Series v. Season
July 18, 2005 6:54 AM   Subscribe

In the US, why do we call a short run of episodes on television a "season" whereas in the UK they refer to it as a "series"?
posted by missed to Media & Arts (11 answers total)
Perhaps because, in the US at least, a new series would typically start in the fall, along with all the other new series. Fall, then, was the "new season" in which the crop of new shows debuted.
posted by SPrintF at 7:08 AM on July 18, 2005

Also, in the UK it seems there's no real schedule to when a show will be back for another series—some shows come back every other seasonal period (winter/summer), while others pull a Sopranos and come back maybe every other year. Black Books is a particularly favourite example of mine—I have no idea when it's on, but it seems it's had three series in the past six years.

Caveat: I'm not a UK resident, and so might be missing some much needed cultural reason for the naming.
posted by chrominance at 7:24 AM on July 18, 2005

US 'seasons' are just that - they're 13 episodes or 1 quarter of a year, whereas the UK tends more towards a 'series' of 6 episodes.

Easy innit.
posted by BigCalm at 7:55 AM on July 18, 2005

Because in the UK we didn't have seasons. Until the advent of cable we originally only had 2 networks - BBC and ITV - and because the BBC is funded by the people of Britain by a licence fee, it has it's own charter which makes it operation unique. Thus, there was no direct head to head like between Fox, CBS, ABC, NBC etc so there was no schedule of seasons which (I presume) developed out of commercial necessity.
posted by forallmankind at 8:04 AM on July 18, 2005

BigCalm: "US 'seasons' are just that - they're 13 episodes or 1 quarter of a year, whereas the UK tends more towards a 'series' of 6 episodes."

Not really. Many US television shows (I might even go so far as to say most) have two-dozen or more episodes in a season, and they stretch those from September to May. It's analogous to the "baseball season" or "hunting season", which are likewise several calendar seasons long. It's season def. 2: " A recurrent period characterized by certain occurrences, occupations, festivities, or crops". A short run is generally just named the same thing as a full-length one, even if it's shorter than most.
posted by Plutor at 8:23 AM on July 18, 2005

I'd like to point out that "series" in US English is commonly used to mean the entire run of episodes of a television show. This is distinct from the "season" of a show, which is a block of new episodes shown between the rerun doldrums.

The term "series" has a meaning in US English that would make the UK usage inapplicable for use, just as the US English "season" term is apparently inapplicable to UK television schedules.
posted by majick at 8:37 AM on July 18, 2005

no schedule of seasons which (I presume) developed out of commercial necessity

Indeed, but not perhaps the sort of commercial necessity you had in mind. The lack of a television season in the UK is not due to the absence of competition in the medium's early years there, but rather due to the absence of advertising. Early television programs in the US were underwritten by sponsors, the most powerful and influential of which were automobile manufacturers. They wanted the peak audience interest in series premieres to coincide with the release of the new products they wanted to promote through the shows.

In other words, the TV season starts in the fall because that's when the auto model year starts.

US 'seasons' are just that - they're 13 episodes or 1 quarter of a year

The standard length for a US season is 22 episodes. Obviously, there are lots of exceptions to this ("24", duh) but that's the general rule. Less than 20 or more than 24 represents an unusual circumstance.

If a network has a high level of confidence in a concept (or if the show is cheap enough to produce), they'll order 13 episodes; more typically, they'll start with 8. If the first few of those 8 perform well (but not great) in the ratings, they'll order 5 more to bring it to 13. At that point, if it seems like the show will be able to finish the season respectably, they'll go ahead and order "the back nine" to make it a full 22.

A network show that runs 13 but not 22 is probably in trouble. 13 is a standard run for cable originals (HBO, etc.), which has led network producers to complain that cable producers have an unfair advantage -- since they produce fewer episodes in a year, they can spend more time polishing them.
posted by jjg at 8:50 AM on July 18, 2005

Disclaimer: I'm not TV scholar; everything I share here is just based on casual observation over the past 25 years.

US 'seasons' are just that - they're 13 episodes or 1 quarter of a year, whereas the UK tends more towards a 'series' of 6 episodes.

This is entirely inaccurate.

US seasons vary in length, though they tend to be around 20-22 episodes. A season runs from (approx.) September to May. There are three sweeps periods during each season: November, February, and May. (Each of these coincide with a coming cultural vacation period, during which fewer people are likely to watch television. Following each of these sweeps periods is a month or so of reruns. Following the May sweeps is a summer of reruns.) Note that all of what I've said is just a general rule. It doesn't apply to all shows all the time.

Some shows — for example the various recent Star Trek incarnations — have 26 episode seasons. Some shows, particularly midseason replacements, have very few episodes. The US version of The Office only had six episodes in its first season. The first season of Arrested Development had 22 episodes, the second had eighteen.

Cable shows have seasons of various lengths. The first season of HBO's The Wire had thirteen episodes. The second had twelve. How many episodes of TLC's Trading Spaces are in a season? Forty? (I have no idea, but it seems like the answer is a lot.)

It seems to me that, as a general rule, US-produced network television shows have around twenty episodes, though this can vary based on a variety of factors: Is the show a midseason replacement? Does it have ratings trouble? Or, like Lost, does it get a few extra episodes because it's a ratings success?

(Note that US seasons seem to be getting shorter. The first three seasons of Bonanza, for example, collectively had one hundred episodes, the equivalent of about five current seasons. Bewitched had seasons of 36 or 30 or 34 episodes, too.)

I'm less knowledgeable about UK shows, but I know the recent Doctor Who had thirteen episodes. Both series of The Office only had six episodes. Monty Python generally had thirteen-episode series. Coupling had series of six, nine, seven, and six episodes. Monarch of the Glen had series of eight, eight, and eleven episodes.

So, the only grain of truth in the original statement is that UK series are about half as long as US seasons. US seasons are, in general, about twenty episodes in length.

That still doesn't answer the main question, though.
posted by jdroth at 8:51 AM on July 18, 2005

I think they're referring to two different things: "Season" refers to the whole of the new output of the network between fall and the end of spring and then (so I have gleaned, because I've never actually seen any of this in the flesh), the programming is made up of repeats. Yes?

This would come from theatre and opera and ballet, where the offerings over a long period of time are collectively called a season.

"Series" refers to the specific series of programmes (in the UK and more specifically on the BBC), commissioned usually 6 or 13 at a time (with so many exceptions that the rule looks a bit dodgy). New series usually begin in the Autumn or after Christmas, but can theoretically begin at any time, at the behest of the scheduler. The latest series of Dr Who began in March, for example, and finished in June.
posted by Grangousier at 9:38 AM on July 18, 2005

One possible reason for the American bit is that early Radio & television programs were, in fact, somewhat seasonal in the sense that they didn't actually have reruns, they had "summer replacement programs" which were the new shows they were experimenting with. One of the first programs to do summer reruns was "You Bet Your Life" so if you watch certain episodes you can see George Fenneman announce "Stay tuned for our summer replacement series, The Best of You Bet Your Life"
posted by dagnyscott at 9:40 AM on July 18, 2005

Not to be snarky, but isn't the answer simply, "because that's what it's called here in the US?" The words are similar and could be used interchangably, but have settled out into slightly different UK/US usage when referring to TV.

In fact, they are used interchangably here in the US as well. Performances in a particular venue that hosts different types of events is often called a "series" e.g. popular music concerts, mixed-use performance space offerings. The concert series of one entitity, e.g. orchestras, opera, theater companies, usually use "season."
posted by desuetude at 12:14 PM on July 18, 2005

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