Doctor Who: Confidential Cut-Off

PrintE-mail Written by J. R. Southall

By the time you read this, the petition to save Doctor Who Confidential will have amassed over 30,000 signatures. This week, the anonymous Twitter campaigner who set the wheels in motion made a brief appearance on page 7 of the Radio Times – not bad, given publishing turnarounds and the fact that the axe only fell a mere six days earlier. Whether you watch it or not, it’s fair to say that the decision to cull the behind-the-scenes sister programme to the BBC’s most popular drama is causing quite a commotion.

But was it the wrong decision ... or was it the right one? Or might there even be a third option?

Doctor Who Confidential was born out of a desire by the BBC to promote the new, revamped Doctor Who back in 2005. A lot of money had been spent on Russell T Davies’ revitalised show, and Confidential was a relatively cheap cross-promotional tool, designed to expand the ‘brand’; remember, at the time, no one knew if Who would be a success or not (and nobody could have foreseen just how much of a success). But here’s the thing: Confidential was commissioned for just the one series, and there was never any plan for it to be ongoing beyond that. Indeed, it wasn’t until the viewing figures started to pile up (Confidential was often amongst the most-watched digital programmes during its early days, and even topped a million viewers by the end of that first series), that a second series was hastily given the go ahead (and that’s why The Christmas Invasion is the only episode of Doctor Who that doesn’t have its own attendant episode).

For the first two series, Confidential ran to just shy of thirty minutes an episode (with a ‘cut-down’ repeat of roughly 10 – 15 minutes’ duration, which would eventually end up as an extra on the DVD releases), but when Music and Monsters was transmitted with a running time of an hour, following the 2006 Christmas Special, it was noticed that for very little extra outlay, considerably more screen-time could be filled, and from Series Three onwards, Confidential was extended to fill a broadcast slot equivalent to the episode of Doctor Who it followed. Although it might seem odd to say this now, given that the two series have run quite happily concurrently for the five years since, this was probably the first nail in the spin-off’s coffin.

There is, after all, only so much you can say about a 45-minute episode of a television programme (and the fact that it is broadcast while you’re still trying to digest the episode itself doesn’t help). Aside from the occasional special edition (Do You Remember the First Time?, which followed the transmission of Blink in 2007, was ‘directed by’ David Tennant, and featured the actor on a mission to discover just what was the secret of the show’s success, talking to a number of other ‘famous fans’ along the way), Doctor Who Confidential quickly became a rather predictable mixture of the same basic elements: the showrunner (and sometimes the guest writer too, if you were lucky) talking rather positively about the script, the executive producers gushing about how wonderful everything was, and then any number of sequences showing (in excruciating detail) how the specific special effects, prosthetics, and CGI sequences were put together; these days, even the shots of the regulars larking about on-set are losing their charm. In the original 30-minute format, Confidential was an exhilarating glimpse behind-the-scenes; with an extra quarter of an hour to fill, the novelty soon waned. It’s fair to say that, although the viewing figures have remained reasonably steady, a lot of the viewers who have stopped watching have been die-hard fans, tired of seeing and hearing the same thing week in and week out.

Which is not to say that there aren’t an awful lot of good things about Confidential too, and an awful lot of reasons why it shouldn’t be allowed to die.

Perhaps the most pertinent, is the view that Confidential will one day be seen as the breeding ground for the next generation of television professionals. There are an awful lot of people working in the industry right now, whose career track was first inspired by a love of Doctor Who, the programme whose history, background and development was almost as interesting as that which appeared on the screen. If there’s one thing that Doctor Who Confidential (and to a lesser extent, its short-lived junior companion show Totally Doctor Who) can be rightly proud of, it’s the level of interest it inspires in how television is made, and in how it works. Any number of Media Studies courses will struggle to impart the same level of wisdom and enthusiasm as can be gleaned from a single edition of the show.

It is also a massive historical archive, for which future generations of Doctor Who fans will be eminently grateful (and Doctor Who is a programme that now shows no sign of ever coming to an end; it may be rested again, but it will always return – and come 2050, 2150 and even 3050, the future fans of Doctor Who will look back fondly on Confidential and be thoroughly thankful it ever existed in the first place). The DVDs of the classic series are lovely, and the Value Added Material (or ‘extras’) that the producers manage to create are fantastic; but just imagine if 2|entertain had something of the ilk of a 1960s or 1970s version of Confidential to work with, too.

And viewed occasionally, intermittently, or enthusiastically, or even just because you can’t bear the thought of what the main channels are broadcasting elsewhere, Doctor Who Confidential is a great show. There aren’t many ‘parent programmes’ which command the love and – more importantly – the level of interest that could sustain a full-length behind-the-scenes spin-off for seven successive years (or even just the one). I can think of no other.

