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Prime Time shows are made differently in Britain, and perhaps the biggest sign of this is season length. With few exceptions, Brits do not like Filler. In the United States prime time shows generally run 22-24 episodes per full-length season. British shows, on the other hand, tend to produce only about thirteen episodes a year if they're dramatic, or about six if they're comedies.
There are a number of reasons for this, the simplest being that British shows usually have a fairly small creative team. It's not uncommon for one person to single-handedly write every episode of a show, as Steven Moffat did with Coupling, or David Renwick with Jonathan Creek. The shorter working schedule means that a British show can often focus more on a tighter cast of regular characters, whereas American shows frequently have to create more of an ensemble, to allow their actors to have sufficient breaks during the long, gruelling shooting schedule. British TV can also spend a year producing as much screen time as an American show produces in less than two months, resulting in a more concentrated "series" (called a "season" in the US; so a UK series can consist of 10 "series").
There's more pressure to succeed, and less of a chance to make a lasting impression or develop long plot arcs. Ruin two episodes and that's a third of a season down the tubes. Some American shows that start off weak can grow their beard when the show would have long been over in the UK. British shows tend to have the entire series filmed before broadcast, so shows are rarely canceled mid-season, or affected by events like a writers' strike.
Short seasons are generally the preserve of big terrestrial channels. The downfall of smaller satellite channels can be that they need long series to fill airtime, and struggle to produce or syndicate enough content without repeating it too often.
British Brevity doesn't apply to every series. Soap Operas, talk shows, kids' programs and other daytime TV can run for far more than 24 episodes a season, in the UK as elsewhere. Britain's Long Runners include Coronation Street and Eastenders; Coronation Street alone shows 260 episodes a year. This trope, like the 24-episode US standard it contrasts with, applies mainly to scripted series in prime time and nighttime slots.
Radio, in the 1950s and 1960s, had a number of aversions. The Goon Show clocked up about 26 episodes per series (though the final series only had 6). Others such as Hancocks Half Hour and Round the Horne ran to about 16.
- The series of The Mighty Boosh were all about 6 or 7 episodes long each.
- Perhaps most notable is Fawlty Towers; one of the more famous and well-regarded television series ever made, and there were only ever twelve episodes, from two seasons made four years apart.
- Ricky Gervais has a specific limit to his shows: two six-episode seasons, and a Christmas special to wrap everything up. Both The Office and Extras have followed this format. On the other hand, the American version of The Office has now produced over 100 episodes. Gervais felt there was only so much that viewers could accept before the "fly-on-the-wall" show became unrealistic.
- Mr. Bean posed an enigma to its viewers: when does a TV series stop being a TV series and start being a succession of made-for-television comedy specials?
- Red Dwarf consists of six series of six episodes each followed by two series of eight episodes each, followed by a three-episode special, and another six episode series to be aired in 2012.
- Torchwood series three, Children of Earth, was five one-hour episodes forming a single serial, in comparison to the two Doctor Who length series beforehand.
- Life On Mars wound up its plot after two seasons of eight episodes each. Its follow-on series Ashes to Ashes mustered three seasons, or twenty-four episodes total: about the same as one US season. The whole lot together made forty episodes in five years.
- The Vicar of Dibley had seasons of four to six episodes each, and then wound down to one or two specials per year.
- The Young Ones was a very influential 'Alternative Comedy' series, and retains a cult following. Only twelve episodes (two seasons) were ever made. The majority of the actors and writers went on to create Filthy Rich & Catflap, which lasted only six episodes. Bottom, with Rik Mayall and Adrian Edmondson, did rather better, three seasons and a total of 18 episodes (as well as five stage shows).
- Blackadder is actually 4 different six-episode series, each one launched with no expectations of making another. In fact, each series was picked up a year after its predecessor had ended.
- Hi-de-Hi! - 58 episodes in 9 seasons over 8 years, and there almost certainly would have been more if the real-life holiday camp used for all the location shooting hadn't been closed, sold off and bulldozed for housing.
- Dad's Army - 80 episodes in 9 seasons over 9 years. And a feature film.
