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?

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    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
    Commented Dec 27, 2012 at 18:50
  • 1
    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
    Commented Apr 15, 2014 at 13:25
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    America is the land of the biggie-sized fries and 48oz slurpees. We prefer quantity over quality. :)
    – DA.
    Commented Feb 18, 2015 at 5:13
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    BTW, other great British series that are extremely short (3-6 shows per season) but worth a watch: Black Mirror, Utopia, Sherlock
    – DA.
    Commented Feb 18, 2015 at 5:14
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    A bit OT, but could also add that for some shows there may be a few/several years between each "seasons" (or rather series). Also the title of the show may be changed (although the characters are the same and clearly an extension of the previous "season")... One example is the original British series "House of Cards" (1990) - with the other "seasons" being "To Play the King" (1993) and "The Final Cut" (1995) - great show! A sit-com example, is the four "Blackadder"-series with Rowan Atkinson... from 1983, 1986, 1987 and 1989 (pluss a few specials) - all with about six episodes. Commented Sep 1, 2015 at 14:42

6 Answers 6


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. Fewer viewers means there is less money to be made. And less money means fewer episodes.

  • 5
    In my opinion, this answer includes the best of all of what is mentioned by previous answers. +1
    – stevvve
    Commented Dec 31, 2012 at 19:26
  • Good research, Oliver!
    – MJ6
    Commented Dec 31, 2012 at 22:31
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    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
    Commented Jan 7, 2013 at 14:54
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    Though note the BBC, at least, also has reach well beyond the UK: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/BBC_Television#BBC_Worldwide
    – DA.
    Commented Feb 18, 2015 at 8:25
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    @DA. BBC Worldwide is not tax payer funded, actually. You can't watch most BBC Worldwide content in the UK.
    – SGR
    Commented May 9, 2017 at 10:31

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 ;)


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.

  • Possibly, but note, at least per-episode, there may not be a big difference. For instance, Sherlock (BBC) is 2.67 million per episode while Elementary (CBS) is 1.8 million per episode.
    – DA.
    Commented Feb 18, 2015 at 5:39
  • @DA. 2.67/1.8 million what? If you're comparing pounds to dollars, that's a huge difference, since £2.67M would be about $4M. And, even if both numbers are in the same currency, Sherlock is getting around 50% more per episode than Elementary, which isn't good evidence to support either the claim in the answer that US shows have bigger budgets or the claim in your comment that there's "not a big difference". Commented Sep 29, 2015 at 13:04
  • Think he means viewers, so while there are 5 times more people over in the USA, Sherlock has more viewers. But as the BBC is publicly financed, larger viewership does not mean larger budgets there I suppose
    – Don_Biglia
    Commented Sep 29, 2015 at 13:37
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    This page (gordma.wordpress.com/2014/05/31/…) shows the budget for Sherlock as $2.67M per episode, $8M per season. If Elementary costs $1.8M per episode, that's about $40M per season. Or am I missing something? Commented Sep 29, 2015 at 13:40
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    @Donald.McLean your answer says per episode and I'm pointing out that's not necessarily the case when you look at things across the board.
    – DA.
    Commented Sep 29, 2015 at 16:28

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.


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 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.


Another aspect that I didn't see mentioned is the fact that a lot (not all) of British shows are publicly financed (BBC/Channel 4). While a lot of the American shows are privately financed (network TV).

As a business, if you have something that's making you money, you want to leverage that as long as you can.

Whereas as a service for the public, one can focus on the quality of the content over making a dollar.

That said, I do see American television slowly adopting the British model. Recent examples would include Fargo (10 episodes), the return of the X-Files (6 episodes), and Married (10 and 13 episode series). On average, longer than 6, for sure, but significantly shorter than the typical 20+ we're used to here.


In updating this answer based on PhistucK's excellent points int he comments, I also came across this article:

5 reasons why TV networks are ordering shorter seasons http://www.businessinsider.com/why-tv-networks-are-ordering-shorter-seasons-2015-6

Somewhat click-bait, but I do think some of the reasons are valid points:

  1. Star Power
  2. Storytelling can be more dramatic and focused
  3. The syndication model has changed
  4. Year-round programming
  5. Shorter seasons help to prevent fatigue
  • I am not sure that American television is adopting the British model at all. All of the examples you mentioned were cable shows (one of them, The Missing, is actually half British and funded partly by the BBC!). Cable shows tend to be much shorter than non-cable shows and have been that way for years.
    – PhistucK
    Commented Oct 16, 2016 at 7:09
  • @PhistucK no, not really. Most cable shows were (and still mostly are) just like network shows in terms of quantity...cranking out the episodes as much as they could for as many seasons as they could. Regardless, whether we're talking OTA or cable--they're still both for profit models...which differs from the BBC (And PBS for that matter).
    – DA.
    Commented Oct 16, 2016 at 7:15
  • For seasons - I agree. But for episodes - I respectfully disagree, as you have shown yourself that there are fewer episodes per season.
    – PhistucK
    Commented Oct 16, 2016 at 7:21
  • @PhistucK I'm not sure what you are disagreeing with. I said American TV is slowly adopting the shorter season model. That's still not the primary model here, though. Lots of series still pump out long seasons of TV shows be it network TV or cable.
    – DA.
    Commented Oct 16, 2016 at 7:27
  • But cable shows have had shorter seasons for years and I do not see non-cable shows (except the first season sometimes) that have such shorter seasons. Your examples do not seem relevant to your point.
    – PhistucK
    Commented Oct 16, 2016 at 19:01

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