The trouble is, times are hard, and the BBC are being forced to cut 20% of their budgets. Something’s got to give. And Doctor Who Confidential is, sadly, a pretty easy target.

For one thing, it is – in real terms – considerably more expensive than much of BBC Three’s other output. This might sound crazy, but programmes like Young Dumb and Living Off Mum can be repeated several times across the course of a week, and so for a similar outlay actually cover many times the amount of airtime. Confidential is, essentially, a one-time affair, an appointment-to-view programme that doesn’t stand up to repeat transmission in its full-length version. Casual viewers tuning into the channel for a bit of easy viewing are not going to stick around if they happen to arrive during broadcast of a factual Doctor Who spin-off. Sad but true.

And the suggestion that keeping Confidential, but saving money by only making the ‘cut-down’ version, holds even less water. A quarter-hour Confidential would cost pretty much the same as the 45-minute one, and would therefore leave a half an hour of extra screen time to fill (and be budgeted for) too. If the axe had to fall on something, then the single-series behind-the-scenes show that grew legs and lasted an extra six years was always going to be at the top of the list.

But Doctor Who Confidential pays off on the BBC’s educational remit in ways that the rest of BBC Three’s output clearly can’t compete with, so here’s a suggestion: keep it, reformat it, and move it to BBC Four.

It was never fully at home in amongst the Two Pints of Lagers and the Snog Marry Avoids anyway. Doctor Who Confidential is a programme that would sit much more comfortably in the environs of the BBC’s fourth channel, and what’s more, if BBC Four is to survive, Confidential could quickly become its flagship show.

Streamlined to 30 minutes, cutting out some of the repetitive excesses, and with more of a focus on the moral issues and historical perspectives involved (there’s plenty of scope for a more interesting discussion of the subjects the programme raises), a new-look Confidential would probably pick up viewers rather than shed them, and not only that, a full-length repeat would be much more appropriate on BBC Four, meaning the BBC’s outlay would also receive a greater reimbursement.

The ‘Save DWC’ campaign has already achieved a fantastic level of support (how many of BBC Three’s other shows could petition 30,000 signatures in little more than a week? How many shows at all?), and it surely can’t be long before the decision to axe Confidential is at the very least questioned by those with the authority to repeal it. There will always be considerable scope for behind-the-scenes material on Doctor Who (even with cutbacks, the official website will be maintained at one level or another), but it would be a criminal shame to lose such a successful and often engaging show as Confidential altogether.

And with the parent show in such rude health just two years short of its fiftieth anniversary, the cancellation of Confidential is just one more sign that it’s actually not such a great time to be a Doctor Who fan: there have been recent years in which the extended Doctor Who universe has had more weeks on the television than off it, but with The Sarah Jane Adventures coming to an untimely end and Torchwood not looking good for another series next year, 2012 will almost certainly be the most Doctor-lite twelve months since the series returned. Screen-minute for screen-minute (and taking all of the spin-offs, Confidential included, into account), it definitely will be. Considering the overseas sales and merchandising revenues – and the fact that combined viewing figures and iPlayer numbers have never added up to so great an audience – the popularity and importance of Doctor Who to the BBC is something that such be rewarded, and not the victim of budget cuts.

If Confidential is seen as unsustainable in its current format, then the answer is certainly not to cancel it altogether, but to find a way to better make it work. It is not expensive television, and the budget savings made will not offset the damage that the BBC will be doing, ultimately, to their credibility as a broadcaster. The ‘Save DWC’ campaign might look, from the outside, a little like the kind of reaction that followed the news of the suspension back in 1985, but we live in entirely different times now, times in which Doctor Who is just about the most-watched series drama on British television, and times in which – because of digital avenues – programmes of Confidential’s ilk should be encouraged, not neutered. If the BBC need to save 20%, they shouldn’t just be looking at the easy targets, because Doctor Who Confidential is a great example of the kind of thing the BBC can do, and should be doing, and its commissioning and continuation have always been a feather in the Corporation’s cap. It’s a question not just of their broadcasting remit, but of their cultural remit, too: cancelling Confidential now would be seen as the BBC shrinking from their responsibilities, rather than flying in the face of regressive government and continuing with what they do best, making all kinds of television for everyone to watch.

And if you haven’t signed the petition yet, then here it is: It’s your choice, and it might not make a jot of difference in the end. But even if Doctor Who Confidential isn’t to your own tastes (and the poll on this very website seems to indicate that for many, that is indeed the case), then I’m sure you must know of at least someone who does watch it.

Ask yourself this: would the world be a better place without Doctor Who Confidential?

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