Question of the week: should Britain make longer running dramas?

So Ben Stephenson, the BBC’s controller of drama commissioning, yesterday rejected calls by Paul Abbott among others for longer, US style series of 13 or so episodes. Now apart from being massively inaccurate, in how it portrays US drama production (eg they have these things called mini-series, Ben. cf Generation Kill), his defence does give us the chance to ask this week’s question:

Would you prefer longer running, 13-episode seasons of British TV shows, or does the six-episode or fewer model work better for you?

As always, leave a comment with your answer or a link to your answer on your own blog




  • SK

    I’m glad to see Stephenson saying that because I basically agree completely with him; and it’s something I’ve been saying for years. In fact, here’s a message I sent to a mailing list on the subject, responding initially to the point that Doctor Who was created by committee and later to the fact that someone had brought up The Deep as ‘proof’ that the UK approach doesn’t actually generate quality…
    But it [Doctor Who] was created by committee to be an anthology of serials, each one of which was written by a separate writer, and which wasn’t supposed to be homogenised to seem like they all came from the same pen.
    The US system does what it does very well. What it does is even often to my taste, at least for the first forty or fifty episodes of a programme.
    But I don’t think it’s utterly beyond the pale to be glad that there’s room in the world for an alternative system, that even Henry must admit has produced some gems which could not, or at least could not to the same extent (as there are very few scattered cases like the original V or the excellent The Lost Room) have been replicated under the American system.
    I don’t even mind if some British TV moves over to the American model — indeed, one might point out that Casualty and Holby City, along with various Sunday-evening series are practically there already. I just don’t watch them, or, say, the newer series of Shameless (I thought the original series was brilliant, but I lost interest when it became an exercise in story generation, with new characters and entire families brought in just to generate plots).
    I would mind if all British TV moved over to that model, and I worry that — as the Americans do it because it is the most efficient (in money terms) model, amortising costs of cast and set over many more episodes than the British system — that would be the end result of it taking much more hold over here than it already has.
    So that’s why I disagree with Abbott […]: I see the British reluctance to commit to longer, team-written series as a good thing that preserves the distinctiveness of British TV and prevents us becoming just a pale shadow of the American model, making their kinds of programmes only not as well (because be under no doubt, what the Americans do they do best and we can never hope to match, let alone beat, them if we let them choose the field).
    And that is also why I worry that this effort will eventually end up with the British TV system creatively and financially bankrupt as I think it is to a great extent driven by the desire to sell to the US market (Abbot even mentions as such in his speech). But the Americans simply won’t buy British programmes, whether there are six episodes per series or sixty; Doctor Who and Torchwood are great British success stories as far as the American market goes, and they are tiny, minuscule, utterly insignificant in the US TV market.
    So I suspect that the end result of adopting American method in order to chase the American market will be to produce American-esque series that the Americans won’t want to buy — because they just don’t want to watch British series, and they never will, and why should they? People always prefer local programmes. British programmes get higher ratings on British TV than any imports, even when the imports are by any objective standard higher quality.
    British TV, then, will have spent a great deal of money losing what made it distinctive, and not gaining the extra market it was hoping for.
    A far better strategy, I think, would be to look at The Deep and not think we need less single-voice writer-generated content, but more,
    because if The Deep (or Bouquet of Barbed Wire) shows anything, it’s that coming up with a high concept and then trying to find a writer to write it [I’d earlier pointed out that the genesis of The Deep, as I understand it, was with the commissioners who said ‘let’s do a drama on a submarine’ and they shopped it around to find a writer)] is exactly the wrong way round. What they (by which I mean production companies and commissioning editors) should be doing is not thinking ‘let’s do something on a submarine / take the Smallville approach to Camelot / make Robin Hood but make it crap, let’s find a writer or a team of writers to do it’ but is calling up Jed Mercurio or Joe Aherne and asking them, ‘why do you want to do? How can we make it happen?’

  • Mark Carroll

    Hmmm, SK’s writer-driven idea is interesting. Though there’s a range of genres I like, I find good writing tends to be a common theme among what I like.
    Reshaping simply to try to sell into the American market would be a shame. There’s too much cultural difference, we really would lose some good stuff in the process. Just like the edits that sometimes happen to films once they get seen by American preview audiences — indeed, many of the films I like did relatively badly in the US compared to the UK.
    Having said all that, if it could be done without much loss in quality, I would like longer-running dramas, yes. Miniseries are okay, and some stories naturally fit well into them, like “The Lost Room” as SK mentions: I think it’s great, but I’m glad it ended when it did. I’m looking forward to “The Pacific”. However, if something’s expected to go on for several seasons then I’d prefer the seasons to be longer. I hate just getting used / into it only to find I now have to wait another several months for any more, by which time I’ve forgotten much of what’s going on anyway.
    Actually, I was just mentioning to my wife how I wish Doctor Who could stretch to a couple of more episodes even at the cost of not being as spectacular and maybe not changing story (thus sets and costumes) most weeks. (Well, something’s got to give.)

