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20th January 2012 08:00:00
Posted by Luciano Howard

Explaining US Television

Television is very different in the US compared with the UK. In many ways. The content itself may well vary or be similar in tone or style but a typical series in the UK runs six episodes (Coupling) or maybe around ten if we’re lucky (Spooks), and three if we’re horribly unlucky (Sherlock). In the US 22-24 is the norm. This in itself can confound and confuse - but what about when people start talking about networks versus cable TV, sweeps and syndication? It’s a completely different world the other side of the Atlantic but we at The Digital Fix have put together a handy beginner’s guide to the most common questions.

Pilots & Seasons:

Why does a US series have so many more episodes than a UK series? Well, at first it often won’t. Networks typically will produce tens of pilots each year and review their performance before commissioning a half year, or year order. That would be 12 or 24 episodes (or thereabouts). Many shows don’t make it, so forever they will be one show entitled Pilot. Think Fox Force Five from Pulp Fiction. If a series is commissioned by the network It will likely be because they expect good ratings and as a consequence can sell commercial time at high prices. It doesn’t always work out. That’s where syndication, or cancellation comes into play. More on that later. The team behind any given show, i.e. the writers, producers etc., will number tens or more. The series and individual episode plot-lines will be brainstormed and determined by the whole creative team and then a specific writer, or two, will be tasked with writing a given episode. In the UK the creator of a series, or the newly installed writer and front-runner, will write each and every episode themselves, or with their partner (e.g. Grant & Naylor for the early Red Dwarfs). It’s just not possible to make anywhere near 20+ episodes between September and May if you are just one person.

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Sweeps:

Viewing figures are collated using a variety of methods across the world. Nielsen ratings in the US are collected using viewer diaries and set meters (similar to the UK). Set meters automatically record what is being watched on the TV channels and set meters are shared amongst the demographic of a given country. Viewing figures determine advertising rates and for the US networks this is the single most important thing. They do not have a TV licence and they do not charge subscriptions. They are like ITV in that respect. But there are multiples and they all compete with each other as well as everything else (cable). In addition to the numbers, the demographic of the viewers is important - a younger age range is more attractive to advertisers so that can boost any advertising rate.

In addition to the above there are four periods called ‘sweeps’. Typically lasting four weeks, and spanning a year - November, February, May, July - sweeps add diaries to the set meters already in use to gain even more information (and therefore ensure more accurate conclusions based on higher sample size). These periods are all important to the networks. They normally try to pace series so that episodes shown during these times are bigger, better and more exciting than any others. They hope more people will watch and in return they will be able to charge more for specific advertising time in the future due to the sweeps ratings. This is also why shows go on hiatus. 20-24 episodes between September and May doesn’t fit, so the gaps typically fall outside of sweeps as they’re the least important. Even if that means a show (e.g. Ringer) disappears from November to the end of January! Sometimes the process is changed, but only when the reason is compelling. Two shows in recent years which have been shown one episode a week from beginning to end are 24 and Lost. These shows in later seasons started X episodes from the scheduled finale (May) in order to appear unbroken. They were behemoths of shows which meant the creative teams had the power thanks to standing and fan base to make the request and have it heeded by the networks.

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Syndication:

In the US there are networks, cable and local channels. In broadcasting syndication is the sale of the rights to broadcast material to multiple television stations. Wayne’s World was broadcast on a local channel; The West Wing was on a network and Game of Thrones is on cable. The West Wing was syndicated. It is now shown across America on many channels all the time. This was sold by its network via off-network syndication. This is the holy grail for any network and its shows. Any show which is syndicated will continue to make money for the network. In fact, a show when shown on the network may make a loss but when syndicated it will likely offset any loss and normally bring in monies. This is why a show is either cancelled very early on (Firefly) or runs for 5 or more series. Very rarely is something cancelled in-between. One hundred episodes is seen as the mark at which a show needs to get to be syndicated (or, at least, is still the aim - in recent years the required mark has dipped to eighty-eight episodes). That doesn’t mean a shorter run won’t, or indeed that this guarantees syndication. But one hundred episodes means that a show can be shown in its entirety over a year without the need for repeats. This will then happen again the next year, for around thirty or more years. I Love Lucy is still showing in syndication despite first being seen in the 1950’s. Friends right now will be getting broadcast across the US just like it is in the UK. The UK system doesn’t have syndication; it doesn’t have the equivalent broadcasting structure. Shows need to get ratings and attract advertising cash on the commercial channels, yes, but after that DVD sales bring the cash in but otherwise repeats are typically on channels owned by the original channel.

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Cable TV:

A simple one this. The US has networks - Fox, ABC, NBC etc., cable channels (e.g. HBO, Starz) and local channels. Cable TV is obtained by subscription like Sky in the UK. As money comes largely from subscription as well as adverts, shows are scheduled and made differently to the way a network may handle things. A series will normally get greenlit from the start for its whole season to allow everything to be made ready for broadcast as and when desired. Think Game of Thrones and Boardwalk Empire. This theoretically allows for a much more consistent and high quality production as there’re no sweeps to worry about, no fear of cancellation and no massive time-pressure to get that week’s hour-long done in time for its fairly swift premiere.

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There’re many more nuances and differences to US television and how it differs to the UK’s, and neither are we suggesting the above is the be all and end all. Syndication for one thing is a very complex business if you dive deeply into the whole thing. But hopefully what’s written herein helps simplify and explain a few of the dazzling peculiarities of the American televisual entertainment system.

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