Doctor Who’s American age is pushing 40 … because of only one state
As Doctor Who turns 50 in its native Britain, only one state out of the whole USA has been broadcasting it for just shy of 40 years: Iowa.
Only one state out of the entire USA has been broadcasting Doctor Who almost continuously for close to 40 years: Iowa. That’s right – the state known for cows, ploughs, and sows and its prestigious World Food Prize. The pop music tragedy of ‘The Day the Music Died’ and the metal band Slipknot. And in film, Field of Dreams and The Bridges of Madison County – a real county with real bridges, where John Wayne was born. In science fiction, it is known as the setting for Robert Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters (Grinnell /Des Moines), and the future birthplace of Captain James T. Kirk in Star Trek (Riverside). In Britain, it’s known for having spawned Bill Bryson. Locals get weary with the national and international attention it gets every four years, as it has the first-in-the-nation caucus, where both Republicans and Democrats cast their ballots to decide their presidential candidates. Though it is a rural place, it’s not necessarily conservative with a capital ‘C’ – its electoral votes went for Democrat President Obama in both the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections. The only state-wide television network in Iowa is Iowa Public Television, making state-level programming like Iowa Press, and the nationally syndicated agricultural news show, Market to Market. As of May, 2014, Doctor Who will reach its 40th anniversary of broadcast on Iowa Public Television (IPTV). Why did Iowa, uniquely out of all of the United States, end up having the television and science fiction phenomenon that is Doctor Who for just shy of 40 years, as the programme itself turns 50?
To find out, we must start with the overall story of Doctor Who in the USA. It is a tale of politics, as the programme was first aired in the USA on regional or state-level public television stations, requiring local support. Doctor Who’s first major heyday in the US was on this network of local affiliates and broadcasters associated by the American Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), in the early-to-mid-1980s. Whilst programming came from the national level through PBS (often including costume dramas from Britain, continuing to this day), many local public television networks sourced programmes from elsewhere. Viewers themselves had to ‘make and take pledges’ – that is, pledge to pay whatever amount they wished, normally $50-$250, to buy Doctor Who in order to view it at all, as the videotape era was only starting to dawn. Often, enthusiasts themselves took the calls from the public for the broadcast pledge drives, a.k.a., ‘beg-a-thons,’ wherein the stations would ask for money on the air from the public to pay for extra-curricular programmes like Doctor Who. It was accepted that the broadcast of Doctor Who on public television was about a group of people donating time and money to get their show on the air – therefore, at its most basic level: political.
Lionheart Television distributed Doctor Who for a long time to local American public television stations, alongside numerous British sitcoms and some dramas, adding its logo to the tape dubs for American broadcast. Its distributor forerunner was Time-Life Television, and they are where IPTV first obtained the programme, first airing it in May, 1974, when it was still known as the Iowa Public Broadcasting Network (IPBN). From then on, the programme was never off of the local Iowa airwaves for more than a few months (barring the longest stretch, at about 5 years between 1979-1984).* IPTV has been broadcasting the show for 2 days short of 39.5 years, as of 23 November 2013, the 50th anniversary of the programme’s first airing in Britain. This is much longer than even the original broadcast run of Doctor Who in Britain: 26 years, then another 8, after its 1989-2005 hiatus (even including the television movie in 1996).
If the 1980s were the heyday of Doctor Who in America, then the 1990s were a series of slow, quiet, local deaths. The American Sci-Fi Channel wanted exclusive rights to air Doctor Who, which ceased production in 1989. But BBC Worldwide, who were now syndicating the show, denied them exclusivity. As the financial and practical support from the viewers for Doctor Who was dwindling in numerous places, many local public television programming departments saw this situation as the best excuse to jump ship, and stopped airing the programme. Conversely, as the 1990s closed, IPTV’s support of Doctor Who – and, as time went on, numerous other British science fiction and fantasy television programmes – increased. Much of this was due to its pairing with the science fiction sitcom, Red Dwarf – the two programmes were aired back-to-back, and thus were placed together for the ‘beg-a-thons’ each year, leading them to be associated in financial support. Eventually this evolved into a block of programmes that showcased the best of British science fiction and fantasy, including Blake’s 7, Star Cops, Oktober, Day of the Triffids, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and even Neverwhere, by Doctor Who writer Neil Gaiman, and which features the new Doctor himself: Peter Capaldi.
