seasons and series

Apologies to those of you who wrote to me during my recent confinement, as I wasn't able to respond to e-mail at that time, and the thought of responding to all of those messages now is a bit overwhelming. So, if you're requested coverage of something on this blog, then rest assured that I've marked your request for further attention, and will let you know if/when I cover that topic on the blog. And now...I'll start work on that backlog, starting with a request from my old friend the Ginger Nut (whom we met back here). She writes:
We downloaded what's available of series 3 of the Boosh so far and we're working through it. Here's a BrE / AmE question for you. They [BrE speakers] call a season a series. We use series for the show across time (Seinfeld was a series that ran for 9 seasons) and break it up into seasons which usually correspond to years. What's the BrE equivalent to our use of series?
My read on this would be that BrE doesn't have a series/season distinction, since there really isn't such a thing as a television season in British broadcasting. In the US, new program(me)s [i.e. new (AmE) series] and the new set of episodes of an old program(me) [i.e. the new (AmE) season of an existing (AmE) series] typically begin around the same time in the (AmE) fall/(BrE) autumn. So, one can talk about the television 'season' as something that begins in fall/autumn and continues through to spring. (Some series begin later in the year, after other series get cancel(l)ed , and these are known as [AmE] mid-season replacements.) Because almost all series begin and end at the same points in the year, they tend to be 24 to 26 episodes (13 for the first season of mid-season replacements). This makes them much longer than typical British series (if we're talking about dramas or situation comedies; soaps and reality program(me)s go on FOREVER), which are typically not longer than 12 episodes, and more usually quite a bit shorter--situation comedies are often six episodes, for example. In the US, anything that short would be called a mini-series. In UK television listings, the name of the program(me) is often followed by a fraction, for example:
8:30 Jam & Jerusalem
2/6; series two. Indignant that Spike has saved up to buy a ticket for Glastonbury, Tash resolves to find her way in for free as usual, but things do not go to plan. [Radio Times, 22 Dec 2007-4 Jan 2008]
The fraction tells us that this is episode 2 of 6 in the current (BrE) series/(AmE) season. Of the UK-made program(me)s on terrestrial channels in that week according to Radio Times (not a typical week, because of the New Year holiday, but it's the only copy of RT I have here), they were composed of:
4 x two episodes [2 x comedy; 1 x mystery; 1 x documentary]
3 x three episodes [1 x costume drama; 2 x documentary]
1 x four episodes [documentary]
1 x five episodes [documentary]
3 x six episodes [1 x drama?, 2 x comedy]
2 x seven episodes [(BrE) quiz/(AmE) game show; reality]
4 x eight episodes [1 x panel quiz (more on this later), 2 x comedy, 1 x how-to]
1 x nine episodes [reality/competition]
3 x twelve episodes [hospital drama, panel quiz, talk show 'best of' series]
1 x sixteen episodes [comedy]
(God, I do know how to make blog-writing unnecessarily time-consuming--which is why it's taken me most of a week to write this entry.) The short lengths of series means that new series begin throughout the year, hence, we can't talk about a particular year's television 'season'.

It's also the case that British sitcoms and the like are not necessarily meant to go on for years. Take the original UK version of The Office, for example. It ran for two series of six episodes, plus two Christmas specials. It was very successful in the UK (hence the Christmas specials), but that didn't mean that it was destined to go on for years and years, well past the time when it had (orig. AmE) jumped the shark. Now, compare the US version of The Office. While at first it was very closely based on the UK series (just Americani{s/z}ing the scripts where necessary, as I understand it), it's now gone on for 59 episodes--so they must've been adding lots of new plots since starting. (Has the shark been jumped yet? I don't watch it, so I don't know. I could only watch the UK version through my fingers, as such drastic social discomfort gives me nightmares.)

