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What is a TV 'drama'?

A Better Understanding Of TV Dramas

Pamela Douglas (Screenwriter) gives expert video advice on: What is a TV 'drama'?; What are the various types of dramas?; What is a 'season' for a drama? and more...

What is a TV 'drama'?

A TV drama series is made up of hour long episodes, and delivers a franchise of storytelling which usually falls into one of a few categories: medical, detective, family, sometimes high school. There are other genres that include kinds of science fiction, and family drama is also something else that's very widely defined.

What are the various types of dramas?

Drama usually has franchises, which is a word that might relate to the genre or the kind of story telling or expectations. Some common types of franchises that we've seen before are medical dramas - ER, Grey's Anatomy for example and detective genres, detective stories, that can include procedural shows or quasi-procedural shows like Law and Order or the great NYPD Blue; or you could even talk about The Shield, where you have detective police material. Over in the family TV drama era, we've seen some of the most explosive change. Certain categories still being used are: detective, medical, family, high school, to a lesser extent journalism, and, lately, political shows, which have, except for West Wing, not succeeded well. But we're seeing all the franchises reinterpreted.

What is a 'season' for a drama?

A season used to be 22 or 24 episodes that would run from September until the spring, when everything went on hiatus until the new season started again in September. A lot of mid-season replacements and shows are slated from the outset to start in the mid-season. Now we're seeing some shows start in the summer.

How long does a TV drama season last?

A television season is the period when episodes air. The traditional TV season ran from September through Spring and was 22 episodes long. Those 22 episodes may not run without interruption; there usually are pre-emotions, but you end up filling that entire period and that is a season. Cable seasons sometimes are skewed and they may start at different times in the year. They also have shorter TV seasons on cable, where you may have an entire season that has 12 episodes, for example.

How many episodes are in a TV drama season?

Traditionally a TV drama season is 22 to 24 weeks long. A cable season may be much shorter, at around 12 weeks or 12 episodes or less, and sometimes there are orders that are on off cable, off stations, off network, internet link that may be as many as a hundred episodes.

What is an 'episode'?

An episode is a single telling of a story module within a TV series. For dramas, it is one hour long. An individual episode may be a step in a much longer story. You might have a story arc that's 22 episodes long, so a single episode of one hour is just one piece of a continuing drama. However, there are many shows that have closure, especially procedurals, such as CSI or even House, where that hour closes a story arc. The main characters continue, but the story told - the challenge, the question, the problem of that episode - is resolved at the end of the hour.

How much does it cost to produce a drama?

It's not unusual to have a weekly TV drama in the $2-5 million range, for that single hour. Sometimes on smaller outlets, certainly on the internet but also smaller cable stations, you might be well below that. There are some shows that have extreme budgets and may be costing up to $12 million, or close to it, because the show's been on for a lot of years, all the prices have incrementally gone up through the years and you have very high paid staff. So you're getting single hours that are costing in some cases as much as feature films and if you put two of them together, you certainly get the cost of many feature films. These things aren't cheap.

What does it cost to produce dramas for the internet?

Internet productions cost a nickel; there is just no money there at all. There are no star salaries and some of that is not even governed by the Writers Guild so nobody is getting the kinds of compensation that would be normal in any of the TV fields.

How long is a TV drama episode?

Although it is considered an hour-long, a TV drama doesn't really run an hour. We've had a lot of change in that, so the answer I would have given you a little while ago is roughly 52 minutes or a 58 page script. This is no longer usual on TV networks which are now having more commercial interruptions than ever and breaking their shows into more act breaks. We now, I am sorry to say, have shows that are running for as little as 44 minutes of actual dramatic material out of a sixty minute hour.

How does a drama series get on television?

Starting from the concept for it, a person with an idea for a TV show needs to create a proposal that would interest a production company with a qualified show runner. From that stage, the production company gets the studio on board to create a pitch that can be sent to a network or other outlet. Once it is pitched to a network, if they're interested, they commission a pilot to be written. The pilot is the key to ever going forward with the show. Once the pilot is delivered, you get a green light - or not - to production. Once the pilot is produced, executives decide whether or not this might qualify to be on the TV network schedule for the fall or something less than that. Part of this 2 year procedure is that once the pilot is picked up and gets a green light, gets a slot on the network schedule, the staff begin to actually make the show. A staff has to be assembled, and episodes for the future have to be written by the staff. This is long before anything is ever on the air for the public. This takes months of writing, and finally the TV drama debuts in possibly the fall, and only after several episodes are on do you know if the show is a success and whether it will even be able to complete its first season. If you look at the charts, you'll see how it's about 2 years from that first glimmer of a thought to knowing whether you have a show that's viable or not.

How do dramas differ from sitcoms?

TV dramas are generally categorized by the time. They're an hour long, whereas sitcoms are a half hour long. In itself, that doesn't describe the difference. There are different intentions for drama and comedy. The intention of drama is storytelling based on deep character revelations, a quest or relationships. The intention at the end of the process for comedy is a laugh. So there's a different goal in each. That said, there's a melding. There are dramedies; there are dramas with comedy and there are comedies that have strong dramatic underpinnings.

What is a 'back door pilot'?

A back door pilot is a two hour movie which appears to be a one off, a freestanding movie, but actually is a way of showing what a series might become if somebody ever wanted to do a TV series from this movie.

What is a 'pilot'?

A pilot is the prototype for a new TV series, which usually airs as the first episode. It includes the world, the characters, the tone, the style of the show and gives the promise of what the show may be.

What is a 'premise pilot'?

A premise pilot is an episode that starts the question or issue of the TV show. An example would be a new character coming to town and having something that must be done here. In Northern Exposure, for example, Dr. Fleishman is sent to Sicily, Alaska, where he has never been before, and that begins his journey in a new world.