Hauling Like A Brooligan

Stephen Gallagher

Ripper Street, Not Resting in Peace

Every show’s cancellation hits the people who love it, and every show has a core group of people who love it lots. But the wider dismay over the BBC’s cancellation of Victorian-era police drama Ripper Street seems to have an unusual edge to it.

I’m not a fan. By which I don’t mean that I have a low opinion of it, simply that I don’t follow the show. And if anything I ought to welcome its cancellation, because with Ripper Street and Copper out of the way, development execs are willing to look seriously at the Becker books again.

But it’s worrying that once again the BBC has killed a series that it claims to be proud of, citing a fall in viewing figures as the reason. For an advertising-driven broadcaster like ITV, viewing figures are crucial because their business is one of selling eyeballs to advertisers. The viewer is not the client, but the product. The programmes are bait, to draw a crowd and serve it up to the client’s sales force. Regulation imposed a quality threshold on commercial television from the very beginning. With relaxed regulation you get Babestation.

The BBC isn’t ITV. With its one-off yearly license fee funding, the BBC’s model is more like that of a cable company – and it’s the biggest bargain of its kind in the business, whatever the bottom half of the internet may say. Sky charges you more, produces less, and still shows you ads.

Subscription-funded companies like HBO or Showtime don’t have to worry about the figures for any one programme. Their brand image is defined by the quality of some of their least-watched product. Hence The Sopranos, Deadwood, Mad Men, Breaking Bad – bar-raisers for an entire industry. AMC’s Mad Men made its debut to less than a million viewers. The episode average never rose above three million, but it was deemed worthy of six seasons.

The BBC’s there for all of us. Because of the compulsory license fee, we’re all subscribers. Yet the BBC chooses to ape ITV’s methods and compete for ratings in time slots, as if courting imaginary ad buyers. Which wouldn’t be so bad if they didn’t then use those ratings as the measure of a programme’s worth, when simply moving the material around the schedule can have a drastic effect on its numbers.

(I speak here as someone who once saw his big-budget one-off BBC drama scheduled against live football on ITV, Manchester United v AC Milan. They knew what the outcome would be and didn’t even bother making any trails for the show.)

I’ve heard it suggested that the real reason for Ripper Street‘s cancellation is that it’s too ‘blokeish’ for some executives’ tastes, and the numbers only provide a handy excuse. So presumably the blokes will now go off and watch The Paradise instead. Or maybe Mr Selfridge.

That’s about a bloke, isn’t it?

2 responses to “Ripper Street, Not Resting in Peace”

  1. Stephen – thanks so much for your insights on both Copper and Ripper Street.

    I really liked the first season of Copper – it had a good narrative arc…the "grittier" storyline of the coppers working in the Irish neighborhoods was the best part…the companion storyline of the rich American family was poorly done…for the most part they let the storyline play out with seminal historical events of the Civil War in the background.

    The second season was very disappointing…less of what was best about the first season and more of what was poor about the first season so that some of the incidents (their role in the hunt for Lincoln;s assasin, for example) was simply absurd.

    Honestly, I was glad to see it canceled.

    I liked Ripper Street even more, but we haven;t seen Season 2 yet here in the US on BBC-A…again, the worst part of Ripper Street was the American character(s)…I'm not sure why they felt like they had to include them…

    If it means I 'll get to see Sebastian Becker on the screen, they can cancel all they want…you know I'm a big fan.

    Keep up the great work

  2. "the worst part of Ripper Street was the American character(s)"

    Sometimes it can be a coproduction condition… but if it's for old-fashioned (outdated?) market reasons, there are enough Brits playing American for us to be able to accept Americans playing Brit, if they feel they need to get some enhancement for export into the package.