- Are You Being Served - 68 episodes in 10 seasons over 13 years. And a feature film.
- The Prisoner was originally planned as 7 episodes, but extended to 17 at the request of Lew Grade to make the series more attractive to overseas (i.e., American) markets. Patrick McGoohan just couldn't see it stretching to a full 26.
- Channel 4 Sitcom Spaced had seven episodes in each of its two series. Many fans clamored for some sort of concluding special, with the expectation of seeing the two main characters finally hook up, but never received it. The writers did send a little kiss to the fans in the form of the last minute of the Skip To The End Documentary, check out the DVD...and, erm--skip to the end.
- Primeval had six episodes in its first season, and seven in the second, giving it a grand episode count of thirteen episodes. It got a surprisingly larger 10 episodes in its third season, bringing the count now to 23 episodes (about the same as one US TV season)
- Series 4 and 5 had seven and six episodes respectively.
- Father Ted achieved iconic status in the UK and Ireland despite showing just 25 episodes over three seasons.
- Jeeves and Wooster was 4 seasons long, each with 6 episodes that clocked in at about 55 minutes each (with the exception of season 1, which only had 5 episodes). And proved ruinously expensive, at that, mostly due to the length of the episodes and the fact that almost all of them were set in stately homes.
- All too common in BBC children's animations. Mr Benn, Bagpuss, Camberwick Green, Trumpton and Chigley all had just 13 episodes each, which were repeated (to rapt audiences of youngsters) over and over during the 70s and 80s. Likewise, Postman Pat featured just 13 episodes throughout the 80s (huge popularity led to a 10th anniversary special in 1991, further specials in 1992 and 1995, a one-off series of 13 more episodes in 1997 and, finally, regular ongoing series from 2004 on). When Bagpuss co-creator Oliver Postgate died, the British newspapers ran so many pages of tributes it was like Lady Di had died all over again. There were thirteen episodes, all broadcast in 1974. Postgate made other series like Ivor The Engine and The Clangers, of which about thirty episodes each were made.
- Ultraviolet: Six two-part episodes. The creator explicitly stated it was exactly as long as he wanted it to be, so as to avoid screwing up the intelligent plots and premise.
- Allo Allo had 6-10 episodes per series with the notable exception of series 5, which had 26 episodes -- as much as the previous four series combined. They planned to sell the series for syndication in America. Each episode was only 25 minutes, to account for commercial breaks. Series 6 returned to the regularly scheduled British Brevity.
- Top Gear tends to vary. Various series range from six episodes to eleven. However, two series are produced a year: a summer and a winter one.
- Taggart has reached the age of 26 years with only 100 episodes.
- Not exactly. There have been 100 stories (a few more than that by now) but many of the earlier ones consisted of three one-hour episodes. Some of these were later edited down to a single episode of around two hours (without adverts).
- Dinnerladies had one series of six episodes, and then a second series of ten episodes that was deliberately designed to wrap up the plot rather than lead into a third series.
- Black Books has three seasons, each with 6 episodes each. This results in three remarkably short, but incredibly consistent and humourous series.
- Most of Chris Morris' series: The Day Today (6 episodes), Brass Eye (7 episodes), Jam (6 episodes), Nathan Barley (6 episodes... so far). Chris Morris seems never to have made anything with the intention of there being more than one series, though. The exception was Nathan Barley where the writers (Morris and Charlie Brooker) seemed to desperately want a second series but weren't given one because the ratings for the first were pretty dismal.
- The American producers of Law and Order UK were frustrated by the length they had to work with (only 13 episodes per season.) The UK producers were also frustrated by the length they had to work with (a grueling 13 whole episodes per season!)
- The Amazing Mrs. Pritchard got one series of six episodes (before being shitcanned due to shoddy ratings).
- Skins got six series, of 9, 10, 10, 8, 8 and 10 episodes. The eventually aborted film is to be replaced with a so-called Series 7, which will allegedly be three slightly longer episodes (one per generation).
- The Ink Thief lasted for all of seven episodes. Ever.
- Sherlock's two series each consist of three 90-minute episodes.
- Sherlock takes after Inspector Morse, another British detective show that has three episodes per season, though each is a whopping 100 minutes long.
