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Dr. Who a surprise syndication success

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1982-11-04 Electronic Media.jpg


New sci-fi series hitches to craze

Who would ever think a whimsical pacifist renegade Time Lord with a British accent who travels about the universe and time warps in an English phone box could become a syndication gold mine in America?

Certainly not the folks at Time-Life when they agreed to syndicate the British science fiction hero "Dr. Who" in the late 1960s. The BBC-produced series, which then starred the white-haired Jon Pertwee, "was a total disaster, a great loss" according to Bob Greenstein, vp-marketing director of Lion-heart Television International, New York, which has syndicated "Dr. Who" and other BBC and Australian Broadcasting Commission-produced programs since Time-Life ceased its syndication service last year.

The BBC also syndicates "Dr. Who" on its own to about 38 other countries.

"The show was 10 years too early. There was no viewer acceptance and there were only 72 episodes of the a series then—hardly enough to broadcast in a creative fashion," said Mr. Greenstein, who also handled "Dr. Who" syndication for Time-Life.

However, the 172 high-camp half-hour episodes of "Dr. Who" starring Tom Baker, which have been produced during the past seven years, have proved a very different story. "When we started up the Baker 'Dr. Who' episodes in 1977, it was on a whim. We didn't know what the hell ae had. We only collected about $300,000 in syndication rights the first year," he said.

Almost 100 mostly public tv stations, which consider "Dr. Who" one of their leading subscription pledge-getters, broadcast the series as a five-day-a-weer: strip or a weekly 90-minute film or a combination of both to a' estimated weekly tv audience of 98 million viewers.

About 25% of the syndicating stations are commercial, which is the direction in which Lionheart wants to move the series as broadcast rights contracts with public tv stations expire because of the increased viewership and syndication price that commercial stations afford.

The price paid for broadcast rights to Lionheart series, which include "All Creatures Great and Small," "Dave Allen at Large," "Fawlty Towers" and "Great Railway Journeys," is dictated by market size and a station's financial resources.

In fiscal 1981-82, the first full year of syndicating "Dr. Who," Lionheart expects to make more than $5 million in revenues from the syndication of "Dr. Who" and from "The Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy," which is Britain's latest bit of cerebral, swashbuckling good times in outer space.

The latter, a sci-fi comedy with more of an affinity for special effects than "Dr. Who;" as been sold to about 105 stations, most of them public tv outlets that premiered the seven-part series during the past week.

Some commercial stations that debuted the series this summer already have begun rebroadcasting it in response to enthusiastic viewers.

"Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy," which began as a best-selling book and popular radio series in the U.K., is about an Everyman-styled earthling rescued from his home planet seconds before its destruction and is left to cope with intriguing new creatures and outer space foibles.

Favorable reaction to the new series from "Who-ites," the mostly college-educated professionals in their 20s and 30s who have turned "Dr. Who" into a cult phenomenon, has prompted the BBC to consider producing new installments of "Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy."

"It could be the start in America of building new programs similar in appeal of 'Dr. Who,' but we never intended it that way," Mr. Greenstein said. "The only problem is that additional episodes for 'Hitch Hikers Guide' would be at least two or three years away. I don't know if you can build on a craze over that long a period of time."

Protect its investment

However, Lionheart is out to protect its investment in "Dr. Who," by far its most profitable syndication product, from being rifled away from the recently debuted RCTV premium pay cable service that showcases the best of BBC productions. RCTV has the first option on all BBC programs including three new seasons of "Dr. Who" now in production starring Peter Davison, the fifth actor to play the enterprising adventurer.

But RCTV has passed on the series at least until after it establishes itself in major markets.

There is a possibility that RCTV will exercise its first-rights option on the two years of episodes starring Mr. Davison yet to be filmed and on episodes of "Dr. Who" starring Mr. Baker as Lionheart's contracts with individual stations for them expire beginning in 1986.

"We can't keep that from happening, but we can franchise the series in a way that will protect its longevity. The show's cult following and scheduling of the episodes will keep viewers from tiring of the reruns. 'Dr. Who' is only beginning to scratch the surface, but the mishandling of it in one market could ruin it for us," Mr. Greenstein said.

An important step in that process has been Lionheart's careful, closely monitored syndication of the new "Dr. Who" episodes starring Mr. Davison, which "Whoites" have been clamoring to see for the year they have been airing in the U.K. for the first time.

Mr. Davison, best known as the bungling veterinarian of "All Creatures Great and Small," portrays the good doctor with a more friendly, humorous air and has dressed him in a red and white striped Victorian cricket outfit.

Lionheart has sold broadcast rights of 26 half-hour Davison episodes only to 12 American stations in cities such as Denver, Miami, New Orleans, San Jose and Albany. They are markets where the rights to the Baker episodes were near expiration and where the entire "Dr. Who" package could be renewed with the general understanding that broadcast of the Baker and Davison episodes would be separate and complimentary.

"It's part of a very controlled marketing plan," Mr. Greenstein said. "It's the first time we're dealing with the BBC on a futures basis. All the 'Dr. Whos' until now have been long finished in Great Britain by the time we bought them. Tom Baker is the man who made the series in this country.

"His episodes are the ones we have the most of," the executive added.

Mr. Baker, a 48-year-old Liverpool-born actor and former monk who left the series last year to portray Sherlock Holmes on the BBC, has given the moral hero a mischievous irreverence and wayward sophistication--not to mention a trademark floppy Edwardian coat, fedora and multi-colored scarf.

His are the moplike curls and extra-terrestrial jauntings that have launched a number of fanatic fan clubs and multi-million-dollar worldwide selling of "Dr. Who" paraphernalia (everything from tote bags and paperback books to baseball caps and unisex candy underpants) to which the BBC owns exclusive merchandising rights.

Since all the syndication rights for "Dr. Who" revert back to the BBC, Lionheart has been after it to make available early episodes starring Mr. Pertwee, William Hartnell and Patrick Troughton, figuring to offer the swelling number of "Dr. Who" aficionados a great trivia treat.

Show tapes erased

"In Britain, the unions have control over programing 14 or so years after it's first released and, in most cases, the tapes of shows are erased so that no one can have them. That's what's happened with many of the early 'Dr. Who' episodes. We're trying to see what bits and pieces are still around," Mr. Greenstein said.

He explains the offbeat excitement over "Dr. Who's" weekly tangling with Daleks, man-eating Krynoid vegetables, Cybermen robots and his arch foe The Master as a throwback to the fixation sci-fi buffs had with NBC's thoughtfully shaped "Star Trek," which was short-lived on network but lives on as a syndicated ritual.

Both series put more stock in storyline, acting and scientific mumbo jumbo than in the kind of dazzling special effects that have become a staple of America's new wave cinematic science fiction.

"They don't make shows like it in this country because no one thinks they will sell. Can you believe it?" he said.

Caption: Starring as two incarnations of "Dr. Who," the British Time Lord who travels the universe, Tom Baker (I.) and Peter Davison have helped uncover a syndication fortune in the U.S.

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