The Trajectory of Television Drama (Pt. 2)

2: The Development of Televisual Modes

But it was not for everyone. As the process of telerecording1 was coming into its own, and only half a decade prior to the advent of a practical tape recording system, US television grew impatient and decided to head west. The trouble with American television, which originated in the 1940s but only really came into its own in the following decade, was that its mother was radio but its father was in a sense the BBC. An absent father, always over the other side of the pond, never there to watch baby television’s development. So its drama producers latched on to a surrogate, a step-father of sorts, and moved in with it. That step-father was cinema.

It’s interesting to analyse just how impatient the Americans were. It’s understandable why telerecording – or kinescoping, as their version was called – never took off. Early results were ropey, and comparisons of later attempts reveal that Stateside television’s heart just wasn’t in it. Whereas British (particularly BBC) telerecording had, by the 1960s, reached a very good technical standard, American counterparts even at that late stage tended to look a bit rubbish. Surprisingly, the originators of videotape, the Ampex corporation, were an American mob. Yet they were too late to impress their own market, particularly when it came to drama. Tape was for news and soap operas and talk shows – anything that might as well be going out live anyway. But by 1956, the year Ampex made videotape available for the first time, an astonishing amount of drama production (not to mention a fair chunk of comedy) was being shot directly on film, single-camera style. In short, these television producers had decided that the televisual mode of production wasn’t good enough for their television programmes; they wanted mini-movies.

Of course, the financial incentive was there as well, and this is reflected in the rise of independent television in the UK. The BBC was a public broadcaster, answerable only to its charter and dependent solely on its license fee. It had viewed television as ephemeral from day one, and indeed its opinion of its radio output was much the same. Like a stage play (there’s that comparison again), it existed to be performed and allowed to linger solely in the memory. An exception lay in BBC Radio’s Transcription Service, intended for Britons abroad, whereby some programmes were recorded to disc, others re-performed for preservation, so that they could be played back in a different transmission slot. Even here, like so many tapes and films of early BBC programming, these were rarely intended to be lasting artefacts of their time.

Commercial television was and is a different kettle of fish, and even in the least money-driven circumstances this is principally because of one key fact: the revenue earned from the sale of a drama programme to a single broadcaster is nowhere near enough to cover the cost of producing the programme in the first place. In order to overcome this tiny obstacle, producers – independent production companies in the States, franchise owners in the UK – need to make multiple sales of their product. As is the case with motion pictures as well, given that they too tend to be an exclusively commercial concern. Naturally, the key to multiple sales of a programme is that programme’s repeat availability, which means it needs to be recorded in some way. Consequently, this particular distribution model requires that television not be ephemeral, that its programmes can be somehow preserved. Telerecording is one option, and it is one that the BBC itself preferred when attempting to deal with the various technical standards of television broadcasting across the globe. But, to the cinema-loving United States, pre-filming must have seemed the most logical choice. After all, if movies could be exhibited over and over again, then the process must have had some considerable merit.2

Courtesy of this division between the demands of public and commercial broadcasting – and particularly because of the specific time when it arose – television drama production branched off in two very different directions, the key British and American markets largely typifying that separation. Other territories naturally adopted whatever modes best suited their circumstances, but all were variations of these two opposites.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the decentralisation of British television (labelled “Producer Choice” by the BBC) led to a sea change in that country. No longer would the bulk of the BBC’s drama output be produced using the more ephemeral electronic mode. As the BBC’s own internal production mechanisms began to diverge, the involvement of independent production companies in BBC programme production was on the ascendant. Consequently, facilities were also outsourced, and access to Television Centre became more restricted. Faced with the untenable option of setting up electronic studio facilities in converted warehouses, companies adopted the route long since perfected by the independents: single-camera production. Two long-running case studies stand as strong examples of this shift. Doctor Who was produced in-house and in multi-camera studios for its 26-year life. Among other reasons for the original programme’s demise, it has been cited that Doctor Who was a dinosaur, standing all but alone as an example of how dramas of the non-soap variety used to be made. Its mode of production was out of date, and it was “rested”. Not long after this cancellation, various independent production companies were seriously considered to take over the day-to-day running of the programme, albeit as a single-camera production. When it finally re-emerged in 2005, that is precisely how it was made – even though it was again an entirely in-house production.

Similarly, Casualty has seen out the days of multi-camera drama production in Britain, only to have carried on the the environment of the “film for television”. Its modal shift came sooner than Doctor Who’s, and that may be why it has survived as a continuous production since 1986. (A similar argument can be made in the case of The Bill, which appears to have been shot partly multi-camera only in its pilot episode, and which survived several modal shifts in its own 26 years on air.) Yet its earliest episodes thrived on the multi-camera environment, its producers and directors embracing the challenge of convincingly portraying a hospital location from an electronic studio, OB location work and hand-held cameras lending the early multi-camera episodes a greater sense of seamless verisimilitude.


  1. By which electronic images could be preserved on film.
  2. Though telerecording and, later, direct recording to tape continued to have a place in the modes of preservation preferred by the British independent companies, some – particularly ITC – borrowed the American model of producing films for television. This made a great deal of sense, particularly as ITC was always looking to corner the American market: if the programmes resemble Stateside product for all intents and purposes, then the theory runs that they will be more salable there.

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