Written by TV

Channel Scheduling

In a couple of weeks’ time BBC Three is going to be showing the new third season of Orphan Black. The programme comes from BBC America, and although not a massive ratings hit, garners a lot of critical acclaim, particularly for its star Tatiana Maslany.

The show actually aired in the US between April and June this year, which means BBC Three has taken its time in showing the new series. But what’s really odd is its upcoming scheduling. Despite BBC Three commissioning having been wound down to a certain extent in the expectation that the channel would be “online only” a little earlier than it’s now likely to be and leaving schedules fairly full of repeats, BBC Three is seemingly only initially airing the programme in a graveyard slot.

And by that I mean nightly, sometime between 1am and 3am, in double episodes, stripped across a week. In this way, they’ll burn through the entire series in five days.

What this says to me is one of two things:

– BBC Three really doesn’t care about the programme. Although it must cost a relatively minimal amount (Although the machinations of a BBC Worldwide channel, now co-owned by AMC, licencing a show to a BBC national channel are beyond me), even the US version of The Apprentice, which nobody in this country cares about, and is full of hard-to-edit-out blatant product placement, gets better slots on BBC Three than that. And it’s not as though Orphan Black doesn’t have its fans.

or, much likelier,

– BBC Three is trying a bit of an experiment in binge viewing. The BBC introduced “series stacking” or “series catchup” in 2008. For BBC-made programmes, it meant that viewers could watch every of episode of, say, Doctor Who, while it was still on-air. It wasn’t available for every series due to rights restrictions, but it meant that at the end of a series’ run, for a single week, every episode was available to watch in one go. The reason it was only there for a single week was because 7 day iPlayer catch-up prevailed at the time. Last year, the BBC changed this around, and made everything available for 30 days. You had longer to catch-up, but the quid pro quo was that full series stacking was no longer available. Early episodes of a series dropped off the iPlayer as later ones became available. At no point would a full series of more than four weekly episodes be available to binge. Until the BBC amends its rights agreements, this is likely to remain the case. But by stripping double episodes across weekday nights, BBC Three effectively makes the whole new series of Orphan Black available to binge from the Saturday onwards for around 25 days. I suspect that this is what they’re going to try. Promoting watching it via iPlayer and perhaps running the show on a more usual weekly basis at that point.

Binge viewing definitely seems to be the “thing” of the moment, and I’ve found myself doing it more and more. If it’s not House of Cards, Daredevil or Narcos, it’s a box-set on Sky, storing up series on a PVR (Hands up if, like me, you now have two series of Peaky Blinders awaiting a viewing?) or an actual box-set of shiny discs.

As BBC Director General Tony Hall said only last week in a major speech about Charter Renewal:

“And I now want to experiment with the BBC issuing bigger and bolder series all at once on iPlayer, so viewers have the option of ‘binge watching’.”

Could this be another attempt at experimenting with this? The BBC notably introduced Car Share with Peter Kay earlier this year on a similar basis, although that didn’t require a nocturnal airing before it emerged initially as an iPlayer. We’ve seen Sky too play with the idea, carving the final series of Strike Back (A John Whittingdale favourite according to the speech linked below!) into two binge-able parts, as well as making series like Veep and documentary series The Jinx available to binge watch. Everyone is experimenting with the idea.

And while I’m writing about scheduling, it’s worth mentioning the element of new Culture Secretary John Whittingdale’s speech at the RTS Conference that has been widely picked up upon. Yes, the Terms of Trade section of his speech was more important, but it was this that got everyone’s attention:

“It is also important to look at the impact that the BBC has on its commercial rivals and – again to give just one example – whether it is sensible for its main evening news bulletin to go out at the same time as ITV’s.”

What a strange thing to highlight. It’s clearly completely out of remit for a minister to be worrying about how programmes are scheduled, beyond ensuring that PSBs broadcast news within primetime.

He’s talking about the BBC’s Ten O’Clock News going out at the same time as ITV’s News at Ten. Except that five seconds’ worth of searching might remind him that the reason the BBC switched to 10pm was because ITV had essentially vacated the slot in 1999 as it moved to first 11pm before then becoming the “News at When.” It ran entertainment programmes at 10pm first every night of the week, and later just some nights. It was again ITV who moved the programme back to 10pm where it by now competed with the BBC.

As with other scheduling decisions, is the BBC expected to wait to see where ITV deigns to put a programme and then schedule around it? For the most part schedulers do avoid obvious clashes because if you run two programmes aimed at the same audience simultaneously then you’re not going to get as good viewing figures as you might. But it’s a rare person who feels the need to watch both the BBC’s Ten O’Clock News and ITV’s News at Ten. And let’s not forget that Newsnight clashes too!

But all of this becomes ever more irrelevant in an age where we choose ourselves what we’re going to watch at the time of our choosing rather than a scheduler’s. And for news, there are of course multiple 24 hour services available around the clock, as well as numerous online options.

With enormous irony, on the very evening when Whittingdale was speaking, ITV had shifted its main news bulletin to 11pm for no other reason than because they wanted maximise the audience for their Champions’ League highlights at 10pm, a scheduling decision that one imagines will continue for subsequent rounds of the competition.