Photo: Maya Robinson and Photos by HBO/FOX/AMC
When broadcast networks ruled the world, TV shows — at least successful ones — almost always produced at least 22 episodes each season. It was just the way the world worked: Programmers needed as many episodes as possible to ensure they had enough content to fill the nine-month season that ran between September and May. Like so many aspects of the television business, those days are over. Long after cable networks trained viewers to live with just 13 episodes of their favorite shows, both cable and broadcast outlets are now adapting their business models to produce even fewer installments per season. The biggest broadcast hits of 2014 (How to Get Away With Murder) and 2015 (Empire) debuted with just 15 and 12 episodes, respectively. HBO’s big spring shows — Silicon Valley, Veep, and that one where everybody dies a horrific death — wrap up their annual runs on Sunday after just 10 episodes, a now-standard tally at many cable networks. SundanceTV’s brilliant Rectify will be back next month, but its third season will last just six episodes. There may be more amazing TV series than ever, but viewers often have to settle for a lot less of the shows they love.
To a degree, the shrinking episode counts are just a continuation of a decades-old trend in television: As the quality of programming has improved, seasons have shrunk. During the medium’s infancy, in the 1950s and ’60s, it wasn’t uncommon for shows to churn out 30 episodes per year. I Love Lucy, the first big sitcom smash, produced a jaw-dropping 35 half-hours its inaugural season, airing a new episode every week between its October 15, 1951, premiere and its season-one finale on June 9, 1952. (New episodes even aired on Christmas and New Year’s Eve.) By the 1970s, as TV started growing up — and networks began focusing on attracting younger, more discerning viewers — most shows were down to 22 to 24 weekly installments. (Super successful series, particularly soaps such as Dallas, would still churn out 30 or more episodes annually).
The biggest shift came in the late 1990s and early aughts, when cable networks got serious about the scripted business. Networks such as HBO, USA, and TNT (and later, FX and AMC) didn’t have to worry about some imaginary “TV season.” Shorter runs simply made it easier to compete against the big broadcasters. “Cable was not competing on the same cadence as broadcast with respect to sweeps and other things that favored the broadcast model,” says Charlie Collier, president and general manager of AMC and SundanceTV. “Length of series was subordinate to putting your programming in a competitive environment where it could thrive. We would look for the window, no matter the length, where we through our storytelling could stand out.” Thirteen also made sense on an even more basic level: It’s the number of weeks in a calendar quarter. It made planning out a year of programming easier, and let cable networks organize their marketing campaigns accordingly.
So how did 10 episodes become the new 13 for cable shows? Game of Thrones is sometimes given credit (or blame) for the most recent wave of episodic downsizing, and it certainly has been the biggest hit to adapt the less-is-more level. But in truth, HBO didn’t really blaze this trail. AMC’s Breaking Bad aired just seven episodes its first season (though it jumped up to 13 in season two). Starz CEO Chris Albrecht started experimenting with 8- and 10-episode orders immediately after he got to the network in January 2010, ordering short seasons of shows such as Boss and Magic City. Comedy Central has made 10-episode-and-less seasons the norm for its shows since Workaholics bowed in 2011. More recently, other networks have followed: Showtime’s Happyish and Penny Dreadful are both airing 10 episodes this season, and FX’s Fargo tells its tale with the same number. Though there are some common themes to this new normal, several factors are behind the episodic deflation:
Producing fewer episodes allows networks to expand the number of shows on their roster.
Like so much in the entertainment business, financial considerations are absolutely a part of the equation when it comes to figuring out why episode counts are shrinking. The issue isn’t that networks are looking to keep budgets under control by producing fewer episodes, or that shows have become too expensive for the once-standard 13- or 22-episode seasons. “It’s not about saving money,” Albrecht explains. “If you’re doing 10 episodes, you get a chance to put more shows on.” Or, as another cable industry veteran puts it, by greenlighting four series with six episodes each, rather than two with 12-episode orders, a network has a chance, in theory, to lure four distinct audiences instead of two audiences.
