TV Asylum 

1 January 2003

Imported series have been a major part of British television schedules for nearly half a century. The BBC might not have been a huge importer of programmes until the end of the 1950s, but ITV quickly realised that they could be attractive to viewers. One, Dragnet, even appeared on Associated-Rediffusion’s first solo evening of programming.

By the middle of the following decade, imports – particularly westerns and crime series – were a staple on both main channels. The Independent Television Authority was sufficiently concerned about the situation that it urged the commercial companies to restrict themselves to two imports on weeknights between 8-9pm, something that would have affected A-R more than most because ITC’s American-aimed but British-made film series were shown in London by ATV.

Richard Greene plays the title character in ITC's Adventures of Robin Hood

The genres of westerns and crime series weren’t the only imports, however. Comedies such as I Love Lucy, children’s programming and science fiction (including anthologies) were also bought in.

Repeating repeats

In an era when repeats – especially archive ones – of home-produced programmes were unusual, many imported series ran in the UK for years. Star Trek, for example, was already out of production when it arrived in the UK in the summer of 1969, but that didn’t stop the BBC showing it every year until 1981, and then again from 1984-6. Contrast that with Doctor Who, which only had a couple of stories from the most recent season repeated, and that practice only really began in the mid-1970s.

Doctor Who (Peter Purves, William Hartnell, Maureen O'Brien) - not as repeated as 'Star Trek'

Even if there weren’t restrictions on the repeating of British programmes, US series in particular had a major attraction to the BBC and ITV – they were in colour. With the exception of ITC’s film series and the later seasons of The Avengers, the majority of British series would still have been produced in black and white until the end of the 1960s.

The Avengers - ABC Weekend Television (and Associated British Productions for Thames Television)

That’s not to say that imported series made in black and white were consigned to the rubbish bin. The BBC first showed the Franco-London Films series The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe in 1965, and continued showing it until 1982. Even a decade after this, ancient Saturday matinee film series of Flash Gordon or The Bat-Man would occasionally be dusted down for the school holidays, although it’s probable that broadcasters had an eye on the adult market as well.

The 1980s saw a huge increase in broadcast hours, and naturally imported series were used to plug many of the holes in the schedules. The expansion of daytime television saw an influx of Australian imports, with Neighbours and Home and Away proving hugely popular, while ITV’s move to 24-hour broadcasting opened up another market.

Cell Block H

The Australian series Prisoner (retitled Prisoner: Cell Block H for the UK) became cult viewing in many regions, and it’s easy to see the attraction that this sort of series had for broadcasters. Not only were they cheap, but even series that were now out of production often had hundreds of episodes available – Prisoner had almost 700, while the 1960s version of The Fugitive (120 episodes) was rerun by many regions.

Prisoner (Cell Block H) - Grundy/Fremantle Media

But the largest expansion came with the launch of Channel 4 in November 1982. Early imports included the Paul Hogan Show, while archive programmes such as The Addams Family and The Munsters were able to attract a new audience that hadn’t been born when the series were first shown. Channel 4’s imports during the 1980s can be broadly split into three main categories – early evenings (the two black and white series mentioned above, and later the likes of Family Ties and Kate and Allie), peaktime (Cheers) and Sunday lunchtimes, which towards the end of the decade saw reruns of 1960s Irwin Allen series.

Treat them mean

However, the treatment of imported series varied wildly. Some, such as Dallas, were major parts of the schedules, with primetime slots and episodes shown in the correct order. Serials such as Robinson Crusoe would also have to be shown in this way, but many others were shown with little or no regard to their original running order. Star Trek¸ for example, opened in the UK with its third episode, followed by numbers 4, 27, 22 and 6, with its first episode not shown until halfway through the first UK ‘season’.

The reasons for this are many. Sometimes only a limited number of episodes were acquired, while on others certain episodes couldn’t be shown in the UK (e.g. The Six Million Dollar Man episode Outrage in Balinderry was only shown once by Southern before being banned). Christmas episodes would often be dropped from their correct place in the run and shown later, and episodes would often be cut – either because of content or because of timing (this particularly affected feature-length pilots or two-part stories edited together).

BBC-1’s long overdue move to a weekday schedule based around 30 and 60 minute slots in the mid-1980s had an obvious impact on the way it handled imported series. Previously the schedule had allowed for, say, The Rockford Files to be shown at 7.20pm, followed by Panorama at 8.10 and then the main news at nine. The new schedule would require half-hour imports to be padded out to a 30 minute slot or scheduled alongside of a flexible length such as Wogan or Top of the Pops, while hour-long imports would require a short filler (e.g. when Dallas was moved to a midweek slot, it would usually lead into Points of View).

BBC-1’s new schedule saw new timeslots for imports open up on BBC-2, notably early evenings between 6-7.30pm and later between 9-10.30pm leading into Newsnight. While many of the series in the former would be recent teen-friendly fare, there were also the first complete network runs of series like The Invaders, which had been subjected to the dreaded ‘regional variations’ when shown on ITV in the late 1960s. This slot would later develop into one primarily for science-fiction/fantasy series, although many fans would object to the programmes being shown in an early evening timeslot.

By the end of the 1980s, the four terrestrial broadcasters were no longer alone. 1989 saw the launch of Sky Television, followed a year later by BSB and naturally both used imports extensively. Coupled with the launch of the Fox network in the US (which would obviously have strong links with Sky), the arrival of multi-channel television in Britain would have a major impact on the way imported programmes were used by terrestrial broadcasters, as well as how viewers would expect them to be treated.

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