Brand Loyalty vs. show loyalty, the strange case of Virgin vs. Sky

by: Nichola Dobson / Independent Scholar

“There are flaws in the UK pay TV market which are harming the interests of the consumers” (National Consumer Council, UK)

On Thursday 1st March 2007 customers of Virgin Media digital cable service lost three channels which were owned by rival pay TV provider Sky Digital (satellite). This came after weeks of public dispute over the amount which Virgin Media pays Sky to deliver three of Sky’s key channels. (Virgin also own several channels which Sky pays for and then packages with others to their own customers – it all gets a bit confusing here). Sky wanted to increase the cost but Virgin refused suggesting it was unreasonable and would result in Virgin customers paying more. Sky television (part of the BSkyB group owned in part by Rupert Murdoch) and Virgin Media (formerly two digital cable networks merged in a takeover involving Richard Branson) each blamed the other for the dispute which, now three weeks on still has no clear resolution in sight.

The three channels involved were the 24 hour news network, Sky News, the sport news channel, Sky Sports News and the flagship channel, Sky One, which frequently aired parent company Twentieth Century Fox’s programmes, including The Simpsons, 24, Battlestar Galactica and more recently Lost.

Sky's Lost ad

Sky’s Lost ad

I’m not familiar with the situation regarding cable providers outside of the UK so don’t know if it similarly complicated, but what I find interesting in this case is how the companies regard their customers in this dispute.

Fans and general audiences have always been at the mercy of the broadcaster or service providers in the UK. We wait each year to find out who has bought the rights to which new fall shows from the US and the providers know that they can count on fan loyalty to increase their revenue. In recent years one terrestrial channel outbid another to show reruns of The Simpsons which resulted in increased viewers on the successful channel, however the audience did not lose out as all terrestrial channels are free to air and available to all. This is fine within the free to air market, but the situation changes when the pay TV market is taken into account.

In the case of Sky, they have attempted to position themselves as the provider of the best new shows by understanding audience loyalty. They successfully secured the rights of Lost and 24 over the terrestrial channels hoping the fans would follow and subscribe to their product. (They have always been able to secure the rights to expensive sporting events too). The result of this has been an increasingly segmented UK audience with Sky only available to those who can afford the extra fee each month, or indeed are willing to have a satellite dish installed. They follow each new acquisition with a heavy marketing campaign to entice viewers to take on the package in order to get their favourite shows. This type of marketing has always been quite successful for Sky and they have used The Simpsons for many years at the heart of their campaigns, emphasising the individual, popular shows rather than the whole package.

Sky's 24 ad

Sky’s 24 ad

In the dispute with Virgin, Sky launched a campaign to entice Virgin customers to switch to them by specifically advertising the shows they have now lost, using such slogans as “Don’t lose Lost, Virgin Media have dropped brand new Lost” and “Get Jack back, Virgin Media have dropped brand new 24”. These poster campaigns target the fans of these shows so deliberately that the company doesn’t even mention any other benefits of their service, as well as using ‘dropped’ to reinforce that the blame was on Virgin.

However Virgin appears to be more concerned about customer satisfaction to their service, and trying to reward loyalty to the provider rather than just the shows. In an open letter to their customers, the company emphasised the notion of ‘fairness’ and claimed to be standing up to bullying tactics. While the hit shows are no longer available to their customers, the company has secured the repeat rights of a variety of other shows, (including repeats of Lost) to be made available in their new ‘On Demand’ format. Here the companies clearly differ on what they believe the audience’s priorities are. Virgin have approached the debate recognising that technological developments such as On Demand could factor heavily in their audiences viewing habits and so market appropriately. They also emphasis a longer term strategy of customer/audience satisfaction through a good and ‘fair’ product, whereas Sky try to capitalise on the current popularity of certain programs.

We have seen the effect audiences can have on the success of shows in studies on audience reception and fandom. This supports Sky’s program driven marketing strategy as the studies have repeatedly demonstrated the loyalty of fans to particular shows, which Sky is counting on, particularly in this dispute with Virgin. However (as we have discussed in this journal), alternative broadcasting methods are increasing and giving audiences much more choice. Legal and illegal downloads, DVD box sets and the old favourite of borrowing tapes of shows from friends, are all viable methods for audiences to find alternative ways to get their favourite shows without having to subscribe to Sky’s services and they are starting to do so.

When Sky secured the rights to Lost over free to air broadcaster Channel 4 last November, television discussion forums, such as digitalspy.co.uk, were full of comments from disgruntled Lost fans, who quite pointedly suggested they would use any of the alternative methods mentioned above rather than pay for the satellite channels. Similar comments appeared from Virgin customers after the loss of the three channels, who clearly agreed that Sky were to blame and refused to switch. They were again, vocal in their support for alternative methods of reception.

