James Leggott on the time for television

Browsing through the TV listings guide for the Easter weekend, I noticed with interest the announcement of the new Doctor Who series.  Although I must admit to being only a casual viewer of the show of late, this struck me as a little odd.  Since its reboot in 2005, hasn’t Doctor Who usually begun its run around September time? Isn’t it one of those family or popular shows, like Downton Abbey, The X Factor or Strictly Come Dancing, traditionally broadcast in the run-up to Christmas?   Haven’t I always watched Doctor Who with the curtains long drawn? I certainly associate it with that achingly long stretch of term-time between the August bank holiday and the festive season, a time when weekend TV treats do their bit to ward off the gloom of shortening nights and back-to-school melancholy. 

            But I’m wrong.  At least in its recent incarnation, Doctor Who has actually been mostly been shown roughly between Easter and summer (although there have been some recent deviations to that pattern), rather than September to Christmas.  I think, though, that this reveals more than just my increasingly addled memory.  I’d argue that my (false) association of the show with that ‘back to school’ moment of early September stems from the historical tendency of British broadcasters to launch their flagship programmes around that time. In other words, the fact that Doctor Who feels to me like a September show (even if it isn’t) just goes to prove how a rhythm of seasonality affects my experience and memory of certain TV shows.    In a similar way, every December I find myself flicking excitedly through the Christmas issue of the Radio Times, as I did when I was young, when the broadcasters would run their big film premieres and other exciting goodies:  seasons of classic movies, special editions of sitcoms, a higher dose of high cultural programming etc. 

Obviously, the age of streaming and on-demand has largely consigned family squabbles over the remote control to history, and scheduling – whether at Christmas or not –  is far less potent that it was. But seasonality still plays an important role in how many of us consume and appreciate television.  Not only can certain programmes or genres can feel inherently right or wrong in their scheduling, depending on when they are broadcast, but the calendar year itself is measured by many through particular TV rituals:  from summer sport and music festivals, to season-specific nature shows like Springwatch and its ilk or awards ceremonies and charity fundraisers pegged to a particular time of year; and from the Ghost Stories for Christmas  strand of supernatural frighteners, and hoaxes on 1 April, to the Eurovision Song Contest every May (a date I’m sure is ring-fenced in many a social calendar). 

And there’s movies too:   do the terrestrial broadcasters still consider The Sound of Music and The Great Escape to be obligatory Bank Holiday fare?  Writing in the Radio Times in the run-up to Easter, their columnist Alison Graham [link: http://www.radiotimes.com/news/2017-04-13/why-dont-broadcasters-make-easter-a-special-occasion] bemoaned the lack of distinctiveness of Easter TV:   for example, ITV’s flagship show on Easter Monday is the long-awaiting finale of the crime drama Broadchurch – gripping stuff, but hardly uplifting.  And then there are seasonal rituals in broadcasting that are never seen by viewers. I have been long been intrigued by the curious tradition – stretching back to the 1970s and earlier – of TV technicians making their own in-house compilations of bloopers and self-devised sketch material around the festive period:  many of these so-called ‘Christmas VT’ tapes can be found on YouTube.

The phenomenon of television’s relation to the changing seasons, and the embedding of certain TV rituals within the national consciousness, have of course been recognised in academic scholarship. But there has been surprisingly little sustained attention of this.  I’m therefore pleased – and hope readers won’t mind a promotional plug here! – that a recent issue of the Journal of Popular Television (for which I am principal editor) is devoted to the topic. [Link:  https://www.intellectbooks.co.uk/journals/view-issue,id=3269/]    Guest edited by Derek Johnston, author of a recent book on the complex tradition of seasonal supernatural television, its articles on a range of international case-studies will hopefully inspire more work on the inter-relationships between broadcasting cultures and seasonality.    Examples include the ‘River Cottage’ cookery shows of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, the role of ‘festive’ broadcasting in socialist countries, the significance of Christmas in Mad Men, the figuration of Halloween in crime dramas, and the strategic summer scheduling of ‘female-orientated’ comedy drama. 

A future issue of the Journal of Popular Television will also include a ‘dossier’ of articles pertaining directly to Christmas and the New Year – covering such topics as what happens when the ‘Christmas’ specials of Downton Abbey are shown out of season beyond the UK, and the festive ‘craft’ shows fronted by Kirstie Allsopp.  I’m hoping that this particular issue will be published in the winter months, as a kind of scholarly equivalent to the infamous ‘double issue’ of the Radio Times – and is thus, perhaps for the first and last time, an academic publication trying to get its readers into the festive spirit.  Merry Christmas everyone!

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