Does the BBC actually WANT people to watch Doctor Who?

I’ve been a fan of Doctor Who ever since the 1970s and the Tom Baker era. The show has had a huge influence on my life, to the extent that Infinite Frontiers wouldn’t even exist without the show (we started out in August 1989 as a Doctor Who fan club!). The show has been through immense changes over the last 60 years, cancellation by the BBC, revival and now a global partnership with Disney. But is the BBC trying to make it difficult for some fans to watch the show they know and love?

Changing Times

This new season of Doctor Who has brought about more changes to the show than just a change of face for the Doctor themselves. Global distribution of the series has been handed over to Disney through their Disney+ streaming service. Despite fears that this was going to give the mega-corporation full control and ownership of the show, that was far from the case. This partnership has resulted in the show gaining a wider reach, and a vastly increased budget. While Disney has been allowed to make some editorial suggestions, control remains firmly with Bad Wolf Productions.

Doctor Who Christmas Special 2023,25-12-2023,Xmas 23,Picture Shows: The Doctor (Ncuti Gatwa) and Ruby Sunday (Millie Gibson),Post TX only,BBC Studios 2023,James Pardon

But It’s Not Free Anymore…

Globally the deal with Disney has lead to an outcry from fans who used to watch the series through one of the BBC’s global channels. The main argument being used has been that the show is no longer free to watch and is being locked behind Disney’s paywall. There are myths that need to be dispelled here…

First, regardless of where you live in the world, Doctor Who has never been free to watch. In the US, BBC America is included with most cable TV packages so even though most fans believed the show to be free to view, it was being paid for as part of their cable deal. While the show was broadcast in Australia on ABC until this new season this was also a paid channel albeit indirectly.

Originally funded via a license fee, this proved to be impractical so ABC became a fully state-funded channel. So essentially, this is paid for directly out of day-to-day taxes. Regardless of whether an Australian citizen watched Doctor Who (or any other programme on the channel for that matter), they were paying for content on ABC!

All Change At The BBC!

There have been those who have argued that fans in the UK have been “lucky” as we still get the show free. Again, this has never been the case. The rules surrounding the need for a TV license have been changing steadily over the last decade making matters confusing for viewers. For some time, if you wanted to watch the show live as it aired, you needed a license, at a cost (currently) of £169.50 a year or just over £14 a month. This applied to all live TV across all channels, but if you only used catch-up services including the BBC’s own iPlayer then you didn’t need a license.

This applied in our circumstances. We moved to South Wales in 2013 and living in a remote area had poor TV reception, and couldn’t get cable or satellite television. We opted to stick to our internet connection and catch-up and registered as not having a license, instead using the money we saved towards Netflix and Amazon Prime. For us it was great as it allowed us to watch the entire Peter Capaldi era essentially at no cost.

Doctor Who Season 10 Episode 8 – The Lie Of The Land. Missy (MICHELLE GOMEZ), The Doctor (PETER CAPALDI) – (C) BBC/BBC Worldwide – Photographer: Simon Ridgway

License Upgrade

But in 2016 the BBC changed the regulations surrounding the TV license. While the same guidelines applied when it came to live broadcasts and catch-up services, changes were introduced that applied exclusively for the BBC themselves. From that point onwards (the start of the Jodie Whittaker era), while many were still exempt from needing a license, it now became law that you needed a TV license even if you were watching catch-up TV via BBC iPlayer.

What this meant for Doctor Who fans whose only use for the BBC was the classic sci-fi show was a limited number of choices:

  1. Pay for a license
  2. Buy or rent episodes digitally through services such as Amazon Prime or Apple TV
  3. Wait for the DVD/Blu Ray release
  4. Watch them online through “unofficial” methods

With the exception of the first option, none of the others counted towards the show’s viewing figures. There are an estimated 4 million households in the UK without a TV license (one in seven) which is a huge percentage of the population that is not being counted towards the viewing audience.

