Less is More: Why US TV networks should embrace the UK model
The long-running BBC sci-fi drama Doctor Who has become a phenomenon in America in the past few years, thanks to episodes airing on the BBC America cable network. In accordance with the standard UK model for television, each series of Doctor Who is only 13 episodes long. A new episode airs each week for 13 straight weeks, then the show has a long layoff, broken only by an hour-long Christmas special. That long wait between series helps to build anticipation and allows new viewers time to catch up before the next episodes air. For Doctor Who fans the hiatus is a time for speculation and wonder, and a key part of Who fandom.
A nine month layoff like that is standard in British television, and many US cable models, but discouraged by the major American television networks. American series do go on a summer hiatus between seasons, but that break is four months at the longest. As a result, a typical American network series will air 25 episodes over a calendar year—a full 11 episodes more than their British counterparts. While it can be fun to have more of one of your favorite series, there is almost always a point within the longer season runs in which the plotline become thin or the characters stretched too far – the dreaded “filler episode”.
For a clear example of the differences between the two models we need look no further than The Office, the brilliant BBC mockumentary that was successfully adapted for the American network NBC. The original UK series aired two six-episode long series on the BBC in 2001 and 2002, with a Christmas Special wrapping everything up in December 2003. Two years later the US version was launched. The first season of the US version also featured only six episodes—a model often used for mid-season replacement shows in the US. But once NBC decided to bring the show back, it went to the standard 20+ episode model. The US version of The Office has now run for over 176 episodes, or 99 hours of television.
The UK version of The Office is famed for its attention to subtlety and character. It’s a story with a clear beginning, middle, and end. The compact length also help the series take full advantage of its premise—during the Christmas special we are able to see how the characters’ lives are affected after the documentary has aired. As the US version has dragged out for eight full seasons it becomes more and more ridiculous to imagine a film crew aimlessly filming these people’s lives to no clear end (what reclusive billionaire is funding this project for their own amusement?). As such, the show has largely abandoned its central conceit, other than oblique comic references. The US version of The Office was once able to juggle character and comedy, but it’s now lasted for so many episodes that its characters are no longer recognizable other than as broad types. What was once novel about the series has, sadly, become rote.
The reasons for both models are purely financial. It is cheaper for the BBC, or American cable networks, to produce only 14 hours a year (or typically 3 to 4 for a comedy), and American networks make more ad revenue by keeping their hit shows in production. Then, of course, there is the lucrative syndication market, which is often where the real money is made by a series. A decade ago 100 episodes was the magic number needed for syndication packages, but in recent years, and partly due to the growth of cable channels desperate for programming and willing to air series with higher incidences of repeat, that number has dropped to 88. Most series that have full season run on one of the four major broadcast networks, CBS, NBC, ABC, or FOX, are picked up for seasons of around 22 episodes. At that rate a show would only have to stay on the air for four seasons before it would qualify for syndication.
The push for higher episode counts necessitated by syndication (among other factors) creates a problem for writers and producers trying to weave a unified narrative throughout the course of a season of television. 22 hours, or 11 for a half-hour series, is a monstrous amount of plotting to account for. Back when a series was primarily expected to run a formulaic plot every week it wasn’t expected to have continuing plots, or if they did, only in a very basic sense. It was expected that Columbo was going to scratch his head, make a few quips, pardon himself, and solve the mystery in the last ten minutes (and, surprise, surprise, it turns out to be the celebrity guest that killed their spouse for the insurance money). But a new era of UK television and cable series have changed a generation’s expectations of the kind of complexity they demand from a series (the US network with the most formulaic shows, CBS, is still by far the highest rated network—though with a rapidly aging demographic).
Vince Gilligan sold Breaking Bad to AMC with an understanding that the series would track the devolution of its main character, Walter White, as he went from a bumbling, low-level drug dealer to a calculating criminal kingpin. The 13-episode season AMC uses allows Gilligan to trim the fat from his story, focusing on the people that inhabit his dusty, dangerous world. Breaking Bad is considered by many to be the best drama on television, and a chief reason is the gripping storytelling—a method that would likely have been stifled by the current network model.
Just how could this model work on the major networks? There is a good example of how it can, one that came about by accident. Lost was a ratings juggernaut in its first and second seasons, but from the very beginning creator Damon Lindelof was nervous about running such a high-concept series, reliant on consistently building mysteries, without having an end date at which to present the resolution to those mysteries. The third season of Lost found the writers struggling with how to stretch the series out for an indeterminate number of season and, by their own admission, failing miserably. At the end of the third season, with the show’s rating beginning to drop dramatically, ABC negotiated with the writers to provide an end date. They agreed to produce three more season of the show, at 16 episodes apiece.
But the fourth season of Lost premiered in the midst of a Writer’s Guild strike which lasted three months. Production on the series was shut down after the eighth episode. The strike was settled in February of 2008, and the show was able to produce five more episodes, to finish with a total of 13 (though the finale was extended to two hours by ABC to allow for extra plot points). The resulting season was the most focused season of Lost by far. Freed to tell their story the way they wanted to the writers delivered a more compact, dynamic series of episodes. Had Lost had a lower episode count from the beginning we may have never had to deal with Kate speaking to horses or Jack screaming at Bai Ling to give him a tattoo.
Without a desperate need to create filler episodes, a series is able to focus more on the important central dynamics between characters or whatever the underlying premise of the series is. Right now AMC may be producing the best shows on television, and one of the reasons it does so is because of the low episode counts. Networks like AMC, HBO, and FX are playing to a new, cannier type of television consumer, one who wants good product a few times a year rather than mediocre product in their faces all the time. By allowing a shorter episode run and a longer time between airings, the four major American networks could build anticipation and respect for their series. By continuing the 20 episode model they are clinging to a dying format, one without a place in the television landscape of tomorrow.