International seminar television series in perspective

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09h30 - 12h30

14h00 - 17h00


In partnership with

UER-EBU – European Broadcasting Union

Fonction : Cinéma

Ecran Total (media partner)
The question of creativity

The content of series

The policies of broadcasters

Recent trends and harmonization of formats

Contributors and participants : Independent producers, screenwriters and directors. Directors of fiction films / programming of the main European channels.
Conception Léo Kaneman

Coordination of seminar Yasmeen Basic

Assistant Isabelle Gattiker

Project manager Clarisse Jaouen

Project manager UER Lynne Polak

Study researcher Clarisse Jaouen


Foreword p. 2
Introduction p. 3
Survey by country

United Kingdom p. 5

France p. 13

Germany p. 24

Denmark p. 30

Switzerland p. 36

Canada p. 42
Acknoledments p. 47


As part of the eighth edition of the Cinéma Tout Ecran International Film and Television Festival, we are presenting, in cooperation with the European Broadcasting Union (EBU/UER), an international seminar concerning the place of creativity in the production of televised series.

Is it possible to reconcile audience ratings and artistic requirements ? How to promote the freedom of speech ? The format of the series calls for a new writing style, specific narrative and filming techniques which will need to be defined. Unlike the United States where there is a general creative coordinator for the series, in Europe creativity is a tricky balancing act between the author and the director, under the guidance of the "ringmaster" producer, what we call the magic trio : the DAP (director, author, producer). The real question hinges on the treatment and the sensitivity of the director, on the structure of the screenplay and its dramatic impact for the screenwriter, and on the capacity to deal also with the artistic dimension of the project for the director.
Drama is also a powerful motivation for reflection ; it should be able to entertain and surprise while also inviting the audience to think by presenting real subjects of society at grips with current events, and encourage the confrontation of ideas through the intermediary of the characters. Then comes the problem of reconstructing reality to the needs of televisual drama and of the ambiguous relation beween fiction and reality.

For the broadcaster, the decision to produce and broadcast one drama rather than another depends on the anticipated audience. The representatives of the channels present at the seminar will debate the two dominant scenarios : either to define in advance what the public should like and thus favour consensual material – or else to take greater risks by appealing to targeted audiences, still keeping to "universal" themes, but approached from a different or unconventional angle. In both cases, audience ratings will have the last word, the question is to know which line one prefers to take.

The seminar will offer a framework for discussion and thought which, we hope, will enable the participants to discover the most interesting directions to take in the production of televised series. All this, of course, with a view to improving the quality of future television productions as well as the freedom of creation, something that Cinema Tout Ecran has always encouraged .

Léo Kaneman

Artistic Director


The series, a specifically televisual genre

A trend which is becoming more and more firmly established in the field of television drama production is the ever growing predominance of fiction series on telefilm. Far from being an inferior genre, the series is in itself a constituent part of television which is by essence serial. The entire televisual system functions on the repetition of the same programmes, led by the news programme which is the very heart and soul of a channel.The building of viewer loyalty has become a necessity, a condition of survival for channels which are suffering more than ever from competition in an ever more fragmented market. The competitive and commercial logic that has taken hold of television channels by and large explains the preference of broadcasters but also of producers for the format of fiction in episodes which, as remarks the English screenwriter David Wolstencroft " has the potential fictional scope of a novel and the dependability of an old friend".

The different types of drama in episodes
The types of dramas in episodes are extremely varied. Each country maintains its own habits of dividing up and serializing its films. Three generic categories of drama in episodes can nevertheless be distinguished :

  • The "classic" series which is a fictional form, each episode being self contained but where the characters and the themes remain constant from one episode to the next.

  • The serial which is a fictional form where the entire story is continuous, broken up into episodes of equal length ; the story continuing over a number of episodes, each following on from the previous one.

  • The anthology or collection : here the stories are quite different from each other, both as concerns the cast and the director and camera crew, but they have in common a generic title. The anthology is derived from the telefilm, even if it is presented in the form of episodes.

From these categories, several sub-categories can be identified according to the following criteria : the duration of the episode, the narrative continuity between episodes, the number of episodes contained under the same title, the narrative genre.The following sub-categories can thus be distinguished :

  • the soap : this belongs in the category of serial because each episode follows on from the last. The soap normally lasts 26 minutes, is filmed entirely in the studio on a modest budget. It is generally broadcast every day or in certain cases once a week (like Lindenstrasse considered as a soap even though broadcast onlyonce a week).

