Can Doctor Who Succeed in America?

Matt Smith, who is already known for speaking favorably about America, mentioned recently about how thrilled he’d be if Doctor Who acquired a massive level of success in the US akin to what the show has achieved in the UK.

According to Digital Spy, Matt recently stated in the New York Post that…

“We want to get it to as many Americans as possible, because we’re so proud of it.”

It’s easy to conclude, even without Matt saying so, that the Doctor Who cast/crew and the BBC indeed wish for a stronger foothold for the Whoniverse in the US of A. Torchwood‘s immigration to Starz is a great example.

Here’s another one, on a personal level: I can remember just last year, when I lived in Maine (for those of you not familiar with US geography, that’s the easternmost state on the continent; the one that looks like the head of the Great American Beast), Smith and Karen Gillan were in New York promoting Series 5, doing satellite interviews with what seemed like nearly every local television station in the nation, including the NBC affiliate in Maine.

Anyone who lives there and knows about Doctor Who, which is a small number indeed, knows that under normal circumstances, the lead actors in the show being interviewed by WCSH 6 TV, of all places, is about as likely as the Pope showing up for the annual Who series premiere screening at the Lass O’Gowrie.  The fact that during this American outing, the Doctor Who promotional crew reached out to a huge percentage of broadcasters, even the little guys at Channel 6 in northern New England, is solid proof that not only does the show aspire to broaden its audience, it is actively seeking to.

But are these endeavours to increase Doctor Who awareness working?  Torchwood: Miracle Day is scheduled to premiere on a Friday, which as anyone who has suffered the loss of Firefly knows is a bad night even for the major networks, and Starz is a premium network that requires an additional $10 a month to access.  Of course, this doesn’t account for the fact that we’re living in the DVR age, but DVRs can only increase a show’s ratings by so much.

And then there’s Doctor Who itself, whose record night for anything on BBC America pulled in a a million-and-a-bit viewers, which sounds really good until you consider that there are 300 million-and-a-bit people who live in the country.  That’s a mere 1 in 300 Americans who watched The Eleventh Hour on its opening night, and normally the show pulls in less than that.

If Doctor Who is to become a true hit in the US, it’ll have to achieve the same level of recognition as, say, Star Wars or Pirates of the Caribbean.  As a die-hard fan of the show as much as anyone reading this article must also be, I’m aware that its uniqueness and creativity are top-notch, and I believe it has the potential to arrive at that point.  But it won’t be happening this year.  There’s a long way to go yet.

All right, I’ll stop the glass-half-empty attitude for now; after all, a new episode of Doctor Who premieres this weekend!  Catch The Impossible Astronaut this Saturday on BBC One or BBC One HD at 6 pm in the UK, BBC America at 9/8 central in the US, or SPACE at 8/7 central in Canada!

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  1. 23skidoo says:

    The good thing is, it doesn’t have to. Unlike so many UK-produced shows of the past that died due to not being successful in the US (examples that come to mind include UFO, Space: 1999, The Avengers, etc), if Doctor Who were to tank on BBC America, that would have no bearing on the show’s survival in the UK. This is why some people are a little antsy about Torchwood becoming tied too close to a US broadcaster because if Miracle Day bombs in the US, that’s probably the end of Torchwood, regardless how well it does in the UK. The point is moot now due to the sad news about Elisabeth Sladen, but The Sarah Jane Adventures has done quite well for itself without any US exposure at all.

    • I agree, it doesn’t have to succeed in the US… I was simply speculating what such success might take. You raise a good point about Torchwood, one that makes me just a little bit more nervous about the fate of that show post Miracle Day.

  2. STLShawn says:

    I have mixed feelings about that. I love when subtle Doctor Who references wander into shows like “Big Bang Theory”, it’s like a nudge and a wink to us nerdy-type Americans. It’s such a huge underground hit here. The fans are mostly serious fans.

    Then there’s the whole issue of “what about inevitable decline”. As you know, Firefly had a decent underground audience, and yet since it’s ratings fell a bit, it was pulled. It’s like when a company has to tell investors that it’s all about growth rather than stability. I’m hoping the BBC keeps Doctor Who going even now that it’s ratings are simply due to decline a bit because it’s not new and rising in popularity exponentially.

