Friday, April 9, 2010

Why is "Merlin" on at 10PM?

I caught a couple of episodes of the BBC "Merlin" series during its summer run on NBC last year. It's a fun show, a reimagining of the Arthur mythology to fit a sort of "Smallville" prequel template, set in the years before Arthur became king. All the familiar characters are teenagers or young adults, including a version of the wizard Merlin who is actually younger than the Arthur that he's charged with protecting. NBC ran it an episode or two at a time in 8-10PM Sunday night slots, but it didn't do well enough for them to pick up the second season. So the Syfy (formerly ScFi) Channel stepped in to pick up the rights - and scheduled new episodes for Fridays at 10PM.

This is some pretty bizarre scheduling. "Merlin" was explicitly made to be accessible to younger viewers. The BBC airs it on Saturdays, usually as early evening "tea time" programming. NBC ran it in prime time, starting at 9PM, but edging up to the more family-friendly 8PM timeslot by the end of its run. Even taking into account that more kids might be up late on Friday nights because of the weekend, 10PM is traditionally reserved for more adult programming like police procedurals and dramatic serials. With its CGI dragons and occasional slapstick, "Merlin" has absolutely no content that would require it to air on the cusp of late night. I wouldn't be surprised if the encore broadcasts in the 7PM hour end up outperforming the premieres.

The 8PM and 9PM slots preceding "Merlin" are filled by episodes of "Stargate Universe," the third incarnation of the "Stargate" franchise for those keeping track, and one of the Syfy network's original programs. Understandably they want to give their own show the benefit of more exposure through earlier, more accessible timeslots. However, the audience for "Stargate" skews older and its content is a bit racier. There's nothing on the level of "Battlestar Galactica," but it's not exactly all-ages viewing either. Having this kind of lead-in plus the counterintuitive scheduling is going to make it all but impossible for "Merlin" to attract a good chunk of its intended audience.

Syfy has programmed several British genre shows before, including ITV's "Primeval," the resurrected "Doctor Who," and its spinoff for younger viewers, "The Sarah Jane Adventures." "Doctor Who" was the only one that lasted longer than a year, occupying a comfortable 9PM berth between "Stargate" and "Battlestar Galactica" on the Friday schedule for several years. "Merlin" was probably picked up to appeal to the same viewers, but the show has the potential to play to a much broader audience than "Doctor Who" or any of the others, and it's an awful shame to see it buried so far out of sight. Surely Syfy could swap "Merlin" over into an earlier timeslot somewhere else on its schedule where the kids could find it? There's no reason why all their British acquisitions have to air on Friday night.

There's such a lack of decent kid-friendly genre programming these days, I can't help but think "Merlin" could do so much better with the CW or ABC Family or other networks with more experience with younger viewers. NBC did a pretty dismal job of marketing the show when they had it, playing up the geeky Arthurian elements instead of the photogenic, multiracial young cast that sets it apart from similar shows. Even the eye-catch screens were godawful looking. Syfy isn't doing much better so far, though they're getting a lot of mileage out of marathoning the older episodes.

If "Merlin" was a US production it probably wouldn't have lasted beyond the first season. Fortunately for fans, it’s doing well enough on the BBC and in other countries to ensure that more series will be produced. But I don't see it lasting on American television for much longer – at least, not where anybody not looking for it I will find it.

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