New horizons 

1 January 2003

The launch of Sky Television in 1989 and British Satellite Broadcasting the following year opened up a new market for imports. With negligible audiences and minuscule programming budgets, neither side was able to offer up a schedule based around original productions, so repeats and imports would inevitably form a large part of the schedules.

Of the two networks’ entertainment channels, BSB’s Galaxy had the stronger line-up, and this also extended to imports as well. Acclaimed contemporary series such as ‘China Beach’ or ‘Murphy Brown’ were scheduled alongside classics such as ‘The Outer Limits’. Of course not everything was up to those standards, with the infamous ‘Heil Honey, I’m Home’ also part of the channel’s schedule.

Sky One on the other hand was largely reliant on older series, although the launch of the Fox network in the States would eventually reap large dividends for the channel.

Perhaps the turning point for the channel came on 2 September 1990 when ‘The Simpsons’ first aired in the UK. First broadcast in the US in December 1989, the series has become synonymous with Sky and even today forms a major part of Sky One’s schedule with over a dozen episodes shown during most weeks.

Animated scheduling

Whilst regarded as a primetime series in the States, ‘The Simpsons’ is sadly pitched more towards children in the UK. This may be because Sky (and other UK broadcasters) automatically regard an animated series as being primarily for children or simply an unfortunate result of its early evening scheduling.

Of course this scheduling may have been because Sky regarded it as being of more interest to younger viewers or simply because it identified a weak-link in the terrestrial channels’ scheduling between 6-7pm on a Sunday. With religious programming still being shown on BBC-1 and ITV, here was an opportunity that Sky One could exploit. Since relatively few of its viewers would be watching Songs of Praise or Highway, why not give them something that they would be interested in watching?

The fact that ‘The Simpsons’ was given a repeat at 8.30pm on Thursdays in the early days perhaps lends support to this argument but, either way, the fact that the series was given an early evening slot has affected the way the series is perceived in the UK. Not only was Bart often promoted as the ‘star’ of the show instead of Homer, but many episodes are cut when shown in the UK. When the BBC first acquired the series it seemed to believe that this was the show to recapture the Saturday evening audience of both adults and children that had been lost with the decline of Doctor Who, scheduling that saw the series quickly pulled.

BBC mistakes

Subsequent BBC transmissions have included a short run on Saturday mornings (which the BBC admits was a mistake) before it was given an early evening slot on BBC-2, which of course meant it would still have to be cut. It’s unlikely that, having spent a small fortune to acquire the series, Channel 4 will break with this tradition even though the series would probably do at least as well at say 8pm or 8.30pm – as far as UK broadcasters are convinced The Simpsons is a series that is best targeted at younger viewers.

The Sky/BSB “merger” in November 1990 saw Galaxy and Sky One supposedly teaming up to give viewers the “best of both worlds.” In reality this meant that Galaxy’s BBC repeats were pulled with immediate effect, so that viewers left wondering what happened in the last three episodes of ‘Doctor Who: The Daleks’ would have to buy the BBC video and anyone watching ‘Jupiter Moon’ would have to wait until the series reran on the Sci-Fi Channel to those episodes which Galaxy never got round to showing.

Imports would therefore form the bulk of Sky One’s schedule, but at least the merger meant a general rise in quality. ‘The Simpsons’ were still there, of course, but they were now joined by other series, many of which came from Galaxy such as the Ferris Bueller clone ‘Parker Lewis Can’t Lose’ and ‘Designing Women’, as well as the aforementioned ‘China Beach’ and ‘Murphy Brown’. The Fox network provided ‘Cops’, which was a Sky One Saturday night staple for years, while Sunday and Monday nights would usually be given over to imported mini-series such as ‘Fatal Vision’ that had already been seen on one of the terrestrial channels. These might have been ancient, but at least they filled up the primetime schedule for at least two nights every week.

Perhaps the two next important imports were ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation’ and ‘The X Files’. The original ‘Star Trek’ had first aired on BBC-1 in the summer of 1969 and was a regular in the schedules for years, cropping up every year until 1981 and then from 1984 to 1986. ‘The Next Generation’, which had debuted in the US as a syndicated series in September 1987 had finally arrived on BBC-2 three years later.

However, after three seasons Sky One acquired first run rights and set the trend for all subsequent Star Trek series, which would all appear first on Sky One (although some two-part Next Generation would be shown on Sky Movies instead) before crossing over to terrestrial television. Subsequently Sky One would repeat the trick of acquiring later seasons of programmes already established by other broadcasters with ‘Lois & Clark’ and most successfully of all, ‘Friends’.

