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August 16, 2009

  • How Doctor Who Taught Me The CBC Is Run By Monkeys
  • imageNever mind the Hockey Night In Canada theme song. Never mind the evisceration of programming on Radio 2 and Radio 1. Never mind even putting Jeopardy on the schedule. All these things may have upset CBC viewers and listeners but I’m here to tell you there’s another thing people should be angry with the CBC about.

    Doctor Who.

    Recently we finally had confirmation of something that many Doctor Who fans knew was in the works for a while: Doctor Who was moving from CBC to Space. First the 2009 specials, then series one through four (including the specials), then series five. With that came the end of one of the best and worst chapters in Doctor Who broadcast history: the show’s tenure on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

    A number of fans online and elsewhere have indicated that they think Space is a ‘better fit’ for Doctor Who and that Space will take ‘better care of Doctor Who’. I think those are the sorts of statements that only a true fan could make—at once passionate and short-sighted. The truth of the matter is Doctor Who’s purchase by Space is a tragedy. Not because of Space and what it has to offer, but because of what Doctor Who loses by leaving CBC.

    It boils down to simple mathematics. Doctor Who, at its peak on CBC, received ratings of around 900,000 viewers in Canada in 2005 (brilliant numbers for non-American, non hockey television broadcast on Canadian TV, by the way). In spite of no promotion and being stuck in the death slot of Fridays at 9:00, Series Four last fall still pulled inbetween 450,000 to just over 700,000 viewers—mostly the higher figure (still extremely solid ratings for Canadian TV—a lot better than most other shows on CBC in fact).

    Space, at its best, gets ratings maybe a third of what Doctor Who gets on a bad day.

    The tragedy is that, while Doctor Who gets a home that cares about it, the reach it once had is forever lost. Doctor Who was once on the public airwaves, and even with zero promotion it was reaching Canadians all over the country. Now it’s on cable. The hardcore fans are thrilled they can find it (and get episodes of some variant of Stargate in the process) but Doctor Who is no longer doing the job it set out to do in Britain and, as the numbers showed, it was still doing in Canada in spite of indifferent scheduling—being a mass-market show that everyone loved and watched.

    How we wound up here shows the disgusting underbelly of broadcasting in Canada these days.

    During the dark days of the NHL lockout in 2005, the new series was the saviour of MotherCorp. The CBC threw a lot of resources at it: tons of promos, a sponsor, and the full weight of the publicity department behind it as seen by TV Guide covers and even print ads. The hard work paid off: the show received 700,000-900,000 viewers—incredible numbers for the CBC, especially at a time when no one was watching the hockey-less channel. And the program was a critical darling as well—John Doyle even named it one of the top television dramas of 2005 in the Globe and Mail

    In a rational world you would therefore think the CBC would have lavished the same money and resources to promote the series further to generate more ad revenue, get more people watching CBC and maybe, as a result, get people watch some of their other, home-grown, shows.

    Unfortunately, the CBC doesn’t live in a rational world.

    From 2006 to 2008, Doctor Who was been treated like the proverbial red-headed stepchild by the CBC with bad scheduling and little promotion, generally ignoring the potential the show has. The sad part about it all was this wasn’t just about Doctor Who. The CBC chronically made bad strategic decisions based on political fiefdoms rather than what’s best for the network.

    Promotion for Doctor Who after 2005 was negligible—Series Four aired immediately after the Olympics and not a single promo for it aired during the endless coverage of the Beijing games. Series Three aired in the summer and not one promo was shown during the prime viewing period known as the Stanley Cup finals.

    And yet, Doctor Who needn’t feel slighted. This is just standard practice. In 2007, Intelligence producer Chris Haddock bitterly complained in the press that there were hardly any promos for the new season of Intelligence in the critical weeks leading up to the fall programming launch. jPod, Jozie H, Torchwood—these too are programs which have received the less-than-full-weight of CBC’s promotional department. And when they do get promos, it’s only a favoured few that get promos about that particular week’s episode—the rest get generic previews.

    But the promotion issue is a trife. What makes all this completely bat-guano crazy to anyone is the politics of it. It seems in the CBC that if a previous regime came up with the idea, the current regime wants nothing to do with it. Doctor Who came to CBC on the watch of Slawko Klymkiw, who was then Director of Programming ,and under subsequent regimes it was completely ignored. Again, lots of series die on the vine because of regime change at the CBC: while Intelligence failed to get any promotions in the weeks leading up to its debut, there was no such problem for The Border.  And while no one is naïve enough to think that the TV industry should be beneath such politics, what is so irksome with a public broadcaster is there’s no accountability for it.

    Of course the thing that made this even crazier is that CBC was a co-producer for the first three series of the new version of Doctor Who. The thing that many never understood was that the co-production deal was effectively an acquisition deal performed before the show was made, thus giving CBC co-producer status. Unlike, say The Tudors, where the CBC put in money, and commented on creative decisions including scripts and casting, the co-pro deal held no real weight. As a result, after Slawko Klymkiw left, no one at CBC cared. Andrew Gurudata related in an article in the Doctor Who fanzine Enlightenment that he couldn’t even find anyone at the CBC who were aware the CBC was credited as a co-producer, much less find anyone willing to come to receive a Constellation award on behalf of the series it allegedly co-produced.

