The Incredible Shrinking TV Season: Analysis


TV writers' room
For decades, audiences have been viewing television seasons that consist of approximately 22 episodes over the course of the year. In recent times though, that number has been slimming down. FOX’s 2013 anachronistic tale “Sleepy Hollow” received 13-episode first and second season orders; the same occurred for NBC’s serial killer drama “Hannibal,” CBS’s “Under the Dome” and ABC’s “Mistresses,” helmed by Alyssa Milano.

What is the cause of this craze? To figure that out, first we have to review why the 22-episode rule was the standard for so long.

“That 22-, 23-episode number is probably calibrated not to the length of the season or production schedules,” offered “Person of Interest” showrunner, Jonathan Nolan, “but to the exact point at which a showrunner will have a nervous breakdown.”

That number is also considered of importance because a show is more likely to be syndicated after it achieves around 88 episodes, or about four seasons. However, this is not a strict number by any means.

Seemingly, the success of 10-episodes-per-season premium cable series like “Game of Thrones” on HBO, as well 13-episode-per-season Netflix originals like “House of Cards” and “Orange is the New Black” is causing the networks to reconsider the length of a season.

“I do think that, when you slow the conveyor belt down, the quality control tends to go up,” says “Lost” and “The Leftovers” showrunner Damon Lindelof. “And the pacing of the storytelling, particularly for on-going serialized dramas, means that you don’t need to do non-essential episodes, just because you have to fill this pre-existing schedule.”

Producer Tim Kring, who is rebooting NBC’s “Heroes” as the 13-episode miniseries “Heroes: Reborn” for 2015, feels similarly.

Sleepy Hollow on FOX

“With something that’s on all the time, it’s hard to be rare and special when you’re neither rare nor special. Having a limited idea is a very modern way to tell a story,” Kring told Entertainment Weekly.

Many point to the BBC’s “Sherlock,” a lauded contemporary adaptation of the classic Sir Arthur Conan Doyle story, as an archetypal example of where less can be more; each season of the show includes only three 90-minute episodes.

“I think not outstaying your welcome is a vital ingredient,” articulated actor Martin Freeman, who portrays Dr. John Watson.

But there’s further reasoning behind the short series orders: more Hollywood A-listers will become involved.

“Shorter seasons that are basically eight-to-10-hour films [are] attracting top talent that may have never considered TV before with its longer-term commitments,” argues film writer Ian Casselberry.

Indeed – Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey, both Emmy and Academy Award nominees and winners – acquired recognition and plaudits for their performances in HBO’s eight-episode “True Detective.”

Academy Award winner Kevin Spacey stars as conniving politician Frank Underwood in Netflix’s “House of Cards.”

And earlier this month, Academy Award winner Halle Berry began appearing in the 13-episode futuristic space mystery “Extant” on CBS.

Extant on CBS

Casselberry goes on to bring up another noteworthy factor:

“People prefer seasons of 10-13 episodes that require a bit less of a commitment and can be binged over a shorter period of time, rather than the old standard 24- to 26-episode slogs … our time is more precious [now].”

Overall, the decrease in episode numbers can be boiled down to three key points. Less episodes allows for more staff dedication to writing and production, provides the option to employ higher tier performers and does not restrict the 21st century viewer by occupying a huge amount of their time.

It’s likely we’ll see this trend continue.

Author: Brian Cameron

Image credit: Shutterstock

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