Welcome to Inefficiency Week. Over the next five days, we’re going to take a look at what we lose when we get lost in the chase for efficiency. We’ll explore the ways it’s changing the games we love to watch. We’ll remember its failures across the pop culture spectrum. And we’ll report on what it’s doing to our lives — romantic, physical, and otherwise.
The typical TV season is shrinking. Unless you consume TV solely through network sitcoms and procedurals, many of which still operate on an older model of 20-plus-episode seasons, you’ve already recognized or read about this trend. But you may not realize how recent and steep the decline in length has been.
There are two ways we can visualize the decrease in episode orders per season. The first is with IMDb data scraped and analyzed for this article by Dan Kozikowski. The sample includes all TV seasons since 1983 of shows that have ever placed among IMDb’s 25 most popular from any one year.
Aside from a fluky one-year dip in 1992, TV’s median season length was stable for decades. Although this display doesn’t consider episode lengths—which may also have varied as dramatic elements have migrated to the half-hour format and streaming services have loosened restrictions on running time—the median number of episodes per season has declined from the once-standard 22, where it still sat as recently as 2003, to just 13 over the past few years. We can confirm that with a second graph of average season length over time, this one based on worldwide TV data from The Movie Database (also known as TMDb). This time we’ll go all the way back to 1950.
In the ’50s it wasn’t unheard of for shows to have seasons consisting of 30 episodes or more. The original run of The Honeymooners, for instance, aired 39 episodes between October 1, 1955, and September 22, 1956, taking a few months off in the summer of ’56 but otherwise adhering so tightly to its regular schedule that the show went on even on Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve. Soon, the competition for airtime increased, and episode totals tailed off. As the previous image indicated, a baseline of 20ish episodes reigned supreme from the early 1980s through the early aughts before beginning to dip toward its current all-time-low level.
The great shortening started with cable, but it’s spread to network TV too. Even reboots from the long-season era have returned looking slimmer: Fuller House seasons are half as long as Full House’s, and although the new Will & Grace has been extended to 16 episodes, a big boost from its initial order of 10, that’s still a step down from the original run’s traditional 22–25 installments.
According to TMDb, the overall 2017 seasonal average is down to just nine episodes, although that includes series from other countries whose TV seasons have historically tended to be shorter. The precise length of the typical TV season in 2017 depends on how one defines and dissects the data set (and on the channel and genre), but it seems safe to say that in general the season tends to be roughly half as long as it was 15 years ago. And while TV’s transformation is mostly positive—downsizing seasons has ushered in or at least coincided with a golden era of scripted programming—we’re still potentially losing something in the transition from nearly year-round institutions to shows whose eight-, 10-, and 13-episode seasons are more often off than they’re on. The era of “too much TV” is also, at times, the era of not quite enough of any one well-loved show.
There are several sound factors behind the trend toward miniaturized seasons, as a number of articles over the past two years have explained. On the financial side, networks with subscription and streaming components are increasingly opting for a breadth of content rather than tying their fortunes to one flagship show; because their business is attracting subscribers, not selling ads, they place a higher value on variety, which can convince a wider cross-section of viewers that the network offers something that they Need to See. Similarly, the advent of streaming and video on demand makes it less vital for networks to inflate their shows’ cumulative episode counts into the triple digits in hopes of cashing in on syndication; although more episodes still means more money in reruns, it’s easier now to license a series’ second life after even an abbreviated run. For a service such as Netflix, there’s always incentive to add more titles to the TV library, even if they can be binged in one day.
On the creative side, shorter seasons enable and privilege finely tuned, deeply plotted, and ambitiously produced narratives: Freed from the need to sustain 20-plus-episode seasons for an unknown number of years, creators can tell discrete stories and end arcs when they want to rather than stringing them along or resetting the story after every episode. As an anonymous “cable vet” said in Josef Adalian’s Vulture primer on declining season lengths, speaking about the way TV once worked, “Great storytelling got watered down because you didn’t want too much stuff in one episode, or you didn’t want to give up too much character too soon.” Now, the same insider said, there’s no need to expand or contract the narrative to suit the needs or constraints of the clock; “You just need to tell the right story. There’s something very liberating about not having to fit in one box.”
