Wednesday, April 18, 2007

April Round-Up

It makes a nice change for me to be able to plug someone's work other than my own. But hey, what else are friends for, eh?!

My old mate Ian Abrahams is quietly developing a steady reputation as one of Britain's finest rock biographers. Last year his epic tale of Hawkwind's 30 year astral trip of sex and drugs and rock n roll, Sonic Assassins was a big hit in the Space Rock community. This month, meanwhile, sees the release of Strange Boat, Ian's travelogue of the spiritual journey taken by the Waterboys and, specifically their enigmatic main-man, Mike Scott.

Ian's a good lad - usually! - and a damned fine writer as well as a mate of 20 years standing, so I'm delighted to give Strange Boat a bit of a push (s'cuse the pun). Order it today if your copy of Fisherman's Blues is as scratched-to-buggery as mine:

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Strange-Boat-Mike-Scott-Waterboys/dp/0946719926/ref=sr_1_1/202-7844619-2928665?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1176796522&sr=1-1

Whilst I have y'all stuck in amazon.co.uk, I'd also like to recommend the latest Doctor Who novel by my old friend, partner, brother and guru, Martin Day:

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Doctor-Who-Wooden-Heart-Dr/dp/1846072263/ref=sr_1_1/202-7844619-2928665?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1176796556&sr=1-1

Wooden Heart isn't - quite - as good as The Hollow Men but it's easily the best new Who novel released in a couple of years and it's great to know that Marty's going to cop, hopefully, a big pay-day for this one now that Doctor Who novels are selling in numbers that we used to dream about back in the 90s!

I'm currently reading Stephen Dorril's quite extraordinary biography of Oswald Mosley, Black Shirt. An intense and fantastically written book about a thoroughly repulsive subject matter that, somehow, manages to be both balanced - as a good biography should - and yet still appalled by almost everything that the subject stood for.

For all the disgraceful tonguing that Mosley got from the British press when he died in 1980 - who can forget Not the 9 O'Clock News majestic parody 'Baronet Oswald Ernald Mosley' in the week that the Daily Torygraph, for example, was calling Britain's own would-be dictator a 'compassionate and humane' individual? - never let it be forgotten that this man's ideas of civil liberty ended at the toe-cap of the jackboots that his blackshirt thugs used with such venom on the skulls of anybody who tried to cross them on Cable Street in 1936.

It's important that books like Dorril's be read and understood as a warning to why things like fascism must never, ever be tolerated again:

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Blackshirt-Oswald-Mosley-British-Fascism/dp/0140258213/ref=sr_1_1/202-7844619-2928665?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1176796600&sr=1-1

Also currently flicking through Richard Toye's Lloyd George & Chruchill: Rivals for Greatness (MacMillan), Don Jordan & Michael Walsh's White Cargo: The Forgotten History of Britain's White Slaves in American (Mainstream), Steve Overbury's Guns, Cash and Rock 'n' Roll: The Managers (Mainstream), Patrick Bishop's Bomber Boys (HarperCollins) and David Tossell's Grovel: The Story & Legacy of the Summer of 1976 (Know the Score Books) at least some of which will feature in either the May or June Book Clubs.

The third part of my No-Honestly-it's-a-Buffy-article-farewell-tour (well, technically, the fourth part if you count the Deep Thought piece in the latest TV Zone Special that is, apparently, accruing death threats on certain parts of the Internet as we speak!), my season three overview - The Mayor of Simpleton - appears in the latest issue of Xpose - issue 103. I suppose I'd better get working on the season four piece, that's supposed to be in before the end of the month!

http://www.visimag.com/xpose/x103_display.htm

And finally, just to let you all know that I've signed up to appear as a guest at the Manitoba Comicon convention later in the year.

So, if by any chance you're going to be in Winnipeg on 27th and 28th October ... that'll be nice!

http://www.manitobacomiccon.com/

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

8.2 Million. Is That Any Good?

In keeping with the ratings/audience share/ audience appreciation nature of the last post, here's another one!

I get e-mailed at the Beeb occasionally - well, twice so far if I'm being completely honest! - asking me to explain things like how ratings figures are calculated and what audience share and the AI index are. So, here's a little potted F.A.Q on exactly that subject that I post onto Outpost Gallifrey.

It's mainly related to Doctor Who's figures but the general principles apply to all shows:

The Unofficial Doctor Who Forum Ratings, Audience Share, AI, scheduling and “future of Doctor Who” FAQ. Ver 4.13 [Last update 5 July 2008]

- What is the purpose of this FAQ


To hopefully prevent any “6.9 million? Is that any good?” and “I read in the Sun that Doctor Who is being cancelled, is this true?” type questions.

- What are these “ratings figures”?

An indication of the total number of people who watched a particular television show.

