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Doctor Who leads way with simultaneous time travel

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2011-04-22 Irish Times.jpg


Fears of online copying are behind the plan for a joint premiere of the series in the US and UK

FOR A television show most famous for stretching time to its limits, the debut of the new Doctor Who series this weekend will take one remarkably linear temporal aspect.

The science fiction serial will premiere tomorrow in both its home territory of the United Kingdom, and in the United States on the BBC's commercially run subsidiary, BBC America.

That contrasts with years almost 50, in fact - of foreign syndication, where global audiences out of the range of Britain's transmitters would have to wait months or years for the latest antics of the rogue time lord. And, of course, it stands in stark contrast to the similar gap most of us have to wait for the local transmission of the latest American TV serials and movies.

Part of the reason may be the unique US selling point of the first episode, which is set and filmed on location in the United States. But Doctor Who's trade-up from quarry to Utah desert is not the most obvious reason for his simultaneous time travel.

Every popular TV show now faces widespread copying online. It's not just science fiction or other genre shows with a large fanbase. There are sites devoted to all British, or American, or Irish current TV programmes, sharing everything from Coronation Street to Love/Hate as soon as it is broadcast.

Staggering release dates exacerbate the problem of such piracy. While a fraction of net users will not seek out infringing copies if a legal equivalent is online at a reasonable cost, attempting to close off a market for a product that is known to be available somewhere simply pushes users into the black market.

For a series such as Doctor Who, it also has a chilling effect on a vital component of its international sales: buzz. Right now, much of the geekier parts of the net are talking about the upcoming episode; afterwards, they'll speak freely on what they thought, good or bad. If it's bad, that's not going to help future audiences. Either way, they'll be sharing plot twists and other details with readers worldwide.

Two years ago BBC America ended up showing an older series of Doctor Who at the same time as the current show; sites including Twitter were full of commentators confusing each other with their updates and spoiling the future (or is it the past?) exploits of the Tardis and its inhabitants.

That's hardly the end of the world for a longlasting staple such as Doctor Who. But for new series, movies and musical acts, synchronising and exploiting a global conversation while minimising the temptation of piracy could be make or break.

Even within a single market, industries are committing to sync. Earlier this year two of the major UK record labels agreed to schedule their radio and retail releases, instead of teasing new tracks on the radio before they were available for sale. It's amazing that for more than a decade of ubiquitous music file-sharing, labels were choosing to broadcast their acts before they would let anyone buy them through legitimate outlets.

The obvious hold-out for simultaneous release across media is cinema. Both the international cinematic release date and the dates of availability in theatres, on DVD and online are all carefully staggered.

But the delays are, slowly, breaking down. Rental video availability used to be six months after a theatrical release; now it's less than four. In the US, satellite broadcaster DirecTV announced this week its deal with four studios to make premiere movies available on pay-per-view just two months after their first release.

Surprisingly, one of the media sectors still holding on to delayed release dates is the computer games market. Usually ahead in taking advantage of new technology, computer games manufacturers frequently "lock" the downloadable version of their games to purchasers in key markets until the retail release becomes available in the local shops. The difference is usually a matter of days, but the frustration is enough to inspire petitions and campaigns to end the practice.

A synchronised launch across the world spells logistical challenges and can rattle established relationships. You can't sync everything. Weeks before the Doctor Who premiere, fans in London were already complaining when a New York sneak preview was organised, far away from its fans' British home base. The show's executive producer Stephen Moffat had to beg fans and press alike to keep the spoilers offline.

But uniting your viewers and your fans globally is more than just a business decision. It reflects the reality of how the net links people. When the BBC announced on Tuesday the death of Elisabeth Sladen, the actress behind one of the doctors best-loved companions, Sarah Jane Smith, the news spread across the world in minutes. And for a period, the top trending topics on Twitter, not just in Britain, but across the United States, included both the actress and her most famous role.

It was a sad moment for any fan of the series: but across time and space, they shared that moment together.

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  • APA 6th ed.: O'Brien, Danny (2011-04-22). Doctor Who leads way with simultaneous time travel. The Irish Times p. 34.
  • MLA 7th ed.: O'Brien, Danny. "Doctor Who leads way with simultaneous time travel." The Irish Times [add city] 2011-04-22, 34. Print.
  • Chicago 15th ed.: O'Brien, Danny. "Doctor Who leads way with simultaneous time travel." The Irish Times, edition, sec., 2011-04-22
  • Turabian: O'Brien, Danny. "Doctor Who leads way with simultaneous time travel." The Irish Times, 2011-04-22, section, 34 edition.
  • Wikipedia (this article): <ref>{{cite news| title=Doctor Who leads way with simultaneous time travel | url= | work=The Irish Times | pages=34 | date=2011-04-22 | via=Doctor Who Cuttings Archive | accessdate=7 February 2023 }}</ref>
  • Wikipedia (this page): <ref>{{cite web | title=Doctor Who leads way with simultaneous time travel | url= | work=Doctor Who Cuttings Archive | accessdate=7 February 2023}}</ref>