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British Brevity

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"Not hard to see why it's England's longest running series, and today, we're showing all seven episodes."
PBS Guy, The Simpsons

Prime Time shows are made differently in Britain, and perhaps the biggest sign of this is season length. With few exceptions, Brits do not like Filler. In the United States, prime time shows generally run 22-24 episodes per full-length season. British shows, on the other hand, tend to produce only up to about thirteen episodes a year if they're dramatic, or about six if they're comedies. This also applies to most European countries and Latin America, although these mostly follow daily schedules (especially in recent years, as it has expanded to primetime) rather than weekly instalments. Most Commonwealth nations also follow this model, with relatively short series being the norm on their equivalents of the BBC.

There are a number of reasons for this, the simplest being that British shows usually have a fairly small creative team. It's not uncommon for one person to single-handedly write every episode of a show, as Steven Moffat did with Coupling, or David Renwick with Jonathan Creek (compare American sitcoms, which are almost always "written by committee"). The shorter working schedule means that a British show can often focus more on a tighter cast of regular characters, whereas American shows frequently have to create more of an ensemble, to allow their actors to have sufficient breaks during the long, gruelling shooting schedule. British TV can also spend a year producing as much screen time as an American show produces in less than two months, resulting in a more concentrated "series" (called a "season" in the US; so a UK series can consist of 10 "series"). The unpredictable weather and long winters in the UK may be a contributory factor, as it may be difficult for production teams to commit to long filming schedules.

There's more pressure to succeed, and less of a chance to make a lasting impression or develop long plot arcs. Ruin two episodes and that's a third of a season down the tubes. Some American shows that start off weak can grow their beard when the show would have long been over in the UK.

On the other hand, the relatively long amount of time taken to produce such a small amount of content, and the smaller creative teams, can result in some shows which are very, very high quality throughout, even if their total number of high-quality episodes might be less than a well-received American show because of their sheer length. British shows tend to have the entire series filmed before broadcast, so shows are rarely cancelled mid-season, or affected by events like a writers' strike. Additionally, short shows are less vulnerable to dragging out way past their creative prime and Jumping the Shark.

Short seasons are generally the preserve of big terrestrial channels. The downfall of smaller satellite channels can be that they need long series to fill airtime, and struggle to produce or syndicate enough content without repeating it too often.

British Brevity doesn't apply to every series. Soap Operas, talk shows, kids' programs and other daytime TV can run for far more than 24 episodes a season, in the UK as elsewhere. Britain's Long-Runners include Coronation Street and Eastenders; Coronation Street alone shows 312 episodes a year. This trope, like the 24-episode US standard it contrasts with, applies mainly to scripted series in prime time and nighttime slots.

Radio, in the 1950s and 1960s, had a number of aversions. The Goon Show clocked up about 26 episodes per series (though the final series only had 6). Others such as Hancock's Half Hour and Round the Horne ran to about 16.

See also 12-Episode Anime. Contrast Franchise Zombie – in the UK it's getting renewed that's difficult, rather than calling a halt.


Examples:

