Rant of the week: is there too little television on British TV?

So a few weeks ago, I asked if there was too much good television on at the moment. Today, I’m going to flip that on its head and ask if there is too little television on British TV.

First, note I didn’t say ‘good television’. Just television.

I’ll tell you why this is important. At first sight, it might appear that the simple answer – once we get over having a quality threshold – is that there is simply too much television at the moment. Channels and channels and channels of the stuff, day and night. No one can possibly watch it all.

Which is true. Of course, once you get rid of reality shows and repeats, and focus on new, scripted programming, suddenly there’s a whole lot less television to watch.

Now, I’ll tell you why I’m not so fussed about good. In this day and age, when there are so many channels, people and money are spread thinly. It’s not like in the good old days when there was only two places to go to if you wanted to work in TV – BBC and ITV – that meant there was a critical number of locations for talent to congregate and learn from one another the art and craft of script-writing.

And once upon a time, TV shows lasted for a long time. Go back to the 70s and 80s and the average BBC TV series was 13 episodes long. Doctor Who started out in the 60s running 52 weeks of the year. Eventually, it dropped down to 26 episodes a year, before heading to 14 in the 80s. When it returned, it stayed at 13-14 episodes, before coming down to the current total of about seven or so episodes a year. Sherlock, of course, is only three episodes at a time, as is Black Mirror and many other British shows hover at the three-six episode mark.

Okay, some might argue, that’s creatively all they need to be. Why prolong them to any more than that?

The short answer is because now there’s no longer anywhere for people train in and get practical experience of script-writing. The golden age of British TV that was the 60s, 70s and even the 80s threw up countless script-writing legends because there were so many long-running shows for them to train on.

Look over to the US and you’ll the same is still true. The average network TV show is either 13 or 24 episodes long. Some shows get even longer runs. Cable tends more towards 10 episodes and some shows are even shorter. But the average drama clocks in at that kind of count. And that’s important, because to produce that many number of episodes per year for that many shows on that many networks, you need a lot of writers. You need writers rooms, you need assistants, and a whole support network to come up with and produce those scripts. And once you’ve started off as an assistant and become a writer, over time, you can progress up the production ladder, becoming producer, executive producer and eventually a show runner.

Now, your first work isn’t going to be good. It’s probably going to be rubbish, in fact. But there’ll be people there to make it better. And the next time, what you write will be better, too. And no one will notice that your first bit of work wasn’t very good, because in a run of 13 episodes, who can remember who wrote the duff eighth episode that season?

Now look over here. Look at the UK short season run and you’ll soon discover that we’re in the thrall of the writer – of the few who can produce a limited number of good scripts when needed. Only a very few people get to write dramas and comedies in the UK, and when they’re given the opportunity, because of that shortage of writers, they invariably end up writing all the episodes in that season by themselves, with almost no one to help them.

The result is that not only do you quickly have a tailing off in quality from the first episode and into later episodes, everybody remembers who wrote that entire series and if it doesn’t get a good reaction, that writer never gets to work again or they’re too traumatised by the experience to want to.

The result again is too few writers, and nowhere for anyone to improve their craft. Which means that the likes of Steven Moffat (who honed his skills in long-running children’s TV show Press Gang) is asked to showrun both Doctor Who and Sherlock. He’s also pitching a new comedy, even though he’s not able to produce his current load of 13 episodes of Doctor Who and 3 episodes of Sherlock per year.

But it’s not his fault, is it? What other showrunners are there whom he could bring in, who aren’t already swamped? Andrew Davies? He has Mr Selfridge and the whole of War and Peace to adapt now. Mark Gatiss is already showrunning Sherlock with Moffat. Toby Whithouse, maybe, but we’ve had to wait until Being Human was cancelled to make that happen. Howard Overton is doing Misfits and Atlantis now. Of course, there’s the likes of Paul Abbott and Russell T Davies out there, too. I think it’s notable that both of them got their start in soap operas, shows that have exactly the set-up I’ve described, with writers rooms, producers, career progression and more. But the list is perishingly small and is like a never-ending game of musical chairs that has more seats than participants.

