“We are looking for an urn. We do not know what it looks like, or what it contains, or even why we are looking.”
New Jersey Network — bearer of warmth and fire, giver of life, provider of the third year — may your name be praised. May it be written in the fanzines and the websites; your deeds shall not be forgotten.
Somewhere on the great estate, there’s a magical Egyptian urn that holds an eternal flame, which keeps freelance arsonist Laura Collins alive and simmering. This supernatural service is provided courtesy of Amun-Ra, the ancient Egyptian god of the sun, who is apparently still active and open for business, go figure.
Quentin Collins knows that the urn is the source of his sister-in-law’s artificially extended lifespan, and in today’s episode, he and his gypsy sidekick Magda are searching the grounds for this mysterious artifact. They find it, as it happens, and Quentin pours sand into it, extinguishing the flame and destroying Laura forever. There, I just saved you twenty-two minutes, you’re welcome.
Here’s what I want to talk about instead: Today’s episode is the beginning of the Third Year, a major milestone in the history of Dark Shadows’ complicated afterlife in TV syndication.
This thing that we hold in our hands today — more than 1,200 episodes of disposable afternoon television, available to view on-demand in any order we like, in various media formats — this was not inevitable. This is a rare and precious artifact, and you should not pour sand on it.
There are a number of reasons why you don’t see a lot of old daytime soap operas airing daily reruns on TV, starting with: Who the hell wants to watch an old soap opera? We can’t even get enough people to watch new soap operas. Don’t be ridiculous.
Another reason is that soap operas don’t fit the half-hour daily syndication model. The daily rerun model that everybody’s most familiar with is strip scheduling — taking a show originally made for weekly broadcast, and showing it at the same time every weekday. This is called “stripping,” because it creates a horizontal strip in the weekly TV schedules.
Strip syndication is a good model for reruns, because it creates a consistent line-up that people can build into their daily routine. After the news, you watch Cheers and Frasier, and then I guess you either go to bed or you clip coupons, or whatever old people do if they’re still watching Cheers and Frasier every night. I assume that everybody else is watching The Big Bang Theory.
For daily strip syndication, there are two secret magic numbers of the universe.
The first number is 100 — that’s the minimum number of episodes that you need to have in the bank in order to make syndication worthwhile. Running five episodes a week, that’ll get you 20 weeks of programming, at which point you can start over again and hope that people aren’t paying too much attention. (They usually aren’t.)
The other number is 260 — that’s a full 52 weeks of syndicated episodes. That’s basically the maximum; you don’t even bother making any more than that. A lot of the most successful sitcoms in syndication top out around that point — Friends (236 episodes), Happy Days (255), M*A*S*H (256), King of the Hill (259), Two and a Half Men (262), Frasier (264), Cheers (270).
And then there’s The Simpsons, which is currently at 575 episodes and counting, but I think there’s some kind of weird Simpsons-specific economy that I don’t really understand.
Anyway, the point is that if you’ve got a minimum of 100 and a maximum of 260, then your weird old soap opera spookshow with 1,200 episodes is not exactly on a fast track to syndication success.
I mean, the math just doesn’t work out. When a show is stripped for syndication, you’re not just paying a licensing fee to the production company; you’re also paying residuals for the actors, writers and directors. Even if their contracts have no limit on the number of times their show is re-broadcast, you still have to pay them the first time a show is made available for syndication, so there’s a big up-front cost.
So let’s say you’re stripping Friends, which is 236 episodes — almost a full year. You have to pay hefty residuals the first time, because nobody wants David Schwimmer to go hungry, but then you’ve got a syndication package that you can run endlessly in the same timeslot pretty much forever.
But if you’re stripping a year’s worth of Dark Shadows, then you pay residuals for 260 episodes… and at the end of the year, you can’t just start over. Now you have to pay residuals for a whole new year’s worth of episodes. And you’re still going to have more people watching Friends anyway, so why even bother?
So that’s why the story of Dark Shadows in syndication is told in six-month chunks. Worldvision Enterprises owned the rights to license Dark Shadows for broadcast, and they first offered the show in 1975 — but they only offered 130 episodes, from episode 210 (Barnabas coming out of the mystery box) to episode 340 (the day before Barnabas and Julia kill Dr. Woodard).