  • Perhaps most notable is Fawlty Towers; one of the more famous and well-regarded sitcoms and indeed television series of any kind ever made, and there were only ever twelve episodes, from two seasons made four years apart.
  • Man About the House had 39 episodes in six seasons, in contrast with its American remake Three's Company, which had 172 episodes. The first season of Three's Company followed the trope, with just six episodes.
  • House of Cards (UK) had three seasons of four episodes each, but multi-year gaps in between each season, enough for it to blur the line between TV show and Television Serial. It's American version has just finished five seasons of 13 episodes each.
  • The series of The Mighty Boosh were all about 6 or 7 episodes long each, with 20 episodes altogether.
  • Root Into Europe has even less than six episodes. It's only five episodes long.
  • Ricky Gervais has a specific limit to his shows: two six-episode seasons, and a Christmas special to wrap everything up. The Office, Extras and Derek all have followed this format. On the other hand, the American version of The Office lasted for nine years and 201 episodes. Gervais felt there was only so much that viewers could accept before the "fly-on-the-wall" show became unrealistic.
  • Mr. Bean posed an enigma to its viewers: when does a TV series stop being a TV series and start being a succession of made-for-television comedy specials?
  • Absolutely Fabulous was a big hit in both Britain and America. Its original run had just 20 episodes, over three series plus a two-part special. It has since been revived twice in both new series and specials, for a total of 39 episodes.
  • Crime Traveller's only season lasted for eight episodes.
  • Red Dwarf consists of six 6-episode series (broadcast 1988-1993), followed by two 8-episode series (1997 & 1999), a 3-episode special (2009), then another three 6-episode series (2012 & 2016-2017). This makes for an uncommonly mighty total of 73 episodes, but spread over almost 30 years.
  • Torchwood series three, Children of Earth, was five one-hour episodes forming a single serial, in comparison to the two Doctor Who length (13-part) series beforehand. Series 4, Miracle Day, was another single serial but this time ten episodes long. Miracle Day was, however, initially conceived as a 5/6-part series by the British lead writer; it was only after it became a co-production with an American cable network that the series order was increased to 10 episodes. (In fact the network tried to fight for 13 episodes)
  • Life On Mars wound up its plot after two seasons of eight episodes each. Its follow-on series Ashes to Ashes mustered three seasons, or twenty-four episodes total: about the same as one US season. The whole lot together made forty episodes in five years.
  • The Vicar of Dibley had seasons of four to six episodes each, and then wound down to one or two specials per year a total of 20 episodes (plus four Comic Relief shorts) across a dozen years.
  • The Young Ones was a very influential 'Alternative Comedy' series, and retains a cult following. Only twelve episodes (two seasons) were ever made. The majority of the actors and writers went on to create Filthy Rich & Catflap, which lasted only six episodes. Bottom, also with Rik Mayall and Adrian Edmondson, did rather better, three seasons and a total of 18 episodes (as well as five stage shows). Word of God says The Young Ones was only ever meant to have 12 episodes in two seasons, like Fawlty Towers
  • Blackadder is actually four different six-episode series (set at different periods of history but including Identical Grandson characters), each one launched with no expectations of making another. In fact, each series was picked up a year after its predecessor had ended.
  • The Good Life was a big enough deal during its run that the Queen herself attended a taping. There are 30 episodes (four series of seven episodes apiece, one Christmas special, and the Royal Command Performance).
  • Ever Decreasing Circles, written by the same duo as The Good Life, also ran for four seasons plus a Grand Finale for a total of 27 episodes.
  • Hi-de-Hi! 58 episodes in 9 seasons over 8 years, and there almost certainly would have been more if the real-life holiday camp used for all the location shooting hadn't been closed, sold off and bulldozed for housing.
  • Dad's Army 80 episodes in 9 seasons over 9 years. And a feature film.
  • Are You Being Served? 68 episodes in 10 seasons over 13 years. And a feature film.
  • The Prisoner (1967) was originally planned as 7 episodes, but extended to 17 at the request of Lew Grade to make the series more attractive to overseas (i.e. American) markets. Star Patrick McGoohan just couldn't see it stretching to a full 26.
  • Channel 4 Sitcom Spaced had seven episodes in each of its two series. Many fans clamored for some sort of concluding special, with the expectation of seeing the two main characters finally hook up, but never received it. The writers did send a little kiss to the fans in the form of the last minute of the Skip To The End Documentary check out the DVD and, erm... skip to the end.
  • Primeval had six episodes in its first season, and seven in the second, giving it a grand episode count of thirteen episodes. It got a surprisingly larger 10 episodes in its third season, while Series 4 and 5 had seven and six episodes respectively, for a total of 36 episodes.
  • Jeeves and Wooster was 4 seasons long, each with 6 episodes that clocked in at about 55 minutes each (with the exception of season 1, which only had 5 episodes). And proved ruinously expensive, at that, mostly due to the length of the episodes and the fact that almost all of them were set in stately homes.
  • Sharpe episodes consist of 16 feature length television films, each one clocking in at just under 2 hours.
  • All too common in BBC children's animations. Mr Benn, Bagpuss, Camberwick Green, Trumpton and Chigley all had just 13 episodes each, which were repeated (to rapt audiences of youngsters) over and over during the 70s and 80s. Likewise, Postman Pat featured just 13 episodes throughout the 80s (huge popularity led to a 10th anniversary special in 1991, further specials in 1992 and 1995, a one-off series of 13 more episodes in 1997 and, finally, regular ongoing series from 2004 on).
  • Ultraviolet: Six two-part episodes. The creator explicitly stated it was exactly as long as he wanted it to be, so as to avoid screwing up the intelligent plots and premise.
  • 'Allo 'Allo! had 6-10 episodes per series with the notable exception of series 5, which had 26 episodes as much as the previous four series combined. They planned to sell the series for syndication in America. Each episode was only 25 minutes, to account for commercial breaks. Series 6 returned to the regularly scheduled British Brevity.
  • Top Gear tends to vary. Various series range from six episodes to eleven. However, two series are produced a year: a summer and a winter one.
