TV’s New Normal: How Shorter Runs, Fewer Episodes Are Revitalizing Primetime

The Good Place Mike Schur Ted Danson Variety
Cody Pickens for Variety

NBC had good reason to go all in on “The Good Place.”

The new comedy hails from “Parks and Recreation” co-creator Mike Schur, who has a long history at the network and a deal at studio division Universal Television. NBC gave it a straight-to-series order, skipping the traditional pilot process. The network also committed to a 13-episode season, with no plans for a back-nine order — the sort of limited run typically reserved for expensive, producer-driven dramas such as Fox’s “Empire,” in which the creative demands outweigh the economic appetite for more TV at all times. The deal helped the show nab stars Kristen Bell and Ted Danson, two of pilot season’s top gets.

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“In this world we’re in now, there’s more of a sense that shows should have a number of episodes that befits that idea, instead of just, ‘Let’s do as many as we possibly can,’ ” Schur says.

That attitude reflects a new normal in TV — one in which networks often accede to creator demand and viewer appetite for stories that end when it makes narrative sense for them to do so, not when every last drop of cash has been squeezed from them. Unprecedented competition from an increased number of platforms offering an increased number of original series has fueled this shift — and has had a profound impact on the current upfront season.

“We’ve been more strategic in our scheduling discussions this year because of all the election, live events, football, and holiday fare throughout the year,” says NBC Entertainment president Jennifer Salke. “We are looking for straight runs for these shows, with the fewest interruptions. The serialized shows can especially benefit from a clean run in a world where audiences have so many choices.”

In the new world of primetime, series creators often have an end date in sight from the moment they pitch the show, and networks have to grapple with a much higher turnover rate of series, even in success. With 400-plus scripted shows to choose from, there’s less chance than ever that even the biggest hits can achieve the kind of 15- or 20-season longevity once enjoyed by NBC’s “Law & Order” or CBS’ “CSI.”

“The model of television has always been sort of like the Pony Express — you just ride the horse until it drops dead underneath you,” says veteran showrunner Carlton Cuse. “So it was an expected thing that monstrous, amazing shows would run for 14 seasons, but then kind of just end when they ran out of gas.”

In the current environment, says Cuse, “particularly with the advent of shows that have become intensely serialized, people are looking for and want resolution.”

Cuse was one of the first producers to leverage the clout of a hit series to gain the freedom to set his own end date. In 2007, as the third season of their hit drama “Lost” wound down, Cuse and co-creator and showrunner Damon Lindelof cut a deal with ABC to end the series at six seasons. Fans of the serialized science-fiction fantasy drama had begun to grumble that what at first looked like a carefully crafted narrative appeared to be treading water.

“There’s such a pull toward character-driven shows nowadays. It’s so juicy to dig into that. That draws a more passionate audience, but it’s almost impossible to sustain.”
David Shore, creator of “House”

By agreeing to set an end date, ABC implied that three additional seasons of the show with its creators on board were more valuable than more seasons under new management.

For a traditional TV drama, that value proposition wouldn’t have made sense. Five years before Cuse and Lindelof’s deal, the three highest rated dramas on television were “CSI” and NBC’s “ER” and “Law & Order.” Each was a procedural drama, a case-of-the-week in which characters confronted and overcame a new set of challenges within roughly 45 minutes. The shows were designed to be evergreen, able to be viewed out of order, with minimal story threads connecting one episode to the next. This made it easy for viewers to come in and out throughout the season, and easy for the networks to program the shows as reruns. They also performed well in syndication, maximizing their value to their studios.

“Audiences tune in to the procedural,” says Sandra Stern, president of Lionsgate TV Group. “The international market likes the procedural. And as a businessperson, I have to bring up the dirty little secret that the procedurals make more money than the serialized shows.”

Procedural series still have great value. CBS, which traffics almost exclusively in them, has led all networks in total viewers for 13 of the last 14 seasons. But procedurals no longer rule television. Last season’s three top-rated dramas — AMC’s “The Walking Dead,” Fox’s “Empire,” and HBO’s “Game of Thrones” — are all serialized. They are all also driven by powerful producers — Robert Kirkman, Lee Daniels, and David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, respectively — who, like Cuse and Lindelof before them, have enormous leverage in their network relationships. Benioff and Weiss have already convinced HBO to end “Game of Thrones” after two more seasons and are pushing for those seasons to be shorter than the show’s 10-episode norm. Another high-powered showrunner, Shonda Rhimes, has said she has an ending in mind for ABC’s “Scandal” that won’t extend beyond a few more seasons, despite the fact that it was the second-highest-rated drama on broadcast last season.

The success of “Lost” helped fuel the trend on broadcast networks toward serialized television. That trend has grown in the show’s wake — and has made it harder for episodic dramas capable of running a decade or more to take root. In the 2011-12 season, the average broadcast drama ran 5.5 seasons. This season, the average is 4.8.

