As I posted a few weeks ago (here), Masterpiece Theatre offerings have long been edited for North American television. Dozens of people of my acquaintance have sent e-mails to PBS, complaining about the edits. Here is the e-mail I sent:
Obviously, those of us in the US would have had no way of knowing that you cut scenes out of programs before the birth of the Internet. But, now that we do have ways of learning about scenes that we cannot see, why do you persist in doing it? It is, frankly, unconscionable that you would continue to cut these programs. I have seen “Emma” in its entirety, and some of the scenes that you cut were simply delightful. The cuts disturbed the flow of the program.
I met Rebecca Eaton at a screening of “Persuasion” in New York and she tried to convince the audience that ITV and the BBC determined what scenes were cut. I do not believe that for an instant. The DVDs for Persuasion and Sense & Sensibility were released by the BBC and the scenes that had been cut for the US market were put back on the DVD. But the DVDs for Mansfield Park and Northanger Abbey were released by you at WGBH and the cuts were retained. I am lucky that I was able to see the films the way the writers intended them to be seen, but most people in the US are not that fortunate.
Here is their response to every single person’s e-mail:
Thank you for your interest in MASTERPIECE.
Some viewers have noted that the Masterpiece Classic version of “Emma” is slightly different than that which ran last year in the UK. It’s true. While we all wince at the loss of even a few frames of our favorite dramas, the realities of broadcast conventions dictate slightly different versions be created for the various territories where the programs are shown. As with nearly all programming, adjustments are made to accommodate the variation of time slots between the UK standard and those in the US, as well as other markets. In the case of “Emma,” our co-production terms called for the BBC to create a version that fit the requirements of the PBS time slots. Masterpiece itself doesn’t edit the films.
Viewers wishing to savor the full UK version can do so by buying the BBC’s release of the DVD at PBSShop or via iTunes.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t think that’s a very satisfactory answer. So I decided to write back:
First off, you did not cut just “a few frames.” I can name at least half a dozen scenes that were cut out completely out of just the last 2 hours of the production. These cuts appear to be completely arbitrary. You cut out one of the most delightful scenes in the entire piece, the one right after the proposal, where Emma and Knightley are on the bench talking. What was the purpose behind that?
Second, you say I can buy the uncut version from the BBC. But why can I not buy the uncut versions of Northanger Abbey and Mansfield Park? You showed edited versions of those too, yet the DVDs you sell under your own name are exactly the same as the cut film you showed, not the version ITV showed in the UK. But Persuasion, which was also an ITV production, is available uncut through the BBC. Why does PBS sell edited films and then not tell anyone that they have been altered? You only admit something has been altered when forced to.
And third, you will not be able to get away with this much longer. The people who watch Masterpiece don’t care about conventional time slots. They do, however, care about quality programming. In addition, there are an ever-growing number of people in this country who have access to the originals of all these productions, and they are very, very angry. Those cuts were made to fit in Laura Linney’s inane introduction and all of the commercials whose existence PBS continues to deny. The DVD is 229 minutes in length. 229 divided by 4 is 57.25. Last I checked, 57.25 is less than 60, which is the standard US time slot. You had plenty of time to give us the episodes in their entirety without all of the extraneous material. You just don’t want to. Plain and simple.
I repeat — BADLY DONE. And you wonder why I refuse to contribute to PBS. I’d rather keep the money and buy the DVDs directly from the UK for viewing on my computer.
Yeah, I was on a roll. And they actually responded:
Thank you for your interest in MASTERPIECE.
Our programs are routinely edited to fit our PBS time slot, which is different from the UK’s. Depending on whether our UK partner is producing for a commercial broadcaster or the BBC (i.e., commercial breaks vs. no commercial breaks), the episodes may vary from between 3-5 minutes to 10 or more. In the case of Persuasion, Northanger Abbey and Mansfield Park, approximately ten minutes were deleted in each.
While we obviously have no control over the amount of time we are given by PBS to air particular films, know that when faced with the need to edit, we take it very seriously and with great care. Almost always, it is the UK producers who determine which scenes should be trimmed from the U.S. broadcast. Our goal is to deliver to you the film that is closest to the original intent of the producers.
The good news is that many MASTERPIECE films are becoming more widely available around the world than ever before thanks to DVD and home video offerings. However, because of various formats and contract stipulations in different parts of the world, there may be some differences in content. In some cases, a DVD available in the US or Canada (such as those released by WGBH Boston Video) may only contain the US version, while in others, a DVD may contain the original UK version. This is further complicated by the fact that published running times may be an approximation of the running time, or more frequently the timeslot of the film was intended for (e.g., a 100-minute film may run in a 120 minute timeslot, and that longer timeslot information may end up on websites, DVD packaging, etc., despite the actual shorter running time of the film).
While we can’t control the marketplace, we will be happy to post DVD information to the MASTERPIECE Web site when we have it that may inform your purchasing decisions.
Again, a non-answer.
I implore you, remember that you have options. You do not have to be limited to what PBS deigns to give you. They obviously don’t care that we can (and will, if possible) figure out ways around them. But if enough people do stop giving them money during the beg-a-thons (thereby showing them they can not continue to edit programs with impunity), or if enough people refuse to buy DVDs through their shop or with their name on it, we can do what consumers have been doing since time immemorial: namely, hitting PBS where it hurts most — on their bottom line.