  • There’s so much crap and padding in most US series, and so I’d hate to see the same happen here. Being Human was packed solid with story. Now stretch it out to 22 episodes. You get Buffy: infrequent amazing episodes, but quite a lot of ‘meh, whatever’ and a few duds.
    You also have less room for risk. If you’re going to go US, you start with 13 episodes, minimum. That alone removes potential for anything you don’t think will sell, not just what you think might not work.
    Ultimately, series should have as many episodes as is best for the series. For Sherlock, three episodes was fine, but I’d have been happy to see a few more. 13? No way. 22? No chance. The quality would have dipped. Waking the Dead works with its format, but would suck with 22 shorter episodes. Who just about works with 13-episode runs, but it’s clear it’s stretched.

  • MediumRob

    The US system doesn’t preclude shorter series or runs, even on network TV, but cable is more flexible: season five of Sex and the City is only eight episodes; Starz has specialised in 10-episode runs (Torchwood, Party Down, Gravity); some series have had their episode count restricted initially, because the networks were using them as filler or not confident in them, but have allowed them to have a degree of story-closure (100 Questions was six episodes, Traveler was eight episodes, Tru Calling series 2 was six episodes).
    However, Paul Abbott’s argument isn’t about quality – and the latest series of Shameless have been 16 episodes a throw, remember, so clearly he knows a thing about maintaining a certain degree of quality in long running shows. It’s about familiarity.
    Clearly, not every episode in every 13/22-episode series is going to be excellent. It’s just not possible. But that’s true of short-run shows too (I’m looking at you here, episode 2 of Sherlock). Abbott’s argument is that shows need to be on air a lot to build up a following, for people to get to know the characters. A short-run six episode show is here then disappears and sometimes people won’t even have noticed it’s been on. The US system where you have the show on for half a year (more with re-runs) means that people can always watch the show and try it to see if they like it, rather than having to set a date, keep checking the schedules, etc.
    Take Buffy – if you’re a Buffy fan, you could probably list a season you loved, you could probably list, say 10 or even 20 episodes you love. But there were 144 episodes in all. That’s still, despite it being an excellent show, less than 15%. There were a lot of filler shows, a lot of shows that weren’t good. But would Buffy have worked without those filler episodes? Didn’t they explore the characters or move on story arcs a bit, something you might not want to do in other episodes because it would have diluted their focus? Could you really have compressed it down to those 10 or 20 and still have kept in those 10 or 20 all the things you liked about those episodes? More to the point, do you even remember the duff episodes or are they just kind of “there”? Do those duff episodes actually blight your memory of Buffy (they might do when whole seasons were rubbish, but in otherwise good seasons, you just gloss over them)?
    Yes, you might have the absolute best show possible with just a run of three or six (or not in Sherlock’s case – I’d have been happy with just episode 1, and episodes 2 and 3 made me like the show less), but people already want more. And in the meantime, there’s cack-all to watch in its place. That’s the thing that’s easy to forget – a good show might get milked and it might be 13 episodes when it could be six. But if all the show gets is six episodes, what goes on after those six? More often than not, something you don’t want to watch.
    So I’m for 13 episodes for good shows. It makes more sense for scheduling, more sense for exports, gives more jobs to writers, directors, etc. It creates an economy around it (look what’s happening in Cardiff where 13-episode series rule). It stops worse shows filling up our screens. Yes, keep on shorter episode counts if the story absolutely only merits that much. But aim for the long game.

  • MediumRob

    Ooh, my other argument would be that longer runs forces writers to think of more involves storylines. Give them a six-episode run and the scripting is going to be relatively simple, typically. Give them 13 and they’re forced to plot it all out before the show starts and to have substantial storylines.
    I thinking of Paradox here. Six episodes where nothing happened, where every single episode was the same and the story arc never went anywhere. If they’d had 13 episodes, that would never have happened.

