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December 13, 2017

The Big Short

Why are seasons, episodes and even commercials all taking a haircut these days?

Daniel Frankel
  • Lou Brooks

In 1977, producers Aaron Spelling, Leonard Goldberg and Mike Nichols succeeded in their quest to craft a warts-and-all depiction of a real-life suburban family for primetime television.

Their Abc series Family became a hit, particularly with critics. It ran from 1976 to 1980, and in the 1977-78 season, the program yielded 23 tear-jerking, 50-minute episodes.

Jump forward 40 years, and NBC is having similar success with pretty much the same dramatic formula.

This time around, it’s the intensely earnest members of the Pearson family in This Is Us who regularly come to terms with unexpected tragedy and everyday miracles.

But fans of creator Dan Fogelman’s take on the modern American clan are getting a little less melodrama than their Family-loving parents did. Eighteen second-season episodes of This Is Us are on tap this year, each running 45 minutes in length.

Of course, seasons are even more miniature in the cable and streaming universes these days, where series campaigns have been consolidated, on average, to 10 episodes and can run in blocks of as few as six.

“On a broad level, we’re truly in a period of experimentation in television,” says Joe Lewis, who until recently was head of comedy, drama and virtual reality programming for Amazon Studios. “A lot of people are trying to figure out what the right length of a television series is.” In some cases, the episodes are getting shorter, too.

With viewing of TV on mobile devices proliferating, moguls like Jeffrey Katzenberg and Peter Chernin are staking bets on short-form “snackable” video that’s optimized for the phone-based watching habits of younger viewers. It’s not just the content that’s compressed; the advertising is getting truncated, too. For example, Fox Networks Group is following YouTube’s lead and has begun to sell six-second ad spots.

TV used to be the thing we accused of shortening our attention spans. Has our focus eroded so much that we can’t even indulge that bit of decadence with the old gusto?

"Don’t buy the ‘generation gnat’ theory,” Jim O’neill says. An analyst for Ooyala, a Santa Clara, California–based online video technology company, he rejects the notion that millennial-age folks have developed short, gnat-like attention spans, having grown up on a steady stream of youtube videos.

O’Neill sits on one side of a rather polarized debate as to whether viewer attention spans have actually changed. But there’s no argument that TV delivery mechanisms have transformed dramatically. One big factor compressing program lengths is the migration to viewing shows on tablets and phones.

According to a recent study conducted by tech company Ericsson, half of all video content will be viewed on mobile devices by the year 2020.

“The increase in mobile-oriented viewing, particularly among young consumers, is certainly impacting the content industry,” says Brett Sappington, principal analyst for research company Parks Associates.

The general perception among mobile programmers is that short-form video of 10 minutes or less is the best fit.

Katzenberg made headlines in October when he revealed a quest for an astronomical $2 billion in funding for WndrCo, a start-up production outfit that will specialize in short-form programming for mobile devices. He’s billing his so-called “New TV” unit as a kind of HBO for the mobile generation.

He follows former Fox executive Peter Chernin, who notably entered into a $500 million joint venture with AT&T in 2014. Their Otter Media is devoted to fulfilling the short, digital programming needs of an AT&T wireless division currently serving 137 million wireless subscribers across the U.S.

While Jerry Seinfeld’s Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee and Zach Galifianakis’s Between Two Ferns are notable examples of professionally produced short-form shows that have become hits on the mobile internet, there’s debate as to whether mobile consumers really want entire programming services built around short-form programming — beyond what they already get with YouTube.

Two years ago, for example, Verizon spent a fortune launching Go90, an ad-supported, short-form-video focused service targeted at its more than 147 million U.S. wireless customers. But so far, Go90 has failed to find an audience. “I surmise Go90 has been a bust because it has too much short-form programming,” O’Neill says.

Bruce Lefkowitz, executive vice-president of ad sales for Fox Networks Group, agrees that no matter how much TV ends up getting consumed on phones, bite-sized shows won’t take over the industry. “We’re not going to see 10-minute sitcoms,” he says. “It takes a certain amount of time to tell certain types of stories.”

When it comes to shortening all things TV, the migration to mobile is just the tip of the spear. It’s the broader paradigm shift of digital economics — which tend to favor subscription-based monetization over ad-based models — that seems to be driving brevity.

Back when Family buoyed ABC’s primetime fortunes, producers and networks had a captive audience of more than 20 million viewers at an appointed time. Spelling’s Pasadena-based Lawrence family generally had 50 minutes a week to laugh, cry, love and share, leaving 10 minutes per episode for 20 30-second commercials.

With Spelling and 20th Century Fox cranking out 23 episodes in 1977-78, ABC was able to keep Nielsen ratings and commercial inventory high by running originals from early September through mid-May, with a few long breaks set aside in October, December and March. In the summer,  reruns ran largely unchallenged by a nascent cable programming universe.

From September 7, 1977, to September 14, 1978, 1,150 original minutes of Family provided ABC a robust, critically lauded year-round platform to sell national advertising.

Amazon’s Lewis ponders the prospect of catching up on a show like that through bingeing: “For an older show, where you might have 10 seasons of 26 episodes, you’re talking about a pretty daunting hill to climb.”

When we think of TV shows getting shorter, we generally think of the shift to mobile platforms. the bigger driver of shorter seasons, however, is probably the emergence of subscription video-on-demand (SVOD) platforms like Netflix, Hulu and Amazon.