Since the dispute began the viewing figures for Sky have dropped drastically on both 24 and Lost, which would suggest that the Virgin customers made up a substantial part of Sky’s audience. Ratings slumps and rumours of advertisers looking to leave the channels involved suggest that perhaps fan loyalty is not enough when the alternative broadcasting methods are becoming easier and more prevalent and that perhaps neither provider should really be further dividing the audiences with this type of dispute.

In my opening quote, the National Consumer Council suggest that the market is flawed and having an adverse effect on the audiences. I would agree that some audience members who are not yet engaged with new technological alternatives may be losing out when carriage disputes emerge between rival providers. However it may by the providers who have to take into account the new technology and begin to realise that while fans may be very loyal to their shows they will seek them out wherever they can with the easiest, and quickest, methods available to them, not necessarily from the big television providers.

Image Credits:
1. Sky’s Lost ad
2. Sky’s 24 ad

Please feel free to comment.




Strictly Dancing Newsreaders

by: Nichola Dobson / Independent Scholar

Strictly Come Dancing

Strictly Come Dancing

Reading Alan McKee's article in the previous edition of Flow in which he discusses mass television audiences and his own preferences for reality television reminded me of some questions I had been thinking about recently after teaching classes on discourse and ideology in news and reality television (among other things). In this column I will attempt to respond to some of his key points and how they relate to the current issues surrounding the increasing influence of reality television, specifically in the UK.

I was never particularly interested in the Big Brother concept beyond psychological experiment and have no interest in celebrity magazines and indeed often concerned with the ideology being presented and consumed by the masses. However in terms of examining reality television as purely television, I am interested in the development of the genre which has so quickly spawned so many sub genres and defined and influenced much of contemporary society (at least in Britain).

Personally I enjoy scripted narrative drama such as The Sopranos, Lost and Doctor Who, however I agree with Mckee's suggestion that we tend to study those which interest us most and I have personally been guilty of being overly critical of reality TV at times. (Though even the British viewers of the last series of Celebrity Love Island agreed with me as it delivered it worst ratings since the show began). The few reality shows I have watched are more of the 'already skilled, competing and receiving constructive criticism' such as Hell's Kitchen, Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares and even Tommy Lee's Rockstar Supernova. However, this appeals to my interests in cooking and alternative/rock music rather than the warbling pop of the Idol franchise and deliberate humiliation of contestants by the ego fuelled nastiness of Simon Cowell.

Most of my research has focussed on genre and generally narrative television, but after teaching required me to prepare a class on the discourses in reality television, and another on the construction of news programmes I began to think about reality TV more broadly.

The key point from McKee's paper that I would like to explore here is his suggestion that “the mainstream of the viewing public, has proven themselves to be less superficial, less concerned with spectacle, and more committed to traditional values of what counts as art, than I am.” (Flow volume 5, issue 5). This may be the case when his favourite from Australian Idol was not chosen; however I am curious to what extent this may be true when applied to other reality shows, in particular the case of Strictly Come Dancing.

Strictly Come Dancing cast

Strictly Come Dancing cast

In the UK we have now seen four seasons of Strictly Come Dancing, which I know spawned Dancing with Stars in the US, but am unsure as to the extent of its influence elsewhere. For those unaware, the premise is, a 'celebrity' is paired with a professional ballroom dancer and they compete over several weeks with similarly paired contestants. The audience votes for their favourites and each week a couple is eliminated. And of course there is a panel of judges, each cast in pantomime stereotype to deliver their 'expert' verdicts. So far so formulaic, but in the first season in Britain, the audience was confronted with a slightly unusual celebrity, in the form of a leading news anchorwoman, Natasha Kaplinsky. Newsreaders in Britain are rarely seen away from their desks, let alone in full ballroom dance mode.[i] After several weeks it became apparent that Natasha could dance fairly well, and she and her partner won the competition. Clearly she was perceived at this point, by the producers at least, to be a celebrity of sorts, and the tabloids followed with a new interest in her private life, previously unknown territory for television journalists.

One of the obvious effects of appearing on a reality show, celebrity or otherwise, is the inevitable crossing of the private/public space. In Natasha's case her personal life was heavily scrutinised but she also proved so popular that she was promoted to anchorwoman of the six pm news, the lead slot for newsreaders in Britain. It could be viewed that she was being rewarded for her dancing ability and popularity.

My students suggested that this was far from problematic. The seriousness of the news was not being compromised by the frivolous links to the dancing show, instead the popular Natasha was making the news more accessible to the mass audience. However this would suggest that the audience in this case were just as superficial and concerned with spectacle as McKee suggests he is.

