Given the success of British television here in the U.S. there has been a lot of discussion over the value of having one writer write a series vs. a writer’s room writing the series. The British model for many of it’s most popular shows like Luther, Sherlock and Derek is to have one writer do the series from start to finish each season. American television has been dominated by the idea of a writer’s room for most of it’s existence and the idea of change of any kind has American TV executives scared that they’re model might not be as effective as they think it is. The difference between what’s popular and successful and what fails to become successful in America is less a question of content than it is of scheduling. The Good Wife has been successful in the 9:00 death slot? You’ve kinda got to ask yourself where else viewers have to go because the return of strong late night television on major networks gives viewers less of an incentive to tune out during that time slot. Also, consider what’s popular right now in TV viewing patterns: binge watching. It’s much easier for people to watch TV for say four hours now than it was just a couple years ago before Netflix’s streaming service really took off.
In short, many of the successful programs in American television succeed because more people are watching not because the content is better. The difference between what’s perceived as “good” TV and what’s considered “bad” TV has also changed. Since most TV comedies are written to do largely the same thing (make many small story arcs with lots of characters) the difference between good and bad is hardly noticeable. I would argue that there is no powerhouse comedy right now precisely because twenty-two minutes isn’t enough time to set up an ensemble comedy bit anymore. There are too many people in the writer’s room pushing too many different ideas and wildly different jokes and there isn’t enough time to make sense of them all. Therefore, what you’re dealing with is even your top shelf comedy brands like The Daily Show, who have been the models of consistency for years in terms of writer’s rooms, descending into a freefall of bad content.
One of the things that has always driven American comedy shows is the idea of persona. This is why The Daily Show is no longer funny, but the Colbert Report is. The Colbert Report centers around the persona of it’s host, who’s egotism is funny. The Daily Show used to be focused around making itself the joke, but now is more concerned with making political points and arguments than it is in making comedy. Other TV comedies that are successful like the wildly popular Big Bang Theory bring viewers in with a nerdy sense of humor that makes the audience proud to be who they are. That’s a good prescription for strong viewership. Anytime you can make your audience feel better about themselves without taking too many jabs at them is going to make you successful. The other thing that TV comedy has going for it is diversity as exemplified by the once funny and now incredibly formulaic Modern Family. What Modern Family did for viewers was it gave them a character that they liked (you had six to choose from) and then that character would get five minutes of jokes in a twenty minute set. That’s a smart model; one that was also used to success with The Office and Parks and Rec.
Where the starkest differences between American television and British television are is in the drama department. Here is where you have the one writer model up against the writer’s room model in the most direct sense. The story arcs that exist in shows like Luther are far superior to those written in writer’s rooms mainly because in a writer’s room you’re writing to break points. Your drama is going to be interrupted by commercials, which detract from the overall drama of the story, so when you’re writing you need to be cognizant of this fact and write accordingly. Most writer’s don’t have a problem writing this way because they’ve been doing it for most of their careers. Many should be asking whether that is a good model though. If you were watching a movie at the movie theater how likely would you be to sit through close to an hour of commercials during the film? Think about it. Five minutes of ads after the opening ten minutes and then breaks after every six plus minutes of content thereafter. Would you even stay for the whole film? Probably not and the same is likely true for television.
People are flocking to streaming content like Orange is the New Black, House of Cards, and other series that fall in the category that journalists like to call the “bingewatching” category because there are no interruptions. They don’t need to use the fast forward on their DVR. Those who don’t fall into the bingewatching category and do keep up with their favorite shows do so with a DVR service or by watching their favorite content online where they don’t have to worry about commercial interruptions. Commercials have become such a nuisance that few people actually tune in to watch their favorite show during it’s prescribed timeslot even if it is being live-tweeted or they are being otherwise updated by their friends. The factors that influence how and why as well as when and where audiences watch TV are numerous, but as TV executives continue to boast that this is the “golden age of television” we should be asking ourselves whether that is actually the case.
Has American television gotten better over the last decade or worse? Most people I think would answer that it isn’t better or worse it’s just different. You have more options now and your viewing experience is different. Still, Hollywood isn’t trying to change anything, which is why their shows lack the quality that British dramatic television has. It isn’t as much a question of bad content as much as it is interrupted content and it isn’t as much a question of one writer or a writer’s room as it is one of consistency of ideas. Indeed, Breaking Bad, one of the best shows over the last decade was written by a writer’s room. It is possible to still write good dramatic television in a writer’s room and if you were to talk to someone about potentially writing a comedy with only one writer they’d likely deem you insane. I would suggest however that such a possibility could work with the right people. Take “Girls” for instance, which is mainly written by creator/showrunner Lena Dunham. It’s a consistently funny show with great story arcs and great characters. Why aren’t more shows trying to take advantage of this kind of personality and strength in writing? My guess is because the talent is so sparse that it’s tough to find people who can measure up to the likes of a Lena Dunham. If we are to make TV better though we should be asking ourselves what the barriers are to a single writer writing a show and why we haven’t ditched the commercial model of television. People rarely create better content by following existing models and that is what TV executives should be thinking about the most not the popularity of British shows or streaming content.