A television program (usually television programme in the United Kingdom, Ireland and many Commonwealth countries) or television show is a segment of content broadcast on television. It may be a one-off broadcast or part of a periodically recurring television series.
A television series that is intended to be broadcast a finite number of episodes is usually called a miniseries or serial (although the latter term also has other meanings). A short run lasting less than a year is known in the United States and Canada as a season and in the United Kingdom and (not necessarily) the rest of the PAL countries as a series. This season or series usually consists of 15–26 installments in the United States, but in the United Kingdom there is no defined length. United States' industry practice tends to favor longer seasons than those of some other countries.
A single instance of a program is called an episode, although particularly in the USA this is sometimes also called a "show" or "program", and in Great Britain and Ireland a "programme". A one-off broadcast may, again particularly in the USA and USA-influenced countries, be called a "special", or particularly in the UK a "special episode". A television movie or in the UK a television film ("made-for-TV" movie) is a film that is initially broadcast on television rather than being released in cinemas or direct-to-video, although many successful television movies are later released on DVD.
Today, advertisements play a role in most television programming, such that each hour of programming can contain up to 15 minutes of advertisements in some countries. By contrast, being publicly funded, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) in the United Kingdom does not run advertisements, except to trail its own programmes. Its promotions appear between and near the end of programmes but not in the middle of them, much like the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) in the United States and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) in Australia. The number of commercial interruptions can also vary, for instance Japanese television tends to prefer fewer and longer commercial breaks while American television has several spread throughout the program. This has an impact on the writing of the show; in order to provide a smooth transition as well as keep the audience from switching channels.
The content of television programs may be factual, as in documentaries, news, and reality television, or fictional as in comedy and drama. It may be topical as in the case of news and some made-for-television movies or historical as in the case of many documentaries and fictional series. They could be primarily instructional, the intention of educational programming, or entertaining as is the case in situation comedy, reality TV, or game shows, or for income as advertisements.
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.
Common TV program periods include regular broadcasts (like TV news), TV series (usually seasonal and ongoing with a duration of only a few episodes to many seasons), or TV miniseries which is an extended film, usually with a small pre-determined number of episodes and a set plot and timeline. Miniseries usually range from about 3 to 10 hours in length, though critics often complain when programs hit the short end of that range and are still marketed as "minis". In the UK, the term "miniseries" is only usually used in references to imported programmes, and such short-run series are usually called "serials".
Older American television shows began with a Pilot title sequence, showed opening credits at the bottom of the screen during the beginning of the show, and included closing credits at the end of the show. However, beginning in the 1990s some shows began with a "cold open," followed by a title sequence and a commercial break. Many serialistic shows begin with a "Previously on..." (such as 24) introduction before the teaser. And, to save time, some shows omit the title sequence altogether, folding the names normally featured there into the opening credits. The title sequence has not been completely eliminated, however, as many major television series still use them in 2009.
While television series appearing on TV networks are usually commissioned by the networks themselves, 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 will be digitally remastered for United States television around mid-May 2008, as there will be more original and re-issued DVD sets of television programs containing either entire seasons or complete series runs to come in the future.
Television has changed throughout the years, from the classic family sitcoms, with the wholesome commercials during the break, to overpopulate reality shows and random commercials. Television started out, one per household, now households have multiple sets. Television was something that the family watched together.
Because most networks throughout the world are 'commercial', dependent on selling advertising time or acquiring sponsorship, 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 frequencies, but cable (outside the USA satellite) technology has allowed an expansion in the number of channels available to viewers (sometimes at premium rates) in a much more competitive environment.
A person decides to create a new television series. The show's creator develops the show's elements, consisting of the concept, the characters, the crew, and various actors (in some cases, "big-name" actors). They will then offer ("pitch") it to the various television networks in an attempt to find one that is interested in the series and order a prototype first episode of the series, known as a pilot .
To create the pilot, the structure and team of the whole series needs to be put together. If the network likes the pilot, they will "pick up" the show for their next season (UK: series). Sometimes they'll save it for "midseason" or request re-writes and further review (known in the industry as "Development hell"). And other times they'll pass entirely, leaving the show's creator forced to "shop it around"' to other networks. Many shows never make it past the pilot stage.
If the show is picked up, a "run" of episodes is ordered. Usually only 13 episodes are ordered at first, although a series will typically last for at least 22 episodes (the last nine episodes sometimes being known as the "back nine", borrowing a term from golf).
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, and so forth. When all of the writers have been used, the assignment of episodes continues starting with the first writer again. On other shows, however, the writers work as a team. Sometimes they will develop story ideas individually, and pitch them to the show's creator, who then 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 will sometimes be 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) will handle all the writing requirements, there will be 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 crew and cast (subject to approval by the network), approve and often write series plots, and sometimes write and direct major episodes. Various other producers help to ensure that the show always runs smoothly.
As with films or other media production, production of an individual episode can be divided into three parts:
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 will gather at soundstages or on location to film a scene. A scene is further divided into shots, which should be planned during pre-production. Depending on scheduling, a scene may be shot not in the chronological order of the story. Conversations may be filmed twice from different 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 will be filmed from the opposite perspective. In order 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 post-production tasks. Visual and digital 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.
The show is then turned over to the network, which sends it out to its affiliates, which broadcast it in the specified timeslot. If the Nielsen ratings are good, the show is kept alive as long as possible. If not, the show is usually cancelled. 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 The Cosby Show and M*A*S*H and end it with a concluding episode which sometimes is a big production called a series finale.
On some occasions, a series which has not attracted particularly high ratings and been cancelled 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.
The terminology used to define a set of episodes produced by a television series varies from country to country.
In North America and Australia, the term used to describe a regular run of episodes is a television season or simply, season. For example, a season of a television series might consist of 20–26 episodes broadcast regularly between September and May with a hiatus during the (Christmas/New Year's Eve) holidays. Alternatively, it may comprise 20–26 consecutive episodes between September and December or January and May. The latter is often referred to as a "non-stop season", which are usually used for serial television series (e.g., 24 and Lost). Another example might be a series that airs only a 6–13 episode season during the summer.
In the United Kingdom, on the ABC in Australia and in other countries, these sets of episodes are referred to as a series.
In the United States, most regular television series have 20 to 26 episodes per season. In general, dramas usually last 44 minutes (an hour with advertisements), while sitcoms last 22 (30 with advertisements). However, with the rise of cable networks, especially pay ones, series and episode lengths have been changing. Cable networks usually feature seasons lasting around thirteen episodes (e.g. The Sopranos from HBO, with 12- to 13-episode seasons). Many British series have significantly shorter runs, particularly sitcoms such as The Office, Extras and Peep Show, which feature six episodes per series (see below). This may be related to the fact that many British shows are written by a single writer or writing team, unlike some US shows. However, even British shows which do have multiple writers have tended toward shorter series in recent years. For example, the first series of long-running sci-fi series Doctor Who in 1963 featured 42 x 25-minute episodes, which had been reduced, gradually, to 14 x 25-minute episodes in 1989. The revival of Doctor Who has comprised 13 x 45-minute installments. Recently, American non-cable networks have also begun to experiment with shorter seasons for some programs, particularly reality shows such as Survivor. However, they often air two seasons 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 to 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 in the early days down to the current 44 (and, on some networks, less) in the 2000s.
The Japanese have sometimes subdivided television series and dramas into kūru (クール), from the French term "cours" for "course", which is a 3-month period usually of 13 episodes. Each kūru generally has its own opening and ending image sequence and song, recordings of which are often sold. The number of episodes permitted per season ranges from 3 to 65. (See also Japanese television programs)