Wednesday, April 09, 2008

TV Programs

I am generally happy with the direction of lot TV programs these days, the quality of acting is better, the stories and plotting is improved, and the production values are better. Shows like The West Wing, Battlestar Galactica, Numb3rs, teh LAw and Order shows, and more are all dramatically better than what was on offer when I was young in the 1970s. But there is one innovation I would like to see someone try out, how about more characters but have the actors in less episodes?

The biggest drawback I see of most TV programs is that they focus on a few actors over a long term and not much else. In an average TV season in North America a drama program has 17 and half hours of screen time in a season. Typically there are only four to eight actors that get almost all the screen time, there is no reason this has to be this way.

One way to view a TV series is as if it were eight to ten feature movies. Once you think like that and once you make the setting the core and the characters the additions to the setting, it makes sense to look at having 20 to 30 different actors work on the show over a season. Different episodes would use different actors, some of the time the actors would be major, sometimes they would be minor, but there would be a lot more characters in the show and the show would be able to be longer lived and better for it.

I can hear say "but this would cost too much". I disagree. Most TV actors are not known names when they start a series and do not need to be paid a lot to be in the show. The TV program will often create the actors as stars - look at Friends. The show had six run of the mill unknown actors that were turned into stars because the show. The cost of the show went up because the stars the show created wanted more money.

If someone were hired to be on a TV program for 10 episodes in a year, this would be about three months work. Paying them about $50 000 to $100 000 for this is not a bad pay scale. The actors are also free to other work and not burn out. A cast of 30 would cost a program about $3 000 000 a year. Big name stars created by hit TV shows can make that sort of money in a few episodes.

The one series that seems to be doing this is Lost, though Lost has some issues for me because of the complexity for the sake of complexity. It is easy to add and take away characters in that show because the complexity demands it.

A series that should have adopted this was West Wing. The number of staffers could have been much higher, the number of cabinet members could have been higher etc.... But the show still kept the focus on the same small set of actors, as if the rest did not exist. Battlestar Galactica could also be doing this but has shied away from trying. Law and Order has done this in a serial way, characters leave and are replaced by someone new on a regular basis, but they do not expand the characters during any given season.

It is the next innovation for TV programs. We can learn to know and understand a character in a feature film, there is no reason we can not get to know new characters on a constant basis on a TV program.

1 comment:

Mr Squid said...

It depends, to a degree, on whether or not one wants the tv shows to be character studies, or plot driven. For character studies it is better not to have too many characters. One of the nice things about Battlestar Galactica is that we get to explore the characters in some detail. It would be nice to have more characters, but that would distract from really getting to know what makes Tigh tick, for example. What I would really like to see on North American tv is story arcs coming to an end. For the most part a coherent story arc can only be held together for a few seasons, so trying to force it to go beyond its natural lifespan can ruin a series. For example, The Office is starting to get tired as the original themes and plots have expired. Still, compared to what tv was when I was growing up, or the drivel that was on BBC when I lived in Europe, North American tv is a Mecca right no.