- The series creators comment on this trope on the Series 2 DVD commentary. Apparently Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss would love to do more a season, but the time and logistical constraints involved in filming a series of feature length productions in a relatively short span prevent this.
- The Inspector Lynley Mysteries consists of a mere 23 episodes (at five complete seasons, a double-length pilot and an aborted sixth season) of ninety minutes each.
- Mistresses had three series - the first two of six episodes, the last one with four.
- Peep Show and That Mitchell and Webb Look both run six episode seasons. Peep Show has made it to 42 episodes after 7 series, which makes it the longest running sitcom in Channel 4 history.
- Garth Marenghi's Darkplace was only 6 episodes.
- Ripping Yarns by Michael Palin and Terry Jones had one pilot episode (and originally it wasn't clear whether this was actually meant to be a pilot or a one-off), followed by five episodes in its first season and only three in its second season.
- The Thick of It consists (currently, with a fourth one that is on its way) of three series, the first two of which only contained three 22 minute episodes each (barely an hour in total) and the third one which had six. There are also two specials, one of which lasted an hour, and a film.
- Knowing Me Knowing You With Alan Partridge played this trope for laughs: Alan's desperation for a second series is obvious by the end of the first season, and is one of the main themes of the Christmas special. Suffice to say, he doesn't get it, for reasons too numerous to list.
- Getting On so far has two series, each containing 3 episodes.
- Yes Minister consisted of three series of seven episodes each plus an hour-long special, while the follow-up Yes, Prime Minister had two series of eight episodes each.
- Whites ran one season of six episodes.
- While Pie in the Sky had five seasons, the first two had ten episodes each, the next two only had six a piece and the final season had eight -- making a total of forty episodes.
- The Shadow Line, which consists of just one self-contained series of seven episodes.
- Black Mirror only has three episodes. It was not a serialized format however, but a trilogy of drama short films in completely independent worlds.
- James Mays Man Lab had three episodes in series one, and four episodes plus a Christmas special in series two.
- Rock & Chips (a prequel to Only Fools and Horses) ran for three 90-60 minutes specials (January 2010 pilot, Christmas 2010 special and Easter 2011 special), but creator and writer John Sullivan died before a full series could be made.
- Mad Dogs ran for only 4 episodes.
- Downton Abbey had 7 episodes in the first series, & then 8 in the second.
- While I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue doesn't fit this trope (currently in its 57th series), its Spin-Off, The Doings Of Hamish And Dougal, definitely fits. There are three series of six episodes each (except the first, which has four) and two specials -- which is made even worse by the fact that all the regular episodes are fifteen minutes long. One can get through the show's entire run in five hours.
- Two new examples from 2012 are The Bleak old Shop of Stuff (christmas special + 3 episodes) and Dirk Gently (pilot + 3 episodes).
- Monty Python's Flying Circus lasted from 1969 to 1974, with three 13-episode seasons and one final six-episode season. The movies, not counting 1971's And Now for Something Completely Different (a compilation of older TV sketches re-shot on film for the American market, who had yet to see the original series) were released in 1975, 1979, 1982 and 1983 respectively.
- The Wallace and Gromit series has been active since 1989. In those twenty plus years, there have been a grand total of six installments. Only one of which was a film.
- The remake of the series Survivors consisted of two six episode series.
- ITV's detective show Vera has thus far had two series of four episodes. In the second series, the third episode was not aired due to sensitive war-related subject matter.
- The third season of Waterloo Road, with 20 60-minute episodes, must set some kind of 21st-century UK record for a non-Soap Opera, being longer in screen time than most American seasons.
- The council estate comedy-drama Shameless is competing fiercely for the title of most prolific UK non-soap. It has featured 16 hour long episodes from Series 5 to Series 7 with 22 episodes confirmed for Series 8 in 2011.
- Rather ironically, this trope is averted with British sitcom Last of the Summer Wine which is in fact the longest running sitcom ever made. It started in 1973 and ran until 2010, despite the death of several cast members and by extension at least two main characters, having a grand total of 31 series. In Summer Wine's 37 years and 31 series, there's only been 295 episodes, fewer than the 488 (as of October 2011) episodes of its nearest competition in the "longest running sitcom ever" race, The Simpsons which has only lasted for 22 years and just as many seasons.