A couple of downsides to the UK system are:
  1. Because the series are so short, if you don't pay a lot of attention, you may not discover a good one until you've missed most or all of it. (But if it was good, it'll probably be repeated at some point.)
  2. You often don't know whether a favo(u)rite program(me) will ever be back. Fans of the wonderful Spaced still listen for rumo(u)rs that it might come back--even though the last episode was in 2001. (Our hope gets more far-fetched as Simon Pegg's (AmE-preferred) movie/(BrE-preferred) film career develops.)
And, of course, the television schedules are not as predictable in the UK as the US, where, for instance, Thursday nights meant Cheers for years and years and years. I'm not sure that's a bad thing. Far fewer sharks get jumped.

Another thing that differs between UK and US television is the survival of (BrE) light entertainment programming in the UK, when it has pretty much died out in US prime time network programming (in favo[u]r of a strict diet of sitcoms, dramas and reality shows). Light entertainment refers to comedy-music-variety programming, and while it may technically (in terms of what the light entertainment budget at the BBC covers--I'm not sure) include formats that are familiar in the US, like sketch shows and comedian-led talk shows (which don't tend to run in prime time in the US), it prototypically covers (prime time) variety shows like Ant and Dec's Saturday Night Takeaway (which involves a lot of audience competitions as well) or panel quizzes (called panel games on Wikipedia, but quiz is what I more typically hear) like Have I Got News for You, QI and Never Mind the Buzzcocks. These program(me)s are typically hosted by a comedian (though some, like Have I Got News..., have guest hosts who may be other kinds of celebrity--e.g. newspaper editor or politician), with teams of other entertainers/famous people answering questions on a particular topic and being awarded points by the host--usually in a fairly capricious way. The point of these quizzes is not so much to get the answers right as to be entertaining in discussing the questions. The closest thing I've seen on US television was Whose Line is it Anyway?, which was (BrE) nicked from the UK (which was more a game than a quiz--but had the capricious score-giving element). I believe that there are some panel quizzes on National Public Radio, but I can't remember if they're British imports or homegrown (answers, anyone?).


  1. Wait, Wait Don't Tell Me on NPR is probably the radio version you had in mind.

  2. Also "Says You!"

    The Am series that make it to syndication (and more income) have to run about 39 episodes to be considered worth it. The online airings (is there a better word for that?) may make shorter series worth making available.

  3. Fawlty Towers also consisted of only 12 episodes.

    A real example of quality over quantity.

  4. Another difference between US and UK (or at least BBC) television is that a lot of UK comedies start out as radio series--e.g. The Mighty Boosh, The League of Gentlemen, Whose Line Is It Anyway? If you know the television program(me)s (all of which are visually rich), it can be weird to try to imagine them without pictures!

  5. Pegg has said that Spaced isn't coming back. Not so much because of his movie career but because he and Hynes wrote it at a particular time in their lives and it wouldn't be the same now they're so much older.

    Is there really no US equivalent to panel shows? I can kind of see it not working as a mass market programme (UK gameshows were until Millionaire more about the taking part than the prizes, unlike in the US), but I'd have thought there'd be a niche for them given how many sharp comedians and writers there are in the US and how much material there is for comedy in politics and current affairs.

  6. The US has Game shows, and the occasional panel show such as Real Time with Bill Maher. But nothing along the line of what was described. (But from the description, the NPR radio show seems a good paralell.)

    As Lynne mentioned, we have talk shows during the day and in late night. (The Oprah Winfrey Show and The Late Show with David Letterman being two. Oprah is at 4:00 and Letterman is at 11:30) The Graham Norton show is the same sort of format as these...though he is a bit wilder than either of them.

    But I really can't think of anything that fits the bill (Except for Bill Maher, that is only one and, while funny, is much more serious than the panel shows you are describing.)

    What caliber of celebrity/comedian is usually on these shows? Are they the "A" listers?

    And while we are on TV, can someone explain just how the BBC works? Since TV is so differenly run over here, I think that a lot of American's don't quite get it. Are the different channels focused on differnet programming? And how does Sky One work into everything?

