The Crime Readers' Association

Saturday Sixers: Why 60 is a magic number in TV drama

15th June 2013

Not only are we in the midst of National Crime Writing Month but we are already half way through the Crime Writers’ Association Diamond Anniversary year – yes we are 60! To honour our anniversary Saturdays at the CRA are going to be dedicated to the number 6 and we have lined up a selection of guest bloggers – both readers and authors – who have come up with some very inventive posts for us.

The second is Isabelle Grey who is a screenwriter and novelist. Her most recent TV credit is an episode of Accused, BBC1, co-written with Jimmy McGovern. Her novel, The Bad Mother, is published by Quercus.

Why 60 is a magic number in TV drama 

Sixty is a vital number in television drama. Film time can be relatively flexible, but one of the first questions a TV screenwriter has to answer is this: in what multiple or division of sixty minutes will the story be told? An 8 x 60’ series? A 90’ single drama? An on-going 30’ serial?

As digital platforms influence how drama is both delivered and watched (Netflix, for example, recently made the entire first season of House of Cards available right from launch), it may be possible to abandon sixty as the magic number, but I suspect it’s the one thing that won’t change because audiences are now so sensitively attuned to navigating a story in terms of traditional episode length.

A BBC hour is of course longer than a commercial channel’s, where a sixty-minute slot in the schedule has generally to include three commercial breaks, making an ITV hour 46’. However, most drama projects are developed by independent production companies with an eye on international sales, and before necessarily knowing which broadcaster will pick a project up, so the writer has to structure each episode around notional ad breaks, creating effective end-of-part hooks that will maintain the audience across the breaks.

A lot of crime dramas begin as adaptations of novels. The first thing the screenwriter will therefore do is parcel up a book into appropriate episode lengths, probably either 60’ or 90’. Then, unless it’s a single drama, the second task is to find end-of-episode hooks, and then, within each episode or part, look for ad-break hooks. If those can’t be found within the published story, either the narrative will have to be manipulated to create them, or they’ll have to be invented. Visual interest, variety and pace may also have to be developed beyond the scope of the original novel.

This may sounds ruthless, but what works superbly on the page doesn’t always translate to the screen without an essential alteration in narrative grammar.

Television (and film more so) relies on action, so even a 60’ episode of an on-going crime series will generally require more plot material than the average full-length novel. I’ve written nearly thirty hours of broadcast drama – in word count, a fraction of a prolific novelist’s oeuvre, but possibly more in terms of story.

What matters most to audiences, and therefore broadcasters, are memorable central characters. If books are turned into a returnable series – perhaps six or eight episodes per year – then it won’t be long before ‘original’ stories are commissioned. It’s an inevitable process of colonisation. The screenwriter will keep to the overall tone of the series and build a new story around the central character (often a detective), scrutinising not only the books for every clue as to how the character thinks, what drives them, what their fallibilities are, but also, by this time, the characteristics of the actor playing the part. The screenwriter, too, will hope to add something of their own ‘voice’ to the process.

There’s one last reason why sixty is a magic number in television: the Writers’ Guild agreements set writers’ rates in terms of £££s per 60’ of delivered script.

Twitter @isabelleGrey

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