- How are ratings figures calculated?

That’s quite a complex question to answer in just a few short words.

- Do TV companies ask everyone in country what they watched? Or, do all TV sets have a little black box inside them that transmits whatever I’m watching to some Big Brother-type-geezer in a bunker in Whitehall who collates this information for nefarious skulduggery…?

No. And no.

- What’s the deal, then…?

Television ratings are calculated through a process called “random sampling.”

Across the country approximately 11,500 viewers in over 5,100 homes – covering various widespread demographic, social and occupational groups - provide a company called the B.A.R.B (Broadcasters Audience Research Board) with details of which television shows they watch - and when they watch them - via an electronic control box.

Any programme watched in a B.A.R.B household for more than 15 minutes are thus part of the ratings. From the supplied statistics, ratings figures are extrapolated.

- So if there are, say, four people in a household that’s part of the B.A.R.B survey group and the TV is tuned to BBC1 for more than 15 minutes, are all four of those people counted as "viewers" of that particular show?

Those households which are part of the B.A.R.B. survey, as noted, have an electronic control box to store data on what programmes they watch. They also have to feed in the precise number of viewers for each programme that they watch.

Such boxes have a button for each regular viewer within the household – remember, we’re talking about an average of 2.3 people per household. This has to be pressed to register that an individual is watching a particular show. There is also a facility to add any guests who happen to be at the householder’s gaff which requires specific details of the age and gender of such non-regular viewers.

The moral of this story is, therefore, if you find out that someone you know (even vaguely) is part of the B.A.R.B survey, make an excuse to be around their drum at 7pm on a Saturday and make damn certain that they’re tuned to BBC One.

- I heard in 2005 that the episode ‘Rose’ got nine million viewers. But, then I saw later that a figure of over ten million was being widely quoted. Which of these two figures was correct?

They both were.

Initial ratings for all TV shows are announced usually on the morning after an episode has first broadcast. These are called “overnights” in the industry and are, essentially, exactly that; a rough initial estimate figure based on the number of people who said that they watched the show as it was being broadcast.

However, some viewers choose to record TV programmes on video or recordable DVD (or on one of those flashy SkyPlus-box-thingies which I don’t know how to operate) to watch some time later because they are out at the time or they are watching something on another channel or, simply, because they are doing something else entirely.

These are called “time-shift” viewers and are, subsequently, added to the initial overnight figure.

Ten days after it has been broadcast, a Doctor Who episode’s final – consolidated - ratings figure will be given.

During the 2006 season of Doctor Who, for example, on average the overnight figure raised by between six and seven hundred thousand viewers per episode for the final ratings figure thanks to such time-shifts. In 2007 this figure was lower (possibly due to the "safety net" for viewers of a regular Sunday night repeat on BBC3 - see below.) This year we’re back up to 2006 levels again.

It’s also worth pointing out that overnight ratings use a slightly smaller sample of the audience than the consolidated figures. That’s why it is possible for the final ratings figure to – on odd occasions – actually be lower than the overnights.

This rarely happens because any discrepancy is usually cancelled out by time-shifting. However for live events, like the News or the National Lottery, which people are unlikely to record, the final figure can sometime be lower than the overnight figure.

- The five minute breakdowns for last night’s audience appear to suggest that a large section of the audience turned off Doctor Who shortly before it ended. What’s all that about?

Actually, they don’t.

Five minute breakdowns tell you what the average audience was for a show in five minute chunks. You’ll see them presented as following

18:55 - 8.83m
19:00 - 9.05m

That means between 18:55 and 18:59 and 59 seconds an average of 8.83 million people were watching and between 19:00 and 19:04 and 59 seconds an average of 9.05 million were watching.

What often happens with the last five minutes of a Doctor Who episodes is that you’ll get something like

19:05 - 7.90m

Whereby it appears that the show has suddenly lost a million viewers during the final moments.

However, what has actually happened is that the show has finished sometime during a five minute period, not right at the end of it (say 19:07 or 19:08). The audience figure, however, remains an average taken right across the five minutes. Obviously, as soon as Doctor Who ends, some viewers will decide to immediately switch over to another channel (possibly to BBC3 to watch Doctor Who Confidential).

- So, ratings tell you whether an episode of a TV Series was any good?

No, they don’t do that. They do, however, tell you whether it was popular.

A slightly different factor, but an important one nonetheless.

- Last night’s episode of Doctor Who got five/six/seven/eight/nine million viewers. Is that good?

That’s also a hard question to answer in just a sentence – although the likely answer is very much “yes”.

- Why is it a hard question to answer?

Because a raw ratings figure provides no overall context.

Let’s put it this way, if I was to say to you “Show X got an audience of four million last night, is it a hit or a miss?” the answer to that question is wholly dependent on, for example, when in the year it was shown.

