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.