  • The sitcom : like the soap, the sitcom is a typically American format. A contraction of situation comedy, the sitcom is a comedy of 26 minutes, filmed on video with limited sets and featuring members of a family, a group of friends, etc.
  • The mini-series : a hybrid between the telefilm and the serial. The mini-series is a complete story consisting of a limited number of episodes (most often between 2 and 8 ). Mini-series are prestigious and costly productions, sometimes produced with foreign partners and often adapted from a literary work, or a historic event.

From national differences to a relative unification
In terms of format, the films on offer vary greatly from one country to another. Some countries like the United Kingdom have a long tradition of soaps and comedies whereas this type of film is not well received in France. On the other hand, the United Kingdom has excelled for many years in the one-hour format while France has been slow to adopt it. Beyond considerations of specific expertise or cultural habits, more economic factors sometimes justify the preference for one format over others. As an example, Switzerland which has scanty financial means to produce domestic films has launched into the exclusive production of 26-minute comedies and soaps, more through necessity than real editorial choice. Apart from these divergences, certain trends common to the different countries studied can nevertheless be established.
The 60-minute series increasingly tends to replace that of 90 minutes which is identified more with a telefilm format. France and Germany are the only countries still producing series of 90 minutes and these are the very countries that remain the most attached to the production of telefilms. Apart from comedies or long-running serials (soaps), series of one hour are stealing the scene almost everywhere and are becoming considered as the standard format. The adoption of an international format has the added advantage for producers of facilitating sales to other countries

Another trend noticeable in all the countries surveyed is the hybridization of formats and genres. Following on from the Americans who were the forerunners in this field with series like Hill Street Blues or NYPD Blues, more and more series combine soap-like elements. Although each episode tells a complete story, certain intrigues can carry over to two or three episodes. Reference to the private life of recurrent characters can also help to weave narrative continuity between episodes. While making the structure of these series more lively and complex, the "soaping" of series also increases the desire of viewers to know what will happen in successive episodes.

On the subject of this phenomenon of mixing genres, it is worth mentioning the case of the "dramedy", a fiction which as its name suggests consists of a cross between a dramatic series and a comedy.
Detective series have evolved in a similar manner in the different European countries and in Canada according to the model proposed by the above-mentioned American series. More and more, the model of the unique recurrent hero, loyal and not undergoing any evolution throughout the episodes, is being challenged by a new type of series. Aiming for greater realism,they follow the evolution of the recurrent characters while solving a detective intrigue in each episode, This trend is being followed in every country.


From the fifties onwards, a solid television system was built up, first of all with the BBC, then with the network of private ITV televisions. The period extending from the end of the fifties to the beginning of the eighties was considered the golden age of British television fiction. Television then produced a considerable number of single dramas and offered authors extraordinary outlets for their creative skills. With its two television networks and five radio channels, the BBC was the biggest customer for television works that this country had ever known. The single dramas were above all the territory of the screenwriters to whose wishes and dictates directors were obliged to yield. In this respect, television drama was clearly distinguishable from cinema films. Among the great screenwriters who left their marks on this golden age were Denis Potter, Nigel Kneale, Jeremy Sandford, Peter Watkins, Mike Leigh and Jack Rosenthal.

Unlike the BBC which tended to turn up its nose at televised series, ITV straight away recognized the potentialities of this format. In 1960, it broadcast the first episodes of Coronation Street , the first British soap and subsequently proposed several adventure series and serials, mostly written by Lord Grade. The BBC also produced successful series : in 1952, Broken Horseshoe, written by Francis Durbridge, followed in 1953 by The Quatermass Experiment by Nigel Kneale, finally from 1962 to 1978 the detective Z Cars , created by Troy Kennedy Martin.

