Should Broadcast TV Order Fewer Episodes?

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily express those of The TV Ratings Guide. 

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Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons 

Outside of programs that launch after the fall season begins, the bulk of dramas and comedies that air on the five major broadcast networks produce around eighteen to twenty-four installments per year. Typically, they inhabit our airwaves from September to May and take the night off a handful of times during this eight-month period. This measure ensures that the network has enough outings to last until spring while also making room for award shows, holiday specials, or repeats to occasionally take over their timeslot. Dating back to the early days of the medium, this routine method continues to govern broadcast television. Unfortunately for the technique, live viewing has taken a considerable hit since the days of Seinfeld, Friends, and Cheers. Although audiences still consume the content, the way the population digests it has drastically changed since the 1970s, 80’s, and 90’s. Most television spectators now binge a season in a couple of sittings instead of creating an appointment each week to nibble on a piece of their favorite series during the designated time. In sharp contrast to the golden days of the small screen, streaming services like Netflix and Hulu place their offerings in hiatus mode for extended periods of time before ceremoniously dumping a season’s worth of programming in one short burst. A far cry from the broadcast model of delicately spreading out episodes to last for months. 

Trimming the number of episodes created per season serves as another notable modification in this new age of entertainment. Emmy-nominated Netflix originals such as Stranger Things and A Series of Unfortunate Events each had inaugural seasons with a mere eight installments. Even though many of their programs exceed these single-digit tallies, the online juggernaut rarely, if ever, has a product with more than thirteen episodes in a year. While this practice initially found a home on cable television, streaming’s adoption of it conveys that it has quietly become the standard. With everyone but broadcast utilizing this style, the seasoned players in the game (ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX) are left to either maintain their bloated episode totals from a bygone era or fall victim to peer pressure and adapt to fit in. One can make a solid argument for either option but it seems like following the crowd could help them stay relevant. 

Furthermore, reducing the amount of content produced means a series on one of the main US TV stations would not have to air into the late months of spring. This acts as a benefit for the companies in question since television shows generate far weaker Nielsen ratings in April or May than they do in September or October. For instance, the five programs that aired on ABC’s Wednesday night lineup averaged a 1.6 rating during the evening of September 27, 2017. By May 16, 2018, a night of finales, the batch of episodes produced a faint mean rating of 1.0. Down nearly 40% from the September airings. While Alex Inc replaced Speechless during the May broadcast, the other four shows remained intact and all posted results well below their premieres. With smaller totals, these programs all acquire the opportunity to preserve stronger numbers. Instead of churning out roughly twenty-two installments and having episodes seep into months where live viewing diminishes as a whole, crafting a neater package of about thirteen showings guarantees that the series can finish two to three months earlier. In turn, sitcoms and dramas on the network will become less likely to turn in unpleasant data points.

Although this proposal sounds plausible, it would not be a simple one to carry out. For one, networks would be forced to place other programs in the undesirable slots to fill in the scheduling gaps. This would essentially defeat the purpose of reducing episode counts. The idea itself would do wonders for scripted programming on the networks but it would also mean that broadcast television would have to alter the way they order and schedule shows. In short, accomplishing the task would be near impossible and not worth changing their familiar format for. 

NBC's 'This Is Us' was the only series airing on broadcast television to receive an
Emmy nomination for "Outstanding Drama Series" during the 69th Emmy Awards

On the quality front, fewer outings usually mean less space for filler episodes and more for creating a concise story. Instead of simply producing content to fill up time, writing staffs could use the reduction to decide what needs to stay in the series and what details or plotlines do not belong in the narrative. Even if the number of installments in a season does not necessarily correlate with the amount of acclaim it receives, five of the seven shows nominated in the Outstanding Comedy Series category at the 69th Emmy awards originated from cable or streaming and had thirteen episodes or fewer for their respective seasons. The other two, both from broadcast, had a much heavier load of twenty or more. Likewise, six of the seven Outstanding Drama Series nominees provided no more than thirteen, with some as few as eight. The lone broadcast contender, This Is Us, boasted a much bulkier eighteen-episode total. While there are many reasons why streaming and cable crush broadcast during award shows (less censorship, more room for unique ideas, etc.), it does feel like having a more compact run creates a better chance of capturing the critic’s eye. 

Like how VHS tapes were not ready for the rise of DVDs and how CDs could not prepare for the reign of Spotify & Apple Music, broadcast television has been dethroned and pushed aside. This medium simply was not made to compete with companies like Netflix or Hulu that do not base renewals or cancellations off of Nielsen data. There are many holes in these ideas solely because broadcast television was cut from a different cloth. A network like CBS cannot condense its programming into smaller doses. That would only mean that they would have to air repeats or reality shows to occupy the vacant timeslots. Moreover, a 2018 Variety article noted that broadcast was one of the most unpopular choices to view content for people ages 18 to 34. In fact, only premium cable and Amazon Prime turned in worse results. Similar to a patient with a terminal illness, this ancient method of viewing television can only hope to die a painless death. Adapting does not seem like a viable option. 

What did you think of this article? Can broadcast television make a comeback? Leave your thoughts in the comment section below.

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