Consider the following:

- Four million viewers on a Monday night in the middle of summer is a pretty decent ratings figure.
- Four million viewers at peak time on a Saturday night in the middle of winter would be a ratings disaster.
- Four million viewers on a digital-only channel would be the biggest audience in the history of that particular part of the medium.
- Four million viewers for an episode of Coronation Street would be one of the smallest audiences in the history of that show.

… and so on.

Raw figures can tell you a lot but, sometimes, they can tell you next to nothing.

The best way to work out if a ratings figure is good, bad or any number of shades of grey in between, is to take it in conjunction with the audience share.

- What’s the audience share?

The audience share is the percentage of the total number of viewers watching television at any one time that watched one particular programme.

If, for example, there are only fifteen million people watching TV at a given time then your show is not going to get ten million of them. We live in a multi-channel age, it’s very rare the days for shows to get even 50% of available viewers.

[Note: On Christmas Day 2007, both Doctor Who and EastEnders achieved a 50%+ Audience Shares. Just to illustrate how unusual that is, those was just the fourth and fifth occasions during the entire TV year of 2007 that any show broke the 50% barrier.]

In blunt terms - in relation to drama at least - anything with an audience share at or above 30% is considered a success within the industry.

Doctor Who writer Matt Jones - who has worked extensively within TV production over the last few years - has noted that on any occasion when a programme achieves an audience share of above 30% “champagne corks will be popping in the production office.”

To date, the lowest audience share that any Doctor Who episode has achieved since it returned to the BBC in March 2005 is 25%. Most Doctor Who episode audience shares have been closer to 35 – 40% (and, on one occasion, 50%) which are extraordinary figures for this day and age.

- So, the audience share is more important than the ratings?

No. They’re both important figures. But, when taken together, they tell a much more accurate story than separately.

- So why don’t the BBC put Doctor Who on during the winter, it would surely get higher ratings that way?

It possibly would but that’s not, necessarily the BBC’s main objective.

This is a tricky subject to discuss dispassionately because most people on this forum approach scheduling with a, somewhat faux-naïf emotional head on rather than a more logical approach:

To be blunt, there IS – quite clearly - a finite audience for Doctor Who. 'Voyage of the Damned' have proved that. There are a lot of people out there in audienceland who wouldn't watch Doctor Who if it was on opposite The News in Welsh and all the other TV stations closed down early to make way for it.

The argument for putting the show on during the winter seems to run something like this: "If we're getting eight million in April and May imagine what we'd be getting in January." If we're completely honest, we'd probably still be getting about eight million!

Whilst Doctor Who is one of the most important things in the world to us lot, it's ONLY ONE SHOW to the BBC (albeit, a very successful and profitable one).

The BBC could - in theory - move Doctor Who to January and possibly put another million on the audience. We’ll ignore, for a moment, the utter logistical nightmare of having to change productions dates to accommodate such a move.

But, from the BBC's point of view the equation is a complete no-brainer. They have a show that is doing fantastically well - in a traditionally very-hard-to-do-well-in slot. Do the BBC move Doctor Who to earlier in the year with no obvious replacement for its current slot? Or, do they leave it exactly where it is and hope they get the same result next year?

- Doctor Who is repeated on one of the BBC’s digital channels, is it not?

Twice, in fact, on BBC3. Once on the Sunday immediately after transmission and again the following Friday.

- Are the ratings for those broadcasts counted in with the overnights or the consolidated ratings figures to give one big super-dooper over-all total?

No - although you can be certain the BBC are not unaware of the numbers these repeats are pulling in (particularly the Sunday evening one which in 2007 was getting – in BBC3 terms, at least – amazing figures of over one million per episode).

Internal research carried out by the BBC suggests that an average of between 90 and 95% of viewers for these repeats are “new” viewers as opposed to “repeat” viewers.

So, if you want to do it yourself, just add about 90% of whatever the two repeat figures are to the consolidated figure and you’ve got a rough idea of how many people watched a particular episode in total. That figure is called an episode’s “reach.”

It would appear that many people these days are using the Sunday BBC3 repeat as, in effect, a “safety net” in case they’re out on Saturday and thus miss first transmission.

That’s yet another reason why an overnight ratings figure of, say, 5.4 or 6.2 million for an episode in the middle of a very hot May or June shouldn’t, necessarily, be regarded as disappointing.

Occasional fluctuations in Doctor Who's rating figures during 2006, 2007 and 2008 say far more about exterior factors like the uniquely hot springs Britain experienced in those years than they do about anything related to television itself.

- I just don’t get these excuses about the weather. Surely people know what time the show is on and, regardless of the weather, if they want to watch it they will?

