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A New 'Doctor Who' Tries To Make Peace With Its Impatient Stateside Fans

Matt Smith stars as The Doctor in a new season of <em>Doctor Who</em>.
Matt Smith stars as The Doctor in a new season of Doctor Who.

It's a problem that might baffle even the intrepid Doctor Who: how to dissuade the show's devoted fans from downloading it illegally.

Those fans span generations — from those who remember the cult-y British science fiction show as a rickety affair, with visible zippers in costumes and esoteric plotlines, to newer converts impressed by the slick, accessible and very funny new reboot starring Matt Smith as the eleventh incarnation of the Time Lord, who scoots around the space-time continuum by way of a bright blue police call box.

The BBC is tinkering with the space-time continuum itself. Starting with Saturday's premiere of the new season, the BBC will broadcast Doctor Who around the world on the same day for the very first time. Previously, the network favored British fans by airing the show there first.

Thirty-three-year-old Jefferson Eng is a suburban American fan. He lives right outside Philadelphia and he's watched Doctor Who faithfully since childhood.

"I can remember watching episodes on local Channel 17," he reminisces.

But these days, Eng admits, to occasionally watching episodes on his computer. Which is not strictly legal.

"I get it from the internet fairies," he confessed. "But I do also support watching it on BBC America."

Fans like Eng turned to the internet because of the BBC's practice of broadcasting its most wildly popular shows in the United Kingdom first. That's great for the Queen's subjects, but apparently unacceptable for impatient fans of Doctor Who, Torchwoodand Top Gear who happen to live outside the realm. Rather than wait for broadcasts in their native lands, these fans took matters into their own hands.

As a result, Doctor Who is one of the most illegally downloaded shows in the world, according to TorrentFreak, a website based in the Netherlands that follows what people download --often in violation of copyright. Doctor Who's illegal downloads don't hit the sensational numbers of a show like Lost, which got as many as a million downloads a week in its last season. But Doctor Who is easily in the top twenty, with as many as 200,000 illegal downloads the week new episodes air, many of those coming from the U.S. and Australia.

"The more rabid the fan base, the bigger the piracy issue," sighed Perry Simon, general manager of BBC America. (General Manager is British-speak for "President.")

Simon emphasized that fans are also getting their fix legally. He said Doctor Who is the third most popular show on iTunes, after Gleeand Mad Men. But Simon added that BBC America has the unique problem of a disproportionately tech-savvy audience.

"Percentage-wise, BBC America is number one in Twitter users, of all networks, [and] number two in blog writers," he explained. He added that because BBC America's audience is so comfortable with digital media, they're also clever about using it to access the shows they want.

"We consider this a high-class problem," Simon said ruefully, adding that nonetheless, having such popular shows is thrilling.

But it's a problem with a pragmatic partial solution. Simon hopes that the new move of airing Doctor Who around the world all on the same day will keep those bloody internet fairies at bay.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Neda Ulaby reports on arts, entertainment, and cultural trends for NPR's Arts Desk.