The science fiction shows were aired late at night on Friday nights, beginning at about 10:30 PM, with an episode of Red Dwarf, an hour-long episode of something like Blake’s 7, and two to four episodes of classic Doctor Who. The shows were introduced by a local arts and literature enthusiast, Mike Frisbee, who would write his own minute-long banter, introducing each episode about to be aired. (An enterprising viewer has posted some of these intros on YouTube). This was within the fine American tradition of late-night, hosted, B-movie and horror ‘theatres’ on local TV channels. The programmes just happened to be more oriented toward science fiction and fantasy content instead of horror.
When Doctor Who was revived in 2005, this roughly coincided with cuts in funding to IPTV for more ‘discretionary’ endeavours like this block of programmes, affectionately referred to as ‘Sci-Fi Friday Night,’ and later, ‘Saturday Night.’ Thus, the roughly 1996-2004 run of hosted science fiction theatre ended. But the broadcast of Doctor Who itself did not stop – it merely took a few breaks now and then, and morphed from the classic, 1963-1989 series into the 2005-present series. As of November, 2013, Iowa Public Television airs the 2005-present version of Doctor Who on Saturday nights, distributed by American Public Television (APT).
Throughout all these years, the viewing public in Iowa and the surrounding states voted with their money to keep the programme on the air. Doctor Who survived on Iowa Public Television, through the ups and downs of viewership, changing broadcast rights situations, and new technologies; through fan clubs, cancellation, VHS, DVD, cable, satellite, the World Wide Web, revival of the programme, digital channels, and VOD. It would be easy to assume that the credit for this continued financial support for broadcast belongs to the hard-core enthusiasts. But the reality is much more likely to be that many Iowans, who had never joined a fan club, sought autographs from the stars of the show, or been to a fan convention before, just liked the familiarity and the comfort of the hero and his companions traipsing the universe in a police phone box (that icon itself with American origins), in what is essentially ‘Sherlock Holmes’ Adventures in Time and Space.’
The World Wide Web’s ‘first’ major Doctor Who homepage, known as The Nitro-9 Homepage, was founded in 1993 by Dr Siobahn Morgan, an astronomer at the University of Northern Iowa. When asked why Iowa in particular would have this distinction of near-continuous broadcast of Doctor Who for nearly 40 years, she replied with: ‘I’m not an Iowan native, so perhaps I may not be able to understand the Iowa psyche completely, but I think that Doctor Who fits well in the Iowa mindset of “doing the right thing.” Perhaps [it is] because the show often highlighted fighting against adversity, but never diminishing the high moral standards that the Doctor has had throughout the years and all his regenerations. It is different than the “let’s kill them – they’re scary aliens” attitude in a lot of sci-fi that we see today. The Doctor would instead have the attitude of “let’s say hello to the scary aliens and see if we can help.” So that is sort of a good Midwestern attitude to have. There is also the assurance of a “friend” who is always there, steady and reliable, with the show having a familiar pattern, especially if you’ve seen the episodes 4-5 times already.’ Even Jane Espenson, noted writer of Buffy: The Vampire Slayer, and writer on the Doctor Who spinoff series, Torchwood, indicated that though she had never watched Doctor Who when growing up in Ames, Iowa, she would probably be ‘a better person’ if she had done so.
Thus, the next time you think of Doctor Who in America, perhaps you, too, should picture the TARDIS in a Iowa cornfield, stalks blowing in the wind, and dub the scene ‘a breeze of Ioway blue’ 😉 in song, as Rodgers and Hammerstein coined for their musical, State Fair, in 1945.
….Thank you to IPTV for verification of broadcast dates; and thank you to Dr Morgan and Ms Espenson for their comments.
*Correction: The original article indicated the longest gap of airing was between 1974-1976, at 22 months. Apologies for the error – entirely the author’s, not that of IPTV.
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