Sunday, 1 July 2012

DOCTOR WHO vs. Buck Rogers - 1980 A.D.

The logo is bigger, I grant you.
From 1963 to 1980, Doctor Who enjoyed great success in its Saturday teatime slot on BBC1.  There were ups and downs over the 17 years, but its popularity held remarkably well over such a long period of time, always winning its time slot.

The ITV strike of 1979, lasting 10th August to 24th October, even allowed the long-established series to enjoy some audiences of over 19m: the largest figures Who has ever achieved.

But with Season Eighteen in 1980, ratings crashed.  This run, the first under producer John Nathan-Turner, beginning on Saturday 30th August at 6.15pm, suffered a humiliating defeat by Buck Rogers in the 25th Century.

Buck Rogers was a new import being screened by the ITV network approximately one year after its debut in the US.  Based on a fifty year-old comic book character, it starred Gil Gerard as a NASA pilot from the 20th century who is frozen for 500 years and wakes up to new adventures in a post-nuclear civilisation.

It had the benefit of having its pilot movie released theatrically, in the UK in late July 1979 - hence this was not shown during its initial run on ITV.

Produced by Glen A Larson, Rogers was an attempt to do Star Wars for television (his second, after Battlestar Galactica), and to be honest doesn't have a lot going for it outside of its state-of-the-art, albeit heavily recycled, special effects.  However, at the time that was probably enough to sway viewers away from the BBC's brand of videotaped science fiction - especially after the enormous cinema success of Star Wars, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, The Empire Strikes Back, The Black Hole and even Moonraker.  Sadly, the writing was on the wall for the original series of Doctor Who.

Gil Gerard and ERIN GRAY in Buck Rogers in the 25th Century.  Okay, there may have been other reasons why people watched this instead of Doctor Who.
For sixteen weeks in the autumn of 1980, the two shows were on simultaneously.  Who's ratings were terrible, all the more so for there being only three channels at the time: an average of just over 5 million.  Part Two of the third story screened, "Full Circle", was in 170th place in the charts with 3.7m.  Were there even 170 programmes on British television in one week in 1980?!

It's a shame that John Nathan-Turner's new look for the show was so roundly ignored.  His attempt to bring it into the 1980s with new titles, music and less frivolity freshened the brand considerably.

Records for Buck Rogers are dependent on the programme making the Top Twenty: the episode shown on 15th November was 19th= with 13.45m; the ep on 6th December was 17th with 13.5m.  Safe to assume this wasn't far off the norm.

Still no contest though, in my opinion.
So it was approx. 12m watching ITV against 5m for BBC1.  At the time, ITV's average share was 49% to BBC1's 39% (with BBC2 on 12%) - a much healthier division would've been 9.5m for Buck Rogers and 7.5m for Who.

Weeks 2-8 Buck Rogers was preceded by Metal Mickey Series 1, then by Worzel Gummidge Series 3 for weeks 9-16.  After week 6, Who was brought forward half an hour to run against the first rather than second half of Buck Rogers, and supported by The Basil Brush Show.  The dapper little red fox had his own variety show on BBC1 from 1968, and this was the final run.

Saturday 4th October 1980 - probably also quite a few watching Jailhouse Rock on BBC2
Juliet Bravo, a new Ian Kennedy Martin police series starring Stephanie Turner, ran its first series those same four months, on BBC1 usually around 7.25pm.  Audiences grew to a peak of almost 17 million.  Preceding it, and directly after Who for weeks 1-6, separated by news and sports results thereafter, was Larry Grayson's Generation Game.  His third series as host proved as phenomenally popular as ever, averaging about 16½m.  It was only Doctor Who letting the side down.

The figures probably had some bearing on Tom Baker's departure after seven seasons, announced to the press on Friday 24th October.  He may have been going anyway, but no one was likely to dissuade him now.  Maybe a change was due.

Peter Davison's casting as the fifth actor to play the Doctor, announced on Tuesday 4th November, was astute.  Davison was an extremely high profile young actor, having begun to appear in starring roles on television after his supporting turn as Tristan in three series of period drama All Creatures Great and Small.

1982 and arguably the last successful new era for Doctor Who until 2005.
At the time of his negotiations over Doctor Who, he was being seen in new LWT sitcom Holding the Fort and recording another, Sink or Swim, for the BBC.  Securing him for Who was quite a coup on Nathan-Turner's part.  Otherwise, who knows?  Those figures are crying out for the axe, long before Michael Grade came along.  In fact, Grade was working for LWT at the time and commissioned Holding the Fort.

Happy to note is that come the New Year, Buck Rogers took a break and average ratings for Tom Baker's remaining 12 episodes were 6.8m (a 34% increase).

And happier, the first series with a new Doctor in eight years averaged 9.24m when shown January-March 1982, in a weekday early evening slot - a major change prompted by the poor showing for the previous run.  Davison's debut as the Doctor ran twice-weekly, Mondays and Tuesdays at around 7pm and reversed the decline in viewership, for now.

As for Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, it was cancelled by NBC midway through its second season.  I think ITV completed the series, but it never enjoyed another full network showing after that initial 16 week run.

P.S. I watched Who.  Apart from 18th October when I was packed off to my cousins', who watched Buck Rogers.  I switched over at the first ad break to see Who's closing credits.  "Meglos" Part Four, I never knew you.

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