For as long as I can remember - and probably a lot longer - American television seasons have been creeping downward. A more-or-less standard broadcast season is presently 22 episodes, and that seems more-or-less about fine to me. I don’t complain. However a lot of my older friends can’t wrap their brain around how *Few* episodes shows crank out per year, now, however. The first season of Star Trek consisted of 29 episodes. The Wild Wild West’s first season did 28. The first season of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea did an amazing *Thirty Two!*
Bonanza cranked out an average of 30 episodes a year for FOURTEEN years, and Gunsmoke did about 32 a year for twenty years! Even sitcoms like “Get Smart” were knocking out 30 episodes a year.
By contrast, our modern TV seasons are looking rather anemic, practically English even. Why is this?
A whole bunch of reasons, really. As production costs increased, seasons shrank to a more-or-less standardized 22-episode deal in the late 70s, and stayed there through the end of the 90s. This was considered a good balance between high production values, and enough episodes per year that the fans wouldn’t get bored and go bowling instead. This is also the same thing that, unfortunately, gave rise to “Reality TV.” The concept was more-or-less unknown prior to the big 1987 Writer’s Strike. Networks and syndicates were desperate for any new content to throw on the air. Some went high-end, and ran to Australia to film the mostly-forgotten 1980s Mission: Impossible revival, others went low-end, importing Canadian shows or filming any old crap they could think of to put on the air. And hence “Cops” was born.
That’s the way these things go. TV production was already a complicated proposition prior to the strike, but it’s gotten vastly more so since then, with more and more high-glitz productions that are essentially telling one half of a movie every week. That adds up to eleven TV movies a year, which is a hell of a grind for anyone.
Cable made this much, much worse, since the FCC standards for what is and isn’t acceptable for broadcast are far less stringent for them. Initially, they didn’t have much in the way of budget, and their audiences were smaller, but in the last decade cable shows like Stargate: SG1 and Sex and the City and The Sopranos and, yes, even Battlestar Galactica, have gotten large budgets, solid casts, and a whole lot of buzz that the network shows were simply lacking, by and large. Of course it’s a relative hit: Desparate Housewives on an off night is going to get better ratings than the most-watched episode of Tombstone ever, so you’re getting less ‘bang’ for your buck if you’re making stuff for cable, but it appears to be a better long-term investment. Cable shows sell better on DVD than network shows, and for longer periods of time. No one’s buying Dynasty box sets anymore, but Oz keeps selling and selling and selling, presumably because cable’s less-supervised nature allows for edgier, less predictable programming.
In order to compensate for this, the Networks couldn’t do much more than step up production values for their shows and write a bit denser. This meant shows like Star Trek: Deep Space 9 (Which was syndicated) had a budget of $2 million per episode, whereas its predecessor had a budget of about a million per. Voyager was a tick higher than that. Enterprise, which no one watched, had a budget of about $3 million per episode, and was bleeding Paramount dry. It’s not just SF that does this, either. Way back in the ‘80s, Ted Danson was getting $400,000/episode for Cheers, and the cast of Friends was getting what, a million an episode for the last few seasons? That’s six million bucks *before* you even start filming! ER cost - I am not kidding you - THIRTEEN MILLION DOLLARS PER EPISODE! And there aren’t even any damn space battles in it!
It doesn’t take a financial genius to see that this is a loosing proposition. There’s no way a network can make money at this kind of game. If Kings costs $4 million/episode (And it does), and it bombs, then you’re out 52 million or so, but if it’s a hit and runs five years you’re out about a half-billion dollars. It’s this kind of thing that killed the Original Galactica back in ‘78/’79: the show was a hit, but was so expensive that it was bankrupting ABC. They had to monkey around with programming like crazy, pre-empting and re-running stuff ad nauseam to kill the ratings, and *Then* it never went lower than 27 in the Nielsens.
As a result, seasons have started shrinking.
The standard 22-episode deal is actually a 13-episode deal. “We’ll make 13 eps, and if the show is a hit we’ll pick up the back 9.” Unfortunately, as we’ve seen with high-quality shows like Firefly, Dollhouse, Crusade, and Kings, this kind of hail mary pass frequently doesn’t work. Meanwhile, Cable channels have started putting an entire season’s worth of money in to a much shorter order, thus allowing them to bump up production values, and tighten scripts. It also allows for a somewhat (Slightly) more relaxed production schedule.
The Sci-Fi channel traditionally can only afford to do 2 or 3 original dramas at a time, and these generally have somewhat shortened orders of 20 episodes per year, rather than the normal 22. These they then counter program against the networks and/or just bury them in the sand for excruciatingly long times to stretch out the money. “Let’s make 20 episodes and show them over the course of 3 years, rather than one!” Or in the case of the final year of MST3k, “Let’s just shoot one season and call it two!”
Grrr. Is there any question why we hate them?
Meanwhile, USA and TNT and others have gotten in the habit of doing 16-episode seasons, and they’ve had some huge hits with shows in this format like “Burn Notice.” The down side is that you no longer really have standalone episodes, every episode *has* to be “A very special episode” with a fire at the blind school or whatever. The up side of this, however, is that there’s less fat, less filler, and while this can be kind of exhausting for the audience, it’s also kind of exhilarating and involving for them. Most episodes in this format are wedged in to some kind of a larger arc, though it’s usually not densely plotted as arcs go - mostly it tends to hold character development stuff, and motivation stuff, and spread it over 3 or 8 episodes, rather than have several scenes in a single episode where characters talk at length about their feelings.
LOST has recently adopted this kind of format, and to be honest, it’s completely energized the show. Since they went to shortened seasons, it went from creepy/sexy/cool to freakin’ amazing every week, and now it’s kind of hard to watch some of the early episodes - particularly season 2 - since they move at such a glacial pace.
Meanwhile, over in England, where they have far less money to spend on TV shows, the 13-episode season has long been a staple of shows like MI-5 and Primeval and Dr. Who. And again, in the case of Who, it’s completely energized the show, which, let’s face it, back in it’s original run tended to ramble pointlessly quite a bit.
So the question, then, becomes: what’s the best format for an hour long SF drama? 22 episodes? 20? 16? Or 13 with a self-contained arc that resolves itself at the end? Because the days of us geeks getting 30 hours on the starship/submarine/space station of our choice are pretty much dead-and-gone with the dodo bird.