From the end of the seventies, the production of series and soaps intensified. In 1982, the BBC even went so far as to stop one of its two telefilm programmes, Play for Today. This abandonment of the single drama can be explained in part by the increase in their cost of production. The idea of giving greater importance to direction began to spread at this time, due in particular to the demands of a director like Ken Loach :less studio shots and more scenes on location, more sophisticated equipment, use of film and no longer only of video, etc. More expensive, the single dramas were to become rarer, to the benefit of televised series which began to take their place on the programme grids……

  1. Genres and formats

In comparison to an era when the BBC semed to enjoy total freedom, without any restraints concerning audiences and commercial demands, it could seem that today the public channel has sold part of its soul. Be that as it may, British television, public or private, remains the most innovative in Europe. The second largest exporter of fiction in the world after the United States, British television is still very daring and continues to offer altogether original contents, quite different from those everlasting stories of doctors and detectives (even if the English channels also succumb to these subjects in a big way). Audacious, it does not hesitate to broach with truth and realism subjects of society that do not find their way on to other European channels such as homosexuality, for example, with Queer as Folk, the first gay serial in the history of television, broadcast in 1999 on Channel 4. Much less provocative but original in its concept, the series Footballer’s Wives by ITV which, against a background of football, money and power, tells the story of the day-to-day life of three wives of football players. This series enjoyed immense success on ITV in the beginning of the year 2002 and proves that English producers and authors are still brimming with original ideas which diversify the drama on offer .

The formats

Serialized dramas totally dominate the territory of British television fiction. In the year 2000, they represented 80% of the total material available, the rest being made up of telefilms. The channels bank more on the mini-series (drama events) than on telefilms for their projects requiring large budgets. The two dominant formats are those of one hour and a half-hour.

Table 1 – The formats of serialized dramas in 2001 (Titles)



Opened serials

Closed serials




















Channel 4






Channel 5












Source : BFI
Among the different formats, the soaps (closed serials) are beyond dispute the most popular and the most appreciated fiction films with audiences. Since the sixties, the British channels have acquired great expertise in the production of long-running soaps and they are absolutely unrivalled in Europe. During the year 2001 alone, the British television channels broadcast no less than 1851 new episodes of soaps, the first prize going to ITV for its serial Coronation Street for which 377 new episodes were programmed during that year….

One of the specific features of British soaps is their fidelity to the tradition of social realism. Whether the stories are set in an urban environment or in rural surroundings, the protagonists are usually people from the lower middle class , workers, far removed from the world of spangles and splendour. The producers of serials such as Coronation Street, EastEnders or Brookside moreover assert their determination to centre the intrigues on problems of everyday life, and to portray a reality with which viewers can identify. Julia Smith, the producer of EastEnders , explains it like this : "We decided to go for a realistic, family outspoken type of drama which could encompass stories about homosexuals, rape,unemployment, or racial prejudice, in a believable context. Above all, we wanted realism". A recent survey showed that, for 33% of the people questioned, EastEnders was the story that best reflected the problems with which they were confronted every day 1.

Soaps are the dramas that mobilize the highest audience ratings in this category of programme. Bolstered by these successes, the British channels have tended these last few years to increase the number of broadcasts of soaps. Thus the BBC decided to add another broadcast of EastEnders on Monday evening, bringing to three the number of new episodes programmed each week. In the same way, on ITV, Emmerdale has progressed from three to five weekly broadcasts.The early evenings are thus distinctly dominated by the broadcasting of long- running serials, thus making it possible to ensure access to the more expensive programmes in the evening and late evening. But this proliferation of serials evidently carries the risk of a lack of diversification in the programmes on offer.
The genres
Table 2 – The genres of serialized dramas in 2001 (titles)

General Drama























Source : BF1
The British serialized dramas are characterized by a great diversity of themes. The two genres that are most widely represented are the detective and crime series (a speciality of ITV) and the medical series. On the other hand, two genres that are totally absent on the English channels : action and the fantastic.
Comedy is a genre that is still well represented on the English channels. The BBC is without any doubt the leader in this field : it programmed 15 comedies in 2001, against 5 on ITV and 4 on Channel 4. It is true that the BBC has a long tradition of producing comedies and particularly sitcoms : Steptoe and son, the Two Ronnies , FawltyTowers, Yes Minister/Prime Minister, Dad’s Army and Blackadder goes forth and, more recently, Absolutely fabulous and The Royle family.

