Why does Iowa like Doctor Who so much?

A regional broadcaster in heart of the continental US has been repeating Doctor Who almost constantly since 1974. Why does the Midwest have such an attachment to a British sci-fi show?

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

Three guesses as to who has been broadcasting Doctor Who for the longest length of time…No, not the BBC … no, not Australian Broadcasting Corporation … and no, not the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.  Oh go on, one more go, then – no, it isn’t the New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation either. Doctor Who has been on only one TV channel in the entire world consistently for 35 out of the last 40 years. Iowa Public Television, a regional broadcaster in heart of the continental US, has been repeating the programme with very few breaks since 1974. The channel reaches 2.2 million viewers a month and celebrates 45 years of broadcasting in 2014. Grandparents now have grandchildren that can tune to the same network that they and their children did in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s to watch the biggest television drama in the world (with no commercials). How did this happen? Why do people in Iowa seem to like Doctor Who so much?

The biggest reason why Doctor Who stayed on Iowa Public Television (IPTV) for so long is because of the nature of public television in the US. IPTV is a local affiliate of the national Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), which makes and broadcasts educational and narrative programming at the national level, and co-produces costume dramas from Britain. The most well-known of these series is Masterpiece (historically, Masterpiece Theatre and Mystery!). As PBS affiliates are non-commercial, funding for “extracurricular”, non-national-PBS programming comes directly from the public. This lends itself to a very direct relationship with the audience, because public television stations conduct what is known as a “pledge drive” – a type of telethon where presenters tell the viewers what programmes are available, and solicit pledges of funds from individuals and the public to buy them – normally in amounts of $50-$250. While pledges are needed from the public for national PBS programming too, those programmes are partly funded nationally by endowments, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), and private companies. Any other programming is entirely funded by donations from the public. Local and regional PBS affiliates can obtain programmes from other sources, and as a non-commercial broadcaster, programming from the BBC, without the involvement of PBS itself, has been a staple of US public broadcasting for many years.

In Iowa, British programmes are very strongly financially supported by public pledges. This is where BBC Worldwide, which has been selling ad-free BBC programming to PBS affiliates for many years, comes in. Iowa viewers seem to have a particular penchant for British sitcoms, or “Britcoms”, as they are colloquially termed. Historically these broadcasts have included programmes such as Dad’s Army, Waiting for God, and ‘Allo,’Allo! Currently, the BBC sitcoms on IPTV are Keeping Up Appearances, Are You Being Served?, As Time Goes By, and Last of the Summer Wine. They are all classic comedies – entirely in keeping with the audience that pledged their funding to watch repeats of classic Doctor Who for so many years. Unlike most of the rest of the world history of Doctor Who broadcasts – which tended to be on state, national broadcasters, the decision to keep the programme on the air largely rested on the local viewing public, who voted with their money to continue airing a programme they had seen many times over.

Doctor Who was first distributed to US PBS stations via Time-Life Television, in 1972. The Iowa Public Broadcasting Network (as it was known then) first obtained Doctor Who in 1974, broadcasting it from May to September. It returned in July 1976, sticking around with some breaks of a few weeks, until February/March 1979. Doctor Who returned to the re-titled Iowa Public Television in October, 1984. In the 1980s, Doctor Who became immensely popular on US PBS affiliates – at its height, over 100 different local PBS stations were airing the show, distributed by Lionheart Television. National and local fan clubs sprang up, and these fans would often take the calls for the pledges from the public on the local affiliate telethons (a practice which continues to this day on IPTV, with modern Doctor Who).

In the 1990s, the popularity of the programme and the money from viewers to retain the show tapered off. The US Sci-Fi Channel hoped to gain exclusive rights to stories with Tom Baker as The Doctor, and this wrangling, combined with waning viewer support, caused many US PBS stations to wash their hands of the programme altogether. Conversely, at this time, IPTV and its viewers supported Doctor Who and other classic British science fiction and fantasy TV series all the more. From 1996-2004, IPTV aired Doctor Who alongside related genre series such as Blake’s 7, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Red Dwarf, and Star Cops (among others) blocked together on Friday, and later on Saturday, nights.  In an oddly prescient twist, the only then-contemporary (1990s) standalone series in this block was Neverwhere, written by modern Doctor Who writer Neil Gaiman, and featuring Peter Capaldi in the main cast. Today, modern Doctor Who has replaced the classic series, and it airs on IPTV on Saturday nights.

The nature of public involvement in US public TV explains the mechanics of this longevity, but introduces the new question of why the Iowa viewing public remains so interested in the programme. The first major Doctor Who fan site on the internet, The Nitro-9 Homepage, was founded and operated by Dr Siobahn Morgan of the Astronomy Department at the University of Northern Iowa from 1993 until 2010. Her take on the longevity of Doctor Who in Iowa is as follows: “I'm not an Iowan native, so perhaps I may not be able to understand the Iowa psyche completely, but I think that Doctor Who fits well in the Iowa mindset of ‘doing the right thing’. Perhaps [it is] because the show often highlighted fighting against adversity, but never diminishing the high moral standards that the Doctor has had throughout the years, and all his regenerations.

“It’s different to the ‘let's kill them, they're scary aliens’ attitude in a lot of sci-fi that we see today. The Doctor would instead have the attitude of ‘let's say hello to the scary aliens and see if we can help’. So that is sort of a good Midwestern attitude to have. There is also the assurance of a ‘friend’ who is always there, steady and reliable, with the show having a familiar pattern, especially if you've seen the episodes 4-5 times already. […] Before 2005 it was pretty tough being a Doctor Who fan, but fortunately I was able to get a dose of it each week on IPTV.’”

Iowa certainly has its creative types, writers and Anglophiles: an Iowa company recently obtained an official licence to create and market Downton Abbey textile merchandise – Heritage Lace.  In 2008, Iowa City became the only city in North America to be designated a UNESCO World City of Literature. This is largely due to the local University of Iowa’s prestigious creative writing education and events, which have spawned numerous writers in publishing and for screen.

Iowa Public Television had the following to say about Doctor Who’s record longevity on their network: “Doctor Who is a – dare we say timeless – classic that, from the beginning, seemed to be a great fit for PBS. Underlying its low-tech, quirky, science fiction appeal is storytelling that combines intellectual problem solving with current social issues, ethical considerations and humour to entertain.

“Only the Time Lords know what our predecessors were thinking when they first found a spot for Doctor Who in Iowa Public Television's programming schedule, but we do know that its longevity on our airwaves is due to viewers rallying around the series from the start. Iowans are a smart, thoughtful, conscientious people who have contributed a number of advancements to science and technology and have often been among the first in the nation to address social issues. Perhaps that is reason the show has continued to find a home among our viewers.”

Modern Doctor Who continues on IPTV even at the same time that it is on BBC America (although new episodes are aired after a gap of some months), and some local viewers are watching the show on both channels. Several things came together to ensure its enduring popularity: “the unique way IPTV is funded” (to borrow a familiar phrase from a familiar broadcaster), and an active local Anglophile and science fiction fan audience. The show has a direct relationship with an audience that loved it so much that they kept voluntarily paying to see repeats of it, even when most of the rest of the world had seemingly forgotten all about it.

Lea A Donovan is a London-based American writer, actor, and TV freelancer. Twitter: @tigerlilylondon.