1000 episodes and counting

1000 episodes and counting

Long-running drama serials remain popular with audiences who become invested in the characters and plot lines

In an age when consumers are inundated with entertainment options, who still has the patience to follow a single TV drama lasting well over 100 episodes?

After all, new programmes are constantly popping up all over cable TV and the Internet.

In the United States, micro-seasons of TV dramas are all the rage now, with eight to 10 episodes per series being the norm.

Yet, long-form TV dramas apparently remain appealing to audiences in Asia, going by the popularity of several of such shows in recent years.

For example, Hong Kong TVB sitcom Come Home Love, which debuted in 2012, was originally commissioned to have 180 episodes. But due to its soaring popularity, where it beat even blockbuster period drama Beauty At War starring Sheren Tang and Ada Choi, in ratings, its run was extended to 500 episodes.

Last December, TVB extended the show again to 700 episodes. And given that there appears to be no end in sight at the moment for the show - which broadcast its 641st episode last night - it looks likely to cross the 1,000-episode mark.

Meanwhile, Taiwan's popular long-form drama Love, which ran for 787 episodes over three years in Singapore from 2008 to 2011, was notably the third most popular show on Channel 8 in 2010 - the only foreign TV drama on the list of Top 10 Most Popular Serials that year.

An even bigger hit here is Taiwan's Night Market Life, which is still showing in Singapore after being first broadcast here in 2011. Last year, it snagged the No. 1 spot in the most popular drama list during its time slot on Channel 8 - a testament to the number of viewers who tune in to the 1,008-episode series.

Singapore's MediaCorp, too, still sees value in producing long-form dramas - it launched the 190-episode sitcom 118, which stars Pan Lingling, Liu Lingling and Chew Chor Meng, last month.

Ms Jomay Wan, MediaCorp's vice president in programming, TV, says that the appeal of long-form dramas is that they "allow the characters to grow and be a part of the viewers' lives" over a longer period of time.

The show, centred on a Singaporean family who owns a coffee shop of the same name in Tiong Bahru, is said to be a lighthearted take on local, real-life social issues.

It deals, for example, with the pros and cons of the gentrification of Tiong Bahru, a prickly issue that many old-time residents in the neighbourhood have been grappling with of late.

It is the first local long-form drama since Your Hand In Mine (2009-2010) starring Huang Wenyong and Chen Liping, which had 180 episodes.

Housewife Lee Lye Keow, 45, who has been following 118 over the past few weeks and is also a fan of Hong Kong long-form drama A Kindred Spirit (1995-1999), says that she sticks to such lengthy dramas simply because she has "already invested so much time in them".

She adds in Mandarin: "Even if the storyline is not very good later on, you watch it anyway because you already know so much about these characters and their stories. It sort of becomes routine, watching the show every day at a set time."

Nanyang Technological University assistant professor Liew Kai Khiun, who has research interests in pop culture trends, points out that "long-form dramas tend to be open-ended serials that leave some stones unturned deliberately for more plots and characters to be developed and introduced subsequently".

He adds: "Without an equilibrium or resolution in sight and with the stubborn presence of screen villains in particular, audiences who are pulled into the dramas would tend to want to follow them to the end."

Perhaps, a greater success factor for such dramas is the fact that many of them take into account audience feedback. Unlike the traditional drama series which are typically written, shot and completed all at one go before they are aired, long-form dramas are often done with very short turnaround time before they are broadcast.

Episodes for 118 are shot and edited about three weeks before they are aired - a far cry from the usual Channel 8 drama that is completed as a package several months before they are shown.

Mr Ang Eng Tee, screenwriter of 118 and also 125-episode drama Holland V (2003), says with a chuckle: "It's more stressful writing against deadline this way, rather than being able to formulate the entire show from beginning to the end all at once, but this will make the series more updated and current for audiences."

He will consider weaving topical issues into the show to spark talking points.

He has written the first 60 episodes of the show and will continue to trawl the Internet and the newspapers for ideas for future episodes. He says frankly: "Doing long-form dramas is a big gamble because there is always that worry that it will fail from the start, which means that all the effort would be wasted. But in the case of 118, we are constantly changing the script to match what's going on in society."

To date, 118 has a total reach of 1.76 million viewers, according to MediaCorp.

Producer of TVB's Come Home Love, Mr Tsui Yu On, says that his production team members are constantly monitoring Internet forums and social media sites to see what viewers are saying about the show.

Audience feedback is, after all, crucial to keeping long-form dramas going, adds the veteran producer, who is behind several top-rated long-form TVB dramas in the past, including the 1,128-episode A Kindred Spirit, the 327-episode Virtues Of Harmony (2001-2002) and the 153-episode Happy Harmony (1994).

He tells Life! over the telephone from Hong Kong in Cantonese: "Frankly, we were very surprised that Come Home Love was this successful, not because we don't have any confidence in long-form dramas or we wouldn't have done it, but because there are no big-name stars in the show. The story must have struck a chord in audiences, which is why they continue going back to it.

He says actor Auston Lam's character in the drama series appeared in more scenes as the series went on because audiences grew to love his character.

Screenwriter of Come Home Love, Ms Sandy Shaw, admits, however, that there is plenty of pressure in having to continually come up with fresh ideas and plotlines, despite the "helpful hints" that she gets from viewers.

She says in Cantonese with a laugh: "We always run out of ideas because the show has been going on for so long.

"Luckily, there is always so much going on in the news from which we can get inspiration for new episodes."

She adds: "Coming up, for example, we'll have an episode about the obsession with the iPhone 6.

"So we're not too worried about being at a complete loss over new ideas. The bigger challenge is how to turn them into engaging stories.

"We have to ensure that the show continues to be watchable and never feels drawn out."


Follow Yip Wai Yee on Twitter @STyipwaiyee

This article was first published on Nov 13, 2014.
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