Roswell mystery 

1 June 2002

Broadcasters today seem to have a low opinion of viewers’ intelligence. They seek to constantly remind us of which channel (and often which programme) we’re watching. Viewers of the BBC’s digital channels can’t even be trusted to remember the URL of the popular website in the UK.

This lack of faith in viewers also extends to a belief that they’ll believe anything they’re told, as anyone who’s ever found cause to complain to one will know.

Of course, this isn’t to say that every single complaint requires an individual response, but where something more than a stock response is called for, being fobbed off can be almost as annoying as what caused the initial complaint.

A prime example of how broadcasters are happy to lie to viewers and avoid actually answering their complaints is demonstrated by the BBC’s attitude to the US series “Roswell High.”

In the US, “Roswell” (as the series is correctly known) has always been considered a primetime series. This season, its third, it airs at 9pm Eastern/Pacific Time, directly after “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”, which is somewhat ironic given how the two series are treated in the UK.

When it arrived in the UK on Sky One, the series was retitled “Roswell High”, after the novels on which it is loosely based. This was unfortunate as anyone who’s seen the series will know that it has far more in common with “Buffy” or even “The X Files” than the likes of “Heartbreak High.”

This new title became more of an issue when the series migrated to terrestrial television. Few viewers would consider a series that airs at 8pm on Sky One to be solely for teenagers, yet when that same series is shown in a 6pm slot, the title seems more than likely to put off potential viewers in their 20s and upwards, especially since BBC-2’s promotion – a tacky “teenage aliens all over your TV!” approach – did it no favours whatsoever.

Despite this, the series’ ratings grew steadily over the course of the season, although the BBC was still prepared to lie in order to cover up its own shortcomings.

Anyone who complained that the season ended one episode short was told that the BBC had referred to the episode ‘The White Room’ as the “last episode in the current series” in order to avoid confusing viewers as the season finale couldn’t be shown at this time. The BBC went on to explain that, because it shares the rights to the series with Sky One, it was unable to show any episodes after 8 February 2001. Since “some transmission slots [were lost] to other programmes, such as sport, between December and the end of January,” it had no alternative but to end the run one episode early.

Apart from missing the obvious solution of scheduling an extra episode while it still could, the BBC was deliberately misleading viewers when it claimed slots had been lost to sport – only one had been lost in December and January, and that was between Christmas and New Year. This wasn’t an unexpected or last minute change as BBC-2’s 6-7.30pm slot has been either heavily disrupted or cancelled outright over Christmas in recent years. Yet anyone who pointed this out to the BBC was merely given the standard “your comments have been passed on” brush-off.

In fact, far from causing scheduling problems, slotting in an extra episode of “Roswell” could have prevented them. Had the penultimate episode been shown in place of that week’s “Buffy”, not only would the BBC have been able to show the whole season, but also the blank week for “Buffy” would have meant that a two-part story wasn’t interrupted by sport!

Perhaps I’m being overly cynical, but I suspect that the BBC was perfectly happy to finish the season one episode early as, despite upsetting viewers and disrupting the series, it also prevented a smooth handover to Sky One. This wouldn’t be the first time that BBC-2 has pulled this particular trick – back in March 1999, the head of Sky One told me that he’d agreed BBC-2 would show the first eight episodes of “Buffy”‘s second season, before his channel picked up from episode nine. In the event, the BBC pulled the series after five episodes – again citing unexpected breaks for sport as the reason for leaving viewers in the lurch.

When the series returned to Sky One on 21 February, it was under a new name – “Roswell.” Sky One’s “Backchat” feature explaining that the ‘new’ title reflected the series’ move away from the high school setting of the previous year.

Clearly it would have made sense for the BBC to follow suit, allowing them to pick up viewers who had come to the show during the second Sky One run, as well as those put off by the “Roswell High” title. I emailed the BBC to ask which title they would be using, only to be told that they would be sticking with “Roswell High”, using the logic that “as [‘Roswell’] might be a meaningless name to the majority of the British public, our retitling would increase the chance of the programme reaching its target audience of mid and late-teens.”

I believe this logic to be deeply flawed. “Roswell” is on a minority channel, and it is therefore largely irrelevant whether or not the majority of the public find the name meaningless. Far from providing the series with a more meaningful title, retaining the old one is likely to put off potential viewers – anyone watching “Roswell” on Sky One may not automatically make the connection that it is the same series as “Roswell High” on BBC-2, while the “High” suffix pigeon-holes the series as one about and designed for younger viewers.

