Sunday, March 25, 2007

Lost the plot: Why US dramas can't help jumping the shark

Whilst the debate rumbles on over if and when Lost 'jumped the shark' (my personal vote would be Mr. Eko's death by CGI smoke), few seem to be discussing the more significant issue of why.

My contention is that fundamental characteristics of the US broadcasting ecosystem are to blame. More specifically, the economic drivers of commercial television in the States dictate that a show cannot be cancelled if it is still attracting a significant revenue-generating audience, regardless of the quality of the output. The horse must be flogged until it is well and truly dead.

This first hit home for me a while back whilst reading an interview with Lost's creator, J.J. Abrams, in London freesheet The Metro (unfortunately not replicated on their website) in which he explained that he had the overall narrative arc of the series clear in his mind. The creative challenge stemmed from not knowing how many seasons he would need to string that narrative arc out for. As long as enough people kept watching he would need to keep writing.

This disarmingly honest assessment of the realities of making commercially viable television drama in the States brought me up short and got me thinking about why this isn't so true in the UK, where there is a long-established history of quitting while you're ahead (think Fawlty Towers, Monty Python, Blackadder, This Life, Our Friends in the North, The Office, Life on Mars).

Compare this list with some landmark US drama series of the last few years, almost all of which outstayed their welcome (e.g. Friends, The X-Files, Ally McBeal, ER, Sex and the City, 24, The Sopranos, Desperate Housewives, The O.C.) and/or spawned gratuitous big or small screen spin offs (e.g. Friends, The X-Files, CSI).

The most notable exceptions to this rule are Six Feet Under and The West Wing which called it a day after five and seven series respectively, without any discernible drop in quality. The West Wing even survived the death of one of its stars (John Spencer) and a significant change in emphasis in its final series - normally both classic precursors to a bout of shark jumping. The Simpsons looks likely to one day join this list although until the final episode airs (and with a big-screen outing on the way) it could still blow it. I also have high hopes for House which has already clocked up three seasons without dropping the ball.

So, why are there more examples of British series which have called it a day before jumping the shark? The most obvious explanation is the strong role of public service broadcasting in the UK. Unlike its commercial competitors on both sides of the pond, the BBC can afford to prioritise quality when deciding whether to commission additional seasons as it doesn't need to worry about ad revenue. The shorter seasons may also be a factor (UK seasons are typically 10 or 12 episodes versus 22 in the US) as may the absence of a syndication model.

However, I also wonder if there's something embedded in the British psyche (which extends to programme-makers) about not over-egging the pudding, in play here. I suspect that the BBC would have happily commissioned additional series of Extras or The Office if Gervais and Merchant had been willing to write them. Similarly, there feels something inherently British about the Blackadder team calling it a day after four series when the temptation to carry on must have been almost irresistible.

Of course there have been popular British TV series that refused to take the hint and carried on well past their sell-by dates (Only Fools and Horses leaps instantly to mind) although they seem fewer and farther between than their transatlantic equivalents. Here's hoping that my latest US drama of choice, Heroes, knows when to call it a day. I have to confess I'm not optimistic...

2 comments:

James Wallis said...

Someone's going to mention Blake's 7 (oh look, it was me) as a perfect example of how to go out on an incredible note: gunning down all the main characters...

except by that point Blake's 7 had clearly gone selachii-vaulting at least one, maybe two seasons earlier, and the BBC wasn't entirely sure that was it; if the ratings had been high enough they'd have commissioned another series.

Maybe UK media is just better at satisfying series-endings?

Jack said...

More specifically, the economic drivers of commercial television in the States dictate that a show cannot be cancelled if it is still attracting a significant revenue-generating audience, regardless of the quality of the output. The horse must be flogged until it is well and truly dead.

Isn't the real problem syndication?

That's where the real profits start rolling in, and a show needs to hit the 100 episode mark to be really viable for daily syndication, which means slogging on to the fourth or fifth series, shark-jumping be damned.