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Thursday, October 23, 2003

Why I Hate BBC America, Part 1,314
Hell hath no fury like a TV viewer whose favorite show is canceled, and right now I’m mad as hell. The show that had the highest priority among my TiVo season passes now has nothing in the upcoming episodes tab.

The show in question is the British continuing drama (OK, if you insist, soap opera), EastEnders—consistently a contender for the top ratings spot in its homeland, with an audience of more than 10 million viewers (this, remember, in a nation of 59 million). Despite the millions of viewers who tune in four times a week in Britain, however, the Beeb’s U.S. arm, BBC America, claimed that they couldn’t build up a large enough audience to justify the two and a half hours of air time the show ate up, so on Sept. 25, they pulled the plug.

Shows get killed all the time, and fans always cry about it, but this cancellation is particularly galling because it highlights everything that's wrong with BBC America, the most disappointing channel on our overcrowded dial.

BBC America’s first sin was the bush-league way they announced the cancellation. There was no warning before the final show aired, but when they credits rolled after an uber-soap cliff-hanger—during Phil Mitchell’s wedding, his former girlfriend, whom he was suspected of having killed, shows up—a low-key voiceover message blandly announced they wouldn’t be showing any more episodes. The TV equivalent of blue balls.

In the days before globalization raised customer-service standards around the Western world, British store owners were renowned for telling shoppers who asked for something they didn't have in stock, "There's just no call for that—and you're the fourth person that's asked for it today." David Bernath, BBC America’s vice president of programming, made a similar claim when he told the crazed fans gathered at an online chat that the show was canceled because of a lack of interest. (I'm not aware of the network organizing an online forum to explain the cancellation of any other show.) Bernath claimed EE’s ratings were terrible—I wonder why when they ran the show from 10-12:30 Saturday mornings Pacific time! (Of course, the fact that BBC America pays no attention to time zones is typical of their ignorance of the U.S. market.)

By choosing to kill a show that delivered four new episodes each week, BBC America is giving up on fresh programming that airs just three weeks or so after their British premier. Now the lineup is full of worn-out “living” shows—the good ones have already been Americanized by U.S. networks anyway.

The channel has absolutely no programming consistency; they love to do marathon blocks where they play all the episodes of a show one after the other. This is standard practice on U.S. cable channels for shows running in syndication (like Bravo’s current West Wing focus), but it doesn't work when there are only six episodes per series. See all Season 1 of The Office over a weekend, and ... well, sure you'll be primed for Season 2, but there are only six episodes in that. You can't blindly follow an American model when your shows are produced in a completely different way.

They're going to replace a show that draws returning viewers every week with ... well, still more of their fragmented approach to scheduling--series that last six weeks and then disappear forever, except for BBCA's endless reruns of the same tiny number of shows. It's another example of their following U.S. models and thereby blowing their big advantage. Few people would dispute that British shows are better than their American equivalents (never mind Coupling, EastEnders is better than pretty much everything on the U.S. prime-time schedule—for all its soapish emotional manipulation, it’s still compelling television), and yet a channel that has the potential to play nothing but incredible English TV shows shite about 80 percent of the week. Currently it's got a good thing going with all the fix-up shows--Changing Rooms, What Not to Wear, Ground Force, and the like—but those are getting played out too—they rerun them so often that they can't keep people coming back. Plus, there are now an endless variety of U.S. equivalents that Americans can watch over and over if they choose to.

The fact is, U.S. cable channels (and PBS) buy the good British shows, and rather than trying out innovative out-there programming, BBC America just plays the same tired old shows so favored by bad PBS stations like the one we are stuck with in Seattle--Keeping Up Appearances, Monty Python (innovative, yes, but 30 years old FFS), etc.. There are no working class, Northern, or creative shows on the network (at least since League of Gentlemen, which they censored into the ground anyway).