How Long Should a TV Show Run For?
Over the course of a year I tend to try five or six new TV shows. Like everyone else I have a finite amount of leisure time and I therefore try to split it evenly among my various interests. Overall, I watch no more than ten shows regularly. I like to do some research before selecting something new to watch and I also consider recommendations from my peers very important. Once I’ve decided upon what I shall try, I tend to give each new show a fighting chance to build up a head of steam. Not all shows hit the mark immediately. Some need at least half a dozen episodes. Some need several seasons. So far Designated Survivor has proven gripping and well-conceived. It also doesn’t make the usual mistake that densely-plotted dramas so often do, in continuously taking one step forward and another two back.
Another show I’ve started watching on a whim that turned out to be far more entertaining than anticipated is Timeless. Although time travel is a somewhat hackneyed concept dramatically, this show flies in the face of the traditional “non-interference” trope. History is altered regularly in both positive and negative ways. The main characters are also very engaging. However, the show obviously is an expensive production due to the constantly changing period setting. Timeless also has a plot that cannot be indefinitely sustained. There is far too much scope for temporal paradoxes and for the storyline to ties itself in knots. Therefore, I've been pondering the question "how long should a TV show run for"?
I think a shows premise and central plot ultimately determines the overall answer. Police procedural dramas or those set-in Hospitals, Courts or other permanent institutions, have the luxury of being able to carry on ad infinitum. You only have to look at shows like Law and Order SVU or the NCIS franchise for successful examples. Characters and cast members may come and go but the central plot device provides an inexhaustible supply of material. Furthermore, apart from some minor story arcs usually associated with the lead actors, it is not always essential to watch these sorts of shows continuously. You can return to them as and when you like. It is this undemanding quality that often contributes to a shows success.
However, this is not the case with dramas with a more traditional linear storyline. Producers are faced with the dilemma of maintaining an audience and the need to expedite the plot. Lost is a classic example of a show that out stayed its welcome, as far as I'm concerned. I initially enjoyed the convoluted scenario and air of intrigue that was perpetuated but soon I got exhausted by the lack of narrative advancement. I sat through several seasons during which nothing discernible happened to illuminate me as to what was going on. So eventually I abandoned Lost. TV is a time intensive pastime and I don’t like for mine to be wasted. So, I’ll happily abandon any show that fails to meet my viewing criteria. It’s not as if there’s a shortage of competing material.
It is interesting to note that several cable companies are now opting to produce shows with shorter season lengths. Naturally, cost is a factor in this situation but market research seems to indicate that viewers prefer more succinct and concise story arcs. Twenty plus episodes are being replaced with anything between eight and thirteen episodes. The recent trend towards binge viewing may also be a factor in this gradual cultural shift. Netflix and Amazon Prime by their very nature have a great deal of consumer data at their disposal. This has led them to produce some exceptionally good quality shows that seem to have extremely equitable running times and season lengths. Stranger Things, The Crown and The Man in the High Castle are just some examples that came to mind.
Overall, I think for mainstream US network television, a maximum of five to six seasons can sustain a good show to its maximum potential. Person of Interest managed to maintain a complex and entertaining plot, with multiple personal story arcs, for over five years. It also managed to deliver a satisfactory conclusion, without disappointing fans or cutting any narrative corners. Elementary, another show I watched on a whim that’s proved to be well written and topical. It is currently in its six season and doesn’t seem to have boxed itself in or exhausted its creativity. However, for such shows driven by their lead actors the biggest issue is how long will they be content to play the same role? With so many factors to consider, it is extremely difficult know when exactly is the right time to end a TV show. Financial success and ratings are a big incentive to continue but there is a great deal of artistic credibility in quitting while your ahead. There’s also an old adage about leaving your audience wanting more.