Strictly Come Dancing team

Strictly Come Dancing team

Is this important in the realm of television news? Does it have an effect on the notion of journalistic integrity or are the news anchors merely parts of the network construct which decides which news is worthy of their/our attention? Or am I taking this too seriously because I like my news delivered to me in a, well less glamorous way and don't have any interest in celebrity dance shows?

I am curious about the effects of this relationship between reality television and news programmes and wonder how the powers that be perceive the mass audience, particularly when the station which broadcasts both the dance show and the particular news programme is the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) famous round the world for its quality journalism and programming. We do have a great deal of choice in our news consumption in Britain and people are free to choose, as with any television, which they watch. I suppose my question of the merging of entertainment with news rose from the very fact that the BBC sets itself apart from other news programmes and tries to suggest a level of quality not seen elsewhere, particularly on cable/satellite television.

The relationship between Strictly Come Dancing and the BBC news developed further when another news reader, Bill Turnbull, took part in a later series of the show. During the last series the BBC Breakfast news magazine show became a virtual advertising feature for the series, interviewing contestants and sharing experiences. Even the competing public broadcaster ITV has gotten involved with one of their newsreaders currently competing.

It seems then that the relationship is continuing and suggests that if my students' notion of an increase of popularity for newsreaders helps the mass audience receive more news is correct then the mass audience is as superficial as McKee claims to be.

I understand the appeal of some of the current crop of reality television and enjoy mindless entertainment occasionally but I think there is perhaps a line at which genre hybridisation should stop and personally I think that is at news programmes.

So as the newest series of Celebrity Big Brother begins I will continue to avoid it and instead enjoy the new series of ER, Desperate Housewives and CSI which have just come back to British TV. Sorry Alan, they don't have dancing in them but I just don't have time for narrative shows and reality television so I'll choose on a show by show basis and see how much my PVR can record.

Please feel free to comment.

Image Credits:
1. Strictly Come Dancing
2. Strictly Come Dancing cast
3. Strictly Come Dancing team

Please feel free to comment.


[i]There was something of an outcry in the 1970s when newsreader Angela Rippon appeared on a comedy Christmas special with Morecambe & Wise and danced with them, daring to show her legs. She later went on to present Come Dancing, so perhaps there is an historical connection between news anchors and dance shows?





Wasn’t That Show Cancelled? – part two

by: Nichola Dobson / Independent Scholar

Futurama

Futurama

My last column began to address the increasingly common practise of short-lived and cancelled shows being re-packaged and sold on DVD. The column concluded with something of a cliff-hanger as I began to consider the networks part in this new form of distribution and consumption.

In the past, network decisions to cancel popular shows, or often cult shows who don’t have the mass appeal the sponsors are looking for, have been greeted with letter writing campaigns and more recently Internet campaigns to save the show. Star Trek: Enterprise saw fans involved in a letter writing campaign which included writing to people in the US government, (though with no success) and Quantum Leap’s fan campaign was successful enough to keep the show going for another two seasons.

As discussed in the previous column, it is now common practise for cancelled shows to be released on DVD format regardless of the length of the run. This has the effect of enabling fans to relive their viewing experience as well as potentially introduce new audiences to shows which are no longer on air. In the case of the anicom [1] Family Guy, the release of complete seasons on DVD had a very different effect and impact.

Since the launch of The Simpsons, and King of the Hill, the Fox network has long been a supporter of the anicom. The increasing inclusion of anicom in the lineup set the network apart in the big four as a home for animation. Despite this, Family Guy was treated differently to its long running contemporaries with frequent schedule moves which are rarely positive.

Family Guy’s future had looked poor when after the second season it was about to be cancelled, however, following a management restructure at FOX, the show was renewed for another season. Nonetheless it was scheduled on a Thursday night against popular NBC live action sitcom Friends and as a result it was not renewed for a fourth season.[2] This is a clear example of unsupportive scheduling affecting the performance of a show. Upon examining the ratings for the entire life of Family Guy it is clear that the key problem was the slot it was given. When the show began it performed well on Sunday nights, but when it changed to a Thursday night in the second year, the ratings dropped dramatically. This is also seen in the first season when, during September it was shown on a Thursday for two nights and the ratings were under half of the previous weeks, then it was put back on to Sunday and the ratings picked right up again. Despite the improved ratings the show was cancelled in 2002 after three seasons on the air.

Unlike Quantum Leap, the fan campaigns mounted on the Internet for Family Guy were not enough to save the show. However high DVD sales (and the support of cable channel Cartoon Network, and their Adult Swim slot, which aired re-runs) following cancellation demonstrated to Fox the popularity of the show. In 2005 the show was reinstated on the Fox network and scheduled on Sunday evening. There are very few shows which return to the same network that they had previously been cancelled from.[3] Not only did the network reverse its original decision but also aired another of Family Guy creator, Seth McFarlane’s anicoms. American Dad joined the network in 2005 as part of the Sunday evening line-up and is now in its second season.