So I’m calling for more television on British TV. Not necessarily better TV, just more scripted TV, preferably with 10- or 13-episode runs, so that the UK can start to create a writing infrastructure for the TV industry, with people learning to write TV shows, often in collaboration with others. And then once that’s in place, when we no longer have the same 10 or 12 ‘name’ writers and show runners orbiting between primetime shows on all the channels, maybe the quality will come with it.




  • Mark Carroll

    Heh, I'd like longer runs of less shiny stuff partly because I'm not sure the shininess much enhances my enjoyment and partly because it's a hassle to keep finding what to watch now, a little more steadiness would let me form convenient watching habits instead of something disappearing again just when I've decided to like it. This is why I end up watching CSI reruns.

    (About writing, I really don't know.)

  • Rullsenberg

    Totally agree about writing and the need for longer runs: Whilst 'not my cuppa tea' there are skills of writing learnt from long-running dramas and more opportunities for drama writing. We just don't get enough learning and experience.

  • Think I'd agree with that… though one of the problems as a viewer I always find with long running US shows is that I either lose interest or life takes over and suddenly I realise I've missed half a season of a show I liked and then I never catch up (though box sets do help). Noticeable by their absences was women on your list. I love Heidi Thomas but she's spread thin too…
    PS Do you think Toby Whithouse is being lined up to take over Dr Who? Do hope so, as am very disappointed that BH has been cancelled. This season it's found it's groove again.

  • GYAD

    I entirely agree, although I think the same could be said of other areas of television programming (like factual). Which is why, when you pare it right down, there are only a handful of proper writers and drama production companies in the UK.

    Of course, the simple truth is that nobody has the money to train new talent or to nurse them through the early stages of their career. ITV closed down their training ages ago and rely on established talent, C4 and C5 have never really had them, and none of them have the money to run them today.

    The BBC should have the money – and is still the best entrance into TV – but having wasted all of its dosh on buildings it now finds itself cutting back (and inevitably, management never seems to get cut).

    Another part of the problem is that the increasing demand for and commitment to feature film production values in TV makes it very hard to fund a long-term drama. We used to have much longer television series – but then the production values were much lower.

  • Production values on films used to be very much lower as well! But co-production deals are the usual solution to these problems and given that one of the biggest reasons cited by international buyers for not picking up British shows is that the seasons are too short, it's hard to see why British broadcasters can then use lack of international partnership as an excuse for not making long enough series. Given that a lot of series costs are upfront and production cost per episode decreases as the series length increases, you end up with more 'bang for your buck' with longer series, too.

    This all goes especially for ITV, which although in a slight financial pit of its own making, is recovering in part through content produced through the likes of ITV Studios and ITV Global rather than bought in from indies. The Beeb still makes 75%+ of its content in-house, despite independent production quotas, so similarly needs to invest in developing longer running show for training purposes, I reckon.

  • Toby Whithouse is one of the names that always floats up. With yet another exec producer leaving the show (supposedly after a very public fight with Steven Moffat last month at a Beeb event) and with Stevie turning in fewer episodes every year, with Whithouse now free, I'd say it's increasingly likely he might end up as showrunner after the 50th anniversary celebrations are done. Provided the Beeb don't pick up any of his other pitches.

  • JustStark

    Hm, how did I miss this at the time?

    I'm surprised you don't mention that the BBC does exactly this: Doctors, Casualty and Holby City are all year-round production-churn machines, which are explicitly used as a 'training ground' for new writers, or at least they were in the John Yorke days.

    I'm not sure how successful it was: does writing a Casualty make you a better writer generally, or does it just teach you how to write Casualty?

    And I'm on record of course as preferring quality over quantity, hating the US-style twenty-plus-episode 'seasons', and thinking that most TV programmes should have no more than six episodes, eight at the most.

    So I would note that a lot of the best British TV writers have a background in theatre (Abi Morgan, Catherine Tregenna, Toby Whithouse, Steve Thompson (if you rate him), Heidi Thomas who was mentioned above, all started writing for the stage).

    And I would suggest that writing for the stage is a better way to hone a distinctive, interesting voice than writing for a television programme which demands a certain degree of homogenised product.

    And that therefore rather than more longer-running TV programmes producing boring formula stuff, perhaps what British TV needs is a livelier theatre scene?

