Wednesday, 5 November 2008

The Boob Tube: How Long Should A Series Last?

A tip of my saucy beret for this Defamer post, which led me to this Hollywood & Fine post about how the best way to save good TV shows is to cancel them after one season.

For those too lazy to click the links the main gist of his argument is that British television uses a system based not on finding scripts for shows, but on making shows from scripts. You see, the classical BBC model of TV production is where a writer comes up with anywhere from 4 to 10 episodes of a TV show, they make those episodes, and if the show's a hit, the writer goes off to write more, but they only make shows out of the scripts the writer thinks is good enough for more shows.

That means very short seasons, or "series" as they're called in Britain, and very often long gaps in between series, sometimes years, even for hits, and often each series has a beginning, a middle and an end.

The system is different in America, because unlike the BBC, they're not government subsidized, so they need to make money off their shows. So a whole system was set up to make commercial television profitable. (Commercial TV in the UK exists somewhere between both systems, but I'm not going to explain that today.)

At the dawn of the medium in the 1950s sponsors used to buy time on the TV, and then put their own shows on at those times. So you'd get the Colgate Comedy Hour, Texaco Star Theatre, The US Steel Hour, and Smoky Joe Malboro's Playground. (Okay I made that last one up, but you get the drift.) Shows were mostly live, and consisted of dramatized plays, variety-talk shows, live sporting events, and game shows. The studios were initially suspicious, if not hostile towards this new medium, viewing it as a form of piracy, rather than a potential new revenue stream. This hostility made room for new independent companies to fill the gap, producing shows on behalf of sponsors, for the networks to air.

As technology developed to allow for more pre-filmed entertainment, a new "minute system" was devised. Instead of one sponsor making and owning the whole kit and kaboodle, the networks would have the major studios, as well as the new independent producers make shows, which the networks would then buy, pay for, take in all the money from advertising on their initial broadcast run, then the show's producers could sell the old episodes to air on local stations to provide an inexpensive alternative to producing their own programming to fill empty slots outside of the primetime network's supply. This is called syndication, and the producers keep all the money made from this.

Now this system has changed quite a lot since it first started. The intervening decades saw many of the early independent TV pioneers getting bought up by studios, then those studios go on to merge with the networks, creating the massive media conglomerates we all know and love today. So now, the networks not only get all the advertising revenue, but they also earn the syndication money too.

Now while local stations and cable networks may need reruns to fill their schedule, they don't want to keep running the same small number of episodes, again, and again, and again. They need any given show to have a bare minimum of 66 episodes, and a best case scenario of 100+ episodes. In fact, the more episodes the better for them.

Now trying to fill out that many episodes, and the desire to keep going no matter how burnt out the show may get creatively, leads to many shows crashing a burning before their time. This is especially true of shows that become big hits in their first season, sparking their creators to cram everything they think the network is willing to pay for in, often leaving them too little to keep going. So you end up with the show "jumping the shark" and settling into an unhealthy decline where everyone is too sick of the damn show to enjoy the reruns.

Now some shows thrive in this system, especially workplace (especially police) procedurals based on over the top plotlines ripped from the headlines, who can easily replace characters that stay too long at the fair. But not every show can do that. Too many times networks pick a show based on a single story, like Heroes, Prison Break, the recently cancelled Ex-List, that may work better as a limited run mini-series, but any attempt to make it go beyond one, or at most, two seasons, stretches the elements of that story way too thin, because more often than not, even the producers don't have a plan beyond that first season.

Which is where the solution lies.

Certain shows have certain shelf-lives. That's why the show's creators, and producers should figure out how many seasons they can rationally get out of the show's premise, and plan their stories accordingly, and networks will have to learn when to let a show go with dignity into re-run and DVD box-set heaven, rather than flog it until everyone's sick of the sight of it.

It's better creatively, it's better for the actors, who don't end up trying to break the show's "curse" after they leave, and it should be better for profits.

All it takes is a little planning, and a little common sense.

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