On the major US Networks (NBC, CBS, ABC, FOX, etc) a full season for a show in prime-time is 24 episodes. This is true regardless of whether the show in question is an hour long drama, a half hour sitcom or an animated show. In a recent interview with UK’s Metro, Tim Kring, the creator of the recently canceled “Heroes,” made some comments about the season length. When asked what factors might have lead to a dramatic viewership decline for “Heroes” after such a successful first season Kring pointed to the difficulty of sustaining quality over 24 episodes every season. While there were doubtless a number a of factors involved in the decline in quality and ratings on “Heroes” it does raise the question of whether or not 24 episodes is simply too many.
It makes sense that Kring would bring up in an interview with a British journalist, since seasons of shows in the UK run much shorter than in the US. Even the biggest shows in the country such as Doctor Who only run for 13 episodes. Some other shows have seasons that are as short as six episodes. Fans of British television often point to these shorter seasons as a reason that so many shows that have had American remakes are considered inferior to the original shows. Shows such as the canceled “Life on Mars” and “Worst Week” were big hits in the UK but failed in the US. Part of that problem might have been writers trying to stretch the character stories over more episodes than they were ever meant for.
It’s also worth nothing that even in the US the shows that have gotten the most critical attention have increasingly been shows on basic and premium cable networks. Shows such as “Breaking Bad,” “Mad Men,” and “Dexter” all have 13 episode seasons. AMC’s latest monster hit “The Walking Dead” only had six episodes in it’s premier season. This allows the writers to focus on the core stories of the characters and avoid filler episodes that don’t move things along. By condensing shows into shorter seasons it’s possible to just condense a show to it’s best parts and trim all the fat that can result from a 24 episode season. One of the other advantages of a shorter season is that it allows the entire season to be shot before the show starts airing. That means that even if the shows is canceled there will still be a complete seasons that fans can see, and the story won’t be cut off mid-season because the show was canceled before all of the episodes were shot.
That said not all shows suffer equally from longer seasons. Half hour shows, such as sitcoms, and shows that deal with self contained stories such as “Bones” and “Castle” manage to maintain quality over their seasons. The shows that seem to be most affected are the hour long dramas which deal with continuing stories that take place over multiple episodes or even the entire season. After a phenomenal first season the quality of “Lost” went up and down over it’s run and the final season was met with a mixed reaction. For shows like this it seems like writers run the danger of using up all their best ideas to fill the first season and then are left scrambling for story ideas later on. Or the writers may have a good idea but are forced to stretch it out for several episodes when perhaps it could best be handled in one.
There are some advantages to longer seasons, one that is a benefit for the networks and one that is a benefit for the shows themselves. As mentioned before 24 episode seasons usually begin airing while shooting is still going on for the second half of the episodes. The advantage of this for the networks is that they can pull the plug on a show that isn’t taking off in the ratings before they’ve spent the money to produce a full season. There is also the possibility for fan reaction to impact the show. Savvy producers and writers to keep tabs on how fans of the show are reacting to characters and stories can use those reactions to better the show mid-season. If they realize that a character is not working they can change the character as the episodes go or write them out. If another character that was intended as a one time appearance gets a strong response that character can be brought back and expanded on, and the fans won’t have to wait for the next season.
Overall it may be time for the major networks to start considering shorter seasons for some of their bigger budget projects. If the budget for a 24 episode show was used to produce a 13 episode show it could truly be used to create something amazing. Sticking so rigidly to the 24 episode model for all shows may soon leave the networks in the dust of superior cable shows that give greater quality in smaller doses.