Is This What the Future of TV Looks Like?

How long is an episode of a TV show?

Image credit: Wired

If you’re like me, your mental image of a TV show is 30-60 minutes (or 21-42 minutes if you have a TiVo). That’s just the way it is, and how it has been for a long time as the result of network and cable programming.

Because of this structure, if you write for TV, your scripts are almost always the exact same length. You have a target, and you know that the show will probably be edited down to that 21- or 42-minute constraint.

But what if that wasn’t a constraint? What if sometimes New Girl is 21 minutes, while other times it’s 15 minutes or 34 minutes or 47 minutes, depending on what’s best for the story you’re trying to tell? We’ve seen this a little big on HBO, which isn’t confined by ads.

Netflix, however, has now shown us that TV shows have the potential to be exactly as long as the need to be. This article on Slashfilm talks about a recent Netflix show, The OA, that has episodes ranging from 30 minutes to 71 minutes (though most are around 50 minutes).

I absolutely love this, especially the idea that some episodes simply have a shorter story arc than others. Rather than add a bunch of filler and subplots to fill the time, those episodes simply are shorter. That’s brilliant. And I like the opposite too–sometimes you just need extra time to tell this week’s story.

I think it’s somewhat inevitable that more and more TV will be delivered in formats that give writers and directors more flexibility, and I’m excited about what that means for the future of TV. How do you feel about it?

9 thoughts on “Is This What the Future of TV Looks Like?”

  1. I think I’m ultimately going to love this for the quality aspect, but initially it also makes me a little nervous. The positive of the current TV model is that it sets expectations that are easy to meet. Here’s what I mean. Part of my TV experience right now is planning. I think, “ok, I have 30 minutes, I can squeeze in X show” or “I’m looking forward to watching X show, which is an hour, and that’s a timeframe in which I know I can relax”. Basically, I think the uncertainty will cause a little (very little) anxiety. What if I’m expecting to watch a show that’s normally half-hour show and I realize it’s 71 minutes long? What if my normally hour long show is over in 15 minutes? I think I’d feel a little cheated, which is a concept we just don’t have to deal with right now. Overall though, even though I’ve spent more time describing the angst I’ll have to overcome, I think it’s the right move for TV!

    • That’s a great point about the value of consistency and expectations. I wonder if technology in the future will have a way to address that. For example, there’s one blog platform (medium, I think) that lists at the top of each article how long it takes to read. So if you stumble upon an interesting 9-minute entry but you only have 2 minutes of spare time, you know up front that you should save it for later.

  2. More importantly Jamey, have you watched The OA yet???? If not, stop what you’re doing and go watch it right now! Without giving any spoilers, I loved the show, but couldn’t figure out if the ending was the dumbest thing I had ever seen or the most brilliant. But the fact that I couldn’t stop thinking about it for weeks afterwards finally made me realize that I did like it. So much so that I went back and watched all the episodes a second time.

    I’ve been trying to get some friends to watch it, but they are more interested in The Bachelor, unfortunately. Curious to hear your take on it.

    • I have a confession: I was fascinated by the idea of the OA, but for some reason I wasn’t compelled to watch it. So I read all of the episode recaps. Do you think it’s still worth watching even though I know everything?

      • **vague spoilers in second paragraph for those that haven’t watched**

        Probably not. That’s a shame though, because I think you really would have liked it. Watching all the mysteries unfold while experiencing the beautiful visuals, the developing relationships, and personal growth of the characters was something I really enjoyed. But I’m sure knowing how it all plays out definitely decreases the level of enjoyment you would have had if you were watching it with a fresh slate. My guess is that the recaps don’t really do it justice, as I can imagine some of the moments that are actually the most moving sound quite cheesy when described. Did the recaps pique your interest any more by the time you were done reading them?

        It’s by no means a perfect series, as some things that happen are a little convenient, a lot of questions remain unanswered (which didn’t bother me, but some people hate that), and The Movements can look kind of ridiculous. But if you can get past that, it’s a great examination of life, death, trauma, friendship, love, and how much you’ll endure for each one.

        • That’s a ringing endorsement. I think I might be even more curious now!

          I think I was initially hooked on the show when I saw a gif of the 5 movements. They looked weird, but the people doing them looked serious, which I liked. Then I read why they were doing it and that it wasn’t conclusive as to whether not the movements actually did anything, which both made me curious about what they were and more interested just to read about it rather than invest a lot of time in something that wasn’t going to offer a definitive answer.

          I still might watch it, but from the recaps, I do think it would bother me that certain key aspects aren’t answered definitively. The images from the show are fascinating and haunting, though.

  3. That’s the American concept of television. In the UK: Doctor Who, since the revival, has run anywhere from 41 minutes to 75 minutes for regular (i.e. not Christmas Specials) episodes, but is usually between 44 and 46 minutes. Strictly Come Dancing drops a couple and somewhere between 5 and 10 minutes a week until it gets few enough couples to go to 2 minute rather than 90 second dances (where it increases back up a bit), then to two 90 second dances (where it increases back up a bit), etc, meaning the length of the episodes of that show are never the same two weeks in a row, Saturday Night Takeaway is (was) 70 minutes, maybe 50, including commercials, obviously you’ve got 90 minute (BBC) and two hour (ITV) ‘feature length’ stuff, usually in mini-series but not always, Pointless is 45 minutes and is one of the few quiz shows that between S1 and S2 dropped the number of questions which resulted in an increased in the quality (Because, lets be honest, most people watch that for Alexander Armstrong interacting with Richard Osman and the slowing down of the pace allowed for more of that to happen), as was The Weakest Link back when that was a thing, Deal or No Deal started out as 45 minutes and that length worked for the show, when it went to an hour it dragged things out painfully (Of course, the show should have been bridged games to both give each game the exact amount of time they needed in the edit without giving spoilers based on the pace of the show).

    Meanwhile, in Germany, Shlag Den Raab was scheduled for… Apparently 3 hours, though the shortest episode was actually 226 minutes… was live, had a format that sometimes took longer than they expected it to, and ended when it ended even if that meant it ran for 4 hours and 24 minutes. Or, in one case, 371 minutes. So inconsistent that the wikipedia article on the show has a column in it’s summary table for what time the episode ended.

    • Stephen: Wow, that’s awesome! Apparently British TV is well ahead of the US in these regards. Thanks for sharing how flexible those show lengths are.


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