Doctor Who – The Power of the Doctor,23-10-2022,The Power Of The Doctor,TEGAN (JANET FIELDING), The Doctor (JODIE WHITTAKER) and ACE (SOPHIE ALDRED),BBC STUDIOS 2022,James Pardon

What happened from this point has continued to this day, even with the Disney partnership, and is having a potential impact on the show and its audience…

Going Digital

This is where things get really interesting… To capitalise on interest in the show and maximise viewing figures and income, you would think that the BBC would make sure that the show is available as quickly as possible for fans who can’t access it by “normal” methods. There are fans who won’t see official DVD or Blu Ray releases any time soon (even though they could opt to buy them as unofficial imports). At the same time, there are countries that don’t have access to Disney+ leaving many in the lurch unable to watch the show.

So it’s vital that episodes are made available through streaming services as close to broadcast as they can, especially in an age where spoilers are rife and fans want to be able to enjoy episodes while they are still fresh and can do so without being told every last detail of each story. In the past, this used to happen the following day after broadcast and prices were pretty reasonable. This didn’t put fans off from buying physical copies later, but just gave them the chance to watch them as close as possible to the actual broadcast.

Doctor Who 60th Anniversary Specials,25-11-2023,Star Beast,1 Star Beast,The Doctor (DAVID TENNANT), Donna Noble (CATHERINE TATE),BBC Studios 2023,James Pardon

What’s the problem now then? This gap between the broadcast and digital release is getting larger. For the 60th Anniversary specials and Ncuti Gatwa’s debut story The Church On Ruby Road, some took days before appearing online to buy. Frustration isn’t the word for it. Having to avoid social media, YouTube, and ignore everything Doctor Who related until you get the chance to see each episode even though you have money sitting and waiting ready to pay for it just makes you feel as if the BBC doesn’t want your money or cares whether you watch the show or not.

Watching Doctor Who By “Unofficial” Means

What the BBC seems to forget at this point is that fans do have a choice. I must stress here that this is not an option I am condoning here, but almost immediately after release on Disney+ and iPlayer, the first two episodes of this new season were available to watch elsewhere online. Most fans will try to be patient when it comes to new episodes before taking drastic measures like this, but there have been instances – albeit rare times – when it has been weeks before episodes have been available to purchase.

Asking fans to wait a few days for a new episode to drop is one thing, but that long, especially for a weekly show is something that most, if not all, can’t cope with. This is something that the BBC has to address urgently if they want to prevent fans from seeking out other solutions.

Doctor Who S1,11-05-2024,2,The Doctor (Ncuti Gatwa) and Ruby Sunday (Millie Gibson),BBC Studios/Bad Wolf,Natalie Seery

Nothing To Buy?

At the time of writing this article, the first two episodes of the new season have been available on iPlayer and Disney+ for two days (and one of the aforementioned unofficial outlets). There is still no word on whether it will be available to purchase on Amazon Video. In fact, even previous seasons have had no publicity regarding their availability – marketing has only mentioned live broadcasts on the BBC, iPlayer and future home video releases.

Should the new season fail to materialise on any streaming service then it’s difficult to predict just what the impact will be on the broadcaster. Will fans opt to stream a single episode illegally then pay for the rest once they become available? Be patient and wait for the home video release? Who knows, but regardless, money is being lost every day the BBC take by not making these episodes available to all.

For a show that’s all about time, the BBC certainly know how to waste it.

All Doctor Who photographs are (c) copyright BBC/BBC Worldwide and used with permission.

About Simon Plumbe 209 Articles
Husband, father and lifelong geek. Originally from the West Midlands, now spending my days in South Wales with my family and a house full of animals. Passionate about video games, especially retro gaming, the Commodore 64 and PlayStation Vita. Love pro wrestling, sci-fi and I'm an animal lover and vegetarian. Enjoyed this and my other articles? Why not buy me a coffee: http://ko-fi.com/simonplumbe

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