Within the next two weeks Heartbeat, The Bill and Last of the Summer Wine will all conclude after many years on-air. Broadcasters have blamed declining ratings for all three shows as the reason for their cancellations but do their axings reveal a wider shift within television – that the days of long running serials are over?
August/September 2010 will see the end of Heartbeat, The Bill and the Last of the Summer Wine. There respective broadcasters have blamed declining ratings for all three season as the reasons for their cancellations and in part this is true.
Last of the Summer Wine is the longest running comedy in the world having started out in 1973 and nearly 300 episodes later, all of which were written by Roy Clarke, the series is about to conclude. The BBC comedy was seen by 18 million viewers in its heyday and the deaths of stars such as Bill Owen, Thora Hird and Kathy Staff didn’t bring it to an end – the comedy moved on. Even as Clarke was busy writing his other comedies such as Open All Hours and Keeping Up Appearances the series continued. The tabloids over the past ten years have repeatedly claimed the sitcom was on the verge of cancellation because of ageist attitudes at the BBC but it was only earlier this year that the axe actually fell. Its heyday is long behind it and the sitcom usually averages 3 million viewers and criticisms of recycled storylines and gags have given Last of the Summer Wine a somewhat unfair reputation; we’re quite sure not every episode involves someone chasing a bath down a hill!
Heartbeat meanwhile, also set in Yorkshire, has been stuck in the 1960s for an incredible 17 years! Yes in this small rural part of the Yorkshire Dales the 1960s just went on and on – hard luck for anyone awaiting the 1970s. The rural setting for the police-drama hasn’t stop it being a hotbed of crime over those past 17 years with an endless stream of new residents and previously never-seen-before residents falling victim to crimes – usually its those shifty teenagers on bikes who have just ridden past the pub! At its height Heartbeat was seen by 12 million viewers and spawned its own, often daft, spin-off The Royal. In the past year though ratings have halved with episodes now doing little better than Last of the Summer Wine. When ITV announced production was being suspended on Heartbeat, and The Royal, it claimed it was too allow it to air the backlog of episodes already “in the can”. Fans weren’t that naive though and they knew Heartbeat was being stealthily axed.
The Bill meanwhile has pounded the beat of Sun Hill for 27 years with it starting out life in the 1980s as a drama serial before revamping into a drama series, twice weekly half hour episodes, from the mid 1980s. It was the half hour episodes throughout the 1990s that The Bill is best remembered for when it was about cops and robbers and not cops and there mucked up, screwed up personal lives. The 2000s saw the drama move away from its traditional format towards a more soapy approach, in line with Holby City and Casualty, and suddenly the Officers at Sun Hill became the bad guys – murderers, rapists, thieves, drug addicts and psychopaths now made up the force at the station. In 2009 The Bill was revamped by ITV again as it was reduced to 1 episode per week in a 9pm slot; the revamp failed – as we all knew it would. Several months on with ratings dipping below 3 million the plug was pulled.
The declining of all three shows could be a clear sign that viewers are no longer interested in “brand names” alone in terms of drama. The comfort and familiarity offered by long-running dramas now only appeals to a minority of television viewers with the majority wanting dramas to offer them something different, new and original. This can clearly be seen in the move towards “stripped” dramas on BBC One and ITV; dramas with an episode airing each night. Prime examples are Five Days, The Diary of Anne Frank, Criminal Justice, Torchwood: Children of Earth and Collision. It was previously unthinkable that viewers would want to watch a drama played out across the week – having to commit themselves each night instead preferring dramas in weekly instalments. However, viewing habits are changing and with the rise of DVD Boxsets, on-demand services and digital recording viewers are reluctantly to view television in the traditional means.
The rise of “stripped dramas” is partly to blame the demise of established dramas as broadcasters are keen to make way for newer, bolder output. Earlier this year the BBC warned that its established shows would be culled to make way for newer output; Waking the Dead, Hustle, Spooks and Silent Witness are shows that have been signalled out by the press as being in danger. Indeed its widely rumoured that the next seasons of Hustle, Spooks and Waking the Dead will be there last yet none of these days are even 10 seasons old – but are considered “established” and “old” and unfashionable compared with newer shows on the block.
So we return to the question; are the days of long-running serials over? Undoubtedly the answer has to be yes. Heartbeat, The Bill and Last of the Summer Wine are three high profile victims and they soon could be joined by the likes of Taggart and Casualty both of which are over 20 years old and are suffering from dwindling audiences. Television in the next few years will be a brutal place with previously “untouchable” shows culled to make way for new blood – but then all of this has happened before and all of this will happen again. After all weren’t Crossroads, London’s Burning, Peak Practice, Z-Cars, Angels and Emergency Ward 10 axed by their broadcasters because they were deemed old fashioned and not drawing in the kind of audiences the channels desired?