Why has Doctor Who become a scheduling football?

News Simon Brew 24 Jun 2010 - 07:05

No two consecutive weeks of the current series of Doctor Who have gone out at the same time. Has the BBC just used it to suit the needs of other programmes?

This weekend's Doctor Who has got a lot of work to do. The Pandorica Opens, the last episode, left things finely poised, gave us a cracking cliffhanger, and left us scouring the series just gone to find further clues as to what's going to happen in the next instalment, The Big Bang, on Saturday.

We were disheartened to read, though, that the BBC has decided to put The Big Bang, the big finale episode, on at 6.05pm on Saturday night. Now granted, a series finale has momentum of its own, and is likely to work at differing days. And granted, we're in the middle of World Cup season, and that makes scheduling an extended episode of Doctor Who quite tricky. But, sadly, it follows 12 weeks where the show simply hasn't been allowed to sit in the same slot two weeks running.

Here's a recap of when each episode has screened.

The Eleventh Hour: 6.25pm
The Beast Below: 6.15pm
Victory Of The Daleks: 6.30pm
The Time Of Angels: 6.20pm
Flesh and Stone: 6.25pm
Vampires Of Venice: 6.00pm
Amy's Choice: 6.25pm
The Hungry Earth: 6.15pm
Cold Blood: 7.00pm
Vincent and the Doctor: 6.40pm
The Lodger: 6.45pm
The Pandorica Opens: 6.40pm

Several things immediately jump out there.

Firstly, there's not been two weeks where the show has gone out at the same time. Granted, there's been a variance of five minutes here or there at times, but there's been no dependable, solid slot when you knew you had to be in front of the telly to watch the show (iPlayer has come in very valuable this series, certainly).

Furthermore, aside from The Eleventh Hour and The Big Bang, each episode has filled a 45 minute time window. Thus, the show itself has been delivering the same amount of material each and every week, so it's not as if the schedulers are having to work around Doctor Who's varying episode lengths.

No, what's happening is that the BBC has used Doctor Who like a bit of a scheduling football. For instance, back when Over The Rainbow was running, the BBC was keen to protect it from ITV's Britain's Got Talent. Thus, it screened Over The Rainbow a little earlier in the evening, and Doctor Who got knocked back as a consequence.  More recently, there's been football, and there's also the European Song Contest that's had to be worked in (and Doctor Who traditionally has had a week off for that, of course).

The result is a really choppy schedule of episodes. I'm not saying it makes a massive difference, but I do think that Doctor Who has been one of the cornerstones of the BBC schedules in recent years, and certainly in terms of scripted drama outside of the world of soaps, it has nothing to match it.

This, sadly, has proven to be a bit of a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it's meant that Doctor Who has been a major part of the Saturday evening schedules, but on the other, it seems to have become the most movable part of it. After all, it's Doctor Who people will tune in at whatever time, won't they? (That's arguably the same thinking the led to Ashes To Ashes' final series going out on a Friday night.)

Well, actually, they won't. Ratings haven't been through the roof this series (although catch-up numbers have plugged the gap), and part of that surely is down to the fact that you can't be absolutely sure week in week out what time the show is supposed to be on. Take The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood two-parter. Part one was on at 6.15pm, and part two at 7.00pm. That's a fair difference right there.

I've always thought that the natural home for Doctor Who is 7pm on a Saturday night, and I dearly hope that when the powers that be review this series ahead of scheduling the next, they protect what's surely one of their jewels in the crown, rather than move it around to suit the needs of other shows in the schedule.

In his autobiography, that long-time supporter of Doctor Who, Michael Grade (ahem) talks about the art of scheduling, effectively the need to break programmes down into slots that people have a chance of remembering. It's an art that I can't help but feel the BBC has lost on Saturday nights, and come the new series of Who next year, I really hope gets sorted out.

In the meantime, The Big Bang will be screening at 6.05pm on Saturday night.

Check out the new and ever growing Doctor Who page at DoG, where we are marshalling all the Who content at the site, including interviews, DVD and episode reviews, lists, opinions and articles on our favourite time traveller...

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