  • Taggart has reached the age of 26 years with only 100 "stories"; most of these are single episodes, but many earlier stories consisted of three one-hour episodes. Some of these were later edited down to a single episode of around two hours (without adverts).
  • Father Ted achieved iconic status in the UK and Ireland despite producing just 25 episodes over three seasons.
  • Black Books has three seasons, each with 6 episodes each. This results in three remarkably short, but incredibly consistent and humorous series.
  • The IT Crowd, also created by Graham Linehan, follows the same formula into four series, although it should be noted that an hour long special was produced three years after the fourth series concluded.
  • Most of Chris Morris' series: The Day Today (6 episodes), Brass Eye (7 episodes), Jam (6 episodes), Nathan Barley (6 episodes... so far). Chris Morris seems never to have made anything with the intention of there being more than one series, though. The exception was Nathan Barley where the writers (Morris and Charlie Brooker) seemed to desperately want a second series but weren't given one because the ratings for the first were pretty dismal.
  • The American producers of Law & Order: UK were frustrated by the length they had to work with: only 13 episodes per season. The UK producers were also frustrated by the length they had to work with: a grueling 13 whole episodes per season! This went even further— when it came time for the episodes to air, knowing that British viewers wouldn't be keen on a long season either, they were split into series that were either 6 or 7 episodes long, for a total of 54 episodes across the first eight series from 2009-14.
  • The Amazing Mrs Pritchard got one series of six episodes (before being shitcanned due to shoddy ratings).
  • Skins got seven series, of 9, 10, 10, 8, 8, 10 and 6 episodes.
  • The Ink Thief lasted for all of seven episodes. Ever.
  • Sherlock started in 2010 and, as of 2017, it has four series, each one consisting of three 90-minute episodes. There is also a 90-minute special that aired between season 3 and season 4. Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss comment on this trope on the Series 2 DVD commentary, stating that they would love to do more a season, but the time and logistical constraints involved in filming a series of feature-length productions in a relatively short span prevent this. Made worse by the fact that the show catapulted Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman to the A-List; in fact Peter Jackson had to rearrange the filming of The Hobbit so Freeman could fly back to film Sherlock. Similarly, Moffatt had to juggle Sherlock around his commitments to Doctor Who, for which he was also Head Writer and Showrunner.
  • Sherlock takes after Inspector Morse, another British detective show that had three to five episodes per series (for a total of 33 episodes), though each is a whopping 100 minutes long. Its spinoff show Lewis followed the same pattern, with six series of four 100-minute episodes each and a final series of three two-part stories for a total of 30 episodes.note 
  • Poirot and Marple, both shows on ITV loosely based on Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, have a special kind of British Brevity, with the former consisting of 70 episodes in all thirteen seasons, over the course of nearly 25 years; and the latter consisting of 23 episodes (with four feature-length episodes in each series except Series 6, which has only three) over the course of nine years. The only difference is that ITV was unable to produce a seventh series of Marple due to BBC's acquiring the rights for the production of Agatha Christie adaptations. Poirot, on the other hand, fared better, having been completed with all of the Hercule Poirot novels and short stories, ending with the final episode, "Curtain", on 13 November 2013.
  • The Inspector Lynley Mysteries consists of a mere 23 episodes (at five complete seasons, a double-length pilot and an aborted sixth season) of ninety minutes each.
  • Mistresses had three series - the first two of six episodes, the last one with four.
  • Peep Show and That Mitchell and Webb Look both run six episode seasons. Peep Show had a final total of 54 episodes after 9 series, which makes it the longest-running sitcom in Channel 4 history.
  • Garth Marenghis Darkplace was only 6 episodes. The DVD adds two half-hour long supplements which could be considered parts of the show within the context of the framing device.
  • The Spiritual Successor Man to Man with Dean Learner is equally short, having only six episodes of its own.
  • Ripping Yarns by Michael Palin and Terry Jones had one pilot episode (and originally it wasn't clear whether this was actually meant to be a pilot or a one-off), followed by five episodes in its first season and only three in its second season.
  • The Thick of It consists of four series, the first two of which only contained three 30 minute episodes (barely an hour and a half in total) each while the third one had eight episodes and the fourth (and seemingly final) series had seven. There are also two specials, one of which lasted an hour, and a film Spin-Off, In the Loop.
  • Alan Partridge sghows:
    • Knowing Me, Knowing You with Alan Partridge played this trope for laughs: Alan's desperation for a second series is obvious by the end of the first season, and is one of the main themes of the Christmas special. Suffice to say, he doesn't get it, for reasons too numerous to list.
    • The Sitcom I'm Alan Partridge, which hit the magic 'two series of six parts' formula exactly, with bonus points for leaving a five-year gap (1997-2002) in between.
  • Getting On had three series, containing 3, 6 and 6 episodes respectively.
  • Yes, Minister consisted of three series of seven episodes each plus an hour-long special, while the follow-up Yes, Prime Minister had two series of eight episodes each.
  • Whites ran one season of six episodes.
  • While '90s Exotic Detective (he's trying to retire from policing and run a restaurant) light-hearted drama Pie in the Sky had five seasons, the first two had ten episodes each, the next two only had six apiece and the final season had eight — making a total of forty episodes.
  • The Shadow Line, which consists of just one self-contained series of seven episodes.
  • Black Mirror only had three episodes in each of its first two series, with a Christmas special. It was not a serialized format however, but a trilogy of drama short films in completely independent worlds. When the Americans acquired it, they doubled the series output to six, which still counts, but did put out series 3 and 4 in consecutive years, rather than waiting a few.
  • James May's Man Lab had three episodes in series one, and five episodes each in series two and three.
  • Rock & Chips (a prequel to Only Fools and Horses) ran for three 90-60 minutes specials (January 2010 pilot, Christmas 2010 special and Easter 2011 special), but creator and writer John Sullivan died before a full series could be made.