    That might end up as another post though.

  7. I followed the link and read your post about the word 'ginger'. I was quite surprised that no one pointed out that ginger can also mean homosexual. It comes from rhyming slang: ginger beer = queer.

    The dictionary of English slang has this as the primary meaning of ginger.

  8. Bill--Bill Maher's show involves a panel, but is not like a panel quiz. There are no teams, no games, no earning of points, etc.

    As for the calib{re/er} of comedians/celebrities on the panel quizzes, it varies by the quiz and sometimes by the position on the panel. QI, for instance, is hosted by Stephen Fry, and has what I would consider to be A-list (or high B-list) panel(l)ists, though many of the names might not be familiar to Americans. (E.g. Bill Bailey, Jo Brand, Phil Jupitus, Hugh Laurie, David Mitchell, Rich Hall) On Never Mind the Buzzcocks, the team captains are Bill Bailey and Phil Jupitus, but the members of the panel (who change every week) are a mixture of musicians, comedians and other performers--I usually recogni{s/z}e half of them.

    There won't be a post on the television channels in the UK, since that's not a linguistic topic! But, yes, the different BBC channels have different missions. The BBC is funded by television licence fees (if you own a television, you pay a tax on it). The missions of the different BBC channels are explained here.
    BBC 1&2 are terrestrial channels, but the others (e.g. BBC 3& 4) are freeview channels--you don't have to pay extra for them, but you do need to buy a set-top box to receive them. Sky you have to pay for (satellite-driven, I believe) and that has lots of its own channels. Besides the ones you mention, there are 3 other terrestrial stations, which are commercial: ITV, Channel 4, and Five (which isn't available everywhere). They have their own characters, but all do things like news, documentaries, dramas and sitcoms. Then there are lots more freeview channels (ITV2, ITV3, ITV4, E4, More 4, music & shopping channels, etc.) And more pay/cable channels...

    Martinn--it would be helpful to leave that comment at the ginger post--so that people who want to read about ginger see it. (If you'd be so kind...)

  9. Wouldn't "The Hollywood Squares," which began in 1965, be an early, if not the ur-, example of a celebrity panel quiz where the panelists' real goal is to be witty? This was an American original. I'm no TV history expert, though, so other shows with the panel-quiz essence may have preceded it.

  10. Ah, that explains it. I'd been somewhat surprised to see "I, Claudius" described on American websites as a mini-series, a term which I'd assumed referred to something the length of a Jane Austen serialisation.

  11. nbm--Hollywood Squares is different from panel quizzes as there are non-celebrity contestants competing for prizes. The celebrities aren't competing, but are providing answers that the contestants have to judge. So, while it has in common the celebrities-being-funny bit, there is actual cash (or washing machines or whatever they gave away) at stake and a real competition going on. A panel quiz is pure entertainment.

    Ginger Yellow mentions the historical lack of prizes on UK quiz/game shows. The thing about Millionaire is that the prize money is/was (at least in part) raised by premium-rate phone lines (potential contestants have to pay to call to try to get an audition). I've been on one UK quiz show, Brainteaser (one of the ones that was caught in the premium-rate phone number scandals of the past year), for which the Grand Prize is £3000, which comes from people calling in to answer puzzles like "What's the word? Six letters; contains the letters P, E, T, R, L; it's what the Americans call gasoline." (The questions the actual contestants answer are harder. I made the final and lost it all at the £1500 stage, missing the word garrote. I went next door to the pub to drown my sorrows, and the entire clientele, who had been watching the live show, shouted 'garrote!' as I walked in. Oh, the shame.) I'm often asked why I haven't tried out for Countdown yet (because that's just something that competitive Scrabble players are expected to do). (If you're American, you may have seen a bit of Countdown if you've seen the film About a Boy.) My answer is "because I already have a dictionary." It's a high-status (in terms of intellectual ability required) game/quiz show, but what you get for winning it is a dictionary. The highest status game/quiz has got to be Mastermind--and all you get for winning that is a glass bowl.