Family Guy

Family Guy

Matt Groening’s second primetime anicom Futurama was subject to similar treatment by the Fox network. Despite the fact that the show was fairly adult in nature, after much moving around, Fox aired Futurama in its Sunday night line up but is scheduled immediately after Sunday night football. This early evening time slot is unusual for an adult show, even the family live action sitcom Malcolm in the Middle aired at a later time, though Futurama is arguably less suitable for an early evening audience.

Despite a large fan base, as evidenced by web based campaigns of support for the show Futurama was cancelled in season five, with eight remaining episodes held back from broadcast until much later in the year. The show was picked up in syndication by the Cartoon Network for Adult Swim, but like Family Guy has been very successful on DVD. But this time the DVD sales were not enough to convince Fox to revive Futurama, however cable network Comedy Central is rumoured (confirmed by cast members) to be commissioning 13 new episodes of the series. (At the moment there is still no concrete information of an air date.) Comedy Central has also been a supporter of anicom for a long time, as home of South Park and previously Dr Katz, Duckman and The Critic. Perhaps this is a more suitable home for a show which was always a little too adult for the primetime Sunday night audience.

But this leaves me with the question of why was Family Guy reinstated when Futurama wasn’t. Did Fox feel that 5 seasons of Futurama was enough but Family Guy still had more to offer? Fox are producing the episodes which will air on Comedy Central, so they want to be involved, they just don’t have space for it in their anicom line up? Do high DVD sales really make that much difference to the networks? Perhaps this was a one-off situation which will not be repeated, and for some shows, like Invasion it’s just as well. (See previous column).

DVD releases, combined with increasing on-line activity are clearly influencing networks behaviour as the audiences are faced with alternative distribution methods. It seems that as long as the technology supports these alternatives to the big four, and indeed cable, TV on demand, even cancelled TV will be able to live on out with the traditional fall to spring season. Additionally the globalised audiences will be able to share their experiences with the other countries that bit sooner. Just think of the activity on the internet fan boards if the US and Britain got to watch Lost at the same time!

Notes
[1] Anicom is a term for the animated sitcom as described by Dobson, N. (2003) “Nitpicking “The Simpsons”: Critique and Continuity in Constructed Realities”, Animation Journal 2003 p85.
[2] Radio interview excerpt from www.stewiesminions.com/interview.
[3] One notable example is Doctor Who which returned to the BBC after 16 years off air. Flow Volume 4, Issue 4.

Image Credits:
1. Futurama
2. Family Guy

Please feel free to comment.




Wasn’t That Show Cancelled? – The Increasing DVD Phenomenon

Invasion DVD Set

Invasion DVD Set

As the new fall season begins (and we in Britain wait patiently for an extra couple of months before the shows arrive), there is a great deal of chatter about what the hot new shows will be. This is not a new phenomenon with new shows coming and going every season. The successful shows are renewed for new seasons and the cancelled shows tend to be forgotten or remembered only as cult shows by a minority of viewers. However I was struck by an odd sight in the window of HMV the other day. There was a large sign for Invasion: The Complete Series. Now I’m sure some people liked the show, but personally I thought it was dreadful and gave up after two episodes. The cringe worthy female characters in particular turned me off this poor Invasion of the Body Snatchers (either version) rip off. (Surely Eddie Cibrian was better off in Sunset Beach than in this?).

What I find interesting here is not why anyone would want to buy the DVD of Invasion but the expectation that seems to be emerging that at the end of any series, or season, the show will be distributed and sold on DVD. There is in an increasing market in the UK of online sales of US television series which finish airing in the US before they finish in the UK, but have been released for sale by international online sellers. This is accompanied by an increasing activity on some television web forums expectantly discussing the DVD release dates of shows. These shows may have only aired for one season but fans already want to prolong and repeat their experience.

In the golden age of television, syndication was the key to future sales and continued success but that was only after the show had amassed enough episodes to sell on to syndication. Whereas with DVD sales of ‘complete’ seasons and series, shows can live on as collectable items even if they failed to meet audience (advertiser) demands when first broadcast. There could be an argument that it is harder to meet viewer demands now with networks facing fierce competition from cable and other modes of entertainment and thus they have to try to produce hits quickly, but if the shows creators know that the show will be available on DVD after the show has been cancelled is there also an argument that they have stopped trying to produce quality work? There are a number of shows airing currently which would fit Feuer’s notion of “quality television” (1984), such as “24”, “Lost”, and “CSI” to name but three. However there are almost as many which do not last beyond one season, but may continue to make money through DVD sales. Do shows then still strive for the success level of reaching enough episodes for syndication or has DVD rendered it irrelevant?

