The Doctor Who Column: The Doc's greatest foes - soaps and talent shows
|FEATURES - TV|
If you thought the Time Wars were bad, try Doctor Who's long involvement in the Ratings Wars...
Hold on. There's something missing. Normally, at this time of year there's some TV programme that's supposed to be heading back to the small screen. Oh, that's right – Doctor Who.
Alas, for Who fans, the wait's a bit longer, with rumours of six episodes surfacing in Autumn or Winter. But hey, never mind, you can console yourself with the much-touted weapon in the BBC's ratings armoury called The Voice. In which Lord Thomas of Jones and co attempt to find the country's best singing voice, a quest that hasn't been heard of since last December when Little Mix squealed and sobbed the water out of their bodies in The X Factor. But hold on, apparently there's a twist – in The Voice, the judges sit in these great big Star Trek swivel chairs so that they can't see the singer, and only whizz round if they like what they hear. Clever, eh? And furthermore, the singer gets to choose the mentor themselves. Still, these twists of genius can't hide the fact that The Voice is yet another self-aggrandising talent show. And what's worse, it seems to be there solely to compete against a rival self-aggrandising talent show.
The thing that gets me about all this is the fact that both The Voice and Britain's Got Talent seem to be no more than ping pong balls in a petty scheduling/ratings war between the Beeb and ITV. Britain's Got Talent has done its best to up the ante by bringing back Simon Cowell (played by Mr Black from the Kamp Krusty episode of The Simpsons) and bringing on board David Walliams and Alesha Dixon, who's only just apparently found out that Strictly Come Dancing isn't exactly down wiv da kidz. But the latest crazy rumour that I've heard is that there's some sort of ban on mentioning The Voice on any ITV programmes. Whether or not this is true I don't know – could be difficult if Aussie music legend John Farnham performs his classic You're The Voice on This Morning (presumably they'll bleep out the offending words if he does – eat your heart out Ramsay). But all this deliberate opposing scheduling is crazy – and more akin to the squabbling antics of Dennis The Menace and Walter The Softy.
Doctor Who itself has often found itself at the heart of ratings and scheduling issues. In fact, it's hard to work out where scheduling ends and ratings begin, given that they're two fiendish but necessary evils – call them a modern Mr Oak and Mr Quill if you like. Doctor Who, like any programme, needs the right time and place in order to bring in the requisite viewing figures in order to survive. It's always been this way, but in the last 25 years or so, TV programming has become more brutal than ever before. It seems as if a new programme has just one shot to get it right, and if it under-performs in the ratings, then it's axed with all the bland but brutal efficiency of a Cowell dismissal. So that Doctor Who has managed to stick around in such an unforgiving TV climate is something of a modern miracle.
"Low ratings have, from time to time, dogged Doctor Who. The problem is though, is that there is no set reason as to why"
But there's still that little element of fear that probably lurks around some fans' minds – especially when the doom merchants start crowing about how the latest episode has shed X amount of viewers from the previous week. Low ratings have, from time to time, dogged Doctor Who. The problem is though, is that there is no set reason as to why. Take the dropping figures at the end of Season Six, as Troughton's Doctor got ready to spin off into the ether. The War Games is one of the most epic Who adventures you could wish for, but it's easy to understand why casual viewers didn't want to stick around for the long haul – and ponder on the fact that it went out in the Summer of 69 (feel free to hum the Bryan Adams dirge at this point if you wish) when the hot weather kept families from their tellies.
Also, technically, Doctor Who had been on TV on the trot for over a year and a half. The repeat of The Evil Of The Daleks had bridged the gap between Seasons Five and Six, which meant that give or take a couple of weeks' off for sport, Doctor Who had been on the TV from September 1967 to June 1969, so maybe audiences had grown a little weary.
The following season posed a similar problem – Inferno 's a highly regarded story for fans, but at the time, viewing figures were tepid rather than scorching, hovering around the five and a half million mark. Whether this is down to hot 1970 June weather or viewers unsure what to make of gritty storytelling is a dilemma that can be pondered on till the Primords come home – but personally, I'd guess that the latter factor played its part. Now while I'm a fan of gritty drama, it's not everyone's cup of tea, and the viewing figures for the next few Pertwee season finales would bear this out – Seasons Eight to Eleven were more accessible with the right blend of humour and scares, and even in the hot June months, the likes of The Daemons and The Green Death were scoring ratings of between seven and nine million, which isn't bad, considering that the kids wanted to play outside in the warm weather.
The most notorious example of failing ratings is of course, in the mid to late 1980s. Low ratings were a mooted reason for the 1985 hiatus, which was complete rubbish, given that the viewing figures were still respectable (around six to seven million). But then poor scheduling meant that the Trial Of A Time Lord ratings were near disastrous. Surrounding Doctor Who with Roland Rat was never going to inspire confidence, but then ITV was hitting back with its big blockbuster juggernaut, The A-Team. It seemed that ITV had struck the mainstream market in 1986 with The A-Team, the relatively new Blind Date and the ever-present 3-2-1. But The A-Team was the real killer blow, much like Buck Rogers In The 25th Century had been the killer blow for Season 18's episodes. Stick a hyped-up, talked about TV programme opposite Doctor Who, and the Time Lord loses. I pity the fool who wants to watch Who.