By the time AMC announced in 2011 that “Breaking Bad” would wrap after a fifth season, it was no longer outside the norm for creators to flex their muscle in the interest of putting a fine point on the story.

“I’m glad they were so supportive on ‘Breaking Bad’ of ending the show when it was not in anyone’s financial interest for it to end,” says creator Vince Gilligan. For his new show, “Better Call Saul,” a “Breaking Bad” prequel that Gilligan executive produces with Peter Gould, there’s no question about whether there is a firm end date on the horizon.

“We laid down our marker and said this was a show about Jimmy McGill and Saul Goodman, and once we finish that exploration, it really should be done,” Gould says.

At the root of TV’s shortening shelf life is the rise of subscription video-on-demand and the programming arms race it has sparked. SVOD created new revenue streams for studios to monetize shows after their initial runs. It also changed the way viewers watch, drawing them away from linear telecasts, making delayed and digital viewing the norm. And it increased competition, adding more platforms and more original programs to the mix.

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Digital viewing and the proliferation of the DVR made it possible for audiences to stay caught up on shows that demanded close attention. The success of “Lost” was fueled by electronic sell-through on iTunes and streaming on the then-innovative Watch ABC app, which allowed viewers to stay up to date. For “Mad Men,” meanwhile, Lionsgate’s Stern credits the SVOD deal she struck with Netflix to carry seasons of the series after they aired on AMC with driving audiences to subsequent seasons on cable — and making it economically viable for Lionsgate to produce the show.

“We realized that for serialized programming like “Mad Men,” syndication was not going to be as fruitful as the streaming services,” Stern says. The deal gave Netflix syndication and streaming rights — allowing it to control where else “Mad Men” could be watched post-AMC.

Syndication is traditionally where studios have made their money. The license fees paid by networks for the first four or five seasons of a show were typically not enough to cover a studio’s production costs. Hence a long-running show — one with a two-digit number of seasons to sell in syndication and in international markets — was the most desired outcome.

SVOD has created a vibrant market for another kind of program. Most shows move to streaming after one season, as opposed to the threshold of four seasons typically required for syndication. And they can make real money there. As Netflix, Hulu and Amazon fight to grow their businesses, they have competed fiercely for the streaming rights to popular series. “Empire,” Sony Pictures TV’s “The Blacklist,” and Warner Bros.’ “Gotham” each fetched roughly $2 million per episode for streaming rights. Each is a serialized drama.

Such shows don’t work as well in cable syndication, because they require a viewer to be in the same place at the same time every day to keep up, says Jana Winograde, executive vice president and head of business operations for ABC entertainment. “Now you have an SVOD market to supplement syndication that actually thrives on that type of show.”

But just as SVOD is suited to serialized dramas and binge viewing, such shows do not lend themselves to lengthy runs.

With the exception of NBC last season, broadcasters are programming more original hours of television this year than in the past — a reflection of audiences’ rejection of repeats.

Jenji Kohan, creator and showrunner of Netflix’s “Orange Is the New Black,” sees a long horizon ahead for her show, given its ability to pivot among characters and a setting that lends itself to characters coming and going. And that was no accident on her part. Showrunners need a clear vision from the outset, she says.

“So often people start to make a show where there’s no plan and there’s no legs, and then you’re going to get screwed. When people are pitching shows, they have to think about this,” Kohan says. “They have to understand how this show can go on for a really long time or ‘This is why it’s going to be a limited run, and I want to do it for this long.’ If you don’t plan ahead, you end up lost.”

The certainty that most successful shows will have a shorter life span than in years past is particularly challenging for the broadcast networks, which were built on the back of shows that run 22 to 24 episodes a season. Those series are the spine of the schedules of the networks that still serve up more original programming week in and week out than any other outlet.

But those networks are not immune to competitive pressures, which is why reruns have virtually disappeared from the Big Four’s lineups. Replacing the traditional rerun in many cases have been shows, both scripted and unscripted, sometimes running as little as five or six episodes.

“We’re putting on more original programing now — we just have to,” says Jeff Bader, NBC’s president of program planning, strategy, and research. “At the same time we need to put all these shows on, viewership is declining in linear TV, which means it’s harder for us to market them.”

With so much juggling, the traditional procedural has become even more valuable to networks, Bader adds.

“The holy grail still is the 22- to 24-episode show. We’re going to do everything we can to keep those going,” he says. “As a scheduler, I’m just happy to see that we have been able to launch shows like ‘Chicago Med’ and ‘Chicago Fire.’ You can see what season six is going to be.”

Cuse attributes the push toward shorter series runs to the unprecedented competition programmers now face.

“Nearly every deal I make these days we’re making up from scratch. The economic basis of television is shifting, and we’re all trying to find an equilibrium.”
Sandra Stern, Lionsgate TV

“I think it’s really intimidating for an audience to look down the pike at some show that might have an endless number of episodes,” Cuse says. “There’s this sense of a fear of commitment in a 400-show universe.”

