Monday, July 21, 2008

Why isn't The Wire on the BBC?

Today the final series of The Wire starts in the UK, on the relatively obscure digital channel FX.

With the level of praise for The Wire in the British media at an all time high - big feature on last week's Culture Show, numerous raves in the press, including this piece in The Observer, why has the show never been shown on terrestrial (non digital) TV? Surely BBC2 would be the natural home for it.

The truth is that I don't know, but having followed the UK media industry for several years, I can think of a few reasons:

1 - The show won't get good ratings. All TV channels, including the BBC, rely heavily on ratings to decide where to place TV shows, and which TV shows to run. The Wire never got great ratings in the US, despite strong critical approval, and we can't actually see the level of ratings that it gets on FX because FX isn't on BARB, meaning that you can't see their viewing data. It could be that the BBC has looked at the sort of ratings it would expect from a difficult US show (no recaps at the start of the programme, hard to get into initially, and hard to follow if you start half way through), and decided that it's not worth it.

2 - FX out-bid them for the rights. FX is owned by Fox, and FX is their 'edgy US content' channel. They need something high profile to help put the channel on the map, and The Wire fits the bill. So - does anyone know the rate for syndicating The Wire, and did FX simply outbid the BBC as a loss leader (see point 1). This may have been compounded by the fact that if The Wire didn't get good ratings for the early series in the US (it didn't), the BBC may not have been interested when the first series was up for sale - and FX may have got a 'first access to future series' clause (I don't know - I'm only guessing).

3 - Terrestrial channels can only show a set % of non-UK output, to protect domestic TV production. This is why (thankfully) we don't get wall-to-wall US and Australian imports, and in fact thanks to the success of the Aussie soaps, we get fewer big budget US shows on the Beeb than we did in the 1980s. But... BBC2 doesn't really show many American shows, and they found room for the (pretty over-hyped) Mad Men earlier in the year, so I don't think that this can be the answer.

4 - There's no slot for it. British TV is pretty poor at scheduling American shows, or perhaps given point 1, many American shows don't attract big audiences. Channel 4 has pushed The Sopranos later and later into the night. Curb Your Enthusiasm has been pushed into late night slots on More4 (they didn't even bother to promote the brilliant Steve Coogan episode), and the BBC has always struggled to find a regular slot and audience for huge hit shows like Seinfeld and Family Guy. (Channel 4 initially put Family Guy on at 6pm, which suggests that they didn't bother to watch it first). But... Come on - make a commitment to The Wire. Put it on at 10pm every Saturday, with a 3 episode catch up every 3rd week. Then, when you've done all 5 series, start again from the beginning.

5 - Language - There's lots of swearing, but this can't be the reason, as the BBC shows all films and TV uncut, but with warnings.

6 - No appreciation for it. I doubt that this is a reason - I'm sure all of the BBC top brass who've seen it love it. But I have one particular gripe with the BBC which is that several years ago they had a show called The Cops, which was also a very gritty police show, featuring characters like Roy, played by John Henshaw, that would have fitted right into The Wire. The BBC dropped it after 3 series, despite it winning 2 BAFTAs for best drama series, and now you can't even get it on DVD. The VHS sets go for about £40 each on Amazon. [Rant over]

7 - No one is interested in whether it is on terrestrial or not. Over 80% of UK households have at least one digital TV set, and most of these can get FX. The first 4 series are available to buy, so in this multi channel world who cares if it is on terrestrial or not? Again, this may be a reason, but I don't think that it's the right one. Appearing on terrestrial channels still guarantee higher audiences, and in the Reithian tradition, I believe the more people that see this show the better.

(This post is not meant to be knocking the BBC. BBC2 is the perfect place for The Wire, and I'm just fascinated by the fact that it isn't on BBC2)

UPDATE - David Hepworth of The Word magazine is also asking the same question - but his commenters say they prefer it on DVD because:
-Watch when you want.
-Pause for beer breaks.
- Switch subtitles on for Snoop's scenes.
- No annoying channel logo.
- Commentary tracks.
- It's not shown here.

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