*EDITOR’S NOTE: This post has been imported from my Tumblr page, where it originally appeared.*
L-R: Kyle Chandler in Friday Night Lights; Bryan Cranston in Breaking Bad; Kiefer Sutherland in 24
CBS has a big hit on its hands with its new series Under the Dome. The show continues to pull in big viewership numbers, especially given the fact that it’s airing during the summer, a period where broadcast networks normally find themselves begging viewers to abandon their vacations and extended time with family and instead watch television. “You don’t need to take a distant vacation with the kids, or go to the beach, or even leave your front door!“ they’ll say. “We’ll even make substitutes for real summer camp and spending time with your racist relatives!”
“Teacher. Mother. Secret lover.”
When I had first heard about Dome, I thought it would be a TV movie adaptation of the book, but as I read more into it, I was pleasantly surprised to see that it was actually a 13-episode series. CBS, in addition to other broadcast networks, seems to be following a trend made popular recently by the cable networks: shorter TV seasons.
Short TV seasons are nothing unfamiliar in most other cultures and nations, most notably the UK. But here in the U.S., we get endless films for a sequel of the sequel of the prequel of the two sequels before that (also known as the Star Wars series) or the television equivalent, Law & Order. Why so much? Why else—because they make money!
And when Hollywood gets a hold of a sure money-maker, they want to make it last for as long as feasibly possible. With television, this means broadcast networks paying for a standard 22-episode season run of a show and getting as many eyes on it as possible so that they can ask advertisers to pay them more to play those ads during the show, thus making their money back and then some. I don’t even want to know how much advertisers are paying for airtime during The Big Bang Theory. Cable networks don’t have as much money as broadcast ones, so they pay for fewer episodes, but this is where the significance lies for me. Because what the shows lose in number of episodes, they gain in something much more valuable to me: Creative success.
One of my favorite shows, which I also believe to be one of the best ever, is Friday Night Lights. I watched it from the very beginning in 2006, when it originally aired on NBC. I was amazed by the quality of the acting and visuals—it was hard for me to believe I wasn’t watching a movie instead of a show. But it had its troubles with getting viewers, and in early 2008, it was on the brink of cancellation after the abruptly ended second season. Fortunately for me and the other 5 million weekly viewers, NBC made a deal with DirecTV to split the costs, and the show continued on, albeit in shortened, 13-episode seasons. This was the first time I personally saw what having a shorter season can creatively do for a show.
Any writer for a television series will tell you how incredibly difficult it is to be consistent in quality for 22 episodes, let alone however many seasons a show produces. It’s almost a given: The longer a show goes on, the worse it gets. But with Friday Night Lights, those last three seasons were the best it had ever been. Having fewer episodes meant that the show had a chance to build the framework for a complete story that would last the entire season, which left the writers little chance of struggling to find stories later. The show was never fresher and more coherent than it was in its final seasons. And I believe quality is much more important to the enduring legacy (and home media sales) of a show than the quantity of episodes. Take a look at Breaking Bad, for example: a show that actually got away with doing eight-episode seasons a year apart! The show is ending partly because of how expensive it was getting to make, but more importantly, creator Vince Gilligan was looking to end it on top, before it started to possibly decline in quality. And by the time the show ends, it will actually have had fewer episodes than a long-running show like Heroes. But Heisenberg will have a longer-lasting and better-selling legacy than Hiro ever did.
So now I think it’s time for the broadcast networks to get more on board with the short season concept and the quality of programming it brings. It’s no secret that they wish to regain some of the critical prestige they’ve lost — Seven of the last ten Emmys for Best Drama went to 13-episode series on cable networks. And now they’re losing overall viewership and demographics to The Walking Dead. They need to take bolder steps, and we’re already seeing the effect. CBS has invigorated its summer programming with Under the Dome. (Even though I haven’t yet watched it, what I’ve heard gives me the impression that the network may look to make it last more than these 13 episodes and probably do another season next summer. I personally think CBS should quit while its ahead, let this show end, and find another great, new property for next summer.) FOX has found success with Kevin Bacon’s The Following and its 15-episode seasons, and now it’s also looking to inject its summer next year with a dose of adrenaline in the form of a 12-episode revival of 24, which as another one of my favorite shows, I can attest will probably benefit greatly from a shorter run. Maybe if NBC followed suit, they wouldn’t be bleeding money from their ears right now. Fortune favors the bold.
If you’re reading this (Thanks!), I want to know your opinion. Do you think shorter TV seasons lead to better TV programming?