Is the Six-Act Structure Destroying Network TV?

This interview with Vampire Diaries showrunners Kevin Williamson and Julie Plec contains a (to my mind) interesting discussion of the six-act structure that most broadcast network dramas are required to follow.

A brief explanation: traditionally, hour-long broadcast shows had four acts — that is, four full-length segments leading to a commercial break. There might be a pre-credits sequence and/or a tag in addition to that. But as the episodes got shorter and the commercial load got larger, networks wanted to have more act breaks, so that they could have shorter commercial breaks. Because the commercial breaks on the average network show are not that long, it sort of fools us into not realizing just how damned many commercials there are. If they had a four-act structure with almost 20 minutes of commercials, they would have extremely long commercial breaks, and people would change the channel.

But the increased number of acts has not changed the requirement for shows to end each act with a big moment, or something that will make us want to wait for the break to be over. So the writers have to build at least six different segments — the teaser and the first five acts — up to a suspenseful moment. But you can’t do that without getting a certain amount of storytelling done first. So each short act has to burn through a lot of story very rapidly. When we notice that broadcast dramas often feel rushed (especially compared to their leisurely pay-cable counterparts), that could be as big a reason as the short running times themselves.

Here’s the relevant passage from the interview:

JP: Kevin is always making fun of me because I get on my soap box about things, but I think that the six-act structure has made TV storytelling incredibly difficult. I got so annoyed that I got on Facebook and said that I was going to start lobbying for the death of the six-act structure.  I swear to God, within two hours every writer friend of mine who is on Facebook had written some comment about how it’s the worst.

DH: Tell me about that.

KW: Well, it’s a decision that was rooted in money. It’s a business decision. It’s from the advertisers: how you can keep people from changing the channel?  It wasn’t rooted in a creative decision.

JP: And now it’s the industry standard. And the problem is, you make a decision like that for business reasons, but there’s a creative domino effect. It was hard enough to come up with a great end-of-act break four times an episode in traditional television story telling;  soap operas live and die by those moments at the end, right before the commercial break, when something happens, and everyone gasps. That’s the whole point of an act-out, to bring your audience back after the commercial break.

DH: So now you’re actually doing it six times instead of the traditional four?

JP: Let’s see… with the teaser, you are actually doing it seven times.  Seven “Wows.” And of course the other thing that has happened is, your screen time has shrunk by a good minute and a half over the last couple of years, so you are looking for seven “Wows” in 41 minutes.  When everything has to be leading to the “Wow,” every five and a half or six minutes, how do you actually let a story unfold naturally from a human place, an emotional place, and give it air and give it room to breathe? So when people say to us: “You’re blowing through so much story,” we’re like: “You gotta. You need the WOW!”

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