  • Casualty and Holby City are soaps, which I think I cover with: ” Of course, there's the likes of Paul Abbott and Russell T Davies out there, too. I think it's notable that both of them got their start in soap operas, shows that have exactly the set-up I've described, with writers rooms, producers, career progression and more.”

    re: livelier theatre. Sure, we could boost theatre and give platforms for dozens of new writers to mount multiple plays that pay them enough to live on each year as writers – in our imaginations. It's not going to happen in the real-world, though. Sad, but true.

    Neither is it going to happen with the British film industry as it is. That leaves TV. TV is the only medium that actually has the potential to offer as many platforms and opportunities as needed for writers to learn, grow through experience and actually make a living from it.

    But TV is expensive and if you start resting entire TV series on the backs of novices, those series are likely to fail by not being very good, which likely results in the writer either getting discouraged or not employed again or both. So you need ways to have them writing and learning and being insulated at the same time. Hence, my suggestion.

    I remember reading an interview with Galton and Simpson, who are undoubted comedy geniuses, of course, in which they said that you needed to have a writing partner because there are just going to be days when you're not funny and the other person can take up the slack. And I think that's true of drama writing – whether it's for outside perspective or you can't write a good line or the plot won't move in the direction you want it to.

    TV is such a collaborative medium anyway that even the strongest voices tend to have other voices contributing.

  • I do actually know someone who's written for Casualty (and someone else for Emmerdale). They also write for other things and have got distinctive voices, I think. So I don't think it homogenised them, just taught them the ropes, how to do scripts, how production works, and so on.

  • JustStark

    That leaves TV. TV is the only medium that actually has the potential to offer as many platforms and opportunities as needed for writers to learn, grow through experience and actually make a living from it.

    Not quite true: there's radio too, and again the BBC explicitly uses radio to trial / train new writers.

    (And radio has the advantage that, being cheaper, it can do single plays so as to allow writers to develop distinctive voices).

    Of course how well that works given that most Afternoon Plays are utter rubbish, I don't know…

    But as to your point: you write,

    Sure, we could boost theatre and give platforms for dozens of new writers to mount multiple plays that pay them enough to live on each year as writers – in our imaginations. It's not going to happen in the real-world, though.

    … and I agree that it's not likely to happen but, given that it's still cheaper to put on a play than to do an episode even of cheap TV, isn't it more likely than your TV series idea?

    For instance, you could take a theatre (not in the West End) and put on a new play for by a different writer every month for a year, and even by the time you calculate cast, basic scenery, overheads etc you'd have spent a fraction of the money it would have cost to make a TV series with each of those twelve writers writing one episode.

    Two-week runs and you've got twenty-four new writers, for not much more provided you don't build new stupidly expensive sets for each production. To do a TV series with enough episodes that twenty-four new writers can train on it would be astronomically expensive, unless it's so formula-bound that writing for it would be soul-crushing (eg, Doctors).

    (Maybe a better use of that would be giving twelve writers two shots, so they can try to improve, but still point is, theatre far more economical for it than TV).

    And they'd have got to write stuff that they actually want to write, rather than having to write to a formula. So it'll probably do their writing much more good too.

  • “Of course how well that works given that most Afternoon Plays are utter rubbish, I don't know…”

    They are, because the writers (AFAIK) don't learn from other writers – they write alone, pretty much. And it still doesn't give them career progression – you can't make a living writing for the radio. Unless you're John Finnemore, of course. I don't know how he does it.

    That argument aside, though, realistically – and that's the key word for my whole point – what chances are there to develop radio output beyond the current levels? No commercial channel AFAIK carries plays, which suggests they're not profitable and require a pubcaster like the BBC. The Beeb currently has three radio channels that carry plays: Radio 3, Radio 4 and Radio 4 Extra. The last of those just airs repeats, Radio 3 is primarily a music channel so I don't see it expanding its drama output significantly, particularly when its existence is somewhat in debate anyway. That just leaves Radio 4 and the gallows laugh Radio 4 execs make whenever they think about significantly altering the Radio 4 schedule and the audience's reaction to that.

    Maybe you disagree, but I don't see radio as being a significant way to train up new writers any more than it's doing already, and even then, it's something only the BBC could contemplate doing, which given they're trying to find huge amounts of savings at the moment, seems unlikely to me.