    Now, in the US, there's the nightly Wheel of Fortune/Jeopardy! combo in many television markets, and my dad would always point out that the people on Jeopardy! had to know a lot more than the people on Wheel of Fortune, but their prizes were a lot smaller. (I think Jeopardy! has beefed up its prizes--but not sure whether it compares favo(u)rably with Wheel now.) But that's just the way it goes, isn't it? I mean, I know a lot more than a lot of people who make a lot more money than me! But still, I can't imagine a US version of Jeopardy! in which the prize was a glass bowl!

  12. Great discussion. I've just searched through my US TV listings and can't really find anything like the British panel show. One of the reasons is (in my opinion) that a lot of celebs over here don't like making a fool of themselves or anything close. You rarely see them in unscripted situations, and even the American "Whose line is it anyway?" seems a bit rehearsed to me.
    Light entertainment - ah now I'm really homesick. Thank god for BBC America.

  13. I've never heard the phrase "terrestrial channels" in the US.

    I tend to prefer watching extraterrestrial channels, but usually get grossed out during alien love scenes. Too many tentacles.

  14. I'm in the US and listen to National Public Radio frequently.

    One quiz/comedy show on NPR is Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me. It's a news quiz show from Chicago with one section featuring a well known, different person each week called 'not my job'.

    The second quiz/comedy show, and my favorite, is called 'Says You' from Boston. It's a poor title but it asks questions from a wide range of topics including definitions and derivations, what's the difference, common thread, odd man out, adjacencies (state the famous line before or afer then one given), melded movies (for example the answer might be The Magnificent Seven Brides for Seven Brothers), and many more.

    The third one is A Way With Words (two hosts, one each in SanDiego and New York City) which is not much of a comedy show but more a talk show about grammar and usage. There is one section now that quizzes the two hosts.

  15. "Confinement" -- that's so cute. Is that your natural vocabulary? I didn't think anyone said that outside of books.

  16. It sounds a little joky when I say it, but with nearly six weeks in (the) hospital, I felt pretty confined!

  17. In the early 1950s U.S. television had game shows that I think may have resembled U.K. panel shows. Two in particular, What's My Line and I've Got a Secret each had a panel of four (fairly minor) celebrities who guessed, in the one case the occupation, in the other some trivial secret of non-celebrity guests. The non-celebrities may have received some token award for being on the show; the panelists received only points.

    1. You Bet Your Life is similar in spirit if not practice. The main conceit is just letting Groucho riff on his guests.

    2. What's My Line was also shown on British TV. The panellists were relatively major celebrities, though. One show (people noways might say 'episode') that lingers in my memory — and, I suspect, of many, many others who watched it — is when one guest's job was sagger-maker's bottom-knocker.

      Around the same time there was a much more highbrow guessing show Animal, Vegetable, Mineral in which three eminent archaeologists tried to identify artefacts just by examining them. The name was taken from a standard question in the lower-brow radio show Twenty Questions — which you also had in America. Indeed, invented it.

      Another highbrow quizzing-the-panet show was Face the Music based on classical music. As with Animal, Vegetable, Mineral there was an element of guesswork, but the entertainment lay in seeing people display their knowledge.

      The sub-genre isn't entirely dead. In recent years there's been a show called Quizeum (a blend of quizz and museum). It involves two experts being led around a particular museum and quizzed about odd exhibits.

      The introduction of a member of the public among the celebs survives as a round in Would I Lie to You, a contest between two teams of celebrities fronted by comedians and chaired by a comedian. In the round This is my... a non-celebrity walks on and one team lies — or in one case tells the truth — about how they know him or her. Not quite the same as What's My Line etc as the opposing team never directly address him/her.

