A diatribe on the scheduling of BBC shows

The iPlayer is, of course, one of the BBC’s biggest success stories of recent years. Easily the best catch-up player, it’s available on numerous devices (e.g. computers, set-top boxes, tablets, phones) and even allows you to download a lot of programmes so you can watch them when you don’t have Internet access.

But I’m starting to wonder if the BBC hasn’t got so accustomed to people using the iPlayer that they’ve forgotten not only that most people have lives but that the iPlayer isn’t a panacea to all-known viewing problems.

My problems with the BBC’s scheduling started with BBC4’s imported shows. Once upon a time, the BBC would import a show and air it one episode at a time on a Saturday night, with a repeat during the week. Spiral/Engrenages went out at a decent clip for eight weeks, an hour a week, and everyone was happy.

Then along came The Killing, which at 20 episodes, was apparently too much for the BBC to air at the rate of one episode a week. Assuming presumably that people weened on the “box set weekend” wouldn’t watch one TV show for 20 weeks – ignoring the fact Americans do it all the time, as do soap opera fans – BBC4 starting airing two episodes of the show a week. Yes, two hours of TV every week for 10 weeks.

Now some people can do that, and if you watch your TV live, that’s great. But that’s not what my Saturday nights are about. But with the iPlayer, I can in theory watch those two episodes over the course of the week, wherever and whenever I want.

Yet, that’s not how it ever turned out for me. As soon as I saw The Killing in my play list, I thought to myself: “Christ, I’ve got two hours of this to watch.” Maybe it would have helped if it hadn’t been subtitled, which meant I couldn’t iron or do anything else while watching it. Either way, by the time I’d got to episode eight, the show was up to episode 14 and I gave up.

But soon this became the set pattern. Even Spiral/Engrenages started being belted out at two episodes of a week – you wait a year for it to arrive and then it’s gone in less than a month: where’s the justice in that?

Then the BBC started to forget altogether that people have lives. The Killing 3 turned up and not only was there no download option due to rights issues, the iPlayer would only carry each episode for a week. So you had to watch those two episodes within a week, attached to something with Internet access, or that was that. No more The Killing 3 for you. That meant, even trying my absolutely best, I still missed an episode and a half out of its 10 episodes.

Watching TV shouldn’t be this much hard work, should it?

What’s the consequence of this ‘stripping’ policy? Borgen‘s on BBC4’s on Saturday now. Two more episodes have just aired. The show’s up to episode four but I’m midway through episode one. I’m thinking of dropping it as a result.

Yes, the consequence is this: people stop watching your show. And in case the thought of DVDs is floating through BBC Worldwide or some other distributor’s mind right now, I haven’t gone back to watch The Killing, even though it’s both on DVD and available for free on Netflix. I’ve given up and I’m not going back.

Now this mild petulance of mine has been brought to the forefront of my mind by a bit of scheduling by BBC1. BBC1, of course, doesn’t do the “two episodes on a Saturday” thing. It does cross-week scheduling. It stuck Torchwood: Miracle Day on for five nights in a row. Case Histories and other shows have all had the “one episode a night for x nights” treatment, too. I didn’t watch them as a result, even though I’d wanted to.

But right now on BBC Daytime, no less, BBC1 is airing the new Father Brown stories with Mark Williams as Father Brown. I’d like to show you a video, but no bright spark at the BBC has actually put together a trailer. So here’s a picture instead.

Mark Williams

There are 10 episodes of Father Brown and BBC1 is airing them daily. That’s right, in two weeks, it’ll all be over.

Now, in a sense, this is the right forum for it. Spool back to the 80s and you could watch an episode of Crown Court every day on ITV. People at home during the day have as much right to decent TV as everyone else. And let’s face it, a lot of people at home during the day will often have an hour or so free every day to watch TV in.

But in another sense, this is yet another bit of scheduling seemingly designed to stop people watching a TV show. This might be the best Father Brown in the world, but it’s unlikely I’m ever going to watch the episodes. One episode a week and I’d probably have lapped it up. But one a day? Not a chance.

So, please, BBC. Please stop burning off shows so that people actually have a chance to watch them, to tell their friends about them and let others discover them. Please?