  • Mad Dogs series 1 ran for only 4 episodes. As did series 2 and 3. Series 4, due for release Christmas 2013, is due to be two hour-long episodes long.
  • Downton Abbey has 7 episodes in the first series, 8 in the second through fourth series—depending on whether you count the Christmas specials, which properly speaking make it 9 episodes each for series 2-4.
  • While I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue doesn't fit this trope (currently in its 57th series), its Spin-Off, The Doings Of Hamish and Dougal, definitely fits. There are three series of six episodes each (except the first, which has four) and two specials which is made even worse by the fact that all the regular episodes are fifteen minutes long. One can get through the show's entire run in five hours.
  • Two new examples from 2012 are The Bleak Old Shop Of Stuff (Christmas special + 3 episodes) and Dirk Gently (pilot + 3 episodes).
  • Monty Python's Flying Circus lasted from 1969 to 1974, with three 13-episode seasons and one final six-episode season. The movies, not counting 1971's And Now for Something Completely Different (a compilation of older TV sketches re-shot on film for the American market, who had yet to see the original series) were released in 1975, 1979, and 1983 respectively.
  • The Wallace & Gromit series has been active since 1989. In those twenty plus years, there have been a grand total of six full-length instalments, only one of which was a film (though there have also been a number of >5min shorts).
  • The iconic '70s post-apocalypse drama series Survivors had three series of 13, 13 and 12 episodes a middling example of this trope, but outdone by its 2008-10 Remake, which consisted of two six-episode series (though this was cancelled due to low ratings and ended on a cliffhanger of sorts).
  • ITV 1's detective show Vera has thus far had two series of four episodes.
  • BBC 2's police show Vexed had a debut series consisting of three episodes, though a second series of six episodes followed.
  • The Fades had one season of six episodes.
  • Cuckoo the BBC Three comedy whose first series consists of only five episodes.
  • Sirens (UK) the Channel 4 comedy focused around a group of ambulance-men lasted a total of 6 episodes.had
  • KYTV had three seasons, each with six episodes, making for a total of eighteen episodes plus pilot. Its radio predecessor, Radio Active, clocked in at an impressive 54 episodes, over seven seasons, including a pilot and a later one-shot special.
  • BBC2 standup/sketch variety series Victoria Wood As Seen On TV ran for two series of six episodes each in 1985 and 1986 and a Christmas special in 1987 for a total of 13 episodes.
  • Victoria Wood's 1998-2000 BBC1 sitcom dinnerladies (sic) featured many of the same performers and the same producer as As Seen On TV. It ran for two series, one of six episodes and one of ten episodes (the second one deliberately designed to wrap up the plot rather than lead into a third series), for a total of 16 episodes.
  • Wire in the Blood has five seasons and a total of 19 episodes (3 in the first season, 4 in the rest), each 90 minutes long.
  • Jonathan Creek has four seasons of 5-7 episodes, and a couple of specials.
  • Prisoners' Wives has thus far had two series, comprising six and four epsiodes respectively.
  • Accused, a legal drama consisting of A Day in the Limelight stories based on characters in a shared universe, has had two series; the first of six episodes, the second of four episodes.
  • Call the Midwife had six episodes for its first series; series 2 had eight, as will series 3. This doesn't, however, include the yearly Christmas Special.
  • Misfits had six episodes in its first series, rising incrementally to seven it its second (including a Christmas Special), then eight each in the third, fourth and fifth series.
  • Doc Martin has had currently 38 episodes over 7 years.
  • The Inbetweeners is unusually short even for an examples on this page. 18 episodes - three series with each six episodes - though the series has been followed up by two feature-length films - one from 2011 and a sequel which was released in August 2014.
  • Mr. Selfridge leans towards the upper end of this trope, with two seasons of 10 episodes each thus far.
  • Doctor in the House and its sequel series sometimes followed this path and sometimes averted it. Doctor in the House aired for two series of 13 episodes each in 1969 and 1970, Doctor at Sea aired for a single 13-episode series in 1974, Doctor on the Go aired for two series of 13 episodes each in 1975 and 1977, Doctor Down Under aired for 13 episodes across two series in 1979, and Doctor at the Top aired for a single 7-episode series in 1991. However, Doctor at Large aired for a single 29-episode series in 1971, and Doctor in Charge aired for 43 episodes across two series in 1972 and 1973.
  • The Thin Blue Line: Only two series of 7 episodes each were made.
  • Rumpole of the Bailey was aired on ITV from 1978 to 1992 (14 years) for a grand total of 42 episodes of Seven Series, plus one feature-length special in between Series Two and Three, not to mention the pilot that aired on the BBC in 1975 as an episode of Play For Today.
  • Snuff Box was in a unique position: it was created by two The Mighty Boosh alums to replace a show called Popetown, which was canceled before it aired because of protesting Catholic groups. So Matt Berry and Rich Fulcher were given six episodes to do whatever the hell they wanted, was guaranteed to air, and had no Executive Meddling whatsoever. They turned in one of the most bizarre and bizarrely funny shows ever made, which hovered somewhere between sketch comedy and sitcom, about two hangmen at an exclusive club for executioners. Needless to say, it was not recommissioned.
  • Posh Nosh may be an extreme example, 8 episodes that were only 9 minutes each.
  • The Game (2014) is only 6 episodes.
  • Podcast Pappy's Flatshare Slamdown has been running for 5 series. The first two have 6 episodes in its run, but from series three onwards, there have only been 4. If you also include the 3 specials, then that means so far a total of 27 episodes have been released altogether.
  • Murder In Mind had 7 episodes in its first series, and 8 in each of the second two out of three.
  • Nightingales ran on Channel 4 for 13 episodes over two series aired two and a half years apart.
  • Robin of Sherwood had three seasons of successively six, seven, and thirteen episodes. The differing lengths led to the second Robin appearing in as many episodes as the first, but only half as many seasons.
  • Luther's four series contain six, four, four, and two episodes respectively. The newly-announced fifth series expands this.....all the way back to four.
  • Bad Robots only had six episodes per season, and only two seasons has aired so far, the last one airing in 2015.
  • The Italian series Il Commissario Montalbano started in 1999 and, as of February 2018, it has 12 seasons and 32 episodes, as the seasons either have two or four episodes. Each episode is 90-minute long, though.

