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A television series that is intended to comprise a limited number of episodes is usually called a miniseries or serial. Series without a fixed length are usually divided into seasons or series, yearly or semiannual set of new episodes. While there is no defined length, US industry practice tends to favor longer seasons than those of some other countries.
A one-time broadcast may be called a "special", or particularly in the UK a "special episode". A television film ("made-for-TV movie" or television movie), is a film that is initially broadcast on television rather than released in theaters or direct-to-video, although many successful TV movies are later released on DVD.
Television programming may be fictional (as in comedies and dramas), or non-fictional (as in documentary, news, and reality television). It may be topical (as in the case of a local newscast and some made-for-television movies), or historical (as in the case of many documentaries and fictional series). They could be primarily instructional or educational, or entertaining as is the case in situation comedy and game shows.
A drama program usually features a set of actors in a somewhat familiar setting. The program follows their lives and their adventures. With the exception of soap operas, many shows especially before the 1980s, remained static without story arcs, the main characters and the premise changed little. If some change happened to the characters lives during the episode, it was usually undone by the end. (Because of this, the episodes could be broadcast in any order.) Since the 1980s, there are many series that feature progressive change to the plot, the characters, or both. For instance, Hill Street Blues and St. Elsewhere were two of the first American prime time drama television series to have this kind of dramatic structure while the later series, Babylon 5, is an extreme example of such production that had a predetermined story running over its intended five season run.
Common television program periods include regular broadcasts (like news), series (usually seasonal and ongoing with a duration of only a few episodes to many seasons), or miniseries, which is an extended film, usually with a small predetermined number of episodes and a set plot and timeline. Miniseries usually range from about 3 to 10 hours in length. In the UK, the term "miniseries" is only usually used in reference to imported programmes, and such short-run series are usually called "serials".
Until recently, all scripted shows began with a title sequence showing opening credits at the bottom lower third of the screen during the beginning, and included closing credits at the end of the show. Beginning in the 1990s, some shows began with a "cold open", followed by a title sequence and a commercial break. Many serial-type shows begin with a "Previously on…" (such as the series 24) introduction before the new episode. And, to save time, some shows omit the title sequence altogether, folding the names normally featured there into the opening credits.
While series appearing on networks are usually commissioned by those networks, their producers earn greater revenue when the program is sold into syndication. With the rise of the DVD home video format, box sets containing entire seasons or the complete run of a program have become a significant revenue source as well. Many of the prime-time comedy shows and Saturday morning cartoons were digitally remastered for U.S. television around mid-May 2008, as there are more original and reissued DVD sets of television programs containing either entire seasons or complete series to come. Typically, a DVD of a series or TV movie may contain extended or additional scenes not shown during the broadcast, scenes not allowed for broadcast (due to censorship rule), or additional background information/documentaries.
In 2012, it was reported that television was growing into a larger component of major media companies' revenues than film. Some also noted the increase in quality of some television programs. In 2012, Academy-Award winning film director Steven Soderbergh, commenting on ambiguity and complexity of character and narrative, stated: "I think those qualities are now being seen on television and that people who want to see stories that have those kinds of qualities are watching television."
When a person or company decides to create a new series, they develop the show's elements, consisting of the concept, the characters, the crew, and cast. Then they offer ("pitch") it to the various networks in an attempt to find one interested enough to order a prototype first episode of the series, known as a pilot. Eric Coleman, an animation executive at Disney, told an interviewer, "One misconception is that it’s very difficult to get in and pitch your show, when the truth is that development executives at networks want very much to hear ideas. They want very much to get the word out on what types of shows they’re looking for."
To create the pilot, the structure and team of the whole series must be put together. If the network likes the pilot, they pick up the show to air it the next season (usually Fall). Sometimes they save it for mid-season, or request rewrites and further review (known in the industry as development hell). Other times, they pass entirely, forcing the show's creator to "shop it around" to other networks. Many shows never make it past the pilot stage.
If the show is picked up, the network orders a "run" of episodes—usually only 13 episodes at first, though a season typically consists of at least 22 episodes. (The last nine episodes are sometimes called the "back nine"—borrowing the colloquial golf term).
