Thursday, December 12, 2013

Ripper Street

Every show's cancellation hits the people who love it, and every show has a core group of people who love it lots. But the wider dismay over the BBC's cancellation of Victorian-era police drama Ripper Street, shown in the US on BBC America, seems to have an unusual edge to it.

I'm not a fan. By which I don't mean that I have a low opinion of it, simply that I don't follow the show. And if anything I ought to welcome its cancellation, because with Ripper Street and Copper out of the way, development execs are willing to look seriously at the Becker books again.

But it's worrying that once again the BBC has killed a series that it claims to be proud of, citing a fall in viewing figures as the reason. For an advertising-driven broadcaster viewing figures are crucial because their business is one of selling eyeballs to advertisers. The viewer is not the client, but the product. The programmes are bait, to draw a crowd and serve it up to the client's sales force. In the UK, regulation imposed a quality threshold on commercial television from the very beginning. With relaxed regulation you get Babestation.

The BBC isn't a commercial network. With its one-off yearly license fee funding, the BBC's model is more like that of a cable company - and it's the biggest bargain of its kind in the business, whatever the bottom half of the internet may say. Sky charges you more, produces less, and still shows you ads.

Subscription-funded companies like HBO or Showtime don't have to worry about the figures for any one programme. Their brand image is defined by the quality of some of their least-watched product. Hence The Sopranos, Deadwood, Mad Men, Breaking Bad - bar-raisers for an entire industry. AMC's Mad Men made its debut to less than a million viewers. The episode average never rose above three million, but it was deemed worthy of six seasons.

The BBC's there for all of us in the UK. Because of the compulsory license fee, we're all subscribers. Yet the BBC chooses to ape ITV's methods and compete for ratings in time slots, as if courting imaginary ad buyers. Which wouldn't be so bad if they didn't then use those ratings as the measure of a programme's worth, when simply moving the material around the schedule can have a drastic effect on its numbers.

(I speak here as someone who once saw his big-budget one-off BBC drama scheduled against live football on ITV, Manchester United v AC Milan. They knew what the outcome would be and didn't even bother making any trails for the show.)

I've heard it suggested that the real reason for Ripper Street's cancellation is that it's too 'blokeish' for some executives' tastes, and the numbers only provide a handy excuse. So presumably the blokes will now go off and watch The Paradise instead. Or maybe Mr Selfridge.

That's about a bloke, isn't it?

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