Exceptions:

  • The third season of Waterloo Road, with 20 60-minute episodes, must set some kind of 21st-century UK record for a non-Soap Opera, being longer in screen time than most American seasons. Since then, each season was made up of two 'terms' of 10 episodes making 20 per season (or three terms in series 7 and 8 for 30 episodes). By the time it ended in 2015, the show had racked up 200 episodes over 10 series.
  • The council estate comedy-drama Shameless is competing fiercely for the title of most prolific UK non-soap. It has featured 16 hour long episodes from Series 5 to 7 with 22 episodes confirmed for Series 8 in 2011.
  • The Bill is also an example of averting this trope even before it became a Crime Time Soap, this British Police Procedural would regularly have clocked up 150+ episodes every single year. The secret? Each season was broadcast all year round, with no production gaps. That must have been really gruelling work for the writers and the actors. No wonder there's a high cast turnaround...
  • Panel Games tend to avert this trope, to a certain extent while few have series as long as US shows, often run for much longer (and much more variable) series, and like a handful of shows listed above, have two series in a year. A Question of Sport, in particular, has managed over 800 shows in its forty-year run, which comes out at an average about 19 episodes a year.
  • Casualty (1986-present), one of The BBC's, is a definite aversion to this trope; it has aired over 1000 episodes (50-minutes to 1 hour, primetime Saturday) over the last 32 years. The show's first two seasons were a mere 15 episodes long each; the third was 10. After that, each series from 4 to 24 was as long or longer than the preceding series, with series 19 to 24 being 48 episodes long each, airing practically year-round barring a brief summer break of as little as a couple of weeks (with no break at all between series 24 and 25). The series lengths have varied since then, but have never dipped back below 42 episodes per season. There have been several calls over the years to simply extend it to a permanent weekly slot throughout the year, thus cementing its transition into a full-blown medical soap opera, but this has yet to happen.
  • As If was relatively an aversion; four series of 18, 19, 18 and 20 episodes (plus two specials).
  • Whose Line Is It Anyway? lasted from 1988 to 1998, totalling 136 episodes. While the length of the seasons (or "series", as they're called in the UK) varied, series 9 lasted for 19 episodes, which is roughly the length of a typical American season (although the American version's seasons lasted as long as 39 episodes).
  • Law & Order: UK. Despite the typical briefness of each series/season as mentioned above (6-7 episodes per series, 13 episodes per season when aired in the US), the show lasted 8 series, including a landmark 50th episode and replaced all but one of its original cast throughout its tenure.
  • GameShows tend to avert this trope, even in the UK. Well sort of, they usually start by not averting the trope (with about 10-30 episodes a season), but then end up getting seasons of hundreds of episodes when they become established. Examples include The Chase, which went from 10 episodes in season one to 150 episodes in the latest seasons, Eggheads, which went from about 30 episodes in season one to about 150 episodes in the later seasons and Pointless, which went from 30 episodes to about 70 episodes a season as it went on. The latter two run nearly all year round (usually only taking breaks for major sporting events which require the timeslot) with a sequence of new episodes alternating with a sequence of repeats (both shows ideally change from old to new when their jackpot is won, and thus reset to £1000)
  • Have I Got News for You: 429 episodes aired (as of June 2015) across 49 series.
  • Most of Ragdoll Productions' shows have run for more than 13 episodes a season, including Teletubbies, Rosie and Jim and Tots TV.
  • A few British children's TV shows (particularly fairly long runners) may be an inversion of this trope since they want longer series to keep children entertained. BBC kids' series Grange Hill aired 601 episodes over 31 years, and Byker Grove consisted of 344 episodes over 18 years (both having 20 episodes per year with short early seasons). Meanwhile, ITV's Children'sWard clocked up an impressive 143 episodes over 11 years (13 eps per year) for its' run.