The show hires a stable of writers, who usually work in parallel: the first writer works on the first episode, the second on the second episode, etc. When all the writers have been used, episode assignment starts again with the first writer. On other shows, however, the writers work as a team. Sometimes they develop story ideas individually, and pitch them to the show's creator, who folds them together into a script and rewrites them.
In contrast to the US model illustrated above, the UK procedure is operated on a sometimes similar, but much smaller scale.
The method of "team writing" is employed on some longer dramatic series (usually running up to a maximum of around 13 episodes). The idea for such a programme may be generated "in-house" by one of the networks; it could originate from an independent production company; it sometimes is a product of both. For example, the BBC's long-running soap opera EastEnders is wholly a BBC production, whereas its popular drama Life on Mars was developed by Kudos in association with the broadcaster.
However, there are still a significant number of programmes (usually sitcoms) that are built around just one or two writers and a small, close-knit production team. These are "pitched" in the traditional way, but since the creator(s) handle all the writing requirements, there is a run of six or seven episodes per series once approval has been given. Many of the most popular British comedies have been made this way, including Monty Python's Flying Circus (albeit with an exclusive team of six writer-performers), Fawlty Towers, Blackadder and The Office.
The executive producer, often the show's creator, is in charge of running the show. They pick the crew and help cast the actors, approve and sometimes write series plots (some even write or direct major episodes). Various other producers help to ensure that the show runs smoothly.
Pre-production begins when a script is approved. A director is chosen to plan the episode's final look.
Pre-production tasks include storyboarding, construction of sets, props, and costumes, casting guest stars, budgeting, acquiring resources like lighting, special effects, stunts, etc. Once the show is planned, it must then be scheduled; scenes are often filmed out of sequence, guest actors or even regulars may only be available at certain times. Sometimes the principal photography of different episodes must be done at the same time, complicating the schedule (a guest star might shoot scenes from two episodes on the same afternoon). Complex scenes are translated from storyboard to animatics to further clarify the action. Scripts are adjusted to meet altering requirements.
Some shows have a small stable of directors, but also usually rely on outside directors. Given the time constraints of broadcasting, a single show might have two or three episodes in pre-production, one or two episodes in principal photography, and a few more in various stages of post-production. The task of directing is complex enough that a single director can usually not work on more than one episode or show at a time, hence the need for multiple directors.
Principal photography is the actual filming of the episode. Director, actors and crew gather at a television studio or on location for filming or videoing a scene. A scene is further divided into shots, which should be planned during pre-production. Depending on scheduling, a scene may be shot in non-sequential order of the story. Conversations may be filmed twice from different camera angles, often using stand-ins, so one actor might perform all their lines in one set of shots, and then the other side of the conversation is filmed from the opposite perspective. To complete a production on time, a second unit may be filming a different scene on another set or location at the same time, using a different set of actors, an assistant director, and a second unit crew. A director of photography supervises the lighting of each shot to ensure consistency.
Once principal photography is complete, producers coordinate tasks to begin the video editing. Visual and digital video effects are added to the film; this is often outsourced to companies specializing in these areas. Often music is performed with the conductor using the film as a time reference (other musical elements may be previously recorded). An editor cuts the various pieces of film together, adds the musical score and effects, determines scene transitions, and assembles the completed show.
Most television networks throughout the world are 'commercial', dependent on selling advertising time or acquiring sponsors. Broadcasting executives' main concern over their programming is on audience size. Once the number of 'free to air' stations was restricted by the availability of channel frequencies, but cable TV (outside the USA, satellite television) technology has allowed an expansion in the number of channels available to viewers (sometimes at premium rates) in a much more competitive environment.
In the United States, the average broadcast network drama costs $3 million an episode to produce, while cable dramas cost $2 million on average. The pilot episode may be more expensive than a regular episode. In 2004, Lost's two-hour pilot cost $10–$14 million, in 2008 Fringe's two-hour pilot cost $10 million, and in 2010, Boardwalk Empire was $18 million for the first episode. In 2011, Game of Thrones was $5–$10 million, Pan Am cost an estimated $10 million, while Terra Nova's two-hour pilot was between $10 to $20 million.