This is crucial for premium cable or streaming services such as HBO, Starz, or Amazon. Unlike basic cable or broadcast outlets, subscription-based services aren’t looking to increase their inventory of ad time on their hit shows because, of course, they don’t carry any ads. “They don’t get that much of an incremental profit gain when a show is a big ratings success,” our cable vet says. “For them, those shows are all long-term loss leaders to try to drive subscription count.” Albrecht backs up that equation. Having more shows means more opportunities to reach different sets of potential subscribers, and, he says, “more marketing campaigns to show [consumers], ‘Wow, there’s an awful lot of stuff on Starz.’” Adds our cable industry vet, “It means they’re twice as likely to attract somebody to subscribe to their network.”
The fundamental financial difference between premium and basic cable has always existed, but it’s only recently started having a major impact on episodic counts. What’s changed is that HBO, which for most of the 1990s and early 2000s dominated the premium space, now has much more competition in that category — not just from streamers such as Netflix, but also from Showtime and Starz. The former started upping its game around 2008, opting to buy fewer big budget theatricals and instead invest that money in more originals. And Albrecht — the architect of so much of HBO’s success during his past life as head of the company — dramatically upped Starz’s originals output when he joined five years ago. All of these new players have turned up the heat on HBO, and the network has responded by turning out far more series than it ever has: When Ballers and The Brink premiere next week, the network will have launched more than two dozen major new scripted shows since Showtime’s strategic shift in 2008. By contrast, during a similar seven-year span between the 1997 bow of Oz and 2004’s Entourage, HBO unveiled about half as many big new shows. While HBO — easily TV’s most profitable network — has very deep pockets, it doesn’t have unlimited resources. It’s not a stretch to assume that one reason the network now makes fewer episodes of almost all of its shows is because execs have decided HBO needs to make more shows, period. (An HBO spokesman declined to make an executive from the network available for interview and declined repeated requests for comment.)
The non-linear world doesn’t care about episode counts.
For decades, more episodes produced almost always meant more profit in the long run for TV shows. Getting a series solidly into syndication, for instance, hinged on getting at least 90 to 100 episodes in the can — enough so that weekly comedies and dramas could become daily staples on local TV stations and cable networks. Cable’s 13-episode seasons changed things a bit, since it took seven years — versus as few as four — to get enough episodes produced to land a show in syndication heaven. But the mandate remained mostly the same: You needed a certain number of episodes every year in order to get a show into syndication within a reasonable time frame.
But as it has with so many aspects of the TV business, streaming and video on demand have changed the formula. Non-linear outlets such as Hulu or Netflix don’t have any time slots to fill; there’s no episodic minimum needed to make a show work on streaming. Studios can now begin monetizing shows almost immediately: Now, it’s not uncommon for a new show to be “syndicated” to Netflix within weeks of wrapping its freshman year. And while it’s true streaming networks pay for shows on a per-episode basis, networks and studios can now count on digital syndication money for shows of almost any episodic total. “In the high-end, serialized scripted television business now, syndication is often on library-like streaming services,” Collier says. “So it doesn’t matter if you have two hours or 22, it’s all delivered at once. Streaming services don’t need to fill hours, per se. They are more about offering bulk lists of titles.” Obviously, there’s still an incentive to find big hits that produced 100 or more episodes — the next generation of Law & Order or Modern Family. But streaming economics mean it’s possible to make money on shows with lower episode counts. And that flexibility is part of the reason why cable networks are increasingly okay with shorter seasons for certain shows.
Shorter runs can attract bigger stars in front of the camera.