    The irony of all this is that Doctor Who seems to do well in whatever timeslot they give them and frequently does better than its better-promoted shows in the CBC stable. (Back in 2006, around 200,000 viewers switched off CBC after Doctor Who when Rumours premiered in the timeslot following). It obviously has a devoted fanbase and a solid number of viewers that will watch it no matter what unannounced pre-emptions the CBC throw their way. I was told a number of times by CBC staffers and television industry insiders that Doctor Who’s ratings strength—doing twice what some of their homegrown dramas did—was seen as ‘solid schedule filling’ rather than a much needed cash cow for ad revenue and getting people to watch CBC.

    And that’s what boggles my mind. I understand that the CBC regards Doctor Who as a foreign acquisition (even if it was for a number of years technically a co-production), but 2005 proved that particular foreign acquisition could get them lots of viewers, which equals ad revenue and people watching CBC that normally wouldn’t be.

    CBC instead did nothing to capitalize on the success of the show. In 2007, the Corporation had the opportunity to make Doctor Who its prime event viewing for the summer (since really, the only other thing it scheduled was a fourteenth airing of Happy Gilmore) much like the mini-series Taken had been earlier this decade.  Instead, it treated it as schedule filler, not even bothering to air the Christmas special that began the season’s run in prime time.

    The 2008 season was the final insult. In the US, Sci-Fi Channel had done well by airing Doctor Who as close to UK broadcast as possible. In Canada, the CBC network was fenced in by the ratings juggernauts of hockey and the Olympics in 2008 but they still had options. They could have shown Series Four in the spring of 2008 in first-run on Bold! with a repeat viewing this fall on CBC. It might have improved Bold!’s viewership and done something to curb downloaders. But the corporation is bankrupt intellectually and strategically. Instead, let’s put a well-regarded, well-made show the whole family can watch at 9pm on Friday night—a timeslot when no one is watching TV, which killed jPod and half a dozen other Canadian shows. Don’t bother to even air the Christmas Special (even as a midnight movie) even though it could make a great two hour special given it has Kylie Minogue as a guest star.

    And then when a cash-crunch to the budget comes don’t buy any more episodes because—heaven forfend—you should really cut spending on the programming that gets 700,000 viewers without any effort.

    The phrase “run by monkeys” kept coming to mind watching all this happen—again and again.

    The lack of strategic thinking wasn’t just on television. The CBC makes licensing money off merchandise related to Coronation Street and Hockey Night In Canada—given the number of Sunrise Records outlets in Toronto in 2007 selling Doctor Who merchandise, the CBC could have had a sweet deal if they had thought about that. As it was you couldn’t even buy the DVD boxsets at a CBC Shop—and they have the CBC logo on them!

    But this is hardly surprising. The CBC blew opportunity after opportunity. John Barrowman came to Canada to judge How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria during the summer of 2008 and the CBC never thought to interview him or have him do stand-ups promoting Doctor Who. The Doctor Who Information Network attempted to suggest to CBC publicity to consider holding a one-day event with Barrowman and got nowhere.

    Ultimately, the show was ‘just’ an acquisition to the CBC after Slawko Klymkiw left. The sad part is, during the time Klymkiw was in residence, Doctor Who consistently demonstrated it could be so much more than that.

    Here we are today with Doctor Who being broadcast on Space. As a home for Doctor Who it’s a pretty good one, especially considering it will have the full weight of the CTVglobemedia machine behind it. While Doctor Who won’t have the reach it once had, the channel seems to be demonstrating a tremendous commitment to it—in many respects it’s shown more interest in Doctor Who in the past four months than CBC did in the last four years. But if Space wants Doctor Who to succeed they need to do more. They need to realize that they have a rarity in science fiction programming—a show the whole family can watch. (For the love of God, Space, don’t schedule Doctor Who after 9pm. DWIN received a huge number of complaints from parents when CBC did that because it now aired after children’s bedtimes.) They need to realize that this is a show with tremendous good will with a lot of affection from Gen Xers and Gen Yers who remember growing up watching Tom Baker and do something with that as well.

    I’m confident that Space will do that and Doctor Who will be a success for them. What’s heartbreaking is that it could have just as easily been a success for the CBC. That the CBC didn’t do more with such a clearly well-loved brand shows me everything that’s wrong with our public broadcaster today. The CBC has lost its way and will continue to squander golden opportunities so long as they’re run by monkeys.

    a version of this column appeared in the Doctor Who Information Network fanzine, Enlightenment

    Posted by graeme | (1) Comments | Permalink

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    Kari  on  10/05  at  12:41 PM

    Actually, you could buy Doctor Who Series 1 and 2on the CBC Shop online.  However, only an idiot would do so, as it was originally retailing at $124.95.  They’ve since put it on sale for $99.99, but given that both series retail for $62.49 on Amazon.ca, I doubt they push many copies.

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