Television box sets and collectors editions are not new, indeed the practise of collecting series on VHS has, at least in Britain, a long history, particularly with sci-fi. In Britain new releases of TV shows such as Dr Who, Star Trek, and later The X Files was big business, and this extended to comedy too. There has always been a market in Britain for television collections, perhaps more so than in the US. But these were successful, long running shows, which saw the release of episodes long after their original airdate.

There have already been discussions on this journal regarding the impact of new technologies on broadcasting, including internet, DVD and PVRs and indeed they are all impacting upon our collective viewing experiences, by making them personalised experiences with more choices. Likewise the global nature of the internet, and increasingly early purchase of US shows to Britain television, and vice versa, is producing something of a collective experience on two different sides of the Atlantic. However despite these technological advances in broadcast and distribution, the immediacy of production to DVD or indeed the speed at which new US shows are appearing on British television has created an odd situation. We have new shows from the US shown on British television, but if they are even a few months later than the US debut we can immediately find out if they have been successful and renewed for a second season. Personally my PVR is too full to commit to another new series which has already been cancelled. This suggests odd purchasing practises on the part of the British networks but they clearly think there will be an audience for the short lived shows, just as the DVD distributors do.

The networks/distributors use clever marketing of these cancelled, short lived shows to boost sales. By emphasising ‘complete’ on the cover of Invasion there is an implied sense of the collectability of the show. Just as Joss Whedon fans experienced with the release of Firefly as a complete series, DVD boxed set. Of course this was followed up by a highly successful cinematic release.

Firefly DVD

Firefly DVD

Perhaps I am being ‘anti – Invasion’ , after all many cult television shows (such as Firefly) and films are able to live on and find new audiences with the aid of new technology and the keen interest and support of the fan base, no matter how small. Indeed many shows cancelled early may come under the quality banner, Arrested Development comes to mind, but networks are unable, or unwilling to support the shows. These shows then can achieve some of the success that the network system could not offer them. (Another example is Clerks: The Animated Series which only lasted for six episodes but has reached a wider audience through DVD sales). All of this supports the notion of new methods of consumption and distribution moving further away from the traditional networks.

This leaves the network in a difficult situation when the DVD sales of a cancelled show are so high that they are forced to re-evaluate their decision. The unusual case of Family Guy and Futurama are the subject of my next column as I leave this as something of a cliff-hanger. Sorry to cut this one short but I’m heading stateside for a short vacation, and perhaps I will be able to sample some of those hot new shows and return to Britain with tips of what might last!

Bibliography
Feuer, J., P. Kerr, and T. Vahimagi. MTM ‘Quality Television’. London: BFI, 1984.

Jenkins, H. Textual Poachers: Television Fans & Participatory Culture. New York: Routledge, 1992.

Image Credits:

1. Invasion

2. Firefly

Please feel free to comment.




Darkness and Light: The Changing Mood of the CSI Franchise

CSI: Crime Scene Investigation

CSI: Crime Scene Investigation

As the success of the CSI: Crime Scene Investigation franchise continues, so too does the surrounding discussion, in both the academic and public domains. While much of the debate has centred on the effect the franchise has had on audiences and on the processes of law and order (Melissa Crawley, Flow Volume 4, issue 5), I have previously written on the effect the franchise has had on the development of the television crime fiction genre. I would like to revisit part of this here due to changes in the franchise which need to be addressed as well as the affect the audience is having on the shows.

One of the key areas in my previous discussion was the way in which CSI: Crime Scene Investigation is able to innovate within the conventions of crime fiction, as defined by the shows which came before (my focus was on the ground breaking Hill Street Blues). The commission of the crime, the crime solving process and resolution are all represented as well as the carefully defined narrative space of the police station and the city. However the franchise has marked out its difference from previous shows, taking the generic conventions and altering them by shifting the emphasis to the crime solving process through the use of evidence. This is displayed via a strict narrative device of crime scene discovery, analysis, questioning suspects, and supporting evidence, which is used throughout the series.

The franchise utilises 'blockbuster' quality special effects to visually and very graphically examine the evidence, and often replay elements of the crime. These are innovative developments in the television crime fiction genre as few earlier shows were so graphic, or had the budgets to provide the effects. Quincy ME (1976-83) similarly focused on the importance of forensics to solve the case but was never shown in so much detail. The CSI shows also feature music accompanied montage and flashbacks to show the audience the commission and result of the crime.

