Television in the U.K. and U.S., with a good dose of nostalgia thrown in . . .
A comment about Arthur Darvill from a reader got me thinking about acting, actors, and seasonal v. series television programming. In the U.S., there’s the well-known television season, traditionally beginning in the autumn and continuing through spring. Lately, we’ve seen an increase in summer seasons and other non-traditional seasonal television programming — half-year seasons beginning in January, for example.
Regina Demonica commented about how often we see movie actors on stage — and that is true — but I think it is even more common in Britain than in the U.S. I do think that in Britain, there’s a lot more “cross-media” acting — stage, TV, film — by well-known actors than we usually see in the U.S. Again, that’s just my impression, but it’s a strong one.
It seems that in the U.S., once someone’s moved “up” from TV to movies, they rarely make television shows any longer, whereas in Britain, it’s much more fluid, and you often see really good actors and actresses (Judi Dench springs to mind) doing excellent work in films but then also making television programs, as well, and continuing to perform on stage.
I think that the British “series” concept for serials rather than “seasons” that Americans have might help make it easier for actors to do a wider variety of things. They may have more time in between series of a show, fewer episodes in each series, and more latitude to take a longer break for other projects than is possible when locked into the schedule mandated by the TV season.
When I was a kid, the start of the school year in September meant the imminent start of the new television season, with a return of old favorites and the premier of new programs. There was usually a break over the Christmas holidays when stations would run repeats or specials, and then the new shows would return in around mid-January.
Back then, the fall-to-summer TV season was a long one, with probably about 30 to 40 episodes of a show airing over the course of the season. Now, of course, the seasons are getting shorter, regardless of when they begin and end, and there are often more breaks for “special programming,” leading to fewer episodes per season — around two dozen, average, it seems.
Nonetheless, the American television “season,” regardless of when it begins or ends, is still around. It would be extremely rare for a television series to run for a few years (say, three seasons), then take a hiatus, and return two years later, picking up right where it left off.
In Britain, by contrast, television programming is done by “series” — meaning a series of episodes of a particular program. So one would speak of “series three” of Doctor Who (the “new” Doctor Who), and mean the second set of Doctor Who episodes starring David Tennant as the Doctor, and the Doctor Who episodes that were just broadcast in April — June 2011 were the first half of series six, with the second half of series six airing in the autumn.
When Matt Smith signed a new contract for fourteen more episodes of Doctor Who, there was no mention of when the episodes would air, and only speculation that the series would be broadcast in 2012. In the U.S., it would be understood that a new contract meant a new season beginning roughly one year from the start of the previous season.
As another example, Doc Martin (a great comedy/drama/romance from ITV — you can catch it on hulu) took a lengthy hiatus between series four and series five, and breaks between the other series of the show have varied from one to two years; each series has been between six and eight episodes long — plus a Christmas special. You couldn’t do that in the U.S.
Series five of Doc Martin is being filmed now, and the story line picks up immediately following the events of the final episode of the last series, which was aired in November 2009. The new series will likely air sometime in the autumn of 2011.
In between series, Martin Clunes has been busy with other projects — including a special series on dogs and one on the many islands of Britain — and has had time to devote to them that he presumably wouldn’t have if he were in a long-running U.S. television series airing in standard seasons.
I’m sure that there are a lot of examples of actors in U.S. series who are busy doing other work, as well, and there are plenty of American-based television and movie actors who also appear on stage, but I do think that the differences between the American season and the British series are interesting, and it does seem that the series model allows actors to become involved in a wider range of projects. Of course, it may also mean less personal financial stability and career predictability, but I think acting tends to be that sort of profession, anyway.
Now I’m in the mood for some early Doctor Who from my childhood . . . maybe some Third Doctor driving around in Bessie . . .