Mr Flibble Talks To... Cain and Able
So you're looking to show Red Dwarf across America's PBS stations. You've got 52 episodes - one a week for a full year - including three seasons with hot new effects and wooshy noises. But who's going to talk to the PBS stations and remind them just how good the show is? Julius Cain, that's who...
6 April, 2001
Julius Cain
Mr Flibble's right hand provided by
Andrew Ellard

Mr Flibble began moaning about his repeat fees, but Andrew dived right in to ask Julius for a description of his job.

I'm director of PBS syndication sales, which means that I'm responsible for selling a broad range of programmes - although primarily comedy shows - to individual public television stations. It is not a national sale to PBS - which is a surrogate for the network TV stations in the US - but to the individual licensees, city by city, state by state.

What kind of form do PBS PLEDGE DRIVES take?

Long before I worked in public television syndication for what is now the BBC sales company, I was a programme director at public television stations. Pledge drives are that unfortunate vehicle through which public television stations obtain a large part of their programme budgets. It literally involves showing a programme, going on air and asking people - counter to all logic - to give money for a programme that they've just seen for free!

There are certain inducements to this. An inducement might be offering a video cassette that might retail at $9.99 at Sam's or WallMart for $110 dollars of pledge - the idea being that there's a moral enhancement which accrues to the individual who gives that money. It's an illogic that works! And guilt - a lot of guilt. (Laughs)

Do the pledges do better when cast members get involved?

Oh yeah, there's no doubt about it. It's common knowledge in the US that if a station is lucky enough to get Robert Llewellyn and Craig Charles to come in and help pitch Red Dwarf that the coffers simply open up out there. Certainly it's the 'star' effect, it's also just the validation that their local public television station - say in Seattle, where it's become a cottage industry for the past decade - is fortunate enough to bring in recognisable stars and have them pitch to a local viewship. There's a great deal of money to be made by having those stars come on board and speak freely, candidly, sometimes obscenely (laughs) about their involvement in the series.

Mr Flibble remembers his scenes as being extremely violent - are the shows ever edited for their CONTENT?

I'm trying to recall. In all my years of selling Red Dwarf - and it actually relaunched about three years ago in the US - I don't recall any stations having to do any editing. In fact, if there were any editing to be done, it would have been in Dallas, Texas with season VII where John Kennedy is killed by... John Kennedy

Bill Young, who's the programme director there, was first aware that Kennedy would assassinate himself on the very night that Bill was going to be on air pledging the show! I think if I were in Bill's shoes I would have whacked out great portions of the show! But he went bravely on, and actually only received one complaint about the show - and that was about the cannibalism.

How does PBS compare with the kind of content stations like HBO can show?

HBO, Showtime and most of the cable channels are self-regulatory. They don't have to abide by any standards that are laid down by the US Federal Communications Commission [FCC]. All public television stations have to subscribe to certain standards, meaning they are to broadcast programmes that fit within the guidelines for decency and morality in the community... whatever they may be.

American viewers, overall - with Red Dwarf being a possible exception - are very prudish. That's why there is something of an outcry in the US right now about the relaxation of standards, language that might have been commonplace for a decade or more on UK television is creating a little bit of a stink now. But there was never a particular problem with the language on Red Dwarf. Smeg you, by the way.

Mr Flibble said, 'Thanks a lot'. Where is the show most POPULAR in the US?

Red Dwarf is played, at one time or another, in virtually all the cities in the US. There's no geographical demarcation of where it's going to do well. In Seattle, where the station KCTS has made such good use of it, they're fortunate in that they have a very 'enlightened', well-educated populous.

I would say that Red Dwarf has done well in virtually every time slot the schedulers have attempted, in fact a lot of stations have shifted it to very late-night viewing knowing that the target audience are going to be there. It currently is airing - as we tape this interview - in cities which collectively represent around 64% of all US television households. We've been at about that level of distribution for the past two years.

What other shows pass through your hands?

This may be horrifying to some of the fans in the UK, but the best selling shows on public television - at least from a comedy standpoint - remain Keeping Up Appearances, As Time Goes By, Waiting for God and... wipe the smile of your face! (Laughs) And Are You Being Served? Which used to be one of the most watched shows on public television.

Most of the programmes that we supply [to] the stations are light entertainment titles - but we still have Dr Who in syndication, we have for a number of years had Eastenders in syndication out there. Generally speaking, public stations are looking for light entertainment material, and that sets us up well - the BBC is one of the finest purveyor of comedies in all of television in all of the world.

Do you think this success in the US bodes well for the MOVIE?

I think so. Certainly before we did a re-launch of Red Dwarf in America we explored a number of options for broadcast platforms - we thought about Comedy Central, we thought about the Sci-Fi Channel, we thought about Turner, we thought about a number of ways to get it out there. But as we sat down and listened to the executives from those companies talk about Red Dwarf, there was no way that any of them was prepared to make the long-term commitments to Red Dwarf that aour public television stations would do.

Public television, I think, recognised that Red Dwarf had the possibility of becoming a real franchise. Not only by virtue of the number of half-hour units that were available, but because of the merchandise that attaches itself to Red Dwarf that the stations can use, very cleverly, for their own purposes during pledge periods.

Do you have plans for the movie period?

As a matter of fact, right now I'm working with Bill Young from Dallas and Mike Seymour from Florida Public Broadcasting about doing a two-hour pledge special, which we hope will be out well in advance of the feature film release. [It is set to] feature a couple of complete episodes from seasons past, recollections on the part of the cast, certainly some one-on-one time with Doug Naylor and, we would hope, Ed Bye - to give the fans a chance to look in on their thinking about previous series, and to give a bit of a preview to the movie.

The idea is that we think the franchise is going to be a long-lasting one in the States, but without a new set of programmes we needed something to sort of pump it up and move it along. We think this will work very well to do that. So Red Dwarf will hopefully have a long and happy history.

Mr Flibble enjoyed talking to Julius Cain, and now that it's over... Mr Flibble is very cross.