On the other side of the pond:

On the opposite token, the reason American shows tend to be so long is boiled down to simply money. Most American TV series are produced barely breaking even, and some will even operate at a loss. The magic word for any show to make a profit is "syndication"; the real money comes when a show makes it into reruns, which can last indefinitely and don't have the overhead costs of actually producing the show. However, the minimum episode number for syndication tends to be extremely high, often "88". Most networks are shy about airing reruns of a series unless they hit 100+ episodes, so they don't end up rerunning the episodes too often (and risk annoying viewers, who would tune out, resulting in fewer people watching the commercials). It's not unheard of for a low-rated and/or critically savaged series to get inexplicably renewed for a fourth or even fifth season simply to reach this 88-episode threshold. Because of this, the standard contract for a production company (and often for the actors) when a new show is bought by a network is seven years/seasons, regardless of whether or not that many episodes end up being ordered.

For children's series, the magic number is instead 65, or three such seasonsnote  this is done because it is believed that since kids will age out of the target demographic so quickly, episodes will stay "fresh" longer since the audience turnaround is faster. Also, they assume kids either won't remember or won't care that they'd seen an episode before.

Other formats have resulted in smaller seasonal runs, however. The "mystery movie" series that dominated TV, especially NBC, in the '70s were broadcast in a "wheel" format, rotating with three other shows in the same time slot. For example, in the seven years that Columbo originally ran on NBC, it produced 3-7 episodes per season. Most shows that are picked up during mid-season to replace cancelled shows also tend to experience this by default, rarely running more than 13 episodes due to the abbreviated amount of time available before the season ends.

Nowadays, American shows with shorter seasons are becoming more common, with many shows offering only 10-13 episodes per season. This sweet spot seems to allow showrunners to tell detailed, series-wide stories while retaining full artistic control and high quality on every episode. The shorter production times help budgets go farther as well as attract movie stars into major roles without interfering with their film schedule. The proliferation of these short but powerful shows is one reason why American television starting in the New Tens gets described as "The Golden Age of Television."

From a business standpoint, there are a number of factors behind this trend. First, many cable networks are too small to afford full seasons of scripted series. Second, most of the cable networks that currently specialize in original scripted programming began life as either movie networks (AMC, HBO, Showtime) or rerun farms (FX, TBS, TNT), meaning that they have a large library of content to throw on the air in lieu of constantly producing new shows. Third, many of the first major cable series (particularly those on HBO) aired during the summer months when the major networks were on break airing reruns and low-quality "burn-off" programming; 13 episodes is close to the maximum that one can fit into that timeframe.

Note: Many "slice of life" reality shows use shorter seasons but run multiple seasons per year, or rotate with other shows featuring mostly the same cast. This isn't really the same thing, as they're still showing 20-30 episodes per year. In some cases, the headline show alternates with a Day in the Limelight series which features most of the same cast, which runs counter to the spirit of British Brevity.

ABC

  • LOST started off with the usual American style of 22-25 hour-long episodes per season for the first three years (25, then 23, then 22, respectively). The final three seasons, however, were shortened — each was going to have 16 episodes originally before the 2007 Writer's Strike forced the creative team to modify their plan. The final result: about 70 episodes from the first three seasons, around 50.5 from the last three seasons (the last episode being 2 1/2 hours, including commercials).
  • Sonic The Hedgehog had two seasons, each 13 episodes, curiously brief for a kids' show. It was planned to have a third season which would presumably have been the same length.
  • Police Squad! — One season, six episodes. Although the producers did not choose to end the series (it had been cancelled by ABC after a few episodes aired), said producers later revealed that it was probably for the best, as by the sixth episode, they felt their ideas were already running thin, and the recurring gags were starting to wane. They said there was probably no way they could keep up the quality doing 24 episodes a year.
  • Once Upon a Time in Wonderland was planned as a single season format from the beginning as a precaution, with the story developing afterwards. As it was never picked up for season 2, it works out fine telling a coherent 13 episode story, adding to the "Once" mythos and giving plotted character arcs from the beginning.