With each show utilising the narrative structure, use of effects, and montage devices, the audience experiences the CSI brand which is reinforced throughout the franchise, and indeed enables it to succeed. As the audience becomes more accustomed to these new conventions, their expectations of the genre changes. It is their acceptance of these changes which, according to Neale (1990), is vital in genre progression and development and determines the importance of the audience.

The conformity to the franchise structure, displayed in all three shows creates a generic verisimilitude within the franchise, separate to the generic conventions of television crime fiction. Within the verisimilitude, however, there are slight differences which enable the audience to differentiate between CSI, CSI: Miami, and CSI: NY. The use of a different song by The Who for each show's opening credits is, along with the cast and location an obvious difference. The area which interested me most in my earlier essay was the thematic difference between the shows and it is this which I feel needs further attention now.

The different actors clearly distinguish the series from each other but I have previously suggested that the moral differences in the lead characters contribute to larger thematic differences in the franchise. In the original CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, Dr Gil Grissom's matter of fact scientist is far more accepting of criminality than the heroic, moralistic posturing of CSI: Miami's Horatio Caine. However it was CSI: NY which I found most interesting as there seemed to be an ambiguity in the character of Det. Mac Taylor. Taylor's character was introduced as a grieving widower who had lost his wife in 9/11 and while he fought to uphold the law he knew the limits of evidence and accepted the occasional lack of resolution. He was portrayed as serious, fiercely patriotic and often seemed conflicted in himself as he tried to serve his city.

The ambiguity was emphasized in season one in the darkness of the shots and claustrophobic nature of the city scenes as the narrative space. This marked the series out as quite different from the other two, especially the brightly lit CSI: Miami. [1] The narrative space used is an important part of identifying the tone. This is demonstrated in the styles of offices occupied in each show and the amount of time spent indoors, outdoors and between day and night time.

CSI Miami

CSI NY

CSI: Miami and CSI: NY

Another key indicator of the shows themes, indeed of any television series, is in the opening credits. In season one of CSI: NY the images of the cast were dark and serious with many exterior nighttime shots informing the audience. These credits demonstrate how serious and gritty this show is, particularly when compared to the bright credits of CSI: Miami. My previous examination coincided with the end of CSI: NY season one by which time there were suggestions that audiences did not appreciate the 'dark ambiguity'. Now that the show has reached the end of season two it requires re-examination.

The importance of the audience and its affect became apparent as the first episode of season two of CSI: NY opened bathed in glorious sunlight. The offices were modernised, the labs and morgue had moved out of the basement (and the cast were wearing very tight clothes, perhaps a coincidence). The opening credits were also altered to include new images of the cast in brighter environments and some of them actually smiling!

The season continued in this style, even removing the character, (the very gloomy) Aiden in the second episode and replacing her with a younger more 'upbeat' female character. Aiden was shown about to tamper with evidence at the end of episode one, season two, but by episode two it was revealed that in the end she 'did the right thing'. When Mac was about to fire her, she agreed to leave, as she was unhappy with the darkness of the job. This seemed to be a poor resolution to the interesting dilemma which would have had serious consequences for the character and all of her previous cases. The story was wrapped up too casually and seemed to be swept aside.[2].

The season continued with bright outdoor daytime scenes and plots featuring models, female roller derby teams and dancers. Halfway through the season a darker storyline was included in which one of the CSI's, Danny, is locked in a panic room with very little light and air (episode 11, “Trapped”). However the dark lighting and claustrophobic atmosphere were lightened considerably in the second plot featuring the murder of a stripper, complete with 'glamorous' shots of dancing and hot oil wrestling.

This type of episode, focusing on the bright and glamorous side of New York, as opposed to the darker street life exemplified in season one, has become the prevalent style. There has also been an increasing use of montage and music, (perhaps at the expense of plot?) and more positive outcomes and resolutions. The lead character Mac, has 'lightened' up and was even seen performing in a band in a recent episode (episode 14, “Stuck on You”), revealing a 'fun' side which was previously hidden from the audience.

By responding to viewer (and network) criticism and lightening CSI: NY, the limits to innovation are evident. This reinforces Neale's notion of the importance of audience acceptance. Perhaps innovation and genre progression has to be a gradual process. The brand's success then relies on the audience engaging with, and accepting the rules within the franchise and not diverting too far from them.

However this suggests that it is the spin-offs which are open to most criticism. While CSI: NY has gotten thematically lighter due to audience demand, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation has become darker (and it was already fairly dark). As the original series in the franchise, it has established the conventions and so far seems to be able to divert from them with less concern from the audience. The new opening credits for season six contain more graphic, violent images than in any previous season.

