Covid-19’s Impact on the Ongoing Trend of Shorter Scripted TV Seasons

Scripted seasons have been getting shorter over recent years and Covid-19’s impact on production looks to only be accelerating this trend, with some producers cutting episode counts to ensure delivery. Stephen Arnell explores what the longer-term implications might be


Earlier this summer it was revealed that the second season of BBC and HBO drama His Dark Materials was still on track to air in 2020, despite the travails of Covid-19. The eects of the pandemic on production, however, meant the show would only consist of seven, rather than the initially planned eight, instalments. The abandoned episode was a standalone focusing on James McAvoy’s character of Lord Asriel, which appears to mean the overall narrative of the second season is largely unaected. Jane Tranter, executive producer at the show’s producer, Bad Wolf, assured potential viewers that “essentially, our adaptation of The Subtle Knife has been completed.”


For the scripted business, which is still reeling from the eect of lockdowns on filming, it is however an example of how some producers are adapting to the challenges to get their shows onto screen in a hugely unpredictable world.


Costs, cuts & commissions

“We’re not cutting back episodes on dramas unnecessarily,” says Gabriel Silver, senior commissioning editor for Sky Drama, but the approach is changing. “One thing that Covid-19 has made us do is think about making editorial adjustments to better protect against a postponement or abandonment of filming again due to another spike. “So, although the ambition going into production is for a 10-part series, could you get out at episode seven or eight or nine if you had to? That means you can still deliver a satisfying show for the audience, but also help to safeguard against possible disruption to filming.


“A reduced episode count also provides a makeweight against the added cost of protecting cast and crew (and the wider public) against Covid.” Over in India, producer Sunder Aaron of Locomotive Films says the structure of scripted shows in his part of the world has not changed dramatically as a result of the pandemic. “Over the past few months in India, there hasn’t been any Covid-related curtailing of series/projects that I have noticed. For my projects, we are still discussing 10 episodes that are going into development.


“In India, when it comes to streaming, the issue isn’t so much a Covid-related impact, but really about making sure that the creators and producers are capable of telling a story in a compelling fashion that can have a proper run. Many Indian series have fewer than 10 episodes, but that pre-dated Covid and really was the result of the producers not yet being ready to tell longer stories.


“Indian TV is mostly populated with long-running series that air on a daily basis (similar to telenovelas). Of course, production ceased because of the pandemic, and is only now getting back on track. However, I doubt very much whether the conventions of Indian television serials will be changed going forward.”

Elsewhere, the pandemic and the reaction to the death of George Floyd in the US has in some ways stimulated scripted production and provided content hungry broadcasters with a slew of quick turnaround series transmitted over recent months. In the US, Freeform debuted the romantic comedy series Love In The Time Of Corona, while Isolation Stories and Unsaid Stories for ITV, along with the BBC’s Talking Heads and Staged, highlighted the potential in the UK, with the latter selling internationally. But with the exception of Talking Heads, it’s difficult to see these shows having much of an afterlife, if and when the pandemic hopefully ends. People may well not want to be reminded of the dreary months of lockdown.



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Stephen Arnell

Culture Comment Content Provider. Portrait courtesy of artist Darren Coffield. 'Non satis me tempo'