It’s the eternal dilemma at the heart of any creative producer’s programming: quantity, or quality? Of course, no creator sets out to intentionally make a bad show, but the attitude towards this choice seems to differ greatly on both sides of the Atlantic. Up until now, American broadcasting has typically gravitated towards the 22- or 23-episode season, a marathon of ups and downs that span the whole year and often result in more sponsors than plotlines. The networks, however – and anything that could be considered remotely ‘high-brow’ – have preferred a shorter run: ten or twelve episode slots make an appearance for Boardwalk Empire, Mad Men and The Wire.
In this, American broadcasters seem to have picked up a trick or two from their British counterparts. On our side of the pond, the 22-episode format seems ridiculously impractical. It survives through foreign imports, but any home-grown, British drama is sure to have, at the most, twelve episodes. This is perhaps due to the more limited funds available to broadcasters here, but it has often had an unexpected, positive effect on the quality of the shows themselves. With only a handful of episodes, the writing has to be extremely tight, elegantly concrete, and above all functional. There is no time for ‘filler’ episodes, or meandering, pointless sub-plots that take the story no-where. The success of Sherlock (a grand total of two seasons and six episodes) proves that you don’t need an extended format to reach an audience; meanwhile, Downton Abbey charmed millions across the globe with eight episodes.
Have the Americans been taking tips from the Brits? This year marks an shift in the attitudes of US broadcasters – for the first time, shows of all genres are being shortened rather than extended. Gossip Girl fans will be thrilled their show has been given a last hurrah of 10-13 episodes, while the economically-challenged Community has been granted a new season of 13 episodes, rather than being axed. It’s exciting to anticipate what these shows’ new seasons will bring us. TV often flounders without a clear format, trailing on through a marathon of episodes towards some invisible finish line. A shorter format brings in a sense of urgency – and might just provide the shot to the arm both shows need.
Perhaps typically, networks are proving slow to make any drastic changes to successful shows. The 22-episode format remains the norm, seemingly geared towards a casual audience who is content to tune in and tune out as their own lives allow. And, of course, the sponsors love it. Teen Wolf has just announced a double-length third season for MTV. I can’t help but wonder if this is a commercial, rather than creative decision. Who’s really winning, here – the critics, or the corporations?