Sunday, October 23, 2011

Regarding The British TV Model

At Airlock Alpha, Michael Hinman makes the case that American television should adopt the British model of shorter seasons.

After all, as things stand now, an American show airing on a major network has to plan for 22 episodes a year, and generally aims for a minimum of five seasons, translating to something even more daunting than a 20-plus episode season - the production of 100 episodes in five years. The combination of long seasons, and the pressure to produce a continuous run of five or more such seasons, rule out a great many concepts, and make it tougher to maintain a high level of quality, as demonstrated by the many shows that open strong and go downhill from there. (Think how much better Heroes might have been like if it didn't have to bring out a second season a few months after the first one ended, or was even able to tie everything up in its strong first season, for instance.)

It might be remembered, too, that there is another model for producing television - Japanese anime - which has two other advantages. The first is its wide use of the half-hour episode format (in contrast with the one-hour format standard in American and British television for dramatic fare), which permits that much more flexibility with the rate of production. The second is the use of animation, which enables shows to transcend the constraints of limited production budgets, enabling the treatment of themes which might otherwise be out of the question for lack of an adequate audience, or the sheer financial and technical difficulty of realizing the concept - as is the case with a great deal of science fiction and fantasy. As a result, Japanese television simply has no equal where the quality and quantity of its output in these genres is concerned (consider shows like the acclaimed Ghost in the Shell, which would never have a chance of being produced on an American channel), while in the United States, the best the networks can do has generally proved tepid stuff next to what we see on cable, which has been somewhat more willing to try less conventional schedules and accept smaller audiences.

However, that's less the case than it used to be, and on the whole, there is little chance of the other models mentioned here being adopted on any significant scale. The 22 episode season is driven by the need to keep advertiser money flowing, the pressure to secure five or more seasons by the hope not just of milking a show for as many years as possible, but of maximizing the chances of a profitable afterlife in reruns. This is unlikely to change anytime soon, and an openness to half-hour long drama, or to a wider use of animation, are even longer shots. Not only is it the case that money trumps art in such matters, but the industry has shown itself generally willingness to engage in significant experiment with scripted fare. Expect it to go on inundating the airwaves with reality TV instead.

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