Sunday, 15 May 2011

Countdown/TV Action

Countdown was a British comic book published weekly by Ploystyle Productions - ultimately, under several different titles - between February 1971 and August 1973.

Initially it was a high-quality (but expensive) publication, featuring full colour art on the cover and many of the inside pages, and was printed on expensive, glossy paper. The pages in each issue were numbered in reverse order, with page 1 at the end, a gimmick which was derived from the comic's title in order to create a countdown to one each week. Countdown was also unusual in carrying both weekly serials and complete stories, rotating the latter among the various tv shows it featured. In addition, it carried a totally original strip, "Countdown", drawn by John M Burns and including spacecraft designs from the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Under the title Countdown it ran for 58 weeks, beginning with the issue cover-dated 20th February 1971. It was relaunched as TV Action + Countdown from issue 59 in 1972, dropping many of the original strips from Countdown and substituting new ones based upon then-current television shows. By issue 100 its title became simply TV Action. The final issue was cover-dated 25th August 1973.

From issue 59 it also dropped the glossy magazine-quality printing which had distinguished it, and reverted to cheap newsprint-quality paper, abandoning also the expensive photogravure printing which had been a feature until then.

(The First Countdown Annual from 1972)

Countdown sought to benefit from the closure of TV21, and the consequent availability of the licence to publish strips based on the 1960s Gerry Anderson puppet shows, which had been popular for many years on television.

The comic strongly featured a strip based on the latest Anderson tv show, the live-action UFO, together with reprints of strips from TV21 based on Stingray, Thunderbirds and Fireball XL5, along with original material.

However, Polystyle had not taken into account the fact that TV21 had folded, something they looked upon merely as an opportunity to acquire the licence to use the Anderson shows, without noting that the popularity of the puppet-based strips in TV21 had drastically declined once those shows were no longer in production and were no longer being seen on television every week.

Moreover, the expense of the high quality paper and photogravure quality printing, needed for the colour pages and photo features, pushed the cover price up, such that it was almost twice as expensive as any other boys comic on the market, with a cover price of One Shilling (against 6d and 7d for competing IPC titles such as Valiant, Lion and Smash).

(The Second Countdown Annual from 1973)

After 58 weeks the publisher cut its costs by relaunching the comic in a much cheaper format, on cheap newsprint paper, and dropped all the Anderson puppet shows, replacing them with strips based on then-current tv programmes that were appearing on television every week (and hence were perceived as potentially more popular than the discontinued Anderson shows), including The Persuders, Hawaii 5-0 and Cannon.

With only a couple of continuing strips, such as Doctor Who, the result was virtually a new comic: TV Action.

In order to capitalise on the continuing popularity of the Doctor Who strip, featuring the likeness of Jon Pertwee (the actor who was then playing the part on television), that strip now became the regular cover feature. As an added inducement, for the first time the publisher obtained a licence to also use the ever popular Daleks in the strip: hence the first re-launch issue had a colour cover featuring Doctor Who and the Daleks. Doctor Who had an unshakeable popularity: it had emerged from, and would ultimately return to, the pages of TV Action's stablemate, TV Comic.

(1st issue of TV Action, 1 April 1972)

Whether the changes were entirely effective is open to question, as the new TV Action lasted just 74 issues: only slightly longer thanCountdown, which had run for 58 issues. Undoubtedly the reduction in production costs from dropping the expensive lithographic printing and magazine-quality paper played some part in TV Action lasting as long as it did. But it nonetheless ceased publication in August 1973.

Like TV21, which had also tried to ride the coat-tails of the popularity of television, Countdown and TV Action had shown that the approach was not sustainable in the teenage market. Nevertheless, Polystyle did achieve a long-running success with the concept in a slightly younger market, with its all-humour offering, TV Comic, which ran for more than thirty years. And, in later years, one of Countdown's strips would show that a weekly comic based on television could succeed in an older market, when Marvel UK launched Doctor Who Weekly in 1979 - the ultimate specialisation: focusing on a single tv show - making a success of it by including factual coverage of the actual show and its production, alongside comic strips based upon it.

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