Many scripted network television shows in the United States are financed through Deficit financing: a studio finances the production cost of a show and a network pays a license fee to the studio for the right to air the show. This license fee does not cover the show's production costs, leading to the deficit. Although the studio does not make its money back in the original airing of the show, it retains ownership of the show. This ownership retention allows the studio to make its money back and earn a profit through syndication and DVD and Blu-ray disc sales. This system places most of the financial risk on the studios, however a show that is a hit in the syndication and home video markets can more than make up for the misses. Although the deficit financing system places minimal financial risk on the networks, they lose out on the future profits of big hits, since they are only licensing the shows.
Costs are recouped mainly by advertising revenues for broadcast networks and some cable channels, while other cable channels depend on subscription revenues. In general, advertisers, and consequently networks that depend on advertising revenues, are more interested in the number of viewers within the 18–49 age range than the total number of viewers. Advertisers are willing to pay more to advertise on shows successful with young adults because they watch less television and are harder to reach than older adults. According to Advertising Age, during the 2007–08 season, Grey's Anatomy was able to charge $419,000 per commercial, compared to only $248,000 for a commercial during CSI, despite CSI having almost five million more viewers on average. Due to its strength in young demos, Friends was able to charge almost three times as much for a commercial as Murder, She Wrote, even though the two series had similar total viewer numbers during the seasons they were on the air together. Glee and The Office drew fewer total viewers than NCIS during the 2009–10 season, but earned an average of $272,694 and $213,617 respectively, compared to $150,708 for NCIS.
After production, the show is turned over to the television network, which sends it out to its affiliate stations, which broadcast it in the specified broadcast programming time slot. If the Nielsen ratings are good, the show is kept alive as long as possible. If not, the show is usually canceled. The show's creators are then left to shop around remaining episodes, and the possibility of future episodes, to other networks. On especially successful series, the producers sometimes call a halt to a series on their own like Seinfeld, The Cosby Show, Corner Gas, and M*A*S*H and end it with a concluding episode, which sometimes is a big series finale.
On rare occasions, a series that has not attracted particularly high ratings and has been canceled can be given a reprieve if DVD sales have been particularly strong. This has happened in the cases of Family Guy in the US and Peep Show in the UK.
If the show is popular or lucrative, and a number of episodes (usually 100 episodes or more) are made, it goes into broadcast syndication (in the USA) where broadcast to the program rights are then resold.
The terminology used to define a set of episodes produced by a television series varies from country to country.
In North American television, a series is a connected set of television program episodes that run under the same title, possibly spanning many seasons. Since the late 1960s, this programming schedule typically includes between 20 and 26 episodes. (Before then, a regular television season could average out to at least 30 episodes.) Up until the 1980s, most (but certainly not all) new programs for the broadcast networks debuted in the "Fall Season", which ran from September through March and nominally contained from 24 to 26 episodes. These episodes were rebroadcast during the Spring (or Summer) Season, from April through August. Because of cable television and the Nielsen sweeps, the "fall" season now normally extends to May. Thus, a "full season" on a broadcast network now usually runs from September through May for at least 22 episodes.
A full season is sometimes split into two separate units with a hiatus around the end of the calendar year, such as the first season of Jericho on CBS. When this split occurs, the last half of the episodes sometimes are referred to with the letter B as in "The last nine episodes (of 'the Sopranos') will be part of what is being called either "Season 6, Part 2" or "Season 6B," or in "Futurama is splitting its seasons similar to how South Park does, doing half a season at a time, so this is season 6B for them." Since the 1990s, these shorter seasons also have been referred to as ".5" or half seasons, where the run of shows between September and December is labeled "Season X", and the second run between January and May labeled "Season X.5". This is typically done to increase DVD sales of the show. Distributors release the first half of the season in stores just before the second half first airs to increase interest in the season's second half. Examples of this include the 2004 incarnation of Battlestar Galactica, ABC's FlashForward, and ABC Family's Make It or Break It.