That’s a great six months of television, which picks up speed halfway through when Julia arrives, and things are really getting exciting by 340 — at which point, the syndication package is over.
But in 1976, there’s a station in Rochester, NY that’s doing very well with Dark Shadows reruns in the afternoon, and they want more episodes, so Worldvision releases another six-month package. That takes us from 341 (Woodard’s death) all the way through 1795 and up to episode 472, which is just before Cassandra shows up in 1968.
At this point, there’s one year of Dark Shadows in syndication in various markets around the country, but there aren’t enough stations to make it worth paying residuals for another set of episodes. So the stations run out of episodes and then they stop, and Dark Shadows goes off the air, and nobody ever hears of it ever again.
In 1982, Worldvision decides to give it another try, and they convince some NBC affiliates to air the first six-month syndication package. This is when Young Danny saw the show for the first time, on WNBC in New York, starting with Barnabas in the coffin and ending with Woodard’s death. At that point, WNBC decides the ratings aren’t good enough, and they stop showing it, and Dark Shadows is dead forever all over again.
That’s the way this whole story goes, for two decades. The eternal flame of Dark Shadows sputters to life for six or twelve months, and then somebody pours sand in the urn and it goes out again.
And every time that happens, Dark Shadows is finally and entirely doomed. WNBC is a major national station, the flagship of the network, and they gave Dark Shadows a well-publicized slot at 4:30pm, as a lead-in to their immensely popular Live at Five news broadcast, and it failed. “But it did really well in Rochester in 1976” starts to sound hollow after a while.
But just when it all looks hopeless for like the fifteenth time, along came a New Orleans public broadcasting station with the delightfully appropriate name WYES-TV. They start airing Dark Shadows in spring 1982, and it’s a huge success. That’s because the bar for “huge success” is much, much lower for a New Orleans PBS station than for pretty much anybody else ever.
For a PBS station, the ratings don’t matter, which is perfect for Dark Shadows syndication. All you need is for people to donate more money for Dark Shadows than they’d give for anything else in that timeslot. It’s the same model that brought Monty Python’s Flying Circus and Doctor Who to America. You’re not going to get any awards for excellence in public broadcasting, but it keeps the lights on, so what the hell.
And then, in September 1983, somebody digs that battered old magical urn out of the junk drawer, and what do you know? The flame is still burning.
New Jersey Network — bearer of warmth and light, may its name be praised — hears about WYES’ success with Dark Shadows, and adds it to their daily schedule. This is a key moment in the story, because New Jersey sits between New York and Philadelphia, two of the major US markets, and the New Jersey Public Broadcasting Authority operates four different stations across the state — in Trenton, Montclair, New Brunswick and Camden.
So New Jersey Network has a huge reach — not just New Jersey, New York City and Philadelphia, but also parts of Connecticut and Delaware. But the classy PBS stations are WNET in Newark/NYC and WHYY in Philadelphia; they get all the fancy stuff. New Jersey Network needs to find viewers who are willing to donate to a PBS station that doesn’t show Sesame Street or Masterpiece Theater.
And they find Dark Shadows — a weird, mad, creaky old soap opera that spent the last decade limping from one local station to another, always showing the same six to twelve months. With the reach of NJN’s four stations, Dark Shadows has finally found an audience that’s wiling to pay cash money to keep the show on the air.
In late 1983, Worldvision finally releases another 260 episodes — from episode 473 (Cassandra’s arrival) through all of 1968 and into 1897, up to episode 735 (Laura burns down Worthington Hall). Now stations can air two full years of Dark Shadows, and New Jersey Network can see the benefits of keeping the show around.
In an April 1984 issue of the fanzine The World of Dark Shadows, there’s a letter from the New Jersey Network’s Director of Public Information, who says:
We are delighted with our audience response. We have had a number of letters from the Philadelphia area in particular, praising the station for carrying DS. In Easton, PA, a group of Shadows fans led by Ron Barry actually managed to convince a local cable operator to carry our signal into Pennsylvania in order that they may watch DS. We have also found that many of the DS fans are taping the series, and that they can be quite vocal when some technical glitch comes up.
We find it extremely difficult to get accurate audience ratings, because the program is aired at different times in two markets, i.e., New York and Philadelphia. However, there is no doubt that DS has caused many people to seek out our UHF channels and that they are sticking around to watch some of our other shows.
