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A 'Web of Fear'? BBC digital strategy and missing Doctor Who

11 Oct 2013  |  Richard Marks 
A 'Web of Fear'? BBC digital strategy and missing Doctor Who

Research the Media's Richard Marks examines how Tony Hall's vision of the BBC's digital future was followed by a stark reminder of a very different era in which TV content had the life expectancy of a mayfly.

This week has seen two fascinating BBC announcements and they are more linked than you might think.

Tuesday saw a first major speech from Tony Hall, in which emphasis was placed on the next generation of iPlayer and the unveiling of plans for an online 'BBC Store' from which we will be able to buy and download BBC programmes directly.

More than ever it's about the ability to distribute and monetise TV content. With the BBC license fee frozen, in cash terms, through to 2016, the BBC needs to exploit other revenue streams through BBC Worldwide that can be pumped back into programming. The opportunity is there: TV content now has an enduring value that far outlives narrow broadcast windows. As a result it is being made with the long game in mind, for people to discover it after broadcast, or in the case of Netflix, not even to be broadcast at all.

So the BBC has to have a clear strategy for how its content will be accessed over the coming years,  although as Nigel Walley made clear on Newsline yesterday, not everyone agrees with Hall's vision. Either way, given the likely future cost of high quality broadcast spectrum, having the right balance between broadcast, catch-up and on demand services will be essential to a thriving BBC.

Then, at a press conference in London on Thursday came an announcement that reminds us of a television era in which content was seen in an entirely different way. As you can't fail to have seen this morning, the BBC announced that nine episodes of 1960s Doctor Who, previously thought destroyed, have been recovered.

It's a reminder of how television, both the way we regard it and how we watch it, has evolved."

The Doctor Who fan in me would love to wax lyrical about the merits of the episodes recovered, but this is a media industry column, not a fanzine, and this find is about so much more than ecstatic Who fanatics. It's a reminder of how television, both the way we regard it and how we watch it, has evolved.

Various articles and books outline in great detail how these episodes came to be destroyed by the BBC in the first place, the most definitive being Wiped! by Richard Molesworth, but the simple explanation is that in the early 70s the BBC marked for destruction many of its old master tapes, not just of Doctor Who but other classics like Dads Army, The Likely Lads and Z-Cars. Why? How could 'My BBC' do this?

Looking at it from a 21st Century perspective it seems madness, cultural vandalism. However looked at through early 1970s eyes, was it really that illogical a decision?

- Videotape was an expensive commodity to use and store and they wanted to reuse the tapes.

- The shows were in black and white which would allegedly limit their interest to viewers in the colour era.

- Equity was not keen on TV shows being repeated as it was seen as limiting new roles for actors.

- Unless they were broadcast, how else could people see them? There was no BBC 3 or 4 to fill, no Watch or UK Gold to buy them, no VHS or DVD and certainly no iTunes, Netflix or BBC online Shop. So if they were kept, who would actually ever get to see them?

OK, as a Who fan I had to write that with my teeth gritted, but hindsight is always 20:20.

Arguably underpinning all of this is that, deep down, television just was not seen as a medium of enduring artistic significance. 60s TV was made quickly, to be shown on the night and then never seen again. That is not to say they were not producing quality content - classics were regularly produced in pokey studios at Lime Grove, Riverside Studios and TVC.

In the early 70s the videotape used to store the programmes was seen as having more intrinsic value than the programmes recorded on them."

However many of those involved in 60s TV had started in theatre. It was all about the performance on the night. TV was as ephemeral a medium as repertory theatre.

So, to put it starkly, in the early 70s the videotape used to store the programmes was actually seen as having more intrinsic value than the programmes recorded on them. Oh the analogue irony.

Videotape was wiped, film cans destroyed and, as a result, for the last forty years intrepid fans have been scouring the globe recovering episodes from overseas broadcasters and car boot sales. By 2013 the number of missing Doctor Who episodes had been reduced to 106. However, very few episodes have been recovered in the last decade and the conventional wisdom until yesterday was that all leads had been exhausted.

Now the second Doctor and his trusty companions Jamie and Victoria emerge like Buck Rogers from a time tunnel, blinking in the light of a 21st century TV infrastructure in which they can be loved, cherished and spread around the world in the blink of an upload to Tunes (or presumably the BBC Store). No longer regarded as a way to kill 25 minutes between Tom & Jerry and The Monkees, they are cherished classics of genre television, returning heroes from a different age, splashed across the front page of the Mirror.

They return to us in an era in which 'Content is King' has become a cliché, in which television is a global medium. As it approaches its 50th anniversary next month, Doctor Who is claimed to have a global audience of 77 million: the 50th Anniversary Special next month will have a global simulcast to over 75 countries and a Blu Ray release just nine days later. It's a TV world barely recognisable from the mayfly broadcasts of the 60s.

Modern Doctor Who is consistently one of the most time-shifted shows on TV. However, today, as fans keenly download Web Of Fear Part 1 they will be taking part in the longest time-shift in television history. For that episode was shown just once, on Saturday February 3rd 1968 for 25 minutes and then never seen again in the UK until this weekend.

Ironically as BARB has launched the measurement of 28 days time-shift, hundreds of thousands of Who fans around the World are about to take part in 45 year time-shift.

Meanwhile, if further Doctor Who missing treasures are recovered, will those fans be directed to the BBC Store rather than iTunes to download them? After all that would mean more of the margin returning to the BBC to make new Doctor Who. Above all, Tony Hall's speech was about ensuring that the BBC's digital future need not be a Web Of Fear.


@RichardMlive

Richard Marks is the Director of Research The Media. Find out more here.

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