Not too long ago, a popular British showrunner suggested that America could really improve its television offerings if it would just do one simple thing: shorten its seasons.
That suggestion was not embraced too well by American television purists, who believe the 22-episode season is the golden calf we should all worship. But should it really be ignored?
In the United States, typical network television shows have more than 20 episodes. But in Britain, television viewers aren't surprised if shows go far less. In fact, "Doctor Who" -- with 12 episodes -- is considered an extended season there. The "shortened" season of "Torchwood" a few years back, with just five episodes, is actually more ordinary there than what Americans would thinks.
There's a reason why network television shows run so long: Advertisers. The American model, at least for the networks and basic cable, depend on commercials to not only support the programming, but turn a profit for the network as well. It's much easier to get a longer term ad buy if you have a bunch of episodes of a show -- meaning, the network can easier predict what kind of audience it will have in a timeslot for nearly half the year, and then be able to charge that.
Many British shows are produced through BBC, which unlike BBC America, is commercial free. There are no advertising contracts needed. The Brits support their shows through entertainment taxes, and thus there's no need to try and create as long a season as possible to stabilize audience for ad revenue.
But it's not like British television planned it that way. Shortened seasons make sense for BBC because it doesn't have the same production budget American shows do. It's not like producing 25 episodes of "Sherlock" is going to bring in hundreds of millions of dollars in ad revenue. Whether 10 million people tune in, or 25 people show up, the domestic revenue is the same, so BBC has to be a good steward of the people's money, and invest wisely.
That means smaller investments in programs.
No matter how Great Britain came to its television model, the fact is, people like Steven Moffat are right: American televisions seasons are far too long.
Think about "Battlestar Galactica." Many people look at the first season of the show as being its best. That season was just 13 episodes. But when Syfy decided to start giving it longer seasons -- more of the typical 20 episodes -- some could argue that quality slipped a little bit. Because there was a need to fill episode orders, some scripts that might have not made the cut otherwise were suddenly going in front of the cameras.
It's almost like what expansion has done to baseball. Players who probably should've had a full career in the Minor Leagues are suddenly playing on the big league level against the likes of C.C. Sabathia and David Ortiz. You have a lot of slots to fill, but a limited supply of talent.
Having 20 or more episodes is a lot of slots to fill, but not always a large enough supply of quality to fill it.
Look at American shows that receive critical acclaim and awards. They are all on cable, where seasons are shortened, and shows like "Mad Men" and "Breaking Bad" will air whenever the cable channel feels like airing it. Maybe this year, maybe next year.
Networks have been unhappy about all the attention paid to cable television that the Emmys almost didn't have a television home this past year. To the networks, it had become more of an advertisement of what's on cable, and not on places like CBS, NBC, ABC and Fox. Yet, the networks just can't acknowledge the fact that maybe it's time to re-examine the business model -- that is, if quality really does tie into revenue.
And that's why networks won't change. Big money shows are not necessarily ones of the best quality. Oscar has proven again and again that the greatest quality does not equal popularity. In fact, many times, the opposite is true.
Cable channels have limited budget, since there aren't as many ad dollars floating around for them as there are in the networks. That's why they had shortened seasons to begin with. But with more time for the writers to focus on great stories, and telling them right, it's no wonder that networks are trying to be more like cable in terms of quality, but just can't hit the mark -- because they are ordering far too many episodes.
Maybe that model will indeed change someday. But it won't happen anytime soon if audiences reward garbage with their viewership, and leave quality shows in the dust.
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