  • Adam Bowie

    I completely agree. I think that schedulers somehow imagine that this is “stunt broadcasting” that somehow ratchets up just how important the show is in the viewer's eye. Yet all it does is annoy viewers who come late to a show, or actually have lives outside of the living room.

    There really is no reason for Borgen to be going out two episodes at a time. Saturday night on BBC Four has been kind for imported dramas, and there's obviously other fare like Young Montalbano, and Spiral series 4 all ready to go at some point. But ten weeks of a drama seems fine to me. Why not schedule a different series on another night if you're backed up with quality drama?

    I think that schedulers imagine that we all have PVRs with unlimited capacity and want to gorge on these series a la DVD boxsets. But I don't think that everyone wants to do this.

    And it's not just the BBC that does this. Channel 4 “stripped” The Fear across Monday to Thursday before Christmas, and as a result I missed it all. They even advertised it beforehand, but burning it off in a busy week means that I just saw four hours of drama sitting on my PVR and had to make a choice over whether I could be bothered or not. I chose not, and deleted.

    In Channel 4's case, with so little original drama, that's a real shame. Why waste it all in one go?

    ITV has done the same thing more than once, as if recompensing us after a fortnight of jungle drivel. Stripping shows across a week leaves far less time for discovery. If I come into work tomorrow telling everyone how fantastic episode one was of a new show, but they're already broadcasting episode two, potential viewers are already a long way behind.

    Soaps, which have long been stripped are a different thing because they're built in with the expectation that viewers haven't seen every episode. They're written to allow viewers to come and go without too much trouble.

    Occassionally, something might really be “event” programming, and scheduling in the old “mini-series” style way makes sense. But give the audience a chance to discover and build a series. You'll probably reap a bigger audience in the end.

  • Mark Carroll

    You make some good points. Having been all PVR + download reliant I really don't care deeply about it (indeed, the Freesat+ box just arrived today), but when it's combined with expires-soon or no-download then it becomes a frustrating pain and, other things being equal, I'd prefer a saner release schedule: it's annoying when a show ends for another year just after you got to like it, because they burn it so rapidly. (Luckily I was able to download Killing III with some third-party software so I didn't notice that issue.)

  • The Fear was one I recorded and never watched because of strip-airing. In some ways, cross-night airings are worse, because unless you're in every night of the week, you're going to miss an episode. You then can't watch the next episode until you've seen the one you missed. So if you have an hour to spare, you watch the one you missed and record the new one while that's on. And so on. The result is that it almost forces you to pile them all up to watch in one go, which is fine if you have four-20 hours to spare en masse. If you don't, you ain't watching that series ever.

  • Could be worse: I'm no Trekkie, but I loved TNG. I Don't like any of the other new series, just TNG. What I'm trying to say, I think, is that I'm not a Trekkie. Please don't call me a Trekkie!

    Anyway, SyFy announced that they were going to show it all, from the beginning, in HD. Great I thought. I don't think I fully thought through the five hours a week commitment, for the next thirty-six weeks!

    I'm on series two, episode nineteen. Oh dear.

  • Rullsenberg

    This has become a HUGE bugbear for me. I must admit that for the first series of The Killing, the two hour per week suited us: with twenty episodes it would have been very drawn out (though that may have worked as well). The thing was it replaced the Wallander series which had mostly been about 1 hour 30-45 so committing to two hours was fine.

    But it has become a pattern and it DOESN'T always work. I've needed serious assistance to catch Borgen this time around and it's only thanks to recording to my (limited capacity) Virgin+ box that I believe I will be able to keep up with the remainder of the season. As you say, with subtitled programmes, you can't really multi-task and do the ironing…

    As for 'stripped' scheduled – I absolutely hate it. It's become a way to 'dump' programmes quickly into and out of the schedule. There's no time to build, no way to keep and catch up and I know I've missed a number of porgrammes that way. Schedulers seem to have little idea what to do with drama these days…

  • Our Sky box fills up to quickly with HD STTNG to be able to watch all of them. That and the fact it repeatedly fails to record things since the last firmware update means we can watch them apace.