THE SARAH JANE ADVENTURES has just finished running on the CBBC channel and is just one of a number of science fiction and fantasy shows that are currently having a lot of success in the UK. In the USA, CAPRICA is the latest high profile science fiction casualty. Why is it that UK shows seem to have a much higher chance of success and multiple series than their US counterparts?
The first answer is simple enough - money. In the US ratings are everything and if you don't get the numbers then you don't get a second season no matter how good you are. Keep getting the numbers and you'll go on forever. With the BBC and all its satellite channels, the money isn't quite so critical and so shows don't have the financial burden. They can be slow burn gainers and gradually build up their audience.
The main reason, though, may lie in the difference between a UK and a US 'season'. THE SARAH JANE ADVENTURES consisted of six stories comprising two half hour stories each. Other shows on the main channels (rather than the children's channels) have seasons that last anywhere between six and twelve episodes and the ones at the higher end of that scale are being targeted at the American market as well as the domestic one. In the USA a season runs to 21-22 episodes. That's a lot of hours of television to fill with quality stories. As a result, concepts that might make excellent UK six part series end up being stretched over three months of shows, with the quality suffering and the dreaded filler episodes bolstering the numbers.
It's much easier to come up with a concept that will enthrall over six episodes than over 22. Thus so many of the genre shows in the US end up with storylines that are generic and familiar and overused and thus start to look like all their peers.
Many of the UK's greatest shows would have failed utterly if they were stretched to fill US schedules. Perhaps that is why the UK will always come up with the quirky and originally leftfield entries like BEING HUMAN and LIFE ON MARS whilst the US will continue to excel at generic episodic shows like MEDIUM or STARGATE UNIVERSE that we've seen before, but are slick and stylish and good at retelling old stories.