"Many say that the bad scheduling was a deliberate move on the part of disgruntled BBC controllers who wanted to find a way of getting rid of the programme. And it's hard to disagree with this opinion"
Worse was to come in the late 1980s, when the Beeb inexplicably switched Doctor Who over to Monday nights, and therefore against a far more formidable opponent than Mr T. Good old Coronation Street, that veritable institution that's seemingly been around since the days of Henry VIII – it was here that the battle was finally lost by Doctor Who in the big ratings war. In theory, it could have been overcome, given that the last season of Blake's 7 performed very well opposite the Street in 1981. But sadly, Doctor Who's reputation had taken a battering by 1987, with the word was that the show was only designed for four-eyed geeks. The pattern was repeated in 1989, except that Who went out against Coronation Street on Wednesdays, and with even worse viewing figures – a crying shame, given the quality of the Season 26 scripts.
Many say that the bad scheduling was a deliberate move on the part of disgruntled BBC controllers who wanted to find a way of getting rid of the programme. And it's hard to disagree with this opinion. If the BBC controllers thought that Doctor Who was still worth investing in, then they would have found a great weekend slot, marketed it more, and pushed the show into the mainstream rather than the dwindling cult ranks. A wasted opportunity, if ever there was one.
It's also difficult to work out the exact formula for good ratings though. The mid-to-late 1970s are the years in which everything went right for Doctor Who. Moving Doctor Who back into the Autumn schedules was the first good move – and in fact a lot of the success of this era can be attributed to the then BBC controller, a chap called Bryan Cowgill, who had somehow worked out the right mix of what audiences wanted. Your average Saturday night line-up in the mid-to-late 1970s boasted the likes of Doctor Who, Basil Brush, The Generation Game, The Two Ronnies, The Duchess Of Duke Street and Parkinson – something for everyone from the kids through to the grannies. It was that variety which kept audiences coming back to the Beeb on Saturday nights between 1974 and 1979. Include Doctor Who in a strong, eclectic line-up, and this guarantees healthy ratings.
Mind you, the formula had somehow been found again when Doctor Who was first revitalised for the 21st century. In a way, the fact that Doctor Who managed to pull in such good viewing figures is more of an accomplishment than ever before. For one thing, putting Doctor Who out in Spring time is an odd choice, given that it gives way to the Summer months, and potentially low viewing figures. There are countless channels to choose from. Also factor in other distractions such as football tournaments and Eurovision.
But still, Doctor Who had managed to bring back the viewers. Not only was the programme in strong health again, with a run of popular stories that managed to appeal to old and new fans alike, but it enjoyed plenty of publicity on TV, on the web and also in the shops. Publicity and marketing go a long way these days, and it certainly hasn't harmed Doctor Who.
"Doctor Who may have that initial word of mouth to launch the new season, but then after that, generally, it gets by on its own merits"
So as The Voice and Britain's Got Talent squabble on, Doctor Who will be back in the Autumn or Winter. Hopefully it will perform better than last year's run, given that there were many news reports of falling ratings and crowings from Vernon Kay about how the show had been trounced by Family Fortunes. If the BBC get the line-up right (and that means no more Don't Scare The Hare) and if they market the new show in the right fashion, it could mean a big improvement. And don't forget, the show's been off for a longer time, so I'd guess that the anticipation buzz will be huge.
Should ratings matter though? Are they a yardstick of quality? It's like analysing the Top 40 charts. Sometimes quality reaches the top – but then look back over time and consider the following: Shaddap You Face. Mr Blobby. 'I Wish I Was A Punk Rocker (With Flowers In My Hair)'. Fads and gimmicks can reach the top of the charts because they're widely mentioned at the time, although the above examples didn't exactly play the long-term odds. Same goes for TV ratings – if a programme is mentioned enough in the media, then naturally people get intrigued and tune in to find out what the fuss is all about.
The likes of Britain's Got Talent, Strictly, The Voice etc – they're widely discussed in yards of news columns and on websites, whether it's behind the scenes scandal or contrived sob-stories. Doctor Who may have that initial word of mouth to launch the new season, but then after that, generally, it gets by on its own merits.
Ratings are a necessary evil – they tell the TV companies what's popular and what's not and in an increasingly competitive environment, the dead wood gets the chop. Hopefully Doctor Who will never find itself back in the position that it was in during the late 1980s, and at least modern-day BBC big-shots seem to be better disposed towards the programme. With the right amount of buzz and good scheduling, Doctor Who will keep its footing at the top reaches of the ratings ladder.
John Bensalhia is a freelance journalist who has extensively written for more than 10 years on subjects such as franchising, ports, Italy, DIY, tractors, sports and arboriculture. Not to mention reviews for Blake's 7 and Doctor Who, which he's been a fan of ever since he was a little kid.
When not writing, John likes drumming, guitar strumming, cycling, cartoon drawing, pre-1990s music and animals. He lives with his lovely wife Alison and many guinea pigs. Catch some of John's work or get in contact through his website at www.johnbensalhia.co.uk.
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