Television program

Television program

A television program (usually television programme outside North America), also called television show, is a segment of content which is intended to be broadcast on television. It may be a one-time production, or part of a periodically recurring series. A single program in a series is called an episode.

A television series that is intended to comprise a limited number of episodes is usually called a miniseries or serial. A series without a fixed length are usually divided into seasons or series, yearly or biannual installments of new episodes. While there is no defined length, US industry practice tends to favor longer seasons than those of some other countries.

A one-time broadcast may be called a "special", or particularly in the UK a "special episode". A television movie ("made-for-TV movie" or television film), is a film that is initially broadcast on television rather than released in a theater or direct-to-video, although many successful TV movies are later released on DVD.

A program can be either recorded—as on video tape, other various electronic media forms—or as a live television performance.


Program content

The content of television programs may be non-fictional—as in a documentary, news, reality television—or fictional—as in comedies and dramas. It may be topical, as in the case of a local newscast and some made-for-television movies, or historical, as in the case of many documentaries and fictional series. They could be primarily instructional, educational, or entertaining as is the case in situation comedy and game shows.

A drama program usually features a set of actors in a somewhat familiar setting. The program usually 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 television program periods include regular broadcasts (like news), series (usually seasonal and ongoing with a duration of only a few episodes to many seasons), or miniseries, which is an extended film, usually with a small predetermined number of episodes and a set plot and timeline. Miniseries usually range from about 3 to 10 hours in length. In the UK, the term "miniseries" is only usually used in reference to imported programmes, and such short-run series are usually called "serials".

Older American television shows began with a title sequence showing opening credits at the bottom lower third of the screen during the beginning, 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 serial-type shows begin with a "Previously on..." (such as the series 24) introduction before the new episode. 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.

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 were digitally remastered for United States television around mid-May 2008, as there will be more original and reissued DVD sets of television programs containing either entire seasons or complete series to come.

Television has changed throughout the years, from wholesome family sitcoms and dramas of years ago, to the reality shows of today. When watching television became popular in the mid-20th century, the whole family watched one set together. Also, many channels have deviated from their original programming focus throughout the years because of channel drift.

Most television networks throughout the world are 'commercial', dependent on selling advertising time or acquiring sponsors, broadcasting executives' main concern over their programming is on audience size or eyeballs. Once the number of 'free to air' stations was restricted by the availability of channel frequencies, but cable TV (outside the USA, satellite television) technology has allowed an expansion in the number of channels available to viewers (sometimes at premium rates) in a much more competitive environment.


Scripted entertainment

Unscripted entertainment


  • Infomercials—paid advertising which are up to an hour long
  • News programs
  • documentaries
  • news magazine shows—dealing with current affairs


United States

A person decides to create a new series. The creator develops the show's elements, consisting of the concept, the characters, the crew, and cast. They will then offer ("pitch") it to the various 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 to be aired the next season (usually Fall). Sometimes they will save it for "mid-season" or request rewrites and further review (known in the industry as "Development hell"). And other times they will 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 the colloquial golf term).

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.

United Kingdom

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 the crew and help cast the actors, approve and sometimes write series plots (some even write or direct major episodes). Various other producers help to ensure that the show runs smoothly.

As with filmmaking or other electronic media production, production of an individual episode can be divided into three parts. These are:


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

Principal photography is the actual filming of the episode. Director, actors and crew will gather at a television studio or on location for filming or videoing a scene. A scene is further divided into shots, which should be planned during pre-production. Depending on scheduling, a scene may be shot in non-sequential order of the story. Conversations may be filmed twice from different camera 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. 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.

Post production

Once principal photography is complete, producers coordinate tasks to begin the video editing. Visual and digital video 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.

Budgets and revenues

In the United States, the average broadcast network drama costs $3 million an episode to produce, while cable dramas cost $2 million on average.[1] The pilot episode may be more expensive than a regular episode. In 2004, Lost's two-hour pilot cost $10-$14 million, in 2008 Fringe's two-hour pilot cost $10 million, and in 2010, Boardwalk Empire was $18 million for the first episode. In 2011, Game of Thrones was $5-$10 million, Pan Am cost an estimated $10 million, while Terra Nova's two-hour pilot was between $10 to $20 million.[2][3]

Costs are recouped mainly by advertising revenues for broadcast networks and some cable channels, while other cable channels depend on subscription revenues. In general, advertisers, and consequently networks that depend on advertising revenues, are more interested in the number of viewers within the 18–49 age range than the total number of viewers.[4][5] Advertisers are willing to pay more to advertise on shows successful with young adults because they watch less television and are harder to reach than older adults.[6] According to Advertising Age, during the 2007–08 season, Grey's Anatomy was able to charge $419,000 per commercial, compared to only $248,000 for a commercial during CSI, despite CSI having almost five million more viewers on average.[7] Due to its strength in young demos, Friends was able to charge almost three times as much for a commercial as Murder, She Wrote, even though the two series had similar total viewer numbers during the seasons they were on the air together.[4] Glee and The Office drew fewer total viewers than NCIS during the 2009–10 season, but earned an average of $272,694 and $213,617 respectively, compared to $150,708 for NCIS.[8]


After production, the show is turned over to the television network, which sends it out to its affiliate stations, which broadcast it in the specified broadcast programming time slot. If the Nielsen ratings are good, the show is kept alive as long as possible. If not, the show is usually canceled. 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 Seinfeld, The Cosby Show, Corner Gas, and M*A*S*H and end it with a concluding episode, which sometimes is a big series finale.

