One of the most engaging series available via streaming services right now is Stranger Things. The tightly written narrative of the show makes the it hard to label it as a “TV Show”. Its non-stop pace, super tight writing, and excellent performances make Stranger Things are more akin to an 8-hour movie than a show–something that, as the Duffer Brothers have said themselves, would have been unprecedented five years ago. The result is one of the most binge-worthy shows on Netflix, at the moment.
On the whole we’re starting to see some of the most popular and most critically acclaimed series hug the 10-14 episode range. Earlier in the history of TV, these sorts of shows would be labeled “mini-series” i.e. premium content more akin in budget and feel to extended movies than television shows. These premium features were gated behind premium gates that only the most television-invested and financially comfortable could afford to buy. Worse, the mini-series airing on them were anchored to the bygone system of scheduled airing.
Today it’s become surprisingly affordable to access premium content. For only $9.99 a month (at the moment), anyone with a laptop, tablet, or smartphone can access some of the best original content out there (in addition to a large library of syndicated movies and TV shows) via Netflix. And they can do this at anytime and virtually anywhere.
In her breakdown of why Stranger Things just works, Maureen Ryan of Variety has this to say:
“Eight episodes was better for this story than the typical 10, 12, 13 or (heaven forbid) 22. I’m not dissing shows that have 22 episodes (I’d watch 44 episodes of “Jane the Virgin” every year, if the cast and crew could crank out that many). But a serialized story premised on supernatural events can only run so long before it starts repeating itself and destroying its own momentum. (I wonder what “Fringe” might have been had it only run for 10 episodes each season — it might have found its voice much sooner.)”
Ryan has a point that a shorter and sweeter structure lends itself better to science fiction (any Lost watchers out there?), whereas comedies generally lend themselves to less focused, more drawn out hijinks. However, taking a look at the average length of some of the most celebrated shows over the past couple of decades (see Chart and Table below), I can’t help but believe that short and sweet is the way of the future
Changing the Game
A number of writers have remarked on how the likes of Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime are changing the ways that TV shows are being produced.
Netflix did not invent the concept of the binge-watch, as anybody who indulged in a month-long immersion into boxsets of The Wire can attest to. However, they did cut out the middle man – removing the inconvenience of weekly waits for new episodes and making every episode available immediately (as opposed to whenever the DVD came out). It was an ingenious decision that legitimately changed many people’s viewing habits.
-Stephen McNiece, NewsTalk.com
At a time when everyone in the TV industry is trying to guess what the future holds, it seems that technology and services which meet viewers’ new “on- demand attitudes” is the surest way to success.
-Eric Deggans, NPR
And one of my favorite pieces on the subject: Streaming TV Isn’t Just a New Way to Watch. It’s a New Genre, by James Poniewozik:
More so than any recent innovation in TV, streamin has the potential, even the likelihood, to create an entirely new genre of narrative: one with elements of television, film, and the novel, yet different from all of those. But it’s going to take time for all of us to master it.
Strangers Things, with its strong roots in the literary, the cinema, and the Weekly TV, seems to master it.
Character Development over Plot Progression
With the daily sitcom, writers and actors have free reign to ramble wherever they want to a degree. The goal of the the sitcom isn’t intense engagement. It’s stability. At the end of the day what matters is that the large demographic of television users have a touchstone to come back to. Regardless of what was going on in their lives, the viewer can sit in front of the television and watch The Andy Griffith Show, The Jeffersons, Three’s Company, Family Matters, Friends, The Cosby Show (well, maybe not anymore), Full House, or Fraser. The day-to-day plot of the sitcom often is of little importance. In Crazy Ex-Girlfriend we might be wondering whether or not will end up with and in How I Met Your Mother we might be wondering who ends up with, but the progression of these plots is so infinitesimal, that what what really brings us back is watching the same endearing characters doing largely the same endearing things. What matter is the stability. What mattered is the lack of change.
Stability as a means of audience retention is not limited to the sitcom. In fact, I would argue that with most programs lasting 12 episodes or more, stability or “character development” lies at the crux of the production. The primary means of activating and retaining viewers. Good entertainment requires character development. But these shows place a much larger emphasis on character development — the idea that I as a viewer get to watch characters grow as I grow alongside them and in the process find beautiful, resplendent catharsis — than plot.
Consider the Soap Opera
Soap operas get their name from the home products that would usually be targeted to it’s viewers, namely housewives, teenagers, and retired women, in commercials. These marathon productions that run every day and make plenty of hullabaloo about secrets being revealed, murders, affairs, and a whole other catalogue of dramatic plot-point fodder would seem to be the antithesis of stability. That is, until we look at plot density per episode.
In the world of soap operas, where an episode has to be turned out every week day, there’s only so much action that can happen within a given week. It’s like all the episodes in a soap opera season comprise an ocean, and all the really juicy, plot-forwarding episodes comprise the tuna in that ocean. Just a speck in the grander scheme of things.
How about the dramatic series? The likes of ER (Avg. 23) and Grey’s Anatomy (Avg. 22)? The average amount of episodes for these shows is 20+. Sure over the course of Season 1, for instance, we may unravel the complexities of Dr. Ross’ emotional instability. But given that we’re juggling Dr. Ross’ plotline with those of a much larger cast and that some of the episodes that we watch are more like filler, isn’t 25 episodes (each lasting 45 minutes) a lot of time to ask the viewer to give?
Nevermind procedural dramas like Law and Order, CSI, and Bones. Their name alone gives away the fact that they are predicated on stability (see Heather Mason’s piece on procedurals vs. serials). Each episode goes through more or less the same procedure with maybe a handful of form-breaking zingers! Characters may die, different color filters might be applied, different storytelling techniques may be used (give me that first person narrative or that in medium res, please), but the ocean, the throughline of these shows is the same.
