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Summary:

BBC America received a ratings boost when it aired this year’s Doctor Who Christmas special mere hours after the BBC did — a strategy that it plans to repeat for future episodes, as the BBC evolves its international distribution plans to match a technologically savvy audience.

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You might say that, given the fact that NewTeeVee is in America and the BBC is in Britain, we write about the BBC a disproportionate amount of the time. But the taxpayer-funded crown jewel of British entertainment has, over the last few years, proven itself to be open to innovation and experimentation. That attitude has never been clearer when you consider the network’s flagship sci-fi franchise, Doctor Who, and how its international distribution has evolved with the times.

While Doctor Who was relaunched for a new generation of British audiences in 2005, the first season of the new series wasn’t broadcast in the United States until almost exactly a full year later, when the Sci-Fi Channel picked up the distribution rights in 2006.

But in these final days of 2010, the newest Who Christmas special aired last Saturday on BBC1 in Britain — and for the first time ever, BBC America broadcast it to U.S. audiences a mere six hours later. The result? According to TV By the Numbers, 727,000 viewers for the initial broadcast alone, an improvement on BBC America’s broadcast of last year’s Christmas special, which reached 671,000 viewers.

And that improvement matters, because last year, BBC America broadcast the Christmas special a full day after its British airing. Richard de Croce, senior VP of programming at BBC America, told CNN last week that “(American fans) love the shows so much they can’t wait to see them… And that’s the world we live in, in terms of technology, quite honestly. So let’s air these shows as quickly as we can post the UK’s transmission.”

The technology he’s referring to would be unauthorized online sharing of the episodes, of course. What BBC America is hoping, in short, is that the faster it can deliver the series following its British broadcast, the more Americans will choose the official airings over BitTorrent, giving the cable network more eyeballs on its ads and viewers the moral satisfaction of watching legally. That’s why, according to de Croce, plans are to mimic the day-and-date broadcast of the Christmas special for Doctor Who‘s entire upcoming sixth season.

The windows between Doctor Who‘s British and international airings are shrinking everywhere — for example, Canada and Australia both broadcast this year’s Christmas special on the 26th. In Australia, the last season was even previewed online two days before its ABC1 broadcast. It may not be universal, but it is improving, and the result is increasingly global awareness for the show, with vocal fans like Late Late Show host Craig Ferguson coming out with their admiration:

Another vocal fan is YouTuber Charlieissocoollike, aka Charlie McDonnell, who as the 34th most subscribed channel of all time on YouTube (#1 of all time in the UK) has been pushing out awareness of the show to a huge international fanbase (you should have seen the girls scream about him at Vidcon).

And that’s something the BBC took notice of, by the way: McDonnell was brought on to create a series of behind-the-scene videos during the filming of the Christmas special.

Because of the Doctor Who brand’s longevity and international popularity, there are few other British shows that could perhaps elicit the same treatment; Top Gear and anything Ricky Gervais does are the only exceptions that come to mind. But as a case study for how technology is changing television, Doctor Who and the BBC stand out as an example of how a broadcaster can adapt, as opposed to react, and turn a cult domestic favorite into an internationally-recognized brand.

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  1. BBC is really open to the Internet. The iPlayer has been, and is even today one of the most interesting video initiative of the www. I blogged about it yesterday: http://goo.gl/mGg4I .iPlayer rivals with the TOP10 video sites of US.

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