Since “Roswell” is still in production, the BBC isn’t in a position to make an informed judgement about its overall appeal. The current season marks a further shift away from the high school setting of the first year, and if it should be renewed for a fourth year, the BBC will either have to revert to the correct title eventually or stick with their “Roswell High” one when none of the characters are left in school!

Furthermore, the BBC’s target audience is at odds with both the 9pm timeslot in the US and an average audience of 30.2 years (source: “USA Today”, 19.04.01), nearly two years older than that of “Buffy.” Yet while the BBC thinks that “Buffy” has sufficient adult appeal to warrant an uncut late night repeat, “Roswell” is targeted at an audience of 15 and 16 year olds.

Sticking with the “Roswell High” title, the series returned to BBC-2 on 4 September 2001, with the delayed season one finale. Whether their actions earlier in the year were just sloppy scheduling followed by an attempt to fob viewers off, or a more deliberate attempt to sabotage another channel, the postponement of the season one finale now meant a disjointed start to the new run of episodes.

The BBC had claimed that since the penultimate episode of season one ended on a cliffhanger (as part one of a two-part story), this made it a sensible place to pause. However, as with many other US series, new seasons of Roswell pick up three months after the end of the previous one. Thanks to the BBC, terrestrial viewers in the UK had a seven-month gap between episodes that directly follow one another, and only seven days between ones set three months apart – hardly the ideal way to kick off a new season.

Coupled with non-existent on-air promotion and some half-hearted coverage by BBC Online (especially when compared to the space devoted to “Buffy”), the delayed season one finale attracted the series’ lowest BBC-2 audience to date – down by nearly a million on what it was attracting towards the end of the first run.

Outside events then hit the show, as the second episode of the new run (i.e. the season two opener) was shown on 11 September. Clearly the events in New York and Washington were at the forefront of most people’s minds, and it should come as no surprise that the ratings slid even further – barely scraping past the one million mark.

With this sort of start, it was hardly surprising that ratings for the next couple of episodes continued to be poor, but by the fifth episode of the run, they were back up to 1.62 million – not great, but up by a third over the average ratings for the first four episodes. Admittedly this is still below many shows in the 6-7.30pm block, but given the series’ poor start, this was a reasonable recovery.

Despite this, the BBC weren’t satisfied, and the series was pulled from its 6.45pm Tuesday slot and moved to 12.15pm on Sundays. Even though the ratings for the final two episodes shown in the early evening slot confirmed that the ratings increase wasn’t a one-off blip, the move went ahead, while the BBC’s credibility with fans sunk to new depths.

Their initial response was to complain that the “series was not achieving a regular time slot on BBC-2 on Tuesday evening”, something that was blatantly untrue – during the eight weeks when it was still being shown on Tuesdays, “Roswell” was only dropped once. Whilst this may be frustrating for those viewers inclined to complain to Ceefax at the first sign of the word ‘snooker’ in the schedule, “Roswell” was subject to no more disruption than the likes of “Buffy” or “Farscape.” Even more amazingly, BBC Information tried to claim that the lack of a regular time slot went as far back as the first run on BBC-2, when it was only dropped from the schedules twice in 23 weeks!

The BBC went on to claim that the new “excellent slot” would allow “this popular science-fiction series to reach its maximum potential” – rather a strange claim for a timeslot sandwiched between yet another repeat of “Robot Wars” and the regional political programmes.

Most viewers would consider that a series maximises its potential by pulling in as many viewers as possible. Yet the first episode in the new Sunday timeslot saw ratings slump by over a third from the level that the series was achieving just five days earlier.

When I pointed out that many viewers unaware of the schedule change would merely believe that “Roswell” had been cancelled outright, the BBC claimed that this was nonsense. Upon not seeing a series in its usual slot, viewers would scan the listings in search of it – not just in likely slots, but in the most unlikely ones as well. Personally, I think this is unlikely, and those relying on a manual search through the listings would be in serious danger of missing the change, not least because daytime schedules are usually afforded much less space than peak time ones.

Obviously any schedule change has the potential to upset viewers. However what disappointed me the most was the BBC’s insistence on sticking to a prepared line, even when this line has been shown to be untrue. This may be because I’ve already seen the series on Sky One and would buy any future DVD release, but clearly many are not so lucky. I believe that the BBC should at least be honest with these viewers – if a series is being moved because of poor ratings, then it should at least have the decency to say so.

But do we really want a BBC that is willing to drop new episodes of a series in search of a couple of hundred thousand extra viewers when it is replaced by the umpteenth repeat of “Star Trek: The Next Generation”?

Benjamin Disraeli is alleged to have said there were three kinds of lies: “lies, damned lies and statistics”; personally I’d like to add “broadcasters ‘ excuses” to that list.

A Transdiffusion Presentation

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