    “For instance, you could take a theatre (not in the West End) and put on a new play for by a different writer every month for a year, and even by the time you calculate cast, basic scenery, overheads etc you'd have spent a fraction of the money it would have cost to make a TV series with each of those twelve writers writing one episode.”

    See, this is the thing for me. True or not, who is 'you' in this? In theory, that might well be a good idea; in practice, who exactly is paying for this? Just about any commercial theatre that did this for a year would be shuttering its doors at the end of it – you can't charge £40 a seat basic for shows by new writers that quite probably won't be any good. Maybe a backroom pub theatre or a fringe theatre, but not a mainstream theatre, and I don't see significant expansion of input from the fringe theatre beyond what it's already doing. Theatres subsidised by Lottery money are already struggling, government subsidies to the arts are already being cut and there's no sign they'll ever increase, even with a change of government.

    That just leaves an enterprising TV company or two to for some reason start funding theatre. And again, I don't see it coming, particularly from the BBC – even with the cuts, it gets enough flack as it is funding things that don't necessarily result in a broadcast output, so unless it decided to film everything and broadcast it, that's not going to happen. And as soon as you start filming, costs go up, direction changes, etc, and you're basically just making TV like you did in the 60s and 70s again. Not a bad thing, but not as cheap a thing or as easy a thing as radio nor as justifiable as doing it for the iPlayer.

    So I just don't see theatre or radio helping TV any more than they already are. Whereas TV has the capacity to significantly increase its scripted content without annoying viewers. Even if you simply stopped running a load of three-part TV series all written by the same tried and tested writers and started making other shows run for longer instead, not only would you save more money through amortisation of costs over a longer season, you'd give more opportunities to new writers, increase overall drama output, improve overseas sales, establish a sustainable career structure for writers and probably please fans of the show you decide to extend. That seems a far bigger win to me.

    Don't get me wrong – I'm not saying this is the best solution in the best of all possible worlds. It would be nice if there were infinite TV and radio channels with infinite budgets for scripted content; it would be equally marvellous if there were a dozen theatres in every town, able to put on whatever they liked. But that's not what we're working with.

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  • JustStark

    True enough, regarding radio drama and comedy, that there is probably as much of it being produced as there is public appetite for. I only mentioned it because I like it as a medium (even if so much that is made for it is so bad) so when people do lists and leave it off I like to mention that it exists.

    And it probably could do better, in terms of quality, if not quantity: indeed with the Afternoon Play one sometimes gets the impression that they will shove any old script into their rep company's hands because they have to have forty-five minutes every day and it's just housewives who listen to it while doing the ironing, right? Maybe if they put a stronger emphasis on quality that would raise their game and that would feed through into television. Maybe.

    [Finnemore writes, or at least wrote, I don't know if he's too busy now he does his Souvenir Programme, for TV as well: he shows up on credits as having done material for sketch shows and panel games, which I don't know but I guess might be one of those low-profile-but-reasonably-paying gigs, especially if you do a lot of it. Or maybe The Now Show just pays astronomical travel expenses.]

    So anyway theatre and TV.

    Right. Thing is, I agree with you that my theatre plan would mean investing in talent development, which is indeed just another way of spelling 'losing money hand over fist'.

    Though maybe not as much as you think: I don't think you'd need to charge £40 a seat basic at all, remember, I specifically said not the West End, so lower rents, and no need for any 'names' in the cast: there are enough actors out there facing starvation that they can be hired for peanuts (I'm pretty sure that's how the Cambridge Shakespeare Festival works, for example), sets can be minimal (I mean that works even in the West End, the set for The Homecoming can't have cost that much)… I reckon you could charge £10-£20 a seat and only be losing thousands, not tens of thousands.

    And it'd be an ongoing loss: if you find out after six months you're not making as much as you budgeted for, you can pull the plug.

    What I'm not sure of is that your TV plan wouldn't amount to the same thing, just on a bigger scale. A TV series costs millions to make, and it's all up-front, so someone, whether a channel or investors, is going to have to pony that money up before an episode of it even airs. And then if nobody watches it, well, if it's on a commercial channel then you don't get enough advertising so you lose millions, and if it's the BBC you just look bad and maybe the person who commissioned it gets fired, which means you have to pay them about a quarter of a million in severance.

