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Australian TV Scheduling

by David Carroll

A version of this article appeared in Severed Head#16, 1998

Last issue, Aaron Sterns spoke about Channel 7's somewhat dreadful handling of Chris Carter's Millennium, particularly the garbled order in which we saw the episodes. For the record, this is what we got:

0, 2, 3, 1, 6, 4, 8, 5, 9, 11, 12, 13, 7, 10, 14, 16, 15, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21

But then again, this is the order in which the episodes appeared on US television:

0, 1, 2, 4, 5, 3, 6, 7, 8, 10, 9, 11, 12, 13, 14, 16, 15, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21

which is not quite right either.

Now Millennium does consist of self-contained episodes, so the plot hasn't suffered too badly, and yet the above mixing causes a break in the build-up of tension that is quite noticeable (not to mention that the Black's dog has some really weird growth patterns). There are obviously complications afoot, so I thought I'd have a look at a couple of other horror series and show just how complicated things can get.

Despite the odd reshuffling of some of the repeats, Channel 10's screenings of The X-Files have thus been played in the same order as in the States, and reasonably promptly as well (which hasn't stopped some of the episodes appearing here on video before their TV debut). However, this is not the same as the production order, by which the episodes are filmed and officially numbered (and how they are listed on the official web page -- check those broadcast dates). The decision to vary the order seems to be made by the show's producers, and whilst it is interesting to speculate about whether changes have been made for plot or production issues, I haven't seen an explanation. In at least one case, however, the change could be seen as detrimental -- the episode 'Never Again' from season 4, showing Scully's rebellious streak (and Millennium tattoo) was originally to be shown before 'Leonard Betts' wherein she discovered she had cancer. As shown her fling could be interpreted as a simple reaction to the news, lessening its impact somewhat.

The second season of Forever Knight was more akin to Millennium in that the order we received them in was completely different from that shown in the States. In this case it seems that we were the ones to get the correct order -- again the episodes were largely self-contained, but the progression of the stories simply makes a lot more sense. For season 3, both Australia and the US got the episodes in the correct order -- except over there they transposed two vital episodes, almost spoiling a wonderfully traumatic climax. Yes, one of the main characters died and returned the following week. Channel 10 fixed the error.

This all pales before what happened in season 1, it has to be said. The Canadian show was always battling costly delays and at least one false start, and required a number of different production companies for finance. So the first season was reportedly shot in three different formats, the standard 47 minute length, the 40 minute US version and, though only for a few episodes, the extended European mix with 'significant amounts of nudity' added on (the mind reels -- LaCroix anyone?) The fact that our episodes were in fact 46 minutes by my reckoning doesn't help either... (and you can't blame that one on the different frame rates of PAL and NTSC). The episode order over here was well-ordered, just initially very sporadic on Channel 9 (and to the best of my knowledge episode 14, 'Spin Doctor', wasn't shown at all, but if anyone has the, ah, recollections to prove otherwise, I'll be glad to swap).

It is the networks and production companies that can really garble a series even before it gets to be screened, though it can get a lot worse than that. Kindred: The Embraced was cancelled mid-season when everyone realised that the show basically sucked (and despite liking Julian and a very few of the supporting roles, I have to agree). However, the US fans didn't even get to see all the episodes that were shot. We did get them all, though you had to search pretty hard to find where the final few had been relegated to.

American Gothic, which was a good show, had similar problems. In this case the network had decided to break into the X-Files market and then promptly decided it really wasn't their sort of thing, stuffing around with the plots of individual episodes and then not allowing some of them to be shown at all -- including perhaps the best episode of the lot, 'Potato Boy', and the episode that explained most of the last half of the series, 'Ring of Fire'. It's not too hard to see why 'Potato Boy' was not to everyone's taste, but the other deletions seem without rhyme or reason. Channel 10 played the episodes in the order the US got them, then went and filled the gaps before the 2-part finalé.

When you find out the extent of the meddling, it seems miraculous American Gothic was watchable at all, yet Shaun Cassidy and his crew managed to take those limitations and still produce one of the most interesting and subversive shows of the post-Twin Peaks era. But they were also lucky. Consider The Burning Zone -- it never looked something to be particularly excited about (I jumped out after the particularly bad pilot), but at least it's creator, Coleman Luck, had a vision. Halfway through the series he was sacked, two of the main cast walked, and the premise was watered down severely with all hints of mysticism removed. Strangely, it didn't help. And of course the Networks also have the much-used option of simply not continuing production at all -- the prerogative of those that supply the money, but they do seem particularly bad at doing it in a useful manner. Dark Skies was just getting interesting.

* * *

Is there more? Of course there is, and I've only covered the more mainstream end of the market -- shows like Friday the 13th, Tales From the Crypt and the like are relegated to even weirder scheduling, and there are shows that we just don't get at all (I'm currently looking forward to La Femme Nikita and a more serious slant on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but aren't holding my breath). And there is nothing stopping that which does arrive from being censored -- Channel 10 admitted to cutting American Gothic (what did happen to Gail in 'The Plague Sower'?) and I believe Millennium has not escaped either. It is not unknown for individual states to lose whole episodes due to local sporting events, and Millennium's broadcast was severely delayed in Western Australia due to an apparently real serial killer (I guess I'm not laying blame on anyone for that). But just the practise of reducing the content of older shows to fit the ads in seems endemic across all commercial stations. In short, the whole process of creating and then screening horror on television (or science fiction, fantasy, actually funny comedy or pretty much anything else of interest as well) is a chaotic and largely self-destructive mess. And yet... the potential for greatness is there, and sometimes achingly close to the surface. It's why we keep tuning in for more.

* * *

For anybody who wants more information about how some of these things come about, I suggest John Shirley's column in the excellent magazine Wetbones. Television is a scary business.


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