On rare occasions, a series that has not attracted particularly high ratings and has been canceled 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.

If the show is popular or lucrative, and a number of episodes (usually 100 episodes or more) are made, it goes into broadcast syndication (in the USA) where broadcast to the program rights are then resold.


The terminology used to define a set of episodes produced by a television series varies from country to country.

North American usage

The term "series", in North American usage, refers to a connected set of television program episodes that run under the same title, possibly spanning many seasons. A new series is often ordered (funded) for just the first 10 to 13 episodes, to gauge the audience interest. If it is "picked up", the season is completed to the regular 20 to 26 episodes. The term "midseason replacement" usually refers to an inexpensive short-run (10–13 episode) show designed to take the place of an original series which failed to garner an audience and has not been picked up. The term "series finale" can lead to confusion outside of North America. A series finale means that the show will no longer be produced, and thus will be the final episode for that series (in the UK, it would mean the end of a season).

In North America the term "television season" is used inconsistently. A "full season" typically runs from September through May, with a hiatus between December and February. This broadcast programming schedule typically includes 20 to 26 episodes. A full season is sometimes split into two separate units (confusingly also termed seasons) with one before and one after the hiatus. These smaller "seasons" usually contain half the number of episodes (10–13).[citation needed]

In the 2000s, these shorter seasons have been referred to as ".5" or half seasons, where the run of shows between September and December is labeled "Season N", and the second run between February and May labeled "Season N.5". This is typically done to increase DVD sales of the show. The distributor will release the first half of the season in stores just before the second half first airs, in order to increase interest in the season's second half. Examples of this would be the science fiction remake Battlestar Galactica, its prequel Caprica, ABC's FlashForward, and NBC's Heroes.

UK and Australia usage

In the United Kingdom, on the ABC in Australia and in other countries, these sets of episodes are referred to as a series.

Australian television does not follow seasons in the way that US television does. So there is no "Fall Season" or "Fall schedule", for example. In Australia, a batch of episodes will still sometimes be called a "season" as per American terminology, although the UK term "series" is also used. For many years popular night time dramas in Australia would run much of the year, and would only go into recess over the summer period (December–February) where ratings are not taken. Therefore popular dramas would usually run February–November each year. This schedule was used in the 1970s for popular dramas including Number 96. Neighbours and other dramas continue this routine as at 2010. Australian situation comedy series usually have seasons of about 13 episodes, and might premiere at any month between February and November.

British shows have tended toward shorter series in recent years. For example, the first series of long-running science fiction show Doctor Who in 1963 featured forty-two 25-minute episodes, which had been reduced gradually to fourteen 25-minute episodes in 1989. The revival of Doctor Who has comprised thirteen 45-minute installments. However, there are some series in the UK that have a larger number of episodes, for example Waterloo Road started with 8–12 episodes but from series three onward, it increased to 20 episodes, and season seven will contain 30 episodes. 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 and 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 to the current 44 (and even less on some networks), beginning in the early 21st century.

Japanese usage

The Japanese have sometimes subdivided television series and dramas into kūru (クール?), from the French term "cours" for "course", which is a three-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 three to 65. (See also Japanese television programs.)

Running time

In the United States, 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, with 55–60 minutes per episode, and shorter seasons overall.

See also


  1. ^ Carter, Bill (April 4, 2010). "Weighty Dramas Flourish on Cable". The New York Times. Retrieved October 18, 2011. 
  2. ^ Fernandez, Sofia M. (September 26, 2011). "'Pan Am' Among Season's Priciest Pilots". The Hollywood Reporter. Retrieved October 19, 2011. 
  3. ^ Barnes, Brooks (August 28, 2011). "Prime Time Ambitions". The New York Times. Retrieved October 19, 2011. 
  4. ^ a b Storey, Michael (2009-04-23). "THE TV COLUMN: Not in 18–49 age group? TV execs write you off". Arkansas Democrat Gazette. Retrieved 2008-05-02. 
  5. ^ Carter, Bill (April 6, 2010). "An ‘Idol’ Ratings Loss, but Not in Its Pocketbook". The New York Times. Retrieved April 8, 2010. 
  6. ^ "ABC, "Dancing with the Stars" Again Top Monday Television Ratings". City News Service (Beverly Hills Courier). Retrieved October 19, 2011. 
  7. ^ Santiago, Rosario (2007-10-03). "For Advertising Purposes, 'Grey's Anatomy' May Well be Colored Green". BuddyTV. Retrieved 2009-05-03. 
  8. ^ Steinberg, Brian (October 18, 2010). "Simon Who? 'Idol' Spots Still Priciest in Prime Time". Advertising Age. Retrieved October 28, 2010. 

External links

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