Should British TV Shows Have 24-Episode Seasons?

 Should British TV series copy the U.S. model and create longer-running shows? Paul Abbott – the visionary writer behind State of Play and Shameless – thinks they should. During a speech back in August at Edinburgh International Television Festival, Abbott said, “We should have 26-parters on [UK] TV. We are kind of addicted to a really damaging level of safety valve now. Over the last five or 10 years everything has become safer? we haven’t got the balls, got the guts, to blow the audience’s t*ts off,” and he argued that longer seasons “allow audiences to find time for affection for a series.”

But Ben Stephenson, BBC’s head of drama, vehemently disagrees, reports The Stage. He thinks that the U.S. way is limiting for writers. “There is a terribly fashionable, but naive mythology about US television,” he told an audience at the BBC’s autumn/winter TV lineup launch. “Of course they make great television. But they basically make two types of television – 13-part series and 24-part series. Get out of the room if you want to write anything else.”

He goes on to list all of the British series that couldn’t have happened under the American model, including Wallander and Steven Moffat‘s Sherlock, which begins its three-episode run on Masterpiece Mystery on October 24. “Steven Moffat would not be able to write Sherlock how he wants to,” said Stephenson. “He would be biffed off and replaced with a showrunner who could create a financially acceptable model of 24 episodes.”

Stephenson adds, “Where are the pieces for writers who don’t want to write one idea for five years – who don’t feel they can spin their idea into syndication with 100 episodes? Believe me they simply aren’t there. Whether HBO or FOX – these are terrific commercial broadcasters who make world-class shows – but they are driven by the need to make money. We have a unique opportunity to be different. We should love American TV but adore and cherish our own.”

American TV has indeed done well for itself with its longer show runs, but there’s a lot to be said for the tighter lengths of UK shows. Paul Abbott’s State of Play was a perfectly taut, incredibly constructed six-part thriller. One episode more, and it might have fallen apart. And U.S. networks should take note: a show like ABC’s flop FlashForward may have actually been watchable and coherent as a six-episode series.

So I’m pitching this to you – would you like to see longer runs for British shows? Shorter runs for U.S. shows?

State of Play – trailer

Kevin Wicks

Kevin Wicks founded BBCAmerica.com's Anglophenia blog back in 2005 and has been translating British culture for an American audience ever since. While not British himself - he was born and raised in St. Louis, Missouri - he once received inordinate hospitality in London for sharing the name of a dead but beloved EastEnders character. His Anglophilia stems from a high school love of Morrissey, whom he calls his "gateway drug" into British culture.

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