A market for Trekkers

Video releases of ‘Star Trek’ had already demonstrated that there was a market prepared to watch the series and now sci-fi fans joined sports and movie fans as part of Sky’s core audience. Additionally, the sheer number of ‘Star Trek’ episodes also allowed Sky to strip the series’ repeat runs across the weekday schedules – usually at 5pm with an 11pm repeat – for weeks at a time.

But if ‘The Next Generation’ was a successful series – albeit one pigeon-holed as being for sci-fi anoraks – ‘The X Files’ was a phenomenon, both in terms of audience size and press coverage.

First shown by Fox on 10 September 1993, the series arrived on Sky One four months later, an early example of Sky One picking up series from the current US television season (which runs from September/October through to May) and running them from the following January.

‘The X Files’ was a massive success for both Fox and Sky, generating a huge amount of column inches and making stars out of leads David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson, which the FHM edition featuring Anderson rapidly becoming a collectors’ item as the series popularity soared.

When the series transferred to terrestrial television it was on BBC-2, and like Sky One, the channel showed episodes in the correct order. However, as the series’ ratings rose, BBC-1 wanted this audience for itself and towards the end of its second season, the programme swapped channels, and the main channel showed that it was more than happy to start shuffling the episode order.

X marks the mistake

The first BBC-1 episode should have been episode 18 of the season, but this was swapped with episode 20. This may have simply been because the BBC believed it was a more suitable introductory episode for BBC-1 audience but it was still an early indication that BBC-1 was more interested in the size of the audience that the programme itself.

This trend would reach a sorry conclusion a couple of seasons later when the BBC appeared to select which episodes it could show with either no or minimal cuts and these were duly shown. The BBC then appeared to go back to the start of the season, select those episodes that required slightly more cuts and show these in a later slot.

By the time all the episodes were shown, the BBC had looped back to the start at least four times and the order in which the episodes were shown in couldn’t have been any more random if the BBC had taken all the cans of film and simply thrown them up in the air. Even viewers who weren’t aware of the original episode order would have known something was amiss when Scully’s dog returned from the dead – even ‘The X Files’ wasn’t into reincarnated pets.

Subsequent seasons never seemed to continue the audience momentum that the series had in its early BBC-2 days. Of course, the increased audience on Sky One would have pulled some viewers away, but this shouldn’t have accounted for more than, say, half a million viewers. Arguably some viewers may have watched it because it was ‘trendy’ and coupled with the drop in quality in later seasons it’s unsurprisingly that many of these drifted away. However, it’s quite possible that BBC-1’s poor treatment of the show (episodes shown out of order and a timeslot later than the 9pm or 9.45pm that it enjoyed on BBC-2) helped accelerate this decline. Many of those still watching the series were probably relieved when the declining audience meant that the series was moved back to BBC Two for the last couple of seasons because at least the series would probably get improved treatment from the minority channel.

Foxing Sky

The Fox network in the States has always provided Sky One with a large proportion of its imports, many of which were short-lived (unsurprising given the casualty rate on US television) but the likes of ‘Cops’, ‘The Simpsons’ and ‘The X Files’ lasted for years. However, by the end of the 1990s, Sky One had another source of programming as UPN and The WB launched networks deliberately targeted at younger audiences than the main US networks.

Many series on these channels, particularly those on The WB, would eventually find homes in the Sky One schedule. One of these would go onto to become one of Sky One’s highest rated programmes, as well as spawning a successful spin-off. Yet when it was first shown on Sky One it was a ratings failure that was pulled because its audience was too low even for Sky. Yet whilst ‘The Simpsons’ and ‘The X Files’ had built up a decent satellite audience before transferring to terrestrial television, it took a terrestrial channel to turn ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ into a success on Sky One.

You Say

1 response to this article

Arthur Vasey 9 December 2014 at 11:53 pm

In the early 80s, Tyne Tees Television were somewhat cack-handed with their American imports – details as follows:

LOU GRANT: Ignored the first season altogether and only showed us the second season – out of sequence – OK, so it wasn’t actually a serial – but there was some continuity between episodes – referring back to earlier episodes – which were screened later in the run;

HILL STREET BLUES: at first, networked – but was then regionalised – and Tyne Tees seemed to, as the report says about BBC1’s handling of The X-Files, threw the cans into the air;

DIFF’RENT STROKES: Early episodes were in sequence – but I think some were left out – after Mr Drummond adopted Willis and Arnold, it was all over the place;

BENSON: More-or-less in order at first – don’t think they completed it – but the final season Tyne Tees did show was all over the place – this was around 1985 or so.

At least they had the common sense to show Benson’s progenitor, Soap, in order.

Also, Happy Days was all over the place – commencing its original run from around Series 3 or so and shoehorning episodes from the early seasons from its second series (really series 4 or something).

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