows Begin On The Hour Or Half-Hour. Start and End Whenever You Want ...
2b) ... As Long As We Know The Correct Start And End Times For The Show In Advance
When you read a book, one of the minimal requirements is that all the pages are in the book. If 20 pages in a 400 page book have been ripped out, you are not going to be pleased. You might be surprised - but it is the same with a television show. We notice the music jumps, the scene jumps, the missing explanations. We hear that an episode was 49 minutes in the UK and 43 1/2 minutes on the SciFi Channel. If nothing else, we discover the difference on the DVDs. Word gets out.
The second most common feedback I get with my column is people who have sworn off watching this network or that network because of the edits to fit the show and the desired number of commercials into a specific time slot. Or, worse, edits because a network wants all the episodes to be the length to make programming easier. Result - one group of these disgruntled people downloads every thing they cared about from the channel (not just the show that got edited), another group waits to watch any shows on the channel (not just the show that got edited) until other networks repeat them or DVDs are available.
Now, most people dislike commercials (sorry), but large numbers of commercials are not going to keep most of us from watching shows on your channels. Your problem is the editing.
The SPACE channel in Canada has figured this out. When they aired Series 2 of Torchwood (a show which averaged 50 minutes per episode), they gave it a 65 minute slot so that they could fit in all the ads and the show. They were up front about it - the listings clearly had a 65 minute time slot. They also ran Sea Of Souls, a British drama where the regular episodes were 60 minutes before commercials. 75 minute time slot. They use shorter programs and other methods to get back on the perceived schedule - eventually. No adverse effects for them in the ratings. Fans praise them for airing shows uncut and making sure that unusual time slots are known about.
I do not care if a show airs at 9PM, 9:05PM, or 9:47PM. If I know when it starts and stops (the actual times, not rounded), I am set. If I know I am seeing the whole show - I am happy. If I know I will miss stuff, I am disappointed, and another show that catches my interest that will be uncut can lure me away. Many Doctor Who episodes have sat on the DVR waiting for me to get to them, annoyed that I knew SciFi or BBC America cut stuff out.
And SciFi US - you are among the worst offenders on the start/end time. 4 extra minutes for Battlestar Galactica - fine. But let me know that the next show starts at 11:04PM instead of 11PM and ends at 12:04AM instead of 12AM. Your own website insists on labelling shows on the hour and half hour when frequently it will not be the case. How does the public prove to you that they will watch shows at odd times (and some of your start times are odd) if we do not know when the start times are?
Bonus point - cropping the sides off a 16:9 image is NOT airing the show uncut. Cropping the top and bottom of a 4:3 image to make a 16:9 image is NOT airing the show uncut. The 14:9 compromise crops is just silly, by the way - no thanks. We will accept black bars to fit a 16:9 show in a 4:3 window or a 4:3 show in a 16:9 window. We want you to air the full show so that we will want to see it on your station.
3) Reduce/Remove Graffiti On The Screen
The audience knows what station they are watching. If they did not know, you would need to run on screen crawls and station identification through all the commercial breaks to make sure we do not get lost. You don't. Somehow you think that a Sham Wow commercial that airs on 50 different networks will not confuse me on what channel I am watching.
I have never seen an on-program ad for another show on your network when you did not also air a commercial or mention of the same show during one of the commercial breaks. You only advertise some of your shows, and those shows get advertised - a lot. Even if some breaks get fast forwarded through - we have seen an ad for your show outside the episode time of what we are watching. And if we are having a pleasant experience, we get lulled and are less likely to think to fast forward through a break.
If your network has news responsibilities and has to interrupt programming or run an on-screen scroll for actual breaking news - you will not get many complaints, though it helps if you make sure you air the full show somehow. No news responsibilities - you don't have the excuse.
After editing, the reason people want better copies of shows from sources other than you is that we are trying to watch the show. We do not want animation for other shows taking up ever more of the screen. We definitely do not want sound interrupted for the animation. We do not even want our favorite shows advertised that way during other progamming - those other shows have their fans too who deserve to have a pleasant viewing experience. I cringe when I see the Doctor and Donna covering an important bit of another TV show - someone is watching that graffiti and will now stay away from Doctor Who because of it. Many people will grudgingly tolerate a fairly small logo for your station in a corner, when the logo is translucent so we can see the stuff behind it. Translucent, not solid or multi-colored! That is the limit, and not everyone will meet you that far down the way. Make the show ugly, and those who can download, will. If you followed point one they will have already watched your copy at least, but have a bit of pride in your content. If you have waited to air the show, why would the audience want to see a graffiti covered mess when they already saw the show looking good?
4) Air The Episodes In The Intended Order
This should be easy, but some networks still have problems. If the first episode in a batch of shows is the Christmas episode, you air it - FIRST. Because it is the FIRST episode. An episode that is between two seasons should premiere *between those two seasons*. If you want to premiere it around Christmas, then you follow point 1 and air the show at the same time as the original broadcaster. Repeat at Christmas, sure, but shows are filmed in an intended order. Swap things out because of a guest star or a seasonal reference or because you did not block out enough weeks for the show in the first place - no. In Canada, the 2007 Doctor Who Christmas special "Voyage Of The Damned" has not aired in English to this day. The CBC did not think of it as a necessary part of the show's run. The 2006 Doctor Who Christmas special "The Runaway Bride" was buried at Midnight after the first of the 2007 episodes ran. I was surprised at how few people were upset that CBC will not have the Canadian rights to Who and that SPACE has taken over, but I should not have been. When SPACE gets around to airing Doctor Who, Canadians at least know that the episodes will be in order and uncut.
5) Secondary Networks - Make It Worth Watching Again
Maybe you are BBC America in the US, FOX in South Korea, UKTV in Australia, etc. and you have to let another network air Doctor Who, wait a bit, and finally get to the show yourself. You cannot control the delay from the original broadcast. You cannot control that much of the audience only wants to watch a show once, and they are lost. But you can make your version more attractive. BBC America has a very good feature - Doctor Who episodes air 2 minutes longer on their station than SciFi, so most weeks you are seeing footage you did not see on the first network. Uncut would be better, but between the two networks BBC America is *usually* better - just don't ask me what they do with Christmas specials. If there are bonus features that can air which were not on the first network - see if you can get them.
Now, this is important - do NOT air shorter versions of the episodes than the original broadcaster. That is suicide. Once the public knows that the repeat of a show is missing stuff that was in the first broadcast, it eliminates the reason for anyone to tune in who saw the first broadcast. Always check with the network making the show to ensure that you have the most complete prints possible. Note - if you are buying something from the BBC, they are notorious for selling shortened versions of shows and not pointing it out to you.
Show more, not less. Hype that you have more. It will help.
Television networks have a big advantage over the internet in watching TV shows - watching the shows on TV is easier. Follow these steps. Make your content on a par with the quality that can be downloaded (or better quality), and the easy factor will bring back viewers. Do what you do now, make the quality worse and worse, and the audiences can shrink further and further, till neither you nor I are needed anymore.
This Week In Doctor Who