2 – Editorial policy of channels : the example of the BBC and Channel 4

The BBC has invested £268 million in 2000/2001 for drama (15% of its budget) for broadcasting 432 hours of programmes. According to Pipa Harris, head of commissionner Drama at the BBC, "Across the year, BBC Drama aims to provide a broad spectrum of series and serials – there should be something which appeals to each and every viewer. The majority of our drama is shown on BBC1, and covers a huge range of material from long-running soaps to classic costume dramas (Wives and Daughters, The Way We Live Now) through to authored single films and event dramas (Warriors, Care). Across the whole portfolio we are to provide entertaining and thought provoking dramas of the highest quality.

In terms of long running series our output is almost entirely 60’ episodes, with series varying in length from 6 episodes, up to 52 episodes a year in the case of Casualty and Holby City. Many genres are covered, of course, including crime/investigation (Daziel & Pascoe, Silent Witness, Inspector Lynley, Waking the dead), medical (Casualty, Holby, Doctors) and contemporary relationships dramas (Cutting it, Clocking Off, Playing the field). Within the serials output we look for authored pieces (e.g. Nature Boy,Perfect Strangers, Warriors, Auf Wiedersehen Pet) as well as commercial thrillers which are often two parts (The Whistle Blower, The Secret). Our other key area in terms of serials is period drama. The BBC has always led in the UK in terms of classic adaptation and we are keen to continue this tradition with pieces such as Anthony Trollope’s "The Way We Live Now".

Channel 4
The eighties witnessed the emergence of a highly enlightened broadcaster, Channel 4, a private channel founded in 1982 which has for a long time invested in the production of feature films.The channel has a dual mission : on the one hand, to appeal to a younger audience (between 15 and 34 years old) and to minorities, to those whose ideas and tastes were rarely welcome on television, with extreme examples such as the programme Black on Black or the series Queer as Folk, on the other hand to innovate by creating programmes that are complementary to those already broadcast, broaching subjects of general interest in the political, social, cultural or educational spheres.

The serialized dramas it proposes on the grids also meet the editorial policies of the channel. "We are concentrating on contemporary dramas and would expect them all to have a distinctive Channel 4 aesthetic, whereby in subject matter and style they would aim to be original (…) Our drama is edgier, portrays a more culturally and sexually diverse spectrum of society and doesn’t shy away from subjects and themes that other broadcasters might choose not to dramatise", explains Ben Jancovich of the Drama Department at Channel 4.

In 2001, Channel 4 broadcast eight series, of 6 to 7 episodes each, including four comedies. It also programmed three serials of 2 to 3 episodes.

Apart from its two soaps, Hollyoaks and Brookside, broadcast respectively at 18h30 and 20h00, the broadcasting of series is concentrated on the second part of the evening, after 21h00, a time when channels can broadcast programmes intended for adults, according to the rules of the Family Viewing Policy. In 2001, Channel 4 was then the only channel to programme new series for its 23h00 slot. The later programming of series and serials reflects a real risk taken by the channel and enables it to propose less family-oriented fictions, aimed at a younger audience.

3 – Production
The most important producers of series and serials are still the production units attached to the two principal channels in the country, namely the BBC and the ITV production companies (Granada, Carlton, Yorkshire Television, Thames).

The BBC remains the only channel in the country to have an integrated production unit. The production companies like Granada or Carlton have a more ambivalent status : at one and the same time part of the ITV group for whom they produce the majority of programmes, these production units are also able to produce dramas for other channels like the BBC. Thus the Royle Family is a series produced by Granada but commissioned by the BBC.

Channel 4 gives the impression of being an exception because it does not have a production unit. "Channel 4 doesn’t produce any of its drama "in house", therefore dramas broadcasted by us are developed in conjunction with an independent Production Company who will have their own Producer/Executive Producer on board throughout" explains Ben Jancovich. By limiting itself exclusively to a policy of programmes and delegating the production of its broadcasts, Channel 4 has made it possible to stimulate independent production in Great Britain.

4 – Screenwriting
As is the case in the United States, screenwriters are regarded in England as the real creators of television series and serials. According to the formula of journalist and television critic Jay Day-Lewis, " Cinema drama is director led and is pictures supported by words ; television drama is writer led and is words supported by pictures".
Debbie Horsfield, an English screenwriter who has has worked for television for fifteen years, has created well-known series such as Making out or Sex, Chips and Rock’n’roll. Talking about Cutting it, her most recent series of six episodes broadcast on BBC, she describes the progress and development of the different phases of writing : "I wanted to create a "workplace" drama which would be capable of running for several series with ongoing characters but potential for guest characters and "stories of the week". So I took the fully-formed idea – detailed Outline of Episode 1 and bible for episodes 2-6 to the Head of Drama and she commissioned 2 episodes. The producer came on board as soon as Episode 1 1st draft was delivered and was involved in the process thereafter. Episodes 3-6 were commissioned shortly after".

