ATQ41: “What is the preferred amount of episodes for a TV serial?”

What is the preferred amount of episodes for a TV serial? Is it 2, 3, 4, 6 etc. episodes?

Dorothee
Screenwriter

In the UK, apart from the long running dramas like Holby, Casualty, Emmerdale etc, we have always gone for shorter runs. Any number between 2 and 10 basically.

What's interesting is that number can be decided comparatively late in the process.

When you are developing a show in-house, you will usually have some target at the back of your mind:

'This feels like six episodes', or, 'This really needs ten episodes to tell the story.' (Rare!)

Or it can be driven by some commercial intelligence, along the lines of:

'ITV are looking for three-parters this month, let's combine eps 3 and 4 of this treatment and see if they go for it.'

I've also seen projects where the finished proposal for a show has gone into the network at six episodes, and the network has come back and ordered a single pilot to test the waters.

Or vice versa. (Exciting, but very scary.)

Then finally, a show can have been ordered, you can be heavily into the production process, the network finds a hole in their schedule and they order another couple of episodes from you. (If this happens late in the day that can cause chaos. But it's the sort of chaos that tends to be swallowed pretty quickly, as, after all, this usually means several more hundreds of thousands of pounds profit on that series.)

It's a basic part of the business that you have to be prepared to re-storyline at least a part of the series and rewrite several scripts at very short notice.

It tends to happen more with the types of show that aren't heavily serialised, where the episodes are more self-standing - but I've also known it happen with very authored shows, or those shows that clearly tell one story over a number of episodes then stop.

So how many episodes should you plan for?

Now, I can't tell from your question whether you're asking from your own point of view - should you be developing shows of any particular number of episodes?

I am pretty hardline on this.

I honestly don't think there is much point to you spending a lot of time developing an well-thought out story document until you are well-enough known to a production company that they ask you for one.

It's a lot of fun, of course, but it's a distraction from your Primary Goal as a new writer: assembling two or three simply dazzling spec scripts of either one hour or ninety minute length.

These can be pilots for a series, but they should be massively satisfying in their own right, with lots of story, and a strong cliff-hanger. I don't really advise keeping back fantastic things from episode 2, or 3 for a story document that may never get read. (If it's that good, then I would try to get it in the spec!)

This obviously means that you need a pretty flexible approach to story, and be prepared to bend and stretch it around, but that's only going to serve you well in the future.

You see, there aren't many producers who will look seriously at a detailed pitch for an original series from a brand new writer.

If they DO look at it, and they do see something they like, their next question will always be - can I read something you've written? At which point they want to be reading one or two really strong scripts.

So. Create those serial documents by all means, but only ever see it as a pleasant distraction from the main event.

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