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.
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.