There are pros and cons with both models. There’s a bit of a fallacy about this “American writing team’ thing. Most successful dramas and comedies in the US are created and driven by one voice, just like in the UK. Even though in the US you hear about teams of writers, those shows still have a showrunner at the helm – usually the creator – who drives the show and signs off on the creative direction and overall authorship.
In the States, traditionally, after you’ve done your pilot – and the pilot is usually only written by that one person, because there’s no team at this point – if they like the pilot they will want to go to twenty-two episodes and they will want to go quickly, because they shoot the pilot on March/April, they pick it up to series in May, and they have to be on air by September, the start of the new TV season. So, to get enough episodes, they just bring in more writers. But it’s still very much driven by that lead creator, the one with the vision.
American TV has always operated by seasons, and a season usually starts in September, when they launch the big shows. There’s a pattern to it, and even the cable companies have adopted that pattern, because it’s worked for them for so many years. Essentially, they make their decisions the way they do because they have seasons.
In the UK, we don't have seasons, which means no decisions get made, as there’s no deadline. Here, you get the ‘slow maybe’. They don’t give you a yes, but they don't give you a no – and actually sometimes you need a no, so you can move on. In the US they often give you a yes or no in the room as you pitch. If you haven't captured their attention within ten minutes, then you’re pretty much dead.
“I tell writers who are new to the ‘How you would describe your show in a tweet?’ It’s the new version of the elevator pitch.”
I tell writers who are new to the “How you would describe your show in a tweet?” It’s the new version of the elevator pitch. With 455 scripted shows in the US last year your show is going to have to pop up and grab the eyeballs. How are you going to do that? You’re going to have to do it all with one line. People aren’t going to say “Tell me about your show…” They’re going to look at a poster, They’re going to hear from friends: “Saw this great show last night about a fucking science teacher who starts selling meth! It’s fucking great!” That’s the pitch, and that will hopefully make you watch. If you wander all over the place going “Now, in episode four…’’ There won’t be an episode four if you cant nail us with episode one. The pitch for House was “Doctor hates patients.” That’s all they care about. That’s how they market the show and attract the eyeballs
We’re a little uneasy and uncomfortable with marketing or focus groups in the UK. It’s a little vulgar to creatives, too formulaic. So here they’ll go to a recognised writer, or someone up and coming who’s got a good buzz abut them, and they’ll get them to write a treatment, a few pages. It’s not as confrontational as a formal pitch. It’s a little bit more British and polite. Then, if they like that they’ll say “Oh, let’s try a script” and if they like that, “Let’s try another script’ and then, “Could you give us a basic idea of how a series would look?” Whereas, in America, after the pitch, you get a decision in the room, or on your way home, in the car. A no or a yes.
They make decisions quickly because they have to, because they’ve got a business to run and they need to decide which pitches are going to script, which ones are going to pilot and what’s going to series. The competition is immense with everyone chasing the same hot writers, directors, actors, which in turn pushes up the fees. With the pilot script, you’ll be noted to death on by the execs, and then they might ask you for a series bible, episode by episode, and then they’ll shoot the pilot. Which may be re-shot or re-cast after testing.
We don’t shoot pilots in the UK because there’s no money in them. Here, the pilot is the script. They might do a table-read with a wish-list cast. Radio is good for developing comedies, because it’s cheap. We don't really have any other way of developing. We have to take a calculated risk on a series nd if it doesn’t work, it’s very unlikely it’ll get pulled off air as they do in the US.
Once a US show is picked up to series they have to get an awful lot of high-quality scripts in, in a short amount of time, so they bring in a bunch of writers. That where the “writer’s room” comes in. It’s still driven by the person who created the show, and that showrunner signs off on every single episode, and probably co-writes or re-writes every single episode. I have a friend who worked on a big Fox drama series, Lie To Me, with Tim Roth. She worked seven days a week for a year on this, never saw her family, made a lot of good money, and she got to write half an episode. All she did was sit in a room and “break story”, which means you have a white board up in the room and a writer comes in and goes “I’ve got a great idea for this episode”. They pitch their idea to the room, or give out a page of it, and people comment just like we all would: “I don't like that… the ending’s bit crap… wouldn’t it be better if she did this?”
“A friend worked on a big Fox drama series, Lie To Me, with Tim Roth. She worked seven days a week for a year, never saw her family, made a lot of good money, and got to write half an episode.”
They knock the story around the room, as a workshop, with that lead writer still running that story, saying “No that doesn't really work for my show”. You’ve got ten, twelve other minds working on your idea, but it’s still your idea. Then you go away and rewrite that and bring it back in. You might, as part of your contract, get to write your episode, you might not. You’re not always guaranteed. Some of the more higher-qualified writers are guaranteed X amount of scripts in a season. Some are not. When you see all these credits – producer, supervising producer, co-producer, consulting producer – they’re just grades, levels of how much they’re being paid, and where they sit in the hierarchy of that team. In American TV, a producer is a creative credit, not a financier. It has to be chaired properly though. You have to corral that team. You’re an orchestra leader going “less of this… more of that…”
You’ve got an awful lot of creative minds working on this one idea. It works great. But it’s it’s a fallacy to say it’s the sole reason why American series run to 22 episodes and British ones only run to six or eight. TV is still a massive financial risk for UK companies, which is why we’re now seeing a growth in international co-productions to help spread the costs and risks that come with high quality drama That’s the main reason the UK often only go to six episodes. Cost.
But we should point out that the writer’s room is not an exclusively American model. UK soaps – including Holby City and Casualty - have been doing this for years. That’s how we storylined Brookside and Eastenders. Corrie has been doing this since 1960. A bunch of diverse writers in a room chaired by an Executive Producer, once a month creating the ongoing storylines with twists, turns and hooks.
With the growth of digital platforms such as Netflix, Amazon and premium cable networks such as HBO and Showtime, we’re seeing a lot of movement away from the traditional way of doing things. These networks are commissioning shorter seasons, 8, 10, 12 episodes, often very authored – in fact closer in style to the original BBC model, but with much bigger budgets.