- The Bill is also an example of averting this trope - even before it became a Crime-Time Soap, this British Police Procedural would regularly have clocked up 150+ episodes every single year. The secret? Each season was broadcast all year round, with no production gaps. That must have been really gruelling work for the writers and the actors. No wonder there's a high cast turnaround...
- Panel Games tend to avert this trope, to a certain extent- while few have series as long as US shows, often run for much longer (and much more variable) series, and like a handful of shows listed above, have two series in a year. A Question of Sport, in particular, has managed over 800 shows in its forty-year run, which comes out at an average about 19 episodes a year.
- Casualty (1986-present), one of The BBC's, is a definite aversion to this trope; it has aired somewhere in the region of about 700 episodes (50-minutes to 1 hour, primetime Saturday) over the last 25 years, and is increasing. The show's first two seasons were a mere 15 episodes long each; the third was 10. After that, each later series (up until series 25 when it started decreasing) was at least as long as the one that went before it, until the show progressed to practically year-round barring a brief summer break of as little as a couple of weeks (with no break at all between series 24 and 25) with series 24 being the longest so far at 49 episodes. There have been several calls over the years to simply extend it to a permanent weekly slot throughout the year, thus cementing its transition into a full-blown medical soap opera, but this has yet to happen.
- As If was relatively an aversion; four series of 18, 19, 18 and 20 episodes (plus two specials).
- Whose Line Is It Anyway lasted from 1988 to 1998, totaling 136 episodes. While the length of the seasons (or "series", as they're called in the UK) varied, series 9 lasted for 19 episodes, which is roughly the length of a typical American season (although the American version's seasons lasted as long as 39 episodes).
- An exception is Doctor Who, whose very first season had 42 half-hour episodes; this was halved from the seventh season on, due to concern about the regular cast's endurance, and subsequently whittled away by budget restrictions, eventually settling at 14 half-hour episodes per season. However, until the new series, each episode was part of a larger serial, and there were generally fewer than ten serials in a season, with the average being around six or seven. The new series has 13 45-minute episodes per season, plus a Christmas special 60-75 minutes in length. These generally run to an hour and an hour and a half in foreign syndication, due to the addition of advertisements (which are not shown on The BBC). Between December 2008 and January 2010, in lieu of airing a regular-length season, the show aired 5 extended-length specials (two of which were Christmas specials and two of which constituted a two-part story). Officially, the BBC considers these specials to be a continuation of Season 4, which already had 13 regular episodes, resulting in an unusually long 18-episode season aired over the course of about 18 months.
- Beginning in 2012, the show's seventh series will be split across two years, with six episodes airing the first, including the Christmas special, and eight in 2013 (incidentally, the show's 50th birthday).
American television has experimented with shorter seasons as well. The "mystery movie" series that dominated TV, especially NBC, in the '70s were broadcast in a "wheel" format, rotating with three other shows in the same time slot. For example, in the seven years that Columbo originally ran on NBC, it produced 3-7 episodes per season. More recently, cable television channels, particularly premium channels such as HBO and Showtime, may air their scripted original programming in shorter seasons. Such shows may either retain the wheel format, alternating with another original series, or they may show reruns and other programming during the offseason. Though these shows often run for several years, each season is considerably shorter than the 24-episode standard for American shows. Many of these shows are praised for their quality and ingenuity, likely because the season is only as long as the writers need it to be.
- The Sopranos (HBO) - ran for six seasons and 86 episodes, broadcast over the course of 8 1/2 years.
- Six Feet Under (HBO) - five seasons, 63 episodes.
- Mr. Show (HBO) - four seasons, 32 episodes (including two best-of specials).
- True Blood (HBO) - three seasons so far, 12 episodes each.
- Oz (HBO) - five seasons of eight episodes each, one season of 16.
- Big Love (HBO) - two seasons of 12 episodes, one of 10.