CSI: Crime Scene Investigation has always managed to balance humour with serious, and often dark storylines (the humour was lacking in CSI: NY), but in season six there was a distinct increase in the “darker” shows. In a two part story (“A Bullet Runs Through it” episode 7 and 8), Captain Brass is involved in a politically charged plot which involves the shooting of a fellow police officer. The evidence reveals in the conclusion that it was Brass who was responsible for the death, the consequences of which carry on through later episodes. There were also storylines involving sadomasochism, (a follow up to a previous season), a serial rapist, voyeurism and a suicide cult. It is interesting then that while the audience will accept darker, more gruesome stories in the original show (just don't split up the team), they are less accepting of it elsewhere in the franchise?

Personally I don't like the changes in CSI: NY and preferred the darkness, with its potentially interesting storylines. The show seems to have lost its edge and is now a fairly silly version of an interesting original concept. Perhaps Gill Grissom was right when he said “There are too many forensic shows on television”.[3] (Episode 17 ” I Like to Watch” season 6).

Work Cited

Neale, S. (1990) 'Questions of Genre'. Screen, 31(1) pp.45-66

Image Credits:

1. CSI

2. CSI: Miami

3. CSI: NY

[1] I won't discuss CSI: Miami here as the latest season has not been shown on British television yet (they wait until the slower summer months and the channel which carries it retains ratings).

[2] In the first season (episode 21 “On the Job”) when CSI Danny seems to have shot a fellow officer he is thoroughly investigated until they discover his innocence. Though he is cleared it is shown as a rigorous and tortuous process for the character.

[3] This was a reference to actor, William Peterson's opinions on the concept of the spin offs which he refused to executive produce concerned that they would dilute the original.

Please feel free to comment.




The Regeneration of Doctor Who: The Ninth Doctor and the Influence of the Slayer

David Tennant as Doctor Who

David Tennant as Doctor Who

On the 24th March I presented a paper at Reading University’s symposium, “British Television and US Imports: Aesthetics, Institutions, Histories” 1. The paper examines the new series of Doctor Who and the extent to which it has been influenced, both generically and thematically by US imports, specifically Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Given the international scope of Flow, and the timing, (the second season of Doctor Who aired Saturday 15th April on the BBC and the Sci-Fi network is half way through season one), I decided this would be an appropriate subject for my first column.

Doctor Who premiered on British television 42 years ago (due to start the night JFK was assassinated, it was postponed by a day), running for 26 seasons. The show was conceived as a family series which could be educational but which would be character driven. The more adult Quatermass stories had proved successful but the new (Canadian) head of drama was keen to fill the Saturday evening, teatime slot and had an interest in the sci-fi genre. (A slot previous Flow columnist Derek Kompare, suggested was unusual on US television).

The longevity of the show was in part due to a unique narrative device in which the Doctor was able to ‘regenerate’ when he died and inhabit another body, and conveniently another actor. These regenerations gave the show new character traits and were able to reach new generations of audience, each one able to claim ownership of ‘their’ Doctor. Likewise, the doctor’s travelling ‘companions’ could be conveniently written out of the show depending on the actor’s, or shows needs. In 1989 the BBC cancelled the show, however it continued in other formats, radio plays, or audio dramas, novels and the increasing merchandise surrounding the show.

New series, structure and narrative
After a 16 year gap, (the 1996 TV movie is not considered by all fans to be part of the canon) the show was re-commissioned by Controller of BBC, Lorraine Heggessy, a self confessed Doctor Who fan, amidst a media frenzy of speculation. Russell T Davies, also an original series fan, was given the task of bringing the show back as writer and producer. His experience and success of writing serial drama2 and knowledge of the existing Who canon have resulted in a highly popular, yet critically well received first (or 27th) new series and a ratings winner in the Saturday evening slot for BBC One. The ratings for episode one of season two suggest that the success is continuing.

The increasing prevalence of US television drama imports had influenced the new British shows and as the audience’s became accustomed to the US style and formats the genre developed. Neale (1990) suggests that generic verisimilitude, the genre’s conformity to the rules of the genre as well as the audience’s acceptance, and interaction, with the surrounding social cultural conventions displayed in the text, is “central to an understanding of genre” (p.45) and thus the audience’s role in a genre’s development and success is vital. The audience was also becoming accustomed to the US sci-fi series large special effects budgets which provided the genre with a mark of quality, stylistically similar to feature length cinema. This use of FX was becoming increasingly commonplace in British series and while the long running Star Trek, and its numerous spin-offs, has been influential in the genre, the increase in the number of hybrid sci-fi/fantasy/horror shows such as the X Files, Roswell and in particular Buffy the Vampire Slayer was having more of an influence.

