Television in the US

Television in the US

As most of the TV-series mentioned in this "Living Handbook of Serial Narration on Television" originate from US-studios, we will focus in these general reflectionsabout the television system on American networks only.

Even in analyzing the narration of TV-series, we have to understand the basic principles and differences within the production processes:

Through the Seasons...

It is actually no coincidence that the single episodes of a TV-series are assembled to seasons — a complete 'television season' really accompanies the viewer through the entire year.

Usually starting in September, the season ends in the following May, including a short break between December and the end of January. A full season then consists in general of about 20 to 26 episodes.

"It's Not TV. It's HBO."

For more than a decade, between 1996 and 2009, one slogan said it all — "It's not TV. It's HBO."

During this period, the premium cable network HBO (Home Box Office) broadcasted TV-series like Oz (1997-2003), Sex and the City (1998-2004), The Sopranos (1999-2007), Six Feet Under (2001-2005) and The Wire (2002-2008) — and thereby raised the bar for quality entertainment.1

These, as well as current HBO-series like True Blood or Game of Thrones, could not have been only more experimental than shows on public channels, because there is technically no need for viewers rating. But since viewers have to subscribe in order to receive HBO, these (adult-oriented) programs can also contain explicit nudity or excessive violence.

Public Television

In contrast to subscription-based pay television (like HBO or Showtime), other cable and satellite networks are financed by advertising revenues.

This form of program financing has direct effects on their TV-series, more precisely on the length of the single episodes — the running time is based upon the commercial breaks: Whereas an episode of a comedy series generally takes about 22 minutes (plus 8 minutes of ads), a drama series-episode usually takes about 42 minutes (plus another 18 minutes of commercials).

Thereby, the general framework set by the public networks has a direct influence on the conditions of production on which the authors rely. Similarly, serial writers of the 19th century like Charles Dickens or Alexandre Dumas were subject to the publisher's demands concerning the length of a single chapter.



  1. In an interview with the German Spiegel magazine (45/2012), Matthew Weiner, author and producer of The Sopranos and Mad Men, stated that only the success of these HBO-series laid the foundation for all later quality programs.

Further Reading

  • Akass, Kim and Janet McCabe (2007): Quality TV. Contemporary American Television and Beyond. London: Tauris.
  • Bignell, Jonathan (2008). An Introduction to Television Studies. London: Routledge.
  • Edgerton, Gary and Jeffrey Jones (2008): The Essential HBO Reader. Lexington, KY: UP of Kentucky.
  • Leverette, Marc and Brian Ott (2008): It's Not TV. Watching HBO in the Post-Television Era. New York: Routledge.
  • Lotz, Amanda (2007): The Television will be Revolutionized. New York UP.
  • Mullen, Megan (2008). Television in the Multichannel Age. A brief History of Cable Television. Malden, MA: Blackwell.