As shows decrease in episode number, how the changing world has impacted upon our favourite television.
You’ve recently stumbled onto some free time, so you decide you want to fill that time with a Netflix binge and plenty of junk food. You sit down to watch a show – maybe it’s been recommended to you by a friend – and then you discover that there are 20-plus episodes in the first season alone. You’re instantly put off. You abandon Netflix and decide to watch a double bill of Jeremy Kyle on ITV2 +1 instead.
There was a time when a series of 20-plus episodes was the norm; the biggest American drama shows in the 00s used this model
Believe it or not, there was a time not long ago when a series of 20-plus episodes was the norm; most of the biggest American drama shows in the 00s used this model (Lost, Prison Break, The West Wing etc), but recently there’s been a huge shift in commissioning episode lengths. Other than making scheduling easier and obvious cost-saving reasons, there has been a more significant factor to contribute to this shift in commissioning.
We are all absorbed in the digital age, whether we like it or not. Look around and you’ll see the majority of the population glued to their phones. You yourself are guilty of it. You could be sat in a cold train station waiting for your daily commute, sat alone and bored at home, or trying to avoid eye contact with anyone after an awkward family argument – it’s a welcome distraction, a time killer, and what better way to pass the time than to watch a video. YouTube was the go-to site for many years, but with the rise of social media also followed the rise of micro-video blogging. Vine and Instagram make seconds-long videos possible, and there’s a plethora of other similar apps available now. Videos shared on Facebook and Twitter that last any longer than 30 seconds instantly put the viewer off. And the same mentality is spreading to modern television.
The attention span of the public is increasingly shortening, and television has a lot of technological competition to compete with. So why not shorten a show? Make it more action packed, story driven. Makes sense doesn’t it? You’ve only got to scan over the episode lists of some of the most successful shows in the past year to see a decrease in length. Breaking Bad, arguably one of the most successful television series of the last decade, went through an influx of episode lengths throughout its time on our screens, but its last year was only eight episodes long. Game of Thrones is 10 episodes a year. The first season of Fargo was only 10 episodes. True Detective, which was one of the best TV shows in 2014, had only eight episodes to tell its self-contained story. It’s not just cable shows either; network shows like Hannibal and The Following have also adopted this model.
The more technology and social media advance, the more difficult it will become to gain and keep our attention as consumers
For television writers working on a popular series, the pressure to come up with 20 stories a year was becoming increasingly difficult. Reducing the episode number makes sense to keep a level of consistency and to keep the overall story arc intact. Cutting out episode ‘fillers’ retains quality storytelling and encourages binge watching. Netflix recognised this when commissioning its original programming, keeping most of its series at 13 episodes or less (see House of Cards, Lilyhammer, Orange Is The New Black). Telling a story over 10-13 hours rather than 22-24 hours has forced the writers to condense and trim the fat, ultimately leading to more complete and entertaining series.
There are still 20-plus episode series out there, but it’s mostly sitcoms and police procedurals. The rest are joining the ‘cable club’. Even 24, a television series that relies on 24 episodes a season as part of its format, was reduced to 12 episodes this year for 24: Live Another Day. The more technology and social media advance, the more difficult it will become to gain and keep our attention as consumers. The same can be said about storytellers. The future will no doubt see TV series condensed even further, but for the time being, be happy with 10 episodes a year to sink your teeth into. Binge away.
Read more: Is TV timeless in the age of Netflix?
Featured image: Netflix
Inset image: AMC