    Let’s be honest, how much of a ratings dip would it have to face before BBC pulls it? Would they cut a bit of funding first? Would they keep it as a staple if it’s ratings remained constant?

    In America, the entertainment industry is only interested in the “next” thing not a good quality staple. So if Dr Who becomes the “next” thing, how long would it take the ADHD American viewer to find something else?

    • I suppose the difference between Firefly and US-broadcast Doctor Who is the former had an underground audience on a major network while the latter has an underground audience on a relatively underground network. I really don’t believe the BBC will pull Doctor Who completely out of production anytime soon, but I do believe that for Doctor Who to really be genuinely well known amongst the American population the way it’s become a cultural phenomenon in Britain, it’ll have to move to one of the Big 4 channels… and as much as a challenge it is for a show to get on one of those, it’s even more of a challenge for it to stay there long-term, thanks in part to what you call our ADHD viewing public.

  3. Charlie says:

    The thing is, Doctor Who doesn’t HAVE to succeed in America – in the terms you’re describing (PotC, Star Wars etc. – NB it is not a film)

    Why do you think the BBC are giving it a big push? It already had the biggest ratings on the channel ever, so it’s obviously one of the channel’s biggest hits, even if a million viewers is small for US audiences (and not all of the 300 million people will be watching TV at any one time). So it is a success already – for BBC America.

    The second thing is, if they get EVEN MORE viewers in the US, that will translate into increased DVD / merchandise sales, which means more revenue for BBC / Doctor Who. Part of the budgets of the show are actually formed from profits from merch sales, as well as things like Doctor Who Experience and Doctor Who Live.


    Now give yourself a slap, stop being so depressed, and only days until the new series starts! Hey? Happy now?!?!?

    • Of course I’m happy, I’m always happy (except about obvious sad recent occurrences)! Honestly (as you’ll see in my replies to the others) I was simply pointing out what a challenge it will be for Who to arrive at the same level of pop-culture familiarity that it receives in the UK, or that Star Wars or POTC get here. I realize that the latter two are movies and the former is a TV show; I was just trying to find something massively popular and in the same relative genre, as opposed to popular TV shows in the US that are nothing like (or even remotely as good as) Doctor Who, such as Jersey Shore, American Idol, and Real Housewives of [insert location here].

  4. nel says:

    you do have to factor in that the number of cable households who get BBCA is fairly small, so though you mention the entire US pop., it’s viewership can be at most the total people who get BBCA on their cable system (well, legal viewership…). i’m not sure it should go to a larger broadcast net though, because then it would have to pull in bigger numbers or it would be pulled in a new york minute. BBCA is getting their big ratings and is very happy, hoping everyone will forget their utter stupidity in passing on DW in 2005 (we haven’t), so don’t see them not airing it anytime soon.

  5. Eleanor says:

    Just read that the series 6 premier broke new records for BBCA with 1.3 million watching. That’s really not bad. As for wanting the series to reach pop-culture familiarity, well, I think it’s too British, culturally speaking, to make it big on US TV. They would have to Americanise it which would of course kill the very essence and uniqueness of the show.

    But it has caught the attention of the TV writers over there. My 2 fav. American series, NCIS and House, both have made references to it. In NCIS, ( this is a top 10 show ) McGee, the show’s resident geek mentions in an episode in Season 7 about the inside of a trailer looking like the Tardis from Doctor Who. And in House, Taub in Season 4 or 5 says he watches classic Who. Hey guys, I think that’s a real achievement !

    Ok, if I were in the BBC marketing department, this would be my strategy going forward : keep the series as it is on BBCA. But, start talks with a major studio for a movie series cooperation. If you want Who to make it big, that’s the key. You mentioned Star Wars and PTOC, hey, even Star Trek got a new lease on life when it hit the big screen. And don’t forget Harry Potter or 007 – you get to keep the Britishness and still appeal to a worldwide audience.

    And I’m going to stick my head out by saying David Tennant would be the ideal movie Who and RTD should get involved. For purely business and not emotional reasons. RTD’s over-the-top and American-ish style is exactly what is needed to appeal to a mass audience. And seriously, DT is much better looking than MS. He’ll do a better job at pulling in the female audience.

    Finally, unless someone can think of an example, it will be the only show to run parallel as a movie and TV series at the same time. Wow, the very thought blows my mind.

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