- Battlestar Galactica (SciFi) - four seasons, 75 episodes (plus three TV-movies: the miniseries pilot, Razor, and The Plan).
- Dexter (Showtime) - six seasons, all of which are 12 episodes in length.
- Mad Men (AMC) - Four seasons, so far, of 13 episodes. Slated to have 13 in the expected fifth season as well.
- The Closer (TNT) - Five seasons so far, 15 episodes each, with a sixth season planned.
- Curb Your Enthusiasm (HBO) - Eight seasons, 10 episodes each, sometimes more than a year between two seasons.
- The Wire (HBO) - Five seasons, two of 13, two of 12, one 10.
- The Sarah Silverman Program (Comedy Central) - Four seasons, one of six, one of seven and two of ten.
- Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! (Adult Swim) - Five seasons, of ten episodes each, each episode being 11 minutes long.
- This is common across Adult Swim, with most new shows getting six episode seasons, although successful shows may have two seasons per year.
- The Tudors (Showtime) - four seasons of eight to ten episodes each.
- Dollhouse (Fox) - two seasons, both of which are 13 episodes.
- The first season was a mid-season pick-up, the second was cancelled due to Executive Meddling
- The Shield (FX) - seven seasons, one is 15 episodes long, 4 are 13 episodes long, one is 11 episodes long and one is 10 episodes long.
- Psych (USA) - five seasons so far, the first one having 15 episodes and the subsequent ones 16.
- Damages (FX and Showtime) has had 13 episodes per season for three seasons, and a fourt season with 10.
- The Walking Dead (AMC) - The first season had 6 episodes, and the second is scheduled to have 13.
- Breaking Bad (AMC) - four seasons, 46 episodes - the first one had 7, the rest 13 each.
- Nurse Jackie (Showtime) - three seasons, 12 episodes each.
- Sons of Anarchy (FX) - four seasons, 13 episodes each.
- Slacker Cats (ABC Family) - two seasons, six episodes each.
- Suits (USA) - The first season had 12 episodes, and the second is scheduled to have 16.
- Weeds (Showtime) - seven seasons, 89 episodes. The first season had 10, the second 12, the third 15, the rest 13 each.
- Appropriately enough for a Canadian show, the Degrassi franchise started out this way and has moved away from it over time, with 26 episodes of the original The Kids of Degrassi Street made between 1979-1986 (with a progression from one a year to four a year to an actual series within that), and The Revival having 48 episodes in the current (10th) season alone.
- Seven Periods With Mr Gormsby: two seasons, seven episodes each.
- Slings and Arrows has three six-episode seasons.
- Australia has a similar position on series length. Usually, however, two series a year are made.
- The Librarians had six episodes in its first series.
- Thank God You're Here has 13 episodes a series.
- The Hollowmen has six episodes a series, with two series over one year.
- Chris Lilley's has done two one-season shows so far: Summer Heights High and We Can Be Heroes, which ran 8 and 6 episodes, respectively. His new show Angry Boys ran for 12 episodes.
- :30 Seconds: an Australian series that aired for six episodes on the Comedy Channel
- Danger 5 is a series consisting of six 25-min episodes.
- Round the Twist has four seasons, about 13 episodes each. The last two seasons were a late revival commissioned about ten years after the show first aired.
As Discussed Trope or as Conversational Troping:
- As noted in the page quote above, The Simpsons joked about it in the 11th season episode "Missionary: Impossible".
- Referenced in Sam and Max Freelance Police: The Devil's Playhouse.
Max: I'm feeling a mite peckish.
Sam: 'A mite peckish'? Have you been watching British TV again?
Max: The six-episode seasons are good for my short attention span!
- Episodes, the joint production between the BBC and America, had a comment about how the show that was being remade in America required a lot more episodes than the 24 made in Britain.
- Back when Tachyon TV was the cult-telly version of News Biscuit, it had a spoof article about the Trans Atlantic Equivalent of 24: It was called 4, and was about a British special agent who was having the longest mid-afternoon of his life.
- On Community, the Show Within a Show Cougarton Abbey (the fictional Trans Atlantic Equivalent of Cougar Town) ran for only six episodes before having all the characters kill themselves.