  18. I've never heard the phrase "terrestrial channels" in the US.
    Originally "terrestrial channels" was opposed to "satellite channels" (Cable was never very big in Britain, unlike Ireland, where the 2 terrestrial channels laughably talk about the "network première" of a movie, meaning "the other channel hasn't shown it yet"). Now apparently digital earth-sourced broadcasts (whether Freeview or subscription) are not considered "terrestrial channels", just the 5 analog channels. What happens when the analog signal is switched off?

  19. Bill F-- 'What's my Line' was revived in the 70s, so I got the chance to see it. Two differences with the UK type (a) the UK panel shows divide the celebrities into teams, (b) the UK shows are much more banter-orient(at)ed. But I think if you combined the celebrities-as-contestants aspect of 'What's my Line' and the banter aspect of 'Hollywood Squares', you'd be close...

    1. UK What's My Line also had a single panel rather than two teams. The same was true for Animal, Vegetable Mineral and Face the Music. (See my reply to Bill Filas.)

  20. Do you differenciate (dp?!) the difference between a series and serial in the US? In the UK a series is usually a continous set of characters in different stories each episode (it is pointed out if the story is in more than one episode - "a two-parter"). A serial is a continuing storyiline over more than one episode.

    And soaps are given the inflatted title of "continuing drama" to make them so more "posh"!

  21. Serial is usually used to refer to soap operas. A continuing story within a larger series is an arc, but not everyone would know that term...

  22. One of the archetypal panel games on British TV is Call My Bluff. An obscure word is announced, then each of three panellists provides a plausible definition combined with a certain amount of witty banter centred around the word or its purported meaning. An opposing panellist then has to guess which is the correct definition.

    According to this webpage, it was originally (1950s or early 60s) an American programme that never took off in the US.

    But I've also seen one episode of an American version from the 1990s, so they must have tried to revive it. Instead of the witty banter, each celebrity panellist in turn recited a plug for his/her latest movie/TV show/book/album, and then stuck a definition at the end like an afterthought. It was unwatchable.

    As long as US celebrity appearances include mandatory hard-sell plugs, I don't think the US will be watching many panel games.

    1. Call My Bluff with a single panel was the inspiration for Radio's The Unbelievable Truth. But the development on TV, Would I Lie to You, features two teams. Similarly Radio's The News Quiz was adapted to create TV's Have I Got News For You with two teams.

      I see a pattern.

      Fortunately, nobody has ever tried to turn I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue into a team game. Hm, yes .. well, some rounds are between pairs. But although Points means prizes you can never tell who's playing against who — or, indeed, what Samantha the scorer actually does.

    2. For American readers, I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue is subtitled The Antidote to Panel Games in which the four 'panellists' are 'given silly things to do'.

      Among the running gags based on the panel-show format:

      • Copying Twenty Questions a mystery voice announces a word or phrase to listeners at home — with the embellishment of a supposed laser display screen for the studio audience.

      • Echoing the references on shows like Just a Minute to a charming young lady scorer, Clue makes salacious, suggestive reference to the doings of sex-mad scorer Samantha. This earned the original chairman, Hymphrey Littleton, the sobriquet purveyor of blue-chip filth. (In the interests of gender equality, Samatha is occasionally replaced by a male sex-object called Sven.)

      • Catchphrases abound, with occasional audience participation — as in the exchange:
      CHAIRMAN ... I'll be awarding points. And points mean prizes. What do points mean?
      AUDIENCE Prizes!

      It would take a substantial essay to describe the whole of the show — and a substantial PhD thesis to explain why we Brits find it funny.

  23. British TV does in fact refer to its "new season" in the autumn, when more people are assumed to be indoors in the evenings and significant new series are announced.


  24. What I (UK) find odd about this is that something that lasts a whole year can be called a "season". For me, seasons last three months.