That ignores one basic truism - most of the core audience of Doctor Who are not rabid fanpersons like us lot but rather “normal people” who sometimes have “other things to do” than to make sure they're in the house when a television show starts.

On the other hand, they do – apparently - have alternative of watching TV than "being there at the time" such as the previously mentioned video or DVD recorder or SkyPlus boxes or online, via iPlayer. Or, they are aware that the episode will be repeated twice in the next six days on BBC3 (once, within 26 hours of the first transmission).

It’s a horrible thing for many of us to accept but - it would appear - not everyone's entire life is structured around the broadcast times for Doctor Who.

- Too Sunny, Less Share?

C’est la vie. Babe.

- Why was the first half of this series broadcast before 7 o’clock? What were the BBC playing at?

Ask the BBC. It is, after all, their show. Ultimately, they can broadcast it wherever the hell they want to.

This decision would appear to have been an experiment by the BBC to see if they could kick-off the evening with a big audience and then retain the bulk of it for later – especially given where ITV have scheduled one of their big-hitters, Britain’s Got Talent.

Early indications are that whilst Doctor Who’s audience decreased after a huge opening couple of weeks on overnights, the following show - I’d Do Anything – greatly benefitted from having such a strong lead-in.

A 6:20 start for Doctor Who makes sense to the BBC because it increases the amount of Saturday night that the BBC have a ratings lead over ITV. Having Doctor Who on at seven o’clock is good for Doctor Who but it isn't, necessarily, for the BBC. Or, at least, it isn't as good as having two shows - Doctor Who and whatever follows it - beating their ITV opposition instead of Doctor Who winning its later slot but whatever precedes it getting crushed.

It's about maximising your audience right across the night, not just in one 45 minute slot. So, whilst the Beeb will certainly be glad Doctor Who’s doing so well, they mightn’t be quite as happy overall as we are.

- What about BBC’s iPlayer

This is the first season to be broadcast since the introduction of iPlayer. Although exact figures are only available in fortnightly chunks at present figures for the early episodes of the season indicate an average iPlayer audience of approximately 500,000 per episode.

- Any of the other ratings figures I should keep my eye open for?

The Under 16s – usually in the 1.5 million range. That’s an absolutely key-demographic for Doctor Who. And a very successful one.

- So, what about the AI figure I keep hearing about?

AI stands for “Appreciation Index.”

Again, this is a statistic arrived at through random sampling. What it basically boils down to is a bunch of people who watched a particular show are asked how much they liked it (or, indeed, didn’t like it) and give it marks out of ten accordingly.

GFK NOP Media supply the BBC Audience Research Unit with data measuring audience response to all terrestrial and selected non-terrestrial television programmes. The panel consists of 15,000 adults and a separate panel of 1,500 children.

These responses are particularly useful for TV companies concerning shows from niché markets –shows which do not get massive ratings figures or audience share but which do have a very good reception from those people who watch them. Nature programmes and things like Time Team or Qi are classic examples of the type of shows for whom the Appreciation Index could have been specifically designed.

It is, therefore, perfectly possible for a show to have received what in other circumstances could be considered decidedly average ratings but to still be regarded as “successful” within the industry if their AI figure is consistently good. Many of the American import shows on Sky One and Five, for instance - Lost, 24, Battlestar Galactica, Bones, Prison Break and the various CSI shows – often get AI figures around the 90 mark, albeit with a small, but very dedicated, audience.

It's rather more unusual for a series to be very popular in ratings terms but also to get excellent AI figures, although Doctor Who, Waking the Dead, Spooks and Top Gear are examples of BBC shows which regularly achieve just that.

An AI figure is calculated from responses and is presented as a score out of 100 (not as a percentage as often incorrectly stated).

- What’s a “good” AI figure?

To quote, directly, from The BBC Producers Guide to AI

“The average AI is in the mid 70s, between 73 and 76.”

[Footnote: The average AI score for drama shows is slightly higher - seemingly around 77 or 78. In 2007 I saw an internal BBC memo relating to the first episode of Jekyll having received an AI score of 79 which the memo described as “slightly below average for drama in this slot.” This suggests that the top end of “average” AI for certain drama slots can be as high as 80 and that the science of analysing AI scores – like that of ratings analysis - is evolving all the time.]

“The top ranked programme over the last five years (1999-2004) has been a 92 with the lowest recorded score a 29.”

[Another footnote: Since this was written there have been a couple of cases of shows achieving a score lower than 29 and on 7 October 2007 an episode of The Sopranos on E4 received a mind-boggling AI score of 96. The highest AI score for an episode of Doctor Who currently stands at 94 for a repeat of ‘Utopia’ on BBC3 during early 2008.]

“Any score in excess of 85 is excellent. Any score in excess of 90 is exceptional.

Any programme that falls below 60 has received a poor AI. Any score below 55 is very poor.”

