When I was in fourth grade, my class had a geography bee with another fourth grade class. It was held in their classroom, and one by one the kids were eliminated when they couldn’t find a country or city in the allotted time. I won by finding Argentina. The other teacher was in charge of the prize, and as I stood watching, she began to reach for one book on her desk. She hesitated, then quickly grabbed a different one. It was a well-worn Childcraft volume. When I got it home, I discovered it was the free sample volume, filled with illustrated stories and poems….but just the beginning of each. If I wanted to find out how a story ended, I had to buy the set of books. I was so frustrated I cried, because I knew that teacher had a real prize if one of her own students had won the bee. What a cruel thing to do to a child, especially one who loved to read.
This is how I feel now when I try to watch Masterpiece on PBS. I suppose over the years the dramas from the UK have had a little bit trimmed here and there to fit into a 90 minute time slot, but the cuts haven’t been noticeable. Starting for me with Downton Abbey, I was painfully aware that 2 full hours had been trimmed from the US broadcast. You have to order the DVD to see the full version that the Brits viewed. The new Upstairs Downstairs had approximately 30 minutes trimmed from an already rushed series. Masterpiece itself is now only 60 minutes instead of the usual 90, although I don’t know if this is temporary. South Riding has lost one hour, or 25% of its original four hours. It’s not quite the same as my geography bee prize—they’re not showing us the beginning and then making us order the DVD to see the end. In some ways, it’s worse. By editing scenes throughout the program, we don’t know exactly what we’ve lost.
Besides, it’s even more complicated than that. There’s no guarantee that the DVD you rent or buy will be the full version. It depends on who produces and releases it. If it’s a BBC release, it will most likely be the full version. If it’s a WGBH release, it will probably be the cut version. With some titles, you can only get the full version if you order a region 2 DVD from the UK. I have a region-free DVD player, a necessity for an anglophile, but money is tight and I’d rather rent than buy. Not an option.
So, for now, I’m boycotting Masterpiece. I don’t want to watch DVDs of programs I saw on Masterpiece trying to figure out which scenes are the ones that were missing. I want my first exposure to these programs to be untainted, so I can sit back and get lost in the worlds they create.
My geography bee story had a happy ending. I went to my own teacher, lovely Miss Daigle, and tearfully showed her my prize. She understood perfectly, and she gave me a real book.
Update: I found out later than Downton Abbey did not lose 2 hours from the US television broadcast. It was bad math and bad reporting on the part of The Daily Mail and Telegraph. South Riding and Upstairs Downstairs felt choppy to me, so I’m not sure about those programs. I’m back to watching Masterpiece, but with caution and an eye on the DVDs available.