Nowadays, a new series is often ordered (funded) for just the first 10 to 13 episodes, to gauge the audience interest. If it is "picked up", the season is completed to the regular 20 to 26 episodes. A midseason replacement is an inexpensive short-run (10–13 episode) show designed to take the place of an original series that failed to garner an audience and has not been picked up. A "series finale" is the last show of the series before the show is no longer produced. (In the UK, it means the end of a season, what is known in the US as a "season finale").
In the United Kingdom and other countries, these sets of episodes are referred to as a "series". In Australia, the broadcasting may be different from North American usage, however, the terms series and season are both used and are the same. For example, Battlestar Galactica has an original series as well as a remake, both are considered different series with their own number of individual seasons.
Australian television does not follow "seasons" in the way that U.S. television does; for example, there is no "fall season" or "fall schedule". For many years, popular nighttime dramas in Australia would run for much of the year, and would only go into recess during the summer period (December–February), when ratings are not taken. Therefore popular dramas would usually run from February through November each year. This schedule was used in the 1970s for popular dramas including Number 96. Many drama series, such as McLeod's Daughters, have received in the majority of between 22 and 32 episodes per season. Typically, a soap opera such as Home and Away would begin a new season in late January and the season finale would air in late November, with 220–230 episodes per season. However, during the Olympics, Home and Away would often go on hiatus, which is referred to as an "Olympic cliffhanger". Therefore, the number of episodes would decrease. This is no longer the case, as the olympics no longer broadcast in winter on the Seven Network as of 2012. Australian situation comedy series' seasons are approximately 13 episodes long and premiere anytime in between February and November.
British shows have tended toward shorter series in recent years. For example, the first series of long-running science fiction show Doctor Who in 1963 featured forty-two 25‑minute episodes, which had been reduced gradually to fourteen 25‑minute episodes in 1989. The revival of Doctor Who has comprised thirteen 45‑minute installments. However, there are some series in the UK that have a larger number of episodes, for example Waterloo Road started with 8 to 12 episodes but from series three onward, it increased to 20 episodes, and series seven will contain 30 episodes. Recently, American non-cable networks have also begun to experiment with shorter series for some programs, particularly reality shows such as Survivor. However, they often air two series per year, resulting in roughly the same number of episodes per year as a drama.
This is a reduction from the 1950s, in which many American shows (e.g., The Twilight Zone) had between 29 and 39 episodes per season. Actual storytelling time within a commercial television hour has also gradually reduced over the years, from 50 minutes out of every 60 to the current 44 (and even less on some networks), beginning in the early 21st century.
The usage of "season" and "series" differ for DVD and Blu-ray releases in both in Australia and UK. In Australia, may locally produced shows are named differently on home video releases. For example, the television drama series such as Packed to the Rafters and Wentworth are referred to as "season" ('The Complete First Season' etc.), whereas drama series such as Tangle would be known as a "series" ('Series 1' ect.). However, British-produced shows such as Mrs. Brown's Boys is referred to as "season" in Australia for the DVD and Blu-ray releases.
In the UK, most of all British-produced show are referred to as "series" for DVD and Blu-ray, with the exception of shows such as, drama series' Hex and Echo Beach, which are known as "season". The use for "season" is only uses for releases of American, Australian, and international shows. Although, in the past when an American series was released, it was referred to as "series", (for example, Friends: Series 1). However, any subsequent re-release are now known as "season".
In the United States, dramas produced for hour-long time slots typically are 39 to 42 minutes in length (excluding advertisements), while sitcoms produced for 30-minute time slots typically are 18 to 21 minutes long. There are exceptions as subscription-based TV channels (like Showtime) have episodes with 45 to 48 minutes of program, similar to Britain.
In Britain dramas run from about 45 to 48 minutes, with 57 to 59 minutes on BBC1. Sitcoms vary greatly and are between 22 to 27 minutes generally and 27 to 29 minutes on BBC1. The longer duration on the national television channels (BBC1 and BBC2) is due to the lack of advertising, requiring time only for bridging commentary and trailers in each programme slot.