Doctorin' the Pirates

February 18, 2008
A thought by James Berardinelli

Now that the WGA strike is over, I feel remiss that I haven't even hummed a few bars of the "Hallelujah" chorus. The fact is, though, that the writers could have stayed on strike for another six months and it wouldn't have bothered me. In fact, I was just getting excited about the possibility of a totally different form of the Oscars when word came out that it was going to be the same old thing. Questions about the Academy Awards' continued relevance are fodder for another column but anyone hoping for something different than the usual snooze-inducing marathon will be disappointed.

So what does it mean that the writers are back? A few more episodes of powerhouse TV series like House in April and May. But my favorite new show of the season, Pushing Daisies won't be seen again until September. And 24 has been placed on a one-year hiatus. (Considering that 24 uses a fly-by-the-seat-of-its-pants approach, why are writers necessary? The formula is well established. Jack shouts "dammit!" then shoots someone. A mole is revealed in CTU. Chloe scrunches up her face like she sucked on a lemon. Jack shouts "dammit!" then shoots someone else. Kim dodges a dangerous animal before getting amnesia. Jack shouts "dammit!" then fires another round. Why do they need writers for that stuff?) Battlestar Galactica is coming back in April but only for a half-season. (The decision to show 10 episodes now and the balance in 2009 has nothing to do with the strike and everything to do with the Sci-Fi Channel's desire to stretch things out.)

Maybe there are some viewers out there who felt the impact of the WGA strike like a knife to the belly and who whooped and hollered when the agreement was announced. If they're out there, I don't know any of them. Freedom from watching TV allowed me to do other things. I don't feel the same connection with scripted programs that I once did. When all the big guns come off their enforced hiatuses, will they find the same number of viewers awaiting their next moves?

That brings me to one show whose debut has not been impacted by the WGA strike because it's a British import. I'm referring to Doctor Who (redux) which is probably a little too popular to be considered a cult show but isn't big enough to be mainstream. This is the fourth season for New Who and, as with the other three, it is being carried on the Sci-Fi Channel. The idea is to pair it up with Battlestar Galactica, although it's not clear which show is intended to prop up which. (Because of the bifurcation of Battlestar's season, it will stop running new episodes several weeks before Doctor Who concludes.) Viewers will note the closing window between the U.K. and U.S. airings of the Doctor's adventures. Season #1 had a one-year gap. Season #2 was down to six months. Season #3 started on this side of the Atlantic around the time it was concluding on the other side. On to season #4...

Two characteristics of the average Doctor Who fan are that they're impatient and computer-savvy. Back in the '80s, that meant getting bootlegged copies of new episodes. The fan network was sophisticated enough that all you had to do was get on a mailing list and a grainy VHS tape would arrive in your mailbox about two months after the U.K. airing - long before PBS showed it. Today, it means BitTorrent. The average Whovian based in the United States can download and watch an episode with only a 6-hour (or thereabouts) delay from its U.K. transmission. So, by the time is eventually airs on Sci-Fi, the die-hard community has already seen it (and may or may not be watching). This has been an issue from Day #1 for Sci-Fi and they apparently pressed the BBC about it during recent negotiations.

No debut dates have been announced but speculation is that season #4 of Doctor Who will start on Saturday, April 12 in England. It is known that Sci-Fi wanted Doctor Who to start on the same day as Battlestar Galactica: Friday, April 4. (The first Sci-Fi episode will be the U.K. Christmas special.) Using that schedule, all season #4 episodes would show in the United States one day before their U.K. airing. Think the BBC is going to allow that? No way. They don't want BitTorrents used against their most popular non-soap/non-sports program. So it looks like Sci-Fi has two choices: delay airing Doctor Who by one week or move it from Friday to Sunday. In either case, it means that episodes in the United States are likely to air "week of" their first BBC showing.

This occurrence - which is a major boon for fans - is a direct result of the growing power of piracy. How does one reduce Doctor Who downloads? By giving North American fans a chance to see the show on TV before it has become stale. The closer the U.S. date is to its U.K. counterpart, the fewer copies of the episodes will be downloaded. Those who might not be eager to wait weeks or months may be willing to wait days. And, while a loss of 250,000 viewers to downloads might not be a big deal for something like House or the mind-numbing American Idol, it is significant for a show that only draws 1.5 million on average.

So, while bashing Sci-Fi for what they're doing with Battlestar Galactica, I give them props for their handling of Doctor Who. They are reacting to the 21st century rather than trying to fight it. They understand that BitTorrents are here to stay and that creative solutions are necessary. This one's easy: give the fans what they want. When it comes to movies and other areas where piracy's footprint is growing, the same basic principle can be applied: consumer satisfaction. That's the way to fight piracy effectively but it's a tactic most executives haven't figured out. Congratulations to the Sci-Fi Channel for uncovering this booty.