Primetime series cut back on content

At the time “ER” premiered — before George Clooney was an Oscar-winning movie star or O.J. Simpson had been tried for murder — an average episode ran roughly 47 minutes and 30 seconds. As the NBC medical drama scrubs up for this month’s 14th-season premiere, each installment is allotted just over 43 minutes.

Still tastes great, perhaps, but about 10% less filling, too.

Witness the incredible shrinking primetime series, a phenomenon evident only with the perspective of standing back far enough to discern what the slicing to slim down programs has wrought — potentially to the detriment of scripted fare, especially half-hour sitcoms actually afforded roughly 21 minutes to tell a story.

Usually, when non-program time is discussed, it’s from the opposite direction. Media buyers fret about “clutter,” fearing that the many minutes devoted to ads and promotion will trigger more zapping and fast-forwarding during commercial pods. That’s one reason why product-integration tactics have become pushier than a telemarketers’ convention.

Yet those conspicuous tie-ins woven into shows haven’t prevented commercial time from gradually increasing, causing networks to rearrange act breaks in order to shorten the aforementioned pods and some advertisers to alter their creative in the hopes of trumping TiVo and other DVRs.

Seldom mentioned, though, is what the loss of time does to the programs themselves, eliminating sizable chunks of story within ever-more-complicated series.

“As we continue to have shorter and shorter airtimes, we are removing story to do it,” said “ER” exec producer John Wells, who has shepherded the show from TV’s equivalent of obstetrics to the gerontology unit. “What does it do to the storytelling if you’re breaking it into even shorter and shorter pieces?”

The squeeze on program time for dramas is so intense that watching a DVD marathon of a season of “24” only takes 17 hours. The effect on sitcoms might be even more pronounced — a fact with which producer Warren Littlefield, who oversaw NBC Entertainment when “ER” bowed, is currently wrestling.

Not long ago Littlefield acquired a British comedy he intends to pitch in the U.S. Adapting the ad-free BBC format, however, presents a major challenge on blurb-saturated networks.

“When you go from 27 minutes to 21, and you’re trying to establish character and tell a story, it’s really difficult,” Littlefield said. “It’s particularly tough for the half-hour side. There’s no time to breathe.”

There’s no way to precisely measure how programming shrinkage has contributed to declining ratings or the sitcom’s malaise, and besides, bad shows can never be short enough.

Still, Littlefield does see the freedom cable enjoys with its subscriber-supported model as “a secret weapon,” seducing writers with the prospect of shedding their network shackles — including the fact that HBO series last however long they need to and ad-supported FX periodically allows episodes run beyond an hour, unfettered by the tyranny of what newspapers call the “news hole.”

From a creative standpoint, this is obviously a major advantage. Showrunners responsible for pay TV’s dense dramas aren’t tasked with writing toward arbitrary act breaks but rather keeping the audience engaged throughout, which doesn’t require building to a “Come back after the commercials!” crescendo every eight minutes.

Critics rarely bitch about this, largely because we usually see advance DVDs of premieres and skip past commercials when watching off air (bless you, TiVo), making it easy to forget the way most people consume TV, since DVR technology has yet to reach the vast majority of viewers.

Failing to fully weigh commercials’ impact could also be a factor when testing shows. ABC’s “Pushing Daisies” wowed fans when screened at Comic-Con, for example, but this fairy-tale-like new hour likely plays differently when viewed uninterrupted with a group rather than competing with the distractions of home.

Even lacking scientific methods to quantify program erosion’s toll, general hostility toward the proliferation of intrusive network promos was underscored by Lewis Black’s rant about them during Sunday’s Emmy telecast. The sputtering comic notably garnered spirited (and in some seats no doubt uncomfortable) applause — in a room populated by TV insiders.

Fourteen years is a long time (just ask Clooney, if not O.J.), but as culprits are sought for who killed this genre or that medium, the cost of TV’s shrinkage shouldn’t be overlooked — because unlike “Seinfeld,” there just might be something wrong with that.

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