Since Doctor Who returned in March 2005, the lowest recorded overnight AI figure for a first night broadcast of an episode has been and “slightly-below-average-but-still-nowhere-near-bad” 76 (for 'Love and Monsters') and the highest an exceptional 91 (for both ‘The Stolen Earth’ and 'Journey's End').

In 2007, Doctor Who received AI figures consistently in the mid-to-top-80s (it averaged 86.5 across the whole season) a pattern repeated – and, remarkably, slightly improved upon - in 2008.

It has been speculated that these days Doctor Who may be largely the recipient of a “brand vote” from many AI jurists – that is, a standard, default “eight-out-of-ten” score based on their general appreciation of the show as an entity rather than of a particular episode’s worth, per se.

The fact that episodes like ‘Partners in Crime’ and 'The Unicorn And The Wasp' – which (to a small degree) split opinion within fandom - all seemed equally popular with the general public as fan-adored episodes such as ‘Human Nature’ and ‘Blink’ may say far more about Doctor Who fandom than it does about the GP.

- All of this would appear to suggest that Doctor Who is currently doing “very well”?

That would, indeed, seem to be correct.

The BBC have invested a huge amount of time and resources not only in the show itself but also in various spin-offs (Doctor Who Confidential, Torchwood, Sarah Jane Interferes) and in its - very profitable - associated merchandising.

During most weeks when it is broadcast, Doctor Who is in the Top Ten most watched shows on British television – on occasions it has even been in the Top Three – with only the country’s two most popular soap operas Coronation Street and EastEnders gaining higher ratings.

Taking ratings scores for multi-episode shows separately, Doctor Who has only been outside the Top 20 most watched episodes of the week on British TV on a handful of occasions out of its first 50 episodes and never outside the Top 30.

For the last three years between April and July Doctor Who has largely dominated the Saturday TV night schedules, almost every week being the single highest rated show (drama or otherwise) of the night and with the highest audience share, beating such well-regarded series as the BBC’s flagship medical drama Casualty. Apart from one week - in June 2008 when it went head-to-head the final of Britain’s Got Talent - it has comfortably seen off everything that ITV have tried opposite it, including such popular ratings successes as Ant and Dec's Saturday Takeaway and Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?. And, for two Christmas Days running, the hugely popular soap opera Emmerdale.

(When when it was up against Britain's Got Talent, Doctor Who still managed an overnight audience of almost five and a half million and an overnight 25% audience share. Both of which were seen as hugely disappointing by some fans but which, in isolation, would have still be excellent figures for any other drama show in any slot across the week.)

Put it another way, there's approximately 65 million people in the UK. An average Doctor Who episodes gets a reach audience somewhere in the region of eight to nine million viewers (including viewers of the BBC3 repeats and time-shifts). Going off simple mathematics, that's approximately 12% of the population or, one in every eight people.

[Just to boggle your mind even further, the Christmas 2007 episode, ‘Voyage of the Damned’ was watched by approximately 13 million viewers. Or, roughly, one-in-five of the entire population of the UK.]

That Christmas Day 2007 episode of Doctor Who was the second most watched bit of British television in the entire year (beaten only by the episode of EastEnders that immediately followed it).

The ratings-spanking that Doctor Who gave Celebrity Wrestling in April and May 2005 also remains a television industry legend to this day and the cause of much celebration from those of us who feel that drama should always out-perform dumbed-down, crass, lowest-common-denominator reality TV.

Doctor Who, in additional to being a huge commercial success has also been critically acclaimed by numerous reviewers in the popular, the quality and the genre press and has won BAFTA, National Television, Royal Television Society and Hugo awards and several other popular polls.

So, that would appear to be a cautious “yeah, it’s doing all right…”

- So, what’s the deal with Season Five?

That was formally commissioned by the BBC in August 2007 and had already been budgeted. It will be filmed during summer and autumn of 2009 and broadcast in spring 2010.

- Why the year long gap?

That is the source of some considerable debate – among fandom and elsewhere.

Speculation suggests it was designed that way to allow David Tennant the time to fulfil other acting roles and, also, to give the production team a breather. However, in a radio interview in April 2008 David Tennant stated that he was spending six months doing Shakespeare because the production of Doctor Who was taking a break rather than the other way round.

Whatever the reason, this gap will be - partially - filled by a series of three Doctor Who “special” episodes which will be filmed early in 2009 and broadcast later in the year.

Remember, if you’re thinking about getting a stroppy chimney-on over your lack of a full season in 2009 - as though the BBC owes you a personal debt to produce fourteen episodes of Doctor Who every year come what may - on 1 June 2007, the BBC issued a press statement which concluded: "The BBC has a long-term commitment to Doctor Who.”

- What about season Six then?