    And extending programmes makes it more risky rather than less, because if you make a load of three-episode things, and one of them bores viewers, then three weeks later it's over and you have another shot at attracting them. If you make a twenty-episode series with lots of episodes by new writers and it bores viewers, what are you going to do? Broadcast it all, losing money and reputation every week because the advertising income doesn't cover the production costs, or pull the plug and just write off the money it cost to make?
    It just seems to me that you'd end up producing crappy formula-churn-TV like most US series, which are 90% filler episodes that just waste the lives of everyone who watches them, and risking millions to do so, and training writers to produce more crappy formula churn (because that is basically what the US system achieves, isn't it?); whereas you could, with far less risk, invest in unique, interesting stuff that doesn't just aim to fill schedule time but actually has something to say.

    Neither will happen, of course, because there's no money around for any of it.

    But I'm not sure I see the point of spending the money, or taking the risk, if all you end up is producing people who want to make CSI: The Next One or Gotham or Blindspot or Arrow or any of the rest of the formula filler-episode-churn that characterises US TV, rather than three-episode things that actually are good, like The Enfield Haunting.

  • “Though maybe not as much as you think: I don't think you'd need to charge £40 a seat basic at all, remember, I specifically said not the West End, so lower rents, and no need for any 'names' in the cast: there are enough actors out there facing starvation that they can be hired for peanuts (I'm pretty sure that's how the Cambridge Shakespeare Festival works, for example), sets can be minimal (I mean that works even in the West End, the set for The Homecoming can't have cost that much)… I reckon you could charge £10-£20 a seat and only be losing thousands, not tens of thousands.”

    Maybe. There are two theatres in my town (which is in either London or Kent, depending on your definition). There's the Little Theatre, which charges £8-12 a seat. There's also the Big Chain Theatre, which charges £20 minimum a seat. And of course the National does its £5-£10 specials. Neither of them does anything but well known plays (obvious musicals, adaptations of books), rather than completely original fare, though.

    But the question is still would they do this? Why would they aim to put on inevitably loss-making performances with the aim of producing TV writers? It's very altruistic of them, but I don't think that's why they're there. And it's not sustainable either and even if you do grant the new writer an opportunity, what next? Where's their next job going to be? How many scripts can they write per year afterwards and for whom? Where's the career progression? Where's the salary?

    “What I'm not sure of is that your TV plan wouldn't amount to the same thing, just on a bigger scale. A TV series costs millions to make, and it's all up-front, so someone, whether a channel or investors, is going to have to pony that money up before an episode of it even airs. And then if nobody watches it, well, if it's on a commercial channel then you don't get enough advertising so you lose millions, and if it's the BBC you just look bad and maybe the person who commissioned it gets fired, which means you have to pay them about a quarter of a million in severance.”

    Well, that's true, but that's true of every TV series, whether short or long-running. Three episode shows can disappear easily, it's true, but they also can't make much money either unless they're Sherlock. You're less likely to get co-funding partners to help you get them off the ground, have to spend more per hour marketing them so that people tune in before they've disappeared off your screens.

    Swings and roundabouts, innit? But the capacity to make long-running shows is there otherwise they wouldn't be any and there are. So that means it's possible. Because it is. We're talking about extending an existing system rather than coming up with something new from scratch.

    “But I'm not sure I see the point of spending the money, or taking the risk, if all you end up is producing people who want to make CSI: The Next One or Gotham or Blindspot or Arrow or any of the rest of the formula filler-episode-churn that characterises US TV, rather than three-episode things that actually are good, like The Enfield Haunting.”

    Interestingly, Joshua St Johnston who wrote The Enfield Haunting got his break on Peak Practice, which used to air 13 episodes a season. So clearly shows with longer seasons can produce people who write things like The Enfield Haunting. 😉

  • JustStark

    Neither of them does anything but well known plays (obvious musicals, adaptations of books), rather than completely original fare, though

    Well, clearly I'm talking about a producing house, not a receiving house. They are rarer than the later but do exist so they must be economically viable. For instance, there's the Southwark Playhouse, which seems to put on only new plays, or first British productions of works that have been successful elsewhere (which fall into the same bracket of not having a ready-made audience, unlike adaptation or well-known musicals or plays).

