The Challenger

Chilly Pile-up

I dodged a bullet yesterday morning when a 74 mile cycle ride in Sussex (the South Down Spring Sportive) was cancelled because of the awful weather.  By the end, I didn’t want to do it anyway because that’s a long way to cycle, in the cold, and I was worried about an incipient softness in what I like to call my O rings, the tyres.  They don’t have an inner tube… very special… so are a little tricky to fix and that.

Mmm, look at my O rings. Nice.

Mmm, look at my O rings. Nice.

Anyway I was thinking about the inclement weather while watching The Challenger.  Did you see it?  It was on BBC2 last Monday at 9pm. A big (co-) production number with William Hurt all about Richard Feynman, the famous American scientist who helped reveal the explanation for the crash of the Challenger space craft in 1986.  Famously the disaster happened when cold weather prevented the ‘O rings’ from working properly.  Unlike the good people at Cycling Weekly, NASA had taken a risk and gone ahead.  Anyway, the programme made a great drama – science, heroism, tragedy, military establishment, astronauts and space, whistle-blowers, secrets and even Joanne Whalley (swoon!).. and yet what audience did it get? 1.4 million. A little below the slot average. There’ll be more viewers – I can’t be the only one watching days later – but really, that seems low.

But take a look at what else was on at that time.

ITV was showing the wonderful moving drama Broadchurch. On BBC4, Stefan Gates’ excellent (and important) piece asking whether we might save the planet by eating insects  I know Stefan a little, and have still only just got round to watching it (brilliant… I fancy a fried giant water bug right now, and some beautiful children hunting tarantulas).  On BBC1, Motorway Cops, which I rather like, on Channel 4, Embarrassing Bodies which makes me feel good about myself.  And Channel 5 has Extreme Fishing, which sounds great (and so much more decent than the Extreme Fisting).

Never mind whodunnit, how will we find the time to watch all this great TV?

Never mind whodunnit, how will we find the time to watch all this great TV?

Stefan and insects... can they change the world?

Stefan and insects… can they change the world? Well, if they can speed up mealtime..

William Hurt as physicist William Feynman in The Challenger

William Hurt as physicist William Feynman in The Challenger. Time, space.. tough equation





So, loads of options.  And that was just the big channels. What a wealth of entertainment. How do audiences cope with all this?  By watching what they can when they can fit it in. One unusual thing… the audience for Broadchurch is going up… that’s a little unusual for an episode 3 of a series with a continuing plot-line.  Perhaps on demand services are allowing audience members who miss live episodes to return, and late arrivals to get up to speed. Or perhaps it’s just that audiences have sniffed out a quality series and turned up to join in.

I learned from The Challenger that the disaster happened in part because NASA was competing with the military for investment, and feared that further delay or cancellation of the launch would jeopardise its funding.  TV programmes are in a similar position… competing head-on for the finite resource of audience’s time.  The launch is absolutely critical – the time it is scheduled, the channel, and of course, the quality of the programme all help to sell it in to the audience.  For a series, audiences can now be retrieved and added over time… they can augment the live crowd, and join in later.

As for The Challenger, I’m afraid the BBC may have rather bollocksed up the launch.  It deserved far more viewers, and needed to be shielded more effectively. Putting a one-off special opposite Broadchurch is a little bonkers, and it doesn’t take a nuclear physicist to work that out.


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