I’d probably expect an announcement about the formal commissioning of a sixth season sometime during early 2010.

Russell Davies recently noted in the Doctor Who magazine that Doctor Who’s position has never been more secure within the BBC than it is right at this moment and that it will be for a very long time to come.

- What happens now, then?

The Doctor and the Cybermen will return on Christmas Day 2008.
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Remember, if anyone has any queries regarding how TV stats work - particularly if it's related to anything that I feature on my daily Top Telly Tips preview slot on Radio Newcastle - just drop me an email at Keith.Topping@bbc.co.uk and I'll do my best to answer it - on-air if it's a good one!

The Cancellation Game

Here, as promised, is a longer version of an article I recently wrote for TV Zone, which appeared - in edited form - in issue 213. The contents should be fairly self-explanatory.

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Keith Telly Topping looks at the increasingly desperate and ruthless measures being taken by American TV networks over failing shows and how this attitude seems to be spreading to Britain.

In American network television, success and failure are easily-quantifiable equations based on simple factors and principles - never mind art, numbers are beautiful. Popularity is, in almost every case, judged by statistics that would make a mathematician weep. Neilsen ratings figures and age-and-gender demographics dominate a science that has taken on a life of it’s own during the last two decades. Put very simply, if lots of people are watching your show, then everything in the garden is rosy. If they aren’t, you might as well start looking for another job.

For a few weeks in October 2006, it looked as though Aaron Sorkin’s return to TV might be very short-lived indeed. The acclaimed playwright, movie scriptwriter and creator of The West Wing’s new series, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip looked, at the outset, to have everything going for it - including an impressive cast (led by Matthew Perry, Bradley Whitford and Steven Weber) and an impeccable pedigree behind the camera via Sorkin and his collaborator, director Thomas Schlamme. However, Studio 60 had almost became a victim of its own high pre-series expectations. Thirteen million viewers watched the pilot episode, which the media noted with a casual indifference because, frankly, they had expected nothing less. Nine million watched the following week. Now, that was hot news. By episode five, when the ratings had slipped by a further million and a half, many commentators were confidently predicting that NBC would be pulling the series sooner rather than later. (One prominent media website even went so far as to opine that the show had always been likely to fail because it was ‘too clever for it’s own good.’ This being, it would appear, the biggest crime that one can commit in television these days. Heaven forbid that viewers who, let's remember, have an attention span of seven seconds, should actually have to think about what they're watching.) Thankfully, the expected cancellation didn’t happen - although it still might - and, in early November, NBC confirmed that it was perfectly satisfied with the series’ performance to date. And so, seemingly, were their advertisers. A full series of 22 episodes was ordered.

Aside from the show’s undoubted quality, it was always unlikely that Studio 60 would not be given at least a bit of time to develop an audience – after all, the huge song-and-dance that NBC made over getting Sorkin back to the medium in the first place must have meant something. Not that having a name creator automatically guarantees that the network will give you time to get things right. In 2002 Girls Club, a series about interns at a San Francisco law-firm, lasted just two episodes despite being the latest series from David E. Kelley, the creator of such hit shows as LA Law, Ally McBeal and Boston Public. Consider, also, the fates of Joss Whedon’s Firefly and Chris Carter’s Harsh Realms to name but two very dramatic and public failures for a couple of men not previously used to the concept.

Back in 2006, Sorkin’s West Wing collaborator John Wells wasn’t so lucky as his former colleague. Wells’s new series for CBS, Smith, was cancelled after three episodes, despite a cast that including GoodFellas lead Ray Liotta. Smith wasn’t the only high profile victim of the early season purges, either. NBC’s Kidnapped, a show which pre-publicity had suggested was being seriously touted as “the next-Lost” went to the great TV graveyard in the sky after just five episodes has been broadcast.

Fights for survival in TV shows are nothing new, of course. Star Trek spent its entire three-year run under an almost daily threat of cancellation. And, latterly, it’s become an annual shooting match each October to see which of the latest intake of freshman shows will still be alive and kicking the following May. Recent examples of those that didn’t make it beyond Christmas include Point Pleasant, The Lyons Den, Threshold (all three of which probably deserved their early bath), Wonderfalls and The Lone Gunmen (both of which certainly did not) – none of these ever got the ratings to match any decent critical reaction that they received.

Naked ratings figures, however, have to be looked at in some form of exterior context. Studio 60’s average audience of around eight million, for example, is a figure that many shows would kill to get anywhere near. (Let’s put it this way, that’s about twice the number of viewers, on average, who watched such long-running series as Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Angel.) Certain networks demand more of an audience than others. The opposition also has to be taken into account. CBS’s CSI: Miami currently rules the 10pm Monday slot into which Studio 60 had been placed (though why, is the subject for another article entirely!) And there’s also the question of surrounding programming – one of the main reasons why Studio 60 was perceived to be in trouble in the first place was that its lead-in show, Heroes, had been so astonishingly successful so quickly.