    But the question is still would they do this? Why would they aim to put on inevitably loss-making performances with the aim of producing TV writers? It's very altruistic of them, but I don't think that's why they're there. And it's not sustainable either and even if you do grant the new writer an opportunity, what next? Where's their next job going to be? How many scripts can they write per year afterwards and for whom? Where's the career progression? Where's the salary?

    That's a lot of questions. Seven, to be exact. But they basically fall into two categories: the first to do with the playhouse and the second to do with the writer.

    To deal with the first, why would they playhouse do this? Why put money into developing TV writers? Well, this is kind of my whole point: the aim is not to develop TV writers but to develop writers, who may then, among other writing, write for TV. I honestly don't see any point in developing writers specifically for television, as they are likely to be crap, as evidenced by how many of the really good TV writers are also accomplished writers for theatre. A good writer is a good writer, regardless of the medium. So why would they do this? Well, because they want to keep having plays to put on. Why else run competitions to have plays produced, why scout student playwrights, why have outreach programmes? They do all these things, so they must see value in them.

    Next, the questions about the writer, which seem to boil down to, where is the salary coming from? Which is where I wonder, why this obsession with a salary? Tom Stoppard never had a salary, well, once he stopped being a journalist, but that's when he got interesting. And he was a great TV writer: just try arguing that Professional Foul isn't one of the great TV plays. Okay, he didn't produce much for television, but surely we put quality over quantity? Better one truly great TV play than thirty so-so pass-the-time enjoyable-but-forgettable filler episodes of Arrow, right?

    Of course not everyone is Tom Stoppard, but still, the only TV worth watching, just like the only plays worth putting on, come from someone who’s writing not because they are being paid a salary but because they have something to say that is worth saying.

    Don’t get me wrong: I’m not one of these anti-copyright, it’s-okay-to-pirate types who thinks that art is worthless. I will personally punch anyone who downloads anything illegally and I think that anyone who writes anything that touches lots of people deserves both to live comfortably off its earnings and pass that down to their grandkids, just as if they’d built a hotel.

    But, I don’t think anything truly great was ever made by anyone who was just trying to earn a salary. Si I think those questions miss the point. What we should be trying to find are the people who will produce great works because they have something to say, not the people who can churn out acceptable episodes of enjoyable-to-watch formulaic stuff in return for a salary.

    The point of TV is not to provide enjoyment!

    But the capacity to make long-running shows is there otherwise they wouldn't be any and there are. So that means it's possible. Because it is. We're talking about extending an existing system rather than coming up with something new from scratch.

    But your suggestion, if implemented in the UK, would mean a long-running series written mainly by untried writers. And that hasn’t been tried. In the UK long-running series are mainly soaps, written by mostly trusted hands with the occasional new writer thrown in, to come up through the ranks. Or, they are short-run things with new writers but a very strong guiding hand rewriting almost everything, which is how I gather Skins worked.

    Even in the US, long-running series usually involve staffing mainly by writers with a track record or who are known to the executive producer, with a couple of untested hires; but I would hate to see our TV becoming more like the US’s, with its interminable series of twenty-some episodes of formula pap a year. Visual soma, so the masses can take their holiday from reality.

    Interestingly, Joshua St Johnston who wrote The Enfield Haunting got his break on Peak Practice, which used to air 13 episodes a season. So clearly shows with longer seasons can produce people who write things like The Enfield Haunting

    I’m impressed: I carefully picked out my examples and you managed to spot the one who slipped through the net.

    But, I’m really not sure moving to a US-style ‘lots of TV’ model would help, The guy who created Blindspot wrote for Stargate: SG-1. The creators of Arrow, for Dawson’s Creek, Law & Order and Boston Legal.

    All that says to me is that if you make more crap, entertaining, pointless TV then you end up with training more people who can make crap, entertaining, pointless TV.

    Well, yeah. But why do that?

  • Well, I disagree with and think you're fundamentally wrong about pretty much everything in that, so I think at this point it's best if we simply agree to disagree. Life's too short n'all that