At this point, NJN is inviting Jonathan Frid to appear in the studio during pledge drives, with Dark Shadows fans manning the phones.
And so it comes to pass, in fall 1985, New Jersey Network — giver of life, provider of the Third Year — goes all-in on Dark Shadows.
As thank-you gifts for the pledge drives, they make a mug, a T-shirt and a sweatshirt with the Dark Shadows logo. (Young Danny got the T-shirt, and wore it proudly.)
And New Jersey Network buys the third year of episodes from Worldvision, paying the up-front residuals so that another 260 episodes are released to air on local stations across the country. This batch goes from episode 736 all the way through 1897, the Leviathan story, and into the beginning of Parallel Time, finishing with episode 1007 (PT Angelique on the loose).
They print a full-page ad in the New Jersey Network subscriber magazine, headed ATTENTION DARK SHADOWS FANS:
It’s the event you’ve been waiting two decades for… and now it’s here! For the first time anywhere in the world since the original broadcast decades ago, episodes from the series’ third year are coming your way, weekdays at 6:30.
The era is one of deception and intrigue, of infinite secrets and great danger, when Barnabas Collins goes back in time trying to discover why young David Collins is possessed by the ghost of Quentin Collins. As he enters the year 1897, and meets Quentin and the rest of the inhabitants of Collinwood, Barnabas is still under the vampire curse. A fortune hunting Rev. Gregory Trask has poisoned his wife and tricks the mistress of Collinwood into marrying him. Carl Collins arrives with his fiancee from Atlantic City, completely unaware of the tragic fate that awaits both of them.
Yes, these are the thrills that await all DARK SHADOWS fans in New Jersey, because you have been so supportive of NEW JERSEY NETWORK’s efforts to bring this excitement your way each weekday evening.
So this is the episode, and these are the thrills, as the Third Year begins.
It doesn’t last, of course, nothing truly beautiful ever does. A new program director will come along at NJN, and they pour sand on the flame all over again, but that’s a whole year away, so we won’t worry about it now.
Now, I know that all of this fuss probably seems silly for people who started watching because of Tim Burton or Big Finish, once Dark Shadows was just a thing you could rent on Netflix or buy on Amazon, like every other television show. The eternal flame is on for good now, and the 1,200 episodes will always be available for as long as there’s television and people to watch it.
But this was not inevitable. Dark Shadows is the only daytime soap opera that’s ever been released in any significant form. You can buy exactly zero episodes of pretty much every other soap ever made, even soaps that lasted way longer and were way more popular. All My Children: zero. The Young and the Restless: zero. Ryan’s Hope: zero. And those are the good soap operas, the ones that people actually like. You know, the ones that don’t have Bathia Mapes.
At each of these decision points — Rochester in ’76, WYES in ’82, New Jersey Network in ’85, MPI Video in ’89, the Sci-Fi Channel in ’92 — somebody is making a foolish decision with other people’s money, and it keeps the flame alive.
Logically, the correct decision is to forget about Dark Shadows, and do something sensible instead. We are now, in the twenty-first century, at the far end of a long series of terrible mistakes that saved the best television show ever made.
Welcome to the third year.
Tomorrow: The Sacred Bull.
I didn’t really write much about the actual episode today, so I’ll say it here: Quentin and Magda working together in this episode is so much fun I can’t deal with it. The shot of Quentin sitting on the steps waiting for Magda to explain her plan is one of the cutest things that has ever happened on the show. And then she takes his hand and tells him to go into the drawing room! Such cuteness.
Also: While I was working on this piece, I came across a YouTube video of Jonathan Frid’s appearance at the Magique disco in June 1982, as a promotion for WNBC’s six-month syndication package. Frid is adorable as always, under trying circumstances. Fans in costume were admitted free, and proceeds for the event were donated to the New York Blood Center. Just another weird little pit stop on Dark Shadows’ rocket sled to syndication success.
Dark Shadows bloopers to watch out for:
In the teaser, as Nora is trapped by flames in the schoolroom, there’s a shot where you can see one of the cameras, shooting through the part of the set that should be the fireplace.
Some smoke from the Worthington Hall fire drifts into Collinwood in act 1.
In act 3, when Quentin emerges from his hiding place in the drawing room, one of the studio lights can be seen.
Tomorrow: The Sacred Bull.
— Danny Horn