In America, such cut-throat shenanigans have been part of the industry-standard process for decades. It’s a way of life for all TV executives and programme makers across the board – you accept that some shows simply aren’t going to build up an audience quickly enough, or to generate the kind of ground-zero buzz that kept, for example, The X-Files or Buffy or 24 going beyond 13 episodes when their initial ratings suggested that they were teetering on the brink of the abyss. That these three shows, in particular, subsequently went on to flourish and survive, nine, seven and (to date) six seasons should, perhaps, suggest to those who make the cancellation decisions that it’s never as black and white an issue as it may appear on paper. But, in common with many aspects of the US media, such exceptions to the rule are normally treated as surprising (though, admittedly welcome) abnormalities within a rigidly fixed framework. The little shows that could, if you will.

'Give it some time to achieve an audience' was always the way in which British television seemed to regard questions of success and failure in ratings terms. Shows – particularly at the publicly funded BBC, and to a lesser extent, Channel 4 – would often be given space to develop an audience even if their initial ratings suggested that such an audience didn’t exist. I’m sure we can all think of shows that began very unpromisingly in terms of popularity and went on become genuine television legends – Men Behaving Badly, Red Dwarf, The Black Adder and, perhaps most notably, Only Fools and Horses being prime examples.

These days, it’s not so simple. Television has become, more than ever, a market-driven commodity. The old rules of the independent companies – who more closely followed the American model of demanding more-or-less instant success – were, in the late 90s imported wholesale into both the BBC and Channel 4’s way of thinking. Sitcoms – previously the absolute province of a “let’s see what happens” culture that ran all the way back to Dad’s Army and The Liver Birds in the 1960s, became one of the most visible and cut-throat area of British telly. Six-episodes-and-you’re-out-of-here.

The last 18 months have seen, in general terms, a huge revival in the BBC’s fortunes. This has, in turn, put pressure on ITV to come up with some new big-hitters of its own. And, inevitably, this has led to demands for instant success or, equally instant, cancellation. The metaphorical crucifixion of that cause celebre of TV ratings failure Celebrity Wrestling on the sacrificial alter of Doctor Who two summers ago was loudly celebrated by those of us who prefer thoughtful dramatic TV with a bit of soul as opposed to crass, unoriginal, lowest-common-denominator reality television, of course. But it also showed a willingness by British TV companies to be just as ruthless just as quickly as their American counterparts when it comes to failure.

Celebrity Wrestling had one job and one job only; to claw some of the - at the time - seven million viewers watching Doctor Who each week away from the TARDIS and into the ring for a rumble. It is alleged that ITV spent twice as much advertising the show than the BBC had on advertising Doctor Who's return. In four episodes, Celebrity Wrestling saw it’s own ratings drop from an initial three million by over a third. Next stop, oblivion for it, and all those involved in it. (Just what is Kate Lawler doing for gainful employment to justify her existence these days?)

In 2006, ITV seemed to get even more desperate. Shows like Fat Families, The Real Good Life and Bad Lads Army were pulled after just a handful of episodes when they couldn’t find an audience quickly enough. This trend reached it’s nadir in July when the Philip Schofield gameshow vehicle It’s Now or Never achieved embarrassingly low ratings of 1.7 million for it’s debut episode and the rest of series was quietly cancelled. It's Now or Never was, ironically, one of the first shows commissioned by Paul Jackson, ITV's newly installed Director of Entertainment and Comedy, who was appointed in January with a brief to make ITV competitive again – particularly on Saturday nights.

In a recent episode of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, Jordan McDeere, NBS’s President and Aaron Sorkin’s beacon of integrity, honesty and professionalism in the sick and venal world of the US TV industry faces a crisis. A rival, the manipulative and sly Hallie Gallaway, is appointed as Vice President of Alternative Programming (or, as Jordan suggests, “Head of Illiterate Programming”).

Hallie’s first programme pitch is All You Need is Love, a sickly-sweet reality format which sounds, uncannily, like a faux variant on It’s Now or Never. Needless to say, the network executives led by the money-is-my-only-concern Chairman Jack Rudolph love it, as do the advertisers (‘what are the odds?’ asks Jordan sarcastically).

Art imitating life? Just what are the odds?

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

April Skies

So, you may possibly be asking yer good selves - if you're, you know, really sad - "what's Big Keith been up to since his last update?"

Well, not a lot if truth be told.

A lot of work on the Charmed DVD mag, a few articles for Visual Imagination, one Book Club and several telly preview slots on the radio, getting all excited by the new seasons of Doctor Who and Life on Mars, lots of reading ... you know, the usual.

