Take the 2-minute tour ×
Movies & TV Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for movie and tv enthusiasts. It's 100% free, no registration required.

Through Netflix & Amazon streaming, I have recently "discovered" a bunch of really good British sitcoms that I never knew existed.

Although I think some of these comedies are as good or better than anything on U.S. television, my only complaint is that there aren't enough of them. I get hooked on them and then watch all the episodes available in a day or two, while it would take weeks to watch all the episodes of a typical successful American sitcom.

For example:

  • the British version of The Office only had 14 total episodes. The U.S. version of The Office currently has almost 200.
  • The show Coupling lasted for only 4 seasons and 28 episodes, while Friends ran for 10 seasons and over 200 episodes. (I know this isn't the same show, but thought they were comparable)
  • The IT Crowd, which I also found hilarious, sadly ran for only 24 episodes.

Now one of the benefits of these shows producing fewer episodes is that the writers don't seem to run out of ideas and there are no "Jump the Shark" plotlines. But surely there are more good stories to be told about these characters, aren't there?

Can someone from across the pond explain why these really good and (I'm assuming) very successful shows have so few episodes & seasons?

share|improve this question
4  
I just had this exact same conversation with a co-worker from New Zealand (about The Office and The IT Crowd actually) about he said they justify it by saying it's more about the art than the money/profit. I told him that's an excuse for a lack of budget and fear of "jumping the shark." Purely anecdotal and speculative though :) We also agreed that the US version of The Office was really only good for about the first 14 episodes anyway... –  tpg2114 Dec 27 '12 at 18:50
    
'The Office' could NOT be described as 'brilliant but cancelled'. It wasn't cancelled - Ricky Gervais refused to write any more episodes. –  user4545 Apr 7 '13 at 21:19
    
yeah nothing like watching 6 episodes and then waiting 10 to 14 months to see a new episode, but you have the right idea wait until the whole TV show is finished and then watch it all together. I refuse to watch these type of shows season by season, like anyone is going to remember what happen over a year from now, when game of thrones is over I will watch it, but waiting all that time is ridiculous. –  user9091 Apr 15 at 13:25

5 Answers 5

up vote 43 down vote accepted
+50

From BBC America - Five Bizarre Things About British Television:

  • The Six Episode Season

    Most British drama or comedy shows have a very short season. The classic amount for comedies is just six episodes per series – The Office being a prime example – and there’s one very good reason for this.

    American comedy is a producer’s medium, in which an idea is worked up, characters developed and early scripts written, and then the show is handed over to a larger group of writers to flesh out into actual scripts.

    British comedy is a writer’s medium. The scripts are almost always written and developed by one or two people, then taken to production. Graham Linehan, the writer of Father Ted and The IT Crowd, even directs his own scripts, which is a LOT of work.


From TIME Magazine - What the U.S. Can Learn from British TV:

There are underlying economic reasons for the two different models.

The goal of almost any American commercial series is to air at least 100 episodes, because that’s when it can be sold into syndication and aired as reruns on other stations or networks. That’s where the real money is.

But the BBC is publicly financed, so not every show has to earn its investment back with a multiseason run.


From TV Tropes - British Brevity:

British shows usually have a fairly small creative team.

It's not uncommon for one person to single-handedly write every episode of a show, as Steven Moffat did with Coupling, or David Renwick with Jonathan Creek.

There's more pressure to succeed, and less of a chance to make a lasting impression or develop long plot arcs. Ruin two episodes and that's a third of a season down the tubes. Some American shows that start off weak can grow their beard when the show would have long been over in the UK.

On the other hand, British shows tend to have the entire series filmed before broadcast, so shows are rarely canceled mid-season, or affected by events like a writers' strike.


Another thing to keep in mind is that the US has 114 million TV households, whereas the UK has 26 million. Less viewers means there is less money to be made. And less money means less episodes.

share|improve this answer
3  
In my opinion, this answer includes the best of all of what is mentioned by previous answers. +1 –  stevvve Dec 31 '12 at 19:26
    
Good research, Oliver! –  MJ6 Dec 31 '12 at 22:31
1  
I especially like this tidbit from your last link: The American producers of Law & Order: UK were frustrated by the length they had to work with: only 13 episodes per season. The UK producers were also frustrated by the length they had to work with: a grueling 13 whole episodes per season! –  PaulStock Jan 7 '13 at 14:54

The most likely explanation is simple economics. Since the US population is approximately five times that of Great Britain, the television viewership is significantly larger, allowing for larger budgets per episode and more total episodes.

share|improve this answer

A lot of this depends on the TV schedule, and if the season was filmed before it ran on TV. Some networks will purchase a season in it's completed form. This covers the costs of production and film crew. It's much more expensive to hire a crew for 12 weeks, then for 12 days. So you could film 12 episodes quickly and air them on TV over a weekly schedule to recover costs.

Some shows like Friends become so popular the network can afford a full-time production crew. So they switch from pre-filming seasons to producing shows weekly. Keeping a crew on hand to produce each weekly show. Some shows can have operating costs over $1 million per episode.

Stargate for example ran for 10 years, and resulted in a full-time crew with their own production studio just for filming Stargate. Where as the first season of Terra Nova was all filmed at once, and after it ran it was cancelled.

There are a lot of popular British shows that have full-time schedules, but most of what you were watching were less known or popular. As a result, they were likely pre-film in smaller batches.

share|improve this answer

To expand on Donald's answer, larger budgets in the US mean many more writers. American sitcoms are typically written in large teams (20+ writers), with one writer penning an episode that includes contributions from all on the team. (Incidentally The Simpsons' writers have stated on DVD commentaries that the credited writer only ends up with about 30% of the lines in the final episode.)

In Britain however, that set-up simply does not exist. Sitcoms are typically written by just one or two writers in isolation, and they often direct too. For example, The Office was written and directed by Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant while The IT Crowd was written solely by Graham Linehan (a prolific comedy writer).

Subjectively, us Brits like to think of it as quality over quantity ;)

share|improve this answer

I think that Oliver_C has the best answer with information to back it up, but I would like to point out that there are many long running British shows too. Are You Being Served, Last of the Summer Wine to name two. The Office wasn't a hit when it first aired. It could be described as "brilliant but cancelled". Coupling aired in the U.S. and was quickly canceled. One really good thing about about a writer's medium show is that the series can have an actual end instead of a sudden cancellation. If only some U.S. shows could be written like that. Heroes would have been a good series. Firefly would have had a proper ending within the series. But overall most British shows such as No Heroics are written not to become a hit but to be well liked.

share|improve this answer

Your Answer

 
discard

By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.