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Old Television Programming FAQs
Fascinating (?) Trivia

Which programme has had the most repeats?

It used to be Andy Pandy; which ran for some 20 odd years with constant repeats, including colour remakes in the 70s. The longest running programme is still Come Dancing; which has been on the air for some 41 years.

What are these Christmas tapes that everyone keeps talking about?

A secret!

In fact there are two types of Christmas tape, BBC and ITV, but the differences are fairly slight.

Back in the 1950s, when much of the techical talent of BBC Television was centred at Alexandra Palace, they used to hold a slap-up party for all the staff at Christmas. A part of the entertainment was a comedy film, made up of technical staff aping the real performers and real performers doing impromptu comedy sketches, often quite satirical. In the main, this was filmed by the film editing staff, using their own cameras (probably with BBC film in them). It was all light-hearted and everyone laughed. Note that there was just one copy of the 'Christmas Party' film (old-timers at the BBC still use the name 'Christmas Party' for these tapes) and it was seen only once.

The tradition continued but by the end of the 1960s the tone of these films had become cruder and clips of performers fluffing their lines (and other cock-ups) started to be included. At some stage the medium changed from film to video tape and the VT department took over production. Multiple copies of these tapes were circulated around the various BBC centres too, instead of being shown at parties. By the mid-to-late 1970s the tapes had become extremely professional productions, with plenty of cock-ups, clips from comedy films and performances specially recorded for the Christmas Tape by artistes. Performers became so used to having their foul-ups included in the tape that they said "Merry Christmas VT" as soon as they realised they had made a mistake.

Over the years many BBC staff 'emigrated' to ITV stations and took the tradition with them. Thus by the 1970s the various ITV companies made what they called their 'Christmas Promotions', containing roughly similar material but with a higher proportion of crudity. Just before Christmas each station took turns to send their own creation down the line to the Post Office switching centre at the Post Office Tower in London, where these programmes were conveniently relayed to all the other companies for recording. At the end of this an independent judge would award a trophy for the best Christmas Promo.

All the time that these creations remained for the exclusive enjoyment of technical staff no harm was done but gradually both the BBC and ITV tapes 'escaped' into wider circulation, creating a huge demand for copies. A sell-through video company in Holland edited up highlights from these tapes and issued a VHS tape there called Biggest Boobs of the BBC and ITV. Things started to get hot. The Sun newspaper did a shock horror feature on some royal send-up in one of the tapes and BBC management were horrified by the way they were being lampooned. They reacted by banning them one year, threatening the sack to anyone involved.

In the end the fun went out of Christmas tapes. Supervisors no longer sanctioned the heavy resources that went into making the tapes, whilst staff just didn't have the same amount of spare time. I'm not even sure if anyone still even makes Christmas tapes. If anyone can fill in any gaps in this story, please throw in your pennyworth!

Why do some American shows exist under two different titles?

This happened when networked American television shows originally produced for showing by one network exclusively went into what is called syndication and were re-packaged for sale to independent stations. Liz McLeod explains:

I believe the titles for certain syndicated TV reruns were changed to avoid conflicts with the still-running network versions of the same shows – to avoid, in effect, competing with themselves. Thus when early TV episodes of Dragnet were first put into the syndication market it was under the title Badge 714. Gunsmoke was retitled Marshall Dillon, Lassie became Jeff's Collie, and The Andy Griffith Show became Andy Of Mayberry. The title changes seem to have occurred only for programs that entered syndication while still on the network – shows that went into reruns after leaving the net retained their original titles.

Joseph Ross adds:
I don't know whether it happened every time without fail, but it used to be very common for shows to change their name in syndication, in order not to compete with new episodes still appearing on the network. Thus, Dragnet became Badge 714 in syndication, Lassie became Jeff's Collie, Captain Gallant of the Foreign Legion became Foreign Legionnaire, etc. Interestingly enough, the Danny Thomas Show, originally called Make Room for Daddy, reverted to its original title in syndication, while new episodes ran under the new title. Eventually, the thinking changed, and this practice was discontinued. 

Ed Ellers adds:
Whether or not a show is syndicated before its network run ends is dependent on the contract with the network. In the past some shows have been syndicated under different titles to avoid confusion with the new episodes - Dragnet was originally syndicated as Badge 714, Bonanza as The Ponderosa and The Rockford Files as Jim Rockford, Private Investigator - but I haven't seen that done lately. (One problem with that technique is the need to replace all the copies at the local stations, when the network run ends, with new ones that have the original title.) 

Commercials are placed at different points in American television programmes; how does this affect American programmes shown over here (and British programmes shown in the States)?

In Britain we show commercials ahead of and after programmes, frequently also at points within the programme defined as a 'natural break', frequently sandwiched between captions stating End of Part One and Part Two. In the USA these 'natural breaks' occur more frequently than here and in some US-made shows shown here (and UK-made ones such as The Avengers) you can clearly see where these additional commercial breaks would have been inserted.

In addition, commercials are frequently shown in America within the programme, after the opening titles but before the main action begins, and again at the end of the main action but before the closing credits are run.

In both cases, programme makers generally make separate versions of programmes tailored respectively for their home market and for the transatlantic market, in each case conforming to the needs of each. Frequently there are other subtle changes, such as the name of a different distributor after the closing credits. In latter years US prints of some British-made programmes have been screen in Britain, with unfamiliar distributor names on the end, e.g. Associated British Corporation (instead of ABC Television) and Official Films (instead of Incorporated Television Programme Company).

Ed Ellers adds:
Many American series were formatted to have a short segment at the end - whose length was equal to the difference between the NAB prime-time and non-prime-time limits - that could, if necessary, be dropped (and may not even have been related to the plot of that episode). Sadly, most stations in my experience still cut out other bits and leave in the 'appendix' segment; I've even heard of the studios themselves, when releasing old filmed series on tape in domestic syndication, editing out bits of the plot while leaving in that almost-useless final segment!

James Masterton adds:
In Britain what we see is normally the international/syndicated version. Friends in the States have sent tapes of Friends over to me. The final break in the programme comes at the end of the main plot and then we return for the end credits, listed in one third of the screen whilst the final skit plays out in the rest of the picture. I believe US networks do things this way to discourage channel surfing, as you have an incentive to sit through a break at the end whilst waiting for the final jokes in the show at the end of which the network can show a promo and then hook the viewer straight into the next programme without a break. Contrast that to the way of doing things over here where commercial stations are happy to tease the next programme with a slide and/or voice-over before making the viewer endure five minutes of commercials before it starts. Maybe American TV viewers have shorter attention spans.

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