  • SK

    Oh, I know why the yanks do it the way they do, and it’s not just economics — it’s about ‘mindshare’. It’s about worming your way into people’s heads, making them feel, as you say, familiar, like the characters are their friends.
    It’s the same reason people who say that the later Harry Potter books were long and ponderous was because Rowling no longer listened to editors don’t know what they are talking about. Rowling and her editors knew exactly what they were doing: they knew that the way to build a brand was to make children feel totally immersed in the Hogwarts world, and a shorter book, while possibly a better book, isn’t going to do that as much as a quarter-million-word brick that a child can spend a week or two reading in every spare moment, so that for that week or two they are basically living with Harry, Ron, et al.
    That’s why they do it.
    And I don’t care. I’m fine with the fact it exists, for peopel who want that. But I want to watch the carefully-crafted nugget of a programme that examines every side of its premise… and then stops, because it’s gone as far as it can go. You say Paradox, I say Ultraviolet. Now there’s a premise that certainly could have made a US-style series (the failure of the pilot notwithstanding). But would that really have resulted in ‘substantial storylines’? I think not.
    I rather think that what would have happened was that instead of what we got — six perfect episodes, each of which tackled a different aspect of the theme until they’d done it all — we would have had endless retreads of the same themes as those six episodes, again and again, interspersed with soapy interpersonal storylines for the characters which forced them to interact, because that’s the kind of thing the people who are out to get ‘mindshare’ like as it makes the audience start to feel familiarity and friendship for the characters, but which ultimately don’t go anywhere and don’t mean anything that wasn’t covered in the six episodes we had, and covered better for being so concentrated.
    Do you remember the duff episodes? Maybe not, but you still wasted the time watching them. Assuming you watched ever episode of Buffy, the Vampire Slayer for the twenty great episodes, that’s one hundred and twenty-five episodes — nearly four days of your life — that you spent basically watching bland, comforting, familiar, gives-you-warm-fuzzies-but-doesn’t-challenge-you, moving wallpaper.
    When people claim that TV is just ‘chewing gum for the eyes’, it’s those filler episodes, the ones that are just there to keep the audience ticking over, to make sure they keep tuning in or buying the box sets to find out what happens nice to their pseudo-friends, that really make the charge stick.
    They’re also, I think, tellingly a symptom of the fact that television in America isn’t about delivering programmes to audiences but about delivering audiences to advertisers. That’s why they need to go for ‘mindshare’, to make sure people don’t drift away, that they come back week after week. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that it’s the subscription channels which were the first to move to regular shorter series, and even now are the ones who do that most often — because their business model is about delivering programmes to audiences, and therefore they can concentrate on making better programmes knowing that discerning audiences will seek them out if they are good enough: they don’t have to resort to peddling the cheap, addictive hit of pseudo-friendship which is what the ‘mindshare’ model runs on.
    In the UK that’s not supposed to be what television is about. It’s supposed to be about the programmes, not the adverts. ITV is supposed to be there to keep the BBC on its toes lest it rest on its laurels and take its eye off the programmes, by making good programmes — okay, that’s fallen down a bit in recent years, but really, I’m glad that the UK TV industry has never gone down fully the route of putting familiarity over pure artistic quality (while still producing soaps and long-runners like Casualty for those who do want that sort of thing — I don’t want every series to have at most six episodes!), and though that’s as much an accident of economics as a conscious decision, it’s something that I want to see continue.
    That’s enough for this comment, I think. I could, as I’m sure you’ve realised, go on.

  • SK

    Oh, actually, just because you added an extra comment, I’ll address it in an extra comment too: surely what generally happens in the US is exactly that it isn’t all plotted out before the series begins? Because, with such long series, it’s impossible to actually finish making it before it airs — which I understand is still usually the way British TV works, pace some programmes like Doctor Who where they may still be finishing post-production and effects work on the last couple of episodes when the first one is broadcast — aren’t US programmes famous for starting their series not knowing where they are going, throwing out ideas in the first few episodes, watching the audience feedback to see which ones the audience likes, and going with those?
    It was a feature of Buffy, the Vampire Slayer in particular: wasn’t the first part of series three just them throwing stuff out willy-nilly, and anything the audience liked got built up into a bigger role (eg, Faith) and anything that didn’t catch on with the audience got quietly dropped (remember Mr Trick?).
    So I don’t think you can claim that the US method is less likely to lead to freewheeling, make-it-up-on-the-fly plotting. That’s going to be a feature of any system, on occasion, I think.
    Neither system makes it mandatory or even more likely to think about the plot in detail before you broadcast, but the British system of write-shoot-air makes it possible.

