You won’t have missed this news, but just in case: Dallas is back, blending old favourites J.R., Bobby, and Sue Ellen with another generation of Ewings and enemies, including Mary Alice and John the Gardener from Desperate Housewives. Widely expected to be a disaster, it got reasonable reviews and found an audience in America, leading to renewal for a second season. I’m disappointed to find out that Sue Ellen is no longer, in J.R.’s immortal words, “a drunk, a tramp, and an unfit mother”, but that apart this might – might – just be worth a go, particularly when Cliff Barnes – yay! – turns up as a guest star (Wednesday 5 September, Five, 9pm).
The Dallas reboot prompted a few thoughts. Firstly, it reminded me of the original show, which I loved. Those of us old enough to have seen Dallas first time round will recall the impact it had on the tired Britain of the 70s. It seemed like a bulletin from another planet: had there ever been anything so venal, so fast-paced, so sexy, so downright dangerous on prime-time TV? A few years ago I was watching daytime TV and a Dallas repeat came on; expecting to be carried away on a tidal wave of nostalgia and blistering immorality all over again I settled down to watch. And nothing happened. For an hour. People had long conversations about the oil business, I suppose; that was about it. This year I’ve tried and failed to imagine how British Dallas viewers from 1980 would feel on watching the show’s spiritual heir, the deeply, satisfyingly trashy Revenge. I suspect they would die of overload. (It should be noted that Revenge has a South Fork Inn, which can’t be anything other than an acknowledgement of the debt.)
Another couple of salient Dallas facts: it was, as far as I can recall, the first American import to have been the subject of a bidding war between what were than the only two broadcasters in the game. ITV outbid the BBC, then was told that British broadcasting didn’t work like that and was obliged to hand it back. And when the famous, world-stopping ‘Who Shot J.R.?’ episode was to be shown on British TV, there were news cameras at Heathrow to record the film canisters, with their top secret content, being unloaded. Film canisters. By plane.
All of which leads me to the news that Sky will be keeping back UK transmission of season 4 of Glee until January 2013, four months after broadcast in America. Now, let’s back up a bit: when Sky outbid Channel 4 for Glee, it boasted that it would be showing season 3 “just days after the States!”. Well, not any more: last week, Sky announced that, in response to “viewer feedback”, it would be holding the show until 2013 to “play (it) back in an unbroken run”. And I have to ask – just how unbelievably, wantonly stupid is this? For the internet-savvy part of the Glee audience – which, given the viewer demographic, will be 100% of it, to all intents and purposes – this ensures that September – December 2012 will be a frustrating experience, as our Twitter feeds, Facebook pages, and favourite sites debate episodes, songs, guest stars, Finchel, Klaine, who’s-shagging-who-in-real-life, and the rest of it. There are no more top secret film canisters transporting shows around the world – anything we want to know about Glee will be available to us, more or less in real time, unless we make strenuous efforts to avoid it. But (assuming iTunes doesn’t have next-day rights) we won’t be able to see any of it. Unless, of course…
…And here’s where I need to be careful. For reasons I needn’t trouble you with, Unpopcult doesn’t particularly want to be seen to be indulging in or promoting illegal downloading. So, kids, let’s be clear about this – torrents make your hands fall off. However, it isn’t difficult to imagine (ahem) that someone who pays a lot of money for cable TV every month might have previously been a bit squeamish about the practicalities or legalities of downloading, might give it a go in frustration at not being able to see a favourite show, might then find it remarkably straightforward, and might then wonder exactly why they’re letting broadcasting companies dictate what they can and can’t see, when perfectly serviceable versions of shows are available, essentially free of charge, as long as you have a decent internet connection.
Here’s an example. Unpopcult has reviewed every single episode of Chuck shown on TV in the UK. We love it; we’ve promoted it; we’ve more or less proselytized for it. Season 5, however, has never been shown, and Sky – see how the names come round again? – went as far as confirming that it wouldn’t be showing the final season. At that point, remember, there was no UK broadcaster; it wasn’t on iTunes; it wasn’t on DVD; it wasn’t available anywhere. Nor, importantly, was there any guarantee that it ever would be – British viewers have never seen seasons 3, 4, and 5 of Friday Night Lights, for instance, or seasons 3, 4, and 5 of Breaking Bad (although seasons 3 and 4, as of today, are available via Netflix), or Parks and Recreation, and I suspect we might have seen the last of Parenthood. (There are plenty of other examples.) So any British viewer willing to pay to see Chuck legitimately was finding out that no-one wanted her money, in a difficult economy, when TV companies are complaining about falling revenues because of – yes – illegal downloading. These – and it can’t be stressed too much – are the economics of the madhouse.
As it happens, season 5 of Chuck is finally being released on DVD in the UK in October 2012, fully nine months after the final episode was broadcast in America. The mood might well have gone off some viewers. (Obviously – see above – I haven’t seen the final season. If I had, hypothetically, I’d probably think that after a slow start it hit something approaching form in its second half, with a finale which was ambiguous enough to be dramatically satisfying, while leaving viewers in little doubt that there would, in due course, be a happy ending. Or perhaps I wouldn’t think that at all, because I haven’t seen it.)
It’s pretty easy to see what the inevitable endgame will be: for a monthly fee, the viewer will have all-platform access to everything broadcast everywhere within (say) 48 hours. I’d pay for that. So, I guess, would most of you at this point. If I were the TV and production companies I’d get on it quickly, before even more people wonder why they’re ponying up lots of money in order not to be able to see Glee until 2013, which will be followed, in due course, by the TV business going the way of the music business.
Oh yeah. Anyway. Dallas on Wednesday.