Thirteen and Out: Why Concise Series Runs Will Become the Norm

If the thirteen episodes mentioned in the title seems a bit short, just imagine how the Simpsons would be viewed today if the original order was all that was made. Would it still be viewed as a classic, or be relegated to a footnote of television history? Regardless of what would have happened 25 years ago, the future is pointing inexorably towards series runs of a predetermined length and story structure.

FLCL

It’s hard to believe that the Simpsons was not a surefire hit when the original thirteen episodes of season one were in production, yet that’s the case. For all the success the show has had since its premiere in 1989, numerous histories of the show make it a point to highlight of Sam Simon’s philosophy of “thirteen and out” that guided the show through it’s first season.

While it’s easy to see that as a sign of pessimism on Simon’s part, it was actually fairly rational considering that a primetime cartoon hadn’t been seen in nearly 30 years, and at half the usual series order, FOX was clearly hedging its bets. The upside though, was that by believing he only had thirteen episodes to make a mark, Simon made sure they were the best the team could muster.

If The Simpsons’ existence had been confined to just those first run of episodes, the show may not have had the same cultural impact that it has had, but there’s still a good chance that they would be discussed and analysed today.

American TV shows are infamous for being flogged until the horse has been dead for several days. Only kids shows have historically been immune as they plodded along to 65 episodes before being shunted off into the wonderful world of syndication. In contrast, European shows (and British ones in particular) don’t have syndication, so series tend to run for only as long as necessary. Just look at The Office, the American version has 201 episodes; the British version, all of 14.

Although the magic 65-episode count continues to be the goal of many animation producers, with increased in-house production at networks, it becomes less important, and consequently, series runs have begun to creep upwards. Since the Powerpuff Girls ran to five seasons, other shows have followed suit. Adventure Time is currently on its sixth season, and Phineas and Ferb completed four seasons and 222 episodes before wrapping up earlier this year. Animation is no longer tied to a set episode count, and while that has brought advantages in the form of longer story arcs, and character development, things are about to change.

For a look at what it to come, we turn our attention east towards Japan. Some anime series have enjoyed phenomenally long runs (hundreds and even thousands of episodes), but the vast majority are confined to a much smaller number that’s usually around 25-26. An American network executive will likely look on this as a handicap: if the show is a hit, stopping it prematurely is just leaving money on the table!

Although true in the past, in light of the changing media landscape, having a more concise series run is actually more preferable. Why? Because a shorter run delivers better value to the viewer. We’ve already reached a point where the the volume of content being produced on an annual basis is more than we can keep up with. No matter how good a show like Mad Men is, going back and starting at the beginning just so you can watch the final season is not easy for many people except students and retired folks to do.

Rodrigo Alem Fernández had that problem, and considers it ‘audience fatigue’. Rodrigo may have passed on keeping up with Family Guy, but he’s found an alternative solution to his entertainment needs:

Contrast with what happened a few weekends ago. My girlfriend and I watched the whole set of Puella Magi Madoka Magica in one day and enjoyed it from start to finish. That was roughly 6 hours of a well-rounded story that did not overstay its welcome.

The key point here is that they were able to watch an entire series in less than half the time it takes to watch half a season of House of Cards. Does that make the show less than half as entertaining as Netflix’s flagship show? No!

A show is as entertaining as it’s composition allows! Just because there is less of a show does not diminish its entertainment value. Fawlty Towers has all of 12 episodes, and is still enormously popular and entertaining even after 30+ years. Ditto for Neon Genesis Evangelion (26 episodes), the show that still inspires passionate fan discussion almost 20 years after it was first broadcast. Another Gainax production, FLCL continues to amaze audiences old and new fifteen years on with six, yes, SIX, episodes.

With the explosion in content on all platforms, the audience will begin to pick and choose what they actually consume. The rise of curation is one trend that is already evident, but social recommendations from either online networks or real-life peers will start to become a much larger factor in determining viewing habits.

This will eventually favour shorter series runs because, you guessed it, individuals can catch-up much faster, and therefore participate in the discussion they desire to be a part of. My wife and I did just that for the 13 episodes of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. For animation, this will undoubtedly lead to more Japanese-style shows where an entire story arc is encompassed within a defined number of episodes.

There’s an upside for studios too. CEO’s may bristle at the idea of investing capital to create, develop, and produce a series for all of one season, but the advantage is time. Studios can put out more shows in the same amount of time if series runs are limited, and the best way to diversify the inherent risk of producing a series is to simply produce more than one of them. That’s precisely how Fred Seibert found all of his hit series, albeit with shorts instead of full episodes.

Look at it this way, for the price that Disney paid for Pixar, they could have produced twenty seven, $200 million films. Whether they were all hits wouldn’t matter, because the risk of a flop would have been spread across 27 films. In any case you’d have to try very hard to produce 27 flops, right?

Television series are exactly the same. Airtime is no longer a constraint, and networks are free to diversify into non-traditional programming. FOX has already dabbled in this with its ADHD block and content with tepid results, but with a strong commitment of money and a dedication to quality, a similar effort could pay dividends for someone else.

To return to the point about longevity, shorter series tend to be overwhelmingly more popular in the long run precisely because viewers can watch them without a substantial investment of their time. The benefit is that in addition to remaining within the public consciousness, such shows can also be very profitable as successive groups of newcomers discover and consumer it long after the initial run has ended.