Anyway, Monday night say the latest Book Club show. I featured the following:

David Peace - The Damned United (Faber)
Iain Banks - The Steep Approach to Garbadale (Little/Brown)
Nick Kent - The Dark Stuff: Selected Writings on Rock (Faber)
Patricia Cornwall - Black Notice (Time Warner)
Justin Langer/Steve Harmison - Ashes Frontline (Green Umbrella)
Jon Savage - Teenage: The Creation of Youth (Random House)

Also reviewed recently:
Marybeth Hamilton - In Search of the Blues (Jonathan Cape)
Emily McGuire - The Gospel According to Luke (Serpent's Tail)
Ricky Tomlinson - Reading, My Arse (Sphere)
Terrance Dicks - Made of Steel (BBC Books)
Anthony Day - Will Climate Change Your Life? (Ecademy Press)
Rodric Braithwaite - Moscow 1941 (Profile Books)
Ali Dizael and Tim Phillips - Not One of Us (Serpent's Tail)
Paul Trynka - Iggy Pop: Open Up and Bleed (Sphere)
Mark Lynas - Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet (4th Estate)
Richard Toye - Lloyd George & Chruchill: Rivals for Greatness (MacMillan)
Kenneth O Morgan - Michael Foot: A Life (Harper/Collins)
Emily McGuire - Taming the Beast (Serpent's Tail)
Brian King - The Lying Ape (Icon Books)

To catch the latest show, go to
http://www.bbc.co.uk/tyne/raw/index.shtml

and click on Book Club and you should be able to access it directly.

Someone was asking me recently what I'd been previewing TV-wise on Julia's show so I thought this would be an ideal opportunity to get all Asperger's-like and list the contents of the last few shows:

(Remember, if ever you want to catch any of the regular TV previews I do, they're broadcast between approximately 2:10 and 2:40pm (GMT) each Thursday. If you miss a show it will be available on the Listen Again feature on Radio Newcastle's Homepage for approximately 24 hours after the show ends - so, basically, that's from about 4pm (GMT) Thursday till 4pm Friday. Simply go to http://www.bbc.co.uk/tyne/local_radio/ click "Listen Again", scroll down to The Julia Hankin Show and I'm usually on about one hour and ten minutes in!)

These are the TV shows that I've previewed so far in 2007:

W/c 18th January 2007
Dancing on Ice
Time Time
Waking the Dead.
Five Days
Shameless
Should I Really Give Up Flying.

W/c 25th January 2007
Five Days
Timewatch: Hadrian’s Wall
The Comedy Map of Britain
Top Gear
You Don’t Know You’re Born
Party Animals

W/c 1st February 2007
Bonkers
Benidorm
Lillies
Britain’s Worst Weather
Rough Diamond
Dragon’s Den

W/c 8th February 2007
Ugly Betty
Primeval
The British Academy Film Awards
The Verdict
Life on Mars
The Abbey
Hotel Babylon

W/c 1st March 2007
Reichenbach Falls
Time Team Special
Lewis
The Sopranos
Life on Mars
Lemur Island
Top Gear

W/c 8th March 2007
The Great Global Warming Swindle
Castaway
Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?
Fallen Angel
Kidnapped
Desperate Housewives

W/c 15th March 2007
Comic Relief
Harry Hill’s TV Burp
Jeremy Clarkson: The Greatest Raid of All Time
Mobile
Life on Mars
CSI

W/c 22nd March 2007
The Hairy Bikers Ride Again
The Yellow House
A Class Apart
The Culture Show
The Royal
Being Ten

W/c 29th March 2007
House
Shark
Coronation Street
Doctor Who
Mobile
City Lights

Finally, a quick update on my work for Visual Imagination. I mentioned that the latest issue of Xposé (issue 102) was already out, featuring "season two on my, seemingly never-ending, seven year journey through the history and complexities of Buffy."

Well, issue 103 - featuring, by logical extension, my season three overview - will be available from 11 April. And, whilst I know I promised that, this series of articles apart, I had said everything I was ever going to say about the show, Anthony the Wiley Editor managed to get me to write a couple of pieces for TV Zone's Special #75 including what may become a rather controversial 'Deep Thought' piece on where, exactly, the Buffy legacy goes from here. (I also wrote the "Top 12 Buffy Moments" article for that issue.)

Meanwhile, the last couple of issues of TV Zone (213 + 214) have featured another Deep Thought article which I was really rather proud of and which I may put up an unedited version here at some stage called The Cancellation Game) and various reviews of Studio 60, Life on Mars and some DVDs (the first season box-set of Strangers I particularly recommend). For details of how to obtain these titles - and others - check out Visual Imagination's webpage at this address:

http://www.visimag.com/index.htm