A creative cure for TV: Less is more

Networks take a clue from British TV

With change having come to America, it’s time for that change to spread to American television, which might be better served by thinking like the British, who offer shorter runs of more complex serialized programs (or if you prefer, programmes). In terms of a dramatic formula, think, “Tastes great, more filling.”Although the TV business once revolved around the race to reach 100 episodes in five years — promising untold syndicated riches — both business and creative considerations in key areas indicate a shift away from that model.

For starters, few dramas — especially those with continuing storylines — cash in on syndication anymore, and DVD boxed sets sell just as well with fewer episodes. A significant source of income is also derived from international sales to territories like the U.K., where viewers are accustomed to limited six- or eight-episode “seasons.”

At the same time, producing a smaller number of episodes could be an act of creative self-preservation.

Audiences have become more demanding, acclimated to dramas that tell multifaceted stories. The uncomfortable corollary is that popular series can quickly unravel under the weight of missteps — a scenario that has rapidly deflated ratings for NBC’s “Heroes” and could threaten ABC’s “Grey’s Anatomy” if griping about the current season manifests itself as viewer tune-out.

For series juggling more than a dozen characters and nearly as many plots, 22 episodes a year has often become a bridge too far. Hence the genius of announcing a far-in-advance end date for “Lost” in 2010 — while reducing its annual output to 17 installments — giving the network some security without asking viewers to suspend their curiosity indefinitely.

“The fact that the show is not open-ended, that you can put a bookmark in the novel right now, has allowed people to invest in it,” says exec producer Carlton Cuse, adding that shorter seasons have allowed the writers to be “more full-throttle with our narrative. It really is a near-impossible task to do that year in and year out for 22 episodes.”

ABC could face a similar predicament with its time-bending crime drama “Life on Mars,” whose original BBC version produced just 16 episodes. Despite a promising start, the U.S. reboot could be hard-pressed to sustain the mystery before viewers grows itchy.

Speaking to reporters at the recent TV Critics Assn. tour, ABC Entertainment Group prez Stephen McPherson acknowledged that long-established broadcast patterns are in flux. Citing the uninterrupted scheduling of “Lost” and fall/spring editions of “Dancing With the Stars,” he predicted more “cycles of shows, to some extent a little bit more toward the British model … where you can have 13 episodes and then fill that spot with some other programming.”

Pay channels HBO and Showtime already commission 13 episodes or fewer of their series, usually followed by extended layoffs. Basic cable has adopted a similar cycle.

Broadcast television, however, has largely continued its adherenceto traditional 22-episode orders of established scripted shows, even though year-round programming has made that an arbitrary number. That’s because those episodes are frequently stretched from the season kickoff in September through the May ratings sweeps — a 35-week span that requires either in-season repeats or a temporary hiatus.

CBS has been able to resist this tide, thanks to a procedural-heavy lineup of shows like “CSI” and “NCIS,” whose self-contained episodes repeat better than more intricately woven dramas.

By contrast, serialized programs such as “Heroes” (which stumbled into splitting its season into two 11-hour halves during the writers strike), “Mad Men” and “Damages” tend to disappear between flights of fresh episodes. All three of those programs are carried by the BBC, whose head of series acquisitions, Sue Deeks, says its import choices have more to do with a program’s content than its duration.

“Our two main criteria are, ‘Is it different and distinctive?’ and ‘Is it complementary to the drama that we’re making?’ ” she says, adding that it’s always helpful to have a series with more episodes that can effectively anchor a time period for six months at a time.

Another factor, finally, involves talent. Having cut the “Lost” annual episodic tally into a middle realm between broadcast and cable, co-creator Damon Lindelof notes that top-tier writers will gravitate toward fewer episodes in order to tell more compact, densely woven stories for an audience that has become increasingly sophisticated.

“Creatives will definitely forgo richer deals in the spirit of (producing) fewer episodes and gaining more creative latitude,” he says. “The operative question becomes, do the networks say, ‘We can do that too?’ ”

In other words, give the people more … by giving them less.

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