Or perhaps they’re not so smart.
This week, Channel 4 starts showing a couple of hot(tish) new(ish) shows from HBO. On Wednesday at 10.00pm it starts showing True Blood, a great vampire show based on novels by Charlaine Harris set in the Deep South. It’s a bit soapy, not a little sexy and but great well-made fun. And it comes from Alan “Six Feet Under” Ball giving it a quality imprimatur.
It’s taken a while to reach free-to-air screens because it’s just completed a first run on pay-TV channel, FX UK. But even they took a while to get their hands on it as the first season began in September last year on HBO in the States, and they didn’t mess about with the second season which has already concluded.
Following True Blood on Four, is Generation Kill – David “The Wire” Simon’s most recent piece of work. This has also taken a while to reach free-to-air shores. Again FX got in there first showing it at the start of this year. It actually aired on HBO in the summer of 2008, and UK DVDs have been available since March of this year.
Now clearly it’s a quality piece of work that deserves the wider audience that Channel 4 can afford it, but their scheduling is clearly questionable. Running it at 11.20pm in the evening so that it doesn’t end until 12.45am on a weeknight is bizarre – if not downright extraordinary. Unless Channel Four thinks their entire audience will be PVRing it rather than watching live, I’m not sure I can really think of a reason why it’s being shown so late.
The BBC two has recently stripped The Wire in a post Newsnight slot, burning through all five series in a matter of months, but that’s a series that first aired in the US in 2002, and has been repeated a large number of times on FX, and been available on DVD for nearly as long. It’s not quite the same.
(What you might notice from all this is that FX picks up a lot of decent shows that only later emerge fully. FX is underservedly buried in the EPG, and I’m sure, if it ever went free-to-air, could easily be as successful as Dave. That won’t happen as it’s part of the Murdoch empire. Let’s face it: while Stuart Murphy might want to make Sky One like HBO, the programming doesn’t entirely back that up. Actually FX is the most HBO-like channel in the UK).
Channel 4 has recently been a bit miffed that the BBC has been buying some of the big new US series. They bent the ear of a few Shadow Cabinet members, and I heard Jeremy Hunt at the Radio Festival explicitly mention The Wire as an example. A poor analogy as it happens. The Wire has surely been available to all broadcasters since 2002. FX was the only channel to pick it up until recently. At the point the BBC started showing it, vast numbers of its potential audience had already seen it on either FX or via DVD box sets. I’m pretty sure that had Channel 4 wanted to buy The Wire in the meantime, they’d had something like seven years to make a move.
In actual fact I think Channel 4 was more annoyed about Harper’s Island which BBC Three is showing. I’m not sure why because it was cancelled.
Indeed More 4 “poached” Curb Your Enthusiasm from BBC Four, and most major US shows – with perhaps the exception of Heroes – are on either Four, Five or Sky One. Flash Forward being perhaps the biggest new hit – although I think we’d better wait a few more episodes before being certain.
At least Five and Sky One have better understandings of sensible scheduling as we head towards the end of the first decade of a new century. In May 1977, Star Wars got a US release. In the UK, we didn’t see it until the end of that year, with most screenings only beginning in 1978, seven months after it had premiered. That’s how things worked in those days. Publicity machinary could move on to Europe, and the same prints – by now pretty beaten up – could be shipped across and reused, certainly in English language markets.
These days of course, blockbusters open globally as close to simultaneously as possible. This means PR has to be coordinated very carefully, and since we’re still largely in an age when cinemas still use prints, there’s a high cost in getting all those screens filled – especially when one multiplex may be using five prints itself.
Film companies will probably claim that this is mostly due to minimising piracy – and that’s true. But piracy is driven because we all know when new blockbusters are coming out. Digital PR starts the second production starts, and possibly earlier. That builds demand. And nobody is prepared to wait until Christmas for a film that opened in the US in May. At least that’s the case for most blockbusters. The one notable exception seems to be Pixar’s films which always seem to wait for the autumn half-time in the UK to open, two or three months after the US release.