The original series of Doctor Who followed a strict structure of long stories, broken down into smaller 25 minute episodes, ranging from two parts to, commonly, six part stories. This format was maintained throughout the entire 26 year run. However the new series of ‘hour long’ episodes of single stories in a 13 episode series, or season, were in the format which audiences had become familiar with through US drama series. This enabled the producers to immediately present the audience with familiarity, even if the Doctor was new. The changes in structure were not just apparent in the sci-fi series, but also in the British television schedule which were very much in tune with full and half hour slots as a result of increased imports.

The narrative in the new series also demonstrates the influence of the US drama series. Each new episode features a pre credit teaser sequence, a device used in US shows to capture the audience’s attention and interest before they go to a commercial break. The imports we receive retain the teasers but due to British broadcasting regulations do not have as many advertising breaks in the shows. As well as a pre credit teaser sequence the show uses a teaser for the next episode to encourage the audience to tune in again. The narrative in the new series was consciously developed to follow the US scheduling model: “The concept was given a very American kick up the arse.” “We built in ‘sweeps’ episodes — event episodes and two part stories placed strategically throughout the run to boost ratings. The last in the series quickly became the ‘season finale’.” (Russell T Davies 2006 in DWM, issue 367.)

It is interesting to me that the writers are very deliberate in the ‘importing’ of US techniques. The show has a long history on British television yet the writers are firmly engaged with the generic conventions and methods developed by the US models. By doing so the show has become highly successful, finding new audiences as well as retaining old ones.

The Doctor, the companion and the Slayer
The Doctor has changed with each new actor playing him, however the main characteristics of the, often dark, hero remain largely constant. The role of the companion has varied over the years, each filling a specific role. In the new series, the Doctor’s companion Rose, is largely his equal, demonstrated through skill, strength and, usually, her open-mindedness. She has more emotional attachments than previous companions, a boyfriend and mother left on Earth, which frequently feature in episodes. She is strong willed and more independent than many previous companions and is clearly designed to provide a strong role model for young women. J Shaun Lyon, author of the unofficial guide to the new series refers to an interview in which Davies refers to the character of Rose as a “Buffy-style female sidekick…a ‘modern action heroine.’ A screaming girly companion is unacceptable now…I don’t mean in terms of women’s rights — dramatically, we’ve got Buffy the Vampire Slayer now, so a screaming girly companion would be laughed out of the room.” (2005 p.72) He is conscious of the success of the character but also of the generic influence the show has had on audiences. To maintain the generic verisimilitude he has to emulate the character.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Buffy the Vampire Slayer

In her actions and attachments, the character of Rose is clearly reminiscent of Buffy from the cult US fantasy/horror series BTVS. Like Buffy, Rose’s family are important in her life and often play an important role in assisting the Doctor, though occasionally are the objects of peril themselves. The level of humanity this brings to the Doctor is different from the original series, and a reflection of Davies’ writing style. This is also, however a major theme in BTVS as the show’s demons were metaphors for real life issues.

The dialogue in DW has changed since the technical, educational jargon filled description which irritated John Pertwee. The ninth (and tenth) Doctor explains the workings of the TARDIS and alien plans in a modern language with dialogue full of witty retorts and quick exchanges (especially between Rose and the Doctor). The adaptation of dialogue to reflect societal change in TV is nothing new but in terms of sci-fi development it is not common in the genre. The influence of BTVS is again apparent as pop culture references have replaced the techno babble. The creators of DW have clearly been impressed by BTVS and often refer to it as a show they consider as important in the sci-fi/horror genre.

What struck me the most from looking at these shows, and was becoming more apparent throughout the symposium is the flow and mutual influence of television between the US and Britain. This ‘cultural exchange’ has existed largely since the beginning of television and often it is seems to influence one nation more than the other, but the reciprocity can only serve to better develop the quality and range of programs we all receive. All generic development comes from repetition and innovation (Born 1993) and in this case DW is combing the strengths of BTVS while retaining the unique nature and character of Doctor Who. This development will in turn enable the sci-fi genre to further progress with future shows.

Notes
1Reading University’s Symposium
2 Russell T Davies is best known for his recent television dramas notably, Queer as Folk (1999 – 2000)/US version (2000), Bob & Rose (2001), The Second Coming (2003) and Casanova (2005).

Works Cited

Born, G. (1993) “Against Negation, for a politics of cultural production: Adorno, aesthetics, the social.” Screen 34(3) pp.223-242.

Davies, R T. in Pixley, A (2006) “Scheduled for Success.” Doctor Who Magazine, 367 pp.50- 57.

Lyon, J. S (2005) Back to the Vortex: The Unofficial and Unauthorised Guide to Doctor Who 2005. Surrey: Telos Publishing.

Neale, S. (1990) “Questions of Genre.” Screen, 31(1) pp.45-66.

Image Credits:

1. Doctor Who

2. Buffy