It’s a crying shame that Babylon 5, in spite of being one of the best science fiction series of the past 50 years, has been fading into obscurity in recent years. Oh, the loyal fans are there, and we’re still proselytizing to our friends and neighbors, but it sometimes seems like Warner Bros. has been actively trying to hide J. Michael Straczynski’s classic series. Sure, it’s on DVD, but it hasn’t been airing anywhere in syndication, which is mind-boggling given the number of cable networks out there. And in a time when streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon Instant Video are changing the face of entertainment distribution, B5 isn’t available to stream anywhere either. Thankfully that tragic absence of televised B5 is finally changing…as long as you’re in the U.K.
JMS himself announced the news on his Facebook fan page, that UKTV had acquired the TV rights for Babylon 5 to air on their Watch channel, which I will presume is not actually dedicated to round-the-clock coverage of pocket watches. They’ve got nearly the whole kit’n’kaboodle: all five seasons of the series and all six B5 TV movies (including the forgettable Legend of the Rangers). The only thing it doesn’t look like they have the rights to is the Babylon 5: The Lost Tales direct-to-DVD one-shot from 2007. It’s possible the official announcement may have just neglected to mention that however. The episodes will air weekday afternoons on Watch beginning on Monday, November 4.
This past September Straczynski had called on fans to show their support for B5 and try to get it back on the air after it became a punchline in Breaking Bad — an awesome punchline, mind you, but one which only emphasized the show’s slide into pop culture obscurity. The fans rallied, sending tons of tweets with the hashtag #FreeBabylon5 and generally making a big ruckus on social media.
TV Wise quotes Straczynski like so:
I am thrilled beyond words that Watch has successfully drilled through the walls and allowed Babylon 5 to escape onto television screens throughout the UK TV universe. My thanks to the thousands of fans who made this happen. As noted more than once in the show, Faith Manages.
And Watch General Manager Steve Hornsey says:
The fans’ sheer enthusiasm for Babylon 5 proves what an appetite there is for this iconic series and I’m delighted Watch its exclusive new home. This television epic perfectly matches the channel’s premise of being a unique viewing destination that provides out-of-this-world programming.
It’s great news, to be sure. But it only solves the problem for a small portion of the potential viewing public. Anywhere that can’t get Watch is right where we were before: if you want to see Babylon 5, you’ve got to buy it. As a content creator I’m all for that in theory, but the problem is that it severely limits the possibility of growing the audience in any significant way. The bottom line, frankly, is that B5 needs to be on Netflix or one of the other streaming services, and I’m not sure why in the world Warner Bros. hasn’t made that happen. In fact, it was on Netflix a while back, but only briefly, and then it vanished.
Netflix saw a huge spike in people streaming Breaking Bad in the weeks leading up to its series finale, and that led to monster ratings for that final episode. While Netflix technically is a paid service, the “all you can watch” subscription model makes it feel almost like you’re getting all that content for free, and it allows people to sample shows they otherwise might never have given a chance. You can watch some of the B5 episodes on the official Warner Bros. site, but that requires you to go looking for it, whereas Netflix and Amazon are more conducive to discovering new shows organically as you’re browsing. Hell, even if Warners only put the first two seasons of B5 up on Netflix, that would be plenty to get new viewers hooked and then drive them to possibly purchase the series…and maybe tell their friends.
Kudos to Straczynski, Warners, and UKTV for getting B5 back on the air in the U.K. But it isn’t enough.