Reduced script output emerges as a model
In recent Emmy campaigns, producers of broadcast series have complained that it’s unfair to compare their series, which are drawn out by economic forces to seasons of 22 episodes and beyond, to cable skeins, which average about 13 shows per campaign.
“The optimum number is somewhere between 13-16,” notes former “The OC” exec producer Josh Schwartz, who put two new series on the networks last season: NBC’s “Chuck” and the CW’s “Gossip Girl.”
Although it wasn’t part of the original plan, Schwartz and a number of other producers of broadcast series got to experience how the other half lived this season, with the lengthy Writers Guild strike truncating many campaigns short of 22 episodes.
For example, “Chuck,” which will return to the Peacock Monday-night lineup next fall, only had 13 first-season installments, while “Gossip Girl,” a buzz generator that’s also coming back next season, ran for 18 episodes in its initial campaign.
For Schwartz, who oversaw the production of a 27-episode order for the first season of “The OC” in 2003, less was certainly more.
“When you do 27 episodes, you’re taking storylines that should take three episodes and expanding them to five or six,” he explains. “It’s one thing if your show is a procedural — then, it’s just a matter of coming up with enough good cases. But with serialized shows like ‘Gossip Girl’ or ‘Chuck,’ it becomes trickier.”
For “Pushing Daisies” creator-exec producer Bryan Fuller and his writing team, having their freshman season abruptly ended by the strike didn’t necessarily yield an exact simulation of what it might be like to work on, say, HBO’s “Big Love,” on which, the producers enter every season knowing they’re going to build their story arcs on just a dozen episodes.
Indeed, even though they ended the season with only nine episodes in the can, the “Pushing Daisies” crew mapped their narrative around not just an initial 13-episode order but, ratings permitting, a back nine, too.
Still, Fuller can recall his days on the staff of “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine,” which used to call 26 episodes a season.
“That was so grueling,” he says. “You’d get to 13 episodes, and you’d only be halfway done.” The difference between 26 episodes and 13 episodes, he adds, is “the difference between pacing yourself and a mad sprint.”
With a number of exec producers desirous of shorter seasons — as well as thesps, who often prefer to scale down their series commitments — will there be a trend toward more cablelike campaigns?
There are already a few examples. “Friday Night Lights” will shoot 13 third-season episodes under a dual-platform arrangement with NBC and DirecTV.
And more notably, ABC phenom “Lost” is now built around 16-episode seasons (though the strike knocked some of this year’s into next).
“(The producers) very smartly went to ABC and said they wanted to do fewer episodes in a season,” Schwartz says. “Sixteen is a better number. Every episode can feel more eventful.”
“I would love to do 16 episodes,” Fuller adds. “You could really make a meal of it.”
Of course, there are plenty of economic forces that are reinforcing the status quo. Not only do networks like to say yes to any kind of voracious viewer demand, they don’t like to say no to advertisers who want more inventory in shows that are reaching desirable demographics.
There’s also off-net syndication and cable sales to consider — you get to a minimum benchmark for off-net stripping a lot faster when you’re making 22 shows a year vs. 16 or 13.
“I like this less-is-more theory, and to some extent I agree with it, but it doesn’t really matter what we prefer,” TV Guide critic Matt Roush comments. “If a network show is popular enough, it’s never going to settle for producing a minimum number of episodes when the network and studio can squeeze out a maximum number of episodes to produce more backend profit. That’s the way the system works, at least for now.”