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Keep your eyes open for...

What were the big stories and the hottest shows of 2003? We look back at the highs and lows of the year’s Cult TV

All this year, for some reason (and some of you readers can, perhaps, relate to this as well), the editor of this esteemed magazine has been telling me that I ‘should be watching’ this or that TV series. The West Wing, The Shield, Six Feet Under, Scrubs, CSI, Boomtown: you name it, apparently I should be watching it. This happens roughly once every month, and my answer has been two-fold. Instinctively, I’m tempted to shout back that I would happily watch all this stuff if some lunatic wasn’t constantly commissioning me to watch crap like My Hero and Special Unit 2 instead. But when I calm down a little, the more honest answer is that, a lot of the time, he’s absolutely right.

Disturbingly perhaps, despite watching an unhealthy amount of ‘Cult’ TV shows I also find time to watch a lot of this stuff anyway, so The West Wing, CSI and the like are hardly unknown territory. Various of my colleagues on Cult TV magazines regularly push shows like The Shield and Six Feet Under to me as well, which if I had the time I would certainly give a try – but this makes me wonder. Received wisdom has had it for several years that the Sci-Fi, Fantasy and Horror genres have their own fans, discrete from the general population, and will gravitate towards ghettos in the TV schedules to get their fix. This year, however, has seen a growing willingness from the broadcasters to start breaking that trend; for Sky 1 and E4 particularly, it’s increasingly okay to schedule Smallville next to Six Feet Under, or Angel next to Scrubs.

There are, of course, still ways in which ‘Cult’ material has its own rules: Five found when it broadcast Angel in primetime slots that most of its potential viewers had already seen it, on Sky 1 or DVD. But The West Wing seems to suffer the same phenomenon, rarely attracting ‘mainstream’ viewers on Channel 4. Meanwhile BBC2 and 3 hit on the genius idea of showing 24 one week ahead on the digital channel, so that busy affluent people could watch or tape it early, or miss a week if their busy schedules made it necessary. There was even a weekly ‘fanzine’ show; and counter-intuitively perhaps, it also managed to sell truckloads of DVD box sets after its broadcast.

What is all this telling us? Well, that the TV market in 2003 is starting to recognize a category of consumers who like their shows to be intelligent, fun and experimental, care a lot about them and want to see them uncut, as early as possible, and treated with some enthusiasm and respect. While such people have been enjoying Buffy, Angel, Smallville and Stargate this year, an awful lot of them are also enjoying the likes of 24, CSI, The West Wing and The Shield. In other words, arguably TV is redefining ‘Cult’.

by John Binns

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Feature © Visual Imagination 2003. Not for reproduction

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