  • MediumRob

    Your argument about delivering audiences to advertisers is mostly true about network US TV, although the decline in advertising revenue in favour of other sources of revenue (DVD box sets, product placement, merchandising) has weakened the case of late, which is why network TV has moved towards better quality programming. Subscription US channels that don’t carry advertising (of which there’s basically only HBO IIRC, since I think Showtime, Starz, AMC, and TNT all carry ads) are still largely 13-episodes so clearly there’s something there ad-independent in that model that HBO likes.
    When script arcs are done varies in the US and Britain. Initial network pitches always incorporate a series-long story breakdown. Tim Kring went into Heroes with a series one/partial series two story breakdown. Lost, Babylon 5 et al all had series arcs worked out well in advance, even if it wasn’t episode-by-episode. All five seasons of The Wire were pretty much planned out in advance, with elements fed into earlier seasons as set up for later seasons.
    If a show is “on the bubble” in terms of ratings that will even translate into the network requiring story breakdowns for subsequent seasons for the show will get picked up: Life Unexpected season two wasn’t given the go-ahead until full story arcs for all 13 episodes were developed after season one had aired. But Breaking Bad, which is an awesome show in its own right, is largely freewheeling and only emerges as they write the show. Heroes degenerated into four-episode arc-planning. Pretty much all US shows now have showrunners and exec producers who develop season arcs before filming begins and they’ll have at least a few episodes written before that happens, too. Even things like Human Target, which are predominantly episodic.
    That is, of course, different from being fully scripted and adapting as circumstances require it.
    But most British TV programmes don’t go into series with full scripts either. Rusty was writing scripts for episodes of Doctor Who almost up to the day of filming (IIRC from The Writer’s Tale, which I might not), which allegedly was one of the reasons Christopher Eccleston decided not to hang around. He also had to parachute in some episodes at the last minute when some writers failed to produce on deadline.
    The Avengers certainly wasn’t, with Brian Clemens frequently writing eps the week before filming. The Prisoner wasn’t, with Patrick MacGoohan writing the script for Fall Out the night before it was supposed to be filmed. Graham Williams claims he had to lock Douglas Adams into a room for 24 hours or so to get him to write City of Death so they could go off and film it. I could go on.
    The reason that there was no second season of Ultraviolet wasn’t because Joe Aherne didn’t think there should be one – he always intended to do another – it’s because he was so busy writing all the series one scripts and directing them that when he was supposed to be coming up with the series two breakdowns, he couldn’t because he didn’t have the time. Which is a useful lesson in the value of a writers room.
    British TV commissioners, in short, don’t wait until all the episodes are written. They commission based on story arcs (although sometimes without), they say when they need it for, then the production company tries to make the episodes to that deadline. We tend to be more conservative about when episodes can be produced by, but that doesn’t mean we’re far away from the American model (or deadline).
    Duff episodes: no one intends to make them but they do happen. Yes, I may have wasted some time on episodes of Buffy. But then I wasted time on a whole heap of rubbish Doctor Who episodes. Some of the episodes of I, Claudius (a 13-part series, lest we forget) are a bit poor. Monty Python series 1 (13 episodes) is largely dross as is series 4 (6 episodes). Does that mean that those series should not have been made or that I shouldn’t have watched them? I didn’t know they were going to be duff in advance either. But I don’t think any of those bad eps of Buffy are truly awful, and indeed some of the ones I think are rubbish other people might enjoy. Horses for courses. And if enough people think episodes are duff, the show gets cancelled.
    There really is nothing that says a 13-episode TV show run, given sufficient talent and resources, need be rubbish or that “filler” episodes are bad. Would Ultraviolet UK have gone into soap mode (more than it did) with 13 episodes? Or would it have continued the vampire war it only hinted at at the end of the sixth episode? Would it have considered other things that the vampires were up to? Would it have taken in some of the territory of Apparitions, asking what would the nature of faith become with proof of vampires? Give Joe Ahearne more time and 13 episodes to work with, what would he have come up with? Maybe seven more brilliant episodes, all linked nicely with a decent story arc, that we’d all still be marvelling at to this day.
    Surely the job of the writer is to come up with ideas that need to be examined. Look at Buffy – when did The Zeppo come in? Season 3, episode 13. That’s nearly 50 episodes in yet that’s the point where we look at Buffy and the Scooby Gang from Xander’s point of view. It’s influential enough that Rusty saw it and did his own version with Love & Monsters on DW. Yet it didn’t occur to Whedon and co until 50 eps in (and no, they weren’t probably just keeping it back until then).
    There are no real filler episodes on The Wire. They’re almost all excellent. Yet there are a large number that don’t have major plot developments. Minor ones yes. Important minor ones at that. Character developments as well.
    I think the 6 v 13 depends on what you think TV should be: a continuation of serialised cinema (cf King of the Rocket Men)? A never ending series of individual movies? A never ending series of novels? A series of white papers? If you think every 60 minutes of everything on TV should be a polished gem then you’re probably going to see about an hour of TV every decade: you’ll just never know in advance which hour it will be. Ditto cinema. Nothing’s perfect. One has to glean what brilliance one can wherever one can find it, and it might not all be concentrated in one lot of 60 minutes. Even the best 60 minutes has a minute or two that’s not as good as the other minutes. But there’s a lot to be said IMHO for the not brilliant. For the getting to know you, regular Joe as well as the Stephen Hawking. Stephen Hawking’s not a bad bloke when he’s talking about things other than quantum theory, either, I hear.
    That doesn’t mean I’m going to sit through Knight Rider remakes or The Mentalist week after week, but if there’s enough in each ep of a 24-week series to keep my brain ticking over and getting to know the characters involved if I like them, I’m not going to complain that the show’s not Civilization, I, Claudius or Ultraviolet.