Let’s not forget that linear cable disrupted the traditional season format first. Seminal originals like FX’s The Shield debuted a 13-episode format that would eventually become the industry standard. For networks making their first attempts at original shows, 13-episode commitments seemed like, in NFL parlance, a safer throw.

Moreover, since cable networks derived a large chunk of their revenue from pay-TV subscriber carriage, and not just commercials, their primary economic agenda was to create demand and brand power for their channels. Short, uninterrupted seasons allowed cable networks to compete with broadcasters, targeting areas on the calendar where the Big Four’s 22-episode campaigns were fallow.

Beyond that, the shorter season format attracted name-brand creators who had previously resisted TV’s ad-driven storytelling requirements, not to mention schedule demands. Big-name on-screen talent, meanwhile, could fit shorter seasons into schedules that also included feature films and other TV shows.

Things started to change again around 2010, when programmers like FX and AMC began eagerly selling their hit original series, such as Sons of Anarchy and Breaking Bad, to Netflix. Those licensing deals were found money in the emerging field of digital distribution.

But then, quite suddenly, Nielsen numbers on these so-called linear networks started to drop sharply, particularly for repeat shows. Viewers, who had fallen in love just 10 years earlier with the ad-skipping capabilities of their DVRs, discovered that what they liked even better was watching shows on subscription streaming platforms with no commercials at all. What’s more, they liked consuming entire seasons of these shows in just a few sittings.

Driven by the quarterly earnings pressure of their media conglomerate parents, some of the major cable networks had knee-jerk responses — they shortened their programming to cram in more commercials and thus offset the revenue decline caused by smaller audiences.

From 2009 to 2013, the time set aside for commercials on the average hour-long show on the average cable network grew from 14 minutes, 27 seconds to 15 minutes, 38 seconds. On the major broadcast networks, it increased from 13 minutes, 25 seconds to 14 minutes, 15 seconds.

This growing commercial quota created a vicious cycle. The more the linear networks packed their shows with ads, the more viewers they drove to Netflix, which nearly quadrupled its subscription base from 12.27 million in 2009 to 47.35 million in 2013.

It was right around this time that Netflix and Amazon established themselves as destinations for original shows — and bingeing became a thing.

SVOD series creators didn’t need to concern themselves with commercial inventory. The goal for Netflix and Amazon was and remains purely to drive subscriber sign-ups, both at home and abroad.

Producers laud the creative freedom they’ve found working for the silicon valley SVOD giants. Their only real marching order is to create narratively concise seasons with a limited number of episodes that can be consumed in multiples, like chapters in a book.

“If you look at all art forms — painting, film, novel writing — the idea that there’s this set structure where you tell the artist to make the painting so big or the novel so many pages… that only exists in TV,” Lewis says. “It should be driven by creators and the story they want to tell.”

“New players in the OTT [over-the-top] and digital space, particularly those like Netflix, Amazon or Hulu, are drivers of shorter seasons for TV series,” Sappington says. “In many cases, these players pick up front-end orders of only 13 episodes rather than full 22 or 24 episode seasons.”

Netflix’s first original hit, House of Cards, kept cable’s 13-episode season arc intact. But newer Netflix originals such as Narcos and The Crown are being produced in 10-episode installments. On Amazon’s SVOD platform, the 10-episode season has been fairly standard for several years; original standouts such as Transparent and The Man in the High Castle are both set at that length.

“I don’t think there is a standard,” Lewis explains, noting that Amazon’s creators have no mandate for season length. “Some shows are 10 episodes, and some are six. On a practical level, eight to 10 episodes is probably a nice amount.”

The major SVOD services, in turn, seem to have influenced cable networks. AMC’s Better Call Saul, for instance, also runs in 10-episode seasons. So does HBO’s Ballers.

Meanwhile, back on the linear networks, the ad model continues to collapse, resulting in yet another shortening of a time-honored television staple, the commercial. Lefkowitz and his team at Fox Networks Group recently took a page from YouTube’s playbook and began offering six-second spots to sponsors.

“If you’re a car maker and you want to talk about Corinthian leather, six seconds probably isn’t going to be enough for you,” Lefkowitz says. “But it’s plenty of time if you’re T-Mobile and all you need to tell people is that you don’t charge additional fees.”

So the commercials are getting shorter, and in some cases, they’re disappearing altogether. FX and AMC both just launched ad-free versions of their networks that are being carried by cable operators including Comcast and Cox Communications. Viewers can access these channels for an extra $4.99 subscription fee on top of their existing cable bill.

But even at the major broadcast networks, commercials matter less and less these days. In October, 20th Century Fox Television — which produces This Is Us for NBC — announced a huge sale of the series to Hulu, garnering a reported $3.5 million an episode.

Beyond the sales price, the transaction was notable for several reasons. For one, it showed that traditional TV production shops like 20th Century Fox Television and its partners at NBCUniversal (a subsidiary of telecom giant Comcast) aren’t going to stand by anymore and let Netflix take over TV with a programming budget that has swelled to $7 billion.

Since both media companies are part owners of Hulu, they essentially kept This Is Us in the family. For another, that lofty sales price changes the core economics, with a huge portion of the show’s revenue now coming from subscription-based, on-demand viewing. In the near future, if so much revenue comes from subscription streaming, will production companies and series creators still craft their hits in 18-episode arcs tailored to the ad-driven, nine-month-long needs of broadcasters?

One might ask the same question about ad-free FX and AMC. Flipping the script, what if an Amazon creator wanted to shoot a 23-episode season? Lewis says, “I would sit down and ask why they think that is the right amount of episodes to tell their story.”

This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 10, 2017

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