The dramatic explosion in quality scripted original content means networks are looking for every way possible to stand out from the pack. One obvious strategy: Get big-name movie stars to take a spin on a TV show. But luring such names isn’t easy, particularly if those stars still want to make time for movie roles. So networks have agreed to cut episode counts, figuring shorter runs of a show with a big star are worth it if that show becomes a hit. This is part of the reason why fans of How to Get Away With Murder had to settle for just 15 hours of the show last season: Viola Davis made a shorter work year part of her contract, following the lead of Kevin Bacon (The Following) and several other stars. The trend also applies on premium cable, where shorter runs and limited episode counts make it easier to land a Matthew McConaughey for the eight-hour-long first season of True Detective.
Creative ambitions dictate it.
As much as some fans of Game of Thrones might love to visit the Seven Kingdoms every week of the year, the show is one of the most ambitious and complex weekly series productions in TV history. Even at 10 episodes, producers have talked of the difficulties of getting everything produced in time. This sort of ambition is being repeated at multiple networks — and not just for shows that boast massive special effects and casts of hundreds. Better Call Saul co-creator Vince Gilligan has been vocal about his desire to hand-craft each episode of his AMC series, which is likely why season one of the Breaking Bad was limited to just 10 episodes. Empire co-creator Lee Daniels had expressed a desire to keep his show at 12 episodes a season, in part because the show needs to produce radio-friendly original songs and elaborate performance pieces in nearly every episode. (He compromised and agreed to do 18 episodes next season.) In the past, networks might be tempted to tell their showrunners to suck it up and just deliver the “product.” That doesn’t cut it these days, at least not at many networks.“It’s always a balance of business and creative, but if we’re going to invest in the best creators, a good place to start is by asking what they can envision and deliver,” AMC’s Collier says. “It’s not always about ‘brand’ or business. The first thing we ask is, ‘What does the creator see?’”
Playing nice with talent is also what led Starz to reduce some of its episode counts. When Albrecht first got to Starz, “One of the things I did when I came here was say, ‘Okay, we’ve got to offer something different [to the creative community] because we’re the new kids in town,” he says. “So I said we’re not going to do pilots. We’ll go straight to series.” But cutting out the pilot process — while also trying to get a certain number of shows on the air each year— also required some adjustment in episode orders. Rather than 13 or even 10, Starz began ordering just eight episodes of new series, including its new hit Power. “These big shows that are story-driven, you’re starting from scratch without a pilot, so you really don’t have time to work the crew through and shape production,” Albrecht explains. “We’d think about ordering 10, but then we’d back down to 8 because we realized these guys wouldn’t be able to write all the episodes. Then you never get ahead in the writing, and once production starts, the writers room gets really slowed down. So without a pilot, eight really seems to be a good number for a first season.”
Starz and other networks aren’t dogmatic about these numbers. Outlander, for example, produced 16 episodes its freshman year — though, for viewers, those hours were split in two groups of eight episodes. “There was no way to deliver 16 episodes sequentially because it’s such a massive undertaking,” Albrecht says. “We wanted to give it enough time to do the book justice and please the fans. But 16 episodes of a giant show like that? We couldn’t get them [all at once].” Albrecht admits that sometimes episode orders can end up being too short. Last fall’s Survivor’s Remorse unspooled just six episodes. “We needed to get that done really quickly,” he says. But despite stellar reviews, the show’s ratings were underwhelming — and Albrecht blames the small episode tally. “It wasn’t enough for it to get traction,” he says. Season two will be 10 episodes, which is a number Albrecht believes makes sense for most established series on his network. “We’re looking at making sure we have enough shows and enough episodes of those shows to satisfy the audience, but we’re also trying to give each show the right amount of episodes so we can put our best foot forward creatively,” Albrecht says.
While fans may sometimes lament the paucity of episodes these days, TV insiders believe in most cases the shorter runs are good for quality control. “You don’t have what you had in the ‘80s and ‘90s, and still at some networks today, which is, ‘Get me 24, because I need to fill up my schedule,’” says one cable vet. “Great storytelling got watered down because you didn’t want too much stuff in one episode, or you didn’t want to give up too much character too soon. If you have no clock, you don’t need to slow down or speed up. You just need to tell the right story. There’s something very liberating about not having to fit in one box.”