Television + Time Constraints = Tightly written, more gratifying plot, binge-worthy material, greater investment from the viewer
Television – Time Constraints = Loose, rambling series that rely on their viewers investment in the characters over a gratifying plot, less investment from the viewer
Even before the prevalence of instant-streaming services, production studios began to pick up on the this shorter/sweeter trend. Take for instance the 1990s. Although the shows that appeared during this time were syndicated by premium services like HBO and Showtime, they still proved to be successful. We’re talking The Sopranos (Avg. 12) and then The Wire (Avg. 12) at the turn of the 21st century before streaming was big. Later on, we saw the likes of Peaky Blinders (Avg. 6), Mad Men (Avg. 12), and Breaking Bad (Avg. 10) in the past several years.
Before long, we started seeing this leaner model of storytelling being adopted by less exclusive networks. In 2001, Fox’s 24 (Avg. 24) took the engaging angle of holding to a time constraint. Each episode occurred over the course of a real-time hour. The events in one episode would carry off in a quasi-realtime chronology into the next episode. Although the timeline is slightly more distorted in Stranger Things, the show operates off a similar one-episode stops another starts paradigm. In 2014, Fox premiered 24: Live Another Day (Avg. 12), which took up a much tighter schedule than its predecessor with a 12 episode schedule.
Breaking Bad (Avg. 10), arguably one of the most viral and critically successful television shows of the last few years aired on AMC. Better Call Saul (Avg. 10), the spinoff to the series, also was produced by AMC. Is anyone surprised that Netflix bid heavily to be the exclusive instant distributors of both of these shows? The content of them is tighter, more binge-worthy, and therefore amazingly well-fit for instant streaming services.
Now, we are familiar with the streaming juggernauts of House of Cards (Avg. 13) and Orange Is the New Black (Avg. 13). Whether these series retain their allure as they continue into their latter seasons may be controversial. What is not controversial is how these series have managed to seize the attention of millions of viewers in their first couple of seasons.
But what about comedies?
There will always be an audience for the weekly sitcom. How I Met Your Mother (Avg. 23), Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (Avg. 18), and Jane the Virgin (Avg. 22) among others demonstrate that there is still an audience for shows whose seasonal output goes well above the average of 12 episode average.
But comedies too are taking a turn for the shorter and sweeter. The largely successful Louie (Avg. 12) started on FX before being picked up for distribution by Netflix. Arrested Development initially had success on Fox (Avg. 18), before it’s untimely demise. Ten years later in 2013, Netflix picked up the series for a 14 episode reboot.
Even if the overarching narratives of these shows are not one that is as binge-worthy as say Stranger Things, these more bite-sized series force writers to economize their wit while also giving the consumer unprecedented access to the writer-actor in question. Both Master of None and Lady Dynamite center around two acclaimed comedians, Aziz Ansari and Maria Bamford respectively. Shows like this could not have existed before the advent of Netflix.
I’m obligated to point out that BBC and their lot has been on to this shorter, sweeter format for longer than we mangy yanks. That’s exactly why the likes of Sherlock (Avg. 3), Black Mirror (Avg. 6), Orphan Black (Avg. 10), Peaky Blinders (Avg. 6), Downton Abbey (Avg. 7.833), and even Dr. Who (Avg. 13) have been released in smaller-sized, but nonetheless powerful series for quite some time.
Sure the BBC airways have also served the likes of the Eastenders (Avg. 211) and Casualty (Avg. 2), but (barring weekly live shows like QI and Mock the Week) the many of the critically and internationally successful shows have been those that adhere to a more limited run.
Shorter and Sweeter
So what am I getting at here? Am I heralding the death of network television? No. Plenty of people (including John Stamos) have already done that. Although I will say that networks will need to continue partnering with content distributors in order to survive. Am I saying that Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Hulu are changing the way that consumers watch shows? Sure. But again, other people (see above) have already done a great job of covering that.
What I’m getting is is that time is becoming more of a premium. More and more viewers are opting to get their television narratives in tighter-packages. As Ben Bejarin from the Market Intelligence and Research Firm Creative Strategies Inc. posits that the future of television is the future of story of a service. Original streaming-specific shows like Stranger Things offer viewers the chance to watch a show “all at once or over time”. Bejarin goes onto say “This shift is just starting to happen but I do believe we are nearing a tipping point in the way consumers consume their content.”
Tighter narratives make up more than just a change in viewer taste, it’s where the market is heading.
When contemplating whether or not Stranger Things should be renewed for a second season, Maureen Ryan says, “No show has to go 100 episodes to be considered a success. Couldn’t eight be enough?”
In the era of instant streaming and binge-watching, we have and will continue to see a shift toward content that is shorter, sweeter, and to the point. Eight can be enough. And so can Eleven.
Average Number of Episodes per Season (Episodes Per Season / Total Seasons), Rounded to Nearest Whole Number
|24: Live Another Day||12|
|Arrested Development (Fox)||18|
|Arrested Development (Netflix)||15|
|Better Call Saul||10|
|Black Mirror (Channel 4)||3|
|Casualty||39 (Since 1996)|
|Days of our Lives||244 (Since 2002)|
|Dr. Who||13 (Since 1986)|
|Eastenders||211 (Since 2004)|
|House of Cards||13|
|How I Met Your Mother||23|
|Jane the Virgin||22|
|Law and Order||23|
|Master of None||10|
|Orange is the New Black||13|
|The Andy Griffith Show||31|
|The Cosby Show||25|
*Sources for data: Wikipedia, TV.com, IMDB