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‘Doctor Who’ heals US networks

British sci-fi, spinoffs boost BBC America, SciFi

Who’s been a success story for two networks at the same time?

Absolutely.

“Doctor Who,” the venerable British sci-fi series begun in 1963 on the BBC, has been raising profiles for both of its American broadcasters, the Sci-Fi Channel, which premieres the show, and BBC America, which runs “Dr. Who” a season late but broadcasts originals of the “Torchwood” spinoff.

The show’s most recent creative masterminds are “Queer as Folk” creator Russell T. Davies and BBC Wales Head of Drama Julie Gardner, who revived the aged franchise after a long hiatus and have shored up its popularity in the U.K. and here. Now, Sci-Fi has inked a deal to start airing the show’s fourth season in April.

“Bringing the show back was a huge challenge,” Gardner admits. “It had to have the wit to engage the parents who were watching, and the fun and the alien monsters and the colors to engage the children.”

Brits love aliens, it turns out — the “Doctor Who” Christmas special became last year’s second-highest rated show in the U.K. with about 13 million viewers.

Foreign shows are usually high-risk bets for American nets — even Sci-Fi prexy Dave Howe, a UK native, found himself initially skeptical — but it turned out to be the best possible value for the Sci-Fi channel’s money.

BBC has already swallowed the production costs, but Sci-Fi can air it like it would an original series in the U.S. (Howe calls it “quietly original”), since no one on this side of the pond has seen the new episodes. Added to that, “Doctor Who” has fandom on its side, with a loyal viewership so fanatical that most of the show’s entry on Wikipedia actually appears to be correct.

The show’s initial season averaged 1.5 million viewers when the net first aired it — a 44% increase over the same timeslot the year before. It’s not expensive, either. Sources put the price of the show — which has risen, mind you — at $100,000 an episode for the upcoming season.

It’s no surprise, then, that the “Who” sale is not a deal BBC America president Garth Ancier would have made. “‘Doctor Who’ was sold to Sci-Fi before I got here,” Ancier notes. “If I’d been here, we wouldn’t have sold it, to be quite honest.”

The U.S. native Ancier has led BBC America through its recent growth period: The tiny net is still seeking out subscribers, but it grew by 15% from 2006 to 2007 and continues upward. Ancier programmed the “Who” spinoff “Torchwood” — a more grown-up show incorporating characters and concepts from the all-ages skein — and the premiere earned BBC America some of its best numbers.

“It’s been our highest-rated show ever,” Ancier says. “And because it’s not playing on another network first, we get the brand credit for it, which is very important to BBC America in terms of how to be viable to consumers, advertisers and cable operators.”

Sci-Fi has taken note: After being headed off at the pass on the more adult “Torchwood” (informally, BBC America gets right of first refusal, though they have to at least match the highest bid), the net snatched up the new kids’ spinoff. It’s called “The Sarah Jane Adventures,” and will feature “Who” characters, but target youngsters as opposed to the family or grownup crowds. Sci-Fi has its premiere set for April, too.

So what makes the franchise such a consistently renewable resource? Part of the success is a plot quirk that allows the titular character, a wandering extraterrestrial known only as “The Doctor,” to be reborn (“regenerated,” to use Whovian lingo) in a different body that looks like, for instance, David Tennant (the current doctor) instead of Christopher Eccleston (his predecessor).

Thus, actors who suffer from inconveniences like death, boredom, or a desire for too much money can never stand in the way of the outlandish show’s progress.

“From a budgetary standpoint, it’s a very unique thing to have,” Howe says. “And you’re also able to bring a new texture to the show with whoever you cast as the Doctor.”

The other thing that has kept the most recent version of the show going, though, is the current creative team, led by Davies and carefully preserved by Gardner. Gardner says that while the spinoff shows were designed to bring in outlying viewers penetrate various markets more deeply, she had an ulterior motive in mind.

“The crew works on ‘Doctor Who’ for nine months out of the year,” says Gardner of her Cardiff-based production. “That team was growing, and I wanted to find a way to keep members together. Now, we can diversify so that they could go work on ‘Torchwood,’ and then come back and work on ‘Doctor Who.’

“Then they could then go work on ‘Sarah Jane.’ They’re working on different budgets, but they can cross-reference and be employed year-round.”

The next season with Tennant will be the last one for a couple of years at least, since Davies has plans to leave the show. But the current team will produce specials, “Torchwood” and “The Sarah Jane Adventures” in the meantime.

It’s unclear how Sci-Fi will deal with the one-offs when they arrive, or how the kid-centric “Sarah Jane Adventures” will play on a net with a median age of 43, but then, the original show looked like a risk, too. For now, the gadabout alien seems to have made one of his diciest journeys without incident: the trip out of England.

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