Finally, in a blend of financial and creative interests, shorter seasons make it easier to enlist stars, both behind and in front of the camera. Big-name actors juggling TV and movie roles are more willing to sign up for series that have compressed production periods, and the proliferation of outlets in the market for scripted TV has also made it more feasible for creators and showrunners to dictate terms, allowing them to shop around an idea until they find a home that will allow them to produce the project at a less backbreaking, burnout-inducing pace—and, often, in a more manageable number of episodes.
On the whole, then, TV’s new normal serves consumers well. Just since the start of last year, dozens of series—including Game of Thrones, American Crime Story, Stranger Things, Big Little Lies, The Handmaid’s Tale, Fargo, Better Call Saul, Master of None, Westworld, GLOW, Legion, The Leftovers, and many more—have captured our heads, our hearts, and our mouse-clicks with seasons small enough to be checked out in the “10 items or less” aisle. The great strength of the short-season era is that there’s rarely an episode of a top-tier show that hasn’t been polished to an entertaining gleam, if not quite to perfection. As a bonus, catching up on a series after falling behind is less likely to take weeks or months or intimidate laggards into deleting the DVR backlog. And because there’s room on the schedule for so many shows, when one great short season is ending, five others are about to begin. TV has never been better.
There’s one catch: The sinking season has lowered all boats. By decreasing episode orders across the board, the industry has effectively limited how much of any single great show there can be. We’re skimming episodes off the top of the exceptional shows that thrived under adverse creative conditions.
In most cases, we’re not missing much. Most old series would have benefited from eliminating the fat and the filler that was usually required to pad out a 22-episode season. But a few shows, at least, made the most of that extra space, maintaining a consistently high level of quality while pumping out episodes at an ungodly rate: Cheers, of course, which often ran its season tallies to 26, airing almost without pause except for its summer hiatus; Sorkin-era West Wing; The Good Wife, which its fans could count on even as the rest of the Sunday-night lineup waxed and waned. Insert your own extended-series favorite here (as long as you don’t pick The Big Bang Theory). We’ve also largely lost the thrill of the breakout hit whose glorious first season goes on and on, like Lost or The O.C. Those shows also serve as arguments against long seasons, since they ran out of story runway faster than they would have if they’d saved some plot for later. But plenty of short-season shows run out of steam, too, and the long ones burned bright while they lasted. There’s something to be said for striking 22 times while the cast and crew are hungry and the creative iron is hot.
The outliers that lasted, though, were staples that we could look forward to watching and discussing week in and week out. Their characters were our constant companions. And because they aired for half the year or more, refreshing our recollections once a week, it was easier to remember the intricacies of their plots than it sometimes is today, when a serialized show is on for two months and off for 10 or reappears once a year, Brigadoon-like, to dump all of its episodes in one day. Some current series’ between-season breaks last so long that it takes a substantial percentage of each successive season’s (reduced) allotment of episodes to reacquaint oneself with the characters.
And so, instead of 22 episodes of The Good Wife, we get The Good Fight—which is, well, good, but for only 10–13 episodes at a time. Instead of 26 episodes of Sam Malone, we get 13 of Michael from The Good Place. Instead of around 26 episodes of every previous Star Trek series, we get 15 of the upcoming Discovery.
Granted, The Good Fight’s stars and showrunners might not have signed on for full 22-episode seasons. The plot-twisty Good Place probably wouldn’t have worked with the same episode counts as Michael Schur’s previous, less serialized sitcoms. And CBS might have balked at the budget it would have taken to fund 20-something CGI-heavy episodes of Star Trek: Discovery. It’s not as if every short-season show on a network today would have had a longer equivalent in an earlier era. Many of today’s best shows couldn’t have been conceived two decades ago, let alone green-lit and brought to air. Today’s TV has spoiled us, but we can still spare some nostalgia for a time when the best shows didn’t come and go quite so quickly, and finales didn’t follow so fast after premieres that it seems as if an expiring season just started.
This TV discussion has a sports analogue: Some of the same pros and cons are in play in the debate about the length of the baseball season. Sure, a 162-game schedule is ridiculously long. Cutting it down might make each game seem more special, preserve players’ health, and ensure a higher level of play. But there’s something to be said for having a hobby that’s almost always there. And when an elite contender comes along, we still want the season to last long enough that the team has a chance be the best ever.
So don’t stop making miniseries and note-perfect 10-episode seasons, titans of TV. But do us a favor: From time to time, combine quality with quantity, and throw us the odd 22-episode prestige series to keep us company while we wait for our next eight-episode helping of the latest, greatest show.