Earlier this week, I watched the first episode of a British drama series called State of Play. Right from the start, it was clear that this was a serious, high-quality production. Earlier than that, but still this week, I had been part of two separate discussions, one in person and one in on an online message board, about Fawlty Towers. It was (and is) my contention that FT is the single best television comedy ever made, and no one in either discussion took issue with that.
Why is British television so good?
Writing as an American, I can say definitively that it isn’t. There’s lots of crappy TV in Britain. It just doesn’t ever get shown over here.
However, if you were to state that the average American program does not reach the same level of quality as the average British programme, or that a higher percentage of British shows are of outstanding quality, I wouldn’t argue with you. What’s more, I would say it’s because of the way television shows are made over there.
Now, I realize that words like quality, better, and crappy are subjective. I realize that British television being, on average, better than American TV is an opinion. And I realize that I said at the outset that this blog would be about facts. So let’s just say that in this post, I’ll be explanationizing how British TV differs from American TV. What you do with that information is up to you.
Let’s start by talking about how a TV show is produced in the U.S.
How a TV Show Is Produced in the U.S.
(For our purposes here, let’s assume that it’s on a major broadcast network, that it’s a successful show returning for its third or fourth season, and that the people in charge know at the outset that they will be making 20 episodes.)
Production starts in late July. On the first day, the cast reads through the first episode they’ll shoot. At this point, the producers have three more scripts completed or in progress, and they have an idea of what four more scripts will be about.
One night in the middle of September, the first episode of the new season is broadcast. Three other episodes are ready or nearly ready to air, one episode is being shot, the producers have three more scripts completed or in progress, and they have an idea of what four more scripts will be about.
As the season progresses, scripts are assigned to various writers, finished scripts are polished, polished scripts are shot, shot episodes are edited, and edited episodes are aired.
Eventually, the twentieth script is assigned and then written. One week in mid-April, the twentieth episode is shot. Production shuts down, and the two or three remaining episodes are edited. Finally, in mid-May, the twentieth episode airs.
The final tally for the 20 episodes is:
- Writer A (who is also a producer) wrote 9 of them.
Writer B wrote 5 of them.
Writer C wrote 3 of them.
Writers D, E, and F wrote one each.
All 20 scripts received a final working over by one of the two producers.
How a TV Show Is Produced in England
Writer A spends several months writing 8 scripts. When all 8 are completed, the show goes into production. Each episode is shot and then edited. Once the eighth episode is completed, the entire series is broadcast.
The final tally for the 8 episodes is:
- Writer A (who is also a producer) wrote all of them.
Can You See the Difference?
Actually, there are three differences, all of them major.
• In the U.S., a season consists of 18 to 22 episodes.
• In England, a “series” consists of 6 to 10 episodes.
In an episode of Episodes — a Showtime series about two Brits adapting their successful show to American TV — Matt Leblanc (played by Matt Leblanc) explains one way that they’ll have to readjust their thinking.
Matt: How long did Lyman’s Boys run in England?
Sean: Four series.
Matt: How many episodes is that?
Matt: Twenty-four episodes. That’s less than a season and a half here.
• In the U.S., many different writers write the episodes.
• In England, a single writer or writing team writes all the episodes.
There’s a reason why the title card for The Good Wife says “The Good Wife” and the title card for State of Play says “State of Play by Paul Abbott.”
(Interestingly, the U.S. theatrical movie that was adapted from the series—which I never saw but was told wasn’t very good—had three credited screenwriters.)
• In the U.S., scriptwriting is fit into a very tight production schedule.
• In England, production doesn’t start until all the scripts are completed.
At first glance, this may seem to be the least important of the three, but I don’t think it is. First, nothing interferes with the writing process. Second, you know that later episodes aren’t going to suffer from neglect. Third, if you come up with a great twist while writing the next-to-last episode, you can go back and set it up in the second episode. In the U.S., the second episode aired months ago.
Why Can’t They Do it That Way Here?
These were the nominees for Best Drama Series at this year’s Emmy Awards: Boardwalk Empire, The Good Wife, Mad Men, Friday Night Lights, Dexter, and Game of Thrones. One of them is on CBS, and the rest are on cable networks such as HBO, Showtime, and AMC.
The nominees for Best Comedy Series don’t fit my thesis, so I’m going to ignore them.
The nominees for the comedy and drama writing Emmys were episodes of Episodes, The Office, Modern Family, Louie, 30 Rock, Mad Men (2), Friday Night Lights, The Killing, and Game of Thrones. That’s 3 for broadcast network shows and 7 for cable network shows.
Cable networks from HBO, Showtime, and Starz to AMC, USA, and F/X all work in a much more Britishlike fashion. They have a reasonable number of episodes per season (although they sometimes run two seasons a year), and all the scripts are written before production starts.
Coincidence? You decide.