Someone asked me why the number of episodes in a season of U.S. television shrank so much — from 39 originally to the 22-4 that’s been standard since the ’70s. I found an article from the Los Angeles Times in 1968, written as this shrinkage was in process (the number had become 26, and would shrink once more before settling into the current standard). Basically, it’s a cost issue: as it became more expensive to make one episode of television, networks ordered fewer episodes. Also, fewer shows could count on one sponsor to under-write all the costs, so moving to a multiple-advertiser model also meant that it was a bigger financial risk to order a lot of episodes. But as the article notes, there’s a self-fulfilling prophecy here, since the fewer episodes you have, the more each one costs (since the fixed season-long costs are spread over fewer hours or half-hours).
One of the reasons that number hasn’t shrunk since, despite costs that continue to go up, and despite occasional wishful-thinking comments about going to a 13-episode cable-style model, is that there’s only so much you can shrink a season before the advertiser-based model no longer works. You’ve got to have enough new episodes to make a decent level of advertising revenue. And another reason, as the article notes, is that the U.S. network model involves making a TV show something near to a full-time job for the people who work on it. In the UK, starring in a TV show is usually a part-time job at best, and in Canada or U.S. cable TV, you frequently shoot the whole season, wrap it up, and then air it. (The entire first season of Dan For Mayor was filmed before it aired.) The U.S. model involves keeping people under contract for as long as possible, keeping them from doing two or more shows simultaneously, and being able to make changes in the direction of the show while the season is still airing; these are all hard enough with only 22-6 episodes — you can see that this article is partly a complaint about how hard it is to keep people employed on a show with smaller episode orders — and would not be possible if the season size shrank further.
Some networks occasionally try to increase, rather than decrease, the episode orders. Fox has always tried to do this where possible, frequently ordering between 25 and 30 episodes of its hit shows. Their latest plan is to increase the number of episodes in season 2 of Glee from 22 to 25. But this has its own problems; Glee is so expensive to produce that short of doing a couple of clip shows (which would actually work for this show, but which they probably wouldn’t try to get away with, especially after The Office got bashed for it) that the extra episodes could result in a lot of corner-cutting across the board. For the most part, it does seem like 22 is the best possible compromise between the number of episodes a show really needs (higher) and the number of episodes it can really afford (lower).
Anyway, here’s the article. You might note that the author doesn’t make the best case for his thesis by quoting the producer of the Batman show on the dangers of having too few episodes, since Batman was a textbook example of the dangers of having too many episodes: the necessity to produce 30 hours (split into 60 half-hours) for the second season resulted in a wildly uneven season that helped kill the show’s popularity.
Viewers Getting Less and Less
by Hal Humphrey
Los Angeles Times, January 23, 1968
Maybe viewers of TV series haven’t noticed, but the networks are gypping them more and more. Instead of the standard 39-episode cycle with 13 repeats the networks have gradually been working this down to 26 episodes with 20 to 22 repeats, and the remaining four to six weeks of the year are taken up with specials pre-empting the series time slot.
Not more than four or five network series now run a cycle of more than 26 episodes. One exception is Bonanza, which this season has 34. It also is one of the few series with a single sponsor (Chevrolet), and that probably accounts for Bonanza‘s running ahead of the norm. It’s on sponsor’s orders.
This cutback of episodes has been done by the networks over the past five years, a little at a time, so viewers weren’t made too aware of it. The reason for educing the number of episodes by a third is obvious. It’s an economic one. As production costs advanced on filming series, the networks took the only way out and bought fewer episodes to balance their program budgets.
Most of TV’s series viewers have undoubtedly adjusted to the new cycle of fewer episodes, or aren’t even aware of it. Where the real hardship has taken place is in Hollywood’s TV film industry.
Under the old schedule of 39 episodes the actors, directors and crew worked a 10-month year, while now they are lucky to get in six months of work, which is all they get paid for.
“Unemployment in our industry will undoubtedly hit a new high this month,” says Howie Horwitz, producer of the Batman series at 20th Century-Fox studios. “Our series started shooting July 5th last year and we were finished with our 26 episodes on Dec. 20. That means directors, propmen, grips, electricians, laborers and so on. Multiply that by the number of series on the air and you have an idea how serious it is. Our people really are only working half-time now, one might say.”
For the TV film producer, according to Horwitz, the cost of each episode has risen since there are fewer episodes over which fixed production costs can be amortized. Also, most series are produced on a deficit fincancing basis, since the producer usually goes in the hole the first season and must rely on syndication and overseas sales for his profit. If his eries is canceled at the end of the first season, he has fewer episodes to syndicate.
“Besides the unemployment resulting from the cutback to 26 episodes, there are fewer film series on the air each season,” adds Horwitz. “Look at the number of taped variety shows this season. the number of specials like Sophia Loren in Rome which hire no actors. and the six nights of network old movies. Just add up those hours that have been taken away from TV film and you get an idea how bad things are here.”
Horwitz believes TV’s ovcr-all quality is hound to suffer from this cutback to 26 episodes to a series. He points to the fact that lots of key people in the TV film industry are leaving it to work in movies or some other field where they can find more weeks of employment in the year.
“Also, the independent TV producer can’t operate this way. The risk is too much for him. So he also will have to look in other directions besides TV. My own boss, Bill Dozier, has signed a deal with Warners-Seven Arts to make pictures. We will have nothing on TV next season unless Batman is picked up again, and that we won’t know until April,” Horwitz says. (Rumor has it that Batman won’t be back next season.)
Most TV film producers don’t even have a guarantee of 26 episodes. The networks buy 17 usually with an option for nine more, if they decide to run it one whole season. There are other deals where the buy is for only 13 with options for four more and then nine. The networks have created a buyers’ market for themselves and are enjoying it more while the producers and viewers are per force made to enjoy it less.