As Hulu, Netflix, and Amazon have matured, they have come to rely more on original programming. That push has helped drive a massive uptick in the number of original television series being made. Last year, FX CEO John Landgraf declared that “there is simply too much television” and rolled out the stats to prove it. According to FX, 2015 saw 412 original scripted series on broadcast, cable, and streaming. In 2011, that number was 267.

Much of that growth came from streaming services venturing into original programming. But even more of it came from broadcast and cable networks, which, faced with year-round competition from the streamers (and each other), are now programming more hours of originals and fewer reruns than ever.

While those networks have dramatically increased original-series output, the number of long-running shows they broadcast has declined. The 2011-12 season saw 29 dramas of five seasons or more across broadcast and cable. The current season has 27.

“I don’t know of a show that is character-driven that could possibly go 15 years or more,” says longtime “CSI” showrunner Carol Mendelsohn. “What can go 15 years is a procedural. But I think the era of long-running shows like ‘CSI’ is a thing of the past.”

She adds, “I worked on ‘Melrose Place.’ After seven years, everybody had slept with everybody, and it was time for that show to end.”

The shift toward new kinds of series programming has been evident this development season. Most of the drama pilots ordered by the Big Four have been for serialized shows. (CBS is a notable outlier but has exceptions to its all-procedurals-all-the-time rule in the form of “Bull,” “Four Stars,” and “Training Day.”)
Broadcasters have also begun experimenting with limited and anthology series, two subgenres that have thrived on cable. Fox has given a series order to two mini-series for the upcoming season: “Shots Fired” and a revival of “Prison Break.” The network also renewed its Ryan Murphy-produced anthology series “Scream Queens,” even though its first season averaged a middling 2.0 rating in the advertiser-coveted 18-49 demographic in Nielsen live-plus-seven ratings.

Fox has talked up the show’s reach with young viewers and on digital platforms. “Our business used to be [to] aggregate as many episodes as fast as you can and syndicate them,” Fox Television Group CEO Gary Newman has said. “Now that is changing.”

Those changes reach beyond what happens onscreen and in writers rooms. Different types of shows require different types of deals than those employed just a few years ago.

Newman hails anthologies, which emerged on cable with series such as “Fargo” and “American Horror Story” that introduce new stories and new characters from returning creative teams (and sometimes cast members) each season. Their popularity, Newman says, “would suggest that series could last longer, because they’re changing so much year to year.”

Shrinking Shelf Life
Average number of seasons to date for original drama series on the Big Four broadcast networks:
5.5 2011-12
5.0 2012-13
4.9 2013-14
5.4 2014-15
4.8 2015-16

But anthologies and limited series aren’t as easy to monetize in the long term as traditional episodic shows with 24-episode seasons. Though they perform well in SVOD, for instance, where they lend themselves to binge viewing, they are a challenge to sell internationally.

“Nearly every deal I make these days we’re making up from scratch,” Stern says. “It resembles not at all the deal I make with a different network last week or even the same network six months ago. The economic basis of television is shifting, and we’re all trying to find an equilibrium where we’re making money — maybe not making as much as we had made.”

No one has been more outspoken about television’s tectonic shifts than Landgraf, who preaches the gospel of content ownership and decries the old model of networks “renting” shows for their linear schedules, then letting studios exploit them across syndication, SVOD, whatever.

“If you don’t benefit from the long tail of the content, it’s un-economic to produce television,” Landgraf says.

That long tail is now shorter and more difficult to benefit from than ever. But networks have little choice other than to chase it. In a world where it’s not shocking for broadcast shows to pull in overnight ratings that begin with a zero, selling ads against a linear telecast isn’t enough.

Networks are now turning almost exclusively to their own studio divisions to supply content, ensuring that any money that can be drawn from a show later in its life goes into their own corporate pots.

In the cases where they do work with outside studios, networks often demand shared ownership of a series, as FX was able to secure with “Fargo.” Instead of representing the outer limits of TV dealmaking, such arrangements are de rigueur. In addition to an ownership stake, networks are insisting on a bouquet of rights. ABC in March set a deal with Warner Bros. that gives the network in-season streaming rights to all episodes of any future shows the network picks up from the studio. Stern describes having completed two recent deals with an unnamed cable network that insisted on locking up all domestic rights to the series up front.

“They’re losing audiences that they want to be able to capture,” Stern says. “They want to control how their audience can watch that programming domestically. It’s a very new model.”

Television’s new model is being built now, one deal at a time. But it’s not happening in a vacuum; it is a response to customer demand. The old TV economy was built on scarcity — a few brands offering a relatively small number of products. If you didn’t like what was for sale, tough.

The new economy is the opposite — an ever-increasing number of brands offering an infinite number of diverse products. That volume has created intense competition for customers, who, if they grow dissatisfied with one option, have hundreds of others to which they can easily shift their attention.

Debra Birnbaum and Cynthia Littleton contributed to this report.