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TELEVISION & RADIO

Missing 'EastEnders'

The British soap stopped being shown in the U.S. last week, and fans say it's like losing some dear friends.

October 04, 2003|Lynn Smith | Times Staff Writer

The fans are shocked. Appalled. Gobsmacked.

On computers from California to Wisconsin to North Carolina, they call it "lunacy," "disgraceful" and "a big mistake."

What began last week as a small notice on BBC America's Web site -- that due to poor ratings, the popular British soap "EastEnders" would be dropped Sept. 27 -- has turned into a national campaign of passion, petitions, e-mails and faxes.

It's a usually fruitless exercise that fans of such shows as "Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman," "Beauty and the Beast" and even the original "Star Trek" have nonetheless employed over the years.

Calling for boycotts of the cable channel and its advertisers, the fans claim the corporation itself caused the poor ratings by not promoting the show, one of the most popular in England, and scheduling it in a way that lost viewers.

So far, 8,000 loyal fans have petitioned BBC America to continue airing current episodes of the prime-time melodrama about the trials and tribulations of working-class folk in London's East End. One Colorado woman plans to hand-deliver the petition and faxes to BBC executives in London next week.

Not only do fans feel the sting of loss, but also the insult of timing -- canceling the show in the midst of a cliffhanger and just before the return of a devilish character, Dirty Den. "He was involved in some dirty dealings with the underground 14 years ago," explains Melissa Berry, 44, petition organizer and president of the Western North Carolina EastEnders Fanatics, one of three fan clubs in that state. "He was shot as he was walking along the canal. We heard a splash, but you never saw the body hit the water." For "EastEnder" fans, that episode is as big a deal as "Who Shot J.R.?" on "Dallas." And in the U.K., where it aired last week, the episode attracted 17 million viewers, a huge audience by British TV standards.

Much older episodes also run on some PBS stations, including Orange County's KOCE.

Prime-time soaps are almost a national pastime in Britain where various shows are geographically tailored to specific audiences: "Coronation Street" from Manchester, "Emmerdale Farm" from Yorkshire and "EastEnders" from London.

"There's nothing else to do in England," says native Eastender Nikki King, a waitress at Ye Olde King's Head Inn, a carpeted and dark polished-wood pub in Santa Monica, and gathering spot for the large local British expatriate community, where the news of the show's cancellation is circulating. She finds the show dreary and depressing but says she watched it anyway because "it's something from home."

Over a beer in the bar, former Eastender David "Stubsy" Abbott, 49, a stubbled man in paint-splattered clothes, says he was upset last Saturday when he was watching a week's worth of "EastEnders" episodes as usual and heard it would be the last show. "There was no warning whatsoever. They didn't give no explanation," he says. "Just when Dirty Den's coming back."

A house painter who moved to Los Angeles 15 years ago, Abbott says he watches the show regularly because it has "things you forget about, part of the culture you miss in America" such as Cockney slang and honest relationships among people. "It's not about money. It's about family and mates."

In the U.S. "EastEnders" has also found a cult following among native-born soap lovers who prefer the ordinary, frumpy-looking characters to the beautiful stars of Hollywood soaps. "Several cast members are on the overweight side," says Sheree Anderson, 48, of Baldwin Park. "They're more down to earth. Just normal people."

BBC America representatives say they have tried airing the show in various time slots, some in half-hour evening episodes, ending with a 2 1/2-hour omnibus program on Saturday morning, none of which brought satisfactory Nielsen ratings. The show, they say, attracted less than 10% of the audience of other shows such as "Ground Force America," a reality gardening show, and "What Not to Wear," a reality makeover show.

Skeptical protesters claim BBC America didn't promote the show properly, which, programmers acknowledge, is its most expensive. "In February, they stopped promoting it at all and reduced it to a 2 1/2-hour block on Saturday when people are out running errands," Berry says.

Last week, fans confronted David Bernath, vice president of programming, in an online chat held to deal with what he called "the outpouring of disappointment."

Because BBC America buys four episodes a week from the BBC, he acknowledged "EastEnders" is the company's most expensive show, compared with "Coupling" or "The Office," which have only six to eight episodes a season. Even so, he added, "If 'EastEnders' was a hit, we'd be delighted to pay for it."

A writer named "Britishfan" wrote, "EastEnders is continually at the top of the British TV ratings! Why pull it?"

Bernath noted, "It's a great soap and we know it's hugely popular in the U.K. That's why we brought it to America in the first place. But not everything that is popular in the U.K. works over here."

Not every Brit loves the show. Stopping at Ye Olde King's Head in the midst of his travels, Londoner Steve Crane, 33, says, "I hate it. I was forced to watch it by my mum and my wife." The real East End is a lot darker, and more racially and ethnically integrated than what's shown, says the former teacher. "It's candy TV," he says.

Anderson says she knows some people might not understand her level of devotion. "A lot of people like me are feeling like there's been a death in the family," she says. She promises not to watch BBC America until "EastEnders" returns. Like other fans, she's also petitioning other channels to take on the show. "We want our voices to be heard," she says. "We want them to understand we mean business and we won't go away."

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