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How British TV (and radio) programmes are scheduled

I was talking to a comedian a couple of days ago who was surprised that I took so much interest in the scheduling patterns on TV and radio.

I am not quite sure why he was surprised.

Performers should take an interest too.

Very often, they suggest making one-off programmes which stand no chance of ever being commissioned simply because they are one-off programmes.

The TV and radio year is divided into quarters – the four seasons – Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter.

That should mean 13 weeks in each Quarter, but there is usually some event – Easter, Christmas, a sporting event or whatever – which interrupts the pattern of the 13 weeks, so the Quarters are very often made up of two 6-week stretches.

Obviously, if you keep transmitting a particular type of show in a particular slot, then you stand a better chance of growing the audience in that slot. Equally, if you transmit a series of shows, you stand a better chance of growing your audience.

With a new show, particularly in TV, commissioning 13 weekly episodes is too financially risky – the audience may not like it and, if they do not, you are screwed in that slot for 13 weeks. So commissioning initial 6-week runs is safer – 3 weeks is too short to establish an audience).

A run of 6 weeks is also a manageable length for the writer(s). In the UK, series tend to be written by individuals or duos. In the US, comedy series in particular tend to have longer runs partly because they have large writing teams (and also because of the US syndication system).

So British TV, in particular, is looking for 6-episode series. If the series turns into a major ratings-winner, it may get a 13-week run. But anyone approaching a TV production or broadcast company should be thinking in terms of 6 weeks.

Because the schedule is constructed around 6-week series within 13-week Quarters, it is very very difficult indeed to schedule one-off shows or two-episode shows. With a big star or a big piece of Event programming, you might think of scheduling a three-part series over a Bank Holiday weekend and sometimes you find 3-part dramas scheduled on three consecutive days as an ‘event’. But one-offs are not welcome.

One-offs are difficult to fit into the schedule and bloody difficult to promote unless they are a major event. With an ordinary one-off show, there is no build-up and, without a lot of build-up, promotion and awareness, there will be no audience. How are the audience going to know this show will suddenly exist at 10.30pm on a Thursday for one week only? And why should any broadcaster with loads of expensive new 6-part series and 13-part series spend time and money promoting a one-off show with no potential for building its audience in future weeks?

All generalities are sometimes wrong but usually right.

The other generality is that, if you have a series of shows comprising stand-alone episodes (ie it does not matter in which order they are transmitted), you record all six then decide to transmit the best show as the first episode to enthuse the audience. The third best show is transmitted as the second episode to hold the audience you have kept from the first episode. And the second best show is transmitted as the last episode, to get people interested in watching the next series. Sometimes producers swap those second and third best options. The worst show is usually transmitted around episode 4, hidden in the middle of the series, because the audience you have built should still, with luck, watch the following week.

All generalities are sometimes wrong but usually right.

TV (and radio) scheduling is an art.

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