  25. The historical pattern in the US was that the big 3 networks would all start airing new episodes in the fall for something like 24 to 26 weeks, and then during the summer, re-show the same episodes in "summer reruns." So the colder months were when you would watch new episodes, and the summer was when everything was a repeat, and you'd go outside and maybe only catch up on episodes you'd missed. The summer was a long, boring period for TV fanatics when the only thing on TV was something you'd seen before. The sense of a change in September when new episodes and entirely new shows would debut, was quite dramatic, and coincided with the change in the weather.

    However, since TV in the US is primarily funded by advertisers, it became clear that getting eyeballs watching the screen year-round would pay more, and the strict division between the Fall season and Summer reruns has broken down. The move to dozens of channels with the move to cable TV has accelerated this. Now we have shows that are specifically designed to air only in the summer, filling in the gap between fall/winter shows. We no longer have a real seasonality to our programming, but we keep the term.

  26. @Ian Eiloart: in British sport(s), the term 'season' is used just as in AmE (for a particular 8-month-ish competition); I suspect that this is the origin of the US term as well

  27. I confused by the allegation that American shows have a set number of episodes a season, which is not the case from the shows I watch. Some have 22 episodes, and some only have 10, and it can be nearly anything even if it's a 6 episode season, it doesn't have to be a mini series, because mini series has the assumption that they have a fixed end, and can't go on for another season. It has nothing to do with having only 6 episodes. Then there is day time tv and light night tv, and they have tons of episodes a year. Many shows change the number depending on contracts and negotiations for each season or set of seasons. We also have tons of half seasons separated shows, with those mid season fillers. They typically are the shows that test the audience's desire for them. You can almost call it a pilot season.

    and I saw a commenter said that many shows in the UK start off on radio... we haven't had popular radio programs since before most people had tvs, so it's funny you guys still have so many radio programs that become tv series. We only have those here for call -in shows, or news/opinion shows, not fictional programing.

    This article left me more confused then before regarding the answer to the main question presented. what do you call a tv show series, if you call seasons series?

    Now did I miss something, or in the UK you guys really dont have a word for an entire tv show run (series-US)?

  28. Why is a word needed like AmE 'series', though? You can just call it a TV program(me), can't you?

    You don't have to say 'Downton Abbey is my favo(u)rite series', you can just say it's your favo(u)rite (AmE) show/(BrE) programme.

    If you need to say it's in six parts rather than one, you could say 'it's a six-part series', but that still would be understood to refer to the one (AmE) season.

  29. One thing I don't think you've mentioned here is that in the UK we can often have more than one 'series' showing within a year. Not often with scripted shows (if there's two sets of a drama show within a year, they're more likely to be called two parts of the same series, as with Doctor Who) but non-scripted shows can easily have multiple series in a year.

    I'm not remotely surprised that the US doesn't have the same kind of light entertainment programming that we do - because you can sometimes see it in the faces of American celebrities appearing for the first time on a UK show! They must come on expecting to just plug their latest movie/album/etc and suddenly find they're asked to chat about onions or to pot plants or something equally unexpected. After the initial shock, they seem to either relax and get into it,or look like they desperately want to go home. (This isn't just panel quiz shows etc - The One Show and Graham Norton Show can both have their celebrities talking about and/or doing some very weird things!)

    (Americans aren't the only ones who suffer from this. There are still politicians who go on 'Have I Got News for You' and believe they can plug their political agenda. This never ends well for them.)

  30. It lacks the team aspect of UK panel shows,(which I spend far too much time watching on youtube)Comedy Central's @midnight has comedians trying to out joke each other on trending stories for the glory of winning the internet for a day.

  31. I know I am hideously late to this conversation… but found it incredible that Series 3 of Boosh could spur on such a fantastic blog :)

    In terms of BrE and AmE… please can you update this blog to denote the use of ‘- -‘ (only without the space as the iPhone won’t let me do two consecutively without forming a dash) :D

    Nowhere in BrE will you find a ‘- -‘ this is purely for AmE.

    Bostin ay it bab?


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AmE = American English
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OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)