ABC Family

[adult swim]

This trope is almost a rule across [adult swim], with most new shows getting six-episode seasons, although successful shows may have two seasons per year.

AMC

  • Breaking Bad — Five seasons, 62 episodes. The first season had seven episodesnote , the following three had 13 each, and the fifth and final season had 16 episodes split over two eight-episode mini-seasons.
  • Mad Men — The first six seasons had 13 episodes each, while the seventh and final season had 14 episodes, split into two seven-episode mini-seasons much like Breaking Bad did.
  • The Walking Dead — Particularly the first two seasons; the first had only six episodes, while the second had 13. The third, fourth, and fifth seasons have 16 episodes, though they're split in half.
  • Better Call Saul — The first season ran for 10 episodes, and the second one, whilst announced as having 13, ultimately ran for 10.

Comedy Central

  • Nathan for You — Three seasons of 8 episodes thus far. Nathan Fielder has said that the complex process of planning and executing the show's schemes limits the number of episodes they can do.
  • The Sarah Silverman Program — Four seasons, one of six, one of seven and two of ten.

FOX

  • Dollhouse — Two seasons, 13 episodes each. This was justified in the first season by it being a mid-season pickup, and in the second by Executive Meddling.
  • The Following — Season premieres are always in the spring, each consisting of 15-episode seasons.
  • Sleepy Hollow— The first season ran for 13 episodes, and was soon renewed for a second season. This is likely due in some part to the show's somewhat spooky nature, meaning it works well around the Halloween season in the fall, but not so much during the spring.
  • Fringe — Four seasons, ~22 episodes each, Then in late January 2012, Fox and Warner Bros. Television worked on negotiating a lower licensing cost for the show to allow a fifth season to occur; To help Fox reduce its losses on the show and bring the total number of episodes above 100, a critical number for syndication deals for Warner Bros. This ended with getting a final season of 13 episodes, making the total number of episodes exactly 100.

FX

  • American Horror Story — Each season is its own self-contained miniseries twelve or thirteen episodes long.
  • It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia — So far there has been 8 seasons. Each season averages between 10-13 episodes. The longest season has been 15 episodes.
  • Louie — Three seasons of thirteen episodes each, and a fourth with fourteen.
  • Sons of Anarchy — Seven seasons, 13 episodes each (except season 4, which had 14).
  • The Shield — Seven seasons. One is 15 episodes long, four are 13 episodes long, one is 11 episodes long, and one is 10 episodes long.

HBO

  • Big Love — Five seasons with 12, 12, 10, 9 and 10 episodes respectively.
  • Curb Your Enthusiasm — Eight seasons, 10 episodes each, sometimes more than a year between two seasons.
  • Deadwood — Three seasons, 36 episodes.
  • Game of Thrones — Six seasons so far, ten episodes each. The structure of a season has become so regular (in particular, fans are used to Episode 9 having a big battle and Episode 10 being a Breather Episode that sets up next season's plotlines) that it's unlikely that future seasons will have more or fewer.
    • Season 7 has been announced with seven episodes, and Season 8 is also expected to be shorter than ten.
  • Girls — Five seasons so far, each with 10 episodes except for the third season which has 12.
  • Mr. Show — Four seasons, 32 episodes (including two best-of specials).
  • Oz — Six seasons altogether. Each one has eight episodes except for season 4, which was 16 episodes long and split into two blocks.
  • Six Feet Under — Five seasons, 63 episodes.
  • The Sopranos — Ran for six seasons and 86 episodes, broadcast over the course of 8 1/2 years.
  • True Blood — Six seasons so far, 12 episodes each, except for season six, which had 10.
  • The Wire — Five seasons, two of 13, two of 12, one 10.
  • The Newsroom — Three seasons total, the first season consisting of 10 episodes, the second of 9, and the third and final of 6.

MTV

  • Awkward.'s first two seasons had 12 episodes. The third had 20 and the fourth originally had a 10 episode order before MTV extended it to 20.
  • The American remake of Skins, like its predecessor, had only 10 episodes in its lone season.
  • Teen Wolf — Five seasons so far. Seasons 1, 2 and 4 consists of 12 episodes each. Season 3 is 24 episodes split into two distinct 12-episode arcs (referred to as 3a and 3b) with a three-month break in-between. Likewise, seasons 5 and 6 are 20 episodes long and split into two halves.

