The basics of television storytelling are really a tale of two dynamics. In one, television shares many storytelling elements, concepts and techniques with cinema, because much of the language of television was initially adapted from film. The other dynamic is one of a gradual evolution over time, with television storytelling being slowly reshaped by strong forces tied directly to a medium that is dictated by broadcast networks and their financial model. Traditional television storytelling and development is derived from the harsh demands of a weekly broadcast distribution schedule.
Television, unlike film or video games, is fundamentally a sponsor-driven medium, paid for by advertisers that buy commercial space during a particular show based on ratings information gathered by services like Nielsen which electronically track who is watching what, when and for how long. Sponsors identify those shows with the most potential for reaching customers for their products. Shows with higher ratings allow the network to demand more money per minute from these advertisers, who are now often competing with each other to buy commercial time on a hit show. Conversely, shows that receive low ratings are usually canceled – they are not generating enough revenue for the network by not reaching a large enough audience (or the type of audience) to interest advertisers.
Though the sponsor-driven revenue model of television dominates, it has some competition of late from the subscriber-driven revenue model used by premium cable networks like HBO, Showtime, and others. Under this model, the cable network uses its total subscriber value, the aggregate of the ratings of all of its programs, to dictate its licensing fees to the cable providers, like Comcast, DISH, or Direct TV. Subscriber-driven networks don’t show commercials (other than for their own programs, which are promos), so programs produced for the network don’t have commercial breaks.
Due to the sponsor-driven revenue model of television, advertising has become an integral part of the way television stories are organized and presented. Every episode needs to be structured in such a way as to keep audiences from changing the channel during the commercial breaks. This is why you sometimes hear derisive comments that television stories are simply a method for delivering advertisements, but writers and producers in television have worked this seeming limitation to their advantage, creatively adapting traditional storytelling techniques into new forms that are unique to television but dynamic and creative in ways that have begun influencing the ways other media think about storytelling as well.
Television shows can be characterized both by their format, which is the length of a standard episode, and by larger narrative issues including genre conventions (though duration and genre have become so interlocked in some types of shows that they are sometimes talked about almost interchangeably). Regardless of format or genre, the basic building blocks of a television story are acts , or the ways in which the narrative is broken into parts that, unlike film, do not flow immediately from one to the other but rather are separated by commercial breaks.
These breaks occur at regular intervals – interrupting the story, arbitrarily and artificially creating narrative chunks that do not immediately or easily line up with the three acts described previously. As a result, television storytelling has had to rethink the way that stories are told, borrowing or developing additional storytelling elements, such as the recap, prologue, teaser, tag, cliffhanger and previews (more on these later) as well as rethink three-act structure.
Though there are some television shows – like The Simpsons (1989–present) – that have tried to anchor their stories in a three-act structure, we’ve seen more and more examples in recent years of these basic constraints of broadcast television and sponsorship being the impetus to creatively redefine the way acts are defined and what each has to accomplish. These constraints have been around for a long time and explain why television has always had examples of storytelling structures like the two-act and four-act show in addition to three-act approaches. But in recent years, we have begun seeing more and more shows that are considered four-act, five-act, six-act and seven-act structures.
Though the number of acts and what has to happen in each are somewhat dependent upon a show’s format and genre, in all of them, Act 1 establishes a character (or in some cases, characters) who has an important need, want or desire. This need is the result of something being out of balance, and the character needs to take action, to do something, to get things back to normal. This need is sometimes referred to as a goal, and the rest of the show is about the character trying to get what he needs.
This first act establishes not just the need but also the conflict, or those things that make it difficult for the protagonist to have what they want. Whether drama or comedy, there must be conflict. Conflict occurs when obstacles are placed between the character and the attainment of his goal. The more challenging the obstacle, the harder the character must struggle against it, and the more compelling the story.
Just like in film, the obstacles must become increasingly more difficult to overcome as the story progresses. Obstacles in Act 2 are harder than in Act 1, and each subsequent obstacle within Act 2 is more difficult than the one before it.
The character will either get what they want or be denied what they want during the climax, which in film traditionally occurs in what’s labeled Act 3, but in television generally occurs in the last full act of the show, whether that’s called Act 3, 4, 5 or 6. In both comedies and dramas, the climax is the highest point of action, where everything is on the line. After the climax, the central problem is solved one way or the other, and we move on to resolution, which tells us how the characters are doing after the climax. Simple, huh?