What’s this got to do with TV scheduling? Well, like it or not, the same is true of TV. Especially genre fiction. Fans of Fringe, Flash Forward, House, Lost et al know exactly their favourite shows air in the US and want to see them. Not only that, but they can see them if they download them illegally. Indeed, with a credit card registered in the US, you can also download them legally via places such as iTunes.
Last year the BBC finally realised that its audience for Heroes was being damaged by downloads and it started broadcasting soon after its US broadcast. That’s changed this year, and it seems that we’ll have to wait until January. Viewing figures will undoubtedly be hit.
Five, as I mentioned, is taking as little chance as it can with Flash Forward, and just about everything on Sky One is airing within days of its US broadcast.
Police dramas seem to suffer less and CSI ends up being broadcast up to a year after its US broadcast, but there are lot of miffed Mad Men fans annoyed that BBC Four is making them wait until next year.
The long explained reason for these delays in that US networks stretch 22 weeks of programmes from September until May – a period of more than 22 weeks. In other words they take weeks off for sport, Christmas, non-ratings periods and so on. They run repeats from just a few weeks earlier and so on. But that’s not the case with cable shows, and it’s become less the case with any kind of continuing dramas. Series like 24 and Lost don’t work well if the story doesn’t run continuously. So US networks have learnt and schedule accordingly.
But whatever the scheduling habits of US networks, if a UK channel purchases a US TV series, they’d be wise to look at the scheduling pattern that the series’ original broadcaster is following.
That’s even more the case if you’re the co-producer of a TV series – as ITV is with the forthcoming remake of The Prisoner. It’s producing it in conjunction with US cable channel AMC. This is the channel that makes Mad Men and Breaking Bad.
Due to the curious nature of how US TV ratings are calculated, they still have “sweeps” periods three times a year. During most of the year, ratings are calculated nightly in only a number of major markets. But during four months a year, old-school diaries are employed and since these are the most researched periods, it’s the overall numbers generated at these times of years that set the numbers for large amounts of TV advertising traded.
What this means is that during the key “sweeps” month of November, no channel worth its salt wants to be doing anything apart from putting out the best programming it can possibly muster. You know when your favourite sitcom suddenly has a big-name guest star? It almost certainly aired during a sweeps period.
AMC is, perhaps unsurprisingly then, beginning the epiosde run of The Prisoner on 15 November.
ITV is planning to show it during Spring 2010.
Now I’m sure that ITV’s Autumn schedule is already jammed full of great programmes (unless you live in Scotland, obviously), but why on earth are they letting this programme slip into next year?
It’s clear that if there’s one genre of programming that suffers from downloading more than any other it’s SF. Tens of thousands – perhaps hundreds of thousands – of people will have already seen The Prisoner by the time it airs in the UK next Spring. This month’s SFX magazine features The Prisoner on its cover. It’s a hot property, and like it or lump it, whether legal or not, nobody wants to wait.
Kudos to ITV for getting involved in making The Prisoner – and with Ian MacKellen leading the cast they have a fantastic coup. But since they co-made this programme, from the outset, they should have agreed a simultaneous airing with AMC that met both broadcasters’ needs. If you don’t do this, then you’re just saying goodbye to a percentage of your audience.
Although you could perhaps say that ITV doesn’t realise this because it’s not got into this game before. Episodes of Marple aired months ago in the US and won’t have hampered ITV’s ratings for the same episodes. But it’s also realised that it’s smart to show HBO’s Entourage on ITV2 in the same week as its US airing. The reverse is true with BBC America and SyFy getting much closer to the UK with airings of Doctor Who and Torchwood.
Perhaps it’s too late now for ITV this time around. All those extra long episodes of X-Factor and I’m A Celebrity can’t be moved now! But maybe it’s something to consider next time?
Or perhaps they’re not so smart.