TV schedules: A crazy clash of the titans

Fans of Mad Men and Damages will be left furious by the BBC's decision to let the two hit shows overlap, says Gerard Gilbert

Fans of Glenn Close and her ruthless litigator, Patty Hewes, will be smacking their lips at the return of Damages on BBC1 tonight, as Patty is hired to unearth the billions missing in a Bernie Madoff-style Ponzi scheme. At least they will be unless they have already dedicated their Wednesday nights to watching Mad Men over on BBC4 and the chances are that if you are a Mad Men connoisseur then you'll also have a taste for Damages, and you'll be cursing the BBC schedulers for overlapping the two dramas by five minutes.

Five minutes? What's five minutes in the grand scheme of a 12-hour drama, ask those who have obviously never watched either show. Miss the opening five minutes of Damages, however, especially the opening episode of a new season, and you are already in deep trouble. The fiendishly serpentine legal drama famously starts with a flash-forward to the season's denouement – in season one it was Patty's protégée, Rose Byrne, emerging bloodied and half-naked from an elevator. Season two began with Byrne firing a gun at an unseen person, presumed to be Patty. It's called opening with a bang, and that's exactly what season three does tonight. Whether you catch it will depend on your dedication to Mad Men.

And tomorrow night's episode of the stylish, Sixties-set drama, "Guy Walks into an Advertising Agency", is a particular corker, reserving some of its best lines till last, as the British top brass pay a surprise visit to Sterling Cooper on 4 July of all days. All I'll say is that there is a freak accident with a sit-on John Deere mower – the cue for one of the best lines (delivered by the gin-dry Roger Sterling) of the series so far. Switch over to catch the start of Damages and you'll also miss the wonderful, Jayne Mansfield-proportioned Joan and her poignant farewell. But whatever the storyline, Mad Men is not a drama to be switched off the moment that the credits begin to roll. Personally, I'm left in an almost post-coital state of reverie by each episode, perfectly accompanied by whatever piece of music has deftly been chosen by Matthew Weiner to see us out. The man thinks of everything, except perhaps a handy soundtrack listing.

The words "dark arts" are often found conjoined with those of "TV scheduling", conjuring up a John le Carré world of covert drop-offs – a microfilm of next week's ITV schedules, perhaps, or the Cutting Edge running order. And the BBC isn't averse to playing scheduling hardball to the detriment of its own viewers, as we saw with the great Strictly Come Dancing versus The X Factor face-off. But the BBC scheduling against itself? That belongs more to comic espionage world of Spy vs Spy.

But don't most people have access to iPlayer, Sky+ and all the other catch-up TV services and PVRs, not to mention the repeats? After all, each episode of Mad Men is repeated twice. But that is to ignore the predominantly conservative nature of TV audiences, which still like to watch their favourite programmes at a set time each week. And why shouldn't they? They are by nature also the most loyal TV audience.

Perhaps this was a blip (nobody at the BBC seemed to be able to explain it when I rang yesterday), and matters appear to have been rectified for next week, when there is a perfect segue between Damages and Mad Men – but for some that may be too late. With shows like Damages, you get in at the ground floor, or not all, and this five-minute overlap could be a deal-breaker. You can only imagine what two demanding bosses like Patty Hewes or Don Draper would have to say about that.

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