British TV: Quality Over Quantity?

If I think seri­ous­ly about what I’m watch­ing these days, much of it is pro­duced in Britain. It got me to think­ing about why such a small coun­try pro­duces so much good TV.  It’s not just Doc­tor Who and Torch­wood, I also enjoy many of their oth­er dra­mas and come­dies like Life on Mars, Spooks, Shirlock Holmes, Being Human and Shame­less.  All of these series are recent, too.

Since I’m a fair­ly com­mit­ted anglophile, I’m not by any means impar­tial, but when I try to dis­till what I enjoy in a tele­vi­sion show; things like sto­ry arcs that last longer than one show and romances dealt with in a non-ado­les­cent man­ner (among many oth­er things); they aren’t things that Hol­ly­wood can’t do, they’re just things that Hol­ly­wood gen­er­al­ly does­n’t do.

One stark dif­fer­ence between stan­dard North Amer­i­can TV and British TV is the num­ber of episodes per sea­son (or “series”). The gold stan­dard on this side of the Atlantic seems to be 24 episodes per sea­son where­as most British series are more com­mon­ly 6 to 12 episodes.

It strikes me that 24 episodes per sea­son pret­ty much requires mul­ti­ple direc­tors, pro­duc­ers and writ­ers and a pun­ish­ing sched­ule for the actors and crew. This leads nat­u­ral­ly to less over­all con­sis­ten­cy in the show.  Am I get­ting too technical?

There are some main­stream Amer­i­can TV shows that I will watch, but the only ones that I would rec­om­mend to any­one come from “cable” (being rough­ly defined as shows pro­duced out­side of Hol­ly­wood prop­er and/or pro­duced for non-broad­cast (cable) tele­vi­sion).  Some of these cable shows approach the qual­i­ty of British TV like Fringe, Episodes and Being Human.  Iron­i­cal­ly, one of those shows (Episodes) is about a British TV show being port­ed to Amer­i­can TV and one of those shows (Being Human) is a show port­ed to Amer­i­can TV.  Fringe is from FOX and isn’t non-broad­cast TV, but it’s also being shot in Van­cou­ver and set in Boston/New York — all non-Hol­ly­wood locations.

The Amer­i­can TV that I would rec­om­mend, then, seems to only share one thing with the British TV I would rec­om­mend and that is a much short­er sea­son (with Fringe giv­ing us the longest sea­sons… again the excep­tion).  As best I can express it, there seems to be a lim­it on the num­ber of hours of dra­ma that one team can pro­duce in one go.

Tra­di­tion­al TV suf­fers bad­ly from the Gilli­gan’s Island Syn­drome: where the start and end of a show found all the char­ac­ters in the same place… noth­ing ever changed.  Slow­ly, tele­vi­sion evolved such that from sea­son to sea­son the show and it’s char­ac­ters slow­ly changed.  Through­out this era of old­er tele­vi­sion the basic assump­tion was that a view­er could enjoy any tele­vi­sion show in any order and not be con­fused.  Each episode of each show was self contained.

What this did­n’t allow for was char­ac­ter devel­op­ment (among oth­er things) that could­n’t be done in 43 min­utes (the amount of time left in a tele­vi­sion hour after you sub­tract the com­mer­cials).  The fear in tele­vi­sion is that view­ers that miss a show feel left behind and there­fore stop watch­ing the show; and giv­en the cost of cre­at­ing tele­vi­sion shows, can­cel­la­tion fol­lows short­ly thereafter.

The suc­cess of tele­vi­sion that tells longer sto­ries may require dif­fer­ent series/season lengths but it lives on the changes in how we watch TV; that we down­load it, PVR it and gen­er­al­ly watch it when our sched­ule allows, not when the net­work choos­es to play it.

It makes me won­der what video dra­ma will look like when we don’t have to fill a num­ber of hours of dead air in a day, but sim­ply pub­lish the works that are worthy.


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