NBC

  • The Good Place has 13-episode seasons, at showrunner Mike Schur's request. This was partly aimed at averting The Chris Carter Effect.
  • Hannibal — The contract with NBC stipulated that each season would premiere in the second half of the television season and that each season consisted of 13 episodes. Three seasons aired altogether.

Showtime

  • Dexter — Eight seasons, all of which are 12 episodes in length.
  • Nurse Jackie — Three seasons, 12 episodes each.
  • The Tudors — Four seasons of eight to ten episodes each.
  • Weeds — Seven seasons, 89 episodes. The first season had 10, the second 12, the third 15, the rest 13 each.

Syfy

  • Channel Zero — Each season expands a Creepypasta story into six episodes.
  • Warehouse 13 — The first three seasons ran for 12, 13, and 13 episodes respectively. Season four is scheduled for 20 episodes, but with a seven-month break between the two halves of the season, and the last season is 6 episodes, which makes seasons 4-5 the equivalent of having two 13 episode seasons and splitting them up differently.

TNT

  • The Closer — Seven seasons, 15 episodes each, with an extra 6 episodes to set up the spinoff:
  • Major Crimes — Well, the first season had 10 episodes, anyway.
  • Leverage — Seasons hovered between 13-15 episodes, with season four being the highest at 18 episodes.

USA Network

  • Psych — Eight seasons, the first one having 15 episodes and the subsequent ones 16 with the final season being shortened down to 10.
  • Suits — The first season had 12 episodes, and the second is scheduled to have 16.
  • White Collar — The first season had 14 episodes, 16 for seasons 2-4, 13 for season 5, and 6 for the 6th and final season.
  • The 4400 — Began as a five-episode miniseries, followed by three more seasons of 13 episodes each.

Other

  • Bojack Horseman (Netflix) has had three 12-episode seasons (plus one Christmas special).
  • Damages (FX, then Netflix and DirecTV) had 13 episodes per season for three seasons and a fourth and fifth season with 10 each.
  • Animaniacs — Was a 65 Episode Cartoon in its first season, but due to various complications involving the show's move from FOX to WB the remaining four seasons had 4, 9, 13 and 8 episodes respectively.
  • The Killing (AMC, then Netflix) had two 13-episode seasons and one 12-episode season in its initial run on the former channel, with a 6-episode fourth and final season after its uncancellation by the latter. For the record, Forbrydelsen, the Danish show that inspired it, averted this with a 20-episode first season, but played it quite straight with two more 10-episode seasons.
  • The Storyteller - Co-produced by American and British companies. One season of 9 episodes and follow-up season of 4, but Jim Henson regarded it as his artistic masterpiece.
  • House of Cards (US), four seasons of 13 episodes each, though given its format, all episodes in one season are released at once.
  • Care Bears & Cousins (Netflix) - Only six episodes per season. Currently, there are only two seasons. Fans are hoping that this means that there will be more seasons in a year.
  • The first seven seasons of Law & Order: Criminal Intent were a typically chunky 21-23 episodes. Seasons 8 and 9 cut this down to 16. Season 10, which very nearly never happened and when it did was meant as a coda for the series and for the main characters Goren and Eames, cut it further to a very tight and succinct eight episodes.
  • Trollhunters (Netflix) - The first season has 26 episodes, but consists of two 13-episode arcs. The second season has 13 episodes.

Australian examples:

Australia television also has a tradition of short TV series, particularly on The ABC.note  In some cases, however, two series a year are made.
  • The Doug Anthony All Stars' series DAAS Kapital ran for two seasons, with seven episodes in each.
  • The Librarians (2007) had six episodes in its first series.
  • Thank God You're Here has 13 episodes a series.
  • The Hollowmen has six episodes a series, with two series over one year.
  • Chris Lilley has done four one-season shows so far: Summer Heights High ran 8 episodes and We Can Be Heroes ran 6 episodes. His new show Angry Boys ran for 12 episodes. The Summer Heights High Sequel Series Ja'mie: Private School Girl also ran 6 episodes.
  • :30 Seconds: an Australian series that aired for six episodes on the Comedy Channelnote 
  • Danger 5 is a series consisting of six 25-min episodes.
  • Round the Twist has four seasons, about 13 episodes each. The last two seasons were a late revival commissioned about ten years after the show first aired.
  • Redfern Now had two six-episode seasons.
  • For Housos, the first season went for nine episodes, although a second season has been confirmed.
  • The Slap ran for only 8 episodes.
  • The Straits ran for only 10 episodes.
  • Nowhere Boys ran for only 13 episodes.
  • Please Like Me had six episodes in the first season, and ten episodes each in the second and third.

Other countries:

As Discussed Trope or as Conversational Troping:

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