A somewhat different route was taken by the screenwriter David Wolstencroft, creator of the series Spooks, produced by Stephen Garrett and Gareth Neame and broadcast on the BBC in 2002. "I was writing a movie script which looked into contemporary espionage and the theme of secrecy. The production company then approached me with the idea of doing a project around espionage and M15 in particular. I agreed it was a good area to address in a drama and set about translating my research, together with their own, into a feasible drama series format. I wrote two episodes and a series bible that helped greenlight the show. Writers were then drafted in to further develop the show along myself, the series producer, the line producer and the series script editor. Storylines were created in a "writer’s room" atmosphere. By the end of the process two writers were hired to write additional episodes. They had contributed storylines which they wanted to write and which made it to the script stage."

In the first stages of writing a series, the producer and the Script Editor are the key people. "Both attend script meetings where I describe my ideas for a given episode and they give feed back and suggestions, explains Debbie Horsfield. I then go away to write the draft, they then read it and the feedback-and-suggestions process is repeated until we are all happy with the script. The script Editor is invaluable for providing an "open door sounding-board" –by which I mean she is always available for me to throw ideas around with and for general information and research. She also makes sure the script contains nothing inaccurate, defamatory or illegal".
As far as the director is concerned, the screenwriter explains that he or she only comes into the picture once the writing is finished : "When the director joins, he or she is also given the opportunity to comment on / input into the script, though by the time he or she comes on board, the script is at a pretty advanced stage and the changes would not be major". The extremely skilled and experienced producer of very high quality dramas such as the telefilm Hillsborough by Jimmy McGovern or, more recently, Queer as folk by Russel T Davies, Nicola Schindler confirms the marginal position of directors in the making of a television series : "Obviously we employ a director for his/her vision and genius, but not to the extent that he/she can change what we set out to make. The director certainly isn’t as powerful as in cinema".

For long-running series, the writing process is markedly different, because of the far greater number of people involved. For the early morning soap by the BBC, Doctors, no fewer than 22 new writers and 12 new directors have been employed by the channel ! On long-running serials or series, writing depends on the work of a considerable number of people. In the case of EastEnders, for example, the job of a Story Editor attached to the BBC is to write a report each month outlining the evolution of the intrigues and the characters. This report is passed to the executive producer, to the producers and script editors who together discuss the pertinence of these new angles and contribute their own suggestions. Once the main lines have been defined, the report is given to the screenwriters during a further meeting and here again the spisodes are rediscussed in detail. A screenwriter under contract writes on average 12 episodes per year. Often soaps serve as a training ground for young screenwriters who later on try to persuade a producer to develop their own original scripts.

There are numerous television screenwriters who prefer writing series for television rather than telefilms or films for the cinema. Debbie Horsfield is among them : "I enjoy the scope of writing TV series because of the greater opportunities to let a story unfold at a less frantic pace, and for the characters to really develop over a period of weeks. I also enjoy the challenge of setting up expectations for an audience and then overtuning them several episodes later. If there is a large cast of characters, provided they are firmly rooted in reality, it’s possible to explore any number of different social, pschological, political issues in greater depth than would be possible in one-off movie". David Wolstencroft also appreciates working on television series. " A good series has the potential fictional scope of a novel and the dependability of an old friend. A TV movie has to work harder to gain your attention as you do not know who the people are and why you should be investing your time in them. A series will invite you into a world, a recurringly interesting and ever-evolving world. It also, if it’s produced well, allows the writers to play to actors’ strengths, to try things out a little more, to push stories to an edge". As to the best way to improve the quality of television series, David Wolstencroft voices his opinion on the question : "Quality improves when talented people write better scripts. So pay writers more. Give those writers who hanker after it more responsibility in the casting process, in the editing room and in the production arc. If you do this then you will find more young writers wanting to come into the system and the quality will improve. If a writer feels both involved and responsible for the overall quality of the show, aside from the quality of his or her script, he or she will become more self-reliant and committed to getting it not just right, but right on the money".

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