Animation (and television), are entertaining only at the most basic level. Their first and foremost strength is storytelling, and as Rodrigo points out, long series tend to be inflated by filer episodes that offer the view little, if any, significant story. Similarly, series that become long in the tooth start to lose their way and wobble much as a spinning dreidel does right before it finally falls over. With a defined length, series creators can focus instead on crafting a great story and a method of telling it in a way that can be enjoyed for many years without the taint of a long decline or cancellation.

The change is undoubtedly coming, but many continue to believe in the old ways. Anyone looking to make their mark has an opportunity to get ahead of the pack now, or they will be left playing catchup.

8 Comments on “Thirteen and Out: Why Concise Series Runs Will Become the Norm

  1. It took me a few seconds to realise “concise” is another way of saying “one-cour”.

    FLCL is what’s called an OVA (original video animation). These are not ever produced to air on Japanese TV so they are not constrained to their standards. They’re usually produced either as a bonus exclusive on the home release of a TV show, or as a way to let animators loose and do whatever they want. FLCL is, if you already figured this out, indeed the latter. Which is ironic considering how a 6-episode insane anime from animators frustrated with how the end of the Evangelion TV show turned out would become one of the most popular 2000 animes on American television instead, and would even be rerun several times! 😀

    • You’re right about FLCL being an OVA, but the freedom that series was afforded is precisely what animated series will have going forward. The web removes a lot of the constraints that TV has, so creatively, shows will tend to be a lot closer to OVA’s in that way as well as the episode count.

  2. One thing that I ADORE about Cowboy Bebop (and also hate, lol) is how it ran for the length of time it ran for and then it was done. There was no dragging things out to make money, it told the story it set out to tell and was powerful because of that.

    I look at shows like Heroes and think how amazing it would have been if it had been one season and over. Instead it kept going and was truly awful, tainting the greatness it had built.

    Definitely a fascinating topic! Good post. 🙂

    • If I recall correctly, Heroes continued long after it should have, because the series was doing well internationally. It made more sense for NBC from a revenue standpoint to continue producing it even though American audiences had grown tired of it.

  3. It’s not a bad idea, there are things that have a complete story arc, and other things that don’t really. If Adventure Time was only one season, we’d miss out on a lot of fun episodes, and a lot of back story (that they are showing more over the course of the other series, etc) It depends on the story and the way it wants to unravel. Anime is typically 24-26 episodes a SEASON, and a lot actually have multiple seasons, but here’s the trick too, a LOT of anime is FIRST a manga, so there’s story to already work with and to follow. Part of the problem can come in when the anime gets a head of the manga story and has to make stuff up (know as filler arcs) The Full Metal Alchemist anime has this problem, the 2003 series has a really weird ending compared to the manga and the second anime, FMA: Brotherhood.

    Is there a lot of shows that could benefit from just telling their story and being done? Yes, absolutely, but there’s other ones that are just nice to keep going, these tend to be more slice-of-life rather than a real set story to tell the audience. Over the Garden Wall is a short 10 ep series that does really well with the short constraint, and it could have been padded out longer if needed too, but how much longer? What’s the point if they don’t ever get out of the woods, or confront the Beast, defeating multiple ones? how can that still keep the same feelings? Supernatural could have probably benefited from being over at what,,, season 6 or something? after they defeated the Devil, but it kept going and what could they do but make fun of themselves, since they thought they’d be over with that. Sure the fans of the show LOVE to have more of it, but a finished store is a finished store. Let’s not extend it. Whatever length is needed for it I think would be good.
    That said, I would love to see Bob’s Burgers get 10+ seasons, but it’s a slice of life and you’re just having fun being with the family.

    • Those are all great points 🙂

      I remember reading an article a long time ago that basically said that the best shows that have long productions always keep pace with contemporary culture. South Park is the perfect example of a show that while not necessarily as popular, remains comparatively ‘fresh’ compared to a show like The Simpsons that has become creatively stifled because it hasn’t adapted to changing tastes.

  4. I always thought of this as a great idea in order to bring series closer to feature films. Short-run series can get out so much more story than a film and yet offer a clear overall three-act structure (but not precluding experimental story structures) offering a better chance at closure than a long-run series. As for short runs not being enough, there’s always the future possibility of doing another series, that is if we can ever get past Western media’s general obsession with reboots rather than continuations. There’s also the fact that miniseries and short-runs are a much safer bet, in a day and age when executive malfeasance is as rampant as it is, with so many shows being cut off before they can achieve some sort of closure or build any kind of connection with their audience.

    If anything, Over the Garden Wall proved that animated miniseries are viable in this day and age, and a structure more akin to what has been seen from anime franchises seems like a nice evolution of story styles to reach a more modern audience with so many things competing for attention. If done right, there’ll be no more story than necessary, but just enough to both provide closure and leave the audience wanting more. There’s a balance that has to be struck and I think that should be really good for writers as both a challenge and a convenience (as opposed to working on a long-runner).

  5. Another negative factor of a long series which you can tell, doesn’t know where is going, is that people give up on it.

    I stopped watching Prison Break after season 2, and also everyone I know. Gave up on Lost before the last two seasons and stood watching Revenge (hating it and every character), cause I needed some narrative closure.

    Don’t even get me started on The Simpsons. They where dead and buried by season 9